Jeremiah Chechik interview: Diabolique, Chuck, and what went wrong with The Avengers

Interview Simon Brew 1 Feb 2011 - 11:15

Why did the 1997 movie take on The Avengers go so wrong? What’s it like to direct Sharon Stone? And how do you recover when your movie is slammed by the critics?

In part one of our interview with Jeremiah Chechik, he talked about working with John Hughes, being noticed by Kubrick and Spielberg, and making the wonderful Benny & Joon.

Here, he takes us through working with movie stars, on both Diabolique, and on Warner Bros' big-screen take on The Avengers. Incidentally, we should point out that this interview was conducted before the recent stories about Kevin Smith and Bruce Willis on the set of Cop Out surfaced.

Without further ado...

I interviewed Kevin Smith last year, and talked about working with Bruce Wills on Cop Out. The interesting thing talking to him was it was very clear that the mechanics of making the movie had changed as soon as a movie star got onto the set.

The next film that you tackled, Diabolique, had two very different things to it, as I see it. Number one, it moved completely away from comedy. It couldn't have been further away. And number two, for the first time you had - I'm being a bit disingenuous to Chevy Chase - but at the point Sharon Stone was there, that was a big Sharon Stone vehicle.

What was the attraction of the project? How was it making a film like that? How did it differ?

Well, again I wanted to stretch my wings and do different things. I never just saw myself as a director of just pure comedy. I guess at the time also I was - do you know the movie Sullivan's Travels?

Yes.

It's a Preston Sturges classic about a very, very successful filmmaker of really broad stupid comedies who has this yearning, the desperation to make a very important film. And the film that he has always wanted to make just about hobos in America and that kind of social movie, was to be called O Brother, Where Art Thou? That's where that title comes from.

He always wanted to make that movie and, of course, the studio hates that idea, but they go along with it and he decides to go on the road - disguise himself as a hobo - and, of course, he gets lost in the real world and is tormented, put in jail, prison camp - chain gang - and  learns to appreciate comedy. It's pretty spectacular.

I felt that I went, or had been through that journey myself. But Diabolique was a chance to do something very, very challenging. I wanted to make a movie that took an original story, Diabolique, of the French film, which I thought was a flawed and misogynist film and just by, not changing the story, but changing the point of view, create a feminist story.

I wondered if that was possible. So, that was my artistic challenge to it.

And Don Roos, who we'd hired to do the script - and you know his filmography and he was just such an amazingly good writer... not was, he is. So, Don and I worked on the script for about a year and at some point I thought, "Let's make this movie inexpensive in Morocco, in the sun." The studio went, "We want noir. We want noir. We want noir."

Over the course of that year of development, and before, Sharon had been calling me and sending me some material of her own. Now, I'd never met her up to this moment. But she had been sending me stuff and I, of course, was - who wouldn't be flattered to have, at the time she was a very big star - and I engaged with her on the phone. Some of the material wasn't for me, I didn't like it, blah blah blah.. But, over the course of, say, maybe twenty-five hours of phone conversation, you kind of get to know somebody a bit - and should we? We really have to work together.

Well, flash forward. There was some Hollywood party I was at, and we were standing around, Sharon came up and she knew everybody. She didn't really know who I was - by sight, anyway - and I was kind of stood there and was quiet. [Somebody] introduced us and she whisked me away and we spent some time really talking about sensibility, and film in general. And then that was it for a few months, until Warners finally approved the script that Don and I were working on.

I loved the screenplay, I have to say, and they said, "We'll make the movie, but we need a movie star." I called Sharon's home from the boardroom and I said, "Sharon, It's Jeremiah. 'Diabolique.'" And she said, "I'm in." And that was it.

That simple?

And then, of course, I had the issue of I had to find another woman who was equally iconic to her. It couldn't be weighted unless it was somebody iconic. And I was an enormous fan of Isabelle Adjani, and she's a legend. And so I flew to Paris and I took her out for dinner. And I speak French so, I don't know, we became very, very good friends that night and she just trusted me, and she only commits to a movie every four or five years, so I was like, y'know! [laughs]

You had JJ Abrams in it, didn't you?

