Paul McGuigan on the Gloria Grahame Story “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Posted on January 4, 2018 at 4:06 pm

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Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics
Paul McGuigan directed “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” the bittersweet real-life story of Gloria Grahame, who was cared for by the family of her last lover in her final illness. Annette Bening is incandescent as the Oscar-winning actress, and Jamie Bell gives his best performance since “Billy Elliot” as Peter Turner, the decades-younger aspiring actor who loved her. Grahame is probably best remembered today for smaller roles in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (as Violet) and “Oklahoma” (as Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no“) but she also starred in major studio films with Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum.

In an interview, McGuigan talked about his favorite Grahame performance and the two love stories in the film.

What is your favorite Gloria Grahame performance?

“In a Lonely Place.” is my favorite. I just love that film and I just love her. I mean that has been the greatest joy for me, to watch her movies over and over again as a part of my research for this film.

What was it about her as an actress that made her so memorable?

I think she was just very modern, she was unique and she was fascinating. She was funny, she was sexy and she was herself. She was always herself which I liked, she always made the role a part of her and that’s what I’ve always seen in Annette Bening as well. They both have that funny kind of playfulness, very similar in style. I think Gloria Grahame is when you look back at her work, which is incredible, she could go toe to toe with any of the world’s most macho guys from those days which is very few actresses could can do. She could create a woman that everyone fell in love with. She always played that kind of femme fatale.

I love the way you staged the flashback scene about how Gloria and Paul met when she impetuously asked him to come to her apartment and dance with her. It is so charming and delightful.

There were lots of scenes which were emotionally quite hard on everybody, not just the actors but the crew, so it was lovely to come across a scene that was just a dance sequence and it was kind of joyous. It was good for us all to have our hair down and have a good time. So I just talked to the director of photography, Urszula Pontikos, and I said, “just put the camera on your shoulder and let’s just see what happens.” I always had a Plan B, which was a choreographer on set that we could work with, but I just wanted to see what would happen. So what did happen is we had the song, the real song, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by Taste of Honey. I put the song on and they just started to dance and that’s what you get. We did two takes and then Annette started to complain. She was like, “Why are you only doing two takes? I was having such a good time getting to dance next to Jamie Bell.”

What was it about that relationship that made him the one to call, even though they had not seen each other in a year, and what was it about her relationship with his family that made her want to go there to be cared for?

There are two love stories in this movie. There’s the love story between Gloria and Peter and there’s the love story between Gloria and Peter’s family. These families in Liverpool and where I come from in Glasgow are working class families. They’re very tight. They have also the kind of family that if you bring someone in and you say, “This is the person I love,” then they unconditionally will love the other person.

It’s not all wine and roses, it’s not all bouquets and flowers; there are always tensions and all that but deep down they really do have a genuine love for her. I don’t think Gloria had that in her life. Her personal life was very fraught and it was very complex and it wasn’t necessarily the environment that was conducive to taking care of someone. I don’t think she felt comfortable with anyone but with Peter’s family. She felt that they would not judge her and whatever she wanted to do, she could do it there. She just wanted to rest.

Ultimately Gloria never thought she was going to die. She wasn’t really going back to Liverpool to die. She just thought that she was going there for a few days and get ready and then she was going to go back into the play. Jamie’s character knows that she is dying. He knows she’s dying, the family knows she’s dying; the mom certainly knew she was dying but Gloria doesn’t know she was dying. but she felt comfortable within that family; she felt comfortable within that environment. It was the environment that was of safety to her and non-judgmental.

When he goes to the hotel room to pick her up, he’s quite angry at her because she hasn’t been in touch. That was an interesting starting point and then he takes her home and the first thing is the family waiting on her and she kisses them like she would kiss her own family.

What was it like having the real Peter to respond to what you were doing?

Peter was very respectful of everyone and it was great to have that resource. I said, “Let me take your story for a minute, and then we’ll give it to you back.” I wanted to keep that true kind of very, very distilled idea of memory, a very distilled notion of a love affair. I loved the way it was structured, very fluid, because that is how we remember things. I wanted to bring the audience to this love story and then color it with Gloria Grahame’s real life past and her cinematic past and shoot the film the way that maybe one of her movies would have been shot back in the day.

Originally published on HuffPost

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Dan Stevens and Bharat Nalluri on “The Man Who Invented Christmas”

Posted on November 29, 2017 at 4:06 pm

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It was a great pleasure to interview actor Dan Stevens, who plays Charles Dickens in “The Man Who Invented Christmas” and the director, Bharat Nalluri.

