Hailing from the UK, Fletcher is known as an actor in movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Layer Cake. He transitioned to directing in 2011 with Wild Bill. Several other gigs followed, including putting the finishing touches on the excellent Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer had woven his magic before leaving the film at the very end.
Rocketman marks Fletcher’s most ambitious project to date.
Starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin and Richard Madden as Elton’s manager and sometime boyfriend John Reid, Rocketman opens in theatres this weekend.
Queerty chatted with Fletcher just ahead of the premiere.
The film was in development for quite a long time—10 or 15 years before you got involved. When you did come aboard, how much did Lee Hall’s script change? What did you feel like you were bringing to the project?
It changed quite a bit. There were musical numbers in it, and the idea was that certain songs were used as musical numbers. I really took that and ran with it, the fantasy elements of it. There was an opportunity there to not just have musical numbers, but also sort of step into the imagination of Elton. So I think I brought more songs to it, that’s for sure. We have 20 plus songs that set it up, which is great. I don’t think it’s at the cost of the drama either. You know, so the “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” sequence was already there, but the “I Want Love” sequence wasn’t, for example.
It’s always a development process, and it’s about the best idea really, and what’s good dramatically and how to use the songs as dramatic devices so it’s not just hey, here’s a musical number.
You can also see the influence of other directors like Ken Russell [Tommy] or Richard Lester [A Hard Day’s Night] or Bob Fosse [Cabaret]. What directors did you look to for inspiration? Let it be said: directing a musical is very hard.
It is. I looked at Ken Russell, Bob Fosse. All that Jazz [directed by Fosse] was a big influence and Cabaret—they’re certainly touchstones. Girlfriend, Tommy and I suppose musicals that are less traditional, in the sense that [they’re part of] that era of 70s musicals which is the era where the film sort of bursts to life when Taron appears. I can never get away from my roots of loving An American in Paris, Singin in the Rain…they’re films that I used to sit and watch with my dad and would love and laugh at. So I suppose I indulged all of that really. They sort of jump stylistically and tonally around a bit because I’m like a kid in a candy store.
I also love Fame, you know, Alan Parker, and The Commitments. They’re sort of raw, more edgy, wonderful things musicals can do. And I’d done a musical before called Sunshine on Leith, a domestic drama. It didn’t really burst out into any big numbers, though, until the end. So I kind of always wanted to do that. And Elton’s exuberance and life and music sort of allowed for that, so I grabbed it with both hands I suppose.
You’re an actor yourself. One of the big pitfalls when actors try to play real people, celebrities, they fall into this trap of just sort of doing an impersonation, rather than developing the psychology of a character.
I don’t ever sit down with Taron or Jamie or anyone and say: “What are their mannerisms? What are their tics? What are their idiosyncrasies in their language?” It’s funny in a way because that sort of came from Elton himself. When he was talking to Taron about singing in the film, he said to him: “Don’t do an impression of me. Sing them your way, make them your own.” And I had meetings with Elton and Charles Martin, who’s our producer, and he was very clear about don’t just do cover versions. They’ve been done. If people want those, they can go buy those. It’s now time to create.
I love that sentiment.
And what I understand about Taron is that he had this sort of commitment level that, you know, he searches for truth as an actor, which is what actors are always kind of after. But that’s why I open the film on one long, big shot of him down in that rehab. It’s the very punchy Elton who comes out kind of combative. But then there’s the long shot of him just breaking himself down because the commitment there—the absolute, utter belief that he is that person at the time—for me puts all doubt of the mind that they’re not watching Elton. And the way he sings the songs, he owns them. So I think if he doesn’t doubt it, he doesn’t allow us to. It’s not an imitation. It’s like he’s in the world of Elton.
You were involved at the end on Bohemian Rhapsody. One of the criticisms of that movie is that it wasn’t “gay enough,” that it didn’t do enough to explore that element of Freddie Mercury’s life.
This movie—there were rumors that the studio wanted you to tone down the gay or grittier elements, but having seen the film, they’re all there on the screen. So let me ask: were you ever under pressure to sanitize Elton’s life or his sexual orientation?
No, I wasn’t. When I went to Paramount with the script, when I worked on that script, I wrote it as graphically as I could.
I knew that, of course, it’s a mainstream studio. And in a sense, whether it’s gay sex or hetero sex or any kind of sex, they’re afraid of it. They just are. For some reason, it’s less troubling than someone getting their head blown off with a machine gun. That’s just the way, strangely, the world is. So I kind of over-pegged it to be honest, in order to make it clear that that was the intention. They green lit an R-rated script that, you know, made it clear in no uncertain terms that there was one love scene between two guys. It was a key, important element in Elton’s life. It really didn’t matter whether it was a man or a woman. It was just something that was a super important moment of his life. And they knew that and sure, maybe, it was touchy, but nobody ever came to me and said: “We should take that scene out.” And I wouldn’t have bloody done it anyway. You can’t make a film about Elton John without it to be honest. We always wanted to make an R-rated film with an R-rated performance. The thing is, Elton is around. He can defend himself if they want to throw stones. If they have issues with him, they are their own f*cking issues to be quite honest.
You know what I mean? It’s not our issue. I always said this to the actors. It’s not our issue. It’s not ours. Our obligation, our job and what I want to do is create a story of his life. It had cocaine in it. It’s what happened! I can understand why other movies…[brief pause] You know, Freddie’s not around to defend himself. So other people do what they think is best. That wasn’t my vision anyway. I wanted to finish it off. I understand [censoring the Freddie Mercury story], but I wouldn’t have done it.
You’re drawn to rock-themed subjects. You mentioned Welcome to Leith, and of course, Bohemian Rhapsody, Let the Good Times Roll, and now we hear rumors that you want to do a Madonna biopic. People are already chomping at the bit.
I think I mentioned it as a joke. I get pushed now like, Who do you want to do next?! I think I’ve also said Leonardo DaVinci and the Rolling Stones. Yeah, sure, who wouldn’t want to do a Madonna biopic?
We’d watch it. But what draws you to these rockers as inspiration?
I don’t know. I suppose I respond to stories that I feel a personal connection to, and that I might be able to bring a voice or position to, you know, some kind of personal experience that I can connect to those characters so that it’s not just a flat telling. I suppose I’m looking for my connection from my own personal story. So that, and sometimes I have to search for them, and others they’re right in front of me. That’s where I feel I can do my most honest work. And I’ve led a rock-and-roll lifestyle. Musicals don’t come around all the time, so who doesn’t want to have fun?
Music and big images together are as old as cinema itself.
Rocketman opens in theatres May 31.