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For his first film, Othello, writer and director Oliver Parker trimmed the work of William Shakespeare. For his second, An Ideal Husband, he wrote new gags to supplement the wit of Oscar Wilde. Soon, he thinks, he’ll be doing a stage adaptation of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. That project, at least, should quiet grumbles about Parker’s disrespect for the classics.
Parker smiles when asked if he felt self-conscious about rewriting two of Britain’s most famous playwrights. “I didn’t until people kept asking me about it,” he says amiably.
Parker may not be a scholar, but the director of the new film version of An Ideal Husband knows the traditional repertoire of the British stage from the inside: He performed Shakespeare and Wilde as an actor, and was convinced he could make their work more accessible.
His Othello revelation came during a run in Milford Haven, “a little harbor town in Wales, playing to 400 schoolchildren eating crisps,” he says. “In a three-and-a-half-hour production. They were mostly looking at their books or chatting. It was infuriating. I was dying to get it out to more people, show them how much fun it is. So the adaptation of that had such a specific purpose
The resulting film came out in 1995. “Whether it’s any good or not is for other people to judge. I felt very passionately about the piece. I had played Iago. I was well aware in that role of the relationship with the audience and how vibrant it was.”
Parker worked on his Othello script for almost four years, while continuing to work as an actor. “Suddenly, there was a point where I realized I had to direct it. Originally the point was just to play Iago. But I got so attached to some of the ideas that I had to express them myself.”
In preparation, Parker took filmmaking courses and wrote and directed several short films and “some not very good television.”
Othello, he notes, “was mostly cutting and reorganizing. There was a lot more actual writing in Oscar Wilde. In some senses, it needs it more. Wilde, I think, was writing a very particular sort of satire of drawing-room comedy, so it was very interior and deliberately theatrical. You need to enliven it for a film. Whereas Shakespeare’s language is full of very powerful visual imagery, which is a great source to turn into pictures on screen.”
Parker is not abashed to admit that he found himself writing his own Wildean witticisms. “You have to,” he says. “If you’re working on the plot, which you have to. Because Wilde was deliberately satirizing drawing-room plots and undermining them. The play’s a fascinating mixture of melodrama and farce. That’s not something I felt comfortable with on screen. I felt it had to be more of a romantic comedy/drama. Plus, there are only two locations. So you’re looking at all the possibilities in the script to relocate things.”
An Ideal Husband began when Parker was asked to write an adaptation of the play—a proposal he initially rejected. “I wasn’t convinced about the project in the first place,” he admits. “It felt so theatrical to me that I didn’t know if it would work. I was immediately taken by the themes and their relevance, but I wasn’t sure the style and the language would translate. I wrote a very rough draft to see if there was something in it, and I decided there was.” He went on to write five drafts, “each time taking it a little further.
“Wilde’s language is often so perfect, so crystalline, that you have to rough it up a bit. And I’m probably better at doing the roughing up,” he laughs. “It seemed important to me to tilt it a little bit towards naturalism, so the language isn’t so formal.”
Although Parker had acted in Wilde plays, he says he didn’t really appreciate the playwright’s work until he began to tinker with An Ideal Husband. “I have an evolving relationship with him,” he says. “I used to find him rather too clever and superficial and brittle. That was at a distance. Then, working on the play and reading his work—reading all his work—I discovered he was the opposite of that. That he was incredibly compassionate. So I felt that there was a real job to be done: to connect people to the emotions that lie beneath the piece, which very often you don’t get onstage.” (At one point in the film, the director puckishly sends his characters to the theater to see Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in just the sort of stilted production he disdains.)
Parker first sent the script to Minnie Driver, who was quick to accept. After that, he says, the principal cast was easily assembled: Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, and Gabriel Byrne. (This high-profile cast surely didn’t lessen the film’s appeal to Miramax, its American distributor.) The only difficulty came when Byrne withdrew because of scheduling problems and was replaced at the last minute by Jeremy Northam. The latter plays Sir Robert, after having played another Sir Robert in The Winslow Boy, which also shared its House of Commons set with An Ideal Husband.
The film’s casting isn’t quite so diverse as Othello’s, which starred Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh (as Iago), and heavily accented Francophone Irene Jacob. Still, it shows Parker’s preference for mingling actors from different backgrounds.
“Some people think it’s a mistake,” he chuckles. “It was important to have the likes of Julianne in there. In some senses, I’m reacting against a British theatrical approach to Wilde, which tends to be rather hollow and superficial—all the things I didn’t like Wilde for when I didn’t know about Wilde. She hasn’t done a period piece before; she comes to it completely fresh. She goes straight to the emotional core of the character. Putting that against someone like Rupert is very exciting to me. It gives it a different frisson.”
In the only other available film of An Ideal Husband—there’s a recently filmed contemporary version of the play that hasn’t been released—Moore’s role is played by Paulette Goddard, also the only American in a British cast. “It did occur to me that if any character was eligible for non-British casting, it would be that one, because she’s the outsider,” Parker muses. “So it must have been the same process, I imagine.”
Parker expects that his next film will be Fade to Black, a John Sayles script commissioned by his partner. “It’s a murder mystery, a political thriller, set in postwar Italy. Very exciting, very original.
“It’s an accident that I did two plays in a row,” Parker explains, “because I was working on a bunch of other things, including a modern thriller based on one of my short films and a drama set in Argentina.” He pauses. “Two films do not a character make.”
As if to prove that maxim, there’s Hellraiser, Parker’s proposed theatrical version of Barker’s 1987 horror flick. The project is “quite organic to my background in theater,” he says. “I started in theater with Clive, when I was about 19. I’d always wanted to go back to do some more theater. But I got a little fed up with the last thing I did, when I was in the West End playing a lead role in a stuffy traditional drama. It was bloody boring. It was the opposite of what theater was about, certainly what I came into theater for. Which was to be a little subversive, unusual—which you get in bucketloads with Barker.
“So I thought I’d try to get in touch with that again. I was going to do one of his plays. But I spend a long time doing new plays, with certain writer friends I have. It’s really hard, and you lose a lot of money. So, I thought, if I’m going to do another one I should at least do something I can trade on. And Hellraiser slightly has its roots in one of the plays we did many years ago, in which I played the monster. So I got very excited by the notion of doing that. It seemed an interesting reversal of what I’ve been doing, this time taking a film and putting it onstage. I’m excited by the notion of trying to stir an audience.”
Describing the weekend he has just spent in Washington, however, Parker doesn’t sound like much of a hellraiser. “My Dad was here after the war,” he explains. “So I did a little bit of retracing his steps. Went to the National Gallery, heard some jazz, went to some nice restaurants. A bit of a holiday.” He lowers his voice conspiratorially: “Don’t tell Miramax.”— Mark Jenkins