Peter Chelsom interview: Hector, Hannah Montana, Funny Bones, Syd Field, Simon Pegg

Director Peter Chelsom on Hector, Pegg, Miley Cyrus, Syd Field, live action PG movies and Being There...

Peter Chelsom started life as an actor, before moving behind the camera when he hit 30. His films have included Hear My Song, Funny Bones, The Hannah Montana Movie, Serendipity and The Mighty. His latest? The big screen take on Hector And The Search For Happiness. And over a bowl of soup, he spared us some time for a chat…

Let’s start at the beginning! I’m a great fan of your first film, Hear My Song, which was always a bit of a tricky one to track down.

Thank you! There was a DVD re-release, that was really did well. They did a great job on it.

Well, let’s start there. How much control do you have over your films once they’ve left a cinema, and headed to home formats?

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It varies. The British re-release of Hear My Song, I was treated with incredible respect. They would send stuff over for approval, and I have a very anal brain. I’d go no, the former version had a really bad narration that Miramax made me put in. The first reel is fine, the second is this, there was a prologue originally on the film, and I made the decision to take it out after all these years. So in that instance, it was Channel 4, they were doing the right thing, they were very hands on, and I was very hands on. It was really nice.

The DGA is a very powerful union, and it’s a really good union. And there are certain insistances. I find myself going over to the studios at Buena Vista, and Miramax used to re-release films through Buena Vista.

They put The Mighty out as well, didn’t they?

That’s right. I was going to give my recut approval of a version for Brazil that needs to be two minutes shorter, or six minutes shorter, or whatever. If you don’t keep an eye on it, things happen. It can go horribly wrong. I know of some nightmare things that have happened.

Have things gone horribly wrong with the disc release of your films?

I’ve usually been hands on. I remember for example Funny Bones releasing in Germany, and there being a so-called textless version. They didn’t put blackboards to where the story was moving onto, and I remember wondering what are they going to think? It’s just things slip through the cracks.

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But on the whole, the DGA is powerful enough to give you enough control, which is quite nice.

Looking at Hector, I spoke to Simon Pegg about it a while back, and put this to him. Because I started watching it thinking I was going to get something Forrest Gump-y at the start, but found it more Being There towards the end. It’s a German book with a French translation as it came to you?

The other way around! A French book, big in France, big in Germany.

So how did you come to it? And what was your take on the character of Hector when you first read it?

Judy Tossell, the producer, came to me with the novel and a pre-existing screenplay, which I really made a decision to rewrite with my co-writer. She walked into my London agent’s office and said what everyone says, which is ‘I don’t suppose Peter would be interested in’.

The thing is about me is I’ve had a weird career. I don’t belong to any school of filmmaking, so people misjudge me in terms of what I will do, and what I can do. I got pigeonholed for a while as romantic comedy, which is fine, but I’m not!

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I seized upon the opportunity to tell a fable, which I love to do. I can get back to that weird imagination I’ve had since I was a kid, when I could let my imagination be liberated. Like Funny Bones, and all those movies. It was really appealing to me.

I’m really glad you bring up Being There, because as an example, I sat down with Simon Pegg to talk about this, and I said to him that there’s a version of this film we could do falling off a log. We’re not doing that version. We’re going to dig really deep, and I want to make this something special. He was on board.

I said remember Being There? He said yes, and I said do you remember the single figurative moment at the end [which we’ve redacted here for spoiler reasons]. It’s the only single figurative moment. I’m old enough to have sat in the cinema and heard a universal gasp when that happened. I said I’m reaching for something at the end of our movie. [Details of that exact scene redacted for spoiler reasons]. I’m landing on a figurative image of one of the issues of the movie.

What’s nice about it, and now that I see the film playing and testing, the more they say I don’t know why I loved it but I loved it, that’s the point. That’s what we should do with cinema. The moment you try and define it, then make a documentary, or prose, or poetry.

Being There, yes, is a very strong influence.

What was daunting about casting Hector was that on the one hand, you’ve got a psychiatrist who is wise and educated, and on the other you have an idiot. To get that right, it reminded me of casting Funny Bones, because you’ve written a phenomenon. Then Lee [Evans] came along and okay, that’s it. Same with Simon. I haven’t felt that way since the casting of Lee Evans in Funny Bones, where the actor embodies the character embodies the film.

