Birthday Girl : Production Notes

"Where does it say you have to meet the love of your life in the supermarket?"

Finding someone to love is never easy, but in the case of BIRTHDAY GIRL, the process becomes downright outrageous and dangerous, involving the Internet, Russian con-artists, a bank hold-up, "Cats," sexual entanglements, car troubles and the ever-dry British sense of humour as romance takes a left turn into the territory of the dark comic thriller. What starts out as a tale about a lovelorn suburbanite and his incompatible mail-order bride suddenly transforms into a story about an ordinary man overtaken by a wave of crime and passion.

This is the romantic thriller as viewed by the Butterworth brothers, a British filmmaking family - including director Jez Butterworth, co-writer Tom Butterworth and producer Stephen Butterworth -- who have lent the genre a spirited and mischievous comic edge. The Butterworths, who made an acclaimed debut with the hip Brit-gangster film "Mojo," decided to take on a different genre this time. With BIRTHDAY GIRL, they meld the classic "opposites attract" storyline with their own distinctive style: decking it out with elements of crime and suspense; quirky, stereotype-smashing characters; sudden surprise twists; barbed but playful dialogue: and high-energy charm in the most gritty situations.

To this, they added a colourful, equally unexpected cast that includes Nicole Kidman taking a comic turn in the wake of accolades for the musical "Moulin Rouge" and the sophisticated classic thriller "The Others" and up-and-comer Ben Chaplin, who returns to his native England at last after finding success in Hollywood. By pairing Kidman as a Russian con artist with Chaplin as a mild-mannered British bank clerk nearly undone by her complexities, BIRTHDAY GIRL concocts a lot of cross-cultural sexual tension.

For the Butterworths, BIRTHDAY GIRL was always about communication - and the lack thereof that seems to afflict so many modern relationships. They wondered what a man might do if he sent away for a mail order bride and was suddenly confronted with a stunning woman who nevertheless couldn't speak his language, understand his culture, or make any sense at all to him . . . except in the bedroom. The inevitable awkwardness, and potential for mishaps and malice aforethought, struck the Butterworths as at once humorous and high-tension- and the story took off from there.

In researching BIRTHDAY GIRL, the Butterworths became particularly intrigued by the internet-wide proliferation of websites offering Russian brides to British and American men who have been as yet unlucky in love. They became fascinated with sites on which beautiful but mysterious Russian women presented their life stories in quick video snippets that seemed to hold a lot of room for surprises. Thus, they created the character Nadia -- who emerges from an Aeroflot flight a chain-smoking, head-nodding enigma, entirely unable to speak so much as a word of English despite the promises of her mail-order profile.

In fact, the first part of BIRTHDAY GIRL is boldly told almost entirely through Ben Chaplin's flummoxed, one-sided interaction with Kidman's Garboesque shy bride. When the actors received the scripts, there was so little dialogue in the first act it seemed to have sprung from another era, except for the overt sexiness and modern situations.

"We realised that since we were dealing with two people who can not communicate by conventional means, we could only reveal John and Nadia through their physical behaviour and this was a lot of fun," explains Jez Butterworth. "We liked the idea of doing a kind of silent film sequence in the middle of a very contemporary setting. "

But once the plot begins to take off, the film's tone changes suddenly. The wordless dance between Nadia and John erupts into barbed dialogue and intense action, especially when Nadia's Russian cousins enter the picture . . . and begin to reveal her secret plans for her new husband.

"Don't tell me… it's so cold in Russia, you have to go to England and shag people to keep warm?"

With the script completed, the Butterworths began to look for a cast - and the results were quite unexpected even to them. Despite the fact that three of the main characters are heavily accented Russians, they ultimately cast no Russian actors at all. Instead they wound up with an ensemble that included a major American movie-star, an acclaimed European filmmaker and a revered French actor in the Russian roles.

Explains Stephen Butterworth: "We took a trip to Moscow to see if any real Russians might fit the bill, and Jez met everyone who would have been an obvious contender. They wheeled out the most fantastic roll call of the finest Russian actors - and it was quite spectacular and impressive. Unfortunately, none of them spoke a word of English, even though we had been assured that they were fluent. " This event ultimately inspired the first joke of BIRTHDAY GIRL -- that Nadia cannot speak English as promised by the mail-order catalogue - but it also broadened the filmmakers' search.

The most essential role was of course Nadia, the dangerous beauty whom John Buckingham almost immediately regrets taking into his home. Unable to find a Russian actress who possessed the necessary combination of sly wit, cool sexiness and ability to also understand rudimentary English, Butterworth began to entertain the idea of looking outside of Russia. But he never considered an American until Nicole Kidman showed interest in the part.

"She's not exactly Russian," Butterworth admits, "but when I spoke to Nicole, I realized that she understood the character utterly and completely. She was superb to work with because her instincts are extraordinary, probably sharper than any other actor I've worked with. She was terrific and uniquely funny as Nadia. "
Kidman was excited by the idea of working with a young filmmaker such as Jez Butterworth who works outside the standard structures with his own creative vision. "It's so great to work with a writer/director combination because he really knows the character and can adapt it to you on the spot," she says. "Jez has great taste in performance so I really trusted him - and then he has his own wonderfully unusual sense of humour which I like very much. "

"Banking asks a great deal of an individual.
It says 'Here's all this money. Don't . . . steal it. '"

Also drawn to the Butterworths' work was Ben Chaplin who stars as John Buckingham, a man whose uncomplicated life in the London suburbs is turned helter-skelter from the minute Nadia arrives, leading him down a path of crime and thrills he could never have imagined.

