Production Notes from Death at a Funeral

From the official website for Death at a Funeral

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DEATH AT A FUNERAL was shot in seven weeks in and around London and at perhaps the most inspirational location possible for a modern British comedy: the Ealing Studios, where the beloved “Ealing Comedies”— deliciously dark yet exuberantly witty romps such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico and The Man in the White Suit -- were born in the 40s and 50s and seduced audiences worldwide. As a fully contemporary descendent of these films, DEATH AT A FUNERAL couldn’t have found a warmer or more warranted home base. “We were so thrilled to be at Ealing where all those classic comedies came to life,” says Share Stallings. “It was the perfect atmosphere.”

On the set Frank Oz surrounded himself with a top-notch team of British craftsmen including cinematographer Oliver Curtis (The Wedding Date, Owning Mahowny, Love and Death on LongIsland) who shot the film to feel as if it all is taking place in real time on one day; production designer Michael Howells (Bright Young Things, Nanny McPhee) who brought to life all the adjoining rooms that create so much comic mayhem as the film’s surprising twists and turns come into play; costume designer Natalie Ward (Derailed, Enduring Love, 24 Hour Party People) who gave each character their own distinctive sense of style – from the natty to the nude; and hair and make-up designer Frances Hannon (The Da Vinci Code, Broken Flowers, Lara Croft Tombraider: The Cradle of Life) who completed the character’s individual looks.

When it came to collaborating with both the technical crew and the cast, Oz’s priority was creating an enjoyable atmosphere of creative freedom – what he considers the best circumstances from which comedy can emerge. “Jim Henson, who I worked with for so long, taught me this,” he says. “The best thing is to have fun and the best stuff comes out of playing. You don’t want people to shut down; you want them to blossom. You want to have an expansive atmosphere that inspires ideas. The ideas of the cast and crew enriched the film enormously.”

He continues: “I adored working with the actors and the crew on DEATH AT A FUNERAL. More than anything else I just love to see things bubble. When a single moment or a look comes alive, becomes real and believable and funny or moving, that’s when I love directing movies.”

The key to getting the tone of DEATH OF A FUNERAL just right, Frank Oz knew, would lie in putting together a group of smart, witty, talented actors capable of taking their characters to both emotional depths and comedic extremes. He was very pleased with the final casting.

“These aren’t just great actors,” says Oz, “they are great actors who are absolutely right for these particular parts. Every single one of them is fantastic in their own way.”

At the center of the day’s maelstrom is Daniel, the poor, put-upon son who just wants to give his father the send-off he deserves – but instead finds himself unraveling the rampant improprieties in his family. To play Daniel, the filmmakers chose one of today’s fastest rising British stars, Matthew Macfadyen, who came to the fore and won global acclaim playing the ultimate romantic lead of Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. Having studied at the renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Macfadyen might be known for his more serious roles, but he proves he has the chops of the consummate straight man in the role of Daniel.

“For Daniel, I needed somebody who could play his character with honesty and, as a result, would set the bar for the rest of the cast’s performance level, because he’s the very core of the story,” explains Oz. “If he had been too broad, everyone else would be too broad. But Matthew was extraordinarily subtle and that’s what the film needed as a base. He’s really amazing that way. I think he’s on the edge of cracking up in nearly every scene, but he doesn’t reveal it.”

After being won over by the script, Macfadyen was further charmed by the idea of taking on a character who defies what audiences might expect from him. “Daniel is a great part and very different from anything I’ve done,” he says. “The script was so funny and unpredictable, I’d never laughed so hard before. It was a hoot playing Daniel, and hopefully it’ll be a real hoot for audiences to watch him go through this unbelievable day as well.”

The actor notes that Daniel is rather stuck as the film opens – unable to finish his novel, unable to move out of the house, unable to face his famous brother, and apparently unable even to pull off his own father’s funeral without major mishaps. “He’s someone who really needs to fly the nest and become a man,” laughs Macfadyen. “But I think he kind of grows a spine throughout the film and by the end, as things get worse and worse, he’s finally starts to get a bit of steel in his back. Of course, when the stakes are highest, that’s when hilarity comes.”

