From director Paul McGuigan and based on the book by Peter Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool delves into the playful but passionate relationship between Turner (Jamie Bell) and Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (played magnificently by Annette Bening) in Liverpool in 1978. The affair between the eccentric femme fatale and her young lover quickly became a deep bond, leading Gloria to turn to Peter and his family for comfort at a time that would test the strength of that bond.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker McGuigan talked about why he wanted to tell the love story between Gloria Grahame and Peter Turner, what Bening and Bell brought to these roles, the biggest production challenges with this shoot, why he learned from screening the film for people, what he’d like to do next, and why he likes to mix things up between film and TV.
Collider: How did this script come your way, and what was it about this relationship that made you want to direct this film?
PAUL McGUIGAN: The script came to me through Barbara Broccoli. Barbara and I had known each other for quite a little while, and she sent me the script and said that she’d been trying to do this story for 22 years because Peter Turner is a good friend of hers and it’s his story. What I loved about it was that the script is based on a book by the same name and it’s a very slight volume of about 144 pages. I loved the simplicity of the relationship and I’d never really done a love story before, so I really wanted to do it. And then, I heard that Annette Bening was also interested in doing it, so everything came together well. Sometimes it happens like that, and it all just lands in the right place and you go for it. I was really interested in making a love story, and I liked the Hollywood elements and film elements of it. I knew, as a filmmaker, I could put some of those older film techniques into the work that I was doing. I was paying homage, a little bit, to Gloria’s past work, through the camera and with lots of transitions.
Was it ever intimidating or nerve-wracking to direct a film that your producer has been trying to get made for over 20 years?
McGUIGAN: As a director, you only really get that one go at it, so I always have the philosophy of, “Let’s see what happens.” It’s good that Barbara is so passionate about the story that it’s the opposite of being intimidated. She makes you fall in love with it, through her eyes. The reason why it took so long, I guess, was just that sometimes things have to line up. Annette was far too young when she first was approached about it, 10 or 15 years ago. She was having kids and she didn’t really want to do it then. Sometimes things just line up. Barbara handed me the baton at the right time, and she was amazing and very supportive.
Annette Bening was already interested in this project, but how did you come to Jamie Bell?
McGUIGAN: I hadn’t really known Jamie, personally, but I’ve known his work and I was really interested in him. I knew he came from a very working class background in the northeast of England. Although Liverpool is in the northwest, I felt that he understood the family dynamic, which I thought was important to the story. He understood this idea of a boy coming from a working class background who wanted to be an actor. That’s something that he went through, with the weathering looks that people give you when you want to be on the stage. Also, he’s just such a brilliant actor. He came to me, Annette and Barbara in Los Angeles, and he read a couple of scenes with Annette and it was just instant. It was one of those things where you’re not really struggling to find the actors to be in the film because they came to us pretty quickly. Annette Bening is obviously a great attraction for other actors to come out and play.
You decided to shoot the couple’s break-up from two different perspectives. What did you want to convey with that? Why was that important to you?
McGUIGAN: It’s funny, when we were doing the final days of rehearsals, after rehearsing for three weeks, both Annette and Jamie and I thought that there was something missing, a little bit. There was another element that we’d never really showed, and that element was actually Gloria’s point of view. The film is told from Peter’s point of view, and because this woman that was enigmatic and elusive, he couldn’t understand why she threw him out of the house. So, I thought it would be interesting for the audience to see it twisted around and see the same scene as before, but from her point of view. You get to understand that pain and how difficult it must have been for her to have made that decision, in order to protect Peter. She threw him out of her life, really. The idea of going to the doctor’s and being told that it’s too late and there’s nothing that can be done for her was a death sentence, and here was this young man, so she tried not to let him go through that. I thought that was really interesting, so we did that thing where we showed the same scene twice, and it was really just so that the audience could experience the story from her point of view for a little while and understand her motivation. I think if you didn’t have that, you would be somewhat angry with her. It’s fine to be angry with someone, but I wanted the audience to understand what a big sacrifice it was for her, as well.