Few films have had a more transformative impact on their local industry than Four Weddings And A Funeral, which was released twenty five years ago this week.
Grossing a remarkable $245M off a $4M budget, the film about a committed bachelor who unexpectedly finds love, helped pave the way for a string of globally successful Brit-originated comedies from The Full Monty to Trainspotting, Notting Hill to Love Actually and Bean to Bridget Jones. The rom-com catapulted the careers of Richard Curtis, Working Title, Hugh Grant, Mike Newell, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Duncan Kenworthy among many others, and kick-started the fortunes of its emerging European studio backer Polygram.
The film took a stunning $52M in the U.S., an unprecedented number for a relatively small-budget, British, R-rated comedy. It went down a storm with critics at Sundance and was up for Oscars, BAFTAs and a slew of international awards. The film’s soundtrack cover of Love Is All Around was a huge international hit, scoring 15 weeks at number 1 in the UK.
The sensational global success, partly a result of Polygram’s ambitious distribution strategy, came as the UK was introducing National Lottery movie funding for the first time, and bolstered the arguments for incoming film tax reliefs and the need for a dedicated UK screen organization to help other companies achieve similar breakout success (the UKFC).
From the irreverent ‘f*ck’-filled opening scenes to a slew of witty one-liners and moments of genuine poignancy, the film is full of memorable ingredients. The cast is largely excellent and the film has a genuine ease among subjects including disability, homosexuality and social diversity, which made it unusual at the time. It is a far cry from some of the schmaltz fests that sometimes give rom-coms a bad name. As has been pointed out before, the film’s central romance also refreshingly inverts the traditional stereotype of the genre where ‘ditsy woman meets confident male’.
Fascination for the British class system undoubtedly contributed to the film’s intrigue. The association is complex, however. Abroad, UK cinema of previous decades was probably better known for gritty realism than sophisticated comedy. For some, the film kick-started a craze for films about cloying upper class British life which gave UK cinema a bad name. And in hindsight, Hugh Grant’s instant stardom almost seemed to presage an endless cycle of British public school actors getting major roles out of the UK. And yet there is a self-deprecating awareness of affluence and an easy social mixity in the film which separates it from some of the class-obsessed shows Britain is well known for. It was the first of its kind in many ways and that gave it a certain innocence at the time.
In 1994, the film was far from a slam dunk, however. It had fallen apart at least once and was turned down by at least one major U.S. suitor. There had been uncertainty over the male lead, a reduced budget, and inevitable concern over the film’s ‘poshness.’ So how did the film come about? Who turned it down? Could it be made today? And what was Charles’s job? We spoke to the film’s key creatives – writer Richard Curtis, director Mike Newell, producer Duncan Kenworthy and executive producer Tim Bevan of Working Title – about their recollections of Four Weddings’ remarkable journey.
This oral history is published a day before the launch of an anticipated Four Weddings reunion short film which airs on the BBC as part of Comic Relief.
Richard Curtis: Four Weddings was my second film after a movie called The Tall Guy. I still felt comfortable in that genre, which I associated with films like Gregory’s Girl, Breaking Away and Diner: semi-autobiographical films with a romantic thread. But I didn’t think of Four Weddings as a romantic comedy at the time. It was inspired by a real incident when I met a very attractive girl at a wedding and failed to follow up on it, and also by the fact I had been to about 72 friends’ weddings in recent years. I also wanted to try and construct a movie about each moment in a relationship, to show a relationship in real time.
Duncan Kenworthy: We tried to make the film in 1992 but it fell apart for financial reasons. I remember CAA looking at the screenplay. They told me it would never work in America. I remember offering American rights to an U.S. studio at the time for $1M but they said no. Thank god, in hindsight. The film was put on hold but thankfully Mike and Richard were still available.
Andie MacDowell was a star at the time. When we got her, Polygram went round to their different companies and got a little more money for the budget. We weren’t going to let it go. It wasn’t a great deal of money but we all shook hands on it beforehand so no-one could say later on they were tricked into doing it. Mike, Richard, myself and Working Title.
Mike Newell: The big thing I remember was that we were very short of money. We had to quite savagely trim the shoot schedule. I remember talking to a cameraman about my grand ideas for the film. He stopped me and said ‘there’s only one reality I’m concerned with: that’s the 32 days of shoot.’ We were up against it all the time but we were all young and we got on with it. It was a wonderful script and it was a pleasure watching the scenes unfold.