Macfadyen might play his character with a nuanced, straight-faced realism, but he couldn’t help but be bowled over by all the outrageous antics going on around Daniel, who himself slowly starts to lose control. “Everyone in the cast was so brilliant.,” he comments. “They each have their own agenda, which are each very human and, therefore, very funny. I was so unable to stop giggling during so many of the scenes, it was quite appalling!”

Among those who cracked Macfadyen up was Rupert Graves in the role of his blow-hard brother, Robert, who flies in from New York at the very last minute for the funeral, only to instantly make life harder for Daniel. Graves, one of England’s most daring and iconoclastic performers who was most recently seen in V For Vendetta, was also drawn in by the story and its irreverent take on a common, but rarely explored, family occasion.

“Funeral’s are incredibly volatile, emotional situations, and that’s why I think they’re a natural breeding ground for comedy as well,” comments Graves. “I’ve certainly been to funerals before where all the petty prejudices and self-interests and resentments of family members caused people to behave ridiculously badly. This story takes that reality to a very funny extreme.”

The defiant tone of the screenplay was also right up Graves’ alley. “It’s a classic English comedy but pushed to further limits than has been done in the past,” he observes. “It’s got a young man’s anarchic energy to it and it kind of subverts its own genre. There are no sacred cows in this story.”
As for his character, Graves describes him, quite frankly, as “an extraordinary ego.” He continues: “Robert has a great payoff as a character, but it’s his serpentine, slippery, oily way of doing things that makes him so much fun.”

While the run-ins between Daniel and Robert form one angle of the story, it is two characters on the periphery who turns things completely upside down. One is Simon, the straight-laced fiancé of cousin Martha, who arrives at the funeral having accidentally ingested a designer hallucinogen that leaves him literally hanging from the rafters, while his bride-to-be falls to pieces. Running away with the role in a truly outrageous, yet simultaneously believable, fashion is Alan Tudyk, an American actor who grew up in Plano, Texas before studying drama at Juilliard and coming to the fore as Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball and on Broadway in Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Tudyk could not resist the part. “For the first few minutes of the film, Simon is a very uptight, buttoned-down guy, and then proceeds to spend the rest of the story entirely out of his mind on drugs. It’s a great laugh,” he says.

Though the comic potential of the role was clear, playing such an unnaturally uninhibited character didn’t come so easily. “It was a much greater challenge than I thought,” admits Tudyk. “It’s easier really just to be drunk, to be in that sort of very loose world of moving very slowly. But with this drug, everything is speeded up and anything can be happening to me, things that are real or not real. Simon goes through ecstasy, paranoia, terror and omnipotence in a matter of a few hours. Really it was exhausting. It was sort of like being a child with that sort of abandoned, full-out way of beings. Except they get to take naps, and I didn’t get a nap!”

To get all the proper shadings for his turbulent “trip,” Tudyk interviewed people who had experimented with various with hallucinogenic mixes. “Everybody that I talked to had a different experience,” he notes. “So I wanted to capture all these different phases that people talk about going through on this ride. There are scary parts of the ride and there are fun parts of the ride. And meanwhile, my fiance Martha is trying to take care of me, and it’s just impossible, because I’m truly beyond her help.”

Playing Martha is Daisy Donovan, an accomplished British comedic actress who was recently seen in Danny Boyle’s Millions. Donovan adored her character, but admits: “She’s got issues.” She continues: “Her fiance’s not well liked by her father and then there’s the slight problem of him being a bit on drugs in the middle of a funeral. Martha’s just trying to contain the situation but Simon’s like a bomb waiting to go off.”

When Simon does go off, everything goes out of control – which was as true for the actors as it is for the characters. “We did have a problem with laughter, that is not being able to contain it at certain moments,” Donovan admits. But throughout, Donovan credits Frank Oz with keeping everyone on track with the big picture. “He always asked us to do it real. For him the comedy comes not from those kind of big laugh moments but from the pacing and the reality of the characters,” the actress explains. “Yet somehow from that come moments of silliness that have you weeping with laughter.”

