GYPSIES, TRAMPS AND THIEVES – by Mark Salisbury
With ‘Snatch,’ director Guy Ritchie takes moviegoers on a dazzlingly frenetic ride through criminal London, reels in some big-time American talent, and beats the dreaded sophomore slump to a bloody pulp (Well done, Guv’nor!).
How hard can it be? Eleven words. Thirty-seven letters. All adding up to just one sentence: “No need to panic, Avi; it’s not your blood, it’s his.” But for Vinnie Jones, the former English football star-turned-acting heavy weight, it’s proving to be a bit of a mouthful to remember those words in the necessary order. As Bullet Tooth Tony, the near-indestructible minder in Snatch who shepherds Dennis Farina’s New York diamond dealer Avi around the seedier side of London in search of an 84-carat stone. Jones has to say the line after the car he’s driving crashes and Farina finds himself covered in blood. When he freaks, Jones is required to point out that the red stuff actually belongs to the guy in the backseat who has the sword protruding from his gut. However much he tries, though, the words keep coming out wrong. And as Jones continues to struggle, writer-director Guy Ritchie sits chortling away by his monitor, his laughter level escalating exponentionally with the number of takes required. “Turn over in ten seconds, Dave; otherwise, it’s fines,” he instructs David Reid, the first assistant director, working his crew to a stopwatch (more on Ritchie’s system of monetary fines later). “Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… Come on. What’s going one? Action.”
“No need to panic, Avi,” Jones begins again, “it’s his blood, not yours.”
Ritchie hoots with laughter. “Fuck off, Jones,” he howls. “Say what’s in the script. One more. Cunt. (British slang translation: It’s not exactly what you think; used more ‘as a term of endearment,’ according to Ritchie) Stop screaming like a woman.” He shouts out the line for Jones” benefit, but the actor blows it. Again, Ritchie roars. “You cunt, Jones. Just do it.” He leaps from his seat and rushes over for a quick confab. He’s back in a flash. “We’re going to turn over in 30 seconds, Dave.”
This time, a man-presumably just taking a stroll on this miserably cold December day along this skuzzy north London backstreet, a stone’s throw from Gainsborough Studios, where Hitchcock filmed his early talkies-ambles into the shot. And nobody notices. “Come on fellas,” Ritchie sighs. “For fuck’s sake.” They go again. Eventually, Jones nails it. Ritchie is a happy man. “Good one, Vince,” he shouts before moving on to the next setup.
Later, Ritchie says that he made up Jones’s line moments before the scene was shot. “I do that quite a lot,” he says. “The dialogue is a yardstick and tends to evolve. The actors remain broad-minded and I allow them to put some lines in every now and then. Sometimes it’s too much for them to remember.” Like today? “Jones works well under pressure. And I’ve got a good enough relationship with him that I can shout at him and he can shout at me.”
The line never makes it into the finished film.
Welcome to the world of Guy Ritchie. A crude, lewd, violent, achingly funny, testosterone-fueled London of likely lads and hardened criminals; of comic capers and madcap macho men with menacing monikers like Franky Four Fingers, Brick Top, and Boris the Blade, who banter with the best of them and speak in a kind of expletive-laden poetry. An underworld of Gypsies and cons and cockney geezers (translation: just one of the guys) in sharp suits; of man-eating pigs and diamond-scarfing dogs. Oh, and some bloke named Brad Pitt.
Ritchie, the 32-year-old Brit perhaps best known on the side of the Atlantic as Madonna’s boyfriend and father of her son, Rocco (“How unique is that: Your son makes you famous when he hasn’t done anything other than fart and demand his mother’s breasts”), first burst onto the scene two years ago with his feature debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, a cocky, poppy gangster tale that cost less than $2 million to make, and after being turned down by every British distributor, wound up earning about $16 million worldwide. While some critics noted the film’s Tarantinoesque qualities (if anything, it owed more to Scorsese’s Mean Streets), it was, like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, a breath of fresh air for the British film industry. Rough around the edges but not lacking in flair or imagination, Lock, Stock proved Ritchie could marshal a labyrinthine plot and funky visuals with equal aplomb.
