It is not that easy to tell an intimate love story based on the lives of real people. Especially, when this is the love story of Hollywood star Gloria Grahame and her friend Peter Turner, who was much younger than her. Portrayed by Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, the film tells about the last months of Gloria Grahame’s life which she spent in Liverpool, alongside Peter Turner who did everything possible to give her his support and love during this most difficult time for her.
During the Toronto premiere of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” Paul McGuigan gladly shared his experience. He talked about making this film, working with the great ensemble of cast, and, of course, about telling the story of Grahame and Turner – a romantic love affair to remind us that the love is ageless like never before.
MOVIEMOVESME: Did this film take you back to the old Hollywood? How did it feel to come back to the film with Gloria Grahame and Nicola Wright? Do you feel nostalgic, do you feel sadness?
Paul McGuigan: Oh, the old Hollywood … It’s funny because when I was making the movie I really tipped my hat to that style of filmmaking. In the sense that everything was for the camera. We did all these transitions with the sets moving and we did all this back-projection. You know, I kind of gravitate to that type of filmmaking. So yeah, I loved traveling up and down when I was doing the movie. I would travel from London up to Scotland where I live, and I would have her movies on my computer, while everyone else is watching soap operas and all this other shite, and then I was watching these amazing black and white films. I was the happiest guy on the train.
MOVIEMOVESME: I understand that you particularly wanted Annette Bening for this movie. I wonder did you discover anything new in her as an actress when you worked on this film together? Maybe something you didn’t expect?
Paul McGuigan: Well, I kind of knew that she was pretty good, right? That was a given fact. I didn’t know that she was so methodical in her acting. And I mean that not in the kind of cheesy way that a lot of actors say but she’s a student and a master at the same time. It’s really interesting. She asks a ton of questions about the character, she does her homework about the character, she knows the script probably better than most of us. Then on the first day of shooting you see what that all means – it’s the masterful way. The scene where she was dancing with Jamie, she was so full of life – jumping like a teenager! Then, when she was in bed dying, the crew were the quietest I’ve ever seen a crew. They were just literally on eggshells because they just believed that she was lying there, and she never spoke to anyone. She was very quiet, very into that perspective, but you always discover that about everybody that you work with – actors and crew alike. They all have their own little foibles.
MOVIEMOVESME: Could you please also talk about why you chose Jamie Bell as her partner in this film. how did you build the dynamics between those two characters?
Paul McGuigan: Jamie is not only a brilliant young actor but he is also from a working-class background. I really was attracted to that. I thought that was very important because Peter Turner was also a Liverpool boy from a very working class. Our working class is a bit different from American’s. Working-class as being the middle class, I guess we would call it. So it’s a very, very ordinary family. To have the dynamic between Jamie’s Liverpool accent and Annette’s Hollywood drawl was such a kind of oral amazing mash-up that I just loved that. To me, that was the film. That was my starting point.
So Jamie came out and he did two scenes, and we were just like: “Okay. Could it be this simple? Should it be this simple?” Because we never actually looked or tried to cast anyone else. It was actually the most straightforward piece of casting that I have ever done.
MOVIEMOVESME: I asked this question to Annette Bening as well. Gloria Grahame had cancer and she was afraid that she would not be cast for another role if she told anyone. As a director, would you cast an actor if you knew that the star that you want to cast has cancer?
Paul McGuigan: That’s a tough one.
MOVIEMOVESME: I know.
Paul McGuigan: I don’t know. I mean, you want to be looking after the person rather than the actor. I don’t think you want to be putting the person’s health before the job. I certainly wouldn’t, anyway.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you work with Peter Turner? Did he spend a lot of time on the set?
Paul McGuigan: Not a lot of the time. When we were up in Liverpool, where he lives now, he spent some time with us. Annette and I went up to Liverpool a few months before we started shooting. We went to visit his house, and we met with Peter. It was really interesting that Peter never crossed the threshold of his old house. He just couldn’t do it. It was too emotional for him, and that was the moment I knew that there was a certain place he would go and a certain thing that he wouldn’t go further in. So I knew not to push him and I also knew that it was never going to be that helpful to Jamie if he was getting too emotional about things.
He was fantastic. He was so open. He’s a very generous man. But we had to be careful because this is a real person, this is a real life, and you don’t want to fuck with that too much. So when we went to see the actual house, it was really interesting for myself and for Annette, but I think it was the beginning of a journey that he knew was going to bring a lot of memories back. When we showed him the movie, there was three of us in the cinema. There’s a scene in the movie where Peter brings her down the stairs towards the end of the movie in the chair, and he was on the floor. His tears were coming from his stomach. It was guttural and it was quite hard to watch it with him. Then he saw it the second time and he was like: “Yeah, that’s fine.” He just had to get that over with.
MOVIEMOVESME: Cathartic for him, maybe?
Paul McGuigan: I hope so. I hope it was. But you have to be very careful because both Gloria and Peter were real people, and you’ve got to respect him. That’s why it was great to have Annette and Jamie, who really did do that. But we had him in for the rehearsal period. We would pick his brains, and ask him questions, and use him for that. I loved the fact that in the Romeo and Juliet scene he brings the chairs over. I just thought it was amazing.
MOVIEMOVESME: What was the relationship between Annette and Gloria?
