‘I love erotic thrillers, but this so isn’t one’: Damian Hurley on directing his mother, Elizabeth, in a ‘sensual mystery’

‘I love erotic thrillers, but this so isn’t one’: Damian Hurley on directing his mother, Elizabeth, in a ‘sensual mystery’

Orson Welles was 25 when he directed Citizen Kane. What took him so long? He should have pulled his finger out like Damian Hurley, son of the model and actor Elizabeth Hurley, who was just 20 when he called “Action!” on his own debut, Strictly Confidential. It was filmed on Saint Kitts and Nevis, and could double as a tourist-board commercial for those Caribbean islands were it not for the murder and skulduggery, or lines such as: “You’ve been fucking your dead sister’s boyfriend!”

In his journey to the director’s chair, Hurley, who has a lucrative modelling career, has faced few obstacles. He was given a camcorder at the age of eight. His early shorts starred his mother and her ex, Hugh Grant, who happens also to be one of his godfathers. (Elton John is another.) And he got the chance to make his first feature after a studio executive called him out of the blue to ask if he had any movie ideas. Hard yards these are not.

Elizabeth Hurley and Pear Chiravara in Strictly ConfidentialView image in fullscreen

This morning, though, he is facing the same struggles as the rest of us. “Battling with wifi in the English countryside is a horrible thing,” he cries, parting his long, cinnamon-brown mane and fiddling with the laptop. A pink ceramic swan arches its neck on the mantelpiece behind him. Suddenly the screen goes dead. When it fizzes back to life a few minutes later, Hurley is sitting in a farmhouse kitchen. “I sprinted across the road to my neighbours’ place,” pants the 22-year-old. The light is brighter now, revealing the widescreen eyes, leonine looks and bookshelf cheekbones he shares with his mother. It could be her were it not for the Adam’s apple.

The wifi conks out again, so we switch to phones. “I can’t apologise enough! I’m mortified. OK, I’m crouching on a cabinet in my neighbours’ kitchen. This should work …” It’s a long way from the glossy thrills of Strictly Confidential, in which a group of trustafarians return to the luxury island home of their late chum Rebecca, who killed herself the previous summer. “Maybe this will give us all some closure,” purrs her mother, Lily, played by Hurley mère. Fat chance. Lily’s affair with one of Rebecca’s friends is about to be exposed, her daughter’s therapy files have been stolen, and there are questions over whether Rebecca’s father fell to his death or was pushed. Events come to a head in a clifftop chapel one stormy night. With everyone spilling secrets, there is scarcely time to ask who lit all those pretty candles, or why.

“Oh God, those candles were the bane of my life,” groans Hurley. “I was running around lighting them myself. On a small film, everybody pitches in. We had to wrap on time and catch the last flight back, or we would have been stranded in the Caribbean for Christmas.” It’s not quite Apocalypse Now but you take his point.

His mother has starred in all his films. In one of his childhood shorts, she played a shady detective. In another, she was a serial killer, with Grant donning a bald cap as a corrupt judge. “Hugh was incredibly good,” enthuses Hurley in the manner of a studio mogul spotting a future star. He believes his mother, though, is one of the all-time greats. “She’s fearless. She brings a sensuality to the screen that not many can, and she’s devoid of self-consciousness. I’ve been on set with her since I was born, and she has always been able to compartmentalise. Whatever else is happening, she goes into this zone where she just ‘is’. Great actors can do that.”

Damian Hurley on the set of Strictly ConfidentialView image in fullscreen

If any compartmentalising was required on his part before shooting the scenes in which his mother is snogged, fondled and partially undressed by the 28-year-old influencer Pear Chiravara, then Hurley isn’t letting on. “It’s understandable that people are startled,” he concedes. “I mean, even the idea of your parents having sex is beyond horrific.” Clearly, he and his mother are close. Would he discuss his sex life with her? “No!” he splutters. “Not in any capacity, no! But we’ve always been very open. I was never lying about where I was going.” No normal teenage rebellion? “One only rebels against a dictator, and my mum was never that.”

