Connect with us


Interview: Richard E. Grant

 Wah Wah is a semi-autobiographical 'coming of age at the end of an Age' story, told through the eyes of young Ralph Compton. Set during the last gasp of the British Empire in Swaziland, South East Africa, in 1969, the plot focuses on the dysfunctional Compton family whose gradual disintegration mirrors the end of British rule. As an 11 year old, Ralph witnesses his mother's adultery with his father's best friend. His parents divorce and Ralph is sent to boarding school. Harry Compton not only loses his wife and best friend, but also his position as Minister of Education with the coming of Independence, prompting his rapid descent into alcoholism. Now 14, Ralph returns home to discover that his father has re-married an American ex-Air hostess called Ruby whom he has known all of six weeks. As round a peg as you could find in this square holed society, Ruby ridicules the petty snobbery of Colonial life by identifying Colonial-speak as sounding like a load of old 'Wah-Wah'. Although Ralph is initially wary of Ruby, he bonds with her as his father’s drinking escalates dangerously out of control. Meanwhile, the community frenziedly prepares an amateur production of 'Camelot' to impress Princess Margaret who is visiting to preside over Independence. Ralph gets cast, falls in love and discovers a way to escape his hellish home life. I met up with Richard E. Grant while he was at Tribeca to promote his debut.

Richard E. Grant

Pierre-Alexandre Despatis: First I’d like to know where Wah Wah came from and as an actor, what made you decide to write your own film? Did WAH WAH come about because you had the creative need to direct a film or did you want to tell a story?
Richard E. Grant: It’s entirely autobiographical. It’s based on my family and all the people that I grew up with in Africa and the film has been shot on location where all these events happens. Many of the extras in the film are actually people who were living there some 30 years ago. Because it was that way of life and that mentality of very self important colonial people living their fantasy life while history was overtaking them. It’s a sort of comedy and tragedy at the same time: it was an irresistible story for me to write. And I’m glad that people outside of England have responded so well to the film. I think that it’s because when you strip away the first layer in the film, the film is about family and about the public face and private shows of what really goes on behind closed doors. That’s universal.

P-AD:I imagine film school for you was working with the likes of Altman and Campion. Is it where you got the inspiration for the aesthetics of the film?
R.EG: Yes! I’ve been an unofficial film school student for 25 years. Robert Altman who I worked with three times is the person who has influenced me the most as a director. He is very encouraging and accommodating with his ideas and suggestions. He’s also very democratic in the way he works; everybody is paid the same and everybody is invited to the rushes and dailies everyday. You really feel part of an ensemble and that is absolutely essential to me. I was inspired to work that way and you get huge dividends. You get fantastic results and a wonderful community of people working together.

P-AD: Could you describe the writing process of …
R.EG: Painful. Because I was revisiting stuff from my past, at times it was cathartic and at times very enjoyable. The film is a comedy and drama; the funny scenes were a big relief to write as opposed to the more painful aspects of the film. What you learn as a writer is that you’ve got to be incredibly patient. It took me 5 years and a half and 27 drafts before finally saying “action”. It’s a long process. The film was pitched to a producer in 1999 and 5 years later there was the premiere in Toronto.

P-AD: I wanted to talk about it later, but you’ve already touched on the issue a few times. I’d like to talk about the contrasts in the films. As you said, it’s a drama/comedy. Could you talk about the structure of the film and the plot. For instance, in the plot there are a lot of contrasts … races, classes, etc. Also, contrasts are present in the structure of the film too. A lot of time, a very happy scene is followed by a very dramatic or sad scene.
R.EG: That’s my experience of how life is. At the moment of high tragedy or great drama, there is always something that will make you laugh. By the same token something can be very very funny and sad at the same time. I was very interested to write with as much compassion as possible about understanding why people do what they do. Then, by nature it becomes funny and dramatic.

P-AD: As you said, the film is largely autobiographical and you are probably very familiar with the settings and issues of the film, but did you do a lot of research as far as the narrative style and aesthetics of the films are concerned.
R.EG: No. I had a very idea of how I wanted it to look. The cinematographer of the film (Pierre Aïm) was very keen on using a very washed out 21 GRAMS look, which is what I absolutely didn’t want WAH WAH to look like. And also there is another style of cinematography that is very jerky, the camera is always moving and unstable. I was very clear to my cinematographer about not wanting any of those things.

