An Interview with Jonathan Lynn
Jonathan Lynn is an acclaimed director, writer and actor and the co-creator of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. Jonathan has also directed films such as, Clue, Nuns on the Run, My Cousin Vinny, The Whole Nine Yards and Wild Target. I spoke with Jonathan about his access to inside knowledge of the workings of the government, his first credit as director, casting Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, and working with Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry.
Along with Antony Jay, you created and wrote every episode of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In your book Comedy Rules you mention that you were shown around 10 Downing Street and had access to inside knowledge of the workings of the government. Do you think this authenticity helped make the show so successful?
Well yes I think that’s almost entirely what made the show so successful. Before we did the show people thought of civil servants as kind of funny people who wore bowler hats and drank tea. They didn’t know anything about how the civil servants really worked in Whitehall. There were about 3000 civil servants in Whitehall and they essentially ran the country. This really wasn’t known to anyone except people who had been in government and we learnt it originally by reading Richard Crossman’s book, Diaries of a Cabinet Minister which the government attempted to ban, but was in fact published after winning the lawsuit. It showed what the life of a minister was like and how civil servants operate.
We started researching and Tony knew Marcia Williams, who was Harold Wilson’s political secretary and I was put in touch with Bernard Donoughue, who also worked for Wilson. They didn’t like each other. He was head of the political unit at Number 10 under both Wilson and Callaghan. I wouldn’t have named them because we promised never to name our sources, but these two publically identified themselves. We learnt essentially how the government works.
We discovered it was really funny. So full of irony and full of interest. We boiled down the complex relationships in Whitehall and within a department, which would contain several hundred people perhaps, to three key characters: the Minister or Secretary of State, the Permanent Secretary, who in our case was Sir Humphrey, and the Private Secretary who has a problem because he’s loyal to both, so that gives him conflicts of interest.
Then we just kept researching and every time we came up with a storyline we checked it with Bernard and Marcia and they would guide us also towards people who were experts in their particular field of policy. There was a great deal of authenticity in the show. Essentially we were heightening for comedic purposes but we were showing the truth nonetheless, and I think that’s why we became so popular. It wasn’t popular with the television critics when it first came on the air, they didn’t get it. What happened was political figures started raving about it: Roy Hattersley, Gerald Kaufman, and some Tories and eventually Mrs Thatcher. Because of the enthusiasm among the politicians, the political press took it up and finally it was the television critics who decided it was good.
Your first credit as director was for Clue. Can you tell me more about this experience, and how the opportunity came about?
I met Peter Guber who was a very successful Hollywood producer in partnership with John Peters and he had been brought a project: the idea of a movie based on Clue by producer Debra Hill. She’d gone to Peter Guber, then together they went to John Landis and he was going to direct it. They tried a number of writers apparently. I believe I was number six - of course I didn’t know anything about that at the time. I thought it was the silliest idea I’d ever heard. But I was interested in going to the west coast for a week at Paramount’s expense and meeting John Landis, who had made Animal House. It was really funny. I was out there and John pitched this story to me which contained some of the stuff which is in the final movie, quite a bit of the stuff. But, there was no reason for any of it and he didn’t have a solution as to who’d done it. These were the essentials that were missing, not to mention all the dialogue.
So I had a long think and I came up with a couple of suggestions and to my surprise John immediately asked me to write the script, so I did. I wrote it with him in mind as director. I thought it was in his style. By the time I’d written it, which I wrote in three short bursts over a long period of time because there was an awful lot of time spent trying to work out the storyline and how I could achieve his ambition of having multiple endings. By that time John had moved onto other things and asked me if I would like to direct it? He knew about my directing work. He’d seen an Feydeau production I’d done at the National Theatre, which was hugely successful. Offered a chance to direct a movie for the first time, I said yes. Although it was really not the sort of film I would have chosen to direct had it been up to me.
It’s had a chequered career and it was not well received when it opened, and now it’s become a sort of cult classic. Every time I talk at a film school there’s always someone there who says it’s their favourite film. Which I find slightly astonishing and I want to say something like, 'have you never seen The Godfather, or Lawrence of Arabia, or The Third Man, or Some Like it Hot?' Of course I never say that, I just say thank you very much. I do find that young people, by which I mean people in their thirties, seem to have memorised the entire script, they quote it at length to me, which is something I couldn’t do myself.
You directed My Cousin Vinny, which won Marisa Tomei an Oscar for best actress. Can you talk more about this collaboration, and if you had Marisa in mind for the part of Mona Lisa Vito from the beginning?
Not at all. The script was written by Dale Launer. When I was offered it, which was a result of Fox distributing Nuns on the Run which they absolutely loved. I’d done a rewrite of the end of Nuns on the Run, both Joe Roth the chairman of Fox and I felt was necessary. I re-shot the ending and that had gone so well they offered me My Cousin Vinny. The script would have made about a three hour movie, so I had to get about an hour out of it. There was a lot of work needed. There were some very funny things in it, but the ending didn’t really work because we never knew definitively the boys were not guilty. I mean we thought they weren’t, but there was no solution offered. I did a production rewrite for Fox. I suggested Dale did it, but Fox wanted me to do it and Dale was very upset about that. We finally managed to make the script something that we both agreed with, and then we started casting. Joe Pesci was involved from the start, but there was nobody for Mona Lisa Vito. Fox wanted a name for the part. They offered it without telling me to Geena Davis, who is a very good actress but she would not have been right for the part. She could see that. And she was about a foot taller than Joe Pesci. Fox already had a deal with her, it’s the way studios work. If they are paying somebody a million dollars a year in a deal, I’m not saying that was the number, they recoup that if they get that person to act in a movie of theirs. It’s a way of saving money. They offered it to a number of Italian-American actresses, all of whom had some sort of a name and all who rejected the part because it wasn’t big enough. So we started holding auditions and readings and we weren’t getting anywhere. I must have read 20 or 30, quite excellent actresses, but they just didn’t feel right.