The second character who has resounding impact on the proceedings is Peter, the taciturn mystery guest who suddenly unleashes secrets, blackmail and desperate cover-ups behind the scenes of the funeral. He, too, is played to the hilt by Peter Dinklage, the actor and writer who rose to international attention with his award-winning role in the dramatic comedy The Station Agent and his scene-stealing turn in the comedy Elf and has gone on to a wide range of film and television roles.

From the start, Frank Oz knew he wanted to recruit Dinklage for the role. “I’ve always thought highly of him as an actor and it struck me that he would be very interesting for this role,” Oz explains. “It wasn’t written for a short actor in particular, it was written for a terrific actor. His height just gives it a little extra twist. I asked Peter about it, and he said he loved giving it that little twist. And he’s such a strong actor that it becomes so much more than that.”

Like his cast-mates, Dinklage was instantly drawn in the script, and by the quirks and quips of his interloping character. “The beauty of this role is that you see me on the periphery for quite awhile as the mystery starts to develop of who I really am and why I’m really there. Then comes the big revelation and it sets an outrageous series of events in motion,” he says. “The script had me in hysterics.”

There was also another attraction for Dinklage in DEATH AT A FUNERAL. “It’s a true ensemble piece, which is rare,” he notes. “Everybody has sort of an equal role in the story and there’s not one character who’s overlooked. Everybody brings something funny to this situation and it builds up to an incredible climax.”

It was Dinklage who made the decision to make his character an American, adding to his enigmatic nature. “There’s something of an outsider to him, he’s almost a tourist at this family event, even bringing his photographs, so I talked to Dean and Frank about his also being an American. It just felt right and really lent itself to his being on the outside of this very British family,” he explains.

Ultimately, Dinklage was reminded of an American filmmaker as DEATH AT A FUNERAL came to full-blown life. “I kept thinking of Preston Sturges and those great screwball comedies,” he says. “You have all this clever interaction between characters at cross-purposes.”

“Tea can do many things dear but it can’t bring back the dead.”
-- Sandra

Like the classic screwball comedies, DEATH AT A FUNERAL mixes and matches all manner of characters who are at odds with one another. At odds with nearly everyone he encounters is the obstreperous Uncle Alfie, who manages to become completely wound up in the day’s most outrageous developments. To play this delightfully dismal character, the filmmakers chose the renowned English actor Peter Vaughn, whose many memorable roles have included Anthony Hopkins’ father in The Remains of the Day.

Despite his many foibles, Vaughan fell in love with Uncle Alfie. “He’s really on the wild side, a bit on the mad side, which is a great straight part for me,” he laughs. The actor also sees the film as more than British. “I don’t think of it is British because it’s a story that could happen anywhere,” he says. “Part of the real beauty of the story is that it’s a comedy but it has several layers of truth, heightened truth, but truth nonetheless.”

Also joining the service is Howard, Daniel’s quirky friend who finds that the somber occasion brings on a major attack of hypochondria. Nyman describes his character as “sweaty, neurotic, self-obsessed, annoying and quite possibly the real heart-throb of the movie.” Then he adds, “Howard is basically a sweet, decent guy who, unfortunately, is also a little bit of a putz.” Screenwriter Dean Craig was especially blown away by the casting of Nyman. “There’s almost no distance at all between how I envisaged Howard and how Andy plays him,” he marvels.

Nyman was equally excited by Craig’s work. “I really marveled at the writing because it manages to have both the feeling of old-fashioned bedroom farce and a modern comedy at the same time.”

Meanwhile, Scottish actor Ewen Bremner, who came to the fore as Spud in Trainspotting and was more recently seen in Woody Allen’s Match Point, takes on the role of Howard’s buddy Justin, whose main goal at the funeral is to hook up with his one-time fling, Martha. “Justin is good fun to play because he’s really quite a bit of an idiot. Yet he’s a different kind of idiot than any I’ve played before!” Bremner laughs. “He’s selfish, vain, arrogant and pretty much disdainful of the entire human race.”

Yet, as ridiculous as Justin can be, Bremner notes that he also has another side. “Frank was very concerned that all the characters have their underneath story going on that is their sort of tragedy inside the comedy. He’s very finely tuned to that balance between comedy and reality, so there’s something true about the characters as well.”