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Once we cast Simon, I said to everyone that there’s now going to be a very fine line, for good reasons, between Hector And The Search For Happiness, and Around The World With Simon Pegg. Because if Simon’s going to this, I’m going to celebrate his qualities, he’s going to play very close to home, and I’m going to realign all the performances so it’s not spoofing. With every actor who came on board, I had to say no, you’re all a little bit ‘I’m in a comedy mode’ Get that out of the way. Play with the truth. Play with reality.  Trust that the situations are bizarre enough.

I think what’s nice, last night sitting with the film there was a really nice reaction. I’ve had bigger laughs, but because the film never looks like it’s reaching for a laugh, it doesn’t matter.

Simon has such an amazingly innate childhood curiosity about him, as if he sees the world for the first time every day of his life.  He just gets that balance right. Forrest Gump is a good example, Chauncey Gardiner is a good example.

You talked about the casting there, and some of the supporting players. You cast one of my favourite actresses, Toni Collette. I always think that Muriel’s Wedding is a vastly underrated film. There’s such a steel to that story, and it wouldn’t work without her. It was sold as comedy, too. It builds around here in the same way that you’ve built this film around Simon Pegg.

I totally built it around Simon.

Simon is incredibly directable. When we first met, he said direct me, direct me, direct me. Once we got the levels right, on many days I’d say we’re going to go again, here’s my note: more Simon, more Simon, more Simon. What I mean by that is I don’t want to impose stuff on you. I want him to play. The film is designed to be playful. I think if I’ve changed over the years as a director, I think I’ve come to understand that good directing is good seeing. I have to watch what’s happening naturally and support it. You have to know when to not direct. Don’t confuse the actor, and give them too many things.

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I’ve just finished a couple of books by John Badham about movie directing, and his contention is that most movie directors are scared of actors. You don’t give that impression, though. Is that because of your own acting background?

Totally. I teach occasionally, and I like doing it because it’s when I reassess. I used to run a course for actors, and each year I’d get out last year’s notes and say I can wing this. But then I’d go no, I’ve changed my mind. I was always in a state of changing my mind.

To filmmakers, of all the things when they ask for advice, I say do an acting course. Do some workshops. Understand the mechanics of acting, to be able to speak a common language. When you hear actors are difficult, it’s usually because they’re, for want of a better expression, abandoned. Not understood. Once they really understand you speak that language – and that language can change – it’s not only not scary, it’s my funnest part, I suppose. I look at an actor, and I’m really proud of those performances, because they’re very true, but spirited. That’s the balance.

John Badham is right. And my advice to filmmakers is do some acting workshops or classes, with no intention of acting. Just to understand how they work.

That’s his advice too. It’s a really interesting book for someone my side of the fence. I’m one of those people who writes about film, but doesn’t want to be a filmmaker. I know my place.

Do you remember Syd Field [the late legendary writer of screenwriting guides]? He was a neighbour of mine in L.A. a few years ago, a few doors down. I was at a ‘meet the new neighbours’ thing. It was very kind. And I said oh my God, there’s Syd Field. I said to him ‘I know who you are, you’re not the grumpy one’ [as opposed to Hunter MacKenzie]. We were talking, and I said that I think the grump comes from a place of frustrated filmmaker, as opposed to teaching filmmaking and screenwriter.

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Syd Field – he was a lovely guy, and I loved his books – said ‘I love to teach it, I don’t want to be a screenwriter’, He walked away, and I said to my wife – because I always find in LA that it’s very hard to find a friend who doesn’t want something from you – how nice! A neighbour I can talk to, who doesn’t want to be a filmmaker, who’s not going to give me a script, and I admire him, and we can have intelligent conversations, and he’s a great guy!

Two months later he sent me a script, and asked for my opinion. From Syd Field! And he wants me to give him notes on his screenplay!

Do you do it?

Yes. It comes to about five hours’ work, because you’ve got to read it. And it was good, and he enjoyed the notes. But talk about daunting!

I’m not going to send you my script, don’t worry.

