Diana & Me: the saga of Dominic West and Toni Collette's 'tasteless', long-lost princess movie
In the winter of 1998, director David Parker was anxiously awaiting a decision on the US fate of his royal rom-com, Diana & Me. He had brought his film to LA from Australia, where it had been released several months earlier beneath a cloud of unexpected ghoulishness, and was hoping to convince a US distributor to buy it. Even if he recognised, in light of the tragic death of its inspiration, it would be a hard sell.
“After the screening, they all just sat there,” Parker remembers of a packed private showing for the heads of various major studios. “I can remember then going, ‘No, it’s just not gonna work.’”
Two years prior, things were very different. Diana & Me was envisioned as a big-budget rom-com tribute to the Princess Diana of the mid-Nineties – the endlessly gossiped-about figure that existed in the wake of her heavily-publicised divorce, but before the tunnel in Paris.
The film cast Toni Collette as a tabloid-obsessed Australian woman with the very same name as the Princess: Diana Spencer. After winning a magazine competition, Diana is whisked off to London with the promise of meeting her royal namesake, only for the planned interaction to go awry, landing her in a jail cell. Still eager to interact with her idol, Diana joins forces with Dominic West’s handsome paparazzi photographer (gulp) to chase the royal superstar through the streets until they find her (double gulp).
Diana & Me was due for release in September 1997, with Australia’s Village Roadshow Films planning a sizeable promotional campaign for the film, one that would capitalise on the Diana mania of the era, as well as Collette’s burgeoning movie stardom. Muriel’s Wedding, the transatlantic Aussie hit that launched Collette’s career just three years prior, was clearly being used as a template, with hopes that Diana & Me would be met with the same rapturous response as its comedy predecessor.
“I liked the idea of Diana Spencer from Wollongong, Australia winning a competition and coming to the UK, basically disgracing herself at a Kensington Palace garden party and ending in the lock-up,” explains the director. “And her boyfriend just wants to sit in his room and watch the cricket. It’s a good statement on Australians abroad.”
On August 31, however, everything changed. Princess Diana was killed in a car crash after a chase through the streets of Paris, turning what was at the time a story of a compelling, beautiful divorcee embarking on an exciting new phase of her life into one blacked out by tragedy. Put into perspective, Diana & Me was one of the less important things left blind-sided in the wake of that fateful car ride, but the tragedy did end up sealing its fate.
“Everything paled with Diana’s death,” Parker recalls. “There was a worldwide reaction, and we were part of that. The dreadful realisation that we had spent the last two years working on a film thinking it was just another story. It really was such a shock to everyone. It took us a while to regroup and go, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ Because we sure as hell couldn’t release it as it was.”
In the wake of August 31, Village Roadshow pulled the film off its scheduled Australian release date, and plans to sell it to international distributors, including ones in the UK, were immediately halted. While Diana & Me, in all of its forms, was respectful of the Princess of Wales herself, the story’s light tone, and that so much of its plot was driven by the very same things that resulted in Diana’s death, made it an unexpectedly uneasy watch.
“There was no sense that we were doing something provocative,” Parker tells me. “It couldn’t be more ironic that we were on motorbikes and in cars and chasing Diana through London trying to get to her, and in Diana Spencer’s eyes just to meet her. And Dominic West’s character, that was part of his job, so of course after [Diana’s] death, that whole concept was just completely tasteless, really.”
Knuckling down with the film’s producer Matt Carroll, Parker eventually decided that the only way to make Diana & Me at all salvageable was to set it in the past, and insert additional scenes that acknowledged the Princess of Wales’s real-life death.
“I don’t know whether it was an exercise in saving the sinking ship,” Parker says. “We were all prepared to give it a go. There was a sense that there was a market for it, almost as a historical piece, I guess. But it wasn’t the case.”
Several months after Diana’s death, Collette, West, Parker and a skeleton crew re-assembled in London, where they shot two scenes inserted as bookends to the film. In them, Diana Spencer joins mourners laying flowers outside of Kensington Palace, disclosing in voiceover her sadness that the royal Diana will never get to know quite how much she changed her life. On set, the cast and crew found themselves feeling uncomfortable.
Watching Diana & Me, it’s a fitfully entertaining, entirely harmless time capsule of a world very removed from the one we currently inhabit. As a romance, it’s not enormously compelling, but it is interesting to see a piece of lost cinema debate the moral implications of tabloid culture only shortly before the rest of the world did.
Diana’s death seemed, at least for a time, to pull us out of our collective obsession with celebrity voyeurism, convincing us that there were real people with real traumas behind the papped photographs splashed across newspaper front pages. Diana was no longer just an image casually exploited to sell papers, but a human being with growing children and a significant amount of inner turmoil.
In Diana & Me, when Collette’s character begins to see the ruthless, ugly fakery behind the stories she so gleefully consumes in her favourite magazines, the film becomes a far more ambitious, even profound work. At least for its era.
Judged today, it feels very much of its time, a fact driven home by a soundtrack made up of the archaic likes of Supergrass and the Brand New Heavies, a cameo by Kylie Minogue in her post-Nick Cave grunge era, and a London captured smack in the middle of Cool Britannia. But it’s also sweet and nostalgic; no Notting Hill, but certainly a Martha Meet Daniel, Frank and Laurence. You might have to Google that last one.
After those emergency reshoots at Kensington Palace, Diana & Me did eventually get an Australian release date, opening in cinemas shortly before Christmas of 1997. But it met with mixed reviews and low box office, Parker is now uncertain whether Village Roadshow genuinely had faith in it finding an audience. International distributors were also largely put off by the spectre of the real-life Diana and the outpouring of grief felt worldwide, and few wanted it on their hands.
“I just don’t think there was any appetite,” Parker says. “I did sense that, particularly in the UK.”
According to IMDb, the film did eventually debut on British television in late 2000, but has never received a VHS or DVD release on our shores. It hasn’t at all seen the light of day in the United States, and can currently only be purchased on obscure European DVDs unearthed from the German marketplace. But Parker is hopeful that it’ll one day find an audience.
“Whereas most films continue to have a life, this one is almost impossible to get your hands on,” he says. “It’s a little bit of an enigma, I suppose. But I’d like to see it out there. I think we made quite a good film if you separate yourself from the actual event that happened.”