Stephen Fry chatted to hosts Giles Alderson, Tori Butler Hart and Matt Butler Hart about acting, directing, tips and advice and more on this week’s The Filmmaker’s Podcast.
Stephen first began recording audiobooks (originally spoken books for the blind) because he liked the idea that you didn’t “need to put on costumes or makeup or look good.
It’s just you – an imaginary person in their ear. And I still love that. There’s something very pleasing about it and the rhythm of it but the joy of life is variety. During lockdown, I did 25 audiobooks for Audible, but as soon as the lockdown freeze began to melt, I was very happy to do a couple of other things.”
Recording the Harry Potter Audiobooks
“It’s amazing. People have thanked me for making the car journeys more bearable and keeping the children quiet. It’s an extraordinary privilege to meet people.
And, one of the exciting things was watching it all grow. When I did the first book, there was just one book and no one had heard the names, JK Rowling or Harry Potter. It was just simply another gig. But, I realised they were utterly charming.
And I said to Jo when we’d finished, this is really good. I think it’s going to be a great success. She said, thank you, as a matter of fact, I’ve already written a second, which will be coming out in six months’ time.”
After the third book was released, Stephen’s friends had started reading about it in the newspapers “and slowly it was becoming a complete phenomenon.”
Working with Directors
Although Stephen is widely recognised for his voice in audiobooks, most people recognise him as a film and TV actor. He has worked on very many sets and shared some of his tips on working with directors.
“I realised quite early on that the best directors are usually very quiet. If you visit a film set and you don’t know what the director looks like, they’re probably the person doing the least, and that’s a shock to some people.
The director might occasionally move from ‘video village’ (the array of monitors with which they check out) and they might even wander on and whisper to an actor or say a few words to an art director or the cinematographer, and then go back to their seat again. And then they’ll say a few words after the first take or the first rehearsal.”
He recalls his first visit to the set, as an actor. He was a student at Cambridge and was cast as an extra in Chariots of Fire. “I was convinced that the assistant director was the director because they were the ones shouting and telling everyone where to move and what to do and where to look. Every single direction was from that person. The director was the person reading a newspaper in a chair.”
Advice from John Schlesinger
When directing Bright Young Things, Stephen called John to ask for his advice. “He said, well, my dear, you must remember the three phases of filmmaking. There’s pre-production, there’s principal photography. And there’s post.
You’ll discover straight away that the pre-production, the casting – both of the actors and of your heads of department is the most important part.
Once that’s done, you arrive on the set, and the film is more or less completed, but that’s when you’re the director, that’s the most important part – when you’re talking to the actors and making sure that everything you want is in the can.
And then there’s post-production the most important part of filming. That’s when the film gets made. And he was telling the self-contradictory truth. Those three phases are each the most important part. They’re each when the film gets made and if you screw up one of them, the film gets ruined.”
If you haven’t prepared sufficiently in pre-production and you haven’t got the right team or locations, it will impact principle photography. If you’re badly organised in the next stage, you could miss key shots or run over your schedule, which then impacts your financials and your time in post.
Directing Bright Young Things
“I was so excited by the cast I’d assembled. I knew how good they were, even the ones who had not done it before. There were two parts that I was finding difficult to cast and on the fourth day of casting these two young actors, who had not really done anything, David Tennant and James McAvoy, were perfect.”
Stephen said that he has realised that “actors usually are very keen to be given notes. They like to be praised. But little psychological tricks are very good too.
By allowing an actor to believe it’s their idea (and actors will do the same to directors).
You can say: in an earlier rehearsal, you did it in such a way that… I think that was a brilliant instinct, try that again. And in fact, they didn’t do that, but you wanted them to, but you allow them to own it. And then they’ll feel much more confident about it, rather than trying to just repeat something that they’d been told to do.”
Mental Health in Acting
“I think actors, of course, live rawer lives emotionally than others, in as much as, they’re often asked to play roles that might well be picking at their own scabs.
That particular skill or gift that makes someone a fine film actor is a dangerous gift. They have to go to places and inspect parts of their personality, and sometimes it’s done too realistically that it frightens people on set. You think, my God, what has this person accessed in themselves.”
His Advice to Actors
Stephen says that when he arrives on a film set, he needs “to know what the story is, from the AD. That’s the story of the shoot and what you’re likely to do. So you can conserve your energy, or build-up to the various amendments.
And then to the director and script supervisor, you’re saying what happened before this scene? What happens after it? From looking at the script, you’ll know, but the director has their own story in his head as far as the cutting’s concerned.”
And His Advice to Someone in Production?
“The purpose of making a film and making it a success is to be able to make another one, it’s not to become famous, it’s not to make a huge amount of money.
Make the film good enough and liked enough and break-even enough, plus more, so that you can make another one, then another, and then another.”
For more from Stephen Fry, listen here.