The idea of remaking a picture as famous as “Alfie,” the 1966 movie that catapulted Michael Caine to stardom, might terrify a lot of people, but not Charles Shyer. This, after all, is the man who has already done new versions of “The Parent Trap” and “Father of the Bride.” Perhaps it was that track record that persuaded Paramount Pictures, which owned the rights, to greenlight the project as soon as Shyer and his co-writer Elaine Pope pitched it to them. Why now? “I think that Alfie, that kind of guy–starting with Casanova, I guess, or even further back, the guy who treats women [that way], whose whole thing is face, boobs, bum–that whole kind of guy is always going to be around, in some form or another,” Shyer explained in a recent Dallas interview. “And I saw a resurgence of this kind of misogynistic attitude towards women seeping back in. I know I’m in the wrong state to say this, but I think that the swing to the right hasn’t helped. I think we’re at a stage right now where, truthfully, if Roe Vs. Wade is overturned, we’re going to be back to the original ‘Alfie,’ where people were doing back-alley abortions…and I also think that music videos haven’t helped….I just thought all of that made a new visit of an ‘Alfie’ kind of pertinent.”
But the new “Alfie” is hardly a carbon-copy of the original. “Letting go of the old movie [is important]…because I think at the end of the day you’ll improve it into a failure if you try to make the same movie again,” Shyer said. “You’ve got to make it a stand-alone movie with the same character base and the same theme, but it’s got to stand alone.” So he and Pope “watched the movie the first time to see if we wanted to do it. We looked at the [original] screenplay. We read the novel. Then we went off on our own, trying to chart our own course. It isn’t a classic, three-act structure; it’s more or a journey. To just stick to the old one was a bit tough, and the women didn’t apply today anymore, so it was a little hard to relate to. So we just went out on our own and tried to ‘remodel’ the movie….The whole remake thing is weird to me, because if you do ‘Don Giovanni’ or ‘Figaro,’ or you do ‘Showboat’ or ‘Guys and Dolls’ or ‘Hamlet,’ you’re not scrutinized so much. But if you do a remake of ‘Father of the Bride’ or something, it’s like you’ve taken a holy grail or something. I don’t understand….Look, I wouldn’t remake ‘The Apartment’ or ‘All About Eve’–there are certain movies that I wouldn’t touch. But since ‘Alfie’ was a play, it’s like ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or a lot of those movies, [like] ‘His Girl Friday’–you feel if you have a new interpretation of it, why not try it?”
One of the major changes that Shyer and Pope made in the story–apart from contemporizing it, of course–was moving it to New York. “I liked the idea that he was a fish out of water in America,” Shyer explained. “I made three movies in England, and I know England pretty well, but it’s not part of my soul. I didn’t want to have to do research about where he would hang out, and stuff….I also liked the fact that this guy–he’s such a philosopher, and knows everything–I thought to have him comment on American values was kind of fun and interesting. And also, at the end of the movie I like the fact that he’s not in England, that he’s in America by himself….It resonates a little bit, his loneliness.”
Of course, for a new “Alfie” to succeed, it needed a young star as charismatic as Caine was in 1966. “It’s limited, who could do this,” Shyer said–and Jude Law was at the top of the list. Though he was reluctant at first, Law ultimately said yes, and his presence drew the female members of the cast to the project, too. “Well, put it this way–’Here’s your job, you get to make out with Jude Law,’” Shyer explained, laughing. “Nobody said they didn’t want to do it.” And though Shyer had written the script himself, he encouraged the cast’s input. “No matter how smart you are and how well choreographed you think it is in your brain, it always evolves, it always changes [on the set]….The movie sort of finds itself.” That was particularly the case with one big aspect of the first “Alfie” that Shyer retained–the character’s habit of directly addressing the audience. “Jude and I really worked on it and we did a lot of tests of him talking to the camera, and then we’d go in the projection room and look at it….He got comfortable with it and by the time we got up to speed shooting, he was [ready]. He’s the kind of guy that once he gets it, he just embellishes it and it becomes very natural. The guy is gorgeous, I know. But more important than that, he’s a great, great actor. He’s the real thing–an authentic great actor. He’s in every scene in this movie, and he just carries it on his shoulders.”
Still, Shyer says that his “Alfie” isn’t necessarily what Paramount had in mind when they took to his pitch. “I’m not sure that the movie [the studio] thought I was going to write was the movie they got, at the end of the day,” he said. “I think they may have seen it a little differently–a little happier ending. I don’t think our ending’s bleak, but…they like things wrapped up neatly.” But he would have resisted any interference from them. “There’s this thing William Wyler said a long time ago–when you’re a film director, you have to resist every temptation to be a good fellow. It’s harsh, but you have to act like you’re not going to make another movie for this studio. If you make a bomb, you’re not going to make another movie for them anyway, and if you make a hit, they’re going to be all over you.” That stance has to extend to increased costs, too: “Billy Wilder said, nobody ever looked in the newspaper and said, ‘Hey, honey, let’s go see this movie–I hear it came in under budget.’ You’ve got to have the confidence to move into your own territory and know that some people will go after you; some people won’t like it. You’ve just got to accept that.” And he was pleased to report that one very important person seemed to like it a good deal. “Michael Caine loves the movie, by the way,” Shyer volunteered. “He called me three or four days ago, telling me how much he loved it, how much he loved Jude. He thought he was going to go in and see the same movie he made, with Jude Law. He said it’s a completely different movie, but you managed somehow–this is what he said–to maintain the integrity of Bill [Naughton’s] original work. You didn’t bastardize it. You just embellished it and brought it into a new millennium. And he was so proud. It was like I was his kid or something.”
Not a bad parentage, that.