Stephen Woolley Interview – The Crying Game, The Palace Years & Brexit

I had the great pleasure of talking to Stephen Woolley to tie in with the Blu-Ray re-release of The Crying Game which is still his most successful film. It became a surprise smash hit in the US after a disappointing UK release partly due to the marketing job by Miramax to sell it as a “sexy noir thriller”. The film’s writer/director Neil Jordan taking home best original screenplay at that year’s Academy awards.

25 years later the film still works surprisingly well and with transgenderism having more visibility in recent years the film’s themes of sexuality, gender still seem relevent. The big twist may not work as well and the shock factor for audiences is pretty much gone. However the performances especially Stephen Rea as the conflicted IRA volunteer Fergus are great. It gave him a film career and has appeared in the majority of Jordan’s films dating back to his directorial debut Angel.

Jaye Davidson plays Dil who Fergus seeks out after her husband Jody (Forrest Whitaker) is killed. He was supposed to perform an execution but he attempts escape and is run over by British forces who are about to move in on the IRA safe house. Fergus feels guilt over her husband’s death and soon begins a complicated love affair with Dil but the IRA comes a knocking and frce his involvement with one last assignment to make up for messing up Jody’s execution. If he doesn’t comply they will kill him and Dil and the film climaxes with a beautiful moment of self-sacrifice.

The new BFI release looks the best as it ever has and it has a nice wealth of extra material including a commentary, lengthy making of, alternative ending and feature on the “troubles”. The release includes it on both DVD and Blu-Ray and a booklet with goes into more detail of the film’s numerous themes.

Stephen Woolley started off running and programming The Scala and eventually starting Palace Video. He would get caught up in the whole Video Nasties scare when they released The Evil Dead on video. Woolley eventually become a producer in his own right instead of just a distributor and has ended up producing a wide variety of films from most of Neil Jordan’s films, Absolute Beginners and everyone’s favourite lesbian romance Carol. He also directed the underrated and little seen Brian Jones biopic Stoned which despite not being allowed to use The Rolling Stones’ own songs it captures that period extraordinary well.

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How is it looking back on The Crying Game 25 years on?

It was brilliant, we had a great night actually. It was really great that Jaye Davidson turned up. We didn’t expect it—he doesn’t do a lot of publicity and it was lovely seeing him, and everyone—Miranda, and Stephen—it was quite a moving reunion. I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed the film. I think it was the first time I had seen that movie in 25 years when I haven’t just watched all of the things that we did wrong or all the arguments I was having on set or all the nightmares of trying to get through the film with not enough money. So I kind of watched it like I was actually watching a movie for the first time, so that was quite a liberating experience. It was nice, I enjoyed the film and I thought it stood up, despite the shoulder pads and the ‘80s look. 

How did you and Neil Jordan first meet?

I saw Angel at the Cannes film festival when we were launching Palace. I was at the Cannes film festival on my own, and Nick Powell had basically left Virgin and was setting up lots of different companies in a very entrepreneurial way. Vegetarian restaurants, satellite disc companies and as an afterthought he thought he would start a video label.

So I went around to all the festivals like Berlin, Mifed, to Cannes and I bought the films primary for video. I saw Neil Jordan’s Angel late night at the Star Cinema in the backstreet in Cannes. They were selling it for Foreign, they weren’t selling it for the UK because they were about to launch Channel 4. It was going to be one of the first films screened in the first few months of Channel 4. It was lit by Chris Menges and it looks amazing on a cinema screen. So the next morning I flew back to London and I met with the producer who was John Boorman and said “can we please release it on a video label” and he said “You can’t because Channel 4 won’t let you” and he was quite impressed we were so passionate about it. I next met with Channel 4 and they said “No you can’t release it in the UK, it’s too difficult, we want to show it in our first few months.” So I brought Neil Jordan to London and when I saw the film I ran out and bought his collection of short stories, Night in Tunisia. And I used to be a big Charlie Parker fan, so I got the Night in Tunisia connection straight away. I brought him to London and he stayed with me in my apartment, and we sort of launched a war on Channel 4 to let us show it in cinemas.