Chaplin felt an immediate affinity for John, even if he does resort to somewhat incredible measures - buying a bride off the internet -- in the search for love. He decided to imbue the character with a touching shyness and total lack of awareness regarding his own charm and appeal. "I didn't judge John at all for buying a bride," Chaplin says. "I think there are lots of attractive but desperately lonely guys out there just like him. Everyone's met one. "

Having starred in mostly American movies of late, Chaplin was also thrilled to find himself at home in the familiarity of playing a true Englishman. "I haven't played an English character for so long time that I was missing it and John is really close to home in that he comes from a similar background and similar part of England to me. I understand him, I think, although I do hope I'm not entirely like him!"

On the set, Nicole Kidman found Chaplin a delightful adversary in the film's romance-gone-awry. "I had always wanted to work with Ben and this experience was really fun," she comments. "I felt very safe with him, particularly having to do the Russian accent because he always made me feel that it was going to be OK. Most of all, he is a great comedian and that was a constant inspiration. "
"Who are you?"
"We're Russians!"

The comedy of BIRTHDAY GIRL takes a dark turn when Nadia's so-called Russian cousins show up to celebrate her birthday - and they turn out to be villainous con-men who nevertheless enjoy such pursuits as debating the merits of "Cats. " Again, Jez Butterworth cast entirely against type, taking a chance on two French actors: acclaimed French director and actor Mathieu Kassovitz (winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme D'Or for "Hate" and star of the recent runaway hit "Amelie") and equally honoured actor Vincent Cassel. Both men took a crash course in Russian dialects shortly before filming.

Producer Diana Phillips explains: "Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz were Jez's great insight because their commitment to learning their roles in short order was extraordinary. Most of their dialogue work took place on the twenty two-hour flights they took from France to Sydney - during which a dialogue coach taught them their Russian lines. There was also a dialect coach on set who taught the cast how to speak in Russian-accented English. It was a very fast transformation. "

The fact that Cassel and Kassovitz had already collaborated on several projects together created a fearless working relationship for the duo, necessary for their free-wheeling roles. "Ordinarily it would have been difficult to build a believable relationship between Yuri and Alexei in such short time, but we were helped by the fact that we already know each other so well," says Cassel.

Jez Butterworth found out only after he had cast Vincent and Mathieu separately that the two were already friends: "These guys were totally right for the parts as individuals, and the fact that they are friends adds an extra dimension to their roles. I had seen Mathieu in 'A Self Made Hero' and thought he was brilliant - he plays a liar in that film, as he does in ours, and you really believe him. I also think Vincent is one of the best actors around. "

Mathieu Kassovitz enjoyed playing the acid-tongued wise guy Yuri, a character who appears to be one thing, then suddenly becomes something completely different: "The script is so well written that the characters have all sorts of shades to them. At first Yuri and Alexei play exaggerated Russian characters in order to deceive John, but once the scam is out in the open they can act more normally. Then the audience can see that they're not exactly real gangsters - they've just had to find a way to survive. "

Vincent Cassel found that there was a very physical difference between acting in Russian versus English: "Sometimes we would try and rehearse in English in order to understand exactly what everybody was saying. But it changes everything. I watched Nicole do her lines in English and then in Russian and her body language was completely changed. Everything was so different that we realized the language altered you as much as your costume or make-up might. "

Despite his broad experience in European cinema, Cassel felt that he learned a lot from working with Kidman. "It was very interesting to watch her work because she's so relaxed," he notes. "Especially when we worked in Russian. If you're not relaxed with the language you tend to deliver it faster, but she was very calm and helped to slow the pace to the right tempo. "

Nicole Kidman found working with the two French actors equally intriguing. "I was just thrilled when I heard Mathieu and Vincent were doing the film because it seemed like such unusual casting, yet perfect in a strange way," she comments. "We were all equally frightened to play Russians, which I think was good because it made us work harder. They are both very instinctual and brought so much to the characters and to the set. "

"You can't hurt me more than I'm hurt already. "
"Nadia, if it's all the same to you, I'd like to give it a bash. "

BIRTHDAY GIRL is set in St. Albans, a sleepy London commuter suburb in the Hertfordshire countryside that typifies the ordinary working-man lifestyle of John Buckingham - until Nadia arrives. An old Roman city featuring a medieval clock tower and a pub named "Ye Olde Fighting Cocks," picturesque St. Albans is also the home territory of the Butterworth brothers. In fact, Stephen Butterworth admits that he and his brothers have each been kicked out of the town's pub at one time or another.

Despite their desire to authentically capture St. Albans, the Butterworths shot the interiors of their film mainly in Australia. Explains Diana Phillips: "We went to Australia because it worked best for everybody. It was wonderful to be able to work in Nicole's hometown and Ben's family happens to live in Sydney so he was thrilled to be able to spend some time with them. Since the bulk of Nicole's work on this film was interiors it made sense to work this way. "

But when it came to the exteriors, the Butterworths happily returned to their home turf to capture London's quaint countryside suburbs -- which have rarely been seen on film. Explains Jez Butterworth: "What I like so much about Hertfordshire and St. Albans is that the beauty is there, but you have to search for it. There are lovely bits of countryside, but they're bisected by motorways. This theme reflects the characters of BIRTHDAY GIRL, as well. They may be beautiful people deep down, but they have been overridden, alienated and separated from themselves. The surface shows one thing, but there's a lot happening underneath. "