Duncan Kenworthy: It felt like we auditioned every young man between 18-32 in England. Initially, we weren’t convinced by anyone. Alex Jennings was in the running in 1992. In 1993, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman were in the running. So Mike, Richard and I had a vote. It was two to one in Hugh’s favor.
Richard Curtis: I had voted against Hugh initially. I had been concerned that he was too good looking and I was aware of the character being viewed as too posh. I had loved Alan Rickman in Close My Eyes but he didn’t want to audition. Hugh did a perfect audition and thank god we went for him.
Tim Bevan: The big challenge creatively was around who would play Charles. The genius thing about finding Hugh Grant was that it meant Richard Curtis’s lead character could come to life with all the wit and charm the character was written with. Hugh can do Richard’s words like no one else can. But he wasn’t a slam dunk at the time, he wasn’t a movie star.
Duncan Kenworthy: We met 16 actresses when we went to LA. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Stuart Masterson were among those who auditioned. We offered it to one actress [Marisa Tomei] who said yes but then couldn’t do it due to a family bereavement. So we came back to London and had no-one. When we heard that Andie was able to meet, we found her very impressive.
Mike Newell: Richard Curtis had been to Harrow and Oxford. He doesn’t think of himself as a gent but his characters are often from that part of society. Duncan and I felt like there was a bump that needed leveling, that it was too Bright Young Things. We felt like we were making a version of Brideshead Revisited so we did quite a lot of work in casting it broadly.
Tim Bevan: The film stands up very well today, I think. The script is very original. None of the characters have a past or future. It’s quite a modern screenplay in a way. One of the things that audiences appreciate the world over is if you are culturally honest. Some would say it represents the clichés of what Britain is. I don’t agree with that. I think it’s about the realities of how some of us live.
Newell: The point of the whole film and why people put their arms round it is because it isn’t about romance, it’s about the blessings of friendship. It wasn’t conceivable that what happened on that movie would happen. No-one saw it coming. But it was happy. People didn’t feel like they needed to censure their own happiness. Today, it feels like we need to censure our laughter. We may laugh but then remind ourselves of huge looming challenges which aren’t laughing matters. 25 years ago times were lighter. The film was a perfect storm of actors, writers and creatives. It was like a French impressionist painting full of light. You want to be there, where the light is. Some people may say the film isn’t sophisticated but it is. There is a fine line between what is comedic and what is very real. I wanted to walk that fine line. It is very difficult to be funny. Apparently the old English actor Edmund Kean’s dying words were ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’. Comedy is just that. It’s hard.
Mike Newell on Charles’s job: We were busting our brains to come up with what job Hugh did. We came up with a couple of things. He was going to be a producer of radio commercials or in publishing but it was never solid.
Duncan Kenworthy on the infamous funeral scene: The Auden poem is a touchstone. I was thrilled that Auden’s collected works shot up the charts after the film came out. It was a ‘gay’ funeral. I’m gay and I wanted it to look like the funeral of a gay man. There are about six of my gay friends in the scene, two of whom had close ups. One of them died of AIDS the year the film came out so it’s a wonderful thing to be able to see him in the film in a big ’80s suit. It felt real. The scene was meant to be shot in a small church in the Lake District but we couldn’t afford that so it ended up being next to an industrial estate in London. Gareth’s two parents in the film weren’t cast as his parents. They were extras chosen on the day. They were brilliant.
Mike Newell on that scene in the rain: Poor old Andie. Everyone takes the piss out of that line, ‘Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed.’ The only way to get rain to register is to get the fire brigade in. Rain was coming down in sheets. The audience rightly found that an absurdity.
Duncan Kenworthy on that song: I’m guessing that getting Wet Wet Wet to record Love Is All Around was Richard’s idea. Richard Curtis is a god of pop music. If you asked him what song was number three in the charts in week seven of 1968, he’d probably know. Love Is All Around was a quick yes for all three of us. I was 17 in 1967 and the original Troggs song was a big deal for me.
But another track was also important in the film. Richard had always had the idea of starting the film with Elton John’s But Not For Me, but with no money to offer, how would we get him to agree? We waited until we had a rough cut of the film, and then via John Reid got Elton into a screening room. He absolutely loved it, and not only let us use the song but recorded a completely new version paid for by Mercury and Polygram with luscious orchestral arrangement. That significantly enhanced the whole opening section of the film.
Richard Curtis: “Our U.S. distributor Gramercy had some bad ideas for new titles. Rolling In The Aisles is the one I remember. There was also Loitering In Sacred Places. The statement I recall was ‘only women like weddings and no one likes funerals so you’ve only got a quarter of the audience’. We almost called the film The Best Man.