Dan Stevens shared his thoughts about A Christmas Carol:

It has a lot to say about those in positions of power and wealth and influence and how they wield that in the world around them and how much they’re prepared to overlook in the society around them. That has not changed, and neither has the possibility of redemption. In Dickens’ time, though, it was very unusual to have a character that time travels and went through his own life. It’s almost sci-fi in a way the way he travels back. But also he’s able to go from the archetype of a really not very pleasant character, overnight he’s transformed. And that goes back in the history of theater and literature. You have these archetypes and they pretty much stay bad. The fatal flaw is ultimately fatal. The bad guy comes on stage and we know who he is and he stays pretty bad; he might learn a lesson but here there is more because there is redemption. He has a second chance. He goes through this transformation. It’s so epic and so full of hope that somewhere inside there must be good in this man and that gives us hope about ourselves and the people around us and the possibility of change.

And Bharat Nalluri told me how A Christmas Carol taught him the meaning of Christmas:

When he was writing A Christmas Carol, Christmas celebrations were pretty austere. He wrote a book that gave you a picture postcard idea of Christmas as a time for kindness and generosity. I think the reason it resonates over the decades upon decades and never been out of print is because it actually says something about the human condition. Personally he did invent Christmas for me. I was born in India and my parents brought me into the north of England and Christmas wasn’t a thing that was always huge in my family. I didn’t really know what Christmas but I was surrounded by people in the north of England on the Scottish border where Christmas was just huge and it was a really joyous time for people. I couldn’t quite get it because it just didn’t register with me and then when I was about 10 or 11 I read A Christmas Carol and it completely clicked. I completely got what it was. So in a weird sort of way Dickens really did invent Christmas for me. We all look back and we have this wonderful image of what Christmas should be, that combination of everything we want. We want family life, we want to be around a roaring fire, we want to be roasting chestnuts, we want to hear snow falling but we also want to be good to each other in the human spirit. It’s that combination which is combined so beautifully in Dickens’ book and which we pay tribute to in our film.

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Interview: RJ Palacio and Stephen Chbosky on “Wonder”

Posted on November 13, 2017 at 5:26 pm

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Copyright 2017 Lionsgate

R.J. Palacio’s book Wonder is more than a best-seller — it is a movement. Middle-schoolers and their families love the story of Auggie, a 10-year-old with facial deformity who for the first time attends school in 5th grade. It is not a story about triumphing over disability; Auggie has more than triumphed when the movie begins. It is instead a heightened exploration of universal themes. In middle school, the moment when people are most acutely aware of differences and most excruciatingly anxious about fitting in, a boy who is very different arrives. The book and the movie it inspired are about family and friendship and, above all, the importance of choosing to be kind. The movie opens November 17, 2017.

In an interview, Palacio and the film’s director, Stephen Chbosky talked about what kindness means to them and why it is so important to include not just Auggie’s point of view but the other characters’ as well.

RJ, as you’ve spoken to kids in schools, what have they told you about the impact that this book has had on their lives and the choices that they make?

RJP: I’ve spoken to probably hundreds of schools at this point and thousands of kids. It’s very gratifying and very moving to hear ten year olds and eleven year olds come up to you and say, “I want to be a better person after reading this book.” You think, “Well, you’re ten years old and you’re probably an amazing person already,” but to hear them say that is so moving. I tend to be an optimist in life and I tend to believe that there is an inherent goodness in most people. Kids to me have this wonderful urgent and earnest willingness to be noble. I think our job as parents and as educators and as teachers is to tap into that inherent wanting to be noble. I don’t know if they would call it nobility but I see it that way.

Most kids just really want to get along. They want to make other people feel better. They’re mischievous sometimes and sometimes, yes, they border into cruelty sometimes just because they’re feeling like they want to be funny or they’re navigating these uncharted waters. They haven’t had a lot of practice at being a fully realized human being yet and then as they’re growing up, when they’re ten or eleven it’s really kind of the first time that they’re actually exploring the power that they have to reach out and be friends with people and what being an enemy means. So they’re discovering all of this and as parents we can guide them a little bit. At that age what’s happening sometimes is that parents tend to step back a little bit and think, “Well, she doesn’t listen to me anymore, she’s twelve years old,’ but my feeling is that they’re still listening at that age. Maybe when they’re sixteen or seventeen they stop listening but at twelve or thirteen they might pretend that they’re not but they’re still listening.