Another character with her own inside story is Jane, Daniel’s down-to-earth wife, who just wants to finally get out from under her mother-in-law’s thumb. Taking the role is Matthew Macfadyen’s real-life wife, Keeley Hawes, who also starred with Macfadyen in the dramatic television series MI5. “We’ve worked together before but we’ve never played husband and wife,” notes Hawes. “It was actually quite lovely. There’s a lot of funny bickering in the roles, but we never had an argument on the set.”

Peter Egan, a veteran of British sitcoms who is perhaps best known in America for his role in the Oscar®-winning Chariots of Fire. Also joins the cast as Martha’s uppity father. He describes his character as “a grumpy old man,” adding, “and now he finds himself at a disastrous funeral where one event after another unfolds that would drive a straight-laced man like Victor right up a pole!” Egan was drawn to DEATH AT A FUNERAL right away. “You recognize these characters from life and that’s what makes you laugh,” he observes. “They’re dealing with jealousy, ambitions, desire and greed, which makes for great humor.”

Creating havoc at the funeral is Troy, Martha’s chemistry student brother who has a sideline business in designer hallucinogens, as Simon soon discovers to his horror. Playing Troy is another up-and-coming British actor, Kris Marshall, who also appeared in the ensemble comedy Love Actually and was named Best Newcomer at the 2002 British Comedy Awards.

Finally, there is the family’s matriarch, Sandra, played by Jane Asher, the British leading lady who has been starring in films since the 1950s. Asher was naturally sympathetic to what poor Sandra goes through in the course of this one eventful day where she faces shock after shock. “I don’t think she had a clue as to what her husband had been up to,” she says. “It’s quite a blow to discover he wasn’t the person she thought he was at all.”

Yet, Asher was also drawn to how hilariously the screenplay approaches the situation. “It could be a very serious, rather touchy occasion but for Sandra, there is also this sense of her kind of reveling in the attention she’s getting, which makes her situation quite funny rather than horrific,” she says. “And really, in the end, I do think that Sandra will be OK.”

As for working with Frank Oz, Asher summarizes: “He’s relentlessly charming and has both American and British influences, but mainly he’s an extremely good director who transcends all that.”

The cast assembled for a two-week rehearsal prior to production, during which time they bonded – in their own way -- as family members. During this time, things turned even more uproarious than the script had hinted at, as the cast shaped their characters with their on-the-fly performances “A comedy can’t just be funny on paper. It has to work as a living, breathing thing. So there were lots of special moments and special bits that the actors brought through their own contributions,” says Larry Malkin. “It’s something unique to comedy. The artistry really develops as each actor brings his or her own spice to the mix.”

“We’re just thrown here together in a world filled with chaos and confusion . . . with death always lingering around the corner . . . and we do our best.”
-- Daniel’s Eulogy

“Who is that naked man on the roof?”
-- Mourner at the Funeral

A runaway hit at the Aspen Comedy Film Festival, and winner of the festival’s coveted Cinemax Audience Award, DEATH AT A FUNERAL pushes the British comedy into edgy modern territory – transforming the taboo into the side-splittingly screwball. This sharp, snappy, ultimately uplifting tale about the outrageous perils and unexpected pleasures of family affairs is perhaps fittingly directed by an English-born American: Frank Oz.

Oz, who began his career as a puppeteer for Jim Henson and created the iconic Yoda in George Lucas’ Star Wars series, went on to direct a series of buoyant Hollywood comedies including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steve Martin and Michael Caine; What About Bob with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus; and Bowfinger with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy.

With DEATH AT A FUNERAL, Oz returns to his roots with an ensemble comedy in which each and every character brings his or her own mordantly funny comic twist. The title itself reveals the story’s satirical set-up, but as the film explores both family rites and family wrongs, it is the way in which Daniel and Martha – the son and nephew of the deceased – find their way through the unruly funeral’s shocks and revelations, that makes the film not only hilarious but heartfelt.