They eventually gave me a three-month window, and I stopped the programming at the Scala, which was my cinema, and showed it there for about two or three weeks I think. It gave the film a cinema life, because otherwise it would’ve been shown as a television movie. We also put it out on video with the BFI, actually. We gave Neil the opportunity to be reviewed by the national newspapers, the Evening Standard, the Guardian and such, who all gave it amazing reviews. If we hadn’t made that intervention, it would’ve slipped out on television rather than being a movie.

It kind of worked really well for us, and he was interested in making a film outside of Ireland. And in my acquisition travels, I’d met a guy called Jeremy Thomas in Tokyo, where I went to buy Nikisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. He said I should be a producer, and John Boorman also said to me, when I finally managed to get Channel 4 to give us the film for cinemas, that I should be a producer. I didn’t really know what that meant, but Neil was looking to make another movie and I said, “apparently I should be a producer, so maybe we should do a film together in London.”

So he came up with the idea of The Soldier’s Wife, which he shared with me, and which became ten years later The Crying Game. But at the time he hadn’t quite resolved what happened when the soldier got to London, he just couldn’t resolve it for some reason. So we left the idea of that script, and instead we did Company of Wolves. It was an idea that was given to him by Film4, the book, and we both met with Angela Carter and the rest is history.

Then we made Mona Lisa,we made High Spirits, and he went off to America and made We’re No Angels, and I made a bunch of other films, including Scandal. He came back from the States and we made The Miracle together. And he then at the Berlin film festival at a club which happened to have quite a lot of transvestites in it, or at least I think there were, he wasn’t quite sure they were. But he came up with this idea that perhaps if he goes back the wife isn’t a “woman” but a ”man” so that’s kind of how we got to The Crying Game.

It wasn’t of course called The Crying Game, it was called The Soldier’s Wife throughout the production. Obviously, during that period of ten years from Angel to The Crying Game we got to know each other really well.

Like all producer/director teams, we had our ups and downs. I mean, we were lucky with Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa. The critics really didn’t like High Spirits; although they loved The Miracle nobody else seemed to love it, and then very fortunate with The Crying Game.

What were some of the difficulties of getting the film made? 

It wasn’t easy, because the film has a big scope. It does travel quite a way, and there is quite a lot of action in the film as well. There was quite a lot of tricky stuff to do—you know, cars in London, and shooting guns, and the whole sequence in Ireland and destroying that farm house—there was quite a lot of scope in that film. It was shot in Cinemascope as well, so quite a lot to cover. There is a lot of difficulty with the subject matter as well. I suppose for a young audience now it wouldn’t seem very daring, but at the time it was quite shocking having that relationship. Both having a woman who’s not a woman and a man was not something that was done too often, and also inter-racial was something the Americans didn’t like.

I had a real problem with financing. The financing was hard, so we didn’t really get the budget we wanted for the film. We had to make the film with lots of deferments, and we couldn’t shoot at much in the studio as Neil would’ve liked. We shot a lot on location, which meant we were in very awkward and difficult locations, in Hoxton mainly. It was very, very cold, and we never seemed to be on time, we were racing all the time, running from location to location, and never seemed to have enough money to get through.

I think, oddly, the crew were fantastic and they seemed to gel. Even though nobody was very happy with the fact that there was a lot of hardship and not very much money, people seemed to feel the film was something slightly special. I think that was Jaye Davidson than anything else, because he had a real charisma off-screen. And casting Jaye was a crucial part of the film, because a lot of the Americans wouldn’t back us because they didn’t think we’d pull off “the tricky disguise” of a man who you think is a woman. Miramax would particularly insistent we cast a woman if they wanted us to get their money. Lots of other American companies said we should not make the woman black. Those were obstacles we were coming up against, so it was quite nerve-wracking.

In addition to that, my own distribution company, Palace, was also not doing very well. As I said, it was a ten-year period from Angel to The Crying Game, and though those ten years we had an awful lot of success, but a lot of those other companies Nick had invested in had hit the recession—software companies, a record distribution company in Holland, video distribution companies, companies I really had nothing to do with had kind of sapped away our profits from Palace. So there was kind of a dual nightmare going on which was this film wasn’t really loved, people really didn’t want to make the film. Film4 were really, really reluctant partners in the whole project. There a lot of friction going there, plus the fact that Palace itself was in a really bad place. O it was quite a nightmarish scenario really.

 Would you approach the character of Dil differently now, because I guess the character would be considered Transgender now?

