In the new modern version of Arthur, Russell Brand reinvents the role of loveable billionaire Arthur Bach, a perpetual child who relies on his charm and limitless fortune to get by in life. His lifelong nanny and only true friend, Hobson (Helen Mirren), keeps him out of trouble while his icy cold mother (Geraldine James) wishes he would grow up and be more responsible, as sole heir to the family business, Bach Worldwide. When it becomes clear that Arthur has no plans to ever change, he is given an ultimatum to marry the beautiful but unlovable Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), an ambitious corporate exec who wants the family name, in order to run the company, which must be headed by a Bach. If he doesn’t stay in line, he will have to say goodbye to the billion-dollar inheritance that feeds his way of life. But then, he meets and falls for New York City tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig), who not only makes him want to take charge of his own life, but become the man that even he didn’t think he could ever be.
At the film’s press day, director Jason Winer (Modern Family) did this exclusive interview with Collider where he talked about making the transition from TV director to feature director, finding the women to fill Arthur’s world, getting over the initial nervousness of working with someone as accomplished as Helen Mirren, how he prefers to let scene takes play out from beginning to end instead of doing line pick-ups, and developing his comedic sensibilities on the ABC TV comedy Modern Family. He also talked about currently directing the ABC pilot Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 (which will assuredly will have a title change prior to airing), starring Krysten Ritter, Dreama Walker and James Van Der Beek, as a version of himself. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did Arthur come up for you, in making the transition from TV to film?
JASON WINER: Well, I was in the midst of doing Season 1 of Modern Family, when the script for Arthur came across my desk. My first response was, “Why would you do a remake of Arthur?” That’s a great movie. It was one of my favorite movies, growing up as a kid. But, I was certainly curious, and I became more curious when I heard that Russell Brand was attached to play Arthur. I thought, “Well, it has been 30 years since the original, and there’s a whole generation of people that haven’t even heard of the original movie. If there’s one guy on the planet that would reinvent the role for a new generation, it’s Russell.”
My bigger concern was Hobson and how you’d get out from under the shadow of John Gielgud’s incredible performance. And, it was Peter Baynham, our screenwriter, who had the inspired idea of making Hobson a nanny instead of a butler, and in so doing, not only changed the sexual dynamic of the film, making Hobson the surrogate mother figure, but opened up the casting to somebody like Helen Mirren. Then, it became an irresistible pairing that I just wanted to see on screen, regardless of whether it was a remake or not.
Arthur is a bit of a throwback to a kind of movie that doesn’t get made very often anymore. It’s a combination of irreverent comedy, romance and drama. Studios might be afraid to mix those things, if it weren’t for the comfort of the familiar title. This sounds odd, but the fact that it’s a remake allowed us to do something that we might not otherwise get to do.
What’s it like for you, with this being your first feature, to have it be one of the most anticipated films of 2011 and put you on Variety’s list of “10 Directors to Watch”?
WINER: It’s strange. You don’t experience it. I’m neurotic and I’m nervous, and I just hope people like it and that they go see it. All that stuff, I suppose I should be enjoying it – the fact that people are anticipating it, or that I got named to that list – but none of it feels quite real. It’s all surreal, from the inside. I guess I feel like the second you start being flattered by it, it stops happening, so I don’t allow myself to enjoy it too much.
Were there things that you learned from the intensity of directing television, that really helped you in making Arthur?
WINER: Yeah, definitely. You have to move really fast, as a director in television. We shoot episodes of Modern Family in five days. Not only that, we’ve learned through the process of doing the show that fast is funny. If you’re able to keep things moving on set, everybody has more fun, and when everybody has more fun, the end result is funnier. I wanted to bring that energy to the set of Arthur. I don’t think that Helen [Mirren], certainly, was used to moving along as quickly as we tried to. Some days, we’d get bogged down. I’m not going to claim that we did short days, all the time. But, we definitely tried to move along quickly.
I like letting takes play out, beginning to end. I don’t like doing pick-ups of one line or another. I like letting the actors discover the flow of the scene, inside the scene as a whole. And, Helen would sometimes get frustrated and go, “Why don’t you just do a pick-up of that line?,” and I was like, “I like you to do the whole thing.” Maybe that’s from my experience in television, where we tend to take the whole scene as a chunk and we shoot with multiple cameras and capture the actual interactions, but it leads to some magical moments.
One of my favorite moments in Arthur is when Hobson is tucking Arthur into bed, after reading him a bedtime story, which is a little ridiculous. He says to her, “Hobson, when I was little, you used to say, ‘Arthur, you can do anything under the sun.’” That was the line, but Russell chose to do this haughty impression of Helen, and Helen, on camera, took offense to that. She said, “I never spoke like that!,” and they went back and forth about it. That moment ended up in the movie, and it only ended up in the movie because I was rolling two cameras at once. I had a camera on Russell and a camera on Helen, at the same time, which some DPs frown upon. But, my DP, Uta Briesewitz, who is an amazing photographer and one of the only female DPs out there was delightfully indulgent of my desire to cross-shoot and capture both sides of the scene, at the same time.