Don’t! [laughs]

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There’s a line that I’m badly paraphrasing from the film, where it says ‘everything in the world is going up, but happiness is going down’. There’s no shortage of evidence of that. Was your decision to make the film then in some way informed by the innate miserableness that the world tends to try and shroud us in sometimes?

There’s a scene near the end where the film talks about having an obligation to be happy. And that is not a crass statement, [Redacted details of the plot for spoiler reasons here]. I think it’s true that happiness is going down and everything else is going up. I think we live in a deluded society. Credit, and advertising, have a lot to do with it. You are a loser if you don’t buy, wear, drive the following. And you’re an idiot if you don’t borrow to drive, wear and buy.

It’s in Tony Benn’s diaries, where he wrote that the way society controls its subjects now is to keep people poor.

And in debt. And in debt. The student loan. Come out with a debt, we’ve got you.

That was his exact point. You’re £30,000 down before you get your first full job.

Yep. Mortgages should be abolished. I think that we live in a what’s in it for me society, that happiness is something we are entitled to. Let me put it this way. I have three sons – 19, 9 and 8. My eldest, my thing with him is it’s nice to be nice. With the 9 and the 8-year old, I say to them ‘what’s the secret of happiness’, and they say ‘kindness’. Corny? New age-y? Maybe. But the point is that you can do something about it. You can ring someone and make them feel better. You can help that fund. You can pay a compliment to that person. You can help so-and-so. It takes kids out of the self-absorption place. The by-product, the side effect, is happiness. And that’s where we’ve lost our way.

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I don’t want to sound preachy, or religious. I’m not religious. I’m just stating a fact: being happy is like being in love. You’re manufacturing an emotion from nowhere. It will always feel like we are lacking. In a society where we are made to feel like we are lacking all day and every day.

The other thing I’d say is that one of the rarest things that our children have in their lives is silence. There’s no place in which they can be content without distraction, usually with some electronic gadget. And it’s fine that chapel and prayer has gone out of the curriculum. But substitute it with some silence, which creates some mindfulness, thoughtfulness and introspection. God forbid, and I’m not even allowed to say God, that it should result in some form of gratitude.

I’m all for the debate about religion doing more harm. Absolutely it does. The problem is that the structure of religion – and I say again, I’m not a religious person – well, not everyone can create the home office, which is what you need to do. To find space for meditation.I’m sorry to sound new age-y about this, but I believe it to be true. If you’re going to get rid of religion, substitute it with something that creates some mindfulness. Then people will stop craving, and stop feeling that they’re lacking something.

So just focusing on the character of Hector. How important to you is it that people like him as a character?

Oh, of course it’s important.

I was conflicted for large parts of the film.

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That’s fine, though.

He does some pretty unlikeable things before he does some likeable things.  

That’s fine. In the book, he [does something we’ve held back for spoiler reasons]. In the screenplay, we take him right to the edge. When you’re making a fable, you have to look at not what the characters would do, but what they represent. They become archetypes. And she – as I told the composer when it came to underwrite that scene – is a web of temptation. It goes very dark at that point. It’s a precipice.

How can you redeem a character if he doesn’t misbehave? And I think in Hollywood in particular, you find in script development that they want your lead to be nice, nice, nice all the time. So if people are undecided, then their final decision will be stronger, because they’ve come from somewhere. It’s one of the things the film is saying: you’ll never find a way to happiness if you avoid unhappiness. You have to embrace the pain with the pleasure, the bitter with the sweet. It’s the same with characters.

There’s an underrated Steve Martin film, Leap Of Faith, and he has many wonderful monologues. And he talks about why would you listen to someone preaching about sin who hadn’t sinned?

That’s right. It’s absolutely right. I knew Steve Martin better in those days! He’s a great actor.

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I watched the Hannah Montana movie yesterday, anyway. Another of your films.

Oh wow, good for you!

I quite liked it. I’ve gone through the One Direction and Justin Bieber films for the site in the past. You took Hannah Montana off in a different direction to the one I’d been expecting. It’s no secret that you’d been through one or two tricky projects by that stage. Then you landed the film that would put you in the crosshairs of more ten year olds girls than anyway would have to face until Morgan Spurlock did the One Direction movie. Looking back now, how do you feel about? How do you feel about the reaction you got to that? And are you happy with one of the most bizarre hard lefts you could have taken at that point?