SC: Let me jump in for a second here and add something to that because I think it’s very profound. We all know Lord of the Flies, where kids left on their own become brutal. How many times have you heard an adult say “Kids can be cruel?” Well, kids can also be kind and there is ample proof of both and yet for whatever reason adults on some level like to emphasize how cruel kids can be. I’ll tell you a quick personal story. I have not thought of this in thirty years but I just thought of it right now. When I was in fifth grade we started to work on public speaking in school and so we would have to stand in front of the class. One kid per morning would have to lead the assembly. This girl every time it was her turn she cried uncontrollably because she was so frightened of standing in front of us all. You would think that if kids are cruel (and let’s go with that premise for a second) we would be so mean to this girl. Every month (I’m actually kind of getting choked up remembering this) we would root for her. It didn’t matter who you were. We were all: “Come on Betsy, you can do it this time” and on the last day her voice was quaking but she didn’t cry. I never forgot it…I’m having a moment right now, remembering it. That’s what kindness can do.

The story itself is extremely kind in exploring the perspectives of different characters, including Auggie’s older sister, Via, something you’ve continued, RJ, in a book called Auggie and Me. Why is that important?

RJ: In order to tell Auggie’s story from a 360° point of view, for us to understand the impact that he had on his community, on his friends, on the school, I had to leave his head and I had to go into different perspectives. His sister was the first one that I really wanted to explore. I just figured here is a girl who was fiercely protective of her brother, she’s a good girl but as just a matter of fact she has to be by necessity the one that’s overlooked a little bit in her family. She’s sort of like a self-cleaning oven. She’s self-sufficient. The parents don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about her. They can spend most of their time worrying about her little brother who actually needs them to worry him. So I thought going to the different perspectives was a really good way of telling Auggie’s story but also having people understand that everybody’s got a story to tell. Everybody has something about ourselves that we can change or that we worry about. I wanted kids to realize that maybe Auggie’s difference is the most obvious but every single character and every single person you meet has something that they think makes them different and each has to carry their own little challenges and little burdens. We just might not be able to see them as clearly.

The story really is about friendship, set in a time when friendships become so vital and so fraught.

SC: We all know that when you’re young your friends become become your family more than in any other time in life. So it amplifies what an act of kindness can mean. When you are a kid you are much more vulnerable and so everything becomes more important and everything sounds a little louder and everything hurts a little deeper and I think that’s what’s so powerful about RJ’s story.

What does kindness mean to you?

RJ: I think of kindness as sort of a compilation of several different words — compassion, empathy, tolerance, love, forgiveness. It’s all of those things mashed up into one word which is kindness. It’s something that makes us human in a way that nothing else, though it is so hard to achieve kindness sometimes. It’s one of the most gratifying things in the world to receive and when you receive kindness from someone you’re that much more predisposed to give kindness to someone else. It’s one of the very few things that can actually spread. It’s infectious and it can grow. We’re living in times where kindness itself is almost becoming politicized and being seen as a sign of weakness when to me it’s a sign of strength. The ability to be kind to those who are not empowered or who are being ostracized or being ridiculed or being bullied takes courage.

The “precept” Auggie’s teacher gives the class quotes Wayne Dyer, who said, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” But sometimes being right is important, too, isn’t it?Absolutely, yes, and it is a fine line. That’s why I always say it takes a lot of courage to be kind because being right is important too but I think it takes a lot of heart be able to discern when it’s really important to just kind of stay true to your gut about what is needed in life.

Given the choice we should all aspire to have both and to win hearts and minds. Whatever it is you do professionally or personally with your family, with your friends or your colleagues we all have the power we all have the capacity to some degree to affect change around us so that the choice doesn’t need to be made.

Julia Roberts is so good in this film. The look on her face when Auggie first has a friend who wants to come over has so many emotions at once. What is it like to direct her?

It’s like being Michael Phelps’ swimming coach. She is so good at what she does and she can convey every emotion at the drop of a dime, she can change her approach on the drop of a dime, too. Any director will tell you there are two performances; one is the one that the audience gets to see because you’re cutting the best moments together and you’re finding the tone and you’re finding the pacing and the music and everything else, and there’s everything else that you that you left out. She never had a bad take, she was generous to her co-stars, she made everybody better (especially me) and I can’t say enough about her as an artist or a person. Every take was perfect no matter how many ways we tried it.

Shorter version originally published on HuffPost.

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Interview: Greta Gerwig on “Lady Bird”

Posted on November 3, 2017 at 8:00 am

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“Lady Bird” stars “Brooklyn’s” Saoirse Ronan as high school senior in 2008, with Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts as her parents. Writer/director Greta Gerwig tells the story in pointillist fashion, small incidents along the way illuminating the jubilant dreams, crushing fears, and struggles with parents, friends, and teachers she must navigate as she gets ready to leave home. Her name is Christine, but at an audition for the high school play, she explains that “Lady Bird” is her given name — because she gave it to herself. In an interview, Gerwig talked about the influence of John Hughes films like “Pretty in Pink” and finding the music in the dialogue.

