Film producer, Barry Mendel, swapped the warmth of L.A. for freezing Europe to see the three God Help The Girl shows last month. Here is his report:
I was supposed to meet Stuart at 11am sharp next to the statue of the bear at Paddington Station but was running behind. Who knew the bear really existed? The London cabbie, that’s who, and the bell clerk at the hotel and the Train Porter who steered me there. In person, he was bronze and rumpled and surprisingly little, that Paddington, but charming nonetheless. Ten minutes late, we ran to catch the Heathrow train and watched as it pulled away. By seconds, we missed it.
It was okay, there was another soon, we’d still make the plane to Glasgow. It was cinematic, though. Like the opening of The Darjeeling Limited — Bill Murray, who’s described in the script as a “German” businessman, out of breath, seeing it go. German?
Alex is from Berlin, she’s the chattiest of the three. Within an hour of meeting her, after the first show in The Hague, she asked, “Barry, since the role of Penka in the film is based on me, and I’m in the singing group, is there a chance that I wouldn’t be the one to play her?” I thought about how Stuart might want me to answer this.
“Well, Alex, as a producer, I’d say it’d be crazy not to audition you, and if you’re better for the part than everyone else who goes up for it, then you should definitely play it.” Fast as she is, it still took her a split-second to catch up to the evasiveness, though she seemed to take it, as she seemed to take most everything, in full, cheerful stride.On the first night of a week’s stay in Glasgow leading up to the big, final show, we went to Stuart’s film class at the University. He wrote the teacher beforehand to say I was coming and probably mentioned that I work in film. When we arrived at class, Stuart asked the teacher whether he’d gotten the email. He hadn’t but said it was fine for me sit in. My background left unsaid, hmm, maybe better that way.
Before class, a barrel-chested classmate of Stuart’s asked whether Stuart had noticed he was a little tipsy the previous class. Stuart assured him he hadn’t, that it was a first-rate acting job.
Catherine had seemed to put one over on us, too. She’d reported having nerves before the shows in Holland and London, but on stage, she was poised, free as can be and kind of slaying the crowds. At the end of the week, backstage before the big Usher Hall concert in Edinburgh, Catherine was doubly anxious. Her parents had flown from Ireland to see the show, there was the grand stage, full BBC/Scotland orchestra, and even though the other shows had gone great, it was still overwhelming. Stuart’s wife Marisa was sympathetic and offered her a Beta-blocker, explaining how they don’t fog you or slow you down. Catherine was tempted, too, until Stuart showed up and put the kibosh on it, “She’s not taking Beta-blockers.”
The class began with a review of last week’s work, a shot for shot re-enactment of the seduction scene from The Graduate, whose screenplay was written by a mentor of mine, the late great novelist/screenwriter Calder Willingham. The scene was done as an exercise in lighting and design. Mrs. Robinson was played with relish by a middle-aged student with a thick eastern-European accent. She could barely contain herself as she peered down over her glasses at the scrawny young student playing Benjamin, taking the occasional pull from her cigarette.
Next came hearing how writing was coming along, two of the ten students’ scripts would be shot at the end of the semester. The stories were varied – a funny zombie one, a sweet grandmother story. The teacher was excellent at giving each a focus to take their story to the next level. Like a chef overseeing his kitchen, tailoring his comments to each, his advice helpful and apt.
Mrs. Robinson told one about a man with a terminal condition who runs into his ex at a bus stop. Their conversation’s tense as they wait for their buses. He gauges whether she still cares enough to tell her his news. He wants to. She’s unsure why he’s acting strangely. As the conversation unfolds, it dawns on her he seems pretty desperate to connect. In the end, with her back to the approaching bus, making it clear she’s not planning on turning around to look for herself, she asks him if it’s her bus, #66. In other words, she relents. Even if it is #66, she’s letting him know it’s okay if he lies and say it isn’t so they can keep talking. The end.
When she finished, the teacher looked toward me and said, “You. Stuart’s friend. What do you have to say for yourself?”
I wasn’t expecting it. I stammered my name and that I loved her story. And that it occurred to me it might be interesting to have other buses show up during the earlier parts so we could track his apprehension about her leaving before he could tell her his news and her initial impulse to escape. The teacher didn’t react to my idea and just moved on to the next story. I was slightly hurt.
The last part of the class we looked at a scene in the script of In Bruges. Colin Farrell’s looking at a Mom and boy in the playground of a park. Unbeknownst to him, from behind a tree, Brendan Gleason takes out a gun, says “Sorry, mate.” and starts toward him. The mother and son leave, and Colin takes out a gun and puts it to his own head. Brendan screams, “No!” scaring Colin into dropping his gun. Brendan and Colin are now almost face to face. “You were gonna kill yourself?” “What are you doing here?” Colin sees Brendan’s gun. “You came to off me?” “What do you care, you were gonna do it yourself!” And it goes from there. The teacher drew a map of the park on the board and asked everyone what shots we’d need to shoot the scene. After everyone’s ideas got written down, he shut the lights and played the actual movie. I have to say, those In Bruges people are clever, their shots were way better than ours. What a great exercise. Sure, we do that every day when we shoot, but the idea of practicing in between never occurred to me. I wanted to stay and join the class, full stop.
On the way out, one of the students returned a book to the teacher, the Faber & Faber screenplay of The Royal Tenenbaums. I was kind of dying to say, “Hey, teacher, I’m not just Stuart’s dumb friend, I produced that film!” I think Stuart saw it, too, because before I knew it, he’d gently swooped in and herded me out the door.
Celia’s the only one who lives in Glasgow and the only one with a careerist job, she teaches college. All three of the girls were excited by the shows — who wouldn’t be — but perhaps because Celia’s life is more established in this way, she was the most low-key. She was jazzed though, she said she was gonna have a big old bunch of friends come to Usher Hall, she said maybe twenty-five!
Sunday night’s show was magnificent. Everyone rose to the occasion. The orchestra was in great form, and it was fun and beautiful and for me, even moving. As I enjoyed the girls’ shining moment, I also thought about Stuart having this dream, and this moment of it realized. And of Mick, who’d done the orchestrations, sitting with his wife and newborn. The orchestra had been recorded in sections for the record, and he’d never gotten to see his work performed all at once. And of Catherine’s parents, who we’d met at dinner. They were up there somewhere in the balcony, watching her belt these songs out with joyful abandon. I wondered what it must be like to see one’s daughter in such a moment.
We all retired to a bar afterward. Celia was thick among her gaggle of friends. The whole week had seemed to have affected her least, and in that sense, maybe she’d even enjoyed it the most. She had her teaching to go back to, the shows didn’t mean anything, they were just good fun.
Soon, it was closing time on a windy, rainy night. I said goodbye to Alex and promised to keep in touch. And to Celia and Catherine, too. Stuart and Marisa and their friend Kim gave me a ride to my hotel on their way back to Glasgow. I was leaving for LA from Edinburgh in the morning. It was a good time all in all, the shows, film class, all of it, though it really was quite cold there.