Key players take a look back at Bridget Jones, heroine to single ladies the world over
With the third film in the series due out in September, actors Rene Zellweger and Colin Firth, director Sharon MacGuire and producer Eric Fellner talk about the making of Bridget Jones’s Diary
If you were an unmarried woman in 2001 searching for Mr. Right, Bridget Jones was probably your spirit animal. Helen Fielding’s bestselling 1996 novel introduced the world to Bridget, a curvy 32-year-old Brit who documented her days as a “tragic spinster” in her journal. She drank too much, smoked too much and ate too much.
Sure, she was self-pitying, but she wasn’t pathetic. She had a job, supportive friends and her own flat well before she started to fall for both her boss, the caddish Daniel Cleaver, and the more buttoned-up human rights lawyer Mark Darcy. But Jones embraced her flaws, and that endeared her to women worldwide. When Bridget Jones’s Diary – starring Renee Zellweger with Hugh Grant as Cleaver and Colin Firth as Darcy – debuted in US cinemas on April 13, 2001, it became an instant hit and went on to gross US$281 million worldwide on a US$22 million production budget. It was so successful that it spawned a sequel, 2004’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which was critically panned but nonetheless ended up collecting US$262 million worldwide.
This September, the gang is reuniting for Bridget Jones’s Baby, in which, as the title implies, Jones is with child. Problem is, she doesn’t know who the father is – Darcy or a handsome American played by Patrick Dempsey. (Sadly, Grant did not return for the third film, though filmmakers imply he may make a cameo.)
To commemorate the film’s 15th anniversary, we revisited the origins of Bridget Jones’s Diary with its main players: Eric Fellner, co-chair of the British production company Working Title Films, which made all three pictures; Sharon Maguire, the director of the first and third Bridget movies; Firth; and, of course, Zellweger.
Eric Fellner: Helen Fielding was writing columns for the Independent that were funny and very reflective of the period. They were about being a single girl, but they seemed fresh and exciting, almost about an anti-hero. She wasn’t selling the image of who she wanted to be – she was selling who she was.
Sharon Maguire: Helen was just writing about our lives – hilariously. The same thing was happening in New York with Sex and the City – thirtysomethings had come out of long relationships in their 20s and realised they hadn’t ended up married or with children. We were in our 30s, behaving like we were 17-year-olds and having a great time but still floundering around asking questions about relationships, careers, biological clocks.
Fellner: When we heard the columns were being turned into a book, we moved aggressively to buy the rights. We believed in the character and the story. I don’t think at that point we ever thought about a franchise – and in those days, 1999 or 2000, the obsession for franchises and branded entertainment wasn’t like it was now. We had a very good relationship with Stacey Snider and Universal at the time, and we had done Notting Hill and Billy Elliot with them. They liked the fact that we made small English films. And Bridget was sort of seen as a high-end, British arty movie.
Maguire: I’d been at the BBC for years making documentaries, then left and was making commercials with the idea of moving into directing drama. During the development stage, there were a couple of other directors attached. But by the time Richard Curtis’ script came in, they were off shooting other movies. Helen is a friend of mine, and I’m allegedly a character in the book. I’m supposed to be Shazzer. So she told Working Title about me, and I sold Eric a whole thing about how because I was a character in the book, I knew how to do this.
Fellner: Casting was quite a fraught process. The press – as only the British press can do – were all over how we were going to make the film. We had one or two leading contenders, and then Renee’s agent called from CAA and said, “There’s this girl who was in Jerry Maguire.” And I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. She’s from Texas or somewhere in America. Why would we do that?” But she insisted and insisted. It was a brilliant piece of agenting. So Renee met with Richard Curtis and Sharon Maguire and, unbelievably, she wowed us all.
Maguire: We were all very aware of the risk of a Texan taking on a beloved English character.
Fellner: So we cast her, and the furore started. There was an enormous backlash and British actresses who were up in arms. At that point, it became quite scary. Had we done the right thing? We didn’t know. We protected Renee from that. I tried not to let her know.
Renee Zellweger: I didn’t know anything about it. I loved the book, and I knew that it was really popular among my friends, but I guess I don’t really read the things that would talk about that sort of stuff. I’m sure the filmmakers were terrified, but they never made me aware of what was hanging in the balance for them.