Copyright A24 2017

You must be thrilled with the enthusiastic reception you’ve been getting from festival audiences.

Thank you so much it’s been so extraordinary to be able to take this film to different festivals and talk to audiences all over the country and now the world about it because I’m just always amazed. Everybody’s got a family, everybody’s got a hometown, everybody understands leaving home. It feels like it’s the thing that people can connect to from their hearts which is always my goal and I’m so pleased that people feel that way.
You’ve spoken before about the importance of conveying female friendships and Lady Bird learns some painful lessons about friendship in the film.

I’m always interested in relationships between women. In “Mistress America” it’s stepsisters of different generations and in this movie the real love story for me is between this mother and daughter but her relationship with her friend Julie is another element of it. I’m always interested in how women relate to each other, whether it’s a family relationship or it’s a friend relationship. That’s such uncharted territory in cinema. Usually women don’t have any relationship with each other; they just have relationships with the male protagonists. That’s something both what I’m interested in and it’s also something that I’ve taken on quite deliberately in the work that I’ve co-written and now with this movie.

Were the John Hughes movies about teenagers an influence for you?

I was a big fan of John Hughes movies, particularly “Pretty in Pink,” but they have embedded within them generally an idea of one guy which I philosophically disagree with. I started from the premise of, “What if there were two guys and they are both wrong?” I wanted to honor what’s so wonderful about those films while not actually doing the film. With her romances, I wanted both the satisfaction of the vividness of teenage emotion and falling in love and giving the audience that point of connection, but then also the film knows that that’s not the end all and be all, that the movie that’s playing in her head is different than the movie that she’s in which I think is often true in life. Teenagers are living out some romantic ideal and the reality is that no one’s doing it with them.

Christine wears a uniform because she goes to parochial school, but her look is still very distinctive.

I worked with a great true artist, the costume designer April Napier. She is a real storyteller and that’s what I look for in all my department heads and really everyone who works on the movie. She has the ability to bring me costumes or pieces that totally surprised me and were totally unexpected but they were exactly right. The pink prom dress that Christine finds in a thrift shop was a little tip of the hat for “Pretty in Pink.”

The parents in the film are beautifully portrayed and they have their own real characters and storylines.

I wanted it to ultimately be really the mother’s story as much as it was the daughter’s story because one person’s coming of age is another person’s letting go. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are both actors that I’ve watched for a very long time and I’ve seen them on stage and Tracy I obviously knew as a writer as well and I knew him to be extraordinary on all fronts. Laurie Metcalf — I’ve never seen her equal on stage; she’s one of the most tremendous actresses I’ve ever witnessed performing. What I loved about both of them was that they both have theater backgrounds. The same is true of course for Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Theater people are my people.

Tracy and Laurie have known each other for twenty years and there was something about the Midwesterness of them that felt right for a story about Sacramento. With every scene particularly between Laurie and Saoirse, I wanted the audience to feel like, “I get where that mother is and I get where that daughter is.” Even if Laurie says the wrong thing or Saoirse is being a jerk you don’t feel like ultimately that’s who either of them are. You just feel like they’re struggling through this difficult time. Even if you can’t figure it out, the time itself is relentless which adds to the anxiety.

You’re very precise in your dialogue, so what kind of collaboration were you doing with them and how did they change your understanding of the characters you created?

I think the thing I’m always listening for as a writer and director is for it to be in the right rhythm, different than I’d heard but played the same tempo. I’d know I hit it when it surprises me but it also feels right. I keep going to something that feels musical because that is really how it is for me.

You’ve worked with quite a range of directors as an actress. What kinds of ideas did you take from the way they approach the material that helped you in your first time as a solo director?

One of the great advantages of my time spent in movies and in basically every role possible both in front of the camera and behind the camera that I’ve gotten to see all these different ways that people work and the way movies are constructed from the inside out, from beginning to end. Because I didn’t go to film school this was really my training; everything from tiny things to big things.

From Mike Mills I took the idea that everyone on the crew who is not an actor, including me, wears a nametag every day. It sounds small but it’s actually huge because as a director you’re with your crew the whole day but actors are really only brought in when the scene is completely lit and ready to go and they don’t have as much of an opportunity to really get to know all the gaffers or grips or the boom operator and sometimes those people switch out. Being able to call them by their names instead of just “hey you” is a big deal. From Rebecca Miller I took the idea that the director needs to arrive every day an hour ahead of everyone else and walk through the entire day. They have to be over-prepared so that the actors feel like they have all the time in the world and there is never a feeling that the director is time stressed. From Noah Baumbach I learned to have a strict no cell phone policy on set. If you need to make a phone call or text someone you can step off the set and use it. There is nothing that bums you out more than looking over and seeing somebody on their smartphone and that goes for actors and everyone else. Everybody told me, “Oh, good luck you have so many kids in this movie. How are they ever going to not text?” The truth is they all left their phones in the trailer and I just felt like it made everybody so much more present.

