I have to admit that when I settled in for the Q&A with SyFy’s Treasure Island star Eddie Izzard, along with Executive Producer Robert Halmi, Sr. and SyFy Executive Vice President of Progamming and Original Movies Thomas Vitale, I was not only very excited, but also extremely nervous. I’ve been a huge fan of Izzard’s for some time now and actually getting to speak to him? Who wouldn’t be a little freaked out?
But Izzard, a self-proclaimed science fiction fan, was as charming and wonderful as I would have expected and he was an absolute joy to interview.
Treasure Island is a lofty project for SyFy and not only stars Izzard, but also Elijah Wood and Donald Sutherland (along with a host of co-stars we’re all familiar with). Izzard, who plays Long John Silver, began the interview by talking about his inspiration for that character.
“Churchill was my inspiration. It sounds kind of weird, but obviously you’re looking for a fresh take. And the interesting thing is with Silver is that he keeps changing sides, he keeps shifting the ground. Sometimes it’s pushed upon him but sometimes it’s him manipulating and moving.”
Izzard went on to refer to Churchill as a rat, a term that refers to changing political party, something which Churchill actually did twice. “So Winston Churchill was not only a rat, he was a double rat, he changed from the conservative party to the liberal party, and then back to the conservative party. He should have been vilified and dead and out for the count. In the end, because of 1940, because of setting up against the Nazis, he’s become our greatest person ever.”
The original character of Long John Silver was actually based on a friend of author Robert Louis Stephenson. That man was an editor and a journalist, as well as the poet who wrote the Invictus poem that inspired Nelson Mandela in prison.
“And it’s about the indomitable spirit which is in that poem, so this spirit, this changeability, this determination to get the gold and the treasure,” Izzard said. “And we worked out the treasure was the equivalent of something like $500 million. So imagine what you would do to get $500 million if it was buried on a treasure island? That’s the essence of Silver and that’s the story we wanted to do.”
Izzard also compared himself to the character he plays in the film. “Well I’d say the determined bit is very central to me if you know anything about me as a transvestite who’s gotten this far in my career. But also his fallibility, it is at the center of all of us. I don’t believe in god, I believe gods and devils are within us, it’s our own battle, our life’s battle is to appeal to the gods within us and fight the devils within us. And to be weak and to be greedy, it’s a potential for all of us there.”
Izzard shaved his head in preparation for the role and joked about that. “Yes, so once you cut your hair off, you don’t have to put anything on there because you don’t have to worry about if your hair’s in the right place. But the shaving the head sort of defines it. And the – I’d been trying to do a role where I could shave my head for some time.” He also advised, “And if you ever do choose to shave your head, people out there, it’s all about the skull shape, you’ve got to have a good skull. Some people have an unfortunate skull that doesn’t quite work. And you don’t know that until you get down there.”
Halmi went on to point out that Izzard’s pirate is probably the only bald pirate in history.
As far as the look of the production, making it as authentic as possible was a priority right down to the skin colors of the actual actors. Izzard said, “We feel that’s what the pirates would have been like. In a lot of films through the last century, you had a lot of white pirates, a lot of white things, a lot of white people. And no, this was – this is people, oriental skin colors, black, brown, white, a whole mixture in there. And I really liked that. And I think that’s going to resonate because that’s what the world really is.”
But that wasn’t the only realism on set. A schooner was literally sailed from Dublin to Puerto Rico by real sailors to be used in the film. “There’s some shots in the actual movie where you can see some really gnarly kind of seas, these big swells and bad weather, those are from the actual crossing. Those are real shots, nothing CGI, really that boat out at sea in the Atlantic, miles from anywhere,” Izzard said.
Izzard went on record to state that this particular pirate tale isn’t as campy as many we see on modern day movie screens. “This one was with teeth, 20 main characters go out there and only about 4 come back.”
Having originally wanted to be a dramatic actor, rather than a comedian, Izzard spoke about some of his favorite moments of filming Treasure Island. “To be on location with such great actors as well, with Donald Sutherland and Elijah Wood being from America, but great British actors as well, in Danny Mays and Rupert Penry-Jones and Philip Glenister, these are real top line guys. And these were highs, just to be with that team.”
Izzard was asked to get on board for the film when Sky approached him and asked if he wanted to be a part of the film. “And they said, “Do you want to do it?” And I said, “Well I’d like to do it, but I’ll only do it if the script is – has teeth and is gritty.” Because I feel the story has been portrayed in a somewhat lighter fashion over the years and has got watered down.”
When asked how he came aboard the project, Halmi stated, “I was asked by Sky in England to become Exec Producer to produce it. Sky had a script which wasn’t too good. So it had to be redone and (Sanksas), wonderful writer, redid it. And they had to find a director and my good friend Steve Barron came on board who really is responsible for how this picture looks, the look of it, which is fantastic.”