“I was interested in making something that wasn’t pretentious, that didn’t take itself seriously, had lots of fucking tinsel (translation: showy parts), lots of Al Jolson (translation: razzamatazz),” Ritchie explains in this uniquely eloquent manner. He’s having a poolside lunch in Los Angeles nearly a year after the Jones incident. “I didn’t think anybody was going to see the first one. I was rather surprised when they did.” Hollywood was quick to latch on, particularly after Tom Cruise showed up at an early screening (at the invitation of executive producer Trudie Styler, a.k.a Mrs. Sting) and proclaimed that the film, well, rocked. It was an opinion that producer Matthew Vaughn (son of The Man From U.N.C.L.E star Roberts) admits was invaluable in securing a U.S distribution deal with Gramery Pictures. “We owe Mr. Cruise a lot,” says Vaughn, producer of Snatch and Ritchie’s partner in SKA Films. While Lock, Stock scarcely made a dent at the American box office, it was “massive on video,” Ritchie says. “I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t seen it.”
One fan was Brad Pitt, an actor continually wrestling with Hollywood’s perception of him as a heartthrob. As such, the Fight Club star has made it to a priority to seek out innovative directors (he’ll soon be working with Steven Soderbergh on Ocean’s Eleven, and then with the Coen brothers on To The White Sea) and regularly screens movies “to watch what the new guys are doing and see where film is evolving.” Like Cruise, Pitt has seen Lock, Stock prior to its release and was impressed. “I’m looking for some kind of new expression, and Guy is certainly pioneering that,” he enthuses. “I was so taken by Lock, Stock, I laughed my hairy ass off. It was the energy, the way things were moving, the way he played with time, and beyond that, it was this collection of great personalities that formed this kind of melee that I thought was hysterical. The way everyone’s story was woven together and the way it all added up, I thought ‘ I got to get some of what this guy’s got.’”
Pitt wasn’t the only one interested. “ Hollywood was offering all kinds of sexy lures,” Ritchie recalls,” and I was very attracted to making something big and revolting. I always promised myself I would make big and revolting if someone ever allowed me to.” Still, he turned down several studio projects, including Charlie’s Angels and Gone in Sixty Seconds, to stay in England and make something small. Ritchie’s reasoning was based partly on his desire to continue honing his skills on a genre with which he was familiar and partly on the fact that “I’ve had so many enormous culture shocks, which have slapped me somewhat senseless in the last couple of years.” Such as? “Such as, my social life took a bit of a U-turn, and I started meeting very interesting people,” he laughs. He’s talking about Madonna. “I’ve been with her for a coupe of years, since the end of Lock, Stock. So she was obviously an enormous fucking shock. Then the other thing is not to make a cock out of yourself on the next film.”
He’s already begun writing Snatch when Pitt called, asking if Ritchie had anything in the pipeline that would be suitable for him. In fact, there was: One Punch Mickey, an Irish Gypsy bare-knuckle boxer with a killer right hook and The Last Supper tattooed on his back, a man who really, really loves his mom, though you can’t understand a word he says about her-or anything else. Despite coming off of Fight Club, Pitt had no reservations about playing another fighter. “I was in my pugilist phase, and I figured we’d take it to the next step.” As a result, he dropped out of Both Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance. “It kind of worked out that way,” he reflects. “Maybe we could have at least worked one of them out simultaneously. I didn’t do (them) specifically because of Snatch, but Snatch was a given.”
Naturally, Ritchie was thrilled. “I liked the idea of taking Brad Pitt, a $20 million movie star and a fucking good-looking bastard to boot, and making him as incomprehensible and as ugly as we possibly could,” he says, grinning. His only real concern was incorporating a huge American star in a way that didn’t smack of selling out or token casting. “Brad Pitt’s rather hard to swallow in one bite because he’s a very talented actor and good-looking, so men don’t like him for reasons which I understand. However, once he’s a funny bastard, men somehow forgive him for being good-looking. If we mess him up as much as we can, the appreciate the fact he’s not trying too hard to look fantastic.”
