Last weekend, Warner Brothers released Arthur, a remake of the 1982 film starring Dudley Moore as a boozy billionaire looking for love. The new version stars comedian Russell Brand, and was directed by Jason Winer, a young filmmaker who made his name working on successful TV shows like Modern family. Boxoffice sat down with Winer at the Los Angeles press day for Arthur, where he revealed the challenges of bringing to life a successful remake that both paid homage to its predecessor and addressed some of the issues that are more difficult to deal with in today's moviegoing atmosphere.
What was it about Arthur that first grabbed you, and then what were things you knew despite your affection for the original, you were going to have to change?
Well, the original was one of my first favorite movies. It was in heavy rotation on HBO when I was a kid, and it was like this naughty pleasure to be able to watch it after school with nobody around. The irony being of course that the original movie is rated PG, in spite of the fact he picks up a hooker in the opening scene. But all that said, what drew me to the notion of redoing it, in spite of the fact that it was really daunting, was Russell Brand, because he just seemed like the perfect actor to do it, and essentially, to reinvent it for a generation of people that maybe haven't even heard of the original. The bigger challenge for me in adapting the story was, what are you going to do about Hobson, because John Gielgud's character is so iconic and he's so brilliant in the original movie. How do you get out of the shadow of that performance? It was Peter Baynham's idea to transform Hobson into a nanny instead of a butler, and I just thought that was such a delicious comedic notion. The idea of a 35-year-old man with a nanny, let alone Russell Brand with a nanny, that I felt like there's a kernel of a very original idea within something that is a remake - there is an opportunity to say something new about the relationship, an opportunity to address the drinking in a different way too.
The idea of an overprivileged man-child actually seems more common place now than it did when the original was released. How careful did you have to be in conceiving Arthur so that there's actual dimensionality underneath that?
Yeah, exactly - grow up already! That's the thing - I didn't want to do the movie until I met with Russell; I was a huge fan of his comedically, and I loved Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I'd seen his stand up and I loved it, and I read his book and I thought he was brilliant and articulate. I couldn't believe the stuff that had happened in his life that was, frankly, appropriate to the role. But I knew that we were going to try to tell the story in such a way where the character changed, where he grew up. Where through the experience of having to take care of the person that's been his caretaker his whole life, he has to mature, and I guess I needed to know that Russell had that depth. Not just as an actor, but as a person, and immediately upon meeting him I knew that was the case. I think a lot of people know him from how hilarious and manic he can be in interviews, but the truth is, one on one, when he is not performing, he's soulful and thoughtful. And I knew that he had the ability to get where I wanted him to go in the second half of the movie.
What was the challenge for you in finding a right balance between giving him freedom to be crazy and manic and at the same time not making Arthur annoying?
Its funny - I structured the shoot with that in mind. Our very first day of shooting was the auction scene, where he essentially does a one-man show with those two paddles. I put that on Day One on purpose because I identified that scene as the most like the old Russell Brand, where he is just on stage. And I structured it purposely and vigorously defended our shooting schedule so that some of the more dramatic scenes [were shot] towards the end when in a way I knew Russell would be more tired - when he had essentially worn himself out, and it would be easier for me as a director to get him to those more quiet and thoughtful moments. Also, I think the casting of Greta Gerwig was key in bringing out another side of Russell. Greta is so sweet and so delightfully awkward that she brought out this sweetness in him. She is so thoroughly, genuinely charmed by him both in life and on camera that I hope that the way that she feels about Arthur's world is the way the audience feels about Arthur's world. Both in wonder of it and awe by it, and simultaneously like a little bit like "hey this guy kind of has a problem," and she's the first one to call him on that. In the original Arthur, nobody ever calls him that, that way.
Talk about how you created the dynamic, not just between Helen Mirren and Arthur, but with Luis, who is so great.
