Teenage kicks - Gurinder Chadha interview
Southfork's loss is Southall's gain as Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha tells Siobhan Synnot about scoring another winner with a new Brit comedy
WHEN Gurinder Chadha and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges agreed to take a look at a popular teenage book, it was supposed to be a quick writing job to plug a gap while the couple hung around Los Angeles waiting for something to happen with their planned film of Dallas.
John Travolta, slated to play the family's ultra-manipulative tycoon JR Ewing, had already declared himself immensely taken with the ebullient 48-year-old Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham and Bride And Prejudice, and the filmmaker's journey from Southall to Southfork seemed a done deal. Then, just as quickly, it all fell apart.
"The studio did some research and they found out that if you were under 38 you didn't know the show Dallas," laughs Chadha. "So of course they worried about a younger audience not coming to see it, because people didn't know the show. And of course that made me feel really old because I do remember it."
As well as Travolta, Luke Wilson and Jennifer Lopez were attached to the film, but it appears none of these stars will now be involved if it finally goes ahead, without Chadha. A pity, because Gurinder Chadha is, like the Ewings: larger than life, bold, ballsy and unfazed by the big business she's in.
"Well, they still wanted to do it, but my contract came to an end, I was pregnant and I felt they needed to make it there and then. I couldn't hang around, and they weren't ready to give it the green light at that point, so I moved on. But at that point Angus was calling and I thought I'd rather come back to London and have British children. Then once I'd finished the script for Angus, I liked it so much, I didn't really want to give it to someone else."
Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging conflates two of Louise Rennison's teen novels about an angsty 14-year-old plagued by embarrassing parents, a monstrous cat, an enviable turn of phrase, and a sitcom sense of drama. The books have been bestsellers in the UK, and are even more popular in the US, where readers enjoy phrases such as: "Oh my God, I'm having a nervy B", or "I'm not going to your poxy party!"
"Two guys in LA had tried to adapt it, which I thought was a very bizarre choice, and when I read it, it was a male American version of growing up in England at the age of 14 or 15," says Chadha. "But when I read the books, I realised this was just like my schooldays in Ealing.
"These are movies about not fitting in and having low self-esteem and falling in love and it not working out until the end. The last teenage film we made of that kind in this country was Gregory's Girl about 25 years ago. Bill Forsyth's That Sinking Feeling was another – but they were a long time ago."
If the "thongs" and "snogging" raise eyebrows, the rest of the book's original title "and full frontal snogging" ("kissing with all the trimmings, apart from dribble, which is never acceptable") predictably gave her test audiences in England and LA the vapours.
"We kept running into trouble with 'full frontal' in the title because we had 'thongs' as well," admits the garrulous Chadha. "There was this suspicion that we were making a porno film. The real crunch came when the BBFC wouldn't give us a PG rating with that title because it was too suggestive. So we changed it and sort of compromised on 'perfect', because it's a film about being perfect, or imperfect."
If Chadha can work her Beckham magic again, a new film franchise could be up and running. In any case, Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging means a new level of fame for her lead, 16-year-old Georgia Groome, who made a highly regarded debut last year with the gritty London To Brighton.
"She was one of the first girls I got in when I began casting," says Chadha. Groome thought she was being tested for the British equivalent of High School Musical and wasn't interested. Forced to audition by her agent, she did her utmost to sabotage her performance. "I was gutted," recalls Chadha. "So we carried on casting. I must have seen about a thousand girls. But I couldn't let it lie, so I called Georgia back in, and in those five months since I'd first seen her, she had grown up. I was like 'eureka!'"
At the time when she was drawn into Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging, Chadha had just become pregnant with twins and had arranged to work on the script and casting until her second trimester, with the provision that if she didn't feel like making the movie after giving birth, the picture would be shelved. However, by April, Chadha's doctor had become alarmed by her spiralling blood pressure, and arranged for an emergency Caesarean section. Brother and sister Ronak and Kumiko spent the next five weeks at a London IC Unit, while Chadha decided to go straight back to her film.
"I'd been a bit in denial about how scary it had been," admits Chadha. "I was told by the doctor that I had to stop working or I was going to die, and I didn't really deal with all that.
"But I did feel I had to get back to me and get back to work so I started shooting in August when the babies were sleeping all the time. I would be in my trailer between takes expressing and stuff. Then by the end of the shoot the babies were beginning to interact, but by then I only had two weeks left of filming. Editing was easy because we could work just off the road from our apartment in Soho, so I could be there for bath and bedtime. I'm only thinking now that it was a mad thing to do, but films are like a train. Once it's started you can't get off."
Chadha's warm regard for family is the thread that connects projects as diverse as the Blackpool-bound Asian women in her first feature Bhaji On The Beach and her last, the Bollywood Jane Austen musical, Bride And Prejudice. It also made her the natural fit for Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging, a film that observes the emotions of a teenager and imbues the narrative with a feelgood factor. It may also function as a companion piece to her biggest hit, Bend It Like Beckham.
No British film since The Full Monty has caught on around the world like Beckham. Semi-autobiographical, the teenage girl football comedy established Chadha as one of the most sought after directors in Britain, and kicked off the careers of young leads Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley.
"I remember with Keira, I wanted her to have really short hair, because she plays this more androgynous girl, but she resisted because she felt her neck didn't look nice at the back. At that age they aren't quite confident with who they are and what they are so I try not to be intimidating."
Chadha admits she didn't think Knightley's career would take off as quickly as it did after she cast the 16-year-old Londoner and sent her on a crash course in ball skills.
"I liked Keira as soon as she walked into the room for her audition. She was warm and confident and you were drawn to her compared to a lot of the other girls of that age. But when she sat cross-legged on her chair, you could see she was still a child.
"What we quickly noticed was that she's very flirty and knows how to get attention in a way that is very cinematic. The camera doesn't intimidate her at all. If anything, it magnifies her sense of security."
As for Chadha, after 15 years moving from film set to film set, she plans to focus on enjoying her own family. "We waited so long to have children and it just lights up my world," she says. "I often find myself mulling over the day with these beautiful little beings in my arms. They have helped us relax and taken a lot of the stress away. They have added magic to our lives."
• Angus, Thongs And Full Frontal Snogging is on general release July 25
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