HANNAH, JOHN : Sliding Doors
DOORS WIDE OPEN
Scottish actor John Hannah gained world recognition as the
grieving gay lover in the smash hit Four Weddings and a Funeral;
now he's sharing the screen with Hollywood's golden girl, Gwyneth
Paltrow in Sliding Doors, which opened this year's Sundance Film
Festival, where PAUL FISCHER spoke to him. (And to director Peter
Howitt –see at left.)
The bloke sitting opposite in the suede jacket, hanging out
for a fag, is one of Scotland's hottest actors: John Hannah. His
funeral speech in the mother of smash hits, Four Weddings and a
Funeral, brought audiences to tears the world over. In his latest
film, Sliding Doors, he recites Monty Python and exchanges
passionate embraces with Gwyneth Paltrow.
accessible film which is still full of observation" on Sliding Doors
It was Hannah, incidentally, who helped get the film made for
close friend and actor, Peter Howitt, its writer/director.
"I think for a lot of people who would want to be a writer
of a film, you would sort of set out and write your
Czechoslovakian art-house movie, you know?" he said.
"Whatever kind of little insights you thought you had on the
world. But what's amazing about Pete is that he's made a
brilliantly accessible film which is still full of
Hannah surreptitiously ended up showing the script to veteran
Hollywood power broker and producer Sydney Pollack, who fell in
love with the script and a project was born. In the film,
Hollywood's Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen, a British advertising
executive who is sacked. Despondently leaving for home, in a
seemingly meaningless but crucial turn of fate, Helen misses her
train. But what if she hadn't missed it? Sliding Doors poses that
question and explores the possibilities with two different,
contiguous storylines: one in which Helen makes her train, and
one in which she misses it. From this unique premise develops two
romantic comedies. In the first, Helen remains with her
philandering boyfriend (John Lynch). In the second, she leaves
him to explore the romantic possibilities of a kindly and witty
stranger (Hannah), whom she meets on the train.
"She's one of those
people that makes you better than you are" on Gwyneth Paltrow
Of course Hannah ended up being thrilled about the chance to
work with Paltrow. "I hadn't really been aware of a lot of
her work prior to this film, but obviously, Pete told me to be
impressed," he said. "And then once I met her and saw
her work. She's a phenomenally talented actress, and she's one of
those people that makes you better than you are, you know. She's
so good. It's like sports, when you're playing with somebody
who's pretty good at something, it makes you better as
Both Hannah and Howitt were generally impressed with the
attitude of Paltrow to the film. "Neither of us saw her as
this big American movie star, you know? To both Pete and I she
was just Gwyneth; she didn't bring any of that Hollywood baggage
with her." They clearly had a mutual respect of each other's
working relationship and despite their different backgrounds,
Hannah says their approach to the work was strangely similar.
"I felt that we worked in a fairly similar way, in as much
as to try and have fun and be in the moment, but at the same
time, in a way, of not suddenly starting to ACT. I think
Gwyneth's level of preparation for the film was much greater than
mine from the point of view of where she was in the two stories.
I think I had a really, really simple function, in that I had to
BE in the moment, and create a moment-to-moment reality, and not
project any kind of dishonesty to the audience."
Sliding Doors was Hannah's second opening night at Sundance
[he'd been there a few years before with Four Weddings], and he's
thrilled at the way such a small, character-driven film such as
Sliding Doors had been accepted by the American independent film
community. "I think people will have got to a point where
they're making different choices and finding they're enjoying it.
And with Sundance as an independent platform, (the films) are
being perceived as successful. And once something is successful,
there is more possibility for raising finance for films, in the
way that Four Weddings and a Funeral, which cost $2.7 million,
made people a lot of money. So it made the studios aware of the
fact that you could get ten little independent films for $10
So don't expect this award-winning actor to crop up in a
Hollywood action thriller too soon. "I don't think that's
quite me, do you?"
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A MOMENT IN TIME . . .
DIRECTOR PETER HOWITT ON SLIDING DOORS
If you're an out-of-work actor, take a leaf out of Peter
Howitt’s book: Write your own script and then direct it.
That's what happened with the former co-star of In the Name of
the Father. "As an actor, I was damned sick of reading
scripts that contained a lot of incomprehensible, often unsayable
dialogue. I wanted to change all that and try and write something
that was truthful", Howitt explains. The idea for his debut
script, Sliding Doors, was somewhat personal, he recalls. "I
got the idea for Sliding Doors while rushing to meet a friend. I
couldn't decide if I should run for the train or first call my
mate at a public phone; I impulsively dashed across the street,
and was nearly hit by a car, and that brush with death got me
thinking. Something inside my head thought, 'That's interesting.
What if he had hit me then?' What are the knock-on effects, the
domino effects . . ."
Howitt picked his longtime friend John Hannah
to play the man that would turn out to be Helen's [Gwyneth
Paltrow] true love. While the film was still struggling to get
financing, Hannah promised to lend his time and reputation to the
project. That commitment would last for three years.
"At this point, don't forget, we weren't
in the realms of Gwyneth Paltrow, Sydney Pollack, or Miramax or
Paramount Pictures," he said. "We were just this little
piddly British film trying to get made, and I thought, well if I
can get John Hannah, at least he's been in a couple of movies.
He's better than my mate next door who hasn't been in any,"
the laconic director says laughingly. It's hard to imagine, that
at one point Howitt considered making the film on a shoestring
budget, perhaps even to the extreme of The Brothers McMullen,
which director Edward Burns made for $24,000, by filming at his
parents' house on weekends.
"You have to be prepared to do that,"
he says. "I didn't think, 'I'm just going to wait for
Hollywood to ring up and give me my money.' Well the money came
from England ultimately, but you have to be so crazily determined
to make your film. Not from an egotistical point of view, but I
honestly thought it was a story worth telling."