The budget for Snatch was under $10 million, an increase certainly, on Lock, Stock, but still low by Hollywood standards. “It was a tremendous culture shock to poor Brad,” Ritchie says, smiling, “because people threw cups in his hand and asked him to make ‘em tea, because everyone was on the tea shift. He managed to go from $20 million movie star to tea maker without a glitch in his behavior.”
“I knew what I was walking into,” Pitt says, “I wanted to do something like this. I didn’t wanna be waiting in some air-conditioned, faux-paneled trailer for seven hours while they light the goddamn set. But it was everyone’s expectations: ‘Oh, the big movie-star guy, how’s he gonna handle it?’ I’ll tell you what I was taken back about: potatoe sandwiches. Explain that to me. A raw potatoe, cut up and put on a piece of white bread. Starch on starch. This was set food! I still don’t understand that one.”
Snatch features several familiar faces from Lock, Stock, among them Jones and Jason Statham, a onetime British high-board diver, a part-time model, and a sometime street vendor of dodgy perfume and jewelry. Neither had ever acted before Lock, Stock; now both have careers in Hollywood, Jones appeared in Gone in Sixty Seconds and is currently filming Swordfish with John Travolta. Statham, meanwhile, has a leading role in the upcoming John Carpenter’s Ghosts of mars
“I owe Guy everything,” Statham says. “After Lock, Stock, I said “I owe you so much for putting me into in,’ and he said ‘J., I don’t do anyone favors when it comes to my films. I put you in it because I thought it would make my film better, not because I like you.’ It’s quite flattering, and you don’t feel like you wormed your way in for all the wrong reasons. He’s loyal to his friends, but he doesn’t do people silly favors.”
Despite his intentions to make Snatch more serious then its predecessor, Ritchie admits that he basically failed. (Perhaps it was the lad-heavy cast: “You get all those (actors) together and you can’t help but have a laugh,” Pitt says.) The twisty plot revolves around a diamond the size of a fist (the thing that’s been snatched) and includes underground boxing matches, illegal dogfights, Jewish villains with gambling problems, unintelligible Gypsies, sadistic East End villains, and a bullet-proof ex-KGB assassin-turned-arms dealer with a propensity for large knives. Plot strands come and go, as do the characters. Some collide; some intersect. Some die, often messily. Narratively, it’s a touch too similar to Lock, Stock, but Ritchie says he always intended to make something in the same vein. “I didn’t want to repeat myself, but I wanted to make something that, if you liked Lock, Stock, you’d come to this and have a good time because you knew what was in store for ya. That being said, I wanted to put a bit of pathos in it this time.”
“They’re related,” concurs Benicio Del Toro, who, along with Pitt and Dennis Farina, represents the American contingent of day players (his character is the digitally challenged Jewish jewel thief Frankie Four Fingers). “I think (with) Snatch, he mastered what he was doing with Lock, Stock. He’s getting better at it. Guy’s got his own sound going. It will be interesting to see how he will bring that into other (genres).”
Despite his characters often colorful names and the outrageous nature of his plots, Ritchie insists his films are less fantastical then they might appear and says he bases them on real-life incidents and characters that he’s garnered from “30 years living in London,” rubbing shoulders “with real authentic geezer types. Obviously I’ve taken some liberties, like with dogs eating diamonds but on the whole, very little of it is fantasy. In fact, every nasty (story) in there is true.”
For research, Pitt made a visit to a camp of Gypsies in England. According to Ritchie, Pitt got more color than he’d bargained for: “One of them was a bare-knuckle boxer, so as we walked in, this geezer ripped of his shirt and started throwing his fists in all directions. Couldn’t understand a fucking word he was on about (translation: talking about), claiming that he’s ironed out (translation: knocked out) every hard man from here to Katmandu. Brad was very taken with this story.” Pitt says, laughing, “There was a little posturing, of course. You’ve got a Hollywood cheesebag showing up at your front door. They were likable enough, really sweet and charming, but a very protective bunch.”
