Peter Chelsom returned to the director’s chair and to British film last week with his new film Hector and the Search for Happiness, a big screen adaptation of the novel by Francois Lelord.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, adapting the novel and working with Simon Pegg for the first time.
- Hector and the Search for Happiness has hit the big screen, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
It is a film about happiness. It is a film about a psychiatrist who lives and works on London, has what looks like a perfect life with a chic girlfriend an apartment, but there is a restlessness in him. It comes to a head and he decides to travel the world researching happiness.
It is a fable, it stars Simon Pegg, and it is funny and not funny. It lands in a place where people - from everything that I have seen - seem to feel very very good about themselves and are entertained.
- You are in the director's chair and have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you?
The producer Judy Tossell walked into my London agent’s office - I live in LA most of the time - and asked if I would be interesting in writing and directing this. It was a big resounding ‘yes’.
I leapt on board because I felt that I had lost my way a bit in my career and I wanted to get back to my roots: when I say roots, it’s not just because I am British and this feels quite like a British film, I mean the roots where I am allowed to play and feel liberated.
I want to get back to my early work of Hear My Song and Funny Bones where I can do my thing: I don’t even know what my thing is. When I am left alone to do my thing something different happens. My mother use to say to me ‘you have a very strange imagination Peter’ and she was right. I just love to play and that was the reason to do it.
- That does lead me into my next question. I read another interview where you said that you found making this movie very 'liberating' and I was wondering what it was about this film that made you feel that way?
I felt liberated in terms of the process of being a director again, who could do pretty much what he wanted and expressing myself in my way. In terms of the film changing or affecting me, it was in the writing that my co-writer and I felt very changed by going through that process.
You are writing a film about happiness, you trying to make all of these statements and there are victims and things that come up during the movie - half of them are from the book and half of them we made up the other half - and it just made us reflect on our own lives and where we were at. It propelled my co-writer to marry her boyfriend (laughs).
It makes you feel pretty lucky when you look at the world. As the character of Hector says at the end, when he realises what it is all about, he says that we have an obligation to be happier, and that does ring true after a while.
- The movie is based on the novel by Francois Lelord, so what were the challenges of adapting this novel? How much did you enjoy the writing process?
I love the writing process and when I am directing what I have written it is like a different job and I have a different authority on it: I really can see what I want more clearly. It really was a challenge.
We raised the love story between Hector and Clara - Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike - not just for commercial reasons, but because we believe that it is the same tool-bag required for happiness as for relationships. Therefore, it really linked well into the film.
The other thing about the book, is that it didn’t have a crisis at the beginning. It actually starts with the phrase ‘once upon a time there was a young psychiatrist called Hector who was not very satisfied with his life’ and we changed that to ‘perfectly satisfied with his life’, because we wanted him to be in denial: which most of are. That resulted in him being able to come to a decision that explodes out of him. It gives the film structure.
- Simon Pegg takes on the central role of Hector, so what did you see in him that made you think he was perfect for the part?
An amazing innate childlike curiosity, that no one else has. He is such a child. In the film, we deal a lot with the inner child in us: that character that keeps turning up and we actually end the movie with. The great thing about Simon is… it’s a bit like Peter Sellers in Being There and Tom Hanks in Forest Gump - they are fables and you need someone who can embody it all and ride that line.
On the one hand he is an intelligent and wise psychiatrist, but on the other, he is an idiot and a bumbling nerd travelling around the world with an emergency whistle.
It is the Tintin side of the story - the book has quite a lot of Tinting in it, and we reference it - and it is that naïve and optimistic traveller in whose wake everyone is affected. When we cast Simon I said - for want of a better expression - ‘okay everyone, there is now going to be a very fine line between Hector and the Search for Happiness and around the world with Simon Pegg’ because I wanted to celebrate all of Simon’s qualities in this movie because they were so right.
It was amazing and he is the loveliest guy. Having not done a British film in a long time, to have a real mate in the lead role was a real joy to me. We were in Africa and between takes, he was insisting on showing me how to do a Bob Monkhouse impression: it was just so weird. He just infused the film with himself and I thought that was great.
- You have assembled a wonderful cast for this film with Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgård & Christopher Plummer being just some of the names on board. Can you talk a bit about the casting process?
I think the nice thing was they all came on board because they liked the script. Once you start your cast and it is that good, it then snowballs. Rosamund Pike came on board and held out to do this film: she turned other stuff down.
It was really touching to see her commitment and belief in this project. It is very very rewarding when that happens, and she is just fantastic in the film. It snowballed fairly quickly.
- This is a film on a rather large scale as you shot around the world, so how did you find that experience? And were there any stumbling blocks along the way?
There were so many stumbling blocks, you have no idea. However, there was not a problem or a disaster from which we did not fall upwards: it was so weird. I am a very very positive person: I cannot bear negativity when I am working on a film, because it is hard enough as it is.
Whenever I am presented with a problem, there is something that opens up inside of me that makes me even more creative. We had so many problems and issues, but we reinvented and it got better. We had permit issues in the mountains of China and we never got to shoot the monasteries, so I had to reinvent it.
Then there were shots that I did in Germany in the mountains where there were beautiful snowscapes that fit in the mountains of Nepal, and it all came together. It was just breathtaking, and we would not have had that if things had gone right. It was really really tough.
I am a bit of a neurotic traveller - I am a bit like Hector - so it was really tough. The only way that I could get my head around it was I was making five or six films and going to five different places.
- Finally, what's next for you?
There are various possibilities. I have a Dickens project that I have been re-writing a lot this year. It came to me from the same producer as Hector and the Search For Happiness, and it is a beautiful story about what happened to Charles Dickens before he wrote A Christmas Carol: it is fictional but a beautiful story. That would be filmed in London. The other is the absolute opposite to that, as it is a big sci-fi film for Relativity.
Hector and the Search For Happiness is out now.