The accident-prone spy Johnny English (comic actor Rowan Atkinson) was featured in a series of popular British credit card commercials between 1992 and 1997, before hitting the big screen in 2003. Now, the British MI7 agent is back in Johnny English Reborn, directed by Oliver Parker, and this time the action is even bigger, as English has to stop a group of international assassins before they eliminate a world leader and cause global chaos.
At the film’s press day, Oliver Parker talked about how much he enjoyed the mixture of character story and action sequences, how tricky it is to determine when you’ve gotten what you want out of a scene, the process of finding the right actors to fill out the cast around Rowan Atkinson, and how Atkinson’s style of comedy meshes well with his own. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
OLIVER PARKER: It’s very tricky to know when to stop. I think there are definitely moments where you feel that is the heart of a scene. When you’re working on the script, you’re looking for a handle on it. (Screenwriter) Hamish McColl, Rowan and I worked very closely on the script. We were just looking for the thing that makes each scene imperative, and see what changes by the end of the scene. You really look to find the essence of it. And then, when you’re shooting it, Rowan has an extreme perfectionist approach to his comedy, so he has quite a clear idea of where he wants to go for himself.
If you’re making the scene as a director, you’re looking for alternatives, once you’ve got to that place that’s very much in Rowan’s head, to see if you can take it further, in some places. Sometimes you do absolutely know there’s something there. You just feel it in your bones. I literally feel it on my skin, sometimes. I do get goose bumps. There are times when you go, “Oh, god, that moment works.” In the edit, when you’re playing with it, certain scenes don’t go back together the way you imagined. Sometimes they’re better, and sometimes they don’t have that thing. It’s never fool proof, but you certainly get an idea that you’ve got enough and you’ve got to move on. You’re always against time and money there. Whatever the budget is, you have to get practical about it.
With so many action and stunt sequences in this, what were you most looking forward to shooting?
PARKER: I like the mixture, actually. It’s really good fun, throughout a shoot, to move from something which is quite character-based in certain scenes, where there’s very little action and you’re just working with actors – and I’ve had quite a lot of practice at that, as this is more action than I’ve ever had a chance to do – and then go into the action. I had a really good crew working with me. And then, sometimes you get the scenes where they blend. Part of what we were looking for was to treat sequences with the same kind of energy and attack that you might with a serious thriller. We did that with the wheelchair chase, the only difference being that it was a wheelchair. We constructed it, as though it were a classic car chase. In that respect, you get a lovely opportunity to blend both the comic elements with some of Rowan’s actions, and put it all into what is a fairly classic action sequence. For me, it’s great to be able to move from one to the other.
PARKER: She lives in England, in a very pleasant, rural county. We actually looked in different directions for that character. There’s quite a lot of physicality, so I thought, “Do we have a physical actress who’s done quite a lot of physical comedy? How much do we give her to do?” We met various people, but then, when I came across her, I just liked the slightly exotic feel married to the sweet, old lady that she was. I was talking to a lovely older woman, but I thought, “She’s got to throw herself around,” so just as she was leaving, I said, “Quick, jump on my back.” I turned away and she ran after me and jumped on my back, and I thought, “Okay, so she’s up for it.” That nailed it, really.
As far as the gags and the comedic situations go, which one most exceeded your expectations?
PARKER: Well, the chair scene certainly does. We spent a lot of time trying to get the plot right, but nobody listens to the bloody plot at all, when you get to that scene, because they’re just looking at Rowan, going up and down. You know it’s a good idea, you just don’t quite know if it’s actually going to pay off. It’s not until you’re actually shooting it that you get a sense of that. And, I think Rowan was quite surprised, on the day.
The first take of it, on the relatively wide three-shot, Rowan was working with absolutely typical dedication to the moment – and we’d worked very hard on getting the layout and the chair had to be drilled into the ground to get control of it – and at the end of the take, the other actors who hadn’t seen any of it just burst into hysterics. Rowan was quite taken aback. He had no idea. He was roughly saying, “Was that funny then?” He was so involved with keeping it absolutely authentic to the moment, which is what his real approach is.
You have to buy the pressures on the character. Of course, he’s always conscious of comedy, but in some sense, he’s not conscious of the comedy in the room. That was a huge bonus, when that happened, and it was a surprise to Rowan, too. But, there were several. I think beating up granny was always fun. There was a moment of electricity when we set about that scene and it launched the whole room into a chaos. It was like, “Oh, my, can he do that to granny?” We didn’t say cut, once or twice, just to see how far they would take us, and that added an exhilaration to it. There is definitely an element of magic sometimes, in the shooting, which does take it further off the page than you imagined.
