A Strange Case

Scotch Mist 

One of the local papers here just carried a surprising story that ungovernably prolific genius Raoul Ruiz is planning an adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to be filmed in “modern” Aberdeen, with John Malkovich in the lead.

Ruiz has often expressed his admiration for RLS, and has worked with Malkovich successfully on TIME REGAINED and KLIMT, and recently gave a lecture in Aberdeen which I only heard about when it was too late. I would willingly have travelled to that granite scowl of a city to hear the Great Man’s thoughts. So these various facts make the project more or less explicable.

But it’s still a little odd, since Malkovich has already played Jekyll & Hyde, in Stephen Frears’ unsuccessful MARY REILLY (basically, the Jekyll story told from the perspective of the doctor’s maid), and a little of that was actually shot in Scotland. Although RLS set his morality tale in London, it’s often been suggested that the schizoid nature of Stephenson’s hometown, Edinburgh, with its respectable New Town and dark, crooked Old Town, was a major influence on the tale. Plus I think Stephen Frears fancied getting out of the studio for a bit, so the whole company transferred from Pinewood to Edinburgh at considerable expense to shoot a little around St Stephen’s Church and Greyfriar’s Churchyard, 90% of which wound up on the cutting room floor.

Through eminent Scots producer Iain Smith, some fun stories filtered from the shoot: one day, star Julia Roberts summoned him and announced, with much toothy smiling, that she was thinking of flying to New York to be with her new husband Lyle Lovett (remember THAT love match?) for the weekend. Smith said that sounded very nice, but wondered what it had to do with him. By the time he walked from Roberts’ trailer back to his office the phone was ringing. He picked it up and a man swore at him. It was Roberts’ agent, explaining, through the medium of profanity, how Smith had better find the money in his budget for Roberts’ little jaunt. I don’t think Smith ever actually agreed to do this, but it happened anyway. Studios like to keep their stars happy.

At the end of shooting the last scene, Malkovich approached his co-star and told her, in the frankest terms, how little he had enjoyed working with her and how greatly he looked forward to never finding himself in her presence again so long as he lived. A few months later both were called back to re-shoot the romantic finale… That must’ve been a happy reunion.

Love's Young Nightmare

In the end, three endings were shot, none apparently very satisfying (the book kind of peters out too). This failure to get to grips with what the story was trying to achieve had a deleterious effect on the whole film. It starts well, creating horror and anxiety out of seemingly innocent domestic details, then fails to find any h. or a. in the actual horror-movie events central to the plot. The normally bright-witted Frears allows startling mismatches of word and image: Roberts describes her cruel father as having “not quite a limp”, and then we get a flashback of Michael Gambon lurching about on one ankle, the most extreme limp anybody’s ever seen. Malkovich’s Jekyll looks and sounds just like his Hyde (different hair and nose, is all), making nonsense of everybody’s confusion, which is all the more damaging in this version, since we’re supposed to share Julia Roberts’ viewpoint. We get the striking Bronagh Gallagher from THE COMMITMENTS as the other maid, which allows us to notice how much better suited than Roberts she would be to playing the lead. The best thing in it is living legend George Cole, late of the 50s ST TRINIANS films, as Poole, the butler.

RR

Returning to the Ruiz: why Aberdeen? Presumably the place impressed Ruiz on his recent visit. It has a heavy slate ceiling of sky so low you can reach up and touch it, which could be a dramatic feature, and the whole city is grey, which at least gives it a unified look, even if the look is one you could achieve by diving into a cement mixer. I don’t have a copy of Christopher Brookmyre’s A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away to hand, but the author devotes most of chapter two to a demolition job on the “Silver City”:

‘”Silver City” my arse. It was grey. It. Was. Grey. If Aberdeen was silver then shite wasn’t brown, it was burnished sienna.’