Damian, aged 9, with Elizabeth and Shane Warne.View image in fullscreen

He insists the sex in Strictly Confidential is an essential part of the story, and even corrects me gently when I refer to the film as an erotic thriller. “For me, it’s a sensual mystery,” he says. Tom-ay-toe, tom-ah-toe, I tell him. “It’s true! I love erotic thrillers, but this so isn’t one. There’s no nudity and hardly any sex.” The PR team will be pulling their hair out when they read this. “I know, I know! But it’s made by a young adult, starring young adults, for young adults. I don’t want people to expect anything hardcore.”

Perhaps he’ll disappoint his youthful audience in a different way. The tasteful lighting, the coloured gels, the striped shadows from venetian blinds: this is glamorous movie sex, right? “Well, if one wants to see gritty realism, one is capable of walking down the street and getting on the tube.” For a moment, I try to imagine him doing just that.

The images, like the cast, are blemishless, but the script emerged out of Hurley’s pain. First, a close friend took their life. Then his biological father, the producer and property heir Steve Bing, who had demanded a test to establish Hurley’s paternity, jumped 27 floors to his death in 2020. Did Hurley want viewers to draw parallels with Rebecca’s father, who falls from a not-so-great height at the start of Strictly Confidential? “That was genuinely subconscious,” he says. “It was quite eye-opening to realise the connection. Inspiration is a beast that I have no idea how to tame.”

Damian and Elizabeth Hurley with David Furnish at a screening of Strictly ConfidentialView image in fullscreen

He thinks writing the film may have helped process his grief. “Writing in general is cathartic. And I’ve had a lot of grief piled on in a short space of time. A year after my father took his own life, my stepfather Shane also died.” That’s the cricketer Shane Warne, who was engaged to Hurley’s mother; they separated in 2013, and Warne died of a heart attack nine years later. “The kind of grief I felt when my biological father took his life versus the kind when Shane died naturally – I mean, they were polar opposites. Devastating but totally different.”

In the light of what he has lost, it seems almost callous to steer Hurley on to the subject of privilege. But what I want to know is whether he and, say, the Beckham brood sit around bemoaning the lot of the nepo baby. “There is certainly not a club where we all lament our situation,” he says cheerfully. “I’ve never met a child of someone successful who objects to the term. I’m actually proud of it. I find it quite cool. It implies you’ve had an insanely hard-working parent who’s clawed their way to the top, and that’s great!”

Doesn’t it in fact imply an unjust advantage? “Well, I’ve undeniably had an easier start than most. My mum’s friends are industry giants. But I hope I’ve made the best of the opportunities that were handed to me. I shot Strictly Confidential when I was 20 with not much time or money. It’s far from the next Godfather but I’m proud of it.”

Can he imagine straying from his own world, and perhaps setting a film on a council estate? “I’m certainly not interested in only writing what I know,” he says. “But I also wouldn’t want to make anything that felt performative.” The recent example of Lola, a hard-knock story starring and directed by Nicola Peltz Beckham, remains a cautionary tale. “People said she was cos-playing a poor girl, which I thought was unfair. If she’d played a billionaire’s daughter, everyone would have accused her of being out of touch. One can’t really win. I don’t know. I’m squirming now …”

Damian with Hugh GrantView image in fullscreen

No need: Strictly Confidential is a riot. A laugh riot, at times. And 2024 is a banner year for Hurley. Not only is his debut feature being released but this will be the first time he has been eligible to vote in a general election. “Oh God, yeah!” he says. “I’ve been ostriching because of the film so I haven’t thought about anything else.” He won’t have heard of Count Binface, then. “What’s that?” Oh, just a London mayoral candidate who wears a bin on his head, and pledges to cap the price of croissants. “I think that sounds fabulous! I’ve got to start researching this. You’ve inspired me. Thanks!” First things first, though. “I’ll just get down from the kitchen cabinet.”

Source: theguardian.com