By Iain Blair
The past year has been huge for British director Dexter Fletcher. He was instrumental in getting Bohemian Rhapsody across the finish line when he was brought in to direct the latter part of the production after Bryan Singer was fired. The result? A $903 million global smash that Hollywood never saw coming.
Now he’s back with Rocketman, another film about another legendary performer and musician, Elton John. But while the Freddie Mercury film was more of a conventional, family-friendly biopic that opted for a PG-13 rating and approach that sidestepped a lot of the darker elements of the singer’s life, Rocketman fully embraces its R-rating and dives headfirst into the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll circus that was Elton’s life at the time — hardly surprisingly, the gay sex scenes have already been censored in Russia.
Conceived as an epic musical fantasy about Elton’s breakthrough years, the film follows the transformation of shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar Elton John. It’s set to Elton’s most beloved songs — performed by star Taron Egerton — and tells the story of how a small-town boy became one of the most iconic figures in pop culture.
Rocketman also stars Jamie Bell as Elton’s longtime lyricist and writing partner, Bernie Taupin; Richard Madden as Elton’s first manager John Reid; and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother Sheila Farebrother.
Fletcher started as a child actor, appearing in such films as Bugsy Malone, The Elephant Man and The Bounty before graduating to adult roles in film (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and TV (Band of Brothers). He made his directing debut with 2012’s Wild Bill and has since made a diverse slate of films, including Eddie the Eagle.
I recently met up with him to talk about making the film and his workflow.
When you took this on, were you worried you’d now be seen as the go-to director for films about gay British glam rockers?
(Laughs) No, and I never set out to create this specific cinematic universe about gay British glam rockers. I don’t know how many more of them there are left that people want to see films about — maybe Marc Bolan. That would be the next obvious one.
What happened was that I was attached early on to direct Bohemian Rhapsody, but then Rocketman came up. While I was preparing that, Bohemian Rhapsody folks came back (after director Bryan Singer was fired during the shoot) and said they needed some help to get it done, so it was more of a coincidence, and Elton’s music is so different from Queen’s.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
Definitely an epic musical, and something that was different and imaginative. The first idea that came up was “based on a true fantasy,” and having done biopics before, like Eddie the Eagle, I know you can’t do them accurately. You simply can’t fit a life into two hours, and there’s always people who nitpick it and go, “He’s wearing the wrong shoes, and it missed this bit” and so on. A biopic isn’t a documentary, and you have to breathe creative life into it. The truth/fantasy element of this was far more important to me in telling Elton’s story than doing a by-the-numbers recreation of his career and life.
Casting was obviously crucial. What did Taron bring to the mix?
A great voice, a great performance, and Elton encouraged him to really make the performance his own. He kept saying, “Do your own thing, don’t just copy me. If they wanted just a copy of my music, they can just buy it. So make it original.”
Taron has this great innate ability of being vulnerable and confident at the same time, and that’s a great gift. He’s able to be very driven and focused and yet retain that inner vulnerability and able to show you both sides clashing, which I felt was very true of Elton.
So Elton gave you a pretty free hand?
Yeah, he did. He sat us down right at the start and said to Taron, “Don’t do an impression of me. No one wants that. Do you, honestly, and that’s what will convince an audience and draw them in.” He was right, and he was extremely giving and generous with us. He’s had this incredible life, and he’s putting it all out there on the big screen, which is pretty brave.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami lipsynced, partly because Freddie Mercury famously had this amazing range that’s so hard to replicate. Taron sang all his vocals?
He did, every note. It was prerequisite for the role, and he wanted to anyway. A musical is very different from a biopic.
You took an imaginative visual approach to the story, especially with all the fantasy elements. How did you collaborate on the look with DP George Richmond, who has shot all your films, whose credits include Tomb Raider and the Kingsman franchise.
He’s got a great eye, and we looked at a lot of the great ‘70s musicals, like The Rose, All That Jazz and Stardust, and there’s this dusty, raw, grainy quality to them. I really wanted to get that feel and texture as this is a period piece and I didn’t want it to look too modern.
So we studied the camera moves and lighting, and it was the same with all the costumes by Julian Day. Elton’s outrageous outfits were the starting point, but we pushed it a little further. So it’s about emotion and how you felt more than just recreating a look or costume or a chronological retelling, and I elaborated as much as possible.
How tough was the shoot?
Fairly grueling. We shot mainly at Bray Studios, outside London, where they shot all the old Hammer Film Productions horror films, and then did some stuff in London.
Where did you post?
We did it at Hireworks in London, which is above this beautiful old cinema, right in the heart of London. It was really conducive for the editing and what we were creating. Then we did all the sound and the mixing round the corner at Goldcrest.
Do you like the post process?
I love it, and I love it more and more now. It’s this whole side of filmmaking that I never really appreciated as an actor, as I didn’t have much to do with it. But now I can’t wait to get in the edit, and I’m there every day, and I’m very involved with every aspect of post.
Talk about editing with Chris Dickens. What were the big editing challenges?
I’d never worked with him before, though we’d met for another project. He was on the set with us at Bray where he had edit rooms set up, so that was very convenient. He’d start assembling and I could just walk over and check on it all. We had a rough assembly just two weeks after we finished shooting, and as I said, I’m very involved.
We’d discuss stuff, especially all the big musical numbers. Those were the big challenges, as you have to make the music and visuals all work together, and you’re working to a playback track. You’re also very exposed when it comes to changing the tempo or rhythm of a scene. You can’t just cut a few words, as you’re locked into the track. And everyone knows the songs. Songs like “Your Song” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” were done totally live, so it was pretty complicated. But Chris is very experienced with all that, as he cut Slumdog Millionaire. That end musical number there is a total triumph of editing.
Talk about the importance of sound and music. I assume Elton was quite involved and listened to everything?
He was very interested, of course, but he let us all do our own thing. Giles Martin, son of Beatles’ producer George Martin, was in charge of the music. He’s an amazing producer in his own right, and he also has a long history with Elton, who stayed at his house when Giles was young. So there’s a very strong relationship there, and that was key in terms of dealing with Elton’s music legacy.
Giles was the custodian of all that and was instrumental in re-imagining all of Elton’s songs in the most interesting ways, and Elton would listen to them and love it. For instance, at first we thought “Crocodile Rock” wouldn’t fit, but we re-did it in this elevated, really hard rock way, and it worked out so well. We recorded at various places, including Abbey Road and Air Studios and, of course, we spent a lot of time and detail on all the music and sound. Just like with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ if you don’t get that right, the film’s not going to work.
Visual effects play a big role. What was involved?
Cinesite in Montreal did them all, with a few by Atomic Arts, and we had a lot of artists and VFX guys working on them. We had so many, from fireworks to scenes with people floating and all the crowd scenes at stadiums, where we had to recreate fans in the ‘70s. So some of that stuff was fairly standard, but they did a brilliant job. I quite like working with VFX, as it allows you to do so much more with a period piece like this.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did it at Goldcrest with colorist Rob Pizzey, and it’s very important to myself and my DP George Richmond. As I said, we wanted to get a very particular look and texture to it, and George and I worked closely on that from the very outset. Then in the DI, Rob and George worked very closely on it. In fact, George was shooting in Boston at the time, but he flew back to do it and finalize the look. I’m learning so much from him about the DI, and I give my notes and they make all the changes and adjustments. I love the DI.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
Absolutely. I’m really happy with it. In fact, it’s turned out better than I hoped.
I don’t have anything lined up. I’m out of work!
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.