F-bombs kicking gravestones: what went on off-camera during ‘Four Weddings’
The hit comedy's creators describe often chaotic scenes, and why they've made a sequel 25 years later
Twenty-five years ago, in a cinema in Salt Lake City, Utah, the curtain went up on the world premiere of a low-budget British romantic comedy. “Fuck!” said the posh British actors on the screen. “Fuck! Fuckitty-fuck!”
By the time a swift “Bugger!” had brought an end to the opening sequence, the f-bomb had been dropped 13 times on-screen, and about 30 of the audience, many from the city’s Mormon council, were heading for the exit, appalled.
Wincing in the cinema that night was the film’s leading man, Hugh Grant, who whispered into the ear of his neighbour, screenwriter Richard Curtis, that their new film looked destined to flop. How wrong he was.
Four Weddings and a Funeral, the tale of an indecisive Englishman who falls for an American woman he meets at a series of upmarket nuptials, would swiftly become the highest-grossing British film yet made. It took almost £200m worldwide, was nominated for Best Picture at the 1995 Oscars and transformed Grant into a Hollywood A-lister overnight. One glossy American magazine put his face on the cover with just one word printed across it: “Swoon!”
On its British release, in May 1994, the film was such a phenomenon that the song recorded for its closing credits – Wet Wet Wet’s cover of The Troggs’ Love Is All Around – topped the charts for 15 weeks, then lingered in the Top 75 for a further 20 until the band had become so sick of the sound of it that they withdrew it from sale.
“Four Weddings made all of our fortunes,” says director Mike Newell, who was reunited with his “bonhomous” cast last December to shoot a 15-minute sequel, One Red Nose Day and a Wedding, which will be shown as part of BBC One’s Comic Relief telethon on Friday. Richard Curtis, who has returned to script this charity coda, tells me that he would never have considered revisiting its characters were it not for the fact that “my girlfriend nudged me into it. Once you open your mind to something, the possibilities begin to occur. I realised that the time gap allowed for a new generation to be getting married.”
The woman Curtis still refers to as “my girlfriend” is broadcaster Emma Freud, great-granddaughter of psychoanalyst Sigmund and daughter of broadcaster and MP Clement. She and Curtis were already a couple when he began work on the script for Four Weddings – the second feature film from a writer then best known for the BBC comedy series Blackadder – and Freud was his draconian editor, subjecting the screenplay to no fewer than 19 rewrites.
Freud has said that when they began working on the film they “added up the number of weddings we had both been to and it was over 100. Those weddings were the basis of the movie, and also the reason neither of us could imagine going down an aisle.”
Curtis, meanwhile, says he conceived the film as a way of explaining to his mother his refusal to marry. Initially, he imagined his on-screen avatar, Charles, would look much more like him, and resisted the casting of “handsome” Oxford graduate Grant. (He favoured Alan Rickman.)
As Grant tells it, he was on the brink of giving up acting when he landed the role. Although he had received warm reviews for his performance in the 1987 Merchant Ivory film Maurice, by the early 1990s he was living with his banker brother, being paid cash in hand “like a plumber” to teach Juliette Binoche English. He came to his first meeting with Newell armed with a videotape of a real best man’s speech he had given at a friend’s wedding. The director was sold on his ability to juggle the stuttering syntax Curtis had written into the part. (It has been said that Charles has “more ellipses on the page than any other lead in cinema history”; when I put this to Curtis, he laughs. “Probably true. I have this rule that wherever I write a joke, I go back and replace it with dot dot dot ... ”)
In the closing scene, the pouring rain came courtesy of noisy fire hoses, so the dialogue (which includes surely the most protracted declaration of love ever seen on screen) had to be overdubbed later. Newell says he expected Grant “to take days to do it accurately, but he got it in three takes. He’s a great actor.” And a very funny one, too: his 1995 Bafta acceptance speech was so witty that the audience assumed Curtis had written it.
Curtis’s first feature film had come five years earlier, with The Tall Guy (1989), directed by Mel Smith and starring Emma Thompson, Jeff Goldblum and Rowan Atkinson. Though only a minor hit, the comedy boasted several tropes that would reappear in Four Weddings: faith in love at first sight; copious expletives; bittersweet wisdom dispensed by supporting characters; and the image of friends as extended or surrogate family. “Friendship is totally what [Four Weddings] was all about,” Curtis tells me now.
Although bumbling Charles and assured Carrie (Andie MacDowell) create the film’s central crackle of romance, the deeper intimacy is between Charles and his friends. As his ex-girlfriend Henrietta (Anna Chancellor, whom MacDowell tells me now owns a necklace featuring her character’s nickname, “Duckface”) says, any woman who wanted to marry Charles would have “had to marry [his] friends”.
Over the years, Curtis has taken a little flak for his heroes’ tendency to fall for “the prettiest girl in the class” rather than the women with whom they share their thoughts and feelings (in this case, Charles’s besotted old friend Fiona, played by Kristin Scott Thomas). He tells me he has spent his life “apologising for not being sufficiently advanced on that score” – not least to his daughter Scarlett, author of a recent book called Feminists Don’t Wear Pink.
