Movie remakes are often controversial because studios are perennially double dipping into classic films and beloved franchises. Case in point: Arthur, starring Russell Brand, Greta Gerwig and Helen Mirren and directed by Modern Family's Jason Winer. Due for release later this year, the funny tale of a drunken playboy—who must choose between keeping a massive family fortune by marrying an overbearing socialite his family likes or find true love with a woman of far less social stature that they disdain—is being updated for modern audiences while keeping the story's heart intact. At least that's what Brand, Gerwig and Winer—all huge fans of the original classic starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli—were insisting when Movies.com visited the set last summer.
The trio is bringing its own personal flair and sensibilities to the farce while taking cues from the original characters and director. "I think the movie retains the rebellious spirit of the original," says Winer. "At the time of Arthur in 1981, the protagonist was a rich drunk, and it was slightly shocking. I loved the movie when I was a kid. I think for a lot of people my age, Arthur was the first naughty movie that we saw on HBO when our parents weren't around. I felt like it was this glimpse of a world that I wasn't quite supposed to see, but it wasn't that illicit. It was right on the line."
The director admitted when he first heard about the remake, he thought it was a terrible idea. Then he heard that Russell Brand was onboard as Arthur and that the great Sir John Gielgud role of Arthur's butler, Hobson, was being transformed into a nanny role for Dame Helen Mirren and he knew he had to be in. Add screenwriter Peter Baynham to the mix, and the team was ready to go.
Winer added that during filming, Brand had been improvising racy bits that would not have been pre-approved by the studio. One such line occurred in a scene where Arthur is being seduced by socialite Susan (Jennifer Garner). The filmmakers found the way to work the line into a stunt gag, giving it little chance of being removed from the final film. "That's the thing I want to keep alive and honor about the original," says Winer. "It’s a rebellious, 'I can't believe they're letting us do this' feeling."
"Playing two characters with substance abuse issues is really no more significant than playing two characters that have a hat," says Brand when comparing Arthur with Brand's rock star character Aldous Snow from Get Him to the Greek. "Arthur is a benevolent, whimsical, childlike, innocent prince, and Aldous Snow is a dark, malevolent, twisted, macabre, purple brushstroke of contemporary celebrity. Arthur is a fairytale figure."
Brand explains that in the same way that the original filmmakers wrote the part of Arthur for Moore, including a scene "where he uses his excellence as a pianist, and they built in this ridiculous, peculiar laugh," Winer and Baynham tailored this version for him. "[This new Arthur has] perhaps more of a linguistic loquaciousness and articulate stuff. Dudley Moore's original is like Tom Hanks in Big—someone who doesn't understand the rules of contemporary life and doesn't understand how to socialize correctly or how to behave."
The actor channeled the distinctly brash and slurred speech of Moore's original portrayal when he played Arthur drunk. "It's a vocal thing, I think," says Brand. "It's from the esophagus—something happens in the sinuses that's very much to do with Dudley Moore."
In discussing what she took from Liza Minnelli's original performance, Gerwig says, "I think that what Liza Minnelli is as an actress -- in this and all of her films, her stage work and singing. She's such an individual I think it would be a mistake to try to imitate it in any way. I think it's more the spirit of being exactly who you are and being okay with it. That's what I tried to carry over into this production."
The Arthur remake is Gerwig's first major studio picture following the acclaimed indie film Greenberg with Ben Stiller, and before that her work in the "mumblecore" movement. "The transition from tiny movies to less tiny movies to really big movies has been quite seamless in a lot of ways, as far as my experience of acting in them," she says. "I think what's lucky is you don't get cast in things that you are not right for, and the people who will cast you are interested in making a certain kind of movie. So I didn't feel like I was being hired under false pretenses, like they thought I was somebody else."
She stressed that Winer, Baynham and all of the producers "really guided the tone of the movie and the performances, but it was incredibly supportive and a free environment. It didn't feel like I was in a studio machine, it felt like I was working with an incredibly talented group of people who wanted everyone to just be doing their best on their own terms. I think it's just a larger version of what I had been experiencing before, but having more money is really nice because there's a lot more you can do."
When Movies.com visited the set of Arthur last summer, they were filming a scene at the southeastern corner of Central Park where Arthur and Linda are taking a nighttime stroll and getting to one another privately. He offered her his jacket, which belonged to his father, and she tried to dig beneath his boozy playboy exterior. The two showed a natural romantic chemistry, but between takes they were singing and imitating Lena Horne and giggling like kids. It seemed like their patience was wearing thin between setups, but the actress later said otherwise.
"Russell is a live wire of energy and very infectious to everyone around him," says Gerwig. "I think what we heard more was the director saying, 'Settle, settle.' We would start laughing or joking around and then lose where we were in the scene, so I think it was more of a struggle to keep the energy focused rather than keep the energy up."
The same could be said of Brand and Mirren. "I like working with Helen Mirren because she's so exquisitely elegant and delightful," says Brand. "I love her." Of course, Dame Helen also has her own naughty side. "We were doing a scene where she was reading me bedtime stories, and one time she was doing a dirty version of it. 'Toad took Frog and mounted him from behind and entered him deeply and smoothly with rhythmic strokes.' [I said] 'Helen, this is being filmed as part of a film with a broad appeal, one would hope.' She's special, Helen Mirren."
"Helen has this very rambunctious, almost hippie spirit," says Winer. "She loves Russell. She loved him from afar, was aware of his book, knew of his comedy, loved the way he pushes people's buttons both politically and sexually. So the two of them got along like gangbusters. At times we had to tone down their chemistry, frankly, because in order to get the proper British reserve out of the character of Hobson, we had to have them stop having such fun together because they love each other so much and they make relentless fun of each other. In that sense, their offscreen relationship completely mirrors their on-screen relationship. But I think it's also the love and affection between them that's really going to come through on-screen and hopefully give this movie its own flavor."
The director adds that it was really fun to get Dame Helen Mirren to say "balls" or "wash your winky". In a reversal of character, Arthur would use "genitalia" while Hobson would say "balls." "The essence of the comedy lies there," says Winer. "That's similar to [Sir John] Gielgud. Part of the fun of this is how much can we drag an incredibly respected comedy actor through the mud, and we do our share of that."