Getting Direct With Directors...
Stephen Fry
No.15: Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry is one of Britain's best known hyphenates. The actor (Gosford Park, Wilde, I.Q.), writer (best-selling novels Making History and The Stars' Tennis Balls) and narrator (all of the Harry Potter books) added director to his CV with the 2003 Evelyn Waugh adaptation Bright Young Things. Read on to discover the ridiculously high profile people in his contacts book, which Ben Affleck movie was appalling, and why appearing in Spice World was such bad advice...

Why did you become a director?

I think it was a terrible inevitability. Having been an actor and a writer for so long - 20 years or so - I felt that it would be daft to go to one's grave without having directed. It's a natural extension of writing and acting, and so I knew it would happen one day. One of the reasons I'd not done it earlier was because it takes so much time. You can act in five, six, or seven films in the time it takes to direct one film.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what what you be?

I suppose the other things I am, like a novelist. But generally speaking it would be a teacher, I think that's what I'm most suited to. I'd probably want to teach at university, because children would drive me insane. I suspect it would be English literature, Shakespeare and so forth. I've always been deeply, deeply in love with that kind of thing. It's like an unspoken vocation. In my head I know I should have done it, but I got seduced by the glamour, and the money, and the extraordinary quantities of drugs and free sex that go with being involved in showbusiness.

What other director would you like to see at work?

Well, one of the extraordinary things about directors is that they usually never get to see other directors at work, but because I'm also an actor I've been very fortunate to have seen John Schlesinger and Robert Altman at work - two marvellous directors. Stephen Frears and Fred Schepisi are other directors I admire a great deal. But if one could go back in time, I'd love to have been directed by Howard Hawks, who's one of my great heroes. One of the greatest directors there ever was. He directed probably one of the greatest westerns of all time in Rio Bravo.

Master And Commander

What was the last movie that you paid to see?

It was Master And Commander on the Finchley Road [London], which is near where I live. I had a spare couple of hours.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

Oh, it takes a lot for me to walk out of a film. What would that have been? Oh, it must have been years ago. Do you know, I can't remember. I think it was such a long time ago.

Do you ever sit down to watch a DVD and switch it off before the end?

Oh, yeah. God, yes. Recently there have been lots. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen I just couldn't... I mean, I just started staring at it, thinking: "This is a joke. It's going to stop and then the real film is going to start." Similarly with Daredevil, I couldn't believe how appalling that was. And I'm usually a sucker for all these kinds of actioners, but so many of them are just dreadful these days. They've lost the art of how to do a good thriller and a good action film. It's a shame.

Do you believe in God?

Sometimes. I believe in Him as an extremely useful analogy. You know, a useful person to blame and to centre one's idea of this strange universe on. But not in any conventional sense, I mean not in the sense of being Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim. No.

Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Oh, I can't possibly answer that.

You're so British!

I mean, you know, I don't know... It depends whom you've heard of. The Prince of Wales, I suppose. Or the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Groundhog Day

What's your favourite movie quote?

Ooh, it varies. I crib from films all the time. "Watch out for the first step, it's a doozy." That's one from Groundhog Day. Great film. There's a line from a film, which is excellent, a really good film by John Badham called War Games, and there's one scene where a marvellous actor, Dabney Coleman, just says: "I don't have to take that from you, you pig-eyed sack of s***!" I just find that a very useful line, to use occasionally. It just has a nice crunchy rhythm to it.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

Blimey, there's a thing. To some extent in the modern world I'd say Michael Powell. He's underrated by the general public in as much as he should be up there with David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock as three of the greatest British film directors there ever were. I think Powell and Pressburger, who made films under the banner of The Archers, made some the best films ever made - and not just British films. I'm not alone in that. Martin Scorsese has written extensively about films like The Red Shoes for example, which is one of his favourites - a huge influence on him, and on Spielberg and that whole generation of 70s wunderkind. Amongst filmmakers he's very highly rated, but I would say amongst the public Michael Powell is underrated.

And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

I'm sure I'll cause a lot of fuss by saying this but I would say John Ford. I never really got this thing people have about John Ford.

You don't like The Searchers?

The Searchers is a good film, and I do like westerns, but I prefer Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks westerns to be honest. It's partly because I really don't like, well not that keen on, John Wayne. You know, he's just everything I'm not, and stands for everything I don't really like. And The Searchers is so humorless, whereas westerns like The Naked Spur with James Stewart I could watch forever. The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance is also a marvellous film - partly because it's got James Stewart in it, as well as John Wayne. But in terms of the myth-making about film directors, I would say John Ford is the most overrated.

She turned up something like nine hours late

Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?

Good God! If I was the showbusiness correspondent for The Daily Mail I'd just read this and I've got half a page on me: "Stephen Fry lashes out at..."