JJ's in the film, which is really fun. He had read with Donal. They both had offices, I think, in west LA at the time and he had read with Donal and they're just so good together. It was really fun. Another whole long, story.

But, the movie itself was extraordinarily turbulent. It was a very difficult everyday experience. The film turned out the way I wanted it to, love it or hate it. It really did. But I had to battle it constantly and battle a lot of personalities.

The irony is, just a few weeks ago, somebody re-reviewed it and gave it a beautiful review, and I don't say that just because it was a good review, but it was an analytical review that really addressed the intentions of the movie as I spelled out for you earlier.

In Europe, the movie was very well received, oddly. In France, in particular, all the press there. And I think part of the problem that we find with movies - and that certainly suffered from them at the time - is the hype of the movie.

I mean, I'll give you an example: the opening, the premiere night was like Day Of The Locust. People had printed thousands of fake tickets. In Spain there were near riots. When you get hype like that over a star [like Sharon] - and her ability to manoeuvre and manipulate the press is legendary, both for good and bad, - she really played it, and, god knows, she's a force of nature.

But, I think that a lot of it was that the press had turned against her, in particular, at that moment, and my movie saw her for that.

In the light of - years later, it's starting to emerge, as they do Blu-rays and all the rest of it - people are paying attention to it again and maybe being a lot more, like I said, analytical or focused in their reviews. Not that that would ever stop me.

But that was an experience unlike any other, but doing the drama was something that I loved.  

Can I just rewind slightly, because I wanted to ask you about Tall Tale, actually. I'd never seen that. I'd never come across it until I was looking it up, but that looks a really fun little project.

Oh, that movie is awesome. It's one of the movies I'm most proud of. The movie never hit an audience for a lot of reasons. In the test screenings it scored in the high nineties. They just couldn't figure out how to sell it.

It is especially widescreen. We shot it in anamorphic. Joe Roth was the producer, Roger Birnbaum. Artistically it was great. Bob Rodat, another Academy Award winner, wrote the screenplay.

It was about American iconography, a movie for kids. It's a movie worth seeing, or worth trying to see, I guess today. It's available here [in the US] on Amazon, I think, but, I don't really check. [laughs]

But it's a movie I'm extremely proud of and a very epic western. I always say to people: if I can just make westerns for the rest of my life, I'll be very happy. It's just a great form. It's a wonderful form to work with.

They just give us a western now as a treat about every five years, don't they?

Yeah. Yeah. Because they say they don't travel!

Can we turn to The Avengers? It sounds, certainly from where I'm sitting, like an incredibly unpleasant project to go through?

You know, both yes and no.

Again, the development of the script was quite fun, and it certainly engaged Diana Rigg. And casting was also kind of interesting, because originally it was supposed to be Nicole Kidman and Ralph [Fiennes]. But she was on Eyes Wide Shut. And I had known Ralph for a long time before this movie, and I had known Nicole for a long time.

Our wonderful producer, Jerry Weintraub, one of the greatest producers ever, we had a good time developing it, and we went off and ensconced ourselves in London for what turned out to be a couple of years. And what happened was that Kubrick would not give Nicole a start date. I initially asked Warner Bros if we could wait a year, and they said, "We really need this movie. We really want this movie."

Warners, at the time, was in great turbulence. Remember, this would be my third picture for them, and had a deal there. I'd been there a long time. But there was turbulence in the executive suites. And Terry and Bob, who were running the company, they really loved the script. I loved it. I wanted to do it, obviously. Artistically, it was a great opportunity. I really wanted to respect the iconic, ironic weird sensitivity which is so much of what The Avengers is.

I felt the script really achieved it, but the process moving forward was complicated. Because I had to find an actress. Warners wanted me to go with Uma [Thurman]. I met Uma, she was perfectly nice and charming and talented. But, ultimately, her chemistry with Ralph was not there, I felt, at the end of the day.

Did you feel that from the start of shooting?

I felt there was something amiss. But you can't focus on it, because you can't let it inform your directing. But that really didn't affect the shoot.

I cast Sean Connery, and that was a lot of fun to do. The studio said, "We're never going to make a deal with him." Anyway, I did send it to Sean. And I just got that call one day at home. [does really very good Sean Connery accent] "Sean here! I read your script and I find it rather engaging."

