‘Bad Behaviour’: Ben Whishaw & Director Alice Englert Talk Jennifer Connelly and Their Dark Comedy | Sundance 2023
Actress Alice Englert can now add writer-director to her resumé, after premiering her directorial debut, Bad Behaviour, at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Following in the footsteps of her mother, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jane Campion, Englert’s feature is a meditative exploration of a strained mother-daughter relationship between Lucy, played by Jennifer Connelly, and her daughter, Dylan (Englert).
Lucy was a child actor whose tumultuous past affects her deeply and causes issues in her relationship with her daughter. In order to find some respite from her anxieties, Lucy checks herself into an enlightenment retreat under the tutelage of self-help guru, Elon Bello, played by Emmy winner, Ben Whishaw, who conducts unorthodox practices with his retreat-goers. Through phone calls with her daughter, a stunt coordinator working in New Zealand, we see a glimpse of Lucy’s co-dependency and her self-involved tendencies that created the distance between them in the first place.
Following the premiere for Bad Behaviour, Englert and Whishaw stopped by the Collider Studio in Park City to talk with Collider’s Steve Weintraub. During their interview, Whishaw shares how Englert’s “amazing insight” and her “sense of the absurdity” drew him to the script. Englert also discusses the inspiration she took away from other filmmakers, the challenges while filming – including directing via Zoom while sick with COVID – and breaks down the personal and emotional story of Bad Behavior. Whishaw talks about the status of Paddington 3, Englert teases what may be next for her as a writer-director, and they share some Jennifer Connelly love with us. You can watch the interview in the player above, or read the full transcript below.
COLLIDER: So we’re here to talk about Bad Behavior, and I really have so many questions for your feature debut, but every time I see that gentleman sitting right there, one of my all-time favorite movies is Cloud Atlas and I always want to bring it up so more people will see it. I want to commend you on that role and the film. I just want to say how awesome it is.
ALICE ENGLERT: I agree actually, yeah.
BEN WHISHAW: Just wonderful to hear you say that, and I love that film very much, too. Yeah, you know, it seems to, every year, find more and more devotees. I feel like slowly, slowly. I think it got a bit of a bad deal at the time that it came out. But I feel that people do discover things now, after their release
ENGLERT: I was your date to the premiere.
WHISHAW: Alice was my date to the premiere.
ENGLERT: I loved it too, I thought it was awesome. I agree.
First of all, I had no idea when I asked the question, but I think it’s such an amazing film and I think that it asks a lot of the audience, but it’s beautiful.
WHISHAW: I completely agree. Yeah, maybe its time is coming.
Jumping into why I get to talk to you guys. I really want to say congratulations on your movie and I want to commend getting any movie made as a miracle, and getting your first feature made that you’ve written and directed. So I start at the beginning for the audience that won’t have seen it yet, what have you been telling people about it? Like your friends and family when they say, “Well what’s your movie about?”
ENGLERT: I think I usually tell them – friends and family I don’t put a lot of effort in, to be honest, because I know that they’ll have to find out about it. But here, the festival and whatnot, I think it’s really about someone who’s trying to find their hero’s journey, and really deviating from that, and kind of exploding any opportunity to be sympathetic, but still coming to a place that feels real and maybe more useful.
Ben, I know you must be offered, I’m gonna say at least a script or two every once in a while, and so, for the audience, can you talk about who you play? And what was it about the material that said, “I want to do this.”?
WHISHAW: I play a character called Elon Bello, and Elon is a spiritual teacher forward slash guru, and he is an enlightened human. He’s written books about what it means to be enlightened and how someone else might attain enlightenment, and people are attending his retreat, including the central character played absolutely sensationally by Jennifer Connelly, and Jennifer Connelly’s character is called Lucy, and Lucy is on Elon Bello’s silent retreat. Although it quickly isn’t silent any longer. There’s actually quite a lot of noise going on on the retreat.
I was drawn to the material. Well, it’s hard to talk about it because me and Alice have known each other a very long time. She’s a very, very dear friend and I was in Alice’s short film, Family Happiness, and we’ve shared lots, haven’t we? We actually nearly did another film, Schengen Princess. So when this came through, I was very excited because I’m like, “Wow, this is Alice’s first completed feature script.” And I was just blown away by the writing, by the amazing insight that she brings to people, to relationships, and her incredible sense of the absurdity of just about everything, and silliness and profundity all mixed up together.
So I was just delighted, and it felt so fully realized that even if she had not been a very dear friend, I know I would have done it. You know, it’s just a brilliant piece of writing.
You’ve worked with a number of directors and I’m curious, what did you learn from the various filmmakers you’ve worked with that you stole for your directing debut as a feature? And was there anything that you’re like, “I am never going to do this on my set.”?
