Christopher Hampton interview

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As well as writing plays (‘Tales From Hollywood’) and directing the odd film (‘Carrington’), Christopher Hampton is a consummate translator and adapter of novels. Twenty years after reworking ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, for Stephen Frears, he talks about getting that dream team back together for ‘Chéri', which opens May 8 2009.

Colette’s novel, about the relationship between an ageing courtesan and her young lover, is set before WWI. It’s not an era we know well. Is that why you felt the need for a voiceover?
‘We devised a voiceover that explains the Belle Epoque and who these courtesans were. Some of them made a colossal amount of money: there’s an enormous £10 million palazzo on the corner of the Champs Elysées which one of them was given for spending the weekend with some German.’

To me, the film feels more nostalgic than the book.

‘She was a hard-headed old bird, Colette: she couldn’t afford to be sentimental, the life she led. Her father was a retired naval officer with literary pretensions who knew this debauched walrus called Willy, who turned up when Colette was about 16 and said “Can I have her?” He made her write the Claudine books then put them out under his own name. She emancipated herself, let him keep all the money, and made a living appearing naked in tableaux vivants that toured France.’

It's been 20 years since you, Stephen Frears and Michelle Pfeiffer last worked together. Why so long?
‘I don’t know. Stephen and I manage to work together once every decade. We did a television play in the 1970s, then “Liaisons” in the ’80s and “Mary Reilly” in the ’90s. We like doing stuff about women, evidently.’

There are other strong similarities between ‘Liaisons’ and ‘Chéri’: both opulent, sexy, intensely bitchy stories in settings of extreme decadence…
‘They are both worlds where excess has come to be taken for granted and which therefore can’t go on, whether because of the French Revolution or WWI. Which, of course, is relevant because last year we could have said the same of Britain: that it was on a self-deluding spree about to come to an abrupt end.’

Do you think Britain is ready for a film about growing old?
‘We’ll see. We had a wonderful time with the cameraman, Darius Khondji. He’s a genius, but he couldn’t get it into his head that we were trying to make Michelle look aged.’

It’s an amazing thing for her to do. She still looks wonderful – but people are always going to be adding that ‘still’ in a film like this.
‘I think it was very difficult for her. It took it out of all of us. Stephen said to me that he thought it was the hardest film he has ever done, trying to maintain that balance between the book’s lightness of tone and the underlying tragic elements. It’s a grown-up love story, of which there are not many. I don’t think I’ve ever done so many rewrites. Most of the effort went into making it look effortless.’

As a director, did you ever want Stephen to do something differently?
‘No. The films that I want to direct are always very particular and small-scale. I’d rather Stephen directed “Chéri”. But I find directing easier than writing.’

Why don’t you direct more and write less, then – or do you like hard work?
‘I do, actually. It’s a peculiar trait but I have always liked challenges. They said I couldn’t adapt “Liaisons” because the two main characters never meet. Then my instinct is to find a way of doing it.’

Do you ever wish you had stuck to just one area of expertise?
‘I had the conversation with my agent after my first proper success, “The Philanthropist”. She said “You’ve got a choice: you can write the same play over and over for the next 30 years, and you’ll probably get even better at it, or you can decide to do something completely different every time.” So I said “As a matter of fact, I have started writing a play about the extermination of the Brazilian Indians in the 1960s.” And she said “Well, that’ll do it, dear.” ’

I suppose some people who think they’re writing something different are actually writing the same thing over and over.
'Yes, that definitely happens. When I worked for David Lean he talked about how all his films were very different and I thought: Really? I think my stuff is, though. It does mean you don’t have an instant identity, but I don’t mind that.’

Author: Nina Caplan



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