It was the screenplay by rising young British writer Dean Craig – a bold, refreshingly contemporary, no-holds-barred take on the traditional British farce – that first grabbed Oz’s attention. “This was that very rare script where you really laugh out loud, and that’s the acid test,” says Oz. “When I found out how young Dean Craig is I was truly surprised because he has the instincts of a classic craftsman. The structure is rooted in farce, but has its own youthful intelligence and sense of humor. It was so funny, I really couldn’t say no.”

“The combination of Dean Craig’s hilarious characters and situations with Frank Oz’s sophisticated comedic instincts was destined to create something quite unique,” says William Horberg, President of Production at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, who stepped forward in the early stages to put the film into production.

Producer Larry Malkin, who along with Horberg, Share Stallings and Diane Philips took the project from script to screen, recalls the thrill of Oz’s initial reaction. “We were very thankful he said yes. In the first conversations we had with Frank, he talked about how DEATH AT A FUNERAL is very British but it’s also very universal with characters and family complications to which everyone can relate – and from that moment forward, that idea has guided almost every decision on this film,” Malkin notes. “Frank took the material and truly ran with it. It became a delightful modern farce about those moments when life goes completely awry and mayhem ensues but there is also reconciliation.”

For Oz, the non-stop humor at the heart of this somber occasion emerges out of all the human yearning that gets mixed up in it – including a son trying not to be seen as a failure even as every single aspect of the funeral goes up in flames; and a daughter hoping to impress her father with her sensible fiancé, who has accidentally ingested a hallucinogen that turns him into a raving, naked madman.

“It’s the heightening desperation of things that makes the story so funny,” observes Oz. “Everybody at the funeral wants something in their own lives and the way all their wants get intermingled and bump up against one another creates a situation filled with comic possibilities.”

Another aspect of the film’s comedy comes from the taboo-filled nature of funerals, which, amidst the emotional solemnity, are also often filled with things that can’t be, or shouldn’t be, said. “It’s one of those situations where you’re not supposed to talk, where you’re supposed to hold everything in. But of course, the harder you hold things in, the worse it can get,” notes Oz. We’ve probably all had that experience of getting the giggles at the very moment you’re not supposed to. It’s a natural kind of human reaction, and it’s at the heart of DEATH AT A FUNERAL’S comedy.”

Indeed, screenwriter Dean Craig confesses that he didn’t even set out to write a farce at first. Rather, as he started writing about a family gathering for a funeral, the story’s humor built on itself as each of the characters began pursuing their own agendas and seeking their own form of familial redemption within just a few revelation-filled hours.

The inspiration for the film came to Craig, not surprisingly, while he himself was at a trouble-prone funeral. “It was my grandfather’s funeral a few years ago,” Craig explains. “It was a very somber and difficult event, but with inappropriate things happening. It was all so incongruous that it got me thinking that this actually could be quite an interesting setting for a black comedy. I was also thinking about that powerful feeling at funerals that, while everything is centered around a death, there is also this over-riding sense that life goes on. So I created characters who, even in the midst of the funeral, are very obsessed with the paths of their own lives. I was just writing what came naturally.”

What seemed to come naturally to Craig was also a fresh mixture of classically clever screwball antics with a more contemporary, bold mischievousness and character-driven hilarity. “What we loved about the script is that it’s definitely in the tradition of great farce movies like Arsenic and Old Lace and Ladykillers, but it’s also clearly written by a young man,” says producer Share Stalling. “It springs from those fantastic roots but it’s feels very new and modern. There are very few scripts like this one.”

Craig was especially thrilled when he learned that Frank Oz was going to helm the movie. “He’s really one of the best comedy directors anywhere, isn’t he? It’s not just that he’s so experienced, it’s also that he’s got a great sense of humor and he really gets it,” he says.

The filmmakers were also pleased to find the movie a home at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (SKE), which is rapidly becoming renowned for its vibrantly diverse, high-quality slate. “SKE really supported us in every way,” says Share Stalling. “They supported us in coming to England and they basically said, Frank, this is your movie, you cast it the way you want. And the result is a cast that really feels like a family that belongs together.”

“I’m telling you, that coffin’s moving!”
-- Simon