She certainly was not one of them. When Renée Zellweger signed on to play a certain plump London singleton in ”Bridget Jones’s Diary,” U.K. residents flew into a collective snit. A Texan as Bridget? Vulgar. ”It upset them,” reasons author Helen Fielding. ”It was sweet that the whole British nation was up in arms about their Bridget being an American.” Zellweger, however, would remain the token outsider in an utterly British production packed with a posse of friends and friends of friends — forming a twisty genealogy of publishing and film royalty. As ”BJD” director Sharon Maguire notes: ”It’s a small town.”
Think of it, to begin, as ”When Helen Met Sharon.” A decade before the April 13 screen debut of ”BJD,” a mutual friend took Fielding (then a restaurant critic) and Maguire (then a BBC director) on a theater outing. Fans of Jones’s cocktail sauced world will be shocked to hear that a shameless amount of tippling did not ensue. ”It wasn’t a drunken [night] because, incredibly, at that time I didn’t drink,” remembers Maguire. ”But we bonded in the way that you do when you’re out there behaving like 15 year olds. We were at a crossroads with careers or relationships while a lot of our friends were settled.”
That sentiment found a voice when Fielding, under the Jones pseudonym, started tapping out her column at London’s Independent. The daffy stories were thick with the ignominies of the single, thirtysomething working girl — with Bridget’s mouthy friend Shazzer bearing a strong resemblance to Maguire.
In 1995, the friends fell victim to an epidemic bringing Britain to a halt: the BBC miniseries ”Pride and Prejudice,” featuring Colin Firth as Jane Austen’s smug, dashing, confounding Mr. Darcy. ”There’s one scene with Colin in britches and a wet shirt — so sexy! — that was on the front of all the newspapers in England,” says Maguire. ”Helen particularly and hilariously was obsessed with Mr. Darcy, as if he was a real person roaming out there somewhere.”
So bewitched was Fielding that when ”Bridget Jones’s Diary” was published in 1996, Ms. Jones’s love interest was none other than the smug, dashing, confounding Mark Darcy. And when buzz began about turning the must read into a film, Firth was a natural. ”Helen had been saying publicly I’d be her choice for Darcy,” says Firth, who first met Fielding through their mutual friend, novelist Nick Hornby (”High Fidelity”). ”We came across each other at a party; she asked if I minded her saying that. I said not at all. A friend told me later she’d taken that to mean I was keeping myself free for the next five years.”
Good thing, because it would take nearly that long to transfer ”BJD” to celluloid, courtesy of Working Title Films, producers of ”Four Weddings and a Funeral” and ”Notting Hill.” Both of those witty Brit comedies were written by Richard Curtis — who would help script ”Bridget.” It was another natural selection, as Fielding and Curtis have been best of chums since their Oxford days. ”I remember Helly appearing in a play dressed as Marlene Dietrich,” Curtis says. ”Her German accent wasn’t very convincing, but she seemed to look nice.” The writers have acted as each other’s informal advisers: Fielding suggested ”Four Weddings” have a funeral instead of a honeymoon. In turn, Curtis read the manuscript for ”BJD” ”a nauseating number of times.”
Before Curtis took a crack at the script, however, Fielding relinquished her draft to Andrew Davies, screenwriter for (but of course!) ”Pride and Prejudice,” who played up the Mr. Darcy in Mark Darcy. ”I made it a condition that Helen and I have one night out in which we’d go to all Bridget’s haunts,” says Davies. ”We didn’t do quite as drunken an evening — we’re both a bit more sober in our habits. But I started work in fine fettle.”
Meanwhile, Working Title sought a director. ”We met with hundreds,” says producer Eric Fellner. ”But Helen always wanted Sharon — she’s a character in the book. So it seemed very obvious.” The April 1998 coup — when Maguire signed on as director — was major: Until then she’d only directed BBC documentaries and commercials. ”It was very important to have a woman who knows the world of Bridget Jones — and who’s funny,” Fielding says.
Maguire had her own priorities, namely for Hugh Grant to play Bridget’s roguish boss, Daniel Cleaver. ”I knew he had this blistering humor — I wanted him to play this sexy bastard,” says the director. ”I’d ring him regularly. He nicknamed me Stalker Maguire.” Thanks in part to Curtis, Grant, who starred in ”Four Weddings” and ”Hill,” finally acquiesced — despite the fact that the ”BJD” novel takes a nice jab at his Divine Brown misadventure. ”It obviously didn’t bother him,” Maguire says. ”He still wanted to do the part.” As did Firth, though he found Mark Darcy trickier to pull off than Austen’s creation. ”In 1810 you expect to find a guy like that scowling in the corner,” he says. ”In 2001 he’s really a prick. Plus he’s got a much worse dress sense — and a devilish rival [Grant] with far too much screen time, in my opinion.”
With the cast finalized by April 2000, Curtis wrapped the script into one rosy package, chatting regularly with the director and author (not difficult, since Maguire and Fielding are godmothers to the two Curtis children). Curtis’ version fitted Firth with a soaking shirt in one scene — a nod to his wet spot in ”P and P” — and added a fracas between the leading men. ”Hugh Grant and Colin Firth slugging it out?” laughs Maguire. ”We rather fell in love with the idea.”
With ”Diary” now safely deposited in theaters — it raked in $10.7 million its opening weekend, not to mention critical raves — Fielding, Maguire, and Curtis are looking forward to ”talking about anything other than Bridget,” says Maguire. ”Like the fact that we’ve got children and godchildren. And we’ll talk about paying off the debt, or movies. Or mutual people we know.” A category destined to keep the conversation going quite a while indeed.