Paul McGuigan: Well, one – she’s Annette Bening. Two – she does have a similarity to Gloria Grahame. There’s a physical resemblance. There’s also a kind of essence, in a sense. That’s why we didn’t go for the big makeup, prosthetic thing, because I felt that was too much. Actually, probably a lot of people in the audience know who Gloria Grahame is. But also many people don’t know that and shouldn’t really know. So we wanted to take that away from her. But she just has that essence about her and she really understood.
It was interesting when I went to meet her for the first time and she had brought ten books with all these notes, and I thought I’d better be on my game here. Her and also Warren – her husband, knew Gloria, and they knew her husband Nicholas Ray. They knew her background. So she has an essence of that, I think.
MOVIEMOVESME: It’s a really great love story, but also it is colorful, it’s profound. What was it for you to direct and tell the story of Gloria and Peter?
Paul McGuigan: You know the way the film has all these transitions in it? That comes from wanting to tell a story that was very distilled about memory because if you think about memory now, you don’t think about it in a cinematic way. You don’t think about it as a wide shot, and then it’s an establishing shot, and then it’s a two-shot, and then it’s a close-up. I wanted them to walk through the memory. I wanted them to walk in and out of it, and so we built the sets back-to-back, and we built this kind of really intricate sets that were very theatrical but also, for me, was about the fluidity of memory. That’s why I also thought about the books.
The book’s quite a slight publication. It’s not a big, thick book. Then you get the screenplay, which distills it down even more, and then you get the movie, which actually does it again, so you have something that hopefully is looking purely at just the idea of emotional resonance and fallout of this relationship, you know?
MOVIEMOVESME: I want to ask about the city. Obviously, it’s in the title but it’s very much a character in the movie. I am wondering when it came to framing and making old Liverpool appear on the street, how did you go about that? Did you ever think about shooting somewhere else?
Paul McGuigan: No. We really wanted to do it in Liverpool. We had a very low budget, so we thought we’d film maybe only a couple of days there, but ended up spending a week or so. We wanted to use the Playhouse because that was historically the accurate place where he was at. I love the music of that era. It was a big deal. So, I’m not only talking about the Fab Four, the Beatles, and stuff. There was some other great stuff like Mersey Beat. So I kind of got influenced by that more than the framing of things. It is the musicality of the city that I liked.
Then, I also liked it because I come from that world as well – the working class -true, soulful working-class family that took Gloria in because she loved their son and their son loved her. To them, you’re family now. That’s what Liverpool really gives. It gives that anchor to the movie about family and about the truth of it. Gloria didn’t have that family. She didn’t have that to fall back on, especially when she was getting ill, so she saw Peter, and she saw the family that she would want to be with, and that’s why she ended up being there in Liverpool.
Liverpool’s an incredibly important part of our film, for sure. It is grounded in a working-class society, which doesn’t judge, and doesn’t think that she was a big film star. To them, it was about Peter loving this woman. If you love that woman, then we’ll love her.
MOVIEMOVESME: What do you think makes an actor a movie star?
Paul McGuigan: It’s interesting, isn’t it? When you set up a show, you usually shoot the standard, and you’ve probably thought this is a terrible shot, it looks terrible. And then suddenly the actor walks in and you’re like: “Oh! Okay!” It’s quite literally the presence. There’s a presence. I’m talking about good film stars. And I think it’s also an understanding of the character, and not having to always talk and see a lot. It’s about the reaction.
To me, Jamie Bell is a wonderful, wonderful actor because I quite literally put 40 mil lens right in his face the whole time because I wanted to separate him from everything. Most of the film is from his point of view. A lot of actors don’t like that. A lot of actors get a little like: “Whoa, what the fuck is that so close to me?” He loves it. He’s just like: “Okay, bring it on.” But I could use a lot of those shots to tell my story with because it’s through his eyes, and so that’s what also makes the film star. They understand the power of what they’re doing, and they understand that acting is not just about seeing the work.
MOVIEMOVESME: Many people say having big stars attached to the film will help to finance it. But then you said you had a small budget.
Paul McGuigan: It was a very small budget. Annette, Jamie, myself, and Barbara Broccoli got paid the same amount of money. We all did this for nothing, and we all did it for the love of it and that kept the budget down. You really do have to do that to make movies like that now. You can’t be giving a star half your budget and then you don’t know what you’re going to do because you’ve got nothing to make the film with.
MOVIEMOVESME: Why was this a passion project for Barbara Broccoli that she veered away from Bond for it?
Paul McGuigan: Well, she and Peter have been friends for four years. Annette and Barbara have been friends for a long time, and she just loved this project. It took her 22 years to make it. It’s not really always about having the money with the films. It’s about the people all coming together at the same time. It’s the pieces that fall into their place, and that was one of the last pieces, actually, because they’d been at it for a long time. Barbara has a passion, and this is one of her passions. She’s very passionate about what she does, passionate about Bond. This film would never have been made without Barbara Broccoli, believe me! We would never have had those studios, we would never have had the deals we got done.
Talking about women of a certain age has been vital. She’s certainly that as well, and I think that was another thing that she wanted to tell the story about a woman which was her age, and how those women could be very present and very strong in the movie. I’m sure of that.