ENGLERT: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think one of the things I stole was never to try to get it right or try to get it perfect, but just to always be interested in what space was working. That gives you a lot of room to play because if you start trying to repeat something, you just become self-conscious and it takes you so far away from what being present as a performer really is, which is like you have to somehow navigate that meta world, you know? Yeah, I just don’t ever want to lock anyone down. I want them to feel free because when you work with people like Ben and Jennifer, they’re so insanely talented and deep, and they have so much knowledge and so much electricity in them, and you just don’t want to be in the business of trying to be smarter than anybody else.
I just love being a fan of people and it was really fun to just be able to try and enable everyone to enjoy what they were doing, to get a chance to do it. I really think you don’t need to punish people to get good performances from them. I think sometimes we think that there’s a certain kind of personality that comes with an auteur, or with talent, and I think that that’s completely untrue. I think that sometimes that stuff, that kind of aggression, that domination is something that uses the talent as an excuse to keep going. That’s something I really don’t want to do or experience. I’ve worked with so many directors who don’t do it and it was beautiful and it was still raw and hard and deep and interesting, but you know, you don’t get a huge therapy bill from it. I don’t think it’s necessary.
WHISHAW: No, it definitely is not.
ENGLERT: Everything’s already like weird and hard enough.
You obviously had to make this on a budget. When you looked at the schedule and saw how many shooting days you had, what were you most nervous about [as far as] the challenges of pulling this off on the schedule?
ENGLERT: You know what, I just had to believe that we were enough and that anything that was a mistake, or anything that would go wrong, would instead have to be taken as an incredible plot twist. Because we had a very small schedule and we did not have the biggest budgets, and I got COVID on the first day. I got COVID on the first day of shooting the film. And so I directed the opening scenes with a gentle fever rising, from my bedroom [on] a Zoom with a terrible connection. It was such an incredible trust exercise.
I remember seeing Jennifer on the screen and knowing that, I know you can’t make a movie for everybody. Though, I’m actually amazed at how many people really do love our specific crazy, unusual being of a movie, but I remember knowing that I could see the movie I wanted to make when I saw Jennifer come through that. It was also a reminder [of], “Let people do their jobs, you don’t need to be on them all the time.”
I have to ask, did you have a bad case of COVID? How long were you…
ENGLERT: I was so lucky. It wasn’t bad. So we just did the government prescription, and I was really luckily also not having long COVID. So when I’d done my time, I was able to return. I actually felt like – I don’t know, maybe it was just so exciting to actually get to go to the set to make this freaking movie. I still feel like I can’t believe any of this has happened and thank you for being so interested in talking.
WHISHAW: But you not only directed everyone else, you also, miraculously it seems to me, somehow directed yourself. Alice also has an incredibly important role in the film and giving, also, a sensational performance. How did you find it?
I’m sorry, I’m just asking questions.
I am all in on you asking questions, this is great.
WHISHAW: Is that okay? I was genuinely interested to know.
I want you to ask her questions because you have a different perspective on the entire craft than I will ever have, and your insight is… you know what I mean?
WHISHAW: I’m sorry, I’m not here to ask questions, but I haven’t had the opportunity to ask you what it was like to direct yourself.
ENGLERT: I’ve noticed that sometimes in interviews, people ask you stuff and you say, “I don’t know.” And I really just was like, “Damn, I would have motor-mouth all over that question!”
WHISHAW: Yeah, but you don’t know?
ENGLERT: I know some stuff, but I don’t really know. I sort of just looked at other people’s faces because I’m pretty good at knowing if they’re hating it, you know? [Laughs]
I just felt like I had an instinct for it and I did want to… I was really interested in trying to make it feel personal and real as a story, and I didn’t want to force actors into telling the story or to be in opposition with anyone over Dylan. And I knew I needed to be really, really be there for Lucy, as well, and I knew I could, I don’t know, I just knew I could respect Jennifer in her power and that I could be… I just, I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know, what the hell? [Laughs]
WHISHAW: I don’t know what I expected to hear.
ENGLERT: I just looked at Desray [Armstrong] and [Molly O’Shea’s] face and [was] like, “Okay, I think it’s all right.” And then just try everything, you know, try it all.
I don’t want to do any spoilers at all because no one has seen the movie, but there’s a thing that happens in the second act that I was not prepared for. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a big moment in the movie. How early on did you know that you wanted that?
ENGLERT: That was from the very beginning, from the very beginning. I wanted to see… This person was so, so in need of escaping their ego and their story. And I’ve noticed that sometimes, your mind gets really quiet when you are so embarrassed and ashamed of yourself, that it’s like your ego… it’s like a publicist just can’t think of anything to say anymore, and doesn’t want anything to do with you. It’s like, “You’re hopeless.” It is suddenly quiet. It’s like in these moments where you feel deep failure where you go, “Oh, that’s right, this is what life is all about.” Then once things go well again, you start to get into yourself again.