The story is centered on the young boy. The boy acts as a compass through-out the film. There isn’t a single scene in the film where he is not present in, overhears or spies on. So, that he is the audience’s guide to the film … he’s experiencing what you’re experiencing as it comes to him.

P-AD: What is also interesting about that is the numerous cutaways in the film. One of them is a shot of him running in slow motion and another one is a shot with a striking red lighting of him yelling with a clown puppet. Did you use those shots to help the audience get into his mind.
R.EG: Yes. I also used cinematography – the only camera trick I scripted for the film is a counter-zoom. You have two actor stationary; the camera is moving inwards while the focus is pulling backwards. Even though the two actors are staying completely still, it gives you the impression they are moving apart from one another. I did this on the bridge when the mother reveals why she came back to the family. It’s a shock for the young kid and I wanted that realization to be stylized. It’s the only camera trickery I was determined of having in the film.

P-AD: But there are other special visual elements? Not camera trickeries, but very striking visual touches to the film. For instance, I’m thinking of the shot where a cricket scoreboard is used to mark the passage of time.
R.EG: I’ve seen so many movies where it fades to black and the older version of a character comes back as the new version. Because cricket was an integral part of colonial life, having a scoreboard to change from 1969 to 1971 and changing between the two actors in a montage was a very economic and cinematic way of doing it. I’m glad you said this. I’ve been struggling for two years with my producer to include it in the film. My producer told me “you have to remove it … it’s horrible and doesn’t work”. Preview audience proved her wrong and we kept it.

P-AD: Did you also come up with the storyboard of the film ?
R.EG: Yes. I storyboarded the whole film. We had a French camera and sound department because of co-production stipulations. English electricians, costume and make up. Swazi and South African crew members. Because of all the languages, doing carton storyboards was a way for everybody to go “that’s what he wants, that’s what he wants it to look like”. Because people misinterpret language constantly. I didn’t start up doing the story board, but by the second day I did and they were circulated by the first assistant director and it became the bible of how the movie was made.

P-AD: When you wrote the script, did you have specific actors in mind?
R.EG: When you write a script you always have your dream list of actors. Julie Walters I wrote that part for her. Miranda Richardson also was interested. They both said yes 4 years before we got financing. For the Gabriel Byrne part I went to many actors in their mid-forties, but they all turned me down – all the six English actor of that age which you can get financing for. Then I went up of a generation and Gabriel Byrne accepted the part.

In term of the Americans, I tried every known actress you can think of who is famous and between the age of 35 and 45. They all turned me down. Low budget film, first time director, shooting in Africa, a $7M budget, no chance! Then I thought of Emily Watson. My wife is an accent coach and she though her American accent for one of her previous films.

P-AD: What was the most difficult part of turning this story into a film ?
R.EG: The finance. Definitely the finance. Especially for a film set in the past, with no explosions, with no big star name and is a coming of age story about English people from 35 years ago. That’s a hard sell.

P-AD: We’ll see you next in Penelope. The film ended shooting only a month ago … how was the return to acting after directing a film ?
R.EG: Like being holidays. You just have to think about your character and when you’re going picked up, when is lunch and that’s basically it. It’s the easiest thing compared to writing and directing. But, you don’t have much control over the end result. That’s very rewarding.

P-AD: So then, how was the directing experience. Did you like it ?
R.EG: Fantastic. The experience of making it outweighs all the producer’s shortcoming. The satisfaction of seeing what you’ve written come to life three dimensionally with great actor is very great … there is nothing like it.

P-AD: So, you would like to direct again ?
R.EG: Oh yeah. I’m writing a new film right now. I have no ideas how long it’s going to get made or done, who knows … I might be in my wheel chair before it happens, but yeah, that’s what I’m doing.

Samuel Goldwyn Films/Roadside Attractions releases Wah Wah opened on May 12th in New York.

Continue Reading
You may also like...
Click to comment

More in Retro

To Top