But its worth remembering that Four Weddings also subverts its fair share of stereotypes, as the British writer Andrew Chamings noted in 2014: “The vicar is okay with a gay man eulogising in the church; the rich are never snooty; people who aren’t evil or French smoke cigarettes; the protagonist bullies his deaf brother; a gay character dies, but not of Aids. Even the two romantic leads invert the typical gender roles of the genre – Grant’s birdbrained and flighty Charles fills the role normally resigned for the girl, against Andie MacDowell’s strong and dry-witted (though often maligned) portrayal of Carrie.”
MacDowell was the South Carolinian fashion model who had starred opposite Bill Murray the previous year in Groundhog Day. Described by Grant as a “southern peach”, she is often mocked for her strangely detached performances, but that graceful inscrutability is perfect for Carrie.
MacDowell tells me now that it felt “wonderful to play a female character with so much agency and independence, who has a sexual past and isn’t ashamed of it. Back then, heroines in romantic comedies were usually a lot more prim and proper.”
Before shooting began, the producers were sent a fax warning them to tread carefully if they didn’t want to hamper the film’s chances of ever being distributed on American television. “No blow jobs,” it warned. “Excessive thrusting and screaming orgasms are not permitted.”
The film’s trans-Atlantic cross-currents were epitomised in the chemistry between Charles and Carrie. “Americans put you Brits on a pedestal,” MacDowell tells me now. “We’re suckers for the accent and the sense of humour,” she laughs. “While making fun of the Americans is your national sport!”
Grant likes to joke that Curtis – with whom he was reunited for Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003) – repeatedly casts him as a “nice” man, while in real life he is closer in character to the caddish Daniel Cleaver he plays in the Bridget Jones films. But MacDowell is having none of it. “Hugh really is that charming. He’s very witty and a wonderful flirt,” she says. “When we met up again to shoot the sequel, we were both still misbehaving in the pews.”
The film – in which even the expletives are double-barrelled – has also been attacked for perpetuating the Merchant Ivory myth of a Britain populated by aristocrats. Curtis concedes that “my films don’t represent an entire society”. Amber Rudd, now secretary of state for work and pensions, was hired as “aristocracy co-ordinator” to people the film with numerous nobs as unpaid extras. James Fleet (who played bumbling blue blood Tom) recalls the toffs “showing up in tails, wandering around graveyards and looking very bemused. Meanwhile, some afternoon drinkers had gathered on a bench with cans of beer. I mean, this was their bench and, understandably, they didn’t want to be moved on by a bunch of actors and aristocrats. Mike Newell strode over shouting: ‘Time, gentleman! We’re moving along now!’”
Everybody has a memory of Newell “blowing his top around 4.30pm every day”, according to Sophie Thompson (who played sexually frustrated Lydia). The director was under huge pressure to get the movie – the last Curtis script to be shot on film stock – in the can in just 36 days. “We were so short on time and budget,” he says. “There were times when I just had to line characters up to fit in their lines. I did kick a lot of gravestones.”
“It’s stressful enough organising one wedding,” says Thompson. “Imagine organising four in one month! I do remember looking at poor Mike and thinking: ‘Oh golly gosh!’”
Curtis says that, by “shooting my sketches like a drama”, Newell brought out the script’s bittersweet undertones. There’s Fiona’s unrequited love for Charles. And of course, the death of Simon Callow’s character, Gareth. In his first film role, John Hannah played Gareth’s partner, Matthew. The funeral scene in which he reads WH Auden’s poem Funeral Blues provides the counterbalance to all the silliness. “I asked Mike Newell if he wanted me to stay up all night before we shot that, to get myself all weary and teary,” Hannah tells me. “But he said: ‘No, just learn your lines and get a good night’s sleep.’ He also told me something I’ve never forgotten, that actors are the only people in the world who try to cry. Everybody else is trying not to cry. So that’s how I did the eulogy. I held it in. It made a pressure cooker of the poem.”
In the reunion, a similar undercurrent of sadness comes from the absence of Charlotte Coleman (who played Charles’s sister, Scarlet). The actress died from an asthma attack in 2001, at just 33. While Curtis refuses to reveal the plot of his sequel, he says it will be “less conventional” than the original. We know Grant plays the father of the bride. We know Susanna Reid will make a guest appearance. Curtis also declines to comment on rumours of a cameo from the Prince of Wales, who was pictured with Scott Thomas in the first film’s closing sequence.
“It was just a joy to see everybody again,” says Curtis. “One sweet thing I noticed was that the cast mostly sat with their on-screen partners. They seemed to feel a sense of spousal responsibility.”
For the original film’s premiere in Leicester Square, Curtis asked the audience to wear wedding dresses, and 200 did. But the spotlight was stolen by Grant’s then girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, in a plunging black Versace dress, held together with gold safety pins. Curtis won’t say if we’ll see any safety pins on Red Nose Day. But he does promise in-jokes, new characters, a surprise wedding singer (my money’s on Ed Sheeran), “three laughs, and two tears”.
– © The Daily Telegraph