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It’s just been pointed out to Peter Chelsom that the restaurant where he’s about to have a breakfast fruit plate, the Ritz Carlton’s Jockey Club, is meant to look British. “Yes,” he says acidly, perusing all the dark wood, “very two-door.”
There’s an edge to Chelsom, one that suggests that his dark-hearted new film, Funny Bones, is more characteristic than his feature debut, the sweeter Hear My Song. It’s the latter film, however, that won the writer/director the backing of Hollywood Pictures, a Disney subsidiary, and he has no complaints about the deal. Though Funny Bones is not exactly The Lion King, “I was left alone completely. If there’s anything wrong with it, it’s my fault.”
He rejected every script Disney offered him, but Chelsom says he may someday make a movie even more Disneyesque than Song. “It’s nice to make different kinds of films,” he suggests. “One of my problems is that I will occasionally press some mainstream buttons,” he adds, insisting that he found Groundhog Day “a lovely film.”
Counting the short Treacle, Chelsom has co-written and directed three films about his hometown, Blackpool, a somewhat tattered resort on the Irish Sea that was once the epicenter of the English vaudeville circuit. Bones, he explains, “is the third and the last.” It’s also the most complicated, with plot strands that include Las Vegas star George Fawkes (Jerry Lewis) and his foundering son Tommy (Oliver Platt); a physical comedian, Jack Parker, who’s too dangerous to be allowed onstage (Lee Evans); and the smuggling of youth-elixir powder from France.
“It’s the most personal of the three really,” notes the director, explaining that Tommy Fawkes and Jack Parker “represent the two sides of myself,” the analytical and the instinctual. That doesn’t mean, however, that Bones is set in the city that the young Chelsom once inhabited. “We created a world called Blackpool,” he says, “the republic of Blackpool,” where the famous red British phone booths are blue and the police officers’ uniforms are transparently fake. “There’s a side to an audience that doesn’t want to go see a world they know exists.”
Still, Bones was assembled partially from real events, including the curious appearance of a severed human foot on the Blackpool beach, and actual characters. Among its stars are old friends and inspirations: Aging vaudevillians the Parker Brothers are played by Freddie Davies, who gave Chelsom his first job (as a variety-show stage manager) more than 20 years ago, and George Carl, who the director calls “just a brilliant physical clown. He would have been up there with Keaton and Chaplin” if he’d come to prominence in the silent-film era. (At 80, Carl “didn’t know what the film was about,” Chelsom concedes.)
As strongly as he admires Carl, Davies, and Evans, the director abhors the red noses and big shoes of circus clowns. Unbidden, he begins to rant against the latter. “What a lot of bollocks that is,” he announces. “I hate fucking circus clowns.”
Chelsom likes, however, Jerry Lewis, who was always part of the film’s plan. “I wrote it for him,” the director says of Lewis’ role, which he created with playwright Peter Flannery. “And fortunately, he said yes. It was great to work with him.”
“His luggage precedes him,” Chelsom adds, confirming that the scene in which George Fawkes’ suitcases occupy a score of airport attendants is based on Lewis’ actual arrival in Britain to film Bones.
Bringing Lewis, Leslie Caron, and Oliver Reed together with obscure vaudevillians and a new generation of comedians is nearly as heady a prospect as a scenario that includes deep family secrets, corrupt cops, and an unhinged performer who once killed a man while drunk on applause. “If [the audience] thinks about it, they’ll be confused,” Chelsom says of Bones‘ plot, with matter-of-factness bordering on irritation. “That’s why the film won’t do $100 million, and nobody thought it would.”
“I think you need to see the film in a trusting state,” he offers. “But I think there’s a moment of clarity when it does all come together.”
“Those people who work with me tell me I do see the world in a very strange way,” he admits. “But,” he says, not very convincingly, “I’m sure I’ll make a sensible film the next time.”