I went over to Paramount one day to see John Landis who was making a film called Oscar and I saw a young woman there who seemed to be very talented in the shot that I watched. He said it’s somebody called Marisa Tomei and I said 'Is she good?' and he said 'She’s great'. So we went over to his cutting room and showed me some footage. It was a very different part, 1920s flapper, but I could she had excellent timing. So we got her in to read and she did a spectacular reading. Then we did screen tests for our three main choices and it was clear to me from the screen test that Marisa was the one to choose. I wanted to cover myself so I showed the screen test to Joe Pesci, who agreed. Then we showed the screen test to Fox and Fox picked somebody else, one of the others. So I had a major argument with the President of Fox, lasted about half an hour I think. Finally, I produced my trump card: I said, 'Well, Joe Pesci wants Maris Tomei.' Nobody wants to have a fight with Joe Pesci if they can avoid it. So the man from Fox said, 'Look, it’s your film, do whatever you want!’ That’s how Marisa was cast. It turned out to be a really wonderful decision. She was really great in the movie, so was Joe. I was really pleased with the whole cast of the movie.
I really enjoyed The Whole Nine Yards, especially the chemistry between Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis who seemed to gel so well together. What was it like working with two leads from very different acting backgrounds?
I love The Whole Nine Yards, I’m very proud of it. Matthew and Bruce got along very well together and they were from very different acting backgrounds, but they are both actors. Actually they weren’t from such different backgrounds. Bruce came to fame in a TV series called Moonlighting, a comedy series on television, comedy-drama, but it was definitely comedy. Matthew, of course, had become famous through Friends. I was initially hesitant about casting Matthew because he’d made a couple of not great films, but in the end he was spectacularly good and very inventive. The script was funny, but Matthew made it a lot funnier. He came in everyday with good ideas for his character and good ideas for scenes. I loved working with him.
We worked very fast. It looks like quite a big movie, but it was shot in 34 days. Which was quick then. It wasn’t very expensive. There was a lot of publicity about how it cost $40 million but that was a lie. I think the producer wanted to throw that around so he could raise $40 million, but I never discovered what happened to the other $25 million. I think the film actually cost about $12 million, plus $10 million for Bruce. I don’t know if it was ever paid to him. We rehearsed for a week beforehand, maybe ten days which was a huge help. I didn’t expect Bruce to be very cooperative about that because he’s famously uncooperative about many things, but he was very helpful. He said to me, ‘what can I do to help?’ I said 'You can stay on the set between shots.' What generally happens with big stars is they go back to their trailer and they get on the phone or they do something. You can’t get them out of their trailer again. You lose a lot of time that way. So I said 'You’re the leader of the cast, you’re the star, stay on the set. We’ll move rapidly from one shot to the next as we’ve got a very fast cameraman.' David Franco is a wonderful cameraman and he made it look good at incredible speed.
The other thing I’m really proud of in the film is Amanda Peet, who gave a really stunning performance. She’s very talented, I’m sorry she didn’t become a bigger star as a result of it. She taken on a TV series for two or three years which started straight after the movie.
Rule 133 in your book, Comedy Rules (Leading characters in comedy should not know they are funny) reminded me of Matthew Perry’s character in The Whole Nine Yards who I think is a great example of this. How difficult was it to convey this in this film?
I think it’s always true of comedy. The actor must know it’s funny, the character mustn’t. In other words excessive mugging and winking at the audience, whether actually or metaphorically, kills it. If you can’t make the audience believe in the heightened comedic events that they are seeing on the screen then they are not going to be interested.
Rule 104 in Comedy Rules (Don’t throw out a sequence with big laughs simply to stay on story) you mention that ‘everyone who teaches screenwriting emphasis that, above all else, you must stay ‘on story.’ Every executive I have met believes this. It is not true’. Comedy is the exception to this rule. Do you believe that you have stuck to this rule in your own work, and can you give me an example?
I don’t think I’ve ever exploited that rule. In other words, I think I have always stuck to story. My films have always been fairly speedy. The longest is My Cousin Vinny. They are all very much on story I think. I still think it remains true. It doesn’t mean you have to have a huge digression like the example I give in Comedy Rules, which was Trading Places I think. That scene on the subway with the gorillas. You can have small digressions. The purpose of a comedy, above all, is to make people laugh.
It’s also hopefully to make people think. Like My Cousin Vinny is really an anti-capital punishment film. Most of my films, not all of them, have some sort of social conscience in them somewhere. I don’t know that I can give an example from my own work, no. The fact I wrote those rules of comedy doesn’t mean I necessarily have to use them all.