Published -October 29th 1983
Photograph by Barry Peake
Colin Vaines talks to John Byrum, director of the new version of W Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge”
IT IS THE lingering memory of the horrors of the First World War that causes Larry Darrell, hero of W Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge”, to give up the security of post-war America and set off on a spiritual and philosophical quest for some meaning in life.
In a field in south-west England recently, those horrors were being recreated on an appallingly realistic depiction of a World War One battleground for Columbia’s new version of the Maugham novel.
Produced by Harry Benn and Bob Marcucci, with Rob Cohen as executive producer, “The Razor’s Edge” is directed by John Byrum, whose previous two films were “Inserts” and “Heart Beat”.
While it is slightly surprising to find Byrum, whose other films, were very modestly-budgeted, at the helm of this $12 million production, it’s fair to say that more than a few eyebrows have been raised by the fact that Larry Darrell is being played by Bill Murray, whose credits as an actor to date have been entirely in comedies such as “Meatballs”, ‘Stripes”, and “Tootsie”.
Byrum, though, has no doubts about how Murray’s performance will be received when the film is unveiled. “Bill’s performance is going to surprise people. He’s really good in this part, and the people who have doubted him are going to see it for themselves. “Everyone working on the film has felt the same way. Watching him in this role is like discovering a great star.” Byrum himself, as one would
expect, has never doubted that Murray would be anything less than good.
“I’ve known him for about eight years” he said. “From the minute I first saw him, on (the TV show) ‘Saturday Night Live’, I thought he stood out and was very different to the others on it. As far as I was concerned, he wasn’t a flash in the pan TV comedian. He was a good actor; you could see that on ‘Saturday Night Live’, because his stuff was not straightforward comedy. I think he’s a unique talent.”
Unique, and certainly extremely bankable. For it was Murray’s desire to make the film that led to Columbia committing itself to the project from a screenplay by Murray and Byrum. Byrum, who in addition to his two writer /director credits has written such films as “Harry And Walter Go To New York”, “Mahogany” and “Sphinx”, first read “The Razor’s Edge” when he was editing his last film, “Heart Beat”, which centred on Jack Kerouac, founding father of the Beat Generation.
“I had been thinking about making a film about ex-patriates in Paris in the Twenties,” he recalls. “In the course of that research I read ‘The Razor’s Edge’ . “I don’t think it’s Maugham’s greatest book, but it has his most ambitious ideas in it. Although I carried on trying to write an original script on this subject of expatriates I kept coming back to ‘The Razor’s Edge’, because it was obvious to me that Maugham could tell a more profound story about Americans in Paris in the Twenties than I ever could.”
Bill and John Byrum on location in England
Byrum felt that the theme of the book would appeal to a contemporary audience. “The theme, in fact; is not that different to the one in ‘Heart Beat’. It’s about dropping out of society and finding a system of belief. I thought that the subject would be a good analogy for my generation.” Byrum showed the novel to Murray, who was equally enthusiastic about it. “Both Bill and I identified with this guy in the story. After the war, he has the chance to take up a career as a stockbroker. Instead he goes out on this search for truth.
“Both Bill and I could have stayed in Chicago and become stockbrokers. Instead, we elected to travel a lot. “And right now, Bill, although he has fame and fortune has found it isn’t enough, and is searching. So we were both attracted to the story on a personal level.” Byrum pursued the rights to the novel with his friend and partner Rob Cohen (who made a series of films for Motown including “The Wiz” and “Mahogany”, on which he met Byrum, as well as directing two films -“A Small circle Of Friends” and “Scandalous”).
“Our information was that Fox owned the rights, because they made the 1946 film. But when I called Sherry Lansing, who was president at the time, she said no to even meeting me. “I grew rather despondent about it. But then a guy I happened to know walked into my office and said that a” few years ago he had tried to set up a film of the book, and he had discovered that Fox had lost the domestic rights, and owned only foreign.
Struck a deal
“My lawyer called Maugham’s lawyer, who said the rights had just been sold to Bob Marcucci (a songwriter and manager to such artists as Fabian and Frankie Avalon) who had most recently been behind the film “The Idolmaker”). Rob called him, and we met and struck a deal.” Having secured the rights and the enthusiastic involvement of Bill Murray, Cohen and Byrum approached Columbia to finance the film. “Columbia wanted to continue their relationship with Bill. The fact they said yes to this film shows the extent to which they like and trust him.” Byrum had started work on the script for the film on his own, but was not happy with the way it was turning out. “It was exactly the kind of stodgy Somerset Maugham script you’d expect. “Because Bill’s involvement in the film is so crucial. I thought the best thing would be for him to write his own part. Because whether the film works or not depends in the end on his performance.
Consequently, Byrum and Murray set off around America, writing as they went. “This is not the sort of script you sit in your office and write. It’s about a guy on a search. So we drove around the country for about a year, writing the script in bars, bus stations and restaurants.” Byrum gives much of the credit for the film being given the go-ahead by Columbia to two men: Producer Harry Benn and Sheldon Shrager of Columbia.
Byrum had first worked with Benn, one of the UK’s most experienced production controllers/associate producers, on “Inserts”. “Columbia thought this movie was a $20 million picture. When I told them ‘Harry Benn can make it for $12 million’, Shel Shrager was open enough to have meetings, build up trust, and finally agree that it could be done. “They wouldn’t have made it if it had cost $20 million. But thanks to Harry and Shel, it happened.”
“The Razor’s Edge” has been shot on locations in England, France and India with a crew which includes lighting cameraman Peter Harman (who, says Byrum, “has made a $12 million picture look like a $20 million one”), production designer Philip Harrison, and production supervisor John Comfort. Byrum is clearly happy with the way filming has gone. “Everything feels right about this film to me. It seems the right combination for the story, which is by an Englishman about Americans in a foreign environment. “The production of the film reflects that. It’s a synthesis of Hollywood and Europe. I’m well suited to direct it, because I’ve worked in Hollywood, but my training and my first film was in Europe.
“The cast is just right. Jim Keach and Catherine Hicks are perfect as a couple of ordinary Californians, and Denholm Elliott has the sophistication his role requires, as does Theresa Russell. She’s American, but she’s lived and worked in Europe long enough to combine the professionalism and sophistication of English actors with the raw energy which Americans have. ” And Bill Murray is, I’m convinced, the only person who can make this work in this day and age. If anyone else had been in it, it just wouldn’t have the same relationship. to a contemporary audience. So it’s the perfect confluence of people,”