Donald Rice isn’t ready to rest on his laurels yet. The director, who is making his feature film debut this weekend in the US with Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, is already eager to talk about future projects. Luckily enough, he also opened up about his debut while I was on the phone with him from London earlier this week. The narrative follows a young bride in the 1930s that has made the disastrous mistake of inviting her ex to the wedding. As she contemplates her past and future, the family downstairs is a swelling mass of bitter resentment and loathing. The film manages to play up the laughs while keeping the film dramatic enough to keep you invested. Rice and I talked at length about how important star Felicity Jones was to the film, his view on how this has a contemporary undercurrent in a period film shell, the fact that David Tennant was in talks to play in the film, working with producer Teun Hilte on all of his projects to date, and he even tells a few tidbits about I Am Bob and how Bob Geldof had him sweating bullets for a while.
The Film Stage: First off, I want to say that after watching the film last night I went ahead and did some extra homework and caught your two short films on YouTube. The Traffic Warden and I Am Bob.
Donald Rice: Oh, great.
It’s funny though, because all of those shorts deal with current themes. They’re very contemporary films. Whereas Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a period piece. Was it just a matter of this being the right story or were you always intending to play in the period realm?
That’s a great question. I was attracted to the story because I thought the story itself was very modern. I didn’t think that when you read Julia Strachey novella, I mean, it’s little more than a short story, it feels very fresh and contemporary. So I didn’t think, “well, hey, this is a period piece I’ve always wanted to do.” In fact, the two heroine and the hero, Dolly and Joseph, are very, very contemporary. The book itself has aged very well. It doesn’t feel remotely stuff or dry. It’s very witty and very alive. So from a narrative sense, no.
On the other hand, I thought there were a few films that I’ve seen recently that everybody admired. Sometimes a period films allow you to have a little bit more room and space to develop character. I thought this was the case. We played up the humor of the book, [Mary Henely-Magill] and I. What we added in was a lot more humor. But I certainly wouldn’t say there’s clear DNA streaks between I Am Bob and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. But it felt like a very nice, unconventional first feature to make. That was also quite attractive. I don’t know how many people make a period film for their first feature, but it felt like quite an adventure in that respect.
Was there any inclination on your part to dress up in period garb as well?
No, unfortunately not. Apart from the gorgeous interiors we used and the costumes, it never felt like we were undertaking a huge, precious comedy of manners or anything like that. It didn’t feel like it had a kind of refined sensibility. It also helped that we were all stuffed into this one house in the middle of the English countryside. It was actually quite small and hectic. It felt like a big country house party. There was no sort of preciousness on set. No one was sort of saying, “mind my silk shoes.” Or, “where have I put my diamond earrings?” [Laughs] It was complete chaos. That added very much to the atmosphere. The actors had a really good time, I think. No one had any trailers or anything like that. We were all stuffed into the same rooms and very much treading on each other for the 28 days that we shot. It was a very, very fast shoot, indeed. We also had to contend with an incredibly cold winter. One of the coldest on record. So there was a nice sense of chaos. But I never felt like I wanted to dress up.
Is it fair to surmise that this is something you feel about wedding personally, or do you have very different takes on weddings itself?
Weddings are a right to dream because they are a cliche but they happen the entire time. We’ve all been to them. They’re a great leveler. Even a comparatively upper-class wedding like this speaks to everyone because people who don’t like each other and people who do like each other are forced to spend time together. Some may like it. Some may not. It’s a writer’s dream. It’s a writer’s staple. Each family problem is very easy to identify with no matter what social standing of the family in question. I was very lightly done in Cheerful Weather, but you throw in a bit of Christmas there as well. That’s another great gathering of people.
I’m married, myself. My wedding felt like there was a bit of that going on. I got engaged and married in about two months but I had been with my wife for about four years up to that point. After we had got engaged we had about two or three of our biggest ever rows within a few days of getting engaged. I think the enormity of the pressure was about to descend. I guess that speaks to everybody whether it’s in the 1930s, when this book is set, to whether it’s now. That’s why they keep being used. That’s why writers keep resorting to them. It’s a fail-safe way of getting a bit group of diverse characters into one place at one time. So there’s a lot of similarities between writer’s doing this but the end result is very different.
I was looking over the credits of all three of your works because I figured you may have some overlap. One person I noticed was your producer, Teun Hilte, who did all three of your films. How did you luck into something like that?
Traffic Warden was a script I worked on for a very, very long time. When I finally got brave enough to send it out to people he was the first person to respond. He’s everything that I thought you needed in a producer. He oozed confidence, which is what I think all writers and directors look for. We got on very well. He’s funny and he’s got very good creative instincts. Which I don’t always think is the case with producers. But all producers think that they have, but not many actually do. He does. And he’s tough. That’s a great combination.
