Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame (Photo by Susie Allnutt, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Simple, Honest: Paul McGuigan On ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’

McGuigan's latest is an example of how through cinema and art we create and share a communicative dialogue that is cathartic, yet also through the shared experience creates a fuller understanding of universal themes that connect us all.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
Paul McGuigan
Sony Pictures Classics
16 Nov 2017 (UK)

Paul McGuigan’s directorial feature debut The Acid House (1998), an adaptation of compatriot Irvine Welsh’s novel, was followed by his sophomore feature Gangster No.1 (2000). The latter saw a streamlined approach to character, the three stories of Welsh’s world condensed into a singular focused rise and fall narrative of English gangster played by Malcolm McDowell. In the successive years McGuigan has directed Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), while his television credits notably include Sherlock (2010-) for the BBC and is set to direct the pilot of the upcoming series Carnival Row (2019), a distinct fantasy narrative in contrast to his latest feature Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017).

Based on Peter Turner’s memoir, the film reveals the relationship between Turner (Jamie Bell) and celebrated Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) in 1978 Liverpool. What began as a vibrant affair between the legendary femme fatale and her young lover quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Turner being the person Gloria turns to for comfort. The film is a reminder of the dual existences of the creative or artist – the identification that emerges through their work only a shadow of their true self. It’s an example of how through cinema and art we create and share a communicative dialogue that is cathartic, yet also through the shared experience creates a fuller understanding of universal themes that connect us all.

In conversation with PopMatters, McGuigan reflects on the importance of an encounter with Irvine Welsh that propelled him towards filmmaking. He also discusses the need for fear and the difficulty filmmakers’ face, honing their craft, while telling Turner and Grahame’s story has created a communication with his own creative identity and intent.

Left to right: Annette Benning, Jamie Bell and director Paul McGuigan Photo by Susie Allnutt, (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

I never went to film school, I never did that traditional route through to where I am now. I was a photographer for quite a long time and I never had an ambition as such to make film. It sounds weird, but my defining moment was when I went to meet Irvine Welsh, who had asked me to do his short film. I’d turned it down quite a few times and I met him in a pub at 8 o’clock in the morning, as you do with Irvine in Edinburgh. While I was sitting talking to him saying that I didn’t really know why I would do this, who would really watch this, he was telling me about the story, and it was quite a fun one.

Then suddenly out of nowhere this guy, steaming drunk, walks in and goes: “Irvine, Irvine, would you sign my book for me?” Irvine was: “Sure mate”, but he didn’t have a book on him. He went down his pants, down his trousers and pulled out a copy of Trainspotting (1993), and it was still on the page he had placed it at. Suddenly I looked at Irvine and thought: Wow, the power that he has with these people. They’re reading books and they’re getting involved in the stories he has told. It was a realisation that if he can effect people that we think are in a way lost causes, which I just thought was wonderful, it made me feel: Okay, I’m going to do this because there will be somebody that will be interested in this, will want to hear it and tell stories to people. So that was the time I think.

Transitioning from photography to filmmaking, are you able to perceive an influence of the former over the latter?

Yeah, for sure. Every scene that I do, I always think of one particular frame, like you would in a photograph, and that’s why I like wallpapers and stuff, because I like two people in front of things that are interesting and dynamic.

Photography is always with me wherever I go and of course it is a visual medium. When I first started, I was very comfortable with the camera department, talking about light because I knew how to light things and what lenses were, whereas I had never worked with an actor before. So that was always — and it still is to this day — the bit where I have to concentrate on working with and being able to communicate with actors because as a photographer, it’s a very lonely pursuit. A lot of the times you are on your own or you have an assistant, but as soon as you hit a film set, there are hundreds of people all looking at you, just waiting for you to decide what you want to do. So the photography is always a very comfortable place for me to start, and an important part of what I do is to try to figure out where that one frame is going to be that I have to achieve in the scene. And that’s my own little thing.

Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon told me: “The medium and the mystery of the process is that I could wake up one day and not know where to put the camera. Not that I know where to put the camera now, but you walk in with a certain sense.” Could we not describe the filmmaking or creative process as a void of fear, apprehension, and uncertainty?

I think you need the fear in order to push yourself harder, to really understand the story you are telling. Always ask yourself questions – that’s what I do. What does this scene mean? What do I want from it? Who’s scene is this? I watch movies as well, and so I’m always asking those questions when I’m watching something.

You need the fear, but the fear shouldn’t be a crippling one that you are scared to do anything, and I’ve seen that happen where people are scared to make a decision. Our job as filmmakers is that you might not know whether it’s the right place for the camera to go, but you need to put it somewhere, and you have to make a decision at some point. And it’s better to make it sooner than later.

What working in television has helped me to develop is to not be so questioning of myself. It becomes increasingly instinctive because I’m working much more, whereas as a filmmaker I was doing one film every two years, which means I was only on set a few months. So you don’t really get to hone your craft, whereas in television you are on set for much of the year, and it teaches you to be more instinctive in everything you do because you don’t have the time to sit about and struggle with yourself, to think: Well where am I going to put this? That does hold with it a lot of fear of am I doing the right thing? Every film you do, you obviously wish for it to be the best thing you’ve ever made. But more times than not, it’s not going to be, and so you just have to push that away from yourself, to just get on with it.