Having done a Northern Irish accent for his IRA terrorist in The Devil’s Own, Pitt was keen to so something different here. After working on a standard Gypsy dialect, he decided to take a page from Del Toro (“whom I think is about as good as they come-you’ll see that in Traffic. Just give him the trophy, he is amazing”) and his famously mumbling turn in The Usual Suspects. “I met a few of the guys and I couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying,” Pitt explains. “Guy and I had a little powwow: “What if we made this guy unintelligible?” We thought it was funny, so we went that way.” As a result, Pitt steals the film with a deft comic performance. (“He wasn’t supposed to be so incomprehensible,” Ritchie laughs.)
Del Toro says he didn’t understand the cockney accents when he first saw Lock, Stock and had to watch it twice before he did. Which, coming from the master of the mumble, seems a bit rich. Once, on the set, however, he was soon in tune with the language, picking up words from Ritchie “like geezer, top geezer (an exceptional one of the guys), cunt.” He says the latter so softly he almost mouths it. The language was a problem for Farina too. “I did have a hard time understanding them, especially their slang. To them, a tough guy is a ‘geezer’. You can relate to that a little bit, but some of the other things, I had no idea what they were talking about, which was kind of fun, actually. And,” he adds, “I kept getting on the wrong side of the car.”
There was a fine system in operation on the Snatch set, implemented by Ritchie, with cash penalties handed out for an array of misdemeanors, such as cell phones on the set ($15), cell phones ringing during a take ($30), and any whingeing (translation: whining) of any kind ($30). There were even fines for disputing fines (original fine times two). “I usually lost about 40 quid (translation: approximately $60) a day,” says Ritchie, whose background in music videos allowed him to speed through the shoot. “I get too indulgent if I arse around too long. I find it better if you smash into it. It keeps the morale up-no one arses around, it means you can effectively do in eight weeks what most people can do in 16. We run the whole thing on a stopwatch.”
Still, there was always time for an on-set game of cards (Jones, Pitt, and Vaughn were frequent players), and Ritchie and Statham could often be found competing at what they call “speed-chess” between takes. “He likes having a laugh,” Statham says, “and he’s going to capitalize on the fact he’s got 30 blokes around him, and we’re all there having a good time.”
Pitt thrived on Ritchie’s expeditious and lighthearted approach. “The whole movie was shot so quickly, it was kind of astonishing,” he says. “But more and more like that-just get in there, do it, see what happens.” The actor’s climatic bare-knuckle bout, for example, was filmed in an astonishing two days. Even so, it’s arguably up there with Raging Bull’s famous boxing scenes. “I was really impressed with the way he would invent a scene on the spot,” Pitt says, “with total confidence in himself that he would make this work. He’s not bogged down by overwhelming self-doubt.”
Well, not often. Shortly before Snatch was released in the UK last fall, Ritchie thought he’d made a “disastrous” film. “I thought I was in a bit of shit there for a while. I really thought I was going to have my pants pulled down (translation: be humiliated) something terrible.” His first cut came in at three hours and was, he concedes, boring. “I knew I did something right when I shot it, because it was funny and I felt it was good. Something happened in editing that was rather disappointing. I fell asleep after the first 30 minutes, and that’s a disappointing state of affairs when the director falls asleep on his first viewing of his film. I never completed a single viewing.”
Part of the problem arose from Ritchie’s fondness for his actors-expanding
their parts, continually improvising new scenes and dialogue on the spot. “There were some killer lines in there but they were purely for me to wank off a bit. You can have as much tinsel as you like, but if you haven’t got a good story, you’re fucked, and I was fucked at a stage.” To rectify the whole problem, Ritchie slashed everyone’s role down, cut scenes, and “ruthlessly smashed the film to an hour and a half. It took on a whole new life but was still riddled with inconsistencies, so I remedied it, like I did with Lock, Stock, with a two-day reshoot.” He smiles. “It’s funny-if you’ve got 20 problems, get rid of ten and the other ten take care of themselves.”