Of course, you have to get over the shock of that voice on the phone, and I went and I met him and I was in his face a lot. And he had a wicked reputation, too, for chewing out directors, so I was casting him. I wasn't coming on to him to see if I could do the movie. I wanted to know could I deal with this.

He was great. He loved the shoot. We had, and I say this with absolutely no bullshit, it was one of the most joyful shoots ever. We had so much fun. Sean was brilliant. He was so fun, engaged. We would go out, drink at night. We would just have a lot of fun.

The problem began as we got towards the end of the movie, with what happened at Warners. And I'm not going to blame anybody for the fact that it didn't turn out the way it should, because, ultimately, I'm responsible. But what happened was that there were two executives, one wanted to make it, and one never wanted to make it.

And over the course of shooting the movie, he had been promoted to co-head of production. And as we got close to the end, the executive whose film it was, who was really behind the making of it, was fired. And the person who was against the movie to begin with became the head of production.

It began a cascade of disasters for me, because I knew then that the studio, by the time I got to the cutting room, politically it was not very supportive. The head of the studio really didn't want it to succeed, I felt, because it wasn't his film.

And so, I cut it, and I made a cut that I really did love.

Michael Kamen did a stunning score. It was a dark score, it was a much more complicated movie.

It was 20 minutes longer. All of the absurdity of it was connected in its own logic. You could understand it.

But by the time the studio was done with it, they had cut out all the internal logic, and it was chaotic and absurd, I thought.

Then the problem became that they tested in front of a Mexican audience in Phoenix, who all complained that the movie was too English. And it went on and on and on.

So, whether or not the movie would have been good or not, I'll leave to whoever. But the movie that was finally released was not the movie that I made, and the problem finally is that you're in too deep, and you're the one who is going to wear it. So, wear it I did.

So, post-production was very, very difficult, but the production itself was a joy.

The failure of that movie changed my life. This movie was not a job for me. This movie was something that I was very, very passionate about. I gave it all.

If you look at the movie without the sound, oddly enough, you'll see the visual sensibility of it, that is really rock solid. And if you look at the credits, you'll see who I'm working with. Some of the UK's finest, finest editors, cameramen, art directors, everything. An amazing experience. And so, it really broke my heart.

I thought, "I don't know if I want to direct any more." I really questioned my own worth, or if my instincts were so wrong. I couldn't manage the politics, because, ultimately, that's me. And I had no place in the movie industry.

So, I decided I would only direct when my physical body needed me to direct badly. When it was a compulsion again.

So, for a couple of years, I just took off, travelled all corners of the earth. Just living, y'know? And I had an extreme kind of experiences all over the world, warzones and the like.

Out of that I started to write some screenplays. Some for myself, and some just for Hollywood. And all of them were either commissioned or optioned by studios. And over the course of this, I decided that the development process in films had become so slow, not just for me, but for so many of my colleagues, that what took a year or two to develop was now taking five years or longer.

Unless you're wealthy or patient, or all the things I'm not, I like to work. Almost in conjunction with that I was offered a movie for FX about nuclear terror, called Meltdown, and initially I turned it down. I've never really done TV.

In that process, it was a very dramatic piece and very dark. They gave me 21 days to shoot it. I started to look at the TV work of Paul Greengrass, of whom I'm a big fan. His early work in television is phenomenal. And Winterbottom. Those guys. I'm such a formalist, I thought, "I'm just going to let it go. I'm going to work totally on instinct." It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my film making life.

I had total freedom. I brought the writers in and edited the way I wanted. And then, within six months, it was on the air. It was successful, critically, too, and I thought, "This is a whole other world. I don't know this world." And I started to get very serious about television.

Coincidentally, of course, cable had been getting better and better in terms of attracting writers and interesting directors and writers, so the quality of work became more and more like what I would consider 70s filmmaking. And I thought a lot of it, instead of making these big genre movies - I was never attracted to doing straight-up genre movies at the time - I was always attracted to mixing it up in style. And here it is in television.

I could be doing a show like The Beast, very dark and brutal, and then turn around and do Chuck the next week. That makes me very, very happy. I've just fallen in love with TV.

Film itself, unless you are making big spectacles or super-broad comedies, it's a much longer process to get working. Whereas, I work every day.

