Interview: Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod

The theatre directors on their film debut, starring Robert Pattinson and Christina Ricci.

With Bel Ami in UK cinemas now, we caught up with directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod in London talk about their all-star debut.

The couple formed the Laurence Olivier award-winning theatre company Cheek By Jowl in 1981, putting on Shakespeare productions and more worldwide. They’ve made their film debut with this racy adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel, about penniless soldier Georges (Robert Pattinson), who sleeps his way through Parisian’s high profile wives (Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas) for power. Read our review here.

We met with Donnellan and Ormerod to talk about their rascal of a lead character, getting the cast on such a modest budget, and their working relationship.

So how is the film world treating you?
Donnellan: The red carpet in Berlin was absolutely amazing. We’d never had much intrusion from Robert’s fans, and Rob’s really serious - he insisted on rehearsing for a whole month before we started to shoot. There was no intrusion on the set. The thing they had in common - all the principles came from completely different background in cinema. They all had one thing in common, in that they were doing something they’d never done before - the roles stretched each of them. Then we hit Berlin… [laughs] It was incredible fun.
Ormerod: We expected something fairly extraordinary, and it was amazing.
Donnellan: Nick burst out laughing one morning when he was reading the emails. He couldn’t stop laughing, saying ‘we had a letter from Hugo Boss, asking permission to dress us in Berlin!’
Ormerod: This is a Hugo Boss jacket!

Why was the time right to make your film debut?
Ormerod: The thing about films, is that they don’t happen. We’d been attached to projects in the past and they haven’t happened. This one happened. I don’t think the time was right, but it was right.
Donnellan: We get mad when we’re not working. I go absolutely crazy, Nick goes crazy, if we don’t do some work, some time. To make a movie you need to spend two years having lunch in Soho House. We can do six months - there are lots of film projects, and you just give up after a little while, and say, we’ve got to get back to theatre now, as we can’t stand it any longer. So what we did this time is just kept the two going, and put a stop in out theatre work for a period. We’re dying to make another movie but it’s very hard for us to say we won’t work for four years why we get something off the ground. I find it very difficult to understand how film directors do it.

Did you pull on your theatre resources when it came to costume, production, etc, or did you start with a new team?
Ormerod: I think there’s a lot that film and theatre have in common. I mean, I as a designer dealt with the space basically. It felt like doing site-specific theatre in some ways - you’re dealt with a location, you need to decide how to tell the story within that space, and how to leave enough space to allow the actors to dynamise the space. There’s an awful lot in common.
Donnellan: We love movies, and our means of relaxation has forever been going to the movies. Going to the theatre is much like work, sadly. Cinema is our idea of a night out. So, we were very, very thrilled and nervous when it started to happen, and we read all the books, we took advice from all our friends, theatre people like Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes and Danny Boyle, Roger Michell, and they were very helpful. We storyboarded it as we didn’t want to make any mistakes, but then on the first day, you’d see Rob or Uma doing something else which was much better. So on the first day, we threw everything away! We had much more fun. At the end we decided it was exactly the same as theatre in its essence, which is that all we care about in theatre is that it comes alive, and that our work in film had to come alive. That’s the alpha and omega, the starting point - is this alive. We learnt that, and now we’re bitten - we’re dying to make another movie.

Did you have an aim visually, or was the energy more important?
Ormerod: No, because the story attracted us because of the essence of the story, as opposed to an interest in fantasiacal Paris. But that is such a rich area, it almost comes naturally without trying.

Did you hark back to the other productions of Bel Ami?
Donnellan: There aren’t any! There’s a cliché that it’s been done many times, but the last English-language version was 1947, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, which is quite an obscure film. We’ve seen it, and it’s good, but it’s not one of the classic film noirs - it’s not Great Expectations. It’s not Bleak House, it’s not Oliver Twist. It’s relatively undone.

Were there changes from the novel?
Ormerod: Obviously you have to leave out whole great chunks of a novel. Part of the story is an opposing newspaper, and he has a duel with one of the journalist. We focused on what we felt was the heart of the story, which is his relationship with the four women.
Donnellan: And his profound love affair with himself! That’s the love story at the heart of Bel Ami!
Ormerod: The politics are there, but the point being that Georges Duroy is not interested in the politics. He couldn’t give a - this isn’t on the radio, is it? - about the politics. So they bubble up, but only in as far as they direct his pocket basically.

Georges has no redeeming qualities at all - I enjoyed how brutal he was.
Donnellan: Rob was completely fascinated by the fact he has no redeeming qualities. The other thing is that he’s not really ambitious for money, and he’s not really that bright, and hasn’t got any ambitious grand plans. He just wants what you’ve got. He’s completely reactive to what the other guy’s got. He’s so completely consumed by envy. I think he’s got one huge redeeming feature, in that he wants to live. That’s why we fought to keep in the death he witnesses at the heart of it. For me it’s really important that he sees this one thing that makes him think, ‘I’m going to fucking live.’ I think that’s a completely admirable quality for a human being. It’s very tough, as not everybody wants to live that much, because we’re a mixture of wanting to live and wanting to die, and he so purely wants to live.

