Jason Winer on Arthur

Hollywood director Jason Winer talks about the Dudley Moore remake

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When Dudley Moore took to the screen in 1981 hit comedy Arthur, he received almost universal acclaim. The movie, following the exploits of a millionaire playboy who falls for a working-class waitress, was nominated for four Academy Awards, netting John Gielgud a Best Supporting Actor gong. So how will infamous British funnyman Russell Brand fare as he reprises the role in this 2011 remake? We caught up with director Jason Winer for the lowdown.

What was the attraction to making this film?
When they first approached me with the idea of doing a remake of Arthur, I thought they were crazy. Why would you want to do that? The first film is incredible. It’s a classic. Why mess with that? And then I heard that Russell Brand was set to star in it, and if there’s one actor that reinvents this role for a new generation of moviegoers, it’s Russell Brand.

Why do you think the idea of Russell as Arthur fits so well?
Everybody knows he’s rebellious and he’s perceived as rambunctious. Everybody also knows that he’s incredibly articulate, quick on his feet and stylish. All of those things characterise the original Arthur. It’s a comedy that’s based on incredible wordplay, which isn’t the kind of comedy we’ve seen lately – in America at least. Who could pull that off right now except Russell? It seems to flow right into what he does. And yet at the same time, he’s very different, not to mention taller, than Dudley Moore. So it’s not a direct copy – it’s a performance that’s inspired by the original without imitating it.

You have a background in acting and improvisation. Did you let the cast run with the script?
First of all, Russell is one of the best, if not the best, improvisational actor I have ever seen. I would be stupid to try to corral that. My job is to encourage him, not contain him. We worked very hard on creating a script and a story we all felt really confident in, but at the same time you have to leave yourself open to inspiration. We also had a whole notebook of different ideas, a kind of an encyclopedia of jokes to draw
from in different areas when we needed added inspiration. So, as we would shoot a scene, we’d get three or four of the safer written versions we liked in the can, then we’d start to play. And I would say, ‘Russell, okay, it’s time. Let’s do it. Let’s mess around with it.’

Brand is a trained actor, which people often forget. Did that come into play when making the film?
Yes, I think that’s what people are going to be surprised by when they see this movie. Not only is Russell hilarious in the way we’ve come to expect, but he’s also quite emotional, and he makes you feel something. The relationship he has with Helen Mirren’s character is real and very well-drawn, in no small part because they adore each other in real life and have carried that affection to their relationship on screen.

It must have been nerve-wracking working with such a British institution as Helen Mirren.
I’ll tell you a story about meeting Helen for the first time. I was invited to her house for tea and my agent called me, freaking out. ‘Have you ever had tea with a British person? There are all kinds of rules.’ So I researched tea etiquette, things like you’re supposed to stir the milk in your tea back and forth and not in a circle because that can chip the china. I went to her house with all of this on my mind, in addition to trying to pitch her in the role. When I got there she took me into her kitchen. She had all kinds of questions about the cast and specifics about how we produced the show, which put me at ease, but the thing that put me most at ease was the fact that she was making tea using mismatching mugs, Lipton tea bags and water heated in the microwave. That’s Helen Mirren in a nutshell. She’s incredibly classy, but people perceive her as the Queen, when in truth she’s so down to earth and fun and actually a little bohemian.
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