SyFy has a longstanding relationship with the Halmi Company, including giving SyFy their highest rated mini-series ever: Tin Man. According to Vitale, “Any time we have an opportunity to work with Mr. Halmi we are honored to work with him and to pick up his programming.”
Elijah Wood, who portrays Ben Gunn in the film, endeared himself to the cast and crew of Treasure Island almost immediately. “He had no attitude, no size to him. He just joined us, hung out with us and was great. I’d love to work with him again,” Izzard said. Izzard also went on to say that the entire cast was a joy to work with and excel in their individual roles.
Treasure Island gave Izzarrd some new technical challenges to work with as an actor. Although his leg was digitally edited out during post-production, he did have to walk on a crutch throughout the course of filming. “Working on the crutch I must say is tricky. I didn’t actually have my foot strapped up in the back, but the green screen took it out. But I never used my right foot, it never actually touched the ground in any scene. And it’s very hard to use just one crutch. Normally you’d use two crutches and you’d have a crossbar but I just used one. So the toughness of doing that added in to the character.”
There was also the experience of working with live parrots. If you’ve seen any of the stills from the film, you’ll notice that Long John Silver always has a parrot on his shoulder. A total of three different parrots were used during the course of filming and provided their own sort of challenges for Izzard as an actor. “Parrots have to act into the wind, and they’re of course not acting, they’re just standing there and trying to be parrots, but I didn’t know this. If you think about it, no bird – because birds feathers all go – move backwards from – on their body if there’s a lot – a big breeze coming up the wrong way. It’s like it’s just blowing all the feathers the wrong way. So they will turn around and face into the wind. So this was a practical problem and you could only do scenes that faced in the – against the direction of the wind.”
Parrots also have an affectation for becoming attached to their fellow actors, according to Izzard. “So you have to be sort of positive and confident with them, but not friendly. You can’t be friendly. If you’re too friendly with them then they get to like you and then they won’t leave you and they just – it’s a slightly fine line acting with parrots. So I was happy to be in a number of scenes but I didn’t want them to just take over the film.”
He did assure me, however, that he was not worried about being upstaged by a parrot.
Technically, the story of Treasure Island does not fall under science fiction, the genre SyFy is most known for airing. When asked about that, Vitale said, “You know the character of John Silver is such a larger than life character. He is a character that sparks the imagination. And what Syfy is about, it’s about programming of the imagination.” At times, I would personally beg to differ (all that reality t.v.), but I can get behind the sentiment.
Vitale continued, “We really are a broad-based entertainment channel. And I just felt that this was such an imaginative piece that the take on the story and the way it was done was so imaginative and so larger than life that it really fit our brand, kind of a broader definition of our brand, when you talk about the Syfy channel as a place that celebrates the imagination and celebrates larger than life heroes.”
The Treasure Island novel was published in 1883 and yet has still managed to capture audience imaginations throughout the years. Its appeal is universal, according to Izzard. “I think, well it’s interesting, villainy, crime plus time equals romance, the way it is. But the story is interesting. We worked at it to fight for the soul of Jim Hawkins.And you could – and Toby Regbo’s great because he’s 19 – well he’s 20 now, but 19 when he filmed it. And so he can play 17-18. He could be a young man or he can be an older teenager. So I think anyone in their youth can identify with that, even young tomboy girls and women can identify with him because he’s not like a big macho man, he’s kind of slight but feisty.”
“Imagine there’s $500 million — I go back to that number — on the Moon and you’ve got to find, like the Millennium Falcon or Hans Solo, could you go and get it?” Izzard asked. “It’s kind of one of those stories. So you do get caught up in it and it just gets nasty. And it’s about death and blood and life and finding yourself and what would you do in those situations.”
When Treasure Island was originally written, it was aimed at a younger group, but the story caught on with all age groups and still manages to do so today. According to Halmi, “it will keep going on.”
So why did SyFy decide to run Treasure Island as a one-night four-hour event? Halmi had an answer. “It’s tough to hook an audience to – the same audience to come the second night, it has to be something entirely different. And it’s a challenge, and it’s a wonderful thing to do it one night because it’s much more satisfactory. And people are used to long movies.”
Vitale added, “I actually screened the final product at home with my wife. And the kids went to sleep, we turned it on and we never turned it off.”
Each section of the movie is 90 minutes long (it was aired on two nights in the UK). When thinking about this, Izzard compared it to another long film: “So this is The Godfather of pirate movies.”
This version of Treasure Island was so popular when it aired in the UK in January that there are already talks of a sequel. Izzard said, “Yes, we’re already talking about Treasure Island 2. It’s a dangerous thing to do a follow up to a classic and you can fall flat on your face. But we would like to do one and I think Sky would like to do one. So we will see how that progresses. But yes, I think there is.”
Don’t miss Treasure Island on SyFy on May 5th at 7/6c.