Rupert Everett brought his film “The Happy Prince,” about the last years in the life of Oscar Wilde, to Dallas last week, appearing at a screening for members of the USA Film Festival and in Q&As following premiere screenings at both of the area Angelika theatres. Part of his schedule included sitting down for interviews with local press.
Everett wrote and directed the film, as well as starring in it as Wilde; he’d been working on the script since 2006, and after completing it portrayed the author in a successful London revival of David Hare’s play “The Judas Kiss” in 2012.
“I did the play because I’d still managed not to find any money for the film, so I thought if I did the play, I might be able to drum up some interest in the film. And that’s what happened in the end. We did the play in London, it was quite successful, and then I got the first deals together from that.
“It was all done, my script, really. David’s play is wonderful, and I think it had a definite impact on me playing the part. I did that play for a year and a half, on and off. I came to New York with it, and we went on tour with it, and it really helped me in terms of being in the film, because I got the look of the part together doing the play, and the silhouette of the body of the character, which was very important for me. And so the play was incredibly helpful to me. I got to know the part so well, I had no difficulty slipping into it [even while directing the film].”
Unlike previous films about Wilde—“Oscar Wilde” (1959), with Robert Morley, “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” (1960), with Peter Finch, and “Wilde” (1998), with Stephen Fry—Everett chose to concentrate on the last three years of the writer’s life, the period of continental exile after his release from prison after serving two years at hard labor for “gross indecency” in 1897.
“Partly for that,” Everett explained. “When you’re making a film you want to find virgin territory if you can, and all three of the other films for some reason stopped at the moment Oscar Wilde goes into prison. There was a tiny bit about prison, but they deal with his life as a celebrity. I think it’s a bit of a cop-out, in a way, but then you have to remember that two of the films were made when it was still illegal to be gay in the U.K., so they were both very daring films just to start with. But the fact of the matter is that it made them treat the character in probably slightly too reverential and iconic a way in one sense. And my feeling was that Wilde wasn’t quite like that grave, serious intellectual. He was more of a character, in a way. and so I had a good angle on trying to make a new version.”
Everett emphasized that the choice made by the earlier films wasn’t really determined by a lack of information on the later years. “You might think that,” he said, “because Richard Ellmann, who really brought Wilde back to life in the 1970s [in his monumental biography], was dying by the time he got to the end of the book, so his last chapter, which is the chapter of Wilde in exile, is a very short—but actually quite wonderful—chapter. Actually there are tons of books written at the time—[Robert] Sherard, Frank Harris, [Wilde’s agent and friend] Robbie Ross himself, Bosie [Alfred Lord Douglas, whose relationship with Wilde led to his conviction]—they all wrote about Wilde in exile. And because he’s one of those characters, there are so many letters, and so many people writing about him, you can get tons of information.
“There’s nothing really imagined in the whole story—it’s all referenced in some way, except for Oscar standing on the table and singing. That didn’t actually happen, but I wanted to try and draw a parallel between him as a performer in his previous life and somehow him continuing to perform, but in his reduced circumstances. It’s rather like being an actor when you don’t get work—he proactively found other ways of performing—if it was singing on a table, or reading to a little child, a street urchin. And that’s how he kept entertaining. I think he really was an entertainer, essentially, that’s where he was most alive, entertaining.
“I think that what’s great about his exile is that it’s not the exile of a victim, it’s the exile of someone who’s just plowing on, in one way, creating his own constitution, albeit on a street corner now, with petty criminals and rent boys. But he somehow retains his fascination about life and his curiosity. He made the most of his life, and that’s what I find very inspiring about him.
“All his old friends used to cross the road to avoid him, so he’d sit in the bar really from dawn to dusk. Sometimes he’d have money, so he’d pay for the drinks, sometimes he wouldn’t. Graham Greene’s father was a mathematics teacher, on holiday with another mathematics teacher in Paris in 1899, and they were sitting in a bar and they met this rather smelly person who charmed them and told them stories and made them laugh, and they bought him drinks. He did this all the time.
“That’s part of the charm of the story, in a way—he managed to make a world [for himself]. He knew all these terrible low-life people, and he existed in a new and very weird world.”
The portrait of Oscar Wilde that Everett presents is quite different from the one drawn of him during his years of celebrity as the supreme wit of his age. “I decided not to try to write him too ‘brilliantly,’” Everett explained. “I thought I must just concentrate on what was happening to him psychologically, and not obsess about trying to make it clever enough, or funny enough or witty enough. In one sense it’s not so difficult, because you have so much to access of his own work. But I definitely thought it best not to try and make up my own aphorisms. There are two or three of his lines that I’ve put in. But I didn’t want to make it too much about the funny lines.
“What’s really extraordinary about Wilde is he’s before Freud. So all of what we have—which is, how am I feeling, what do I feel like inside?—this hadn’t happened in Wilde’s day. It’s not very easy to imagine, because it’s so much a part of our language now, but it wasn’t then. Wilde really was on the cusp of that, because he does say things like ‘suffering is nothing when there’s love.’ He is very much into a new version of psychology.” He added another “modern” element to Wilde’s life: “He’s the prototype of [those who are] famous for being famous.”
Everett got a taste of what the exile must have been like for Wilde when he followed the writer’s European itinerary while trying to secure financing for the project. He first went to Dieppe across the channel, but felt the reality most deeply when he made his way to Berneval, the tiny town near there where Wilde stayed for several months before Bosie arrived to take him to Naples, ruining any chance of reconciliation with his wife and sons. “I could suddenly feel the kind of loneliness and desperation of someone who had been the life and soul of everywhere, people hanging on his every word, suddenly stuck in a bed-and-breakfast in a little village where there’s nobody there to see him,” he said. “So I think he went back to Bosie out of depression and loneliness, actually. But once it happened, that was the end.”
Ultimately “The Happy Prince”—the title taken from one of Wilde’s short stories, which Everett uses to bookend the script—was shot in four countries, including one where Wilde did not set foot. “We got most of the money out of Germany,” he explained, “and once you get the money, you have to make it there. That was a bit of a problem, because Wilde never went to Bavaria. But I found these three old castles, in an area called Franconia, which is on the Czech border. They hadn’t been restored at all, and they had all these amazing rooms, and I really used them as a kind of studio. All the rooms of the whole film were in those three castles.”
Though Everett looks very different from himself as Wilde, he noted, “I didn’t have any prosthetics—except a tooth thing that make my jaw slightly wider, but that’s all I had. With such a hectic shoot, we wouldn’t have had time for prosthetics.”
He did have time, however to recruit friends to appear with him in the movie—Colin Firth as Wilde’s loyal friend Reggie Turner, Emily Watson as his estranged wife Constance, and Tom Wilkinson as Father Dunne, who receives Wilde into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. “I blackmailed everyone I knew to be in the movie,” he joked. “I was so lucky that they all did it in the end. Without Colin and Emily and Tom, there would have been no financing of the film.” Their prominence, however, did not moderate Everett’s insistence on a close adherence to his script. “I was quite strict about that, really. I knew it backwards,” he explained.
Wilkinson’s cameo, however, was designed to provide a smile to the film’s poignant close—along with the documented quarrel between Bosie and Ross at Wilde’s burial, with Bosie nearly tumbling into the grave in slapstick fashion. “I wanted to have something fun at the end, to take some of the strain out,” Everett said, though he added that he had to imagine what their argument was about.
“I’m always hoping you can be funny and tragic at the same time,” he explained. Like Wilde himself, one might add.
“The Happy Prince” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.