Ritchie and ‘the wife’ take a chance on being ‘Swept Away

If you can believe Guy Ritchie, choosing his third film and its star was easy-peasy.

“I had made this BMW commercial with the wife,” says Ritchie. “And it was a good laugh, and someone who saw it said it reminded them of this Italian movie from the `70s called `Swept Away.’

“So I got a hold of it and watched it, and I thought the first 30 minutes was pretty boring, to be straight with you. But then it started getting interesting, and I thought, you know, a remake of this could be pretty interesting.

“So the wife is sitting on the bed, and I say, ‘Have you ever seen this? It’s pretty great,’ and she says, `Yeah, I could have told you that.’ And I said, `Do you fancy playing the lead if I was to do it over?’ and she said, `Yeah,’ and that was that, really. `How about we make it in Italy, because I really fancy Italy.’ `OK.’ Took all of about 10 minutes, really.”

The wife, of course, is Madonna, and one assumes that fact might have complicated Ritchie’s stroll in the park. She, after all, has the Madonna industry and image to preserve and protect, and to say her film career has had its ups and downs (Up: “Evita.” Down: “Body of Evidence”) is to be generous.

But making something like “Swept Away” on a reasonably lean budget without a great amount of attendant hoopla appealed to her appetite for risk, as did playing a character who defies expectations.

Madonna plays Amber, the spoiled, indulged wife of a pharmaceutical billionaire, comically complaining her way through a pleasure cruise with her lapdog of a husband (Bruce Greenwood) and two other couples. She baits and disparages the boat’s Greek fisherman, played by Adriano Giannini, whose father, Giancarlo, played the same role in Lina Wertmuller’s original movie, “Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August.”

Amber’s impertinence finally results in their being stranded on a deserted island, where, in order to survive, she has to cede authority and affect something like humility. What happens next could prove as provocative in the post-feminist 21st century as it did in the sexually and politically polarized 1970s.

Ritchie says he didn’t have to play acting coach with his wife. “I imagine she’s run into a lot of women like Amber,” he says. “She showed up with a pretty good understanding of the character.

“The fact that Adriano was Giancarlo’s son was truly coincidental; I had one look at him and knew he was the one. He had that fire the film needed.

“My only problem was me,” Ritchie concludes. “My last two pictures (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”) are pretty frenetic; lots of cutting and odd humor. This movie is funny, but narratively it’s pretty straightforward.

“I had to learn to be still, to point the camera and let the actors tell the story. It took me a bit to get relaxed, to find the groove.”

Ritchie believed he had found it until he began hearing that the movie was terrible, even before he had edited it. “I thought, ‘Who are these people who know how my film has turned out before I do?’ This writer in Rolling Stone called the film ‘toxic,’ and he hadn’t seen a frame of it! It wasn’t finished.

“Even I got caught up in it, was asking myself, did I make a dog here? But with Madonna, it comes with the territory. Every movie, people are gunning for her. It’s not paranoia, and I take it more seriously than she does.

“So I tried to work that resistance for me, by making her a bitch for the first half of the movie, which she isn’t but which some people insist on believing she must be to become so famous.

“Then we see her character begin to change as she begins to discover what’s been missing in her life. It’s affecting, but it’s not like, you know, begging for understanding or anything.

“I think she’s good, and I think the movie’s good, too. I just saw the final cut the other day, and I was quite pleased, really, which is more than I can say after seeing my other films for the first time.”

The biggest problem with “Swept Away,” says Ritchie, was the discovery halfway through the movie that the people who sold the company the remake rights might not have really owned them: “Slippery folks, they were.” He says he had to spend time he didn’t have helping sort out the legalities, but he believes the effort was worth it.

“The thing is, Madonna is Madonna, which means people have expectations, which can be deadly. If they can shove those to the side for a couple of hours, we’ll do OK, I think. People will have a good time and maybe even be stimulated a little bit by the debate about materialism vs. naturalism, and especially the whole idea of how chemicals affect everything we do, every day of our lives, and how corporations profit from that, and how many people suffer.

“That’s the subtext, but it’s not what drives the movie: That would be the endless struggle between men and women, which is funny and sexy and always relevant.”

Regardless of the fate of “Swept Away,” Ritchie says he will make his next movie in the United States, with a cast that may or may not include his wife. “They can’t run me out of town yet,” he says. “I’ve got a tougher hide than that.”