Interview with Paul McGuigan

This intimate character piece about fading American Hollywood-star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and her unexpected - and tragic - love affair with a young British actor (Jamie Bell) received smashing reviews. But the thing director Paul McGuigan might be most proud of? His Guinness Book of Records entry...

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool manages to avoid the trappings of the ordinary biopic. How did you accomplish that?
"First of all, it is not a biopic really, but based on the book by Peter Turner. One day he woke up, three years after Gloria had died, and started to put down his recollections on paper. One man's perspective on things. When you go and see this film, you might not know about the real Gloria Grahame. The interesting thing is that's the same experience Peter had when he met her in the seventies. Remember, these were the days before the internet, you couldn't Google somebody like we would do now. Peter had no idea who she really was, he was just attracted to her unusual, wild, exotic presence. The scene with them disco dancing was an important scene for us, because it makes the audience understand their mutual attraction, both physical and emotional, without having to go through a lot of exposition of 'Hey... I'm starting to fall in love with you'."

  • Still: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

The film does feel cinematic, but has a theatrical quality to it as well. At times, it reminded me that it could easily be turned into a play.
"That was by design. The book it's based on is not a big book by any means, just a slight volume. When I read it, I was intrigued by how it was written, as a collection of memories. The story just goes in and out of his memories, and that kind of fluidity was what I wanted to bring to the screen. I thought it would be interesting if in the film the memories continue, one becomes the other but you always stay with your character. I wanted to show the mechanics, just like in good theatre, where a trick of the light or a move of the scenery happens but it doesn't take you out of the story. That's what I wanted to try in a cinematic way. As a viewer, you have to lean into it a little bit. That's why independent filmmaking is fantastic for filmmakers, because we allow the audience to lean in, we don't have to tell them everything. It helped the film because in a sense it is a string of moments in time, strung together."

I understand that it took quite a lot of patience to get this film made.
"It sounds really strange: to make a pure drama it’s sometimes more difficult to get the money for than for big action movies. We had to make it for a price, it wasn't a big budget, but still. These stories are hard, especially stories about an actor not everybody knows. The producer had been trying to make the film for 20 odd years. It's been at various studios, with different directors and actors attached - Joan Collins at one point I think, but I'm not sure because actually I was quite late to the party. If it takes 23 years to get a film off the ground, sometimes that makes it harder. You lose momentum and the producers themselves get scared a bit as well. If suddenly somebody new jumps in with a fresh take, they grab onto that and off you go!"

And what did your fresh take consist of?
"What I had to offer is that I told them I wanted to work on those scene transitions, make them more fluid. And I told them I wanted to shoot most of it in the studio, because I wanted to tip my hat to Gloria's films and the films of her era. As a result we also used background projection. Nowadays there are only a couple of directors who still use that, like Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams: filmmakers who like to shoot through the camera. I got the idea when I was watching an old Gloria Grahame-film with Humphrey Bogart, A Lonely Place, where they used that technique. 'Huh? Why don't we use that?', I thought. Well, in reality it is much more difficult and much more expensive than I thought. That's why nowadays people mostly use green screen and computers. I didn't want to do that, because with background projection you achieve this sensation of heightened realism, and it is a homage to that era of filmmaking as well. It's a technical nightmare, with all these projectors who have to be lined up and synced exactly, but the end result is magical. And it got me this.” Paul McGuigan flips through the camera roll on his phone, to proudly show a picture of an official Guinness Book of Records Certificate. “The background screen was a hundred feet wide, which makes it the biggest background projection in history. As somebody who grew up on the BBC children's TV show Record Breakers, it's an achievement to have finally made it into the Guinness Book."

Photo in header: Photo: Joke Smit. Interview: Anton Damen.