“That’s maturity in an artist-when you let go of great ideas,” Pitt says. “You’ve got to if it doesn’t keep the throughline, the harmony of the thread.”
It’s easy to see Ritchie almost as a character in one of his own movies. He’s a good-looking bloke, with bleached blond hair, a nice line of patter, and a mischievous glint in his ice-blue eyes. He oozes confidence and testosterone. The scar tat runs haphazardly across his left cheek (the result, he says, of a “disputation”) implies a somewhat dubious past, and when he does what he does best-telling tales, either in person or onscreen-he does it with infectious cheekiness. “He’s a cool-looking guy,” Del Toro says. “I think you look at him and go, ‘That guy’s not a director, he’s an actor.’ He should be in front of the camera.”
Ritchie was raised in Fulham, in southwest London, but following hi parents’ divorce, he spent a couple of years on his stepfather’s 5,000-acre country estate in Shropshire, where he acquired a taste for shooting and fox hunting. He wasn’t academic in the slightest, attending ten schools in all. “It was a learning disability that shrunted me on from one to another.” And while his dyslexia (“I don’t think my spelling has evolved since I was about 12, and it was pretty bad then”) was an issue, his problems were more serious than that. “I didn’t want to learn. I had no interest in anything academic whatsoever.”
After leaving school at 15, he spent a year at Island Records, then “wasted my youth. I arsed around, worked in bars, traveled-went to Africa for a year, spent six months in Greece. I had Ritchie’s Removers, which was a removal (translation: furniture moving) company, for about four years.” At 25, he got his act together, directing videos for German dance bands before making a commercial. He used the profits to find a short film, The Hard Case, about four cockney guys raising money to enter a card game, which formed the basis for Lock, Stock.
That self-confessed wasted period in his youth has come back to haunt him, however. Not for anything he did, per se, but rather for the fact that in various interviews around the time of his first film’s release. Ritchie seemed to hint at a street-wise part. When it was discovered he came from a privileged upbringing-though not rich, he insists-the knives came out. “I’ve certainly never claimed to be anything that I’m not, and the only reason I made a film about cockney lads was that no one seemed to be doing them very well or doing them at all,” he contends. “If I had made toffy (translation: upper-class) films, if I had made Sense and Sensibility, everyone would have that I had illusions of being a toff, so I think it was inevitable whichever way I went. And I’m not interested in the middle ground. I am interested only in the toffs or the working class. Either way, I’m going to get lambasted for being super-toff.” As for the veracity of his shady past? “Youth is a bit of a blur,” he maintains. “Things people do from the age of 15 to 20 are fucking silly. Everyone makes a tit (translation: idiot) out of themselves for a few years, and I was not an exception to that.” But, he adds, “I did nothing that I could have been sent to prison for.”
Day after our lunch, there’s an interview with trip-hop musician Tricky in an English newspaper in which he calls Ritchie “a posh boy pretending to be street” and says Snatch “offends all black people.” Later that weekend, director Richard Attenborough blasts Ritchie in another interview, accusing him of succumbing “to the pornography of violence because it is a prerequisite for commercial success.” Ritchie is understandably irked. “I’ve made two simple films about things I thought were reasonably funny, and before you know it, you’ve upset all sorts of people,” he says. “(Snatch) should be taken as seriously as it was intended. Anyone who takes it more seriously than that-that’s really their issue. I feel kind of silly trying to intellectualize these things. It’s not supposed to be esoteric; it’s supposed to be accessible. Attenborough saying how irresponsible I am as a filmmaker, and violence is much worse than sex, and my film’s crap, and he’s ashamed I’m part of anything to do with England, and basically (anything) he can seem to throw at me, he threw at me…” He trails off. “I like his films. I like Tricky’s music. And even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t fucking tell anyone.”