Yes, probably… watching the film again after 25 years, I couldn’t see what we would cut from it or add into it… I think the problem with the transgender question is just how do you find actors who can play those roles. Not how do you find people who can play those roles, because that’s not difficult at all. It’s really about respecting actors, and the story in a sense-what Neil was able to do was combine the strengths of Jaye Davidson around the character, because he had written it himself. So It’s hard to think how in a modern world how we would want to change the story. I don’t know… I certainly don’t think it would be a problem making it now, we would have less of a problem making it now than we did then. But whether or not you would make it without finding an actor who can play that part and I just don’t know who’s out there. I don’t know how you would find a transgender actor who could play a part like that, whether there are good enough actors out there. It would really come down to director.

Neil stewed on the story for ten years—it wasn’t just something that he pulled out of the back of his head. He didn’t just scribble it down in Berlin. That story had been with him for a long time, and there were a lot of different influences on the structure of the story, and the content of it and the characters. So it’s hard to say whether or not you would make it now and what you would change, but I think it would be the same problem now it was then, which was how would you cast it. How do you find somebody who can play that part as brilliantly as Jaye Davidson did? That would be your conundrum, and it’s the same conundrum when you’re casting anything really, when you need to get a character is of a type.

Was there any discussion at the time of maybe getting Jaye to use a stage name?

He has a non-specific name doesn’t he, and we didn’t think of it when we cast him. Jaye could be Jane! We only did one interview with the New York Times, with Janet Maslin, where we avoided specifically saying if, and I think she actually said he was a woman in the interview. But we never thought about changing the name to disguise it more. We didn’t really need to, not in the States—people didn’t get it just saw “Jaye” and presumed it was a woman, I imagine.the-crying-game-movie-poster-1992-1020190811.jpg

How did you feel about Miramax selling the film as a sort of sexy noir thriller? The poster was kind of a dry run for the Pulp Fiction one in a sense.

We didn’t have a poster for the film, and when we went to the first cinema in New York, Neil and I, to see the first screening. There was no poster outside the cinema. They didn’t actually make those posters till the last-minute, and it was quite interesting they went this that noirish image.

When we changed the title from The Soldier’s Wife to The Crying Game, they weren’t happy. They were very unhappy and didn’t like the title The Crying Game, they thought it suggested to the audience it would be about sobbing and depression. They preferred the title The Soldier’s Wife, and we showed the film as that and only changed it very, very last-minute to The Crying Game. That was a combination of reasons, mainly that Stanley Kubrick, who was a friend of Neil’s, had suggested to Neil we didn’t called The MiracleThe Miracle,” because it sounded like it was a religious epic and not a film about the things it was about. So when Neil said he was making a film called The Soldier’s Wife. Stanley also advised you should be careful of the title with “soldier” in the title because people would think it’s about action and war. If it’s not about those things they’ll be disappointed, and people don’t go to action/war movies as much as they used to.

 The Miracle was not a success at the box office, so Neil and I thought we should change it, and then we had that song The Crying Game in the movie. The very last-minute we decided to change it to The Crying Game, and Miramax didn’t like it at all. That poster they come up with it at the final moment, and I think they wanted something to suggest “the game” and they come up with that tagline “Play it at your risk,” which was a very good tagline, because it was playing on the word “game” instead of “crying,” and it was suggesting a sort of throwback to a noirish 40s or 50s thriller.

It was quite neat, really, because it avoided the problems, and it certainly didn’t talk about Britain, or IRA, or any of the kind of areas of “concern” in the UK with the film’s release. It also kind of kept up the mystery fully intact, because there were no clues in that poster as to where it was going to go in terms of the story. It was purely an odd throwback, and it worked really well. There is another kind of sidebar story about Miranda and the poster and things, which I wasn’t sort of compos mentis about what was going on there. They felt they should focus on Miranda for the poster, because she a little bit of a name in America, but to be honest I don’t that really was a factor. I think really it was trying make the title The Crying Game into something that was saleable, as well as the film.

Any directors you’ve wanted to work with but haven’t?

