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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005

A master of eclecticism

The maker of such a refined, elegant film might be expected to be much the same in person, but director Mike Barker is a bit of a bloke, in a good way -- down-to-earth and casual. With "A Good Woman," his fourth film, Barker continues to broaden his range, after a comedy ("The James Gang,"), a crime thriller ("Best Laid Plans,"), and an epic ("To Kill a King").

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Director Mike Barker

What attracted you to an Oscar Wilde adaptation?

There's this whole obsession at the moment about celebrity and personality. And when I read this script, it really took my fancy, this idea that back then, it was all about perception too. Wilde often writes about how we perceive people and make judgments despite not having enough information.

The other element I really liked, which I hadn't seen in a film for a long time, was the idea of two older characters falling in love.

And, of course, all the Oscar Wilde dialogue, which actually is sort of a mixed blessing. When I first put the film together there was too much. I had to take some out because some of the lines are so famous, they take you out of the moment.

There are certain parallels between this and Merchant/Ivory's "The Golden Bowl," though . . . Was that a film you looked at, or do you try to ignore similar works?

Usually, everything you do, you soak up what you see. Of course I draw on other people's work, but I don't think I draw on those guys, particularly. Their stuff is much more pondering, and I'm quite keen to get to the crux of the matter much quicker.

I don't have anything against them -- well, I have less against them than I used to, I should say! But they re-invented the genre. We probably wouldn't be making this film at all if it hadn't been for them finding this audience.

What had you seen in Scarlett Johansson's previous work that drew you to her?

A friend of mine had just made a film called "Girl With The Pearl Earring," and they were cutting it in SoHo, and he said come and have a quick peek. And I saw about 10 or 15 minutes of her, and I just thought she was perfect. Because it's very difficult to find someone who's that sexually aware of their own body and . . . knows how to use it and control it. That's pretty rare in any 18- or 19-year-old. So once I found her, it was obvious. But that was all I'd seen of her.

One thing about her is that she always seems to be holding back something that she doesn't give away. It gives her performance . . .

. . . a real weight, yeh. I can't think of any other actress of her age who has that ability. She plays a very naive character, but I think her ability to play that comes from a real confidence in her own wisdom.

And what led you to choose Helen Hunt?

The role was difficult, because she starts off very unsympathetic, a seductress who's come to the end of her seducing days. So immediately, you have to find someone who's prepared for it, because every actress ends up being likened to the character they play. So I said to her, six months before we started filming -- I didn't want her to wear her heart on her sleeve, just chip away a bit so the audience sees it. That's a really difficult thing to do, but she was brave enough to take it on and not compromise it.

The identical dresses Helen and Scarlett wear in the film's climactic scene -- how much discussion went into the design?

The only thing I wanted was the spider-web pattern on the back, so when you saw it, it would be distinctive and not like any other dress, so basically I could pick it out [in a crowd] very quickly. And I wanted it to sparkle, so when we were shooting through crowds, I could light it so when she moved it really stood out. They were made of these tiny little glass beads.

Lord Darlington seems to get all the best Wildean bits. But he eventually gets shunted and ends up being just the cad.

Yeah, he is the cad. He goes back to being who he is. But that's what I love about these characters. They're all completely honest about who they are. Everyone else is slightly less honest.

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