Joachim Trier at the London Film Festival remarked to me: “I am very dependent upon trying to make movies, and being allowed to do so. It is not always up to you. It is expensive and so it is a risky life, but it’s fun.” From directors of the studio system — the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawkes who prior to their famous works had built up years of experience of honing their craft — today’s industry is a different one. Although Trier’s point about being allowed to make films remains a relevant aspect. The short of it is that it’s a tough environment to be a filmmaker.

Yeah, especially now with Netflix and Amazon and the way we have big corporate identities that are honing in on television as well. It all becomes about the money and the dollar bills, the budgets. They spend a lot of money on some of the television productions I have been involved in, and there’s less chat about the creative side of it, and more conversation of budgets and all of that kind of stuff. It’s hard to get your head around, but at the same time I love what has happened to television, which is now not one of those things you’d say you would never do.

When I first started I even said that in an interview: “I’m never going to do television. I can’t stand the idea of doing something so slowly.” Now I’m excited because it gets me on the set, it gets me working with actors, gets me understanding what I want from the film and what kind of filmmaker I am. And that’s another thing. It’s a discovery you are going through because there are some projects you maybe take and you say: “I’m not very good at that” or “I’m really excited by this” because that’s what excites you as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. But you have to.

I don’t write my own stuff, I’m a director for hire, and as much as I do have a style, I think that’s exceptional in the sense that if you don’t write your own material, then you have to go out searching for the things that interest you. That in itself can be scary because there’s not a lot of material made that the studios want to make, or people want to put money into.

Left to right: Jamie Bell as Peter Turner and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame Photo by Susie Allnutt (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

What was the initial appeal of this story that compelled your decision to direct the adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir?

Well what I loved about this film is the screenplay came with the book, and I read both as I travelled up from London to Scotland on the train where I live. What I loved about the book especially was the fluidity of memories, of being in love because Peter wrote it in a cathartic kind of way. He wrote it as he remembered it rather than writing it sequentially. “She called me one day from the theatre” and that was the beginning of the whole film, and then it just went into this whole memory about the relationship that was all tied into moments. So I really wanted to figure out how to put that on the screen because it was so moving to me.

What I think we all have at one point in time is someone who for good or for bad changed our lives, even though we may not be with them anymore, or not even see them. For me that was universal and I was touched by the honesty of the book. I could feel him crying over each line and so we were truthful of what Peter was writing. I just thought to myself: I have never done a film like this. I have never done something that is so simple in a way, yet is emotionally fraught as well. The book was beautiful and the script was wonderful, and I was up for it straightaway.

Simplicity can heighten the sense of feeling of a film’s depth of meaning and feeling. Could we look at the form or structure of a film as a shell or wire frame structure, beneath which lies its soul — the themes, ideas and the characters?

When I say simple I also mean very honest. It’s interesting because when we were doing the sound for the film I had just come off doing a big project with Marvel, all of which was a massive amount of sound. Funnily enough doing the sound for this was so difficult because it all had to be stripped away, and it was almost the silence of the thing that became the character in the movie. We would just take one sound from each location, and so for Liverpool you can hear kids out in the street kicking a ball around, and that’s all. No cars, nothing. Then in London we had the sound of the underground and LA was the sound of the waves, but nothing else. It was interesting because stripping everything away, stripping everything down to its bare bones can sometimes be incredibly complex because you have to rely on one thing only, or the bare minimum. But it has to be tight, it has to be focused, and it has to be pitched at the right level. I find that very liberating: Why had I not done this before?

Sometimes as filmmakers you get carried away with the idea that you have all these tools at your disposal, whether it be the score, the sound design or effects. So it was nice to do something that was so stripped away and pulled back to the bare bones, that felt very simple. My camera usually moves a lot, but this camera doesn’t. We are just observing and especially with two amazing actors, you can allow the scenes to just take place. You can allow them to breathe and I found that such a liberating feeling, almost a new thing for me. It’s weird because I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it was almost like an epiphany: Oh wait a minute, why haven’t I tried something like this before?

The film seemingly presents you with a strange contradiction, whereby you are looking back into the past whilst simultaneously moving forward to hone your craft.

Absolutely! I was very moved by it personally; I’m moved if I watch it now. It’s weird that I can take a distance from it and I can watch it as a film rather than: Oh what did I do there? Does that look or sound okay? When I did Gangster No.1 back in the day, I felt that was a landmark for me. It was a film I put a lot of my character and my ideas of what I wanted to do as a filmmaker into. I think this is another landmark film for me, and so almost 16 years later I feel like I’ve gone full circle if you like, and I’ve come back to doing that again.

It’s defining what you want to do as a filmmaker and especially as a working filmmaker, you make money and you start a family, you have a life and you are going from one job to another, and sometimes things can get away from you a little bit in as far as what your vision as a filmmaker is. There were moments on this film when I felt it was an important moment for me, and it’s hard to define other than I liked the story and I was really into it. I’m into everything I do, but this was special to me.