PARKER: I came to this in a slightly round-about way. When it was sent to me as a script, I wasn’t sure. I’d seen the first one and my kids liked it, but there was enough klutz for a lifetime, in that first film. How would you move forward, or does it become the law of diminishing returns, really? But then, when I read the script, I could see that Hamish was trying to do something that was perhaps a little more ambitious, and trying to create an authenticity to the environment, which would put genuine pressure on the character. Hopefully, that would then allow more variety to the responses, so that we’d actually route for him, at certain moments. We really wanted him to do well, rather than always wanting him to slip on the banana skin. Occasionally, we wanted him to duck it and then walk into the wall, so that it gives a little more surprise.
It seemed important to really construct a world where we believed this was how British secret service worked. So, Gillian Anderson, who isn’t actually a Brit, but we’ve adopted her, and Rosamund Pike, who’d been a Bond girl herself, and Dominic West playing Agent Ambrose, create a world where, in some sense, there is more genuine pressure exerted on the main character. With that, there’s more chance for us to really feel for him as well. Hamish would say, “Make sure we’re not nibbling on the comedy cake.” It’s quite hard to act with Rowan, unless you’re feeling secure in your own performance, because you’re thinking, “This is a comedy film. I’m meant to be funny here. What do I do?” The discipline that I tried to place on it was, “No, you don’t have to be funny. The comedy comes in the response to what he’s doing and how you have to move on, despite what’s going on, in the corner of the room.” It felt like the only one who had a little room for that was the character of Tucker because he seems to breathe the same air as Johnny. But, on the whole, the intention was definitely to keep this as credible an environment as possible.
PARKER: It was fabulous to film in Hong Kong, actually. It was really nice to get some of the energy there. It just gave a lot of great texture. It made me feel, “It would be great to do a really good thriller here.” But, for us, it was great as an environment and platform for Johnny to arrive into. All those things that bolster it as an international world of espionage help a lot. The crews out there are fantastic, and they are unintimidated by any obstacle. The whole atmosphere of that, and then going to the Alps, was all intended to try to give the film a slightly bigger and broader cinematic canvas.
How do you see Rowan’s style of comedy and the way he approaches it? Does it mesh with your idea of what’s funny?
PARKER: Yes. He has an extremely rigorous mind. He trained as an engineer at Oxford and was apparently a superstar at it. He’s a really, really superior being, in terms of the intellect. He can analyze anything, and he’s fascinated in the mechanics of everything, whether it’s a car or a joke. He really likes to break it all down. When I took the job, one of the things was the script, and then the other was meeting Rowan and seeing his absolutely relentless pursuit of trying to raise the standard of every joke that he’s doing. It’s quite fascinating.
In some ways, he’s been surfing a comedy wave for decades in the UK, doing different characters. There aren’t many of them, but he just keeps at them and keeps refining them, and I think he’s honed a particular approach to it. There’s never really any improvisation for him. Occasionally, it would happen, but not usually. He would do quite a lot of improv in the writing process because Hamish, Rowan and I would sit around and try different things, and then throw it away and start again. Sometimes it would just be in playing that things would come out and Hamish would jot it down. We did quite a lot of work there, and that was fun.
One of his golden moments was The Black Adder, where he was working with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. That collegiate environment was something that completely suited him, where people were bouncing ideas off one another. He really enjoyed that. I think he had a good time on this, as much as he allows himself to have a good time. He’s got quite a puritan ethic, in terms of really focusing on the work. I think he has a great sense of responsibility to achieve what is his best. He had to carry so much of this film. People sometimes think that he’s a humorless guy. He’s not humorless, at all. He can be extremely witty and very dry. But, when he’s working, he’s pretty serious. There are definitely times when you want to try different ways around that, and you can get that, once you’ve nailed the bit as he’s perceived it or imagined it. Then, there’s a little room to play a bit more.
Dominic West is an extremely free actor. He’s very, very loose and open and spontaneous. It was very exciting, putting those two together for certain moments. Rowan likes to nail it and Dominic would just be like, “Throw it like me and I’ll come up with something else.” They were really good and respectful of each other. I found Rowan fascinating to work with. You can’t help but admire that inexhaustible energy, in turning over every stone, in pursuit of one other little joke or nuance. It really is astonishing. It’s more dedication than any actor I’ve ever worked with, in that respect. He just won’t stop.
That became my job, very much, because he would keep going, at the same thing. He would keep wanting to try another few takes. Sometimes we were all thinking, “I think we’ve got this, Rowan.” Sometimes he would go, “Okay, yeah, let’s move on,” but other times, he would then come up with something that none of us could see or sense. It’s snuffling for truffles, occasionally. It’s lovely when it happens, and it’s undoubtedly hard work. That level of rigor is quite taxing on a lot of people, but it’s very rewarding, though.