I've got three or four smaller movies [in the works], and that's good. They chug along as they do, and every three or months I get a call from a producer saying, "We're going to go this summer. All the money's there!" And you go, "Great, great, great." Then you hear, "Oh, no. I think it's the fall". And I just keep working. Those movies will happen on their own clock.

Now I'm interested in the exploration of a medium, where, if you have two million people watching your shot, you can do interesting things. You don't live or die on one Friday night.

The other thing about television at the moment as well, you're working on some really great high profile shows at a point where the equipment people are viewing it on is lending itself to far more cinematic approaches. Presumably, that's part of the fun?

Yes. Television has become more cinematic. And sadly, a lot of cinema has become like television. I saw this wonderful movie, An Education. It's a gorgeous movie. Beautifully directed. Incredibly acted. Is it a large screen experience any more? Well, yes. It's always better to see this on the big screen. But would it have worked on a nice sized TV? Yes.

I'm not going to launch Avatar on my iPod!

I think movies are going to be evolving more and more towards spectacle, and the human interest stories are going to end up on television. The Iannucci show, The Thick Of It, which hasn't really played here. We see In The Loop, right, but The Thick Of It, in many ways, is even strong, because it doesn't end.

It makes it so much, for me, a more powerful medium. And all power to him, a brilliant director.

You mentioned In The Loop, one of my favourite films of recent years. But as you say, its weakness was that it had to have an ending.

Films are about endings, and television shows are about beginnings and setups.

I have to ask you about Chuck, which you've directed many episodes of. For me, at its best, it's the epitome of everything that's going right with television. You talked about the cinematics, and one episode you directed had a big effects shot of a missile heading towards a crowded city.

Yeah, yeah. The cinematics, the approach of Chuck - we do always say, "How do we make this movie every week?"

Chuck may be in many ways somewhat emblematic of getting wider when you have to, and getting more tableau.

It used to be television, because of the size of the screens and fuzzy lines, they said it was a medium of close-ups. But as technology gets better, there's more detail in the wider shots, and we're more able to approach more cinematic style.

You'll see that over the next few years more and more. Character is the most important thing, but you can contextualise it with wider stuff. We try to do that with Chuck quite a lot.

You've written in the past that with television, you list every shot that you're preparing for, but you never look at it while shooting. Does that hold true?

Yeah, it's true.

Presumably, that ties back to how instinctive television is. Yet, you're still bringing a movie-level of preparation to it?

I do, yes. When I pin a script down, I want to know - it's mainly because of my main fear that one day I'll wake up with no idea how to direct anything - and to be able to go to the set and follow my own guidelines. But it never seems to happen, because when I'm in it, things change, and they're very organic in TV. The overall rhythm and coverage is the same, but there are some adjustments.

The process of preparing a show is just to deeply understand what the rhythm and purpose of every scene is.

But then happy accidents happen. Ryan, the actor who plays Awesome in Chuck, is an extraordinarily funny actor. He's just really funny. He's hidden behind this matinee idol veneer, and sometimes he's in these scenes with this blank look, and you play a little longer than you should do, and it's very funny.

I went back and rewatched one of your episodes, and you managed to get references in there to Predator, Knight Rider, The Right Stuff. I think The Untouchables was in there. Apocalypse Now - "I love the smell of Burbank in the morning."

I'm glad you notice all these. [laughs]

Is a lot of that on set, when you're just sitting there thinking, "We can just put another one in?" I presume there's a chunk of it in the script?

On Chuck, there were days, especially when we're in the Buy More, because it's lunacy. On the Predator one with Tony Hales, one of the funniest humans ever, we just take it as far as we can go. Any opportunity, we jump on. It's a very safe and fun place to be.

Are the intersect sequences as intricate and complicated as they appear to us?

Yeah. A lot of them are done - we shoot some stuff, we do it in post.

Just the amount of still images you put in them. I saw your Flickr pages, where you demonstrate some of the background photography that you do. But it strikes me as an insane amount of time to put together from here.

It's just fun! Working on Chuck is really fun. Putting in the time is like, "Let's just play!" It's such a good team there. Everyone is so committed and talented. It's such a fun show to be on!

Jeremiah Chechnik, thank you very much!

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