Did you have an initial nervousness, working with people the caliber of Russell Brand and Helen Mirren, that you had to get over?
WINER: I definitely was intimidated by the prospect of working with Helen, in particular. Before Helen was on board officially, she was interested, she had read the script and she wanted to work with Russell, but she wanted to meet me, before she said yes, so I was sent to her house to have tea. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least. My agent was actually freaking out ‘cause he was like, “Have you ever had tea with a British person? There are rules! There is all sorts of etiquette.” And, he forwarded me a link to a tea etiquette website, where I learned silly things like you’re supposed to stir the tea back and forth with the spoon, and not in a circle. That’s considered rude ‘cause it could chip the china. There was crazy stuff like that.
And then, of course, when I got to her house, not only did she immediately profess to be a big fan of Modern Family, which put me at ease, she also made us tea in mismatching mugs, with Lipton tea bags and water heated up from the microwave. That’s Helen, in a nutshell. She’s regal on the surface, and thoroughly and incredibly charming, but also tremendously down-to-earth with an irreverent streak that not a lot of people know about.
Was it challenging to find ways to show Arthur’s wealth nowadays?
WINER: Definitely. In 1981, you could put Dudley Moore in a tuxedo and give him a Rolls Royce and say he’s a billionaire, but today’s audience expects a different things. When you say somebody is a billionaire playboy, it’s incumbent on you, as a filmmaker, to provide bigger and better toys. That’s why our Arthur owns the Batmobile and the DeLorean from Back to the Future and has a $1.5 million magnetic floating bed, which is actually based on a real thing. There’s one of them in the world. It’s the same technology as the bullet train. Our writer, Peter Baynham, did a great job of doing research into the wealthiest people in the world and these ridiculous objects that they may have. One little detail, and I doubt you’ll see it, is that Arthur has a television that’s glass. The image just floats on it, so you can see it both ways. It just plays in the corner of a shot, but I wanted each detail of his world to have a slightly magical quality.
Was it difficult to find the women in Arthur’s world, with his mother (Geraldine James), the woman he’s supposed to marry (Jennifer Garner) and the woman that he falls in love with (Greta Gerwig)?
WINER: Yeah, definitely. Arthur is a character who is surrounded by women, in the movie. He has Hobson, his nanny. He has his mother, played by Geraldine James, who is this cold and removed bitch, but at the same time, has a certain complexity. You can feel, underneath it, that she wishes she was able to connect with him. She wishes she had it in her to be a better mother. And, I credit Geraldine with bringing layers to that character. And then, on the flipside, you have Jennifer Garner playing this villainous role, which is essentially against type for her, but finding, within it, some really human motivation. Having been spurned by Arthur, you can see the jealousy that egging her on. Also, there’s her desire for status, which comes from her blue collar upbringing. There is some hopefully complex motivation behind what could be considered a two-dimensional character, but is not, as rendered by Jennifer.
With all of the movie cars in the film, was there one that you wanted to get in and take for a drive?
WINER: There are a lot of awesome cars in the movie, and everybody wanted to get their pictures taken with those cars. When they were on the streets of New York, they would draw crowds, but nothing draws attention like the Batmobile. There’s something magic about the Batmobile. It makes the heart of the 14-year-old boy in you flutter. For me, it was definitely the Batmobile.
Did your work at Modern Family help you, in developing your comedic sensibilities?
WINER: Oh, absolutely! I learned so much from Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, the creators of that show, not just about comedy, but also about producing. They’re both such smart television producers. Whether you’re called a producer or not, directing a movie requires all sorts of producorial skills. You have to blend personalities and understand studio politics. I learned a lot about that from them. That’s one unconventional way that doing the show prepared me for the movie. But, I also learned a lot about comedy from my cast on Modern Family, which couldn’t be more crazy-talented. They helped prepare me for this.
You’re back directing television, with the pilot Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 for ABC. What is that show about and what interested you in that project?
WINER: After the marathon of doing a feature, it was gratifying for me to do the sprint of a pilot, so that’s what I’m in the midst of right now. I’m doing a pilot that’s, in some ways, completely unlike Modern Family. It stars Krysten Ritter, Dreama Walker and James Van Der Beek, as an alternate universe version of himself. It’s funny and it’s irreverent. It’s written by Nahnatchka Khan, who is one of the executive producers on American Dad. She comes from animation, and this is her first live-action comedy, so she brings some of that same stylish irreverence to it. It’s just a really fun project for me to do, before the next movie.
Was comedy something you always wanted to do?
WINER: I’m drawn to different genres. One of my favorite things about Arthur is that it mixes drama and romance with bawdy, irreverent humor. I’m eager to do movies of different genres. Sydney Pollack is one of my heroes ‘cause he not only did Tootsie, but later in his career, he did The Firm. I would love to not be confined by genre and do a lot of different things.