"Be yourself; everyone else is already taken." This may be one of Oscar Wilde's most famous quotes, but living by it ruined his life.
First-time director Rupert Everett also wrote and starred in his Sundance premiere The Happy Prince (currently screening at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival) which chronicles Wilde's fall from grace. Picking up where most stories about Wilde conclude, the film is set in the period between the writer's release from prison on charges of homosexuality in 1897 and his death in 1900 from meningitis. Exiled to Europe, he's instructed to keep a low profile.
According to the law, if he ever wants to see his kids again or continue to receive his "allowance," he must renounce his sexuality; instead, Wilde spends his time cavorting with his gay lover, spending money he doesn't have, and living hedonistically. Is he a hero for refusing to submit to the limitations of his times, or is he a fool for walking into his own destruction—and that of his family?
Everett manages to probe the complexity of Wilde's circumstances and the dreamlike feeling of the author's writing in what could otherwise have been a straightforward period piece. No Film School sat down with the actor-turned-director earlier this year to discuss the cinematography idea he borrowed from the Dardennes brothers and why "the film didn’t want to be made because it was too ambitious."
'The Happy Prince'Credit: Sundance Institute
NFS: What interests you about Oscar Wilde's story?
Rupert Everett: For me, Oscar Wilde is a kind of Christ figure. It's the image of him in exile after the Fall. He dies and then is born again, and what is born with his death is the Gay Liberation Movement, or what we now call LGBTQ. Homosexuality wasn't even a word at that point, and it certainly wasn't a debate. It started with Oscar Wilde. So the image of him—this kind of penniless vagrant stalking the streets, catching drinks in the bars, befriending other vagrants and petty criminals and street urchins—for me, is one of the most compelling visions of the end of the 19th century. It was always a fascination for me to try and put that visual image onto film. Plus, all the other films on Oscar Wilde end when he goes into prison. For me, that's when it gets interesting.
NFS: What was your research process? How much did you stick to the facts of Wilde's life?
Everett: I think I've read almost every book there is to read about him, and certainly my aim has been to make it as true a picture of him as I possibly can. Sometimes when you [portray] characters like Wilde, they tend to be looked at reverentially, and they then become boring, one-dimensional characters. But there's a kind of raunchy side to Wilde: the vagabond, the Irish tinker trying to cajole people out of money. It's absolutely fascinating and sweet and funny and touching and true.
"In some respects, the film didn't want to get made because it was too ambitious."
NFS: I love how you represented the dichotomy between his romanticism and his despair when he hits rock bottom.
Everett: What I find endearing is the fact that he made so many mistakes—and this is another area where he reminds me of Christ. The idea of Christ is so brilliant. You're half man and half God. But what it really means being half man and half God is what Wilde was: a genius, but also a total idiot at the same time. I find that is the most exciting part about humanity in general—the mistakes we make. It's what we all have in common. I think it's enormously moving to see the train crash of Wilde's mad celebrity-driven ego.
Without becoming too biopic-ish, I worried about how much I'd have to explain to people in order to bring the story together. I didn't want it to be one of those things where you have to explain everything about the character. So I started off with the idea that everybody knew who Oscar Wilde was, which is a dangerous thing to do because then some people obviously don't. But I felt that people could get attached to the story and enjoy it [regardless]. That was a really big thrill for me.
NFS: How was the process of casting the rest of the characters?
Everett: There are many areas I've been incredibly lucky. One of them was in casting. I managed to cajole and blackmail into the film, particularly Colin Morgan and Tom Wilkinson and Emily Mortimer. Without them, we would not have had the money or gotten Colin Firth. So I'm enormously in their debt. I was amazed by all of their performances.
Rupert Everett's 'The Happy Prince.'
NFS: How did you navigate starring in the film and directing simultaneously?
Everett: It was very stressful. I had to have a sleeping pill every night. Even with the sleeping pill, I kept dreaming about some take that was happening, that I got wrong. It was endless worry and tension. But at the same time, I had amazing people working with me and a really fantastic DP and amazing costume designer. I wouldn't say it was fun, exactly, because it was exhausting, and we had a very tight schedule, but it gave me an insight into my own resilience.
I'm kind of a flaky person and a wimp and a whiner in my life, and certainly not a person who followed through on ideas. This was the first one, really, that I followed through with. I think tenacity is one of the most vital ingredients in life and filmmaking. If you go on with something, something happens. Maybe not the thing you thought would happen, but something always happens. Giving up is the worst thing.
NFS: This is the first film you directed. Being in front of the camera and having these preconceived notions about what it's like to be a director, what surprised you switching roles?
Everett: What surprised me was myself. I knew what was involved. The film took such a long time to get together, but everything bad turned out to be something good in the end. Like the fact that it took so long to get together, and I had eight years to think about it...
"Tenacity is one of the most vital ingredients in life and filmmaking."
NFS: That's a long time.
Everett: Yeah, it's a long time, and by the time you've gone through eight years, you really have to know what you think about each sequence. And I think that was incredibly helpful for me.
