Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The big yahoo

Jack Black reveals why playing Gulliver as a time-travelling American slob really wasn’t that huge a stretch

Jeff Dawson

Published: 19 December 2010, Sunday Times

On a sound stage at Pinewood Studios sits a huge mocked-up rock structure that resembles a cross between the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave. Torches flame along its walls, the basalt columns have been sprayed to an ocean-pounded sheen and, in one of its many crannies, Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate have been banged up behind bars.

We are in Lilliput, where this huge sea cavern serves as the island’s jail; inmates are interned in every crevice. Following their overthrow by the army of neighbouring Blefuscu, Connolly and Tate, Lilliput’s monarchs, have been reduced to the rank of ordinary felons. Would-be salvation comes in the shape of oversized Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black), erstwhile court favourite, since disgraced, who has arrived to kiss and make up. “King, if it’s all right, I’d like to be your guardian protector again,” he says. “And if I don’t kick that robot’s butt...”

Because the original was written at a time when there was so much unknown out there, there could possibly be a land of tiny people

While the royals are togged up in their Ruritanian finery, Black stands on the top of a stepladder, in a pair of jeans whose hems hover above his ankles, like a schoolboy after a growth spurt.

He reads his lines back off camera, hand in pocket, while his supposed 70ft eyeline is simulated by the high-tech arrangement of a tennis ball on a pole, a discombobulating process for those schooled in more traditional methods.

“Go and tell the Blefuscians that our protector has returned,” Connolly pronounces, “and he is... Ah, f***, I’m sorry.” King Connolly and Queen Tate must now jump into the friendly giant’s outstretched hand — actually a crash mat. Billy’s back isn’t up to it, poor dear. They’ll have to think of a way round it.

When Jonathan Swift published Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts, in 1726, it is fair to assume that he didn’t envisage Gulliver getting wedgied by a large mechanical android, even in one of the earlier drafts. To Swift, the prospect of capturing his story on celluloid would have been as fanciful as the name of his monkey humans — the Yahoos — being appropriated by an internet search engine. His classic was written as a satire on European government, rather than a children’s story, with A Voyage to Lilliput the most enduring of the tales. His hero was a ship’s surgeon, rather than the film’s LemueL, a Wii-guitar-playing schlub, who toils in a newspaper mailroom and for whom — hey! — “It doesn’t get any bigger than this”.

In modern Hollywood, however, where movie ideas are reduced to a one-line sell, you can imagine the studio execs high-fiving the moment one of them looked up from his soy latte and piped “Jack Black is Gulliver”, with someone else chiming in: “And in 3D!”

The film’s producer, Ben Cooley, confirms: “We had no idea what the take was. Do we do it in the future, and Lilliput is on another planet, Jack is in a spaceship? There were a lot of ideas circulating.” This interstellar option was dunked, mercifully, through the basketball hoop over the wastepaper bin. The script, co-written by Joe Stillman, who penned Shrek, opted for Gulliver having a thing for the newspaper’s princess of a travel editor (Amanda Peet). He rises from his basement swamp to masquerade as a writer, bagging an assignment to Bermuda and a date with its Triangle.

“The way into the world had to change,” Black explains. “Because the original was written at a time when there was so much unknown out there, there could possibly be a land of tiny people. We go through a wormhole to another dimension. But once we get to Lilliput, it’s more like the book.” Sort of.

The director, Rob Letterman, who made Monsters vs Aliens, wanted to avoid the book’s South Sea island setting, to steer it clear of Lost. So, Lilliput is Little England, and we get a culture clash: a brash infantile American (Black) bouncing off the barbs of Britain’s finest, all clad in Quality Street finery to boot (Connolly, Tate, Emily Blunt, James Corden and the Irishman Chris O’Dowd). “People don’t realise how sarcastic the book was,” Letterman says. “The spirit of it we stick to. We make fun of what’s going on in the world.”

Black’s Gulliver, the self-styled “Prince Awesome of Manhattan”, turns out to be quite the cultural imperialist, remodelling downtown Lilliput into a facsimile of Times Square and having the locals build him a beachside condo, complete with “media room”, where his tiny pals re-create scenes from Star Wars and Titanic. “Bringing fun to Lilliput corrupts it at the same time,” Letterman adds. “He Americanises it in a bad way. It’s not the same thing that happened in the book, but it’s the same ideas of allegory.”

