Adapting Evelyn Waugh

Stephen Fry makes his directorial debut with “Bright Young Things”

Obsolescence is a subject that’s bound to surface with source material that’s almost 75 years old. Evelyn Waugh penned his novel “Vile Bodies” in 1930, but set it in the future, famously ending the world to signal the party rushing to a close. When Stephen Fry adapted that novel into a screenplay for his directorial debut, “Bright Young Things,” he changed the period and compressed time so that the movie opens in the 20s and ends with World War II, yet the hard-living characters never age.

Yet it’s hard to ignore the timeliness of a cab driver’s comment when he barks, “They need a good, bloody war if you asked me.”

“A lot of the dialogue is fantastic,” Fry explained. “It’s authentic, but the narrative is not sacred. It’s pointless to call it an adaptation and pay for the rights and then use nothing of the book, but on the other hand I didn’t feel tied to it.”

In fact, Fry took more liberties than the Patriot Act, but still remembers Waugh‘s “Vile Bodies” fondly.

“I read this book when I was sixteen,” he said. “I loved it, but I misunderstood it. I thought all the characters were role models. I didn’t realize it was satire. I just thought, these are great parties. I stopped using the word cool. Suddenly everything was divine. I loved the language and the style. But rereading it, I realized this group of young people take their inspiration from black American music and go around with portable music players. They party, they take drugs and are constantly looking for the next buzz. And they do all this in the constant glare of paparazzi photographing them going in and out of parties. I thought, this is weird because it’s 70 years ago. I always thought we were the party generation. We’re the drug-taking, portable music generation who steals fashion from the ghettos, but hang on. This is something our grandmothers and grandfathers were doing. They invented youth culture.”

And youth culture is something Fry knows a bit about, judging from his cast. Emily Mortimer—who broke out in 2003’s “Lovely & Amazing”—plays Nina Blount. Stephen Campbell Moore makes his film debut playing Adam Symes, the young suitor constantly engaged and then breaking up with Nina. Fenella Woolgar, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, is another big screen debut to be reckoned with, Fry remembers her “bright blue eyes and a quality wherein you feel you already know her.” Woolgar’s irascible Agatha Runcible is a bitch’s brew of both Patsy and Edina cavorting with RADA alum Michael Sheen who Patrick McDonalds his way around town with a face full of makeup and a trail of “naughty salt” in his wake.

Fry is an actor’s director, which might explain why so many older, more established actors wanted to be in this picture, like Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, Dan Aykroyd and Stockard Channing. They know Fry best for his star turn as Oscar Wilde in the film “Wilde” in 1996, the same year he published his autobiography “Moab is My Washpot.” The tome joined several novels and the book for the musical “Me and My Gal” on his bookshelf and resume.

Fry’s TV credits include stints on “The Young Ones” and “Alfresco” while notable film roles include Peter in Kenneth Branaugh’s AIDS drama “Peter’s Friends” and the inspector in Robert Altman’s Oscar-winner “Gosford Park.” Of course, like every other British actor of consequence, he’s participated in that country’s “Harry Potter” series, narrating the second installment.

“I tried to cast the older characters with names that would be familiar to audiences,” Fry explained of his strategy to raise money for his directorial debut. “But I hoped that would give me the right to cast the younger characters with actors people didn’t know. And they’re who I’m most proud of since one expects Peter O’Toole to be good, but it’s so amazing that people are seeing these younger actors and how wonderful they are.”

His casting process?

“I make it as relaxed as possible,” Fry said. “There’s a DV camera on sticks, but not all the time. You’ll have a morning of Agathas, and then six different Gingers and then a bunch of different Balcairns… So they come in and you chat and they do a bit of dialogue. You hire a male and female actor to work with them.”

“Niche my ass,” Fry replied when asked about Outfest LA’s gay and lesbian film festival—where he is next headed, rejecting claims that “Bright Young Things” is a niche film, and even question what niche people have in mind when they make the suggestion.

“It’s a film that has gay characters and, to some extent, a gay sensibility,” Fry continued. “If one wants to be completely crass about the clichés of what it is to be gay. Of course, the gay character suffers a kind of tearful end which one always feels slightly guilty about in these post-liberation days. It’s always considered rather bad manners to give a gay character an unfortunate destiny, but when it’s set in the past you have to be realistic.”

Still irked by the niche characterization, Fry went on to say: “You never make a piece of work with a view to fitting into a ghetto category. On the other hand, it’s always a delight. It happened in bookshops in the 80s, didn’t it? They suddenly realized that you couldn’t sell a book if it was on the general fiction table, but it was women’s press, if it was gay men’s press, if it was a special interest of any kind—satanic abuse, whatever it was—then you could sell it. Ninety percent of the gay men’s market will go to that gay bin and be likely to buy a book, whereas general fiction, no one goes to it. I remember my third novel—a ‘what if’ alternate history. I won two prizes for it. Both were in specialist alternative history categories. There are special awards for best alternative history book of the year. Now if you write a general fiction book, well, there are Pulitzer Prizes, but that’s a very literary group so my advice is make sure your project can qualify for a particular kind of description.”

Fry decided to close with some musings on America. As for the late Pres. Ronald Reagan, he said, “When dear old Ronny popped the twig. it was like watching the queen mother. I suppose it’s because you don’t have a royal family that you invest it all in this doddering old man who died 15 years ago, essentially. Bless him, but he was never with us. He was in his own little Ronny world.”

As for the current administration?

“The fewer artists they can get in America, the better off as far as they’re concerned,” Fry responded. “Artists are the people who ask ugly questions and draw attention to ugly truths. That’s the nature of art and never has the American government been quite so sensitive to the legitimate outpouring of different ideas.”

He saves the best for last.

“You use to have to go to Hogfuck, Idaho, to see all these houses with Old Glory flying,” the green card-carrying Brit stated. “But now you see these East Coast liberal towns and everyone’s got their flags flying. I love this country, but it’s terribly sad that you have to show your patriotism in this cheap way. If you really love a country, it’s like a person. You don’t kid them that it’s fine when they behave badly. If you love your country, you don’t say anything it does is cool. Go invade Thailand and Denmark, get naked prisoners and put hoods over their faces. Do what the fuck you like to them and it doesn’t matter because we’re America, therefore it’s good. I mean, that’s just bullshit. That can’t be right.”

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