My knowledge of the British film industry is spotty at best. Beyond the requisite Hammer fandom, an admiration for classic Ealing comedies (e.g., Kind Hearts and Coronets), and adoration of the Free Cinema movement, I’m pretty ignorant about the history of the country’s film output. To be fair, my knowledge of the American film history isn’t all that great either; if asked to write an essay about it, it would be comprised of bullet points.
That’s one reason I was so interested in reading Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films by Robert Sellers, now available from Titan Books. The other reason is because HandMade is responsible for some great films: Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Time Bandits, Withnail and I.
Originally published in 2003 as Always Look On the Bright Side of Life, Very Naughty Boys has been revised and expanded for its reisssue. It’s a fascinating collection of anecdotes that moves chronologically from film to film, but the overarching narrative in Very Naughty Boys is the classic struggle of filmmaking: the creatives vs. the money.
There may be no pairing as British as an ex-Beatle and Monty Python, and it’s here that HandMade Films began. Unable to find money for The Life of Brian after the original backer pulled out last minute, it was the late George Harrison who put up millions of his own money to get the movie made. The reasons were simple: Harrison purportedly told Eric Idle at the time, “Well, you know, when The Beatles were breaking up, Python kept me sane, really, so I owe you one.” The company’s first three films — The Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, and Time Bandits — distinguished HandMade as a place for independent spirit and a breath of fresh air for British cinema. Its lasting contributions to the UK film industry continue to be those three, as well as Mona Lisa, the cult classic Withnail and I, and possibly A Private Function.
But there were many misfires along the way for HandMade, and one of the the most disastrous was 1986’s Shanghai Surprise. The film starred Sean Penn and Madonna. Then husband and wife, the couple was on top of the celebrity world, and they seemed to look down on everyone else on the planet. While the making-of stories for HandMade’s best films are fun reads, there’s something extra enticing about the Shanghai Surprise chapter. (Sellers aptly names it “Shanghai Cock-Up.”) It basically confirms everything I thought about Sean Penn at this early point of his career, i.e., he was an insufferable, snotty, unpleasant, arrogant prick. The late Richard Griffiths shares one especially ridiculous anecdote about Penn, ending it with a well-deserved, “So fuck Sean Penn.”
Throughout the book, there’s a constant tussle between the various filmmakers and Harrison’s business partner Denis O’Brien. O’Brien was a money man with expensive taste in living and bad taste in film. He was also a control freak. In nearly every chapter, there’s mention of O’Brien trying to suggest script changes and even re-cut films in post-production against the wishes of the filmmakers. Harrison was almost entirely laissez-faire about HandMade, trusting the filmmakers to create and O’Brien to use his money wisely.
Some creative friction can lead to wonderful things. Though the situation is a bit different, I remember that Gene Wilder fought Mel Brooks for the inclusion of the “Putting on the Ritz” scene in Young Frankenstein; Brooks said he was glad Wilder fought so hard for it because it was clear it was important and it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the film. But at HandMade, this strife between creatives and money got so bad that Powwow Highway director Jonathan Wacks took his film home every night out of fear that O’Brien would hire a HandMade rep to seize the movie and tamper with it. Many times O’Brien wanted to remove the best bits of a picture. Gilliam puts it succinctly: “I began to feel after a while that Denis had this incredible unerring ability to go to the very core of the thing and rip its heart out. He was like some Aztec priest.”
Given the eventual fate of HandMade, Gilliam’s assessment is right in more ways than one. The pattern of conflict and strange money matters leads to some real sadness when Sellers arrives at the fall of HandMade. Without saying too much, it’s the ugly center of the money vs. the creatives conflict. The money often exploits the creatives, without regard for ethics or for friendships. There’s a good reason why O’Brien is rarely painted in a positive light throughout Very Naughty Boys. It’s a sour final note for a company that made careers and has created some enduring films; the book’s original title seems bitterly appropriate.
There are two landmark Bob Hoskins movies in HandMade’s filmography: 1980’s The Long Good Friday and 1986’s Mona Lisa. Both are part of the The Criterion Collection, though Mona Lisa‘s now out of print. As Sellers points out in his postscript to Very Naughty Boys, both films are still highly regarded, The Long Good Friday in particular is ranked among the best British films of all time by both the British Film Institute and Empire. I haven’t seen either, but having read about them, I now need to.