It’s midnight. As we’re talking to comedian/actor Russell Brand in the middle of New York’s Central Park in September, an eager fan is brought in by a handler to meet the Get Him to the Greek star. By the looks of the admirer, he has a bit of a thing for hats.
Says the hatmaker, “I brought you a hat when you were shooting on 42nd St. I don’t know if you got it?”
“I did get it,” said Brand, “it would not have fit on a mouse’s head.”
He tries on the new hat he’s being offered, a pimp-ish looking black felt item with a feather, but it doesn’t fit either. As the security man escorts the fan away, Russell bids him a final adieu before turning back to the task at hand.
“I’m just at work, but thank you for the kind hat! I get a lot of hats, it’s always happening to me. What were we talking about before that mysterious, hat-bearing lunatic appeared?”
We were talking about the remake of the 1981 comedy classic Arthur, in which Brand is filling the rather lofty shoes of the brilliant Dudley Moore’s signature role, a drunken millionaire who falls in love with a poor waitress named Linda, played by Liza Minnelli.
Responsible for bringing the delightfully inebriated, quick-witted Arthur Bach into the 21st century is young Jason Winer, best known as a director of the ABC series “Modern Family.” This is his feature debut, and he understood why he’s walking on eggshells by agreeing to remake such a beloved film.
“I had this great affection for the original,” said Winer, “and when I heard it was being remade I was like, ‘Well that’s a terrible idea. I love that movie, why would you want to remake it?’ Then I heard it was Russell Brand. That’s a great idea because if there’s one person on earth who redefines the movie for a generation that hasn’t seen it at all, it’s him.”
Filming a scene at the 60th street entrance to Central Park, Russell and co-star Greta Gerwig (playing Linda) descend the stairs. He takes a swig from a flask, and his vocal intonations are very similar to Moore’s Arthur Bach in inebriated-mode.
LINDA: Why bother taking care of yourself?
ARTHUR: That’s right, just have fun!
LINDA: You seem to have a lot of it.
ARTHUR: It’s my calling.
LINDA: This is not a bad backyard.
ARTHUR: Oh yeah, I let the people of New York use it occasionally.
LINDA: I’m a tenant.
ARTHUR: Are you a bit cold?
He very gentlemanly offers her his Savile Row suit, and she looks at the label inside.
LINDA: Was this your dad’s?
ARTHUR: Yeah, I had it tailored to fit me. Seemed a bit silly to throw them away. (exiting frame into the park) Over here’s where I buried a dead person once.
This is the first major role in a studio film for the 27-year-old Greta Gerwig, who initially made a name for herself as part of the movement of low-budget, highly-improvised movies sarcastically nicknamed “mumblecore,” such as Hannah Takes the Stairs. She made a major leap forward co-starring with Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s highly praised Greenberg, where the young actress proved she could hold her own with big league stars.
Russell Brand, who is also producing the Arthur remake for Warner Bros., was clearly enamored with Gerwig.
“I saw ‘Greenberg’ and I thought she was gorgeous,” he said, “and it was such a lovely and unusual performance. I think she’s delightful, she’s got a very quick mind and a beautiful sensibility and an aesthetic that’s very in keeping with this film, which retains some of the romance of the original while incorporating a more contemporary cinematic style. Greta exemplifies that in her more naturalistic, low-key mumblecore stuff. She’s the very kind of woman you’d give up a billion dollars for.”
“I first met Russell while I was auditioning for ‘Arthur,'” said Gerwig, “and it was one of those auditions that felt like playing and not performing. They let us improv, and it felt like playing with the funniest person I ever met. It felt effortless, in a way, and that felt like a gift on a film like this.”
Says Brand, “I change the script, improvise all the time. It’s one of the things that helps me enjoy what I do for a living, to keep that spontaneity. Not that Peter Baynham isn’t a wonderful writer, and being British it’s a particular privilege to work with him being so fond of his work on ‘Alan Partridge,’ ‘Borat,’ and his work with Chris Morris. Still, improvisation is integral to what I do, and I was fortunate to embark on a career with Judd Apatow, and that’s something I plan to carry with me.”
On another take of the Central Park staircase scene, we see a hint of this improv.
LINDA: This is quite a backyard!
ARTHUR: Yes, except when I sunbathe nude I get the strangest looks.