I mean, the shoot for Cheerful Weather was as difficult as it could get. Our budget was about a million dollars, with 28 days broken up over four months. We had seven different locations. We had big cast. We had a complication that was actually very stressful. I think what I learned most from filming Cheerful Weather was how to think like a producer. The relationship between director and producer has to be symbiotic. I think films that go badly usually are where they don’t see eye to eye. I love to work with him. He’s a great producer. He’s doing another film now. But I’d definitely want to work with him again.
Between I Am Bob and this film, there has been quite a bit of time that has lapsed. Has there been other directorial vehicles for yourself that have come up and fallen apart at the last minute or was this the one you were focused on?
There were a couple. I worked on some scripts for friends and I wrote a couple of feature scripts, one of which came quite close to being made. In fact, we were slightly stymied by a rival project getting going in America. But yea, there were a few close shaves, but Cheerful Weather was never one I thought was going to happen first. It actually only happened because we got the script to Felicity Jones. We actually originally looked at filming it with David Tennant, but that didn’t happen.
There was a few false starts for Cheerful Weather, then just when we thought we might be abandoning it, Felicity read it, gave us a very small timescale to put it all together, and Teun had to make the call in the space of just a few weeks whether he’d be able to find the money or not. It was quite a frightening situation to be in, really. It was, to a certain extent, this or nothing. We had to put it all together incredibly quickly. We started and finished filming before we had all the money. It’s not an easy way to make a film. But it was exhilarating and very, very rewarding. Probably my proudest achievement of the entire thing was that the cast and crew had a really good time and it was very merry set despite all the pressure of a lack of time.
One thing I really loved as I was watching your back catalog was I Am Bob. It’s just a fascinating idea and execution. How long did it take for you to finish and polish that script and what was the inspiration?
That was a very long time in the making. I don’t know how long it took. It took nearly a year from when Bob Geldof read the script and said he’d think about it to the point where we started filming. During that year I was kind of tearing my hair out and trying to hassle him. He never quite said no and he never quite said yes. The idea was partly based on… do you know that famous Woody Allen sketch about the moose?
I cannot say that I do.
If you YouTube “Woody Allen moose sketch,” it’s absolute genius. He does a very funny sketch in which he describes how he goes to a costume party with a live moose and the moose comes second in the costume contest to another couple dressed as a moose. It’s very funny and that was in the back of my mind. It mixed with a true story about my father about 20 years ago when he got accidentally left by a driver on a freeway in the middle of upstate New York. This driver got out pre-mobile phones to get directions and my dad got out and had a pee. The driver got back and drove off, leaving my father in the middle of nowhere on the edge of some strange national park. The driver got all the way to the destination before realizing my dad was back where he stopped. So it was a mixture of Woody Allen and my father.
I wrote it for about 10 different celebrities who I thought would be funny, including Elton John, Mick Jagger, Robbie Williams, Madonna, and even Cliff Richards. Some of the different versions worked well. I thought the one with Mick Jagger was funny. The one for Elton was quite funny. But somehow I couldn’t make Madonna funny. I don’t know why. I’m a big Madonna fan. But there’s something sort of humorless about her and I couldn’t make that script funny, but Bob was one of the funny ones. I knew that Mick was on tour at that point, and I couldn’t get through to Elton to love the money, and I sent it off to Bob. I sent them all off at the same time, actually because I was just thinking whatever celebrity responds I’ll go with. Bob rang me up one day and said in his unmistakable Irish drawl, he said he thought it was funny and he might do it. That’s what he said.
And it took a year after that to get him to do it. So that was an incredibly long and drawn out experience. But I’m a massive Bob Geldof fan and he was very fun to work with. He was very high maintenance but very high reward. He rang me up about six months ago, actually, and asked to put I Am Bob on a limited edition box set of his so I was incredibly thrilled and flattered by that. He’s obviously not too embarrassed by it.
It’s funny that you mentioned that you had planned on doing it with all of these different stars because half of those people you just mentioned all appear in the film so did you already have tabs on look-alikes that you were going to go with at that point or were you pretty much winging it with a pie in the sky attitude?
It was very much pie in the sky. We had a list of about 40 look-alikes. We couldn’t afford to drag them all into London. Or anywhere else if they were in London to look at them. So we just had to take a shot and people’s websites. Lots of them didn’t even have agents. We asked them to come in and on the day when they turned up, some of them looked absolutely awful. Some of them we couldn’t tell who they were.
So they had to be slightly buried in the background. But there was some strange moments. There was a wonderful old lady who played Mother Teresa who was fantastic. And there was a young girl who played Pamela Anderson who refused to wear a swimsuit. We couldn’t quite see why she was trying to get work as a Pamela Anderson look-alike when she wouldn’t get in a swimsuit, but one evening Bob gave Pamela Anderson, Mother Teresa, and Madonna all a lift home in his chauffeur-driven limo. It was quite a nice sight seeing those three girls together. But I’m actually trying to work on a feature for it actually. Not necessarily using Bob because I think he doesn’t have quite enough traction in North America but I’ve got a few celebrities who I’d love to do a feature length version of with a slightly bigger scale story and what fame does to you.
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding hits limited release on December 7th.
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