By Iain Blair
BAFTA- and Emmy-nominated director and producer Paul McGuigan has made quite a name for himself in film and TV thanks to his gift for handling gritty crime procedurals and atmospheric dramas.
This Scot started out as a still photographer before working his way into the documentary world, helming non-fiction assignments for Channel 4 and the BBC. He made his fiction debut with the short The Granton Star Cause, an adaptation of one of Irvine Welsh’s short stories. The film inspired him to direct two additional self-contained episodes, also adapted from the work of Welsh, stitched together as a well-received omnibus called The Acid House.
That laid the groundwork for his move into features on a full-time basis, starting with the inventive crime sagas Gangster No. 1 and Lucky Number Slevin. He followed these with the medieval film The Reckoning, the romantic mystery Wicker Park and Victor Frankenstein, starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe.
Now McGuigan, whose credits include the TV series Sherlock (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) is back with his latest movie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which earned three BAFTA noms. Based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, the film follows the playful but passionate relationship between Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and the eccentric Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) in 1978 Liverpool. What starts as a vibrant affair between a legendary femme fatale and her young lover quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Peter being the person Gloria turns to for comfort. Their passion and lust for life is tested to the limits by events beyond their control.
I recently talked to McGuigan about making the film.
What was the appeal of this story for you?
Both the book and the script it’s based on were just so interesting, with this whole idea of memory being so fluid. I felt there was a real cinematic world to explore, what with Gloria Grahame being this former big star who won the Oscar for The Bad and The Beautiful, and I liked the idea of this Hollywood icon ending up in this small house in Liverpool. Then you had this very intense love story — and Annette was already attached — and [James Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli had wanted to make it for years and was so passionate about it. I knew I was in good company.
It’s not your usual biopic.
No, I wasn’t interested in that anyway, and this was a very specific part of her life. I wanted to make a very intimate, emotional film, but nothing that was sentimental. Annette said to me when we first met, “This can’t be a film about an old lady dying in a room,” and that really stuck with me, and that’s what we desperately avoided — the violins and all that stuff — because Gloria would have hated that bullshit. She was a tough woman. She had a very interesting life and career, and I think she was way ahead of her time.
What did Annette bring to the role?
It’s hard to define, as she’s so brilliant. She brought a student’s perspective to the character. When we first met, she had a book full of notes, and so many questions about Gloria — things that weren’t even in the script. She just wanted to find out who the real woman was behind the myth and image — all the day-to-day stuff between her and Peter. She did so much research, and then she just arrived on set completely prepared. She’s very method in a way. If she had to be in bed sick, she’d just lie in bed all day and not speak to anyone on the set, and I liked that. The crew would tip toe around her as if she really was sick.
What about Jamie Bell?
He’s amazing and such a smart guy. He’s the kind of actor you can put a camera on, and even though he’s not saying anything, he says everything about the scene with his eyes and expression. That’s what you need since the story’s told from her point of view, and he’s the audience’s connection to it, so you need someone who’s got that natural gift.
I heard it was a very fast shoot with some very inventive set changes. How tough was it?
It was just 40 days, and we shot in Liverpool a bit, mainly for exteriors. All the interiors and the locations in LA and New York were shot on set at Pinewood Studios. I deliberately set out to create a sense of heightened reality by using a lot of back projection in scenes like the beach in LA — the same technique they used in a lot of her noirs, and I didn’t want to do the usual flashbacks to her life or her movies. I wanted the actors to walk through the memories, from one scene to another, and one set to another. So we built sets side to side, and even had one with a bed that revolved 180 degrees, and the camera would just wander off them while they ran around the back to the other set and into another scene. It was a lot of fun to do.
Where did you do the post?
I’m based in Glasgow, and we did all the editing there in a rented office, and then all the rest — sound, VFX, DI — at Pinewood, where they have great post facilities
Do you like post?
I love it because you can just relax and create your film after all the stress of the shoot. I’ve done it for so long now and it’s the most creative part of the whole process for me. The only stress is if you’re doing TV in America as they kick you out after a few days, and I’m like “Whoa! That’s where my work is.” So I always try to stay longer. This was all about so much detail, and I’d sit there every day and not move.
The film was edited by Nick Emerson, who cut Starred Up and Lady Macbeth. You hadn’t worked with him before, right?
Right, but I was big admirer of his work. After my usual editor, Charlie Phillips, passed away, it was great to get Nick. He was in Pinewood with us and would pop in now and again, mainly if we had a problem. I never look at an assembly, ever since I did my first movie — Gangster No. 1, and saw that one and thought seriously about killing myself, it was so bad! I actually thought it was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Luckily someone told me it would turn out fine, and now I just start with first frame, first scene, and look at material and start working on it.
What were the biggest editing challenges?
To keep it simple. The music was a big challenge as we didn’t want any sentimentality. I spent a lot of time working on the score with composer Josh Ralph. Even though I’m not a musician, I always think I am. I’ll sit at the piano and start hitting out stuff out of frustration, as it can be so abstract sometimes, trying to pin down what I want. Music’s so important, and I’ll share all that with actors, the editor, the sound guys, so it gradually evolves. When I started out, I used to think, “Fuck it, I don’t care about sound and music. Just stick stuff on everything and it’s fine.” But now I know better — that music and all the sound is half the movie. So when you’re in Liverpool we had the sound of children playing outside, or the sound of the sea, and in New York you have sirens, traffic and so on. I work very closely with the sound guys to get all the details right and keep it stripped down. I got very obsessed about it and Nick and I did quite a lot of that work in the edit before we even started with the sound team at Pinewood, where we also did the mix.
How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
Very few as we tried to do most of it in-camera. The Liverpool of today is very different, so we had to do a big VFX shot for the ferry sequence, and some cleanup.
The film has a great look. Can you talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Molinare in London with colorist Asa Shoul, who’s amazing. We shot digitally, on Alexas, and Asa and the DP worked together on it, and I was very involved — annoyingly so, as I began as a photographer and can’t help myself (laughs). Looking back, this post went very smoothly — just 12 weeks, and I’m very happy with the way the film turned out.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.