“That was nothing,” Winer says of his actors’ ability to craft dialogue from take-to-take. “What you saw was us working towards a tighter and tighter scripted piece. That was our approach to that because it was a ‘oner,’ where we want the entire thing to play in one shot. That’s where we feel our way through it, what feels right, what doesn’t, what lines feel heavy-handed. I like to cast smart actors and we have two really smart ones in Greta and Russell. It would be stupid of me not to rely on their instincts, when they come to me and say, ‘this feels heavy-handed, this is too writerly, or my character wouldn’t say this.’ Nine-times-out-of-ten they’re right.”
The actors are raring to go, which makes it all the more frustrating that with all the machinery of a big studio film there are big gaps between takes. This is exacerbated by uncontrollable New York elements like traffic, gawkers, airplanes overhead, and, yes, even the occasional lunatic screaming their brains out for no reason.
“Why are there such enormous chasms between takes?” complains Brand. “We could have had children by now.”
Says Gerwig, “Russell is kind of a livewire of energy and very infectious to everyone around him. We heard the director saying, ‘Settle, settle.’ We would start laughing or joking around and lose where we were in the scene. It was harder to keep the energy focused, rather than keeping it up.”
Indeed, there’s a lot of horsing around between takes between the two, often not stopping until seconds before they start their dialogue again. At one point she starts singing a Nina Simone song, “I got my arms, my legs, my fingers, got my toes,” and Brand immediately begins singing along. “I got my arms, my legs, my smile and my boobies.”
“She was actually singing that in an amputee hospital,” he jokes. “‘Nina, thanks for entertaining the troops.'”
Although Brand insists he’s trying to bring elements of Moore’s performance into this iteration, Gerwig is not as reverent to Minnelli.
Said Gerwig, “She’s such an individual that it would be a mistake to imitate it in any way. I think it’s more the spirit of being exactly the way you are and being okay with it that I tried to carry over to this production.”
“Then what do you do about Hobson?” asks Winer. “You have this iconic performance by John Gielgud, how do you top that? When I heard Peter Baynham’s idea of making Hobson a woman, making it his nanny instead of his butler, that was both of my objections taken care of.”
Playing the sex-reversed part of Hobson is none other than Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen).
“I love working with Helen Mirren because she’s so exquisitely elegant,” Brand remarks. “Delightful. I love her. I go to bed and she ends up reading me bedtime stories. One time she did a dirty version of ‘Frog and Toad.’ ‘Toad took Frog and mounted him from behind and entered him deeply and smoothly with rhythmic strokes.’ I was like, ‘Helen, this is being filmed as part of a film, with a broad appeal one would hope.’
One thing is for sure, and that is that actors and the director have immense respect for the original Arthur, which was both the first and last film written and directed by the late Steve Gordon, who tragically died shortly after it was released of a heart attack at age 44.
Says Brand, “I adored the original ‘Arthur.’ The thing it reminds me most of in cinema is ‘Big.’ That’s what the character’s like, other than Dudley Moore’s original, is Tom Hanks in ‘Big.’ He’s someone who doesn’t understand the rules of contemporary life, doesn’t understand how to socialize correctly or behave.”
Says Winer, “In 1981 ‘Arthur’ was like, ‘What the hell is this? It’s a movie where the protagonist is a rich drunk.’ I think this movie retains the rebellious spirit of the original.”
“I wasn’t actually born when the original was made,” says Gerwig, “but it was one of the first movies that was shown on HBO all the time. I have this memory of bits and pieces of the film scattered throughout my childhood. I love it, there’s an incredible sweetness to it. Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli are so wonderful and odd together. I do feel pressure, it’s beloved by so many people, but everyone is making it their own. It’ll be up to other people to decide if they like it better or worse.”
As they get ready to take Russell Brand back to set, more fans approach him: two Jewish children, clearly no older than 6 or 7. Brand, who is himself a big kid, clearly enjoys the absurdity of seeing them wander up to him in the middle of Central Park, well after midnight.
“Come over here where I can see you. What’s your name? Orly? You’re so pretty. And you? Isaac? Isaac, you’re very proud, like a sailor. I’m not a parent myself, but it seems like it’s midnight and you’re just wandering around.”
When the mother is spotted up some stairs, Brand agrees to sign some autographs.
Orly asks, “Is Katy Perry here?”
“I’m afraid she’s dead now.” Russell laughs. “No, she’s in Los Angeles, she’s completely fine. She’s working, she’s really healthy, robust. She’ll probably live forever.”
Arthur hits theaters on April 8.