Pitt says he would work with Ritchie again in a heartbeat-“I think he’s tits (new translation: fabulous). I want him to do a western, I want him to reinvent the American western”-and likens him to “(director) Sam Peckinpah or what Peckinpah would have been. Peckinpah’s legend, but Guy’s heading that way.” While it’s maybe a touch premature to confer such status upon Ritchie just yet, he does fit in nicely among a new wave of filmmakers, such as Darren Aranofsky (Requiem for a Dream) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), who utilize certain techniques in cinematography and editing-many of them pioneered on MTV and in commercials-that enhance their storytelling, but never at the expense of it. “He sees (cinema) in a different way,” says Trudie Styler, who also executive-produced Snatch. “He’s of a new generation of filmmakers.”
“I think he’s more than hot,” Farina says. “To me, when I hear the term hot, I think that’s a word you use for a guy who might not be around in five years. I think Guy’s going to be around for a long time. He’s what I would term ‘a modern filmmaker.’ He uses the camera in different ways; the music, all of those slash cuts and fast cuts-those are his marks, but I always think the mark of a good director is that you might hand him a western one of these days and he can make that interesting.”
Pitt thinks that Ritchie will be at the forefront of a new wave in filmmaking. “We’re talking about artists and pioneers and there is a big collective of these guys out here now,” he says. “You watch: I predict that in the next two to five years, there will be some kind of overthrow of this big studios system, because, that same spirit of the pioneer-with the technology and the storytelling-will also cross over to how a movie is made, how a movie is released, and these guys will have more of a voice. Guy could very well be a part of that.”
For now, Ritchie’s plotting out his next film, “a 16th-century bloodfest involving all the nations of Christendom against most of the nations of Islam,” and “living the life of Reilly.” He and Madonna recently bought a home in Beverly Hills, where they’ll be spending more of their time, as the paparazzi are less of a nuisance there than in England, where they have been living. “I gotta tell you, there’s no one more normal than Madonna Ciccone,” Ritchie offers. “The only is she is very hardworking and she likes to go for walks. Everyone wants to go for walks, but she could never get out the fucking house because there were always a bunch of louts that were outside it. It’s not a very nice thing to do-lig (translation: hang around) outside people’s houses.” Not that one of the world’s most interesting couples is going to be settling down anytime soon. “The handy thing about the pair of us is, e need to travel around,” he says. “Cause I make a film and then I’ve gotta punt (translation: promote) it to everyone for six months afterwards, and then she makes an album and she has to punt it out to everyone. So we just fart around together and hop from country to country, which I quite like the idea of.”
Does he foresee them working together? “I’d love to,” he says. “I think she’s great if she’s directed right; in fact, I know she is. But people are frightened of her because she’s a ballsy chick. You can’t mince your words. You’ve got to tell ‘em what you think.”
So, uh, who wears the trousers at home?
“Who do you think wears the fucking trousers?” he shoots back with a grin. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Ritchie claims music is his biggest influence, and his use of pop songs on his movies’ soundtracks has, so far, been particularly interesting. “It’s curious how I’m so disinterested in making videos now, but when I hear a song, I get inspired to imagery. All the interesting bits to me-well, the indulgent, pleasurable bits-are when music completely takes over.”
There’s a scene in Snatch where Jones switches on the car radio and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” is playing. It’s a wonderfully kitsch moment for obvious reasons. “I had ‘Rivers of Babylon’ (by Boney M) in there prior to that,” he says, “and they wanted some absurd amount of money for it. I’d never really liked it as a track, but I liked the kitsch factor involved in ‘Lucky Star.’ And I had some contacts there,” he adds with a laugh. “But I didn’t get it for free, I can tell ya. Still ended up paying through the nose for it.”
Ritchie’s original title for Snatch was Helter Skelter, after the Beatles song, an appropriate name for a film that hurtles all over the place at breakneck speed. “But the Americans wouldn’t stomach it,” he says, “because Charles Manson chopped up like 20 people to it, and it has rather negative connotations in this country.” Instead he came up with the deliberately provocative Snatch. “I did spend a long time thinking about the title, and I couldn’t come up with anything sensible,” he laughs. “All I knew was I wanted something that was very short and stumpy, ‘cause I wanted it to be the antithesis of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking blahblahblahs. At least this one has a certain arresting quality, however cheap it might be.