”Can we get the zookeeper? We need more monkey action. More! Monkey! Action!”
Hugh Grant is being upstaged. Not by his 11-year-old costar, or even by the chattering of the nearby paparazzi, but by a monkey. A red-faced spider monkey, to be precise, that has parked itself in front of the cameras that are supposed to be shooting a pivotal bonding scene for About a Boy. Directors Chris and Paul Weitz holler for the staff of the London Zoo to move the stubborn simian, which seems happy to just hang from a branch and wiggle its heinie at the star. For the most part, the actor is taking it well, proffering a game smile as those famous crinkles fan out around his eyes. But five minutes of inept monkey wrangling later, he owns up to a bit of concern. ”Kids and animals,” he sighs. ”I’m doomed.”
W.C. Fields would, indeed, be appalled. Between the monkey business and growling lions interrupting takes, the zoo has been, well, a zoo – and filming the Weitz brothers’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, about a commitment-shy thirtysomething (Grant) who befriends a troubled grade-schooler (Nicholas Hoult, now 12), has been a bit of an elephant parade.
”You aren’t hoof-and-mouth infected, are ya?” Paul Weitz, 36, jokes to a visiting journalist, tilting his head toward one of the dire warnings about the livestock disease plastered everywhere. ”’Cause we’d have to put you down or something.” He’s only half kidding. This is the spring of 2001, and the epidemic has gotten so bad that all visitors to this normally idyllic spot in London’s Regent’s Park are required to dip their shoes in sticky, pathogen-killing goop. It hasn’t stopped the crowds, though – school groups troop through, teeming with kids delighted at the chance to observe the coolest kind of wildlife: movie stars.
Of course, for the mostly British cast and crew, there is an even odder species on display: Filmmakerius Americanus. The Weitzes – the brothers behind American Pie – call ”Cut,” announce they have to change the reel, and then flop to the ground. They pound out 20 push-ups each as everyone laughs. They’ve been doing these between-takes calisthenics since their first film and are baffled as to why the Brits won’t participate. ”On American Pie everyone would join in,” says Chris, 32. ”Here they just look at us like we’re f – -ing crazy.”
A quick survey of the bemused faces confirms his trenchant analysis, but there’s no doubt that the Brits want the Weitzes there. After Iain Softley (K-PAX) backed off from the project because of reported ”casting disagreements,” Universal and Grant quickly settled on the brothers to direct the London-set comedy – an assignment the Weitzes hope will banish from memory their last film, the Chris Rock flop Down to Earth. (It’s a neat reversal on the last Hornby screen adaptation, 2000’s High Fidelity, which moved the setting to the U.S. and was shot by a Brit, Stephen Frears.)
No matter which side of the Atlantic the talent is from, however, no one can get that monkey moving. Zookeepers scurry back and forth, dangling bananas and trying to tempt it out of the view of the camera. Off to the side, Grant shoots a long, sour stare at his primate antagonist.
”You don’t suppose they still have chimp tea parties, do you?” he says. ”Probably not PC anymore. Shame, that.” Hmm. It’s a good thing he didn’t see the size of the little guy’s trailer.