Published at: Oct. 10, 2008, 5:31 a.m. CST by headgeek
The only thing people love more than an ugly crash-and-burn is an unexpected comeback. Don't believe me? Look at Mickey Rourke. The man was trounced for two solid decades as the poster child for misspent talent, and now he's the most celebrated actor in Hollywood. If Rourke can get it back, anyone can get it back.
So while Guy Ritchie took it on the chin... and the nose... and the noggin... and right square in the nuts for remaking Lina Wertmüller's SWEPT AWAY with his kinda famous wife (she sings), he was never down and out for good. Even after engendering some of the most scabrous reviews I've ever read for his philosophical crime opus REVOLVER, there was always an opportunity for redemption. And there's no better way to get it back than to go back to what you know, which, for Ritchie, is the knockabout Brit gangster genre.
There's nothing wrong with tripping up over your outsized ambitions, but there's nothing more pleasing than an artist working deep in the groove, and that's where I think you'll find Guy Ritchie in ROCKNROLLA. As with his popular first two films, its a bruising tale of not-too-disparate criminals - in this case: nickel-and-dimers, old-school thugs, billionaire hoods and one smacked-out rock star - whose worlds collide for rousingly inexplicable reasons. What starts with the theft of a solitary London property gives way to the purloining of a lucky painting which results in lot of unfortunate motherfuckers getting shot/stabbed/eaten-by-crabs for wholly unrelated reasons. It all adds up rather tenuously, but when you've got guys like Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Strong, Toby Kebbel and Jeremy Piven caught up in the fray, it's a blissful kind of confusion.
Since I think this is Ritchie's most thoroughly satisfying caper yet, I was thrilled to hop on the phone with him as he wraps up pre-production on his next movie, SHERLOCK HOLMES (starring Robert Downey Jr. as the ace deducer and Jude Law as Dr. Watson). He's a fairly busy man at the moment, but he seemed relaxed enough as we discussed his return to the genre, his method of storytelling, and the art of the bitch slap. Enjoy.
Mr. Beaks: Why return to the caper/gangster genre?
:Guy Ritchie: Why not? I suppose I was just keen to work. There was a collection of narratives that I'd kind of [accumulated] over the past few years, and I was talking to Joel Silver about numerous other projects. But a sensation came over me to get busy, and here we are.
Beaks: You said you had a number of different ideas. I've read that you like to throw a lot of stuff against the wall, and see what inspires you or what makes sense. Is that what it is? Making sense of chaos?
Ritchie: Yeah, I think so. I kind of like chaotic scripts as long as they turn into some form of order. I'm attracted to multi narratives that can somehow consummate one another by the end of the process.
Beaks: This is a caper film, and the great thing about caper movies is that there's a lot of set up and a kind of rapid payoff. It seems like the challenge with a caper movie is to make the setup as entertaining as possible before you get to the action and the twists and the betrayals.
Ritchie: Yeah. (Pause. Laughs.) You sort of answered that one.
Beaks: (Laughing) I did, didn't I? Well, in terms of the narrative structure, when you're writing this kind of a script--
Ritchie: I suppose it's a question of what titillates me. That's essential. What is it that I find amusing or titillating? And to try to keep that topped up throughout and ultimately make it worth it by the time you get to the end. I try to keep even the dull moments of building a plot entertaining.
Beaks: And property is not inherently the sexiest subject.
Ritchie: No. It's really not. (Laughs) But it's had such a currency [in London] for the longest time, that it just managed to work its way into the zeitgeist. But that's true of anywhere really. I suppose any capital in the Western world is being affected by rising property prices. It just has a currency within it. But traditionally, as you say, it's seemed rather bland.
Beaks: You've said that you like to base your characters at least in part on people you've come into contact with. Have you ever come across a guy like Uri [the Eastern European billionaire played by Karel Roden]?
Ritchie: Um... yes, I think I have. I mean there's quite a lot of them around nowadays. And they're so super-rich that they kind of dwarf anyone that we previously thought was also rich. They are about, so inevitably you come into contact with them. And they're very relevant to the culture in the U.K. now. Europe in general, but particularly the U.K.