An edited version of this interview originally appeared on HuffPost.

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Rory Kennedy on Laird Hamilton and Her New Movie “Take Every Wave”

Posted on October 19, 2017 at 2:55 pm

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Copyright 2017 Moxie Firecracker

Rory Kennedy usually makes documentaries about complicated issues, with more than 30 films on topics like poverty, political corruption, domestic abuse, drug addiction, human rights, and mental illness. Her latest film is something different. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton is the story of a man who became one of the world’s most accomplished sports figures even though he does not compete in organized events.

Your cinematography of the surfing scenes is remarkable. I kept asking myself as I watched, “Where is the camera? And how can it be so steady?”

To capture Laird on these ginormous waves was certainly something that I had never come across before in my own career. I explored using a drone or jet-ski or somebody in the water but they all had their own limitations and ultimately I really leaned on the helicopter shot. The thing is about these waves that is funny and interesting is that you can have a really huge wave and if you shoot it at a certain angle it looks teeny. And what I found is actually being below the wave looking up at it with a little bit of distance was the most dramatic shot but of course that means the helicopter needs to be below the wave. Don King has worked extensively with Laird and Don Shearer has also worked with him as a helicopter pilot.

You assembled an extraordinary collection of archival footage with some rare and very personal material. Where did it all come from?

It’s a bit of a scavenger hunt really trying to find the best footage. We went to Laird and Gabby first and foremost but there was also footage through the archive houses at NBC, ABC, and CBS, who had some archives that we used. Then reaching out to friends and family and really asking people to go deep into their garages and their basements to retrieve some of the footage, a lot of which has never been seen before. The footage of Laird rescuing his friend came from the production company that they had because that was something that they were filming as it happened. We were able to track it down and it was pretty dramatic.

Laird is married to a world-class athlete who competed in the Olympics, Gabrielle Reece. He is covered by sporting journalists but he does not participate in conventional competition.

He has a comfort in competing in say a foot race where there’s an objective winner but what bothers him in surfing competitions was the sense of judgment. Laird is probably one of if not the most competitive person that I know and there are pretty extreme stories about him in that respect but I think ultimately he didn’t want to bring that to his surfing experience. Part of what he loves about surfing is being out on the water and being in touch with nature and being up against these gigantic waves. And I think that you’re up against your own kind of personal chatter in your head that’s telling you to get off the wave and that you might die. You know that’s a pretty intense adrenaline moment, right? So then you add on other things to that like competition and judgments and all the rest of it and it might feel a little deflating or less interesting.

He is an extraordinary athlete and a big part of that is his exceptional mental focus and drive.

That was part of a huge part of what drove me to make this film. Surfing is really the backdrop of the film but the story is what you’re tapping into which is what drives a guy to surf and go up against 80-foot waves. He has the personal drive towards water. I think that manifests at his very young age. I think he was exposed to some of the biggest waves in the world and he was surrounded by surfers. From age two, three; he was in the ocean every day and going out into water that most of us would never even dream of going into even as adult. He had a childhood that was a broken home. He’s lived in poverty. He had an abusive family situation and I think the outside environment was also difficult where he was one of the only white guys in Hawaii at the time. There was a lot of anger towards people who were not Hawaiian and who were white who had brought a lot of disease and devastation to the island though. Because of all those factors he ended up really focusing and finding refuge in the water.

Even though he doesn’t have much formal education he and the other surfers have really PhD level understanding of the properties of water; the physics of it.

Their level of knowledge is striking. One of the scenes that we have in the film is Laird working with the Oracle team, Jimmy Spithill who is the captain of the America’s Cup because they really looked to him for expertise in terms of foil boarding. And these are guys are engineers and they’re analyzing with computer technology the most efficient way to get a boat to move across a lot of water and they’re looking at Laird for his personal expertise in that and I think there’s a good reason for it. When you have spent that much time as a human being engaging in something, you have kind of an instinctual understanding of it that they’re able to translate in pretty beautiful ways both in terms of the language that they use and the poetry and the beauty of it but also on a very technical level in terms of how it works and how a wave is formed. He’s incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about that.

Would you say that there’s a common theme in your films?

A great story.

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