Director Charles Shyer revamps the classic, Alfie

Charles Shyer’s remake of Alfie takes a bold, visual approach to the material. The original had Michael Caine directly address the camera, a technique which is repeated with Jude Law in the new Alfie. But this Alfie also uses freeze frames, editing montages and background visuals to create a modern version of the tale of a playboy’s downfall.

The freeze frames sometimes happen in the middle of a scene and other times mark transitions from scene to scene. Shyer planned some of those, but most of the time it came down to “gut instinct,” he said. “Usually, when you make a movie, for me, I have certain rules. I have color rules, I have all the things that I set up just for myself so the movie stays cohesive. With this movie, I knew that I wanted, number one, to have this whole retro kind of feel, the inspiration being Georgy Girl and A Hard Day’s Night and Darling and Morgan and the French new wave. That kind of very splashy opening so I’d have a place to go color-wise at the end of the movie also, when it got colder, when his world got colder and more blue. I felt like if I could just be really loose, I could tell the story any way I wanted, so I could do quick cuts, I could do freeze frames, I could take the color out, desaturate it, add it. Do anything I could to tell the story in the most graphic ways possible. I wanted to make a really graphic visual movie. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and it’s what I feel the most comfortable with. So I kind of just let myself go. I let myself be loose. I was confident enough to do that because my last movie was such a bomb that I figured I can’t do much worse.”

In one of the film’s segments, a woman’s manic depression is depicted through a montage of clips featuring various stages of rage. “In the script, it was photo montage because I thought that would be a cool way of doing it, rather than doing a lot of melodrama. And then that kind of evolved into [a sequence] a bit inspired by The Thomas Crown Affair, the original Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway one that Hal Ashby directed, that Pablo Ferro did the montage in. I felt that if we could do it visually and have the right kind of music, we could tell our story in a kind of graphic way. I didn’t want to be heavy handed, but I thought that bipolar thing was something that really [could be]. And I also thought a bipolar character translated visually brilliantly. Because the actions are so pronounced and so exaggerated that they lend themselves to really graphic visualizations. That kind of excited me. We had a lot of fun doing that although it was really hard to do. It took a lot of time to get it right… the organization of it all. Because it’s like moving things around. This doesn’t go with that. It was challenging to say the least.”

One of the film’s devices is a series of billboards that Alfie passes in the background, each one featuring a word that describes an emotional state. “That was something Sophie Becher, the production designer, and I came up with. I liked it because I thought it was very graphic, very ‘60s kind of feeling. Our conceit was that it was an advertising campaign of some big corporation that they were doing through New York and I thought it reflected kind of an alternate desire. It’s kind of what he’s thinking, what he needs but maybe isn’t aware of it sometimes. It would be such an easy thing to cut out of the movie or not do in the first place and play it safe. This was a movie I just didn’t want to play it safe with. I didn’t want to say, ‘God, I wish I would have done that.’ I wanted to do everything that I really thought would work and believed in. Coming off a movie that wasn’t successful and coming back and writing myself out of that knowing I’ll exist in Hollywood, I can make it, gave me the confidence to just do the movie I believed in.”

This Alfie also plays more to the camera than Michael Caine’s. Caine spoke to the camera sometimes, but Law not only speaks to the camera, he gestures at it, and often glances at the audience in the middle of a conversation with another character. Shyer said this is actually a toned down version of the gimmick.

“He looks at it a little bit less than he did in the screenplay. And again, so much of directing is gut instinct. So much of it is when it feels right and when it feels wrong. One of the things that I didn’t realize when I was writing the script was that when he turns to look at the camera, you have to occupy the other people on the screen or they’ll be looking at him and saying, ‘Who are you talking to? What are you doing?’ And you can’t just have them doing little stupid business, folding a piece of clothing or something. You have to have it be organic to the scene. So it in a way complicates your directing and your blocking because that’s a whole other layer that I never thought about. But it kind of became second nature. Jude and I rehearsed a lot and we did a lot of shooting of our rehearsals, of him talking to the camera and then he and I would go into the projection room and look at them and say, ‘Well, now you can look in the mirror here. You can do this there.’ So by the first day of shooting, he had it down. He was very comfortable with the technique.”

Sometimes, Shyer would vary takes to give himself options in the editing room. “The only variation would be sometimes I’d have him talk to the camera and some times I wouldn’t in the same take. Like that scene after Sarandon when he says, ‘Aim higher. I made that decision right then, aim higher.’ The ‘aim higher,’ I did a bunch of to camera, and I did a bunch where he just looked in camera and I had the line over. And I did that a bunch of times. I like to have the choice, do I want him to actually talk to camera or do I want it to be voiceover? So I left myself a lot of options, but I got pretty adept at doing that, at mastering that whole formula because you do, although the studio doesn’t endorse it so much because you’re using so much film and taking time, you’re the one who has to protect yourself. You have to protect yourself and the actors really, so you have to have choices in the editing room. So I’m pretty good at that now. One of the things I’ve learned is I know how to cover my bases, cover my ass.”

Used to defending the filmmaker’s right to remake a previous work, Shyer used some of these techniques to distinguish the two Alfies. “I never wanted to do another remake, only because to be honest with you, this is not meant about you, but guys like you. Critics and journalists who there’s rancor if you revisit a movie. You can go make Oliver as a musical, or Hamlet or anything a million times, or do an opera, Don Giovanni again and again. But you do a movie and it’s sacrilegious. I don’t quite get the mindset about that, but for me, I thought it was a story that could be modernized in a really smooth way and that it was a story that could be told to this new generation and have real meaning. I think this kind of new misogyny that has kind of risen up in our society, I thought it was something that was worthy of addressing. I think partly because the vibe of the movie, in other words the way men treat women in relationships and a guy who, as Mick Jagger said in that song, ‘You won’t let the love in,’ a guy who can’t let the love in is timeless. The character of Alfie and the women that are involved in his life don’t really work today. You have to really change them a lot to make them relevant to 2004. So consequently, the movie changes enormously because of that.”

Alfie opens November 5.

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