So I really, really wanted to see somebody try to navigate the story of their life, their ego, and when they can’t win that arm wrestle. They’re just like, “Well, I’m taking us both down,” and to think and just to see what was left in that wreckage, you know?
100%. I don’t generally talk about other family members, but you have a family member that’s kind of a talented filmmaker, just a little bit, and I’m curious, how nervous were you to show your mom the film for the first time?
ENGLERT: Well, she’d read the script a while ago. I showed her when it was finished, about to be finished, and she was really supportive of it.
So I was nervous, and I was nervous again because she tends to be pretty brutally honest, which I really respect because I wouldn’t want anything else really. It would have been even more confusing growing up in this industry if she wasn’t giving her integrity, and she loves it. So I’m happy. I was nervous, but I was also excited because I knew that the film is hopeful, even though it’s –I know it’s a satire, but it’s sincere, as well, and I know that it’s hopeful.
I know Lucy says “never give in to hope,” and then you say it, but I’m a quite hopeful person. Yeah, my downfall.
I want to ask you an individual question that actually doesn’t have to do with this movie. Like the entire planet, I absolutely adore and love the Paddington movies. I think they’re masterpieces, both of them. I know that there’s a third one being made, so what can you tell people about it?
WHISHAW: Really, very little because I haven’t read this script and I don’t even know when we’re due to shoot it. I don’t know, I thought it would be happening by now, but I don’t know. It’s gone silent in the way that sometimes these things do. Maybe that just means they’re still working on it, or maybe it means it’s not happening, or you just don’t know.
I wonder if it’s because Paul [King] is involved in the Wonka movie?
WHISHAW: Yeah, it might be. Well no, it wouldn’t be because Paul is not, sadly, anything to do with…
I wonder if he’s producing, or writing…
WHISHAW: He might have some involvement on that level. Yeah, but he’s definitely not directing this one.
Those movies are amazing, are you aware of that? Have you paid attention?
WHISHAW: Yeah, I love them, too, and I see that they really affect people. Yeah, I do. I love that. I’m very happy that it’s so close to people’s hearts. It’s great.
[To Alice Englert] I’m not sure if you’ve seen them.
ALICE ENGLERT: [Laughs nervously]
Yep. There it is.
WHISHAW: Okay. Oh dear.
I thought you guys were friends. What happened? You went to the premiere…
WHISHAW: You haven’t seen them? You haven’t seen a single one of them.
Right, here is the microphone because I’d like to make sure we get it on record.
WHISHAW: Not a single one. No, your reaction says it all.
ENGLERT: I have no official comment. I do remember you coming home from ADR, a whole day of ADR where you had just been making Paddington Bear growling noises.
WHISHAW: Some days I just go in and do like about 30 or 40 different growls [growls] for like the whole day. You get the list of things you have to do and it goes, “tiny growl,” “small beary growl,” “small, disappointed growl.”
ENGLERT: I’m obsessed with that. All right, well, no more Sundance films. I’m going home, I’m going to watch Paddington. I do actually hear it’s great. Our producer was saying she watched it the other day in a moment of deep stress and it made everything better.
WHISHAW: They’re absolutely beautiful films. They are they’re delightful
Now that you’ve done your first feature, do you have scripts on the desk that you’re thinking about? Are you thinking about another feature?
ENGLERT: I have two things that I want to write. I wrote something to give Marlon [Williams] who plays Elmore in Bad Behavior, which is in a certain way, a family film too. I wrote a fantasy story for him to work with because he was obviously playing an actor who was playing a role, and I got a bit carried away and wrote…
WHISHAW: Wrote the whole film.
ENGLERT: No, I didn’t do that! That tickles me occasionally, and there’s something else I like, but there’s nothing to say. I’m just going to go for it on my own and see how I feel.
WHISHAW: Better to do it that way.
I would love to talk more specifically about this film, and Jennifer’s fantastic performance.
She’s such a talented actor and she’s so good in this, and one of the reasons she’s so good is because you directed while being sick with COVID.
ENGLERT: [Laughs] I got out of her way.
I’m being serious, she’s so good in it, but because no one has seen it yet, I don’t want to get specific.
ENGLERT: That is so kind of you to talk about. I love Jennifer-love because I’m so into her as well. I just think she’s incredible.
She’s also been fantastic for so long.
You just believe when she’s on-screen that she is this person, it’s not acting, it’s just she is the person. Ben’s also pretty good. You’re also pretty good as an actor, but I’m talking about Jennifer right now.
WHISHAW: We love Jennifer.
ENGLERT: Yeah, we’re fans.
WHISHAW: We’re devotees. We’re disciples.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.