To his credit, director put aside fears Big debut: Christopher Hampton says he didn't want the 'Carrington' job, but was compelled by a passion for the story.

November 18, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

In a world where everybody wants to direct, it figures that the man who has made an astonishing directorial debut at the age of 49 never wanted to direct.

"I don't like the concept of power," admits Christopher Hampton, the distinguished British playwright and screenwriter, whose first film as a director, "Carrington," has just opened. "The generalship aspect of it was very unsettling. It's the old anarchist me."

In fact, says Hampton, author of the screenplay for "Dangerous Liaisons" as well as, most recently, the book for Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Sunset Boulevard," he's always believed in a separation between the writer and the director.

"I've always believed that two heads were better than one. And, in fact, many times I've played the 'good cop' to the director's 'bad cop,' which is very helpful for the actors."

But "Carrington" was such a labor of passion, the Oxford-educated Tony winner decided to go ahead.

"It was very unexpected," he said recently in a telephone interview from New York. "It came up at the last moment. We had everyone but a director. I wasn't sure I'd be good at it. I'd worked with good directors and I had no idea if I could do what they could do."

But in the end, his passion for the story overcame his reluctance to be the boss.

He'd first come across the relationship between Dora Carrington, a British artist, and Lytton Strachey, a homosexual writer, in the early '70s, in the biography of Strachey by Michael Holroyd.

It was a story of deep love that overwhelmed their individual sexual preferences and lasted for close to two decades. "It haunted me," he recalls. "I don't know why, but it was like falling in love."

As early as 1977, he had pitched and sold it to Warner Bros., and done a screenplay.

"It was quite unusual to get the opportunity to do it in the first place. It took a year to write and I became convinced it was one of the best things I had written."

That deal, like so many movie deals, fell apart. Over the years it would be revived, then fall apart again and, in fact, Hampton has had the rights purchased for him by separate sets of producers three times.

Even after the huge success of "Dangerous Liaisons," he wasn't able to get it made. "After 'Dangerous Liaisons,' I thought things would get easier. They didn't."

Hollywood passed on a number of Hampton's ideas. "They didn't want to do the kind of subjects I was interested in. I was getting offered a lot of commercial stuff. That's not my bag, after all. Nothing against it, it's just that I can't do it."

Finally, he got the project together with European producers, had the cast in place and went into action as director.

"I wasn't at all intimidated by the actors. You try and work with people you respect, and then you always listen to them. That way they feel they are contributing. You never want to be a boss or a dictator."

Hampton reports that a two-week rehearsal period helped Jonathan Pryce find the somewhat difficult-to-locate character of Strachey, a Bloomsbury wit and author ("Eminent Victorians" and "Elizabeth and Essex") who was noted for his high-pitched voice as much for his reinventing the rules of modern biography.

"The real Lytton had a ridiculous, camp voice. We didn't want to go in that direction. We wanted to normalize it in some ways. We found a voice based on [that of a] broadcaster in the '50s and worked that in."

As it turns out, Hampton isn't a great follower of the Bloomsbury Group, that swaggle of free-thinkers, socialists, wits and provocateurs who defined modernism in England before and after World War I, and whose influence - and fascination - continue profoundly to this day.

"I'm not particularly interested in the Bloomsbury Group," he says. "I turned it away from them. Originally I threw in everybody. But then I started to whittle. You get down to key figures. Carrington wasn't really a Bloomsburyite."

It's been a busy time for Hampton. Not only is this film in theaters, but so is "Total Eclipse," which he wrote (but did not direct), the story of French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud. The film "Mary Reilly," which he wrote (but did not direct), will be released shortly. It is directed by Stephen Frears (as was "Dangerous Liaisons"), and stars John Malkovich and Julia Roberts in a retelling of "Jekyll and Hyde," but from the maid's point of view.

Then there's the version of "The Secret Agent," from Conrad, with Bob Hoskins and Gerard Depardieu that he's just finished directing; and, of course, "Sunset Boulevard" on the boards all over the world. Now, for the first time in his life, says Hampton, "I don't know what to do next."

But he does know one thing: "Directing has changed my life. It's what I want to do now."

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