To me it’s not such a hard left, it’s another job. I don’t mean that dispassionately, I really don’t. I give myself over completely to whatever I do. When I was asked to do it, I got a call and they said ‘don’t laugh, but would you be interested in doing the movie of Hannah Montana’. I said I would laugh if I knew what you were talking about.

I went to see Disney and said if I do this, I’m not going to wear a Disney hat. I’m going to do what I do. I think what you need is what’s missing in the marketplace, is a live action family movie. Where the family are united by the same things. It doesn’t condescend to the kids, it doesn’t have a laugh for dad, a laugh for mum. That’s a format that’s gone. They said fabulous. We need you to make Miley Cyrus a movie star. So there was a lot of teaching as well as directing involved. They were very good to me. They didn’t give me a single note through the entire making of the film.

And that’s Disney?

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Well, whatever one hears about Disney, that’s what they were like with me. The problem with the film – and look, the film made a load of movie, scored high with audiences – is it’s a blot on the landscape now because of her image. If she had gone on to be a serious film actress, it wouldn’t be as bad. But her image – and I’m not criticising her, because good luck to her if that’s what she wants to do – isn’t exactly Carey Mulligan. If she were, the image of that film wouldn’t be what it is. And it wouldn’t be regrettable in my so called resume – I can’t believe I’m using that word at my age! But it’s an image.

Do you see it as regrettable?

No. Because I had a really good time doing it. It’s regrettable only in the image of it now. I made it in the same way I’m made every other film. I think after Hector, I’ve swung the needle back in a different direction, and I think it’s fine.

It’s interesting what you say about films for families too, as this is one of my bugbears: the decline of the PG-rated film. There’s no shortage of PG-13s. The Johnny English sequel, that came out a few years ago, did nothing for me at all. But it was PG-rated, and it was the only thing at that point you could take a family to in live action – because I think animation is doing wonderful things – and there was a chance that everyone would get something out of it.

That’s exactly my point. The thing I should add is that Dick Cook, the chairman of Disney at the time, he’s coming up, setting up a company making family movies. He’s a friend of mine, and he’s very good to me. I did Hannah Montana as part of what was going to be at least two movies. Then the regime changed, and nobody wants to do what the old regime was doing.

But Dick Cook, the nicest man in showbusiness, he and I see eye to eye very much on what makes a family movie. He and I both believe it’s a very neglected market, the live action family movie, that doesn’t rely on franchise or comics. Just stories told for all the family to meet in the middle at. That’s what’s missing.

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It’s interesting you mention Relativity, because it had a go this summer with Earth To Echo, a project that was once at Disney.

Right. I’m a parent. I get it. I have to sit through such dross.

I took my kids to see Rio 2. And I sat there with a ten year old, a five year old and me, and not one of us could remember anything about it after half an hour. It’s not that it was a bad film per se, just utterly forgettable.

Also though, a lot of films I see with my kids, they’re so terrified of losing their attention, that they don’t stop. If you look at Up, it’s extraordinary how gripping it is in the first 20 minutes. In Hector, I make sure there are a couple of moments of silence. There’s never absolute silence. And if it’s done well, I think you’ll grab an audience more with moments of silence than with a lot of noise.

One last question then: what are you future projects? You’ve got Out Of This World?

Well, they don’t call that a family movie. They call it a four quadrant movie!

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A what?!

A four quadrant. Meaning it’s for everybody.

So a family movie then?

Yes! That’s one. It’s a sci-fi movie. A small story in a big story. A woman astronaut goes to Mars not knowing she’s pregnant, gives birth to the first human on Mars, but dies on childbirth. The kid is raised there, kept a secret, and then after 16 years comes back to find his dad, and ends up on the run. It’s a really good story.

Then there’ s a Dickens project, about what he was doing just before he wrote A Christmas Carol.

So not an adaptation?

No, a fictional story. A brilliant story that I’ve been working on rewriting a lot this year. That came from the producer of Hector. And then various other things: you have to have various things spinning to ensure you can make another film in the next two years. It’s like you have to be unfaithful five times! You have to say to each producer ‘it’s only you!’.

Peter Chelsom, thank you very much!

Hector And The Search For Happiness is in cinemas now.

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