Going into Sundance, I remember asking whether I’d be able to ski. I was told ‘no, you’ll be doing back to back interviews’. I ended up skiing the whole time because hardly anyone wanted to speak to me. Then at the world premiere screening in Salt Lake City we lost about 70 people in the first five minutes due to the swearing. The religious burghers there didn’t appreciate that. I remember Polygram were releasing Backbeat at the same time. I saw the two marketing plans [both films were at Sundance]. Ours seemed like a laminate sheet with Andie MacDowell on it and Backbeat had a huge box with 70 prints and a CD inside. There was a lot of doubt around the film.
Duncan Kenworthy: If we had come out in the UK first it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. It would have been seen as a TV comedy. I’m convinced. Coming out in U.S. first meant it was a big surprise. Hugh was a big selling point. He was so witty, charming and funny in person. The New York Times had two big spreads on him and the film. He did talk shows. He was very willing. When the film was released [in the UK] the marketing said ‘America’s number one movie’, which really helped. The film tapped into a stereotype of Britain that America wanted to believe was true.
Richard Curtis: We thought we might have won the Oscar when we heard the ‘Fff…’ of Forest Gump. The Cesar Award in France was the funniest. We were up for the Foreign Language film. Costa Gavras and Wim Wenders were announcing the winner. Other nominees included Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction and The Son’s Room. I remember one Wim or Costa saying if Schindler’s List doesn’t win a scar will be laid on the face of French culture which will never be erased. They opened it and we had won. No-one applauded. We came up in struggling silence. That was the category voted for by the public, if I recall rightly. I remember at the time almost wishing we hadn’t won.
Tim Bevan: The way Four Weddings really changed British cinema was that prior to that point the big commercial hits to have come out of the UK were largely franchises like James Bond or EMI movies. With Four Weddings there was a moment where a bunch of good things fused: Mike, Richard and Duncan made a brilliant movie; Polygram had set up a distribution structure which to date hadn’t had a big hit so they were ready to overspend in terms of releasing; I seem to remember it was quite a depressing time and people needed a feel-good film; and all of these things meant that the movie became a phenomenal hit. It was an English-language movie that wasn’t a U.S. film and it was made for a smallish budget. It meant that if a UK film ticked the right boxes there was a proper global audience for it. After the film, Richard decided to stay in the UK [rather than move full-time to America]. Danny Boyle made Trainspotting a few years later and he too decided to stay in the UK. That was one of the lasting impacts of the movie.
The impact on Working Title was also huge. We were 8-9 years in at that point. We’d never had such a huge financial hit. Four Weddings began a chain of events that gave Polygram and then Universal confidence in us to build a slate each year. It resulted in the deal with Universal in 1998 which has lasted to this day.
Duncan Kenworthy: There may be a sniffiness around films like Four Weddings and Notting Hill; that they are soft and aren’t ‘great British art’. I think Four Weddings escaped that to an extent because it was first. Notting Hill received that attention and Love Actually definitely had it like a pie in the face. People thought the Richard Curtis universe of joy and happiness and everything working out in the end was unreal. Richard has a good answer to that, though. He says if you fill a film with violence and murder, which very few encounter in their lives, it’s considered realistic, but if you fill a film with love, which most people experience on a daily basis in some form, it’s considered unrealistic.’
Could it be made today?
Tim Bevan: I don’t see why not. I think people want to laugh.
Richard Curtis: My daughter tells me Netflix is doing a lot of these types of films as series. There’s even a series coming up based on Four Weddings. One of the last comedies in that vein which I really enjoyed was 500 Days Of Summer. Cameron Crowe, Nora Ephron, Drake Doremus, they have all made these types of very personal comedy movies. It could be that they’re bubbling up today but somewhere else. In saying that, Crazy Rich Asians did really well.
Mike Newell: I think it would be impossible. It’s grim times. Brexit has made us horrible in the same way that Trump has made parts of America horrible. We don’t like ourselves very much and I don’t think that movie could have been successful the way it was unless there was a sneaking suspicion that we did like ourselves in ways.
You can look back and say the film lacked social punch but it did make people happy. You can’t make big movies unless you believe you’re in mass entertainment. You need the serious stuff and the complex stuff as well, of course, but I think Four Weddings was complex. It was made with a super emotional realism and included at least one truly sad character. It has an emotional courage.
Back then it was something wonderful to be young. The first thing Hugh said to me when we recently gathered for the short film was “Christ we’re all so old.” Back then we were all approaching the line of a frontier. Four Weddings crossed us over that line.