Beaks: I just love that he's so ostentatious that he'd do business out of a luxury box in Wembley Arena.
Ritchie: They're not inhibited by things the Brits have traditionally been embarrassed about. They're nouveau riche that's so nouveau. They're completely unashamed, and they don't understand why someone wouldn't want to be as conspicuously wealthy as they are, and let the world know about it.
Beaks: That shot from within the luxury box was very striking.
Ritchie: They were laying the turf, actually. That's the new Wembley Arena, which cost $1.3 billion, and that was the opening week. They were still laying the turf as we came in. We were the first crew to get in there.
Beaks: Did that take some convincing?
Ritchie: It was easy enough to get permission to film in there, but the whole security that you had to go through once you were in there was insane. It was dramatically hard to get into.
Beaks: I really like the way you use Gerard Butler in contrast to how we've seen him used before. He's a capable enough guy. He gets the job done, but he's going to invite a whole lot of calamity before he gets there. It's quite a difference from Leonidas, who was as capable as they come.
Ritchie: But that is, to a degree, Gerry. I think he'd probably admit that. This is the role that's closest to what he's actually like. I think he's a charming guy. And I'm interested in good guys doing things they need to do to keep their noses above the water. They're not righteous, but, at the same time, they're not villainous in a really conspicuous way. They're unto themselves, but they have their own code of ethics.
Beaks: But when it comes down to it, he really sort of enjoys the rough-and-tumble aspects of the job. He gets a charge out of tasting his own blood.
Ritchie: I think it's part and parcel of the world in which he moves. It's a shot of adrenaline. And anyone who moves within that circle either develops a palate for it or has to get out of the kitchen.
Beaks: The other two standouts for me are Mark Strong and Toby Kebbel. I wouldn't say they're necessarily "new" to American audiences, but they certainly aren't as familiar to us as they are to the Brits. With Mark, he's a character actor who's been noticeable on the periphery for many years. Why is it that we're just now getting to see what he can really do?
Ritchie: I don't know. I think it's partly because he's so good at what he does, and eventually that manages the percolate the industry. He's very consistent and he's very talented. And now he's popping up all over the place. He's in BODY OF LIES now. Have you seen it?
Beaks: No. Next week, hopefully.
Ritchie: He's very good in it.
Beaks: Well, you give him so many great scenes. I particularly like the art of the backhanded slap.
Ritchie: I'm glad you appreciate that.
Beaks: I love a good bitch slap.
Ritchie: Yeah! That's kind of underutilized.
Beaks: You know, it's a weird coincidence, but last week on ENTOURAGE there was a scene that builds to a point where Jeremy Piven has to deliver a bitch slap. And I wondered if there was an influence from--
Ritchie: Yeah! I wonder. (Laughs)
Beaks: Now Toby Kebbel seems like a very inventive actor. Why did you get him involved?
Ritchie: He was the guy I met for that role, and he had the job on the spot. He's a pretty talented guy. He lost twenty pounds to get the role, and he just feels like a natural fit, doesn't he? He understood the role very quickly.
Beaks: Could you see certain real life rock stars from whom he was drawing inspiration for the role?
Ritchie: Sure! (Laughs) I suppose the film was an amalgamation of headlines that graced the tabloids in the U.K. So he's an amalgamation of the rock star gone wrong. Or the rock star gone right. I'm not quite sure. But it's all these individuals who've been caught up in the zeitgeist of the popular press - and the popular psyche, I suppose. The junkie gone right or wrong, the rock star gone right or wrong. And I'm just interested in popular culture's interest.
Beaks: I like how the characters who've been off doing their own, seemingly unrelated thing become something of a team by the end. At the end, you suggest that there might be some form of continuation to this story. Is there?
Ritchie: I hope so. If enough people go to see this one then I suppose I'll be making another one. (Laughs)
Beaks: You'd be willing to play around with the characters some more?
