Jeremiah Chechik: Secret Agent Man

Director Jeremiah Chechik explains why making The Avengers was ever so much more fun than his last movie, Diabolique, and promised that Ralph Fiennes will be "light as a feather" as Mr. Steed.


You know the old axiom that advises, "Never trust the artist, trust the tale"? The wisdom of that saying almost invariably goes triple when moviemakers get around to appraising their own work. Consider the pronouncements director Jeremiah Chechik has made about his oeuvre. Of his debut effort he said: "I liked the idea of trying to re-create an old-fashioned comedy of manners in the tradition of Sturges, Hawks or Lubitsch." Of what latter-day paean to the works of those stylishly irreverent directors is he speaking? National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. And here's his in-progress description as he was remaking the classic Diabolique: "Our script is a thousand times more relevant, interesting and complex than the original movie."

Driving toward the director's home in the twisty, sylvan streets of Santa Monica Canyon during an El Nino downpour, I can't help but reflect on the various forms of self-delusion moviemaking sometimes promotes. Or rather, requires. It's not that I haven't really liked some of Chechik's movies. I have great fondness for the idiosyncratic love story Benny & Joon and for the little-seen kid's Americana epic Tall Tale. Sometimes, though, directors don't walk it like they talk it.

Still, I'm thinking as I stand rapping on Chechik's door in relentless rain, this director is intriguing, and not only because he's just made The Avengers, the big-budget, big-screen version of the cult British '60s TV spy series. Here's someone who attracts powerful stars to his projects, people like Johnny Depp and Sharon Stone, not to mention The Avengers' cast members, Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery. Obviously actors see more in Chechik's work than audiences and critics so far have.

The director opens the door, greets me casually, gives my sopping clothes and hair a cursory look, and leads me through his handsome home, which features a Buddhist shrine, bold contemporary art pieces, and a wall of windows opening out on a view of spectacular foliage. Explaining that he's under the gun timewise because he's flying back to England after today to attend to details on The Avengers, he directs me to a long slate slab dining-room table, then proceeds to his kitchen to fix himself breakfast. When he returns, he sets his egg whites in front of himself, then gives me a flicker of a nod and grin that are, I suspect, as close as I'm going to get to an invitation to begin asking questions.

Alrighty, then. "Was doing The Avengers something of a lark," I ask, "especially after Diabolique, which was anything but, and Tall Tale, which most people don't know even exists?"

"I don't tend to have fun working," Chechik responds, between hearty chomps. "You just go in hoping for the best. Benny & Joon was fun. The Avengers was the most fun I could ever imagine having on so big a movie. Diabolique was a nightmare. Again, you just never know going in. Did I know what Sharon Stone was like? But let bygones be bygones."

With this, Chechik goes off the record to unload just a small dose of the bile he's got stored up over making the shocker about two women who conspire to murder a guy they're both having sex with. Whether or not he thinks his Diabolique improved on director Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 original, the newer version proved not only a critical and financial bloodbath, but also a profoundly unpleasant moviemaking experience.

"I brought that on myself," he says, back on the record, "by putting together two highly charged female movie stars like Isabelle Adjani and Sharon, and then adding to that mix Kathy Bates. Sharon and I began very friendly. We were friends before we did it. When the project ended, we weren't speaking. I tried to help her go through whatever she had to go through to do it. She had her issues with the producer and the studio and used me in her game with them. And used the movie against me. I was trying to make the movie--I wasn't trying to deal with the politics outside of the movie, of which there were a huge amount. Some of what was reported in the press was true, but everyone used it to their own ends and really forgot about the movie. That's what made it so difficult. To this day I love the performances of Kathy Bates and Isabelle, with whom I became very close. Actually, I love Sharon's performance. I think it's good."

So, given all this good work, did he indeed make a film better than the original Diabolique? "I feel that my movie and the first are flip sides of the same coin," he answers. "I wanted to see how far I could take a movie perceived as a classic--a movie that was misogynistic--by reinterpreting it, as a man, as a feminist movie. That's pretty bold, in retrospect. Maybe I shouldn't have done it. I wanted to do a movie that was not light. What I ended up with was a movie that was so dark it had no light at all." He lets out a staccato laugh, adding, "Which may explain why it was kind of trounced critically--unfairly, I believe. A lot of the critical hostility came from just my attempt to redo it. I think it will be reevaluated, I really do. When there are no issues, no baggage, the movie will be seen in the light that I made it. Probably after I'm dead."

The movie more likely to be recognized after Chechik's death, if not before, is the neglected Tall Tale, a fantastical slice of American folklore featuring Nick Stahl as a boy encountering Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. "I'm very proud of that movie, which has a wonderful sense of the American culture and draws from the richness of American folklore," he asserts. "It got great reviews, and in test screenings, it scored as high as any movie possibly could. It was a failure of marketing. We never found a way to sell it."

Chechik shrugs. "At the end of the day," he says, "these movies are going to be part of the legacy I leave. They're not going anywhere. I try to make movies for my own life, for what is important to me. But the audience's collective consciousness may demand other experiences at the movies. Compare films like Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction was fun, but it didn't have near the depth, complexity, irony or skill of acting that Jackie Brown had. Jackie Brown knocked my socks off. Hats off to you, Quentin. Who knows why, but people weren't interested."

We'll soon see whether people are interested in Chechik's newest film, The Avengers. It certainly has appeal going in: a bold, grand-scale visual style, a cast that includes Sean Connery as a wacky mastermind named Sir August deWynter, Uma Thurman as both slinky Emma Peel and Peel's robot doppelganger, and the very English Ralph Fiennes as the very English secret agent Mr. Steed. It also boasts a considerable history. This is a project that's been around for years, with various stars and directors involved over a long course of collapsing initiatives.

Did Chechik have any doubts about tackling a film that's taken so long to get off the ground? "Trying to find a Hollywood project that doesn't have other people's fingerprints on it is like trying to find a virgin in Hollywood," he declares. "That doesn't bother me a bit. I got the job." Did he feel trepidation about making a project from a British TV series with a cult following? "I had no trepidation," he says. "Most people, certainly in this country, have never even heard of The Avengers. The cultists will all go see it the first weekend anyway. Then the movie stands on its own."

So, what exactly was it about The Avengers that attracted Chechik? "I read the script and thought, 'Unlike Diabolique, this isn't a psychological story. It's as fun a movie as I could imagine. I like stories that are not predictable, characters that are odd. That's the material I feel most comfortable with. I don't care about the genre. The commonality in my movies is the quirkiness of the characters within the world of the movie. The Avengers is a very simple story, basically about a mad scientist who has figured out a way to create weather and is holding the world up for ransom. Steed, who works for the British Ministry, and Peel, who knows a lot about science and weather, must stop him. And they do. Oh, no, now I've given away the ending!" He cracks up laughing.

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