In body-perfect Hollywood, there’s always been a soft spot reserved for the slob king, a sort of unkempt everyman — a tradition running in recent times through John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley. Black is a direct descendant and has no qualms about flouting his credentials, treating us to the panoramic spectacle of his bare wobbling belly repelling the cannonballs of the Blefuscu navy.

“Don’t talk about food,” Connolly whispers. “His love of food is just a joy. It’s quite dreamy. Say lamb pasanda if you want to see him sweat and dance.” Black’s acquired love of Indian nosh has been offset by the four flights of stairs he must master at his rented house in Kensington, he assures me. “Feel my butt. Feel. It’s made of steel.”

If someone has a drama that I’m perfect for, I’ll consider it, but there has to be a comedic element to it... I’m just a clown

Now 41, Black has been an A-list star for some years, his made-flesh Beavis and Butt-Head persona exemplified in his signature film, School of Rock. The son of rocket-scientist parents, he grew up in Santa Monica and juggled early acting gigs with band ones. His rock duo, Tenacious D, with his chum Kyle Gass, has since gone on to cult status. He finally made it after his turn as a smartarse record-shop employee in High Fidelity; starring roles followed in Shallow Hal, King Kong, Nacho Libre, Be Kind Rewind and Tropic Thunder, as well as the animation Kung Fu Panda, directly modelled on his manic persona. Gulliver is probably the first film in which you will remember his character’s name.

In some of his earlier movies, such as Dead Man Walking, he played it straight.

In others, like the romcom The Holiday, there has been a hint of vulnerability, suggesting there’s a serious actor inside, itching to break out. But no, says Black. “It’s not my mission to show people that I can do this or that. I like comedies. If someone has a drama that I’m perfect for, I’ll consider it, but there has to be a comedic element to it... I’m just a clown.” One that’s permanently “on”, either joyously or infuriatingly, depending on your point of view. Black does a trick with his eyes, making them turn inwards individually, then hams through some t’ai chi moves. He breaks off. “I let a little gas go. I had to stop...”

As everyone keeps saying, though, he’s dedicated, a hard worker. Across the way, mounted on a table, is a scaled-down version of the same rock cave. At a future point, the scene will be filmed again, this time with Black mugging through the little cave’s mouth. After four months in Britain, filming at Pinewood, the Old Royal Naval College, in Greenwich and Blenheim Palace, the project will repair to LA for the actor to do the scene once more in front of a green screen. “It’s a lot for him,” Letterman says. “He basically has to shoot the movie three times. He doesn’t have to be here on a day like this — I can get anyone to read his lines — but he really commits to it.”

In the corridor, Jason Segel, star of I Love You, Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the only Yank among the Lilliputians, is struggling with a cold. He’s huge, Segel — 6ft 4in — with the physique of a circus strongman. “This is the first time I’ve ever been shorter than one of my co-stars,” he quips. As Horatio, he plays a commoner besotted with Blunt’s Princess Mary, bringing him into conflict with her betrothed, the pompous General Edward (O’Dowd).

Despite Letterman’s assurance that there’s “a lot of scatological humour in the book — there’s 300-year-old poop jokes”, you can anticipate groans from purists bemoaning the desecration of yet another literary classic. Actually, Gulliver has been recast in all manner of guises over the years, from Mickey Mouse (1934) to Ted Danson (1996). Most versions owe their imagery to the 1939 animation by Max Fleischer. “It did have a lasting impact,” Letterman says. “There are two quintessential images — Gulliver waking up on the beach and the armada, when he pulls the boats. I spent a lot of time crafting them into this movie, trying to do our best version.”

Outside, later on, on a re-creation of Blenheim’s facade, soldiers are arrayed, the royal thrones laid out on a roll of Astroturf. Blunt and Tate, in elegant gowns, mess around under parasols, speaking in Australian accents (“Because it just gets you through the day,” Tate says). Blunt coos about how “witty and charming” the film is. “It reminds me of The Princess Bride.” They are being set up for the showdown between Gulliver and the tin robot. Instructions are barked through a megaphone about how the invisible Gulliver will be grabbing the big gold orb off the top of the palace and lobbing it like a basketball. “Annihilate him, Gulliver!” Blunt shrieks, acting to nothing.

On an American website recently, one female moviegoer threatened to boycott the film for fear of Black’s habitual need to go to the lavatory on screen. She’ll be sorry to hear that he does so again. Only bigger. (Although it has to be said, it is actually in the book.)

Gulliver’s Travels opens on December 26

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