I knew what kind of director I wanted to be. I don't like directors who are terribly hands-on and micro-managerial, which a lot of them are. I think that's partly because they feel powerless because the director, in one sense, has to let other people do their jobs. You know, the director isn't the director of photography. He's got to work with a lot of other people. I very much wanted the actors to be free to do things for themselves rather than having me jumping down their throats. I think I managed to be the kind of director that I wanted. But the thing that was difficult, I think, is that being older, you have a shorter fuse. Sometimes I felt like a bicycle with no brake pads.
NFS: How was working with your director of photography and conceptualizing the visual imagery?
Everett: I came across this DP watching television one evening. I was watching a crime TV series—one of those things with cops and flashing lights and criminals running over rooftops and stuff. I thought, "Oh, if only my film could be like that!" And I looked at the name of the DP, and I thought, "I'm gonna try and meet him."
His name is John Conroy, and he's Irish. Straight away, we got on to the same page. I knew I didn't want to make the film a conventional aesthetic period piece. I knew I wanted to have a fantastic aesthetic, but I wanted it to be glanced by rather than concentrated on. I wanted it just to be there, and for the rest of it to be either documentary-style or CCTV, almost. I wanted it to be rough.
At the beginning of the film, Oscar Wilde looks into the camera and says, "It's a dream." Then, the camera follows him on the journey. That's what I wanted it to feel like. I was very inspired by these directors called the Dardenne Brothers because they follow characters, and a lot of times you only see the back of a character. I think [in film] we use the face too much. So, I ripped that off as an idea. I was keen for the dialogue not to be to center-stage, 'cause it's quite flighty and verbose and exotic. I didn't want it to be one of those, again, 19th-century things where the dialogue is spoken statically.
"If I was going to write [a movie] again, I'd definitely set it in one place, 'cause it would be easier to pull off."
John and I just got straight onto the same page, and that relationship really was key, because DPs can turn on directors very easily because they always know much more, technically, than the director does on the whole. And so if they don't like them, they can completely take the reins. John supported me like a brother. He literally took that camera like a ball in a rugby game and just pushed it through. We had a schedule that was impossibly tough. And we made it.
NFS: What was challenging about the schedule?
Everett: Well, we traveled a lot—we were in four different countries. In some respects, the film didn't want to get made because it was too ambitious. In my own naivete, I just wrote it down and didn't realize the implications. If I was going to write [a movie] again, I'd definitely set it in one place, 'cause it would be easier to pull off.
Rupert Everett's 'The Happy Prince.'
NFS: Can you talk a little bit more about the eight-year process of trying to get the film made?
Everett: Well, the first bit was amazingly easy. I wrote it, and I had this one producer, Robert Fox, who had sent it to Scott Rudin. He wrote back the next day saying, "I love the script!" That day, I was making Academy Award acceptance speeches in the mirror. I just couldn't believe it. But then the clangor came the next day when he said, "By the way, I want Philip Seymour Hoffman to play Oscar Wilde."
I was completely destroyed. I actually think I should've let that scenario happen. Eight years later, when [it seemed like] the movie would never happen, I thought, "What an idiot I am. How egocentric! I should've let them take it, and I would've been established as a writer. I could've written tons of other things and maybe directed and acted in something else later." But as actors, we can't let go. It's something weird about acting. It's just very difficult to let go of.
Anyway, I managed to persuade him, finally. He said, "If you get one of six directors, I'll do it." And so I went out to all those directors, and none of them wanted to do it. It was basically dead. This was already two years in by then. And then I thought, "Well, fuck it. I'm gonna try and make it myself." And I got a completely underwhelmed reaction to that because, by that time, my own star had kind of disappeared. No one was particularly keen to get into, what do they say, "the Rupert Everett business." Everyone turned me down in England.
"It became kind of a fight for survival for me. I felt like my life was at stake."
I was now five years into the process. I'd put all my eggs into this, and it just wasn't gonna work out. It became kind of a fight of survival for me. I felt like my life was at stake. I thought I would die if I didn't make this movie. It's not a really great place to be, actually. I wouldn't advise anyone to get to that state, but show business is full of desperadoes and desperation.
Then, I had the idea of doing a play by David Hare called The Judas Kiss in London. And I thought, well, if I could play the lead, maybe I could someone interested. I did the play, and it was really successful, and it worked very well. And then, everything started falling into place. I got the BBC to take part and Lionsgate and the Bavarian-German fund, and then we were on the way. But then it was still another three years. So it was a very, very long thing. During that time, there were a lot of false starts, and I turned down any work I'd gotten. I kind of worked myself into a corner with it.
NFS: To do something as daunting as making a film, sometimes you do need to be pushed to the brink.
Everett: I think you probably need to be. Sometimes, what worries me about the younger generations is that they don't know struggle. I think one of the essential elements in life is struggle.
NFS: It has been for most of humanity.
Everett: Yes, and I think nowadays we expect things not to be a struggle. Of course, it's a great thing to work towards. You can't say, "Well, no. We shouldn't try for that." But I think struggle brings out the best in our animal somehow. It focuses the mind, and it drives you. A blade of grass growing up in between two concrete slabs—that's a struggle. Mysteriously, that is the essence of life.