Gilbey on Film: From big screen to small

Actors and directors are turning from film to TV.

Perusing the Best Director nominations in last Sunday's Emmy awards, you would be forgiven for thinking that there had been a mix-up with the paperwork from the Oscars: Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes, Neil Jordan, Curtis Hanson (with the French director Olivier Assayas also nominated for Carlos, which received a cinema release in the UK). Would it have been such a shock if one of these film-makers had begun an acceptance speech by mistakenly thanking the Academy?

It is well known by now that US television has been receiving a transfusion of film acting talent for some time -- Kate Winslet, who won Best Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her lead role in Mildred Pierce, was only the most tearfully effusive example. Not too long ago, this would have looked like a knock-out cast list for a mid-budget, grown-up Hollywood movie: Glenn Close, Alec Baldwin, Forest Whitaker, Kelly Macdonald, Steve Buscemi, James Woods, Guy Pearce, Michael Pitt, Gabriel Byrne, Kathy Bates, Minnie Driver . . . Now, it represents a cursory roll-call of US television.

The Emmy's directing categories show that the exodus has come from behind the camera, too. Are all the best directors heading to TV? I'm not suggesting there would be any shame in it -- how can there be, when the quality of so much television, especially cable shows, remains so dazzling? Besides, any snob who feels like railing against film directors who "defect" to television can be swiftly silenced with two words: Berlin Alexanderplatz (the 14-part, 941-minute TV series directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1970s).

But it's a sea change worth noting. The Wire incorporated into its roster a fair amount of directors who had made their name in cinema (Ernest Dickerson, Agnieszka Holland, Brad Anderson, Peter Medak). The Sopranos, too (cast member Peter Bogdanovich, as well as Mike Figgis and Lee Tamahori). Six Feet Under is probably the show that accommodated the largest number of movie directors (among them Rose Troche, Migeul Arteta, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Jim McBride). Walter Hill directed the pilot of Deadwood and acted as the show's consulting producer. Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, the first two X-Men films) and the screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) have both had executive-producer credits on the hit medical drama House since the show started. The list goes on.

Happening upon an interesting New York Times article on the phenomenon of film directors developing pilot TV shows, I found this quote from Allison Anders, whose movies include Gas Food Lodging and Grace of My Heart: "'My friends told me, if I could get past the vanity of having a theatrical release, so many more people would see this movie on television than they would in a theatre." Of course -- I hadn't considered that the immense and immediate audience would be such a draw. "'I was, like, 'If I have another movie come out and die in the theatres in two weeks, I am going to die' . . . Five million people saw [Things Behind the Sun, her film about a rape survivor for the Showtime network] on the first night that it aired . . . I've never had five million people see one of my films in the theatres."

I called Anders to discuss the subject; she is now a fully fledged TV baby, having directed episodes of Sex and the City, The L Word and Southland among others, though she still makes cinema features, too. She told me she thinks the influx of heavyweight movie directors into TV is a mixed blessing:

"It's a little scary. In the Directors' Guild, if you want to have something nominated that you directed for episodic television, you have to actually nominate it yourself -- you have to physically send it in to be considered. I was so proud of an episode of Southland which I directed that I sent it in. Then it occurred to me: 'Oh, this'll be interesting, I'll be putting myself up against Martin Scorsese and God only knows who else. Maybe Steven Spielberg will be in there too!' I was laughing about it but if I were exclusively a TV director, you know, a TV journeyman, I'd be so pissed at having to compete with Oscar-winning directors.

"But I know why people like Martin wanna do TV. It's the same reason I do -- you get to develop these characters; and if you're a character-based film-maker, you wanna develop them over long period of time. And since none of us can make money off movies any more, TV is, in many ways, more reliable: if you have a hit TV show, well, you've got a nice life. The size of the audience is the amazing thing -- the people you can reach. And that's where movies have become a bit heartbreaking if you're someone who wants to say something to an audience. We don't make these things in a vacuum. You want people to see your stuff, and that's tough."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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