Maguire: It was going to be an indie film, really, but when Hugh Grant agreed to play Daniel Cleaver and Colin Firth agreed to play Mr Darcy, it became a much more commercial prospect. Helen had based the characters in the book on both of them. Colin was on BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, and she was obsessed with him, as were most of the females in the nation.
Colin Firth: I was not experienced in the world of romantic comedy before Bridget Jones. I was 40 or 41 when I did the first film, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever be in a comedy. I’d mostly done more earnest stuff. It seems almost strange to remember now, because I became rather known for [romantic comedies], I suppose. Things like Love Actually – I doubt whether I would have been invited into those had it not been for Bridget Jones.
Maguire: I think one of the reasons the film went on to strike such a chord was not that it was just funny, but it was also wish fulfilment – that we curvy girls in our 30s could be presented with the likes of not one but two dashing men. It was about the fear of loneliness. In an age when feminism had handed women so many choices, the fear of being alone was still valid.
Firth: It was very obvious to me that the structure of the story was based on Pride and Prejudice, and I do think that’s up there as one of the most romantic stories in the English language. Stories of people who misjudge each other and end up romantically involved – like Much Ado About Nothing – have a lot of power. Stories where two people spar but have an erotic undercurrent. But I saw it for its comic potential. And it was howlingly funny. I’ve watched it with several people of various generations, and I think the laughs that come from the gut are rooted in stuff that feels real or probably has some painful association. Laughter is fuelled by sympathy – it’s a release, a sense of recognition or a cringe or something.
Zellweger: I loved her humanity and her awkwardness. I love the physical comedy that’s written into the story. She’s quirky, and I wanted everything about her to quietly speak to that. I’d never had a problem with my “warts” in private, but having to play a character who lives her life in a really public way was a transition.
Maguire: Dressing her was really important. A lot of times, her outfits were so bad they were good. And Renee is brilliant at physical comedy, like a latter-day Lucille Ball. Her clothes were supposed to be a little bit too tight for her, and when she walked her thighs would rub together. She has no vanity. I think it’s the other way around. Many times I’d say, “I think maybe we’ve gone a bit too far. Maybe we can get her hair looking a bit nicer.”
Zellweger: I was surprised at how many people would ask me about how I’d lost weight after the experience. It’s kind of sad, and it’s not really interesting. It’s just part of the job if you’re going to play a character and do it well. I’m not a person who has a genetic predisposition to being heavy.
Maguire: I was kind of baffled by all the attention her weight gain got. It wasn’t like she did a full Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. It wasn’t that intense, the amount of weight she put on. But I suppose people are used to seeing very skinny actors in those roles, people who haven’t got any problems at all because they’re all beautiful and thin.
Fellner: In post, we were really worried about the film. We weren’t sure that it was working on any level. Often, with comedies, you’ve been telling the same jokes for so long that they lose their humour. We’d had a screening here in Britain that hadn’t gone that well, and it’d been quite tough in the cutting room. Next was this preview in New York, and I was hiding in the back, thinking it was going to be a disaster. But at the end, people were enraptured. It went from being something we were very scared of to a big, hit film.
Maguire: There was so much about “Would you choose Hugh or Colin?” and so much about the big panties. I’ve never answered so many questions about underwear. Women finally admitted to wearing them, and men didn’t know so many women were wearing them, and now their secrets were uncovered.
Zellweger: There’s rarely a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t want to talk about Bridget Jones when we meet in the street. It’s always interesting, and people are nice. I love her too, so it’s flattering.
Firth: The success of the series is testament to the fact that Bridget felt familiar to vast numbers of people. Watching Renee on set for the first time delighted me. It felt very, very alive – very human. The extent to which she felt three-dimensional and personal and familiar and lovable surprised me.
Fellner: I love the idea of making a series with a great actress who portrays the same character generationally and following her in her early 30s, late 30s, early 40s, her 50s. A franchise where no one is pretending to be any age than what they are. To follow a character’s life travails in reality would be kind of gorgeous and original. If this film works, and Helen’s up for it, then maybe we keep going until our audience decides they don’t want to follow Bridget anymore.
Los Angeles Times