Can I ask how you get such a cast on a relatively modest budget?
Ormerod: The more you hear about film, you realise that people [actors] aren’t well-paid and they will do a project they want to do. I’m glad to say they wanted to work with us, but they also loved the script - Rob really grabbed at it, and loved the character.
Donnellan: We know a lot of movie actors - the ones you can imagine we know - and it’s very interesting how little they get paid. All the interesting projects don’t pay very much. All the gazillion pounds that you hear tends to be for other kinds of movies, the type that famous actors do, if you see what I mean. People do do things for very little. You hear it cost 9 million euros, and that sounds like a huge amount but it really isn’t once hundreds of people are paid and you have to move from one location to the other. I’ve never been on Easyjet so often! It wasn’t glamorous, I can tell you!

What was it about Rob that you liked?
Ormerod: I think he’s perfect for the role. He has those matinee idol good looks, the sort of gigilo looks that those women completely fall for, and yet he has a darkness, and interest, and a vulnerability sometimes too.
Donnellan: He’s very bright too, and he understood the character. Rob’s got an enormous amount of talent, but we’re all fascinated by this character who has no talent. It’s a modern story - the person who gets to the top with no talent. A journalist asked us the other day, ‘was this the first time the two of you have worked together?’ You do start asking, how did they get the job? When I was young, it was really difficult to get jobs, and I think a lot of people get jobs because… I don’t know. There’s this fascination with how people get to the top of their jobs. They get there because they’re empty, because they have no imagination, so other people can pin fantasies on them.
Ormerod: In every organisation you see them - their one talent is to get to the top.

I loved Kristin Scott Thomas in this, as it was strange to see her play such a fawning character.
Ormerod: Yes, it’s wonderful as in the beginning she feels stuffy and quite old, and by the end she’s transformed into this lovesick 14 year-old.
Donnellan: She gets younger and younger and after a while she gets disgustingly young like a 14 year-old girl with the crush on the schoolmistress, when she runs down the road after him. She looks much younger than him in the end!

How was it to work with Christina Ricci?
Ormerod: She was great. We saw her recent stuff, and she was clearly unbelievably talented and completely off the wall. We thought she’d be perfect.
Donnellan: I loved working with her. It’s the first time she’s done something like this. She’s incredibly professional - she grew up on a film set, and we all laughed at her as Wednesday Addams.
Ormerod: We love The Addams Family!
Donnellan: It’s one of our favourite movies, particularly when they’re trying to teach her to smile at the summer camp! Then with The Ice Storm, when she’s the most terrifying child ever in a Nixon mask. We’ve seen her mature into a stunningly beautiful woman.

Were you under any pressure to tone down the sex scenes when Rob came on board, in terms of attracting a wider audience?
Ormerod: No, the film is about sex. It’s not titillating sex.
Donnellan: It’s about a guy who sells his body, basically. All these women are in comfortable marriages, and none of them want to get divorced. Their relationship with him is essentially sexual.

What surprised you the most about directing a film?
Ormerod: The fact that you do all that planning and pre-production, and then you realise that everything has to be thrown into the air and completely improvised. That’s quite frightening and exciting and very surprising.
Donnellan: We work in the theatre like that a lot - people often call us terrorists because we often change things on first glance. We tour around the world, so we have first nights in cities quite a lot, so Nick and I are often at our best under extreme pressure. We made plans, and they worked, but you can’t autistically stick to your plan. You play around, say, with Uma a little bit beforehand, and discover she does something so much better with a cigarette or something. We adored it - it’s like a drug and we can’t wait to do it again.

Was it always going to be the pair of you credited as co-directors? How does it work?
Ormerod: Declan dealt entirely with the actors - I never talked to the actors. I dealt more with the space, and setting up scenes, setting up the dynamic within the space, and then Declan would take over. The camera was a joint thing on the floor.
Donnellan: It was very natural, and within a day everyone understood. We worked together in a way that’s very different to how we work in the theatre. Within four or five ours we’d redefined our working relationship without talking about it. The whole crew within hours understood who to go to. We don’t parallel each other.

How do you work so well together professionally?
Ormerod: There’s no secret. We’ve been doing it a long time.
Donnellan: We met when we were 19, we’re a gay couple, and what’s interesting is that people say, ‘how do you manage to marry your personal life with your professional life so well?’ I find it a very interesting modern question. I come from a long line of Irish peasant farmers, and every single couple in my family, apart from my parents, would all have run a farm together. So many businesses are run by a couple. I think the norm is for a couple to work together, and I think it’s a modern, city attitude. We don’t know how other people live, coming home and saying, ‘what was your day like dear?’ I know that everybody who lives in a city says that to each other.
Ormerod: Except, for example, MPs. Because traditionally the wife of the MP is the other half of the business in a way. There are so many hidden couples.
Donnellan: I think there have always been powerful women but they’ve been confined to a couple.

Watch a featurette with the cast below: