Interview: Paul McGuigan on directing Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Dont Die in Liverpool
Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Dont Die in Liverpool
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He’s one of Hollywood’s go-to directors, but Paul McGuigan still lives in Glasgow, travelling the world to ply his trade making films and big budget TV series. He talks to Alistair Harkness about Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool – starring Annette Bening and Jamie Bell – based on the affair between screen icon Gloria Grahame and a young, unknown British actor

A couple of months ago Paul McGuigan found himself in the embarrassing position of being turned away from a Scottish reception at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Glaswegian director’s new movie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, starring Annette Bening, was one of the most high profile films in the festival and his producer, Barbara Broccoli (that’s Barbara Broccoli, gatekeeper of James Bond) thought it would be a good idea for him to go along and show face. “So I went there,” says the softly spoken director, “and the guy on the door said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Paul McGuigan’ and he said, ‘Sorry mate, I don’t know you.’” At which point he spotted one of the execs at Creative Scotland. “I said, ‘Oh hello’, and he ignored me. So I turned around and left. It’s embarrassing, right?”

Paul McGuigan with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell at European Premiere of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool during the London Film Festival in October PIC: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images for BFI

Paul McGuigan with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell at European Premiere of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool during the London Film Festival in October PIC: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images for BFI

It is, but more so for the suits of the so-called Scottish film industry than for McGuigan. After all, there aren’t many Scottish filmmakers working at his level. In a 20 year career, he’s had critical and box-office hits, been entrusted with multi-million dollar budgets and worked with some of

the biggest names in the business, among them Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe and Chris Evans. Even his friendship and working relationship with the aforementioned Broccoli began when he was brought in to tentatively discuss directing Bond back when she was relaunching it with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Would he still like a crack at it? “I can definitely rule myself out of the next one,” he says, “not because neither of us wouldn’t want it to happen, it’s just they’re in a different place.”

As is McGuigan. Latterly he’s become a much in-demand director of premium TV, entrusted to launch the ratings phenomenon that has become Sherlock and setting the tone for Marvel’s Luke Cage and ABC’s Kiefer Sutherland-starring Designated Survivor. Indeed when we meet at the BFI London Film Festival ahead of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’s British premiere, he’s on a quick break from shooting the pilot episode of a new $75m TV show for Amazon called called Carnival Row, day four of which he’d just wrapped filming in Prague (at 1:30am that morning). “It was originally going to be a Guillermo Del Toro film,” says McGuigan. “Guillermo wanted to make into a TV show and I guess he couldn’t do it, so I’ve ended up doing it.”

All of which makes his frustrations with filmmaking in Scotland all the more pointed. It has, he says, been the biggest regret of his career that he’s had to travel away all the time for work. He’s only made one film in Scotland, his Irvine Welsh-scripted adaptation of Welsh’s The Acid House back in 1998. In the years since he’s been vocal about how badly Scotland has been set up for film and television, but has found this is like “shouting at a brick wall” a lot of the time. “It’s a f***ing joke, right? The people in charge are ridiculous.”

That’s partly why it’s been such a treat working with a no-nonsense producer like Broccoli on Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, he says. The film has been a passion project of Broccoli’s for around 20 years, ever since she first read Liverpudlian actor and writer Peter Turner’s memoir detailing his unlikely affair with Gloria Grahame, the Hollywood legend and Oscar winner, whom he first met in the late 1970s when she was 28 years his senior and treading the boards in London, her film career having long since faded.

“I read the script and the book at the same time and just thought it was wonderful,” recalls McGuigan. “What I really loved about it was how simple the relationship was. The complexity came through Gloria rather than Peter, so it was good to have a strong female point of view in a story like that, and one that wasn’t sentimental either.”

Bening was already on board when he signed on. She knew Gloria personally. As did her husband Warren Beatty. “I had a good chat with him about her,” says McGuigan, “and when I went to Annette’s house she had notes and post-its everywhere; she made me look very ill-prepared. But I don’t think a lot of people know who Gloria Grahame is anymore,” he continues. “I think that was interesting for Annette. I know that she liked the idea of the faded Hollywood star.”

McGuigan cast Jamie Bell as Peter and it’s easy to see why: he and Bening have great chemistry together, something we first see in a charming dance sequence as Gloria, who’s rooming next to Peter (he has no idea who she is), invites him to do a spot of disco dancing in the middle of the afternoon. Given Bell’s boogieing prowess, was Bening more nervous or was he? “Oh Jamie was,” says McGuigan. “He’s the one who worked the hardest. We didn’t rehearse it. We did two takes and it was brilliant. To me it was great to have that flirtation and bring them together in such a nice, funny and physical way. You understand why they’re attracted to each other.”

Interestingly, the non-judgemental approach to the age gap feels like one of the last taboos in film. “And to do a story about a woman in her late 50s who was still very sexual, still badly behaved and not even always likeable, just human really – it’s not done in cinema much,” agrees McGuigan. “Usually it’s the other way round and nobody bats an eyelid.”

Which isn’t to say eyebrows weren’t raised by Grahame’s relationships with younger men. The film touches on a still-murky scandal involving her relationship with her former step-son (whom she later married) that may have contributed to why she fell out of favour after being such a big star in movies such as The Big Heat and In a Lonely Place. Mostly, though, it focuses on the lovely incongruity of their relationship: the melding of old-school Hollywood glamour and working class British life.

“My favourite bit of doing this whole movie was getting Jamie and Annette together in a room for the first time,” confesses McGuigan. “She started off doing a very familiar American Hollywood drawl and then he jumps in with the Scouse accent and it was such a crazy mash up. I was like: ‘that’s our movie’. And as a working class boy from Glasgow, I loved the fact that he got her, you know? “

McGuigan still lives in Glasgow. In fact he’s never left, even though people assume he moved to LA years ago. He keeps encountering people in the industry who tell him, somewhat accusingly from the sounds of it, that he “went off to Hollywood”. But as he points out: “What would I do here? I certainly wouldn’t be a filmmaker if I had to rely on the work that was here.”

Still, he’s hopeful that he might shoot something here, maybe even as soon as next year. “I’ve got a project for Amazon that John Hodges and I are doing. It’d be lovely to do it in Scotland with some Scottish filmmakers.”

*Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is released on 17 November