The Best Film I Never Made

I first read Boswells “Life of Johnson” as a student at Sydney University. Needless to say, like most of the books I read, it wasn’t on any of the courses that I was allegedly attending. It was not just the record of Johnson’s wit that attracted me but the door that it opened, at first hand, into another century; how they behaved, travelled, ate, thought, loved etc

At this time, early 1960’s, a number of Boswell’s diaries were being published after being found, with near – illegible handwriting and nibbled by rats – in various houses and even barns in Scotland. They were edited by an American academic by the name of Frederick A. Pottle & dribbled onto the market at fairly long intervals with the addition of Pottle’s (usually relevant) footnotes. Once again a window was opened onto life in the 18th century, the highlights, for me, being Boswell’s descriptions of his trips around the Continent, his affair with an aristocratic Dutch girl, his meeting with Voltaire, and his numerous vividly described encounters with prostitutes followed by equally vivid descriptions of his efforts to cure his various sexual diseases, most of which seemed to include lemon juice & the insertion of hot glass rods into the male member.

It has always seemed a little odd to me that there have been no films about  Johnson & Boswell, apart from a couple of BBC TV productions.  The large, imperious and opinionated Englishman & the small drunken Scotsman were an ideal subject. Certainly, with Boswell’s biography and all of the diaries there is plenty of source material.

I was thrilled when a script arrived a few years ago –  “Boswell for the Defence”, written by a Melbourne author, Patrick Edgeworth – a tall, courteous Englishman who emigrated to Australia as a young man & found work as a stand-up comedian, before becoming the author of a number of film scripts & quite a few plays. In his Boswell script Samuel Johnson makes no appearance at all, as the story deals with the later years of Boswell’s life – when he was a down-and-out lawyer in London. The days of celebrity that attended the publication of the famous “Life” were over and Boswell was struggling to find work.  A case was brought to his attention of a woman named Mary Broad, who had escaped from the penal colony in New South Wales (the only person ever to do so) and, after unbelievable hardships, – which included the deaths of all her travelling companions and her children – had returned to London.  She was arrested, imprisoned and threatened with execution as an escaped felon.  Nobody wanted to defend her, nobody thought it worth their while, there would be no fee & little chance of success. This was not an era in which prisoners rights were a factor.

Boswell took on the case and, amazingly, won it.  Mary Broad was freed and returned home to the West of England.

Patrick Edgeworth wrote a one-man stage play some years prior to the film script. This had a huge success in the West End, with the Australian actor Leo McKern as Boswell.

The rewrite as a film script was so well thought out with added characters (including, of course, Mary Broad) integrated so seamlessly that it was difficult to believe it was adapted from a one-man performance piece. I don’t recall anything in any of the Boswell diaries about the trial so either he never wrote anything or the indefatigable Frederick A. Pottle is still editing the text.[1] Patrick Edgeworth was able to get some information from contemporary newspapers, but the work is no doubt largely brilliant invention based on his knowledge of Boswell from that chronicler’s mountain of material written about himself. Devastatingly witty, the script is also compassionate & exciting as Boswell battles the indifferent Lord Chancellor (with whom he had studied law) for a reprieve for Mary Broad. Mary herself is cleverly realised  – bitter & resentful as a result of her treatment, she at first finds it hard to believe that anyone in authority could be trying to help her.

I was so enthusiastic about the project that I swept aside my Hollywood agents objections. He was dubious about the financial structure, mainly because he was able to find out so little about it. He was also suspicious of European based films made outside the studio system, invariably cobbled together through a weird amalgam of sales agents, tax breaks & European film funds. If any one of various ninepins were to fall over the whole project could collapse.

The three producers involved also fell into a pattern that caused concern. Nik Powell, the English partner, had been behind a number of films, some of them quite celebrated, but was renowned for his ability to skate on thin ice, with frequent falls.  This didn’t worry me unduly as thin ice is the modus operandi of most film producers, their projects being invariably at the whim of capricious stars, whose commitment could be withdrawn in the event of a better offer, or of studio executives whose ability to “green light” could be suddenly extinguished by their fall from power. Rainer Mockert, the German fundraiser, was described to me as someone who “sometimes comes through with the funding and sometimes doesn’t”. The Australian producer, Mark Pennell, was a handsome ex-actor from “Neighbours”.  Full of charm, he appeared to me to know virtually nothing about film production. I imagined he’d be in great demand as an actor playing feckless and untrustworthy types.

Pushing aside my agents advice not to get involved I first headed off to California, where I was re-staging an opera production I had first directed in Houston – of Carlyle Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree”.  I stopped off in Los Angeles to meet with Richard Dreyfus, who, I was told, was interested in playing Boswell.  This struck me as an excellent idea. I’d worked with Richard before, in an unsuccessful film, “Silent Fall”, & was impressed by an enormous talent. My only reservation about him being his habit of sounding off at great length with abstruse theories about motivation.  I remember saying to him at one point, “Look, I can’t follow any of this. Why don’t you just play the scene & I’ll tell you if I like it”. Correctly assuming I was simple-minded, he agreed to this request quite rapidly.

