HOPE SPRINGS - Q&A with writer/director Mark Herman and actor Colin Firth
Movie Interview by Toby White
Mark, it suggests in the production notes that the people of the town in which you created HOPE weren't entirely enamoured with having a film crew on their doorstep for six weeks, can you tell us what the problem was and how you resolved that problem?
MARK HERMAN: I think it's been blown out of proportion...
COLIN FIRTH: I think there was one person that didn't like having us there...
MARK HERMAN: They'd had a recent history of film crews there that didn't show much respect for the town of Fort Langley and there was a bit of stick over whether we were allowed to film there. There were one or two surprises; I remember they were supposed to close the road while we were shooting one day but suddenly at 3 o'clock there was traffic rolling by, it was the scene with Colin carrying Heather Graham, and we needed one shot so we got together a gang of old age pensioners to walk across a pedestrian crossing to stop the traffic...
I understand the weather was awful too...
MARK HERMAN: Yeah, of the 45 days we were shooting we had four dry days. The most depressing aspect was that on a sunny day, in order to continue a scene, we had to create our own rain.
Colin, you fell in love with the novel before you thought about making it into a film, how did you come across the novel and what was it about the book that made you realise it would make a good movie?
COLIN FIRTH: There was never a point that it wasn't thought it would make a good film, partly for the prosaic reason that it was written in dialogue form, but it just came recommended. I was having dinner with a friend who gave me a nod in that direction, saying this has got your name on it and a couple of days later I got the same message from another friend about the book so I went to find it and, by another coincidence, the guy who had the rights happened to be the producer I was employed by at the time. So I was in a very good position to lobby for the job more than anyone else. Although Barnaby, the producer, kept me dangling with the idea that there was a very long list of names for the part of which I was 125th.
Mark, how did you find adapting the novel into a screenplay?
MARK HERMAN: Well, the style of writing that Charles Webb used to write the book was very much like a screenplay but it wasn't as easy as simply lifting the text onto a different piece of paper. The restructuring of it was very complicated.
Colin, you said the part had your name on it, do you accept there's a "Colin Firth character"?
COLIN FIRTH: I think it's more identified by other people than by me. I usually find when I'm asked these questions that it's an assumption about the type that I play. I had a new one recently which was "You're always playing a type that's attractive to a woman..." [Laughter]
As opposed to?
COLIN FIRTH: Well, as opposed to a stiff English gentleman in a suit, I suppose. There is usually one that you're seen to associate with.
Is that the actor's thing that all parts are essentially autobiographical?
COLIN FIRTH: I think so. I think, like most creative pursuits, you are drawing on aspects of yourself and I think that acting is particular in that one instance, that there is an emphasis on changeability and versatility that acting is perceived to be the art of transforming yourself. I actually don't see it like that. Although I have made attempts at transforming myself and I do find it a fun exercise, it's not the principally interesting thing for me. I find it far more interesting taking what I might bring to a situation and applying it to particular problems presented by the story. The nuances that you're asked to deal with, that's where the challenges are. How can I deal with this or that? How can I make it truthful? In fact, it's often harder to a play a character closer to yourself than someone wildly different. There was an interview where another actor asked that question pointed out that most actors, with a couple of notable exceptions, are pretty same-ish, or at least that they're being asked to play the same social class or nationality or whatever. And there's nothing wrong with that. In this case, the story appealed to me partly because it did feel close to me, a bewildered middle class Englishman adrift in small town North America; that would definitely be me.
What was the perception of you in America?
COLIN FIRTH: I have a long relationship with America. I was partly schooled there. I feel, to some extent, that I partly belong there. Throughout my teens at school here, I was nicknamed "the yank". When you're in a transatlantic set-up you always miss the other place. Charles Webb's one of them and that's one of the reasons he writes so well for both English and American... I mean America's a gigantic place both geographically and culturally and, as an Englishman, there isn't any one perception you'll encounter.
What about you personally?
COLIN FIRTH: Oh, you meant their perception of me? Not just an Englishman? No, most Americans don't know who I am.
Were you called the yank because you'd acquired American mannerisms and an accent?
COLIN FIRTH: Yes, I was very feeble-minded and tried to drift according to whatever would make my life easiest. Strangely enough I became an actor...
This is the second time you've played an artist, do you have any real talent for art?
COLIN FIRTH: None whatsoever. [Laughter] With a lifetime of lessons I would never aspire to even the level of drawings you see in this film.
Mark, you've written original material and adapted work, what would you say is easier?
MARK HERMAN: It's different every time. I've just been working on something original again and I'd forgotten how difficult it is to write something original. The last three adaptations have all been so different. This one felt like a screenplay and seemed easy but some scenes might be twenty pages long that you have to condense.
The undressing scene is very discreetly filmed, is that in order to get a specific certificate rating or had Miss Graham asked you be discreet?
MARK HERMAN: The latter. The last three films she'd done they'd had no problems with that part of the contract but with this one there was suddenly a problem. It became a nightmare to shoot especially because she's moving around so much.
COLIN FIRTH: Actresses spend half their time being persuaded to take their clothes off and when they do people refer to it for years. If you do it once, no one lets you forget that.
MARK HERMAN: The irony is because of the way we shot it we had to do a re-shoot over here with a stand-in actress who had to come and sit on Colin.
COLIN FIRTH: I'm over it now though [laughter]... but the reason we had to re-shoot that scene is because they thought it was too naughty. This is a scene where we managed to get no nudity whatsoever and the studio came along and said, "No, it's too dirty."
MARK HERMAN: Yet it's cleaner than a Kylie Minogue video.
Colin, there's a matchmaking theme in the film, have you ever been involved in any matchmaking?
COLIN FIRTH: None that's applied to me, although I have made the mistake of matchmaking once. I had a heart-broken friend and a girl I thought would be right and I arranged an errand they could go on together and it worked. They fell in love but it was the most disastrous relationship [laughter].
Did you have to actually carry your leading lady all that way?
COLIN FIRTH: I was wearing appliances by the time it was over. But that's no slight on Heather, I could have been carrying a gerbil for the amount Mark put me through and I'd have needed an osteopath. I don't know how much footage we shot but it felt like about six weeks' worth of carrying. Mark would say, "Colin, we're going to put the camera here, can you just go over there...no, not that corner, the one over the brow of that hill." [Laughter]
Does that curious-looking Battlefield Hotel actually exist?
MARK HERMAN: Oh, yes. Stallone stayed there when they shot the first Rambo.
COLIN FIRTH: And it is in a place called Hope.
Is the issue over smoking in the novel or did you put that in?
MARK HERMAN: It existed in the novel but I elaborated it a bit. Ironically, I was trying to stop smoking while I was writing.
COLIN FIRTH: America does have that effect on smokers.
MARK HERMAN: The reactions to that in the film are very different. The laughs it gets in America aren't the same as over here.
Did you succeed in stopping smoking?
MARK HERMAN: No.
Colin, have you ever been tempted to escape like your character in the film?
COLIN FIRTH: Yes, and I try to do that every once in a while. Funnily enough, I actually lived there for five years, in the place where we shot the film. I wasn't only there though, I did work, I came home occasionally so I wasn't totally escaping but I do have that tendency to want to go and hide in a tree somewhere.
How do you feel about the "pin-up" tag?
COLIN FIRTH: Apart from the problem of trying to think of anything clever to say about it, it doesn't really encroach on my life at all.