Guy Ritchie confesses that he’s both nervous and confident about filmmaking

Ed Symkus More Content Now
Guy Ritchie (black shirt) puts his cast through the paces on the set of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

The name Madonna never comes up during my interview with Guy Ritchie, despite the fact that their long-ago marriage is one of the few things the tabloid-reading section of the public knows about him. Movie lovers know that the British director has had his own very special stamp on nasty-funny little indie gems including “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch,” and “RocknRolla,” and that he moved up to the big leagues with his two Robert Downey-starring Sherlock Holmes films. With “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” Ritchie has captured the tone of the old TV show, and kept the story in the Cold War era. But he’s also fused together his trademark fast and jittery style with some Hollywood slickness. Laid back and casual and refreshingly honest, Ritchie, 46, spoke about his art and craft at Claridge’s in London.

Q: What a cool movie!

A: Oh, well, that’s a good start! I guess I can relax now. This part’s always tricky. You’re not sure if people think it’s a disaster.

Q: Is there a little bit of self doubt every time you make a film?

A: Yeah, of course. Because you put a few quid in the pot. You get a couple of years in, and all of a sudden some accountability takes place. I try to knock that self doubt, but you do need an element of it. You know, at the beginning of the process, I usually have a crisis for a week, where I’m thinking, “Have we really thought this through?” And I’m riddled with self doubt. And then it goes. (laughs)

Q: How did this film end up in your hands?

A: After we finished the second “Sherlock,” [my producer and co-writer] Lionel Wigram and I were keen to do something. We entertained various titles that didn’t really inspire great enthusiasm. Then I got a call from Lynn Harris, then an executive at Warners, who said, “Are you interested in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?’ I quickly did the arithmetic and thought there were enough components in there for me to make it both accessible to a contemporary audience yet hopefully be loyal to the show.

Q: You’re too young to have seen the show when it was first on? How important was the series for you?

A: It was important in the sense that it evoked a sense of positive nostalgia. We liked the tone of the original series without being too specific about exactly what the original series was about. So when the title “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” was mentioned, in the back of my head, I went, “Could I do something with this?” And in 15 seconds I thought I could, because I had a positive memory of the series [in reruns]. And in the kitchen of your mind, the chef very swiftly says, “I’ve got this ingredient, I’ve got this ingredient, I’ve got this ingredient.” And the chef goes, “Yes, we can do that.” But then we didn’t really revisit the series at all, because we didn’t want to be too specific, and get caught up in the specific elements of the series.

Q: The TV show featured the American agent and the Russian agent working together against the bad guys right from the start. But your film shows how they met. Was it always going to be an origin story?

A: Not always. But it became clear to us that that’s where the most amount of fun we thought could be gleaned, because no one had gone there. We went through several incarnations of the script, and many attempts had been made at writing one for years. The one we first got, that we actually never read, had a daughter in it. But the point was there was no correlation between anything that we did and anything else anyone had previously done. We came up with different ideas about how best to tackle the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” issue, and one of those incarnations was an origin story. I seem to remember that we sort of moonwalked into it. We had an idea and then we realized, “Hold on, we’re saying this is how these two guys met one another!” Then we just backtracked a bit further.

Q: You started off with small, intimate movies, and now you’re in the Hollywood mainstream. Did you have to change your approach to filmmaking after “RocknRolla”?

A: Consciously, probably not. Unconsciously, probably. But I’ve always fancied myself as a commercial filmmaker, a competitive filmmaker. I’m aware that films have to be able to sustain themselves, and I quite like that challenge. I like accessible commercial movies that I believe have heart and integrity. But I was never embarrassed by the fact that I like big commercial movies, like “Where Eagles Dare.” For me the perfect marriage is when you have a big, accessible commercial film, made by someone who cares and is paying attention. So I like being mainstream in that sense. The truth is I also just like challenges. I want to remain challenged by what it is I’m doing.

Q: “RocknRolla” remains a kind of cult favorite among your fans. One of the end credits of that film referred to its characters, and read, “Archie and Johnny and the Wild Bunch will be back.” So, will they someday be back?

A: I would like them to be back. I get that request more than any other one. The script is already written. I’d definitely like to do it.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” opens on Aug. 14.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.