Bright Young Things (2003) – Q&A with Michael Sheen, Stephen Campbell Moore, Fenella Woolgar and Stephen Fry

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Movie Interview by Susan Hodgetts

Actor Michael Sheen and newcomers Stephen Campbell Moore and Fenella Woolgar join director/writer/actor Stephen Fry at the London press conference.


Stephen, why did you choose to adapt this novel in particular? And how does it relate to society today?

STEPHEN FRY: Well, on a superficial level, it chose me. I was asked as a writer to do the screenplay, but I felt a connection with the book and I thought I could bring something to it. It’s a period film but with the energy and sparkle of youth. Its main themes are celebrity and gossip and public lives, something naturally very relevant. And I loved the language and texture of it too.

Were you nervous, directing for the first time?

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, it’s one of those jobs when people are looking at you all the time. But you get pretty used to it. For the first five minutes, you wonder what people are expecting from you but it rapidly goes, and you learn to look at the toes of your shoes a lot.

Fenella Woolgar and Stephen Campbell Moore are new to the cinema screen – what was it that you saw in these two?

STEPHEN FRY: A quality that comes across from them that you can’t predict. You write a wish list of how you wish your characters to be. Then you add the texture of the voice, their eyes, and so on, the talent completely integrated with the text already there. It’s amazing that Stephen Campbell Moore could carry the weight of it at so young. He’s done a lot of work with the RSC but I always knew he was right from the first day on set and he obviously worked well with Emily Mortimer.
Fenella Woolgar looked like the name of a high score in scrabble. As soon as she walked in the room, I wrote down “Agatha just walked in the room.” And the great expansive cast of known faces helped settle the finance people.

FENELLA WOOLGAR: Stephen wouldn’t catch my eye [at the audition]. He looked at my shoes. I thought I’d blown it. I was terrified. Then he called me back for a second reading and I thought I’d blown it again.

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, but we called you back so we could try out another actor against you. If you know an actor’s wrong, you always look them in the eye and talk to them and treat them very nicely so they can’t complain that they didn’t get fair treatment!

MICHAEL SHEEN: Actually, in the beginning Fenella was worried that she might be going over the top a little bit. So they showed her my audition tapes, and after that she didn’t worry any more.

What was the attraction of this for you, Michael [Sheen]?

MICHAEL SHEEN: I first read the script a few years ago in LA, loved it and really wanted to play the part of Miles. I came back and met Stephen Fry, had sex with him, and got the part! Plus, I got to wear more make-up than Emily Mortimer and Fenella Woolgar put together every day and everyone cheered whenever I emerged from my trailer.

Stephen [Campbell Moore] – did you feel that you were carrying a huge weight?

STEPHEN CAMPBELL MOORE Yes, that’s why I didn’t think about it! Otherwise I could have melted in front of Peter O’Toole! It’s just two people playing a game, 2 actors playing a game, but one that’s quite important!

Having changed the ending of the film to one that’s different from the novel, you must have expected criticism to come your way for this, Stephen?

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, especially as Waugh was much loved by journalists so I knew people would criticise me for changing the ending. The book was written in 1928/29, so Waugh had actually imagined World War 2, he didn’t know that it would actually take place, so I had to kaleidoscope time. He had imagined war to be final. The end was unremittingly bleak, and I’m not. He didn’t believe these young people could be redeemed. I also thought it was respectful to change the title – it gives the book its own separate identity to the film.

The production was in danger of collapsing several times due to finance. Were you tempted to throw in the towel?

STEPHEN FRY: Almost! I went to Cannes in 2002 and the film was bandied around as part of the new slate of films for Channel 4. Then I came back to England two days later and found that Channel 4 had dissolved Film Four! Luckily the Film Consortium galloped to the rescue.

Did you consider a cameo role for yourself?

STEPHEN FRY: I gave John Mills a cameo. I was chatting to him at his cottage and he said “Have you got a part for me dear?” I flicked through the book to see what I could give him and found “old man at party sniffing white snuff” and he was delighted. He said “My first coke movie, how exciting!” I did also do a cameo myself – dressed in black jodhpurs and a cap. If you look carefully, I’m the chauffeur taking Adam and Nina to Arundel and I say “Where to Sir?”

MICHAEL SHEEN: Isn’t it true that the movie was originally going to be called ‘The Chauffeur’?

STEPHEN FRY: It might have been, yes…..

Why did you want a cameo?

STEPHEN FRY: To save money!

Stephen [Campbell Moore], how different was it from the theatre?

STEPHEN CAMPBELL MOORE: I thought it would be more cold and mechanical but that wasn’t true. Everyone was focussed and very passionate. In fact it was kind of like having a small theatre, with just the eye of the director on you, in a way you’re performing to them.

Stephen Campbell Moore and Fenella Woolgar have both been nominated for best newcomer awards at the Independent Film Awards. Do you think you’ll get it?

FENELLA WOOLGAR: I’m thrilled but I think Chewi (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has been nominated so I don’t know how I’ll ever beat him! He seems to have been around for ages!

STEPHEN FRY: Yes, I’m sure he’s been around longer than a year… but our production designer has been nominated as well.

Stephen, has this been one of your most fulfilling experiences?

STEPHEN FRY: Definitely, the most. It’s combined writing, a strange sense of performance, inspiring and enthusing people, keeping the cast and crew going. I loved the editing process too. I would love to do it again.

Did you want to be a Bright Young Thing?

STEPHEN FRY: Well, there was a period when I was! I would dance in my tweed party gear. No, to be honest, no, I wouldn’t like to. But I do think it’s admirable to be a person who doesn’t own a lawnmower! It’s a bohemian kind of lifestyle.

What do you think Waugh would make of your film?

STEPHEN FRY: He’d probably moan. His son was fine about it, he said he didn’t mind. I wrote an essay a while ago on Waugh for the Telegraph and his son wrote back, saying it was one of the most accurate things he’d ever read about his father. Waugh would probably admire the acting though.