I've never really had those kinds of experiences, but I did do this commercial for After Eight mints and I could argue that the person I did that with was a pain in the arse - partly because I didn't do it with her. She turned up something like nine hours late, so I did all my stuff and she did her stuff separately. It was Naomi Campbell, the supermodel - if that's the right phrase. She actually has a conversation with me in the commercial, although I'm not there. It was quite annoying only because you'd rather like the other actor to be there. I've only virtually met her so it seems rather unfair to say it, except that she certainly p****d off the film set. Other than that, everyone else I've worked with has been an absolute bliss-pot.

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

One usually tries to push these things into the back of one's mind, or erase them entirely. There are very dumb questions like, "Did you get here all right?" Which is one journalists say, and to which you answer, "No. I left my leg behind." But there is a classic journalist question, which they should be trained never to ask and that is: "What's it like..." So you get: "What's it like working with John Travolta?" To which there's no real answer. You can be very literal and say: "It's like riding a cloud in a pair of cinnamon-coloured pyjamas, upside down on a Wednesday. That's what it's like." You know what I mean? Everyone always asks, "what's it like...?" What do they mean, what's it like? They just can't think of an intelligent question to ask.

Do you believe in test screenings?


How seriously do you take reviews?

Very seriously if they're negative, and not in the least if they're positive - which I think is like most people. That is to say if they're positive you get a slight warm glow, and that's good, and slight relief for a second. But if they're negative you mooch about it for days, which is why I never read them. And why people know better than to send them to me as well. But of course word gets out. There's always someone in the pub who says: "Oh, I'm so sorry about that awful thing so-and-so said." And you think, "Oh, God! I've been protected from it for three weeks and now you had to come out with that." Or they say, "Wasn't it great what they said about you?" And then you go, "Oh no. Shall I be really vain and go and look it up because it's good, or shall I not?" I try not to.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

I want to say something cute, like: "Don't take advice." But in terms of film, it's always other directors saying, "Don't be afraid to ask." Just ask for help when you need it. That's the best advice.

Spice World: The Movie

And the worst?

Someone said to me, "Yeah, go on. You should play a part in that Spice Girls movie."

What's your biggest regret?

My biggest regret? Well, at the risk of sounding sententious, in the end you always only really regret the things you've not done. Maybe if I'd had more courage, I should have directed a film earlier in my career. Maybe I should have initiated my own projects rather than waiting for people to ask me to do things. I'm a bit of a coward, and lazy, oddly enough. People accuse me of working a lot, but if I had the integrity and courage of my convictions maybe I'd say, "I want to do this, and I want to do that." But I'm too anxious to please people, so I regret that.

There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?

Well, I suppose there's not much point in mending a chair, is there? So I think light a cigarette, fill a glass with drink, hug my best beloved, and look out the window waiting for the cloud. What else can one do? I suppose the usual answer is blowjobs or something, is it?

Not far off...

Ahah. How did I guess?

Which performer would you love to work with?

That's interesting. Who would really, as it were, turn me on? People like Clint [Eastwood] I suppose. I mean, legends of that kind. It would be a pretty astonishing thing to work with Clint, or Jack Nicholson. No question, either of those would be rather a thrill, otherwise I don't have any particular ambition in that regard. Doris Day would be good too.

The Deer Hunter

What film makes you want to spit?

The Deer Hunter I've always hated with a passion I find difficult to express. And it's odd because a lot of people love it and I just think it's fraudulent, self-regarding, masturbatory, meaningless drivel. I mean, "This is this!" No, it isn't. It's that! It's just gesturing towards philosophical meaning without ever achieving it. And it seems to me it plays around with violence and images without ever coherently having a human particle within it. It's bloodless and gutless, passionless, graceless, and all the worst things you could think of it being.

What are your three favourite films and why?

Oh, Lord! I change my mind about those all the time. Well, I've mentioned Michael Powell, so I have to say The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, which I think is a truly great film. The Godfather films are fantastic. You know you can't get enough of them.

All three?

Well, I'm not so fond of the third, to be honest. The second one is my favourite, but the first one is fantastic as well. What else? I love Howard Hawks' Sergeant York. Everything about it is absolutely perfect: Gary Cooper's Oscar-winning performance, and Walter Brennan's performance, the set design is so simple, and the music is brilliant, and the First World War scenes are unmatched - I think even better than All Quiet On The Western Front. That's a film I must have watched 25 or 30 times. I can't get enough of it. Oh, and Groundhog Day since I was talking about that. Brilliant. I can't watch that too many times either.

What do you think of Norman Wisdom?

Not really, to be honest, my cup of tea. They recently had a retrospective, as it were, on television, and I was watching them again thinking, "My God, that self-conscious pathos is very irritating." You know all that "I'm being cute now, I'm being sweet." I know he's huge in Albania where they worship him as a God, virtually. But it's not my cup of tea. I don't have any really strong objections to him. It's just... those films aren't made for people like me.

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