Fat Guy Mel Smith takes a deep breath and plunges into directing his first full-length feature. Trevor Johnston talks to him. and Fall Guy Richard Curtis.
Well you know what they say. that this comedy Iark is a serious business. It‘s certainly true of Mel Smith. Settling down fora promotional chat with the figure whose amiable portliness has long graced our television screens. any expectations of sotne wry rerun of those famous Alas Smith and Jones tete-a-tetes are soon dashed. As he works his way through another stumpy cigar. the blue suede footwear makes for an engaging conﬂict with his sober suit. but the man is still serious. And having just becotne Mr Smith the Director sir. one suspects that he has every right to indulge in a little gravitas. Words like ‘four-square‘ and ‘two-shot’ litter the conversation. because he has just been playing with what Orson Welles descibed as ‘the biggest train-set‘. The cinema itself.
Starring Jeff(‘ioldblum in the title role. The Tall (Jay. Mel's feature film debut behind the camera. follows the fortunes of one Dexter King. American actor in London. plying his trade as a straightman for autocratic superstar comedian Ron Anderson (played by Rowan Atkinson). Dex's routine is a treadmill of abuse until no-nonsensc nurse Kate Lemon ( limma ’l‘hompson) appears on the scene. and the besottcd six-l'ooter‘s hesitant romantic progress is to give his life (literally) ashot in the arm. L'ntil. that is. he suddenly finds himself an out-of—work American actor in London.
All this marks something of a reunion for former .Vot The .Vine ()'( lock News associates. Smith. Atkinson and writer Richard Black Aililer(‘urtis. but the trio had also subsequently worked on the successful Atkinson stage show. where .‘vlel directed. and Richard supplied the material as well as (you guessed it) acting the straightman. So. one asks. is this all autobiographical. and does that make Rowan Atkinson a complete and utter bastard'.’ ‘No. he's terribly quiet actually.‘ responds ( ~urtis with an uncanny impression of the rubber-faced one. ’And the film catne about after I‘d tried unsuccessfully to do a screenplay for an American studio. without really ever working out quite what I was doing. and producing several drafts which the producers hated. I came back to Britain vowing to write something I understood. which amounted to living in ( 'amden town. being a straightman. and falling in love repeatedly with nurses.‘
Collaborating over several months to perfect (‘urtis’s initial script. the project soon got the financial green light frotn 'l'im Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe's Working 'l'itle Productions. responsible for a succession of highly regarded independent movies including .lly Beautt'ftt/ [.aanilrette and A World Apart. ‘lt read funny.’ adds Mel. ‘and believe you tne there aren't too many movies like that around.’ However. as the moviemaking cogs
\. began to trundle forward and casting
got under way. Stnith recalls that
finding the right actor for the central role very soon becatne a source of some concern. ‘We're just not cracking it. I remember saying to Tim Bevan. the Executive Producer.
Where is the ling/ish Jeff (Ioltlhlam .7 I wondered. And then Tim suggested that we should try and go for (ioldblum himself. Lo and behold. we adjusted the script slightly. and to our great surprise and delight he agreed to do it. In the end he really lifts the film. He knows how to use the camera. Yeah. knows how to use it.‘
'l'he presence of (ioldblum. best know it as the wisecracking journalist in The Big ( ‘hill and the transformed scientist in The Fly manages to avoid the old cliche of the Hollywood star hauled in to shore up the sagging box office appeal of a modest Brit pic. but also offers the movie a sense of scale that helps it to transcend the small screen limitations that its familiar gallery ol‘(admittedly excellent l 'l‘\' faces might easily have lumbered it with. Smith contests that
besotted six-footer the time is right for both Rowan and limtna to move into film. but he‘s tuuch more sensitive to any criticism (perhaps partially inspired by his and (‘urtis‘s background in television comedy) that The Tall Gay is a series ofsketches based around the romantic theme. "lake the explosion of sex where Jeff and [Emma finally get it together and wreck the room while they're about it.’ Smith points out. "l‘hat‘s sketch-like in that it's a three minute set-piece. with lots of things in it that are funny by themselves. However. it's heightened. like all good film comedy. by the fact that you know
and care about the characters. In this case you‘ve shared in the big build-up and you're really rooting for them. 'l'hat‘s actually what makes it funnier. and it‘s also what makes it film-making.‘
'l'he much-touted scene of wardri)be-shaking nookie that he's describing here follows the amusing earlier section of the movie. where poor old Dex's pathetically inept attempts to chat up the object ofhis ardour are matched only in their risible embarrassment quotient by his merciless suffering on the end of Atkinson's formidable ego. It seems that a lot of comedy does rely for its humour on humiliation. but Curtis. as one of Britain's tnost consistent media hutnourists. has his own views on the subject. ‘I always think of comedy as an extension of dinner party conversation. where you‘re trying to tell the best story. Obviously you don’t come in and say Well. lhai/ a good day a! the office (inlay. but automatically talk about how you got into a tricky situation and made a fool out of yourself. When you start writing about other
characters. you put them in the same situation that would be funny if you were in it yourself.’
Perhaps he forgot to add that the best stories can sometimes be the ones with the most effective embellishments. (‘ertainlyz The Tall (Iay gets by through building round its heartwarming core with all manner of flashback sequences. running gags. standup routines. satirical jabs at the likes ofStcven Berkoff and Andrew Lloyd-Weber. and even a musical number or two.
‘knows how to use it’
It's a credit to Smith as a first-time director that he manages to hold it all together and keep the love story the centre of attention. Yet. as was evidenced by his recent appearance on BBCZ's The Late Show. when he dissected the big sex scene shot by shot. Smith is clearly completer engrossed in the film-making process. ‘lt's the most fun l think I‘ve ever had.‘ and he doesn't seem to need too long to think about it either.
However. having helmed both training films and commercials. he is tnore at home with the grammar of the cinema than most people realise. and of course his frequent work directing theatre in the past has given him ample experience in getting the best out of actors. ‘As an actor. almost all the films I've been in have been complete disasters. Directors are very often mainly concerned with getting the shot. so the cast are left to make it up as they go along. l-‘rom ‘explosion of sex'
the outset. l was determined not to let the technology get the upper hand. because if you're watching a comedy what’s important to you is the people. the performances.‘
As a last gulp drains a tumbler that looked heavily spiked with orange juice. the big man (he‘s tall-ish and broad too) offers a contented assessment of what he feels he's achieved. ‘We‘ve made cinema. Private Function. for example. brilliantly written by a brilliant writer. Allan Bennett. but it‘s still a piece of'l'V. The Tall (jay I hope has a breadth and scale that works as a piece of cinema. Which people should go and see . . . with their
friends. . . in large groups. . . in cinemas. . . three times at the very least.‘
The Tall (iuy' opens across central Scotland on April 28. See the Film section for complete programme details and ajiill review.
The List 21 April - 4 May 1989 7