I don’t know, really. I think it has to do with the project. In the early days of Palace, I spoke to David Lynch for a long time about a project which didn’t happen, which was Ronnie Rocket (still unmade), and I loved that script. I released Eraserhead and Wild at Heart, and tried to release Blue Velvet, but in the end they wouldn’t sell it to us. Fox didn’t want to release it when they made it, they were really scared of it. I kept going in and upping the price, so they finally thought they must have something interesting on their hands so they decided to release it themselves. It would’ve loved to have made a movie with him.

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There was talk about possibly doing The Last Temptation of Christ at some point. Somebody came to me and asked if I would come and meet with Marty Scorsese. The thing is with auteur directors is you’ve come to witness than to be involved. I think as a creative producer you want to be involved with the project from the grassroots to the final movie.

Different directors are suited for different projects, although all directors feel they can do almost anything once they get success. I don’t think that’s always the case, so it depends on the film and it depends on the story. 

Are you considering directing another film in the near future? Because Stoned was pretty good…

Thank you that’s nice of you. I would love to direct the right kind of film. I think Stoned was 13 years, and I had two different directors on it at different points. It became a bit of an obsession, and in the end the writers knew it would never get made if I didn’t direct it. They sort of forced me into directing it in a way.

I think if the right project came along, and… I like dark subject matter. I don’t consider myself necessarily as a commercial director. Other people, like the film I just made which I really enjoyed working with Lone Scherfig on, her films are brighter than the films I would be attracted to. It’s hard when the films you want to make are dark, because they are not necessarily going to be very commercial.

If the right subject or opportunity comes around and I didn’t there was somebody out there who could do it better than me… The problem with being a producer is you are always trying to weigh up options. Your ego has to be a little bit set aside. I don’t believe every director can direct everything, like I don’t believe that Mike Leigh can take over a Tim Burton film, or Tim Burton could take over a Ken Loach film. Directors are great at doing what directors can do. I think I was one of the first people who released David Cronenberg’s films in the UK, way back before Shivers. I love his films, but Cronenberg is Cronenberg, you’re not gonna get David Cronenberg to take on, necessarily—although I would like to see it!—any of the Marvel Comics franchise. Although I’m sure there is a great Marvel comic movie in there somewhere if Cronenberg did one. Lynch and Cronenberg are kind of where I came from in the early days. That area is something that I love, although I’m not a nerd in that respect because I have quite wide taste. I can still easily get dragged back into that world because I find it incredibly seductive.

How do you feel about the whole Video Nasties scare, which you were of course stuck in the middle of?

The whole Evil Dead thing. It was kind of weird and quite funny. It was about breaking down those barriers, which VHS in those days, in terms of being able to distribute independent films to wide audiences. In a way, I always saw the “Video Nasties” as a cover for the majors to restrain what was going on. Nobody understood the video boom that was happening in the early ‘80s.

The Evil Dead, we sold at least 50,000 copies in our first year, which for £50 a head was a lot of money. I think what was pissing off the establishment was that a lot of small companies were suddenly getting in on the business, a new business. “Video Nasties” was a way of trying to hold back that sort of new freedom that you were finding.

We did all the John Waters movies, including all the ones that were never released in Britain; we put out the entire Werner Herzog catalogue, including all his documentaries, and all the Fassbinder films. We were able to get Kurosawa and Godard films out there, as well as Basket Case and The Evil Dead. So I think people suddenly were going “hang on, what’s this thing that’s going on here? People are making loads and loads of money off these movies, we better stop this.” I think there was another agenda: I don’t think it was just about I Spit on Your Grave or The Driller Killer, but it was also about the fact that a whole industry was growing and majors needed to control it. They did control it in the end: once they saw what was going on, suddenly all the video stores were full of Star Wars and all the big titles. Those smaller companies bit the dust, because those huge video stores… and then sell-through came back again. And what’s great about sell-through and what’s a shame about streaming, is sell-through gave you the chance to buy all of the Bergman films or buy, even Ed Wood—you could buy stuff on a DVD that you could watch and re-watch, and keep and study.

What worries me about streaming, and what worries me about the whole idea of watching stuff on your iPad or your computer is that you don’t really possess anything. And you can’t really appreciate the quality of it, because you’re suddenly watching stuff on a tiny little screen, and you’re not really seeing how beautiful the cinematography might be, or how great the editing is, or what the performance is because just, it’s negligible. So I kind of feel that in a sense, sell-through DVD was a real positive force for cinema and for filmmakers.