Richard knew nothing about Boswell, in fact didn’t know the character wasn’t fictional, but was most enthusiastic about the script. I thought that his quickness, humour & innate eccentricity made him perfect for the role.  I knew, too, from seeing him play Fagin superbly in a Disney film of “Oliver Twist” that accents were no problem to him.

While rehearsing “Cold Sassy Tree” with the great American soprano Patricia Racette in the leading role, I had a call from Nik Powell in London asking me to rush over as pre-production meetings were necessary & it was not possible to wait for me until the end of the week.  Reluctantly, I handed over the staging to my assistant, a likable ex-choir boy named Garnett Bruce, & flew off to London.

My suspicions that something was not shipshape with “Boswell” should have been aroused immediately, when I was told, on arrival, that far from bringing the production forward, it was being pushed back some weeks.  Why then did I have to hurry over from San Diego?  No answer was provided. A casual attitude was adopted by all, a ploy devised, no doubt, to allay anxiety (mine).  Further, I was told that Richard Dreyfus was no longer ideal for the leading role, as he was not considered a bankable star by distributors.  Michael Caine had now been approached & was enthusiastic about the part.

There wasn’t anything I could do. Caine was a popular actor, with an attractive manner on screen, though I don’t think even he would claim to have the talent of Richard Dreyfus.  This business of films being, in effect, recast by investors & distributors had happened to me prior to this film & has happened a couple of times since.  All my efforts at actually talking to the investors/distributors involved have been thwarted, leading me to think  (though I’ve never been able to prove it) that the casting changes actually come about because of whims of the films’ producers. Knowing that directors are likely to dig their heels in over certain casting choices & unwilling to confront them, they simply get out of the line of fire by inventing a distant and uncontactable villain.

I now met with both Nik Powell and Rainer Mockert, who hastened to assure me the delay had nothing to do with any financing problems, but was basically because of Michael Caine’s availability. The meeting was in Nik’s office, in Soho, a far cry from the elegant producers offices I was familiar with in Los Angeles. It was up four flights of narrow stairs which needed careful negotiation because of the cardboard boxes piled haphazardly. The office itself was a shambles – a mess of papers & old posters. Nik himself was a lean decrepit figure who would be rejected by Central Casting as an over-obvious run-down movie producer. He was friendly & talked very quickly, though it was curiously hard to catch his eye.

Rainer was more stylishly dressed, not a markedly difficult achievement, was stocky, middle-aged & spoke fluent English with a World War II movie accent. His main passion seemed to be opera & I began to suspect he was steering me onto this topic rather than discussing “Boswell”.

Having accepted the delay, pre-production went ahead. Michael Gambon, certainly one of the greatest actors working today, took the part of the Lord Chancellor & Samantha Morton the role of Mary Broad.  I met Gambon backstage after he played in a revival of Pinter’s “The Caretaker”, a play that seemed to me to be even better than I remembered from the 1960’s.  Gambon was affable & clearly yet another fan of Edgeworth’s script. Samantha Morton, on the other hand, had a curiously hostile air, which I was told had something to do with her deprived background. Plenty of us have had to overcome that situation & it seems infantile to punish casual & guiltless acquaintances for it. However, I realised the hostility would work well in the role & Samantha’s performance in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” convinced me in one blow she was talented.

As Production Designer we engaged Martin Childs, a rather shy Englishman, who had long experience with the BBC & had won an Academy Award for “Shakespeare in Love”.  My regular first assistant Director, the ebullient Rich Cowan, arrived from Vancouver. Probably the only forceful Canadian I’ve ever met, Rich is a brilliant organiser with an overwhelming passion for sports, including the arcane Canadian ones of curling (?) and hockey.  Peter James, the lighting cameraman (with whom I’d done “Driving Miss Daisy”, “Black Robe” and eight other films) arrived from Australia.

With reassurances from the producers that there were no hidden problems the aspect of film production I often find the most enjoyable began – location hunting. In a van, led by a glamorous young location manager from Yorkshire named Amanda Stevens (“I don’t have affairs with married men”) we crashed around the south of England looking for grand country houses, 18th century parks, 18th century slums ( Spitalfields was workable despite being yuppified), coaching stations and so on. During the long drives I taught everyone how to play “Botticelli” , a word game in which a celebrity must be found though the players are given only the first letter of the surname. I remember winning a round with “Joan Sutherland” and getting involved in a huge row with Rich Cowan, who claimed she couldn’t lay claim to the title “celebrity”, though he was quite happy to include various Curling champions and regional Canadian hockey players in that category. To prove his point he leant out of the van at a traffic light and asked passers-by if they’d ever heard of someone named Joan Sutherland. No one had. I objected that this was hardly a fair test of celebrity. How many inhabitants of Slough would be familiar with the name of any opera star? I doubted if any of those asked would have heard of Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan either.

I think that mainly due to Amanda’s attractiveness allied with her straightforward manner – a characteristic of people from her part of England – we were granted filming access to one desirable location after another. In a visit to a grand country house owned by a cousin of the Queen we actually met the owner as we tramped around his lawns.  Peter James was quick to inform him they were related. As taken aback as his good breeding would allow the Queen’s cousin said he was “unaware of any relatives in Australia”.  Both Rich Cowan and myself were kicking Peter’s ankles from opposite sides in an effort to quieten him, but he went on regardless with a tale of how his mother had assured him of the royal family relationship. Peter was unconvinced of the absurdity of his claim even when I pointed out later that Australian mothers of that generation (his & mine) were nearly all anxious to claim exalted connections (the next generation are desperate to prove convict ancestry). I remember that my mother once handed me a family history linking us to an old Norman family. At her urging I sent it to a heritage society in London. I never told my mother they said it was a fake, but because of my silence on the subject she quietly switched her claim to say we were descended from Dean Swift.

At Shepparton studios a vast set of Newgate prison, where Mary Broad was held, was under construction to Martin Child’s clever design. In the props department a number of sedan chairs were being built. They were the taxis of the late 18th century and would be needed for our numerous London street scenes. Costumes & props were being collected & filled huge storage rooms. The film seemed inevitable.

Suddenly, I was told that Samantha Morton would not be playing the lead female role. I could get no plausible explanation for this, although thought she might have become fed up with a number of mysterious changes to the start date. I talked to Nik Powell and Mark Pennell, asking them if Samantha had some information about the film that I didn’t possess, such as, for example, that it was about to collapse? Absurd, I was assured,  & told to get on with re-casting the role.

Some weeks after Samantha’s departure, with shooting only about 9 days away, I was in the van with the crew when my mobile rang. Nik Powell was on the phone from Germany. The conversation was brief, just a few seconds –“ there’s no money. The film’s off”.  The mobiles (supplied by the production office) all stopped working a few minutes later. A day or so later the production office in Shepparton had gone. No one connected with the film could be found.

A few days later we held a morose “end of no shoot” party in my London flat. None of the producers were present, just a depressed crew. The next day Rich Cowan and his wife returned to Vancouver, Martin Child went onto the film “Quills”, Amanda began location hunting for a new movie, & Peter James and I returned to Australia, at our own expense.

As I had a “pay or play” deal  – i.e. if the film doesn’t go ahead I am supposed to collect my fee, –  I called my agent in Los Angeles. He phoned a few days later to see he couldn’t find anyone connected with the production & the Byzantine contract led straight into a labyrinth at the end of which was no fee for the director.

I have often been asked why, if the script was so good, the cast in place, & the film so close to production, finance couldn’t be found to replace that which had presumably failed to materialise. I have no answer to the question as I never found out anything at all about the structure, an obviously decrepit one, behind the film. Perhaps too much money owed? Had the huge set been paid for? Perhaps the German/English/Australian set up was so complex no one could understand it or perhaps the rights and percentage shares were already assigned in such a way there was no incentive left?  It certainly seems to be the case that when films fall over at the last minute resuscitation is very rare.

And the producers?  A recent check (July, 2014) on the professional IMDB web site reveals that Nik Powell has continued to be associated with a number of films, though none of the titles are familiar to me. A couple of years ago he was appointed head of the National Film School in Britain, where it is to be hoped he isn’t indoctrinating the students with his ethical standards. Rainer Mockert has no credits since 2005, though a newspaper article of a few years ago states that he is producing “Doria” to be directed by Dominic Minghella, and a Russian film “Kolyma”. Neither of these films has yet been realised. Another article mentions Rainer being associated with a number of opera productions. Mark Pennell is listed on IMDB as the producer of only one feature, “The Real Thing” in 2002, though an elaborate and laudatory biography, no doubt written by Pennell himself, states that he has written and produced  (2013) a $100 million feature film “The Sea Hawk”, starring Hugh Jackman and directed by Martin Campbell. This film is not mentioned on the IMDB credits for either Jackman or Campbell. So far- 2014 – there has been no sign of its release.

CODA 1.

Some months after returning to Sydney I received a call from Nik Powell’s office to say the film was set up once again and could I come to London to meet the new line producer, sign a production agreement, & go on a location survey to Latvia (where it was cheaper to film than London).? I was hesitant, but my enthusiasm for the script was still so fervent that I brushed aside the warnings of my agent, lawyer,wife, family and friends.

Back in my London flat, Nik Powell was evasive but arranged for me to meet the line producer (whose name I can’t recall), a bluff Englishman, clearly quite experienced. He, too, assured me the film would proceed, but the necessary papers couldn’t be signed for a couple of weeks for some reason he didn’t even attempt to explain. Naïve to the last, I said I would go to Boston to visit my son who had just joined the philosophy department at the University of Massachusetts.

When I returned to London I was told the papers were still not quite ready to be signed and there would be a delay of a few months. I knew this was the end of the line. I would never hear any more about the project.

Defeated at last, I returned to Australia, realising I would never direct the wonderful screenplay, “Boswell for the Defence”.  It will always be the best film I never made.


[1] I just Googled” Pottle”. He died in 1987.

About the author: Bruce Beresford