TORONTO—Probably better known as Madonna’s husband than as a director of high-style, high-attitude, comic-book-type thrillers (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), Guy Ritchie recently took the Toronto Film Festival by storm: “Rocknrolla,” his latest Brit gangster saga starring Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton and Tom Wilkinson, seemed to be everything the crowd wanted, and more.
After an evening of bellowing, “Yes! I love Madonna,” at paparazzi curious about his reportedly troubled marriage, Ritchie took a few minutes to sit with John Anderson in Toronto and actually talk about his film.
Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, Chris Bridges, Jeremy Piven, Gemma Arterton
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 8 Oct 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 5 Sep 2008 (General release); 2008)
Q. Could you have gotten a better reception than you did last night?
A. The crowd in London was great, but when we came here it was a different class. I felt they wanted to enjoy it from the start, a very warm environment. Just felt right, didn’t it? Can’t play any better than that.
Q. Can you credit some of the reaction to the Gerard Butler cult? I even saw middle-aged women going positively bonkers.
A. Possibly. I didn’t really know there was a whole Gerry Butler cult. Why is that? Because he’s like a guy’s guy? Or a woman’s guy? I don’t know. I am aware that he had a rather impressive set of abs in “300.”
Q. Did you have him in mind, or anyone of your cast when you were prepping the film?
A. Yes and no. Some of the people I had talked about. It’s an organic process: You see the TV series, the movies, you make a subconscious mental note of actors you find inspiring, and gradually they come to the forefront of your mind at the appropriate time. I guess that’s how the casting process really works.
Q. Tom Wilkinson, as the mob chief, seems to be channeling Bob Hoskins, but he also seems to be having fun.
A. He was tremendously professional, he turned up, did his thing, pushed off, I’m not sure he really knew what he was getting into. He was pushed on time, and it was hard for us to get the timing right. But he was the guy I really wanted.
Q. It seems obvious, but how important is place to you?
A. Tremendously. I reckon I’ll do as good a job as I can making a place interesting even if it isn’t, but London is. It’s sort of been the capital of the world to a degree for 600 years, and that’s not really changing. Every now and then it turns its crown over to another city for a while, but generally takes it back.
Q. It’s cyclical?
A. It’s interesting how cyclical it is. I can’t think of any other city that’s held the crown as long as London has in terms of global power. I know New York has stolen the title for awhile by default of being in America. They say New York is the center of the Western world and London is the center of the rest of the world.
Q. Is technique always going to be what people talk about when they talk about you?
A. Probably. It’s really about entertainment. “Rocknrolla” is almost a caricature, it’s almost an animated world. It’s really about how I see life editorialized into an entertaining selection of choice cuts. If I go to the cinema, it’s exactly the sort of thing I want to see.
Q. What’s your philosophy of film violence?
A. It would be hard for me to completely intellectualize the choices that I make. It’s just the way I’m sort of creatively bent. I mean, I’m making a reflection of a tough world, but it’s not to be taken too seriously, right? I like the idea that sometimes you play it straight and then you don’t.
It’s fertile ground for exploring as a director.
Q. One character gets beaten with a golf club. It might have been onscreen. You portrayed it more by suggestion.
A. I could have done it onscreen, but as you probably now know, I’m neither interested in watching sex or violence necessarily on screen.
Q. The snapshot sex scene between Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton must be the briefest on film. How’d it happen?
A. It was a happy accident: Gerry turned up with an infected throat and everybody was moaning and groaning and I saw it as a blessing in disguise—“Let’s shoot it in 15 minutes! Gerry you’re over there, Thandie, you’re over there” and they never had to be together at the same time. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, I think it’s weird watching two people cohabitate at the best of times anyway.
Q. What’s next?
A. “Sherlock Holmes” starts in a month. I look forward to that. They’ve given me some real money for a change. Big traditional movie, Robert Downey Jr.‘s in it. It’ll be fun. Perfect sort of thing for me: English and big.