Schepisi bets that lasting friendship will prevail

In an era of blockbusters and crassness, the director's 'Last Orders' has faith in real people.


April 07, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

NEW YORK -- Writer-director Fred Schepisi has no trouble describing the appeal of his new film, Last Orders.

"It's the humanity of it! It's about real friends, the people you go through troubles with, even if they've caused the troubles or you have. It's a bloody long life, and you need lifelong friends: People you have faith in to put up with your faults as well as share in the good times. Without them, you can't even see yourself properly. Too often, modern friendships are friendships of convenience. When the chips are down, your friends are not around."

Schepisi's adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel, which opened last week in Baltimore, attracted the people's royalty of the English acting kingdom -- actors whose images in real life might have influenced the styles of the working-class London buddies in Last Orders.

At the top of the list are Michael Caine, the king of Cockneydom, as Jack, the master butcher, and Bob Hoskins, everyone's favorite spluttering fireplug, as Ray, the gambler. But we also get Tom Courtenay, 40 years after The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, as Vic, the undertaker, and David Hemmings, the Mod photographer from Blow-Out, as Lenny, the ex-boxer who still approaches life with a curled fist and a defensive crouch.

And when you add Ray Winstone (from Sexy Beast) as Jack's adopted son Vince, and Helen Mirren as Jack's wife Amy, you've got a cast every bit as dazzling as the one in Gosford Park. They energize a movie that turns a car trip to scatter Jack's ashes on the sea off Margate into a kaleidoscope of comedy, drama and epiphanies that register in flashes across the characters' faces.

"You could see it on the set," says Schepisi, 62. "All those people have known each other, or known of each other, all their working lives. Some of them had worked together, most of them hadn't. And they were all fascinated to learn about each other, because they all had such different career journeys.

"Not many people know that when David Hemmings backed off from acting he became one of the big directors of pilots for American television. Quantum Leap, The A Team -- that's where he went. And Tom Courtenay, who was one of the real stars, just went to stage, basically. He enjoyed it -- that's the life he wanted. For a while Caine chased the money, but sometimes, as he says, you go into a movie, you don't know whether it will be good or bad. ... And it's true!

"My fear would be that one would be the odd man out, or one would try to upstage the others. And there was none of that. These characters brought them back to their own families. They weren't playing gangsters; Hoskins let go of all that. Caine said to me, when he read the script: 'Man, I knew I'd be playing my dad one day.' [Caine's real-life father was a fish porter and died in the same hospital as Jack does.]"

Repair projects

Schepisi spoke about his movie on the first Monday in January 2002, on New York's Upper West Side -- he spends half the year there and half in his native Melbourne. The movie's U.S. distributor had opened Last Orders for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles. It didn't even open in New York until mid-February.

But Schepisi made it on a tight budget and always knew it was the kind of movie that would gradually spill into theaters. It was his second U.K. shoot, after Plenty (1985). When he ran into Robert Altman, also in England for Gosford Park, Schepisi groused: "Here I am in London 17 years later. I've got a more complicated film and I'm doing two more jobs. But I've got less money for the film and less money for myself!"

Altman looked at him and said, "Welcome to the club."

Before Last Orders, Schepisi endured a decade's worth of aborted projects. His last official credit was as co-director on the follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures (1997), which he took over from another filmmaker. "What I did was reshape and recut and shoot one-third of it again, but you can do only so much." A master of tone, as he showed in the wacky, poetic Roxanne (1987) and the intensely romantic The Russia House (1990), the writer-director thinks that he didn't set the right farcical mood for Fierce Creatures, a story of a ruthless corporation taking over a zoo.

He was also dissatisfied with his 1994 comedy I.Q., about a garage mechanic (Tim Robbins) who falls in love with Einstein's niece (Meg Ryan). "I love I.Q., but I.Q., could have been, quite frankly, a way better film, if we'd just concentrated on its real virtues. I should have fought to keep it more in the world of the scientists and the garage -- the funny stuff is the grease monkey taking Einstein on a ride on his motorbike and Meg Ryan showing up!" he says.

"Studio people don't understand the sheer joy you get out of intimacy, out of what seem to be small, quiet moments. Hollywood is obsessed with 'upping the stakes,' and adding subplots. If I let that happen, as I did on I.Q., I don't give the studios what they want and I don't get what I want."

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