Gary Oldman has the “role of a lifetime” playing a dwarf, it features Matthew McConaughey and Kate Beckinsale at the height of their mainstream fame, yet it’s been called one of the worst and most tasteless movies ever made. So just what the hell is ‘Tiptoes’ and what’s it all about? We caught up with writer/director Matthew Bright and producer Chris Hanley 13 years after it was first released to find out.
In the beginning
Blame Kate Beckinsale’s lucky hat. When the British actress signed on for 2003’s ‘Tiptoes’, written and directed by cult filmmaker Matthew Bright, she agreed to do it for SAG minimum wage – with one condition. She wanted her character to wear the star’s own lucky hat.
“I said, ‘sure, I promise you can wear it,’” Bright tells Yahoo Movies now. At the time, he didn’t know that the hat would get him fired from the film.
But to understand why all that happened, one needs to wind back a few months. The now-63-year-old (below) had actually written the script for ‘Tiptoes’ when he was 18. He envisaged “a raucous comedy about little people f***ing each other”, but the movie never materialised.
Cut to thirty years later and Bright had established himself as a challenging writer/director with indie credibility. Having been childhood friends with celebrated composer Danny Elfman (‘Batman’), he’d written the acclaimed 1992 drama ‘Guncrazy’ starring Drew Barrymore and found success with ‘Freeway’ with a young Reese Witherspoon in the lead.
“He was a popular writer who wrote to the edge,” says Chris Hanley, who produced the latter movie and ended up on ‘Tiptoes’. “He had other projects that were even crazier.”
It’s hard to imagine a film more high-concept than ‘Tiptoes’. In it, handsome, straightforward guy Steve (played by McConaughey) falls in love with the beautiful Carol (Beckinsale) and ends up getting her pregnant. What he hasn’t told her is that he’s the only average-sized person in a family of little people and his twin brother Rolfe (Oldman, seriously) is a dwarf. A french communist also features.
“It was really one of the first movies that approached the subject of little people in the story and one of the biggest movies that involved small actors that’s ever been made,” admits Hanley.
When funding came from the unlikeliest of places, Bright jumped on it. “My stepfather – a guy my mother was married to for like a year – had this neighbour, John Langley, who did this show ‘Cops’,” he says. “He said, ‘I’d be interested’ and they got the script and said, ‘hey, we want to make this movie’, him and his wife.”
The lo-fi reality police show had revolutionised television and made the Langleys multi-millionaires, but Bright admits at the time he didn’t really know what the programme was or that Langley was rich enough to have his own private jet.
The director set about casting the film, convincing Beckinsale (who had recently starred in ‘Pearl Harbor’) and Matthew McConaughey (who would star in ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’ the same year) to appear as the main couple. He cast a fairly unknown Peter Dinklage as the French Communist and Patricia Arquette as his girlfriend.
And then there was Rolfe.
While the Dink himself seems like a better bet to play McConaughey’s dwarf brother, Bright instead turned to Gary Oldman who was not only 11 years older than his on-screen sibling, but, er, not a dwarf.
“He was on his knees,” Beckinsale explained later to MTV. “He was basically on his knees with a prosthetic part of his head and face and a hump and different kinds of harnesses to strap his arms back to make them short, and special clothes. They had various different effects, like if he was sitting in a chair, his legs would actually be inside the chair and he’d have these little fake legs sticking out on top. It was amazing what they did with him.”
“There were people that played his double,” says Hanley. “A large portion of that movie is visual effects.”
He says there was no issue of offensiveness because “it was a story that was intended to support everybody in the world no matter what size they were.”
Peter Dinklage also weighed in on the controversial decision in 2012.
“There was some flak,” he said. “’Why would you put Gary Oldman on his knees? That’s almost like blackface.’ And I have my own opinions about political correctness, but I was just like, ‘It’s Gary Oldman. He can do whatever he wants.’”
Making the film
Nevertheless, cast in place, Bright and his team started shooting, but according to the director problems arose from the beginning.
“The first day I shoot, [Beckinsale] wears her lucky hat and this guy Langley’s wife comes in…she says to me, ‘I don’t like that hat’,” he recalls. “I said it can’t come off, Kate Beckinsale offered to do the movie and instead of charging millions of dollars, she’s doing SAG minimum and the only thing she asked was, ‘can I wear my lucky hat.’”
Bright says his refusal to rectify his producer’s objections led to them pulling support from him and his crew during production.
“I put [my cast and crew] through hell,’ says the director. “I told them it was going to be this wonderful production and instead there were these [people] running around screaming at people and making young assistants weep. It was just horrible.”
Yahoo reached out to the Langleys for this story, but they declined to comment.
With shooting finished, Bright at least thought he would be able to engineer the movie he wanted in the editing suite. He put together a director’s cut, but then he says the producers stepped in again.
Hanley says he was pleased with the director’s cut, but despite backing Bright, the re-edit went ahead anyway.
“Ultimately [it was] forced into a re-edit by [the] appointment of an editor that came from John Langley’s company and the director didn’t want to work with that editor,” he explains. “[Matthew] was extremely disappointed and in fact blamed myself as producer for not protecting him better on that.”
The result is a confused semi-romcom with with the cheesy tagline “It’s the Little Things in Life That Matter”.
“It was sort of an amazing idea for a movie, but the result [of the new cut] was what we were fighting against — the cutesiness of little people,” Peter Dinklage said later.
Plus, you know, Gary Oldman playing a dwarf.
“Looking back, I think the movie has some great merits for what it is, despite its flaws and despite the background story,” says Hanley.
And indeed, aside from the ridicule, it’s become something of a cult hit. ‘Drive’ director Nicolas Winding Refn is a fan and Hanley recently sent him a copy of the director’s cut, which still exists.
“I think he was amused,” laughs the producer.
One person who isn’t is Matthew Bright. “I have never seen the film,” he says. “I could not bear to look at it, it’s horrible I’m sure. I get infuriated just thinking about it.”
Certainly he believes it damaged his standing in the industry – he hasn’t directed a movie since.
“I had a terrible film and four major stars disgusted and it broke up all my relationships with the people I brought in,” he says.
He tried to take his name off it, but while he could as a writer (the credited author is Bill Weiner, which is actually a Bright pseudonym), he wasn’t allowed to as a director because he wasn’t in the Director’s Guild.
His behaviour at the movie’s Sundance premiere probably didn’t help. Having been invited on-stage to talk up the film, he instead launched into a scathing attack on the Langleys for their interference and slammed the finished product.
“I absolutely savaged them,” remembers Bright. “They started to run towards the stage and it came out in some newspaper in New York that I’d been thrown off the stage by the people who run Sundance, which was a lie.”
Not only that, but the press said that Gary Oldman and his management team were furious at what he’d done. Bright says otherwise.
“Let me tell you, Gary Oldman put up the money for my ticket from Mexico City to go to Sundance to do exactly what I did.”
Thirteen years later, ‘Tiptoes’ remains a bizarre – and pretty bad – curio.
Most of the cast have remained quiet about it, including Oldman, but it has an Internet life of its own.
Having been told about ‘Drive’ director Winding Refn’s appreciation for the film, Bright plans to contact him (“There’s not many people that say nice things about me these days”) and Hanley hopes the film may invite a re-appraisal.
“The director’s cut’s never been realised,” he says. “It would certainly be interesting.”
Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, StudioCanal, Getty