Luis is a guy who, when he walks down on a street in New York City, people say "hey Luis, what's up?" People that don't know him, they don't say, "hey can I get your autograph?" They just say "hello" like he's their buddy, because that is how people feel about Luis. It's amazing to be in New York with, Luis Guzman. What I love about the dynamic between him and Russell is that they could be best buddies without understanding each other at all - it's like he's his sidekick, but the two of them speak completely different languages. He is such a man of the people and he's got that authentic New York thing going on, and Russell is obviously British, as Arthur the two of them essentially speak different languages despite the fact that they kind of adore each other, and love hanging out together. If that relationship were too fulfilling, if he was on the same level, then you would never get the idea that he was lonely. You never get the idea that he really needed to meet somebody to fulfill him and to fall in love. So Luis was like an interesting solution to a problem for me as a filmmaker, like how do you give him a buddy, but still make him lonely? And not only that, but Luis is hilarious especially when he is dressed as Robin and his belly is hanging out of the outfit.
How much easier was the Batman stuff to pull off logistically with Warner Brothers making the film?
We had to get the Batmobile to New York, we had to get Russell fitted in George Clooney's actually costume from the Batman film. Russell enjoyed the nipples on the costume, perhaps a little too much. But it wasn't logistically difficult, it was sort of blessed by Warner Brothers and actually and ultimately by Christopher Nolan as well.
Jennifer as a villain is really an interesting, unexpected choice, but when you think about her past roles there's almost a certain rigid kind of "everything should be in its proper place."
There's a quality to her that you can see being that sort of queen bee, the mastermind of a plot that requires a lot of moving pieces. But that's because Jennifer is strong and smart, and though qualities have in the past mixed with sweetness, and we took strong and smart and mixed it with villainy. And she does a great job - I mean, she really sinks her teeth into this role, and I think the audience gets to see a different side of her. I mean, I don't think she's ever shown up in a leopard print raincoat in a bustier while drunk and wanting to play bad kitty before. I think it will be fun for people to see that.
How much did you have to engineer the film to allow Arthur to spend money in a way that seems reckless, and at the same time it doesn't seem so reckless that it doesn't betray the tagline of the movie, "Meet the world's only lovable billionaire."
Exactly. I mean look, we wanted Arthur's world to be an escapist fantasy with the audience. We wanted people to ask themselves the question like, "if you had a billion dollars and you were a reckless man-child, what would you do with it?" Well, you would buy the Batmobile and the DeLorean and you would have a $1.5 million floating bed, which based on the a real thing by the way - it actually exists. And we wanted to have the fun of all of that stuff, and allow the movie to be escapist, but also to be true to the subtext of the original - which is in spite of all of these toys, he's lonely because he doesn't have love. And is that a little bit of a cliché? Sure. But it's also really relatable in spite of the fact that Arthur's world is not something that people get to experience, but instead can hopefully escape to.
Having done a lot of TV in the past, what was the learning curve in really transitioning into something where as opposed to having a series of episodes over which you could develop characters, you do have to have something self-contained?
It's interesting because television is a long arc, you need to sort of not give away too much about the characters. You have to create fun dynamics that you can repeat, and then deepen over time, whereas in a movie you want to constantly give the audiences surprises and create turns from which there's no coming back. That's a really different dynamic in the storytelling, but it's also something that was not hard to adjust to. I mean making a movie has been my dream since I was a little kid. I used to come home from movies and recount them word to word to my parents, and annoyingly for 45 minutes even tell them how they were shot when I was seven years old. So I felt like I'd been preparing for this.
But to tell you one story that sort of is emblematic of the difference between television and movies in scale, I'd just wrapped season one of Modern Family and I immediately got on a plane to New York to start prepping Arthur. And when I got there, the very first scout we went on was Wall Street to get ready for the chase with the Batmobile. And as we're standing there on Wall Street, I was looking up and I said "you know, it would make sense to me if we had a news helicopter following the Batmobile in the scene - it would draw attention in New York City." And I said to my producer, "I think I need a helicopter to fly down Wall Street," and he said, "No problem." And I was like, "Okay," and then I said, "Well the truth is, though, I kind of want to see that helicopter from above, so you have a shot of the helicopter and the Batmobile in the same frame, which is going to require two helicopters." And he said, "fine." And that's how I knew I wasn't doing television anymore.