Or words to that effect. But what the hell. I’m excited by the idea of Ruiz filming anywhere in Scotland, anywhere in the UK, anywhere AT ALL. The idea of him having to deal with the bureaucrats at Scottish Screen, our native funding body, is oddly hilarious, since in KLIMT he created a character called the Secretary, who defines his job at the Ministry of Arts as that of preventing any art from actually happening. Some people have said the same thing about our own Scottish Screen.

saucy old Gustav

In fact, I can hold my hand up and say that when the organisation was called The Scottish Film Production Fund, it was I who started referring to it as The Scottish Film Prevention Fund, a nickname that caught on with alarming speed, until the outfit was reborn as the S.S. No possible jokes there.

Despite their initials, they are good people over there in Glasgow, the only problem being the endemic inertia and caution associated with committees and quangos the world over. Dynamic leadership might yet overcome this barrier. They were kind enough to co-fund three of my shorts, which gave me a career of sorts, after ten years’ aimless hoping. When I asked the then-head, Steve Macintyre, why he had voted against CRY FOR BOBO (he was in the minority and it still got selected) he told me that it struck him as the kind of film that would be very good if it was done well, but awful if it was done badly. Now, allowing for the strong possibility that perhaps this was a polite lie and really he just hated the script, it seems to me that the only films worth doing are the ones that fall into this exact category. The alternative is films that will never be terribly good no matter how hard everybody works, and it is these to which Scotland has devoted much of its slender resources through most of our brief history as a feature-film producing nation.

So, if Ruiz’s formidable imagination and strong reputation can stir Scottish Screen to action, and he can raise the rest of his finances elsewhere, from venture capitalists with short memories who no longer recall MARY REILLY, we could look forward to a truly unusual rendition of the Stephenson classic, one that genuinely merits that part of the original title usually omitted: The Strange Case…

I've just seen Ratcatcher

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6 Responses to “A Strange Case”

  1. Ruiz is an absolutely marvelous madman. And entire chapter of my Film: The Front Line — 1984 (Arden Press) is devoted to him. I’d also advise you look up my Film Quarterly piece “Raul Ruiz at the Holiday Inn,” done when he visited Tinseltown in the early 80’s trying to get his modern dress Treasure Island (with Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Melville Popaud, Lou Castel, Martin Landau and Vic Tayback) released from Cannon Films bondage. If he wants to shoot in Abderdeen he certainly has his reasons.

    Many a Latin American fabulist has been enthralled by Stevenson’s tale — Borges and Bioy-Casares among them. That’s Ruiz’s cultural context.

    On a related matter wasn’t there a Carry On film made about this ? Again, perfect for Ruiz and the ever-edgey Malkovich.

  2. I don’t think Carry On tackled the Nude Lens, though somebody supposedly told Barbara Steele that Bava had developed one, which caused her to regard him with dread during Mask of Satan — perhaps an apocryphal tale?

    I rather like Ruiz’ Shattered Image, marketed to the multiplexes as an erotic thriller. I bet it caused a few blown synapses in the dirty mac brigade’s minds.

  3. I’ll ask her the next time I see her.

  4. I wouldn’t have thought she was silly enought to believe that (Bava I think is the source for the story, though he was TOLD by somebody else that she was afraid of him, so maybe the somebody else made it up). But maybe, in her extreme youth, she was a little gullible, I dunno.

  5. Considering that in her extreme youth she was Donald Cammell’s girlfriend (and remained close to him right through to the end of his life) Barbara doesn’t strike as afraid of anything. Annoyed maybe, but never afarid. She tells me all those Italain fhorro films were made on top of one another while she was on call for 8 1/2. Can you imagine? One morning she’s climbing through the crypts for Bava, then in the afternoon she rushes over to dance the twist for Fellini!

  6. I read some interview where she talked about being driven to the set by a horse and carriage, where Mastroianni would arrive, asleep and pyjama’d, to be poured into his costume and makeup while assistants funnelled espresso into him. It was the most romantic movie-making story I ever heard.

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