Ritchie: Yeah. It was a lot of fun doing these guys. And they're quick to do: six weeks to prep, six weeks to shoot. They're very easy, and they're very fun.
Beaks: Are they easy to write?
Ritchie: No. They're bastards to write. That's the only bastard part of the process.
Beaks: You know, there's a lot of affection for the characters from SNATCH and LOCK, STOCK. Would you ever toy with the idea of weaving characters from those films into subsequent films featuring the group from ROCKNROLLA? is there a connected Guy Ritchie universe?
Ritchie: I don't know. Possibly. Not one that I've sat down and thought about for a respectable amount of time. But you might've triggered something.
Beaks: You might be open to the idea?
Beaks: The Russian hitmen. Have you ever seen, perhaps, bodyguards like this with pasts that you just don't want to know about?
Ritchie: I'm familiar with the fact that there are so many Russian veterans who spent fifteen to twenty years behind the Afghan border being fashioned into indestructible machines of death. Compared to the troops in the U.S. or the U.K., they're more seasoned - although our guys are starting to see quite a bit more combat nowadays. But they really were put to the test, and they seemed like an obvious fit. But I was just having a chat with one of the actors I'm working with at the moment, and he said some of his security guys, on their holidays, go back to the places where they had combat; they do extraordinarily dangerous things just because they can't live with the life that's unfolded before them. They get addicted to those great shots of adrenaline, and the question becomes would they do it if they weren't paid to do it. And I kind of like the idea that these guys love nothing more than a good tear-up.
Beaks: I'm curious as to what's influenced your style of filmmaking. It seems like there's a mix of the Ealing comedies with the extreme violence of, say, Martin Scorsese.
Ritchie: I think I probably amalgamated different influences from filmmakers I've been jealous of at one point or another. It's a culmination, and hopefully it comes out as an original voice.
Beaks: I've always liked the pugilistic quality of your characters. I'm wondering how much of that is reflective of you, particularly after the rough patch you went through with critics and audiences on the last two films. Did you get a defiant charge out of these struggles?
Ritchie: I don't think that's just me. That's life, isn't it? It's hills and valleys, and tough bits and not so tough bits. And I suppose what we have to do as human beings, if we want to move on in life, is to transcend the battles that we're all faced with.
Beaks: Do you think you would've returned to the gangster movie had SWEPT AWAY and REVOLVER performed better?
Ritchie: I don't know. I think there's an inevitable path, and I don't think that swung things one way or the other. I think it's just the path that you're on, and that was the path I was committed to. I look at it sort of philosophically like that.
(Rustling in the background) Can you just wait a second, Jeremy? (Ritchie has an unintelligible back-and-forth with someone in his office or wherever the hell he is.) Okay. Sorry, Jeremy. I'm just in the last throes of SHERLOCK HOLMES, and tweaking a few character things.
Beaks: That's fine. I was just about to get to that anyway. It seems like you're incorporating that pugilistic aspect into the Sherlock Holmes universe for a sort of down-and-dirty--
Ritchie: "Downey dirty"
Beaks: (Disbelief) "Downey--?" God. I walked right into that one. But... while Sherlock has never shied from physical altercations, it sounds like fisticuffs and action are being emphasized here.
Ritche: I like the idea that he's as visceral as he is intellectual. It's true to the origins of the narrative. He was a martial artist. He did something called Bartitsu, which wasn't necessarily exposed or utilized in the other productions. So we've made more of a meal out of that. He's an intellectual action man, which is pretty consistent with his origins.
Beaks: Is the story drawing on any of the established yarns?
Ritchie: I think it's influenced by all of them. And it's influenced by Conan Doyle as a man himself. It's all derived from either Conan Doyle or his stories.
Beaks: And you have Mark Strong playing Blackwood, the villain of the piece?
Ritchie: Indeed! I've got him downstairs right now, and I'm trying to throw a spanner in his works.
Warner Bros. is opening ROCKNROLLA in limited release this Wednesday (October 8th), with, according to BoxOfficeMojo, an expansion planned for October 31st.