But you know, when we put all those Werner Herzog films out, he though we were terrible, he thought this was the end of the world. We had a dinner together with him in Cannes in 1982 or ’83. We took him out to dinner and we thought he would be thrilled that we had put all his movies out, and he was just horrified. He was like, “fucking video—I hate fucking video!” I remember him really well. And that’s because at that time that was going to be the death of film. But actually it wasn’t, interestingly.

And now we’re really worried about streaming and downloading—but I do think that is a bigger concern, because that’s where the gaming thing has taken over. It’s not the actual content of the games that worries me, it’s the habit of people sitting alone at home doing stuff on their own and not actually getting out and going to the cinema or sharing with their mates. I kind of worry about that. We’re becoming very insular, and young people in particular, because they can’t afford to go to the cinema anymore, not really, it’s not something we’re participating in as a group. It’s not like it was in the ’80s, or in the ’70s when I got started, going to all-night Hammer films and running around London trying to catch some weird Melville movie that I’d never seen and that I could only see at the French Institute. Now I can see that Melville movie anytime I like, I can just buy it or download it, but I’m not going with like 400 other people into a cinema, or going with 40 people to The Electric to see a Don Siegel film or Sam Fuller movie. That, I miss. I mean, the reason I knew Julian Temple when I made Absolute Beginners was partly through the punk thing, but also because when I went to see Sam Fuller films at the Electric there would only be two people in the cinema, and he’d be the other one! So, I kind of miss the fact that the cinema-going element has been taken away, that downloading and streaming gives you this exclusivity of watching on your own, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing.

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What is your take on Brexit and how it could affect the British film industry in the future?

It’s a horrible problem, because we need… if we’re going to increase the amount of film and television made in Britain, which we want to do because we have this fantastic tax relief, this 20 percent relief on TV and film… Yeah, if we’re going to encourage production in the UK, we actually don’t have the capacity to deal with it. We’re increasing the number of studios we’re building, which is great, but if we’re going to have more Game of Thrones all over the place, we need people to operate the cameras, we need people to crew movies, and we just don’t have them in the UK. We’ve had two productions recently where we’re bringing people over from Europe, from Eastern Europe, from Italy, and it’s essential that those people can move freely. And similarly, when we go to Italy or France or Germany to shoot movies—pushing back is a really bad idea for cinema. We need cinema to be as European as possible because it is an international language, whether we like it or not. Brexit doesn’t help us at all when it comes to funding—it’s a bad thing. I mean, I’ve got my own personal opinion about Brexit, which is obviously it’s really not good. And it’s not going to achieve what people wanted, people who wanted out aren’t going to get what they wanted, because they’ve been lied to. The National Health Service isn’t improving, and it’s not going to be improved in five years, because it will be privatised, and that’s what people want. The same people who want Brexit will then tur around and be telling everyone, ‘oh, that money we wanted is not being spent on the National Health Service, and now we’ve got a problem, so privatize it.’ So it’s all a bit of a con, and I’m desperately unhappy about it.

But on a practical level of making films in Europe, it’s also incredibly short-sighted. Shooting a movie is literally an international language. We’ve been very lucky to work on the last couple of productions with Italian gaffers and Eastern European camera crews, and they’ve been brilliant, fantastic to work with. It’s as if we have to be London-centric—the more cinema we make about Britain… the last two films we made, one was in Leeds and one was in Swansea, both set in London, one in 1880 and the other one in 1940. So London doesn’t exist anymore as a location, so we’re looking to make films outside London. And similarly, we need to be able to make films across Europe, and the new film that we’re making, we start shooting in a few months, is in Budapest.

So it’s… that’s the way it is, same as America. People don’t make films in Hollywood anymore, they shoot in Vancouver or Montreal. We made Carol, which was set in New York, in Cincinnati. We need the freedom to travel wherever we need to tell stories. And sometimes it’s easier to shoot a story that’s set in London in Manchester Town Hall. So we can’t restrict freedom of movement in Europe for our industry, it’s just ridiculous. But we’re just the snowflake on the tip of the grass, can’t moan too much about it because there are so many people that are going to be suffering and missing out, especially the younger generation in the next 20 years, that it make me very sad.

Buy The Crying Game Here

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