The Decoy Bride: a Scottish screwball comedy to savour
THIS week a new comedy featuring two of Scotland’s biggest stars premieres in Glasgow. Lee Randall visited the set during filming, and talked to its writer and director about their experiences
STREAMERS fly from the towers of Caerlaverock Castle, and the walkway traversing its moat is draped in heraldic silks, the better to welcome a blushing bride and her groom. There’s a car parked outside surrounded by cameras and lights. David Tennant (Doctor Who), Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire), Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) and Sally Phillips (Miranda, Smack the Pony) scramble out of the car. Then get back in, and scramble out again – over and over and over. It is mind-numbingly boring for those not involved in the filming, and desperately stressful for those who are, not least because a line of clouds is slowly moving towards the bright blue overhead. When Macdonald loses a false eyelash, a triage team springs into action as swiftly as paramedics.
Welcome to the set of Decoy Bride. It’s 2010, and a small group of media people have been invited to Dumfries and Galloway to watch the filming and grab a few minutes with some of the actors between takes. All profess to be delighted to talk, but they keep getting whisked away to perform, and Alice Eve (Sex and the City 2, Starter for Ten) is in a three-hour make-up session to transform her into an old hag. Every now and then locals assemble at a respectful distance, muttering, “Isn’t that Doctor Who?” Despite having handing in his Tardis keys, Tennant – toweringly tall, reed thin, mind-blowingly cute – patiently stops for autographs and smiles for photos with awestruck kids.
MOVIE-MAKING is slow. So much time has now passed since that day that Tennant has married and fathered a daughter, Phillips has recently given birth to her third son, and Macdonald has all but relocated to the United States, enjoying the huge success of Boardwalk Empire, the series created by Martin Scorsese. The film’s script, co-authored by Phillips and Neil Jaworski, was begun seven years ago, when Phillips was pregnant with her first child. This time-frame, she assures me, is par for the course.
Decoy Bride – which is finally released next month, with its premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival this Tuesday – is a joyous romp, a loving homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. It’s the story of “It Girl” actress Lara Tyler (Alice Eve), who falls in love with a bestselling novel, The Ornithologist’s Wife, and by extension, its author, James Arber (Tennant). After plans to marry in Paris are scuppered by the paparazzi, she decides they should trade vows on the “romantic” Hebridean island of Hegg, where his novel is set – blissfully unaware that her fiancé has never actually been there, and expecting to find every detail as recorded in the book.
In a parallel storyline, local girl Katie Nic Aodh (Macdonald) returns to Hegg from Edinburgh. We know something heart-breaking has occurred when we see her chuck an engagement ring off the side of the ferry carrying her home to where her mum, Iseabail (Maureen Beattie), runs the island’s only B&B.
When Tyler’s agent and his assistant (Urie and Phillips) discover that the castle described in the novel is a ruin – which is also true of Caerlaverock: interiors were shot elsewhere – they have 24 hours to work a miracle. Meanwhile, Arber runs into Katie in the local tourist attraction, a Victorian loo. Unaware that he wrote the novel he’s carrying, she makes fun of it, and they take an immediate dislike to each other. By the rules of the genre, that’s our promise that they’ll fall madly in love.
The plot unfolds with countless disguises and double bluffs, and the film is enlivened by delightful cameos from Dylan Moran, James Fleet, Hamish Clark, and Federico Castelluccio, whose face will be familiar to fans of The Sopranos.
THE SHOOT reunites director Sheree Folkson with Urie and Tennant. She directed episodes of Ugly Betty, and worked with Tennant twice before, notably on Casanova. Urie, originally from Texas but now based in New York, tells me at the shoot: “Sheree was quite instrumental in helping to develop the style of Ugly Betty – it really looked like a movie. She knows what she wants and is very good at making it happen. In this film I’m playing a ball-busting tyrant who’ll do whatever it takes to make Lara happy. It’s a darling script and Kelly and David together are so adorable.”
After the phenomenal success of Ugly Betty, does Urie worry about being typecast as a bitchy queen? It’s a double-edged sword, he says, but not a huge problem. “We created something pretty unique with my character, and while the camp thing and the gay thing are issues, I think I sort of have a clean slate now.”
Tennant and I grab a precious eight minutes. He is charm personified, telling me that Folkson and Macdonald, already attached to the project when he was approached, were “two fairly seductive tent posts to sling my canvas over”.
On the first day, he says, “Sheree gave us DVDs of The Shop Around the Corner. It’s great – what’s not to love about Jimmy Stewart? I suppose this is the kind of role he would have done, but the thing is with these parts, that you have to be yourself.”
Would he agree that dying’s easy but comedy’s hard? “There’s a kind of binary reaction to comedy. If it’s funny, it’s funny and if it’s not, then it has failed, whereas something dramatic has more areas of grey, and perhaps objectivity about it. So I guess that makes it harder. And lightness can be difficult, as well.”
How hard has he found it shedding the sonic screwdriver? “Not difficult at all. It would be unrealistic, when something’s been at that level of popularity, to want to forget it. It’s only felt liberating. If it has closed down opportunities I’ve not been aware of it; I feel like it’s opened them up.”
About his Decoy Bride colleagues, he says: “Everybody in it is not only talented and lovely to be around, but they know what they’re doing. That helps keep it fresh and free and creative, and all the things you’re hoping for on take 20. Not that we get 20, because the budget is just too small, but I think we’ve reached five a couple of times.”
THE FILM was initially budgeted at £2.5 million, which meant extensive changes to the original, more elaborate screenplay. That process sometimes felt brutal to Phillips, but it was a necessary evil. She admits she’s still getting her head around the unusual fact of having her first screenplay made, and learning to delight in her good fortune.
Creating a Scottish heroine was a deliberate choice. “I love Scotland, and I have an overly romantic, Disney view of the country. I probably haven’t been up there enough in winter, or been bitten by enough midges. But to me it seems that the films that come out of Scotland portray it as an incredibly bleak place full of drug addicts, poverty, alcoholism and misery.”
Folkson points out that Phillips’s version of the Hebrides isn’t “some twee old-fashioned notion of a Scottish island. When we first see it, it’s horrible and raining.” The Isle of Man actually stood in for the Hebrides, and provided plenty of atmospheric precipitation, dumping it down most of their time there. Interiors were largely shot in Glasgow.
Phillips says: “As a female comedian, everyone wants me to write about relationships. I’m actually incredibly unromantic – my husband will tell you – and so is Neil, my writing partner. It was great to have that dynamic of male and female, that different perspective. Immediate responses are so different, what a woman wants a guy to say in her fantasies, and what he’s likely to say. ”
Her two big bugbears are the cynicism and self-pity she finds rife in modern romcoms. “I used to find David Schwimmer’s character in Friends annoying. When I’m performing I say to myself, ‘Cut down the Ross factor.’ I really wrote the part for Kelly. A Scotish heroine seemed more interesting. There is something so passionate and enduring about a Scottish woman. They’re strong and not self-indulgent. There’s something slightly self-indulgent about middle-class Londoners and home-county girls saying, ‘Nobody loves me.’
“For somebody from the Hebrides, who has pulled her life together and made something of herself, to decide to go back, seemed more interesting as a start. And I have a friend from one of those islands. When I told him the set-up – that she returns and finds that the last single man on the island had just married – he didn’t even smile; he said, ‘That’s what it’s like.’”
Despite the hectic six-week time frame, the entire shoot really was as amiable as it seemed to be on the day I visited, she says. “We all got on really well, and we were so lucky having David and Kelly, because they’d both come back from being in the States. Spending any time in the States, as far as I can tell, turns you into an acting machine. They can act anything. You turn them upside down, hold them by one leg from the ceiling, and say, ‘I need you to do deep grief while throwing currant buns at someone’s head – and do you mind holding your own light?’ And they can still do it. Sheree would be screaming, ‘Come on, we’re losing the light!’ and then David would, without anyone really noticing, just go around doing everyone’s continuity. He’d pass by me and I’d realise he’d moved my bag from my left hand to my right hand, because I’d previously had it in my right hand. He was practically doing people’s make-up. Both of them were like that.”
All I can say in conclusion is if you don’t already have a big crush on Macdonald or Tennant, you’ll be truly smitten by the time the end credits roll.
SCREWBALL comedies flourished during the onset of the Depression and the end of the Second World War. Classics of the genre include Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, and It Happened One Night, below, all of which still delight audiences today.
Screwballs were born in the bleakness of 1930s America, and reflected people’s desire to escape the dreariness of real life. These uproariously funny films depicting ludicrous and luxurious lives fitted the bill perfectly. The term screwball actually comes from baseball, and means insane, eccentric and lunatic.
Ed Sikov, author of Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies, writes: “In the world of screwball comedy, there’s one primary axiom: Hatred is no reason to give up on a relationship… It could, on the contrary, provide the final proof of a couple’s delight in one another, their passion, devotion, and joy.”
Decoy Bride director Sheree Folkson is a massive fan. “I’ve always loved screwball comedy – I like to laugh, I like a love story and a happy ending – but I realise that the reason why I’ve been attracted to these movies since I was a young girl is that the woman’s character is always as strong as the man’s. This has been the case since the 1930s – years before feminism came along. She’s not more noble, more dignified, more emotionally well formed, the way women are often portrayed by writers who think they are treating women as equals. She’s just as foolish, clumsy, fallible, flawed and, yes, funny as the man. This has been the case from Claudette Colbert, to Katherine Hepburn to Doris Day to Diane Keaton to Renee Zellweger. And now, in The Decoy Bride, Kelly Macdonald.”
• The Decoy Bride is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival on 21 and 22 February. Visit www.glasgowfilm.org/festival for times and tickets. The film goes on general release 9 March and will be out on DVD on 12 March.
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