When Peter Turner met Gloria Grahame in 1979, her Hollywood career was over. At the time, the 27-year-old Liverpudlian was a struggling actor looking for work in London. When she moved into a flat in his boarding house, he didn’t recognize the Oscar-winning actress from her starring roles in classic films like In a Lonely Place (1950) with Humphrey Bogart or The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). What he did pay attention to was their mutual attraction, despite the 28-year age gap between them.
Paul McGuigan’s movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, based on Turner’s memoir, dramatizes their romance, break-up and the illness that drew her back to him. Speaking over the phone from his home in Scotland, the director of action films like Lucky Number Slevin and Gangster No. 1 talks about making a film in a quieter genre, one that seems, from his resume at least, uncharacteristically tender and restrained. But McGuigan offers a corrective to that assessment.
Of his previous films the director says, “They’ve all had an emotional center to them. I’m a 50-year-old man so I understand heartache, love, lust. Plus the screenplay had it, and Peter’s story was so muddied with the emotionality.” In Turner’s memoir, Grahame was the pivotal figure in his life.
McGuigan understood what that meant for him. “We’ve all met someone who has changed our lives, and for good or for bad,” he says. “But he wasn’t really wanting to write a book. It was more free flowing, from one memory into another memory.”
The director created a visual equivalent to mimic the way memories ebb and flow in Turner’s mind. “I wanted the audience to be taken in this journey. I didn’t want to break the spell,” McGuigan explains. “I wanted to build sets that were back-to-back to each other so that either Jamie Bell (Peter Turner) or Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame) could walk through their memory. The camera basically never cuts. It’s quite theatrical in its concept.”
One example of this technique happens in a scene where Turner sits in his parents’ house, about to call Grahame’s son in California. McGuigan recalls, “We built, for instance, the Liverpool house onto the Los Angeles airport arrivals terminal. The idea was that suddenly he’s talking about an American phone number to contact the family about Grahame’s illness. And then suddenly he remembers his first time arriving in Los Angeles [to visit her] and boom, you’re straight into it.”
As the camera follows him, we become particularly attuned to Turner’s grief because of this fluidity between the past — before Grahame’s death — and, afterwards, as he mourns her absence.
“When I first met Annette for the part, the first thing she said to me, which rang true, was, ‘I don’t want this to be about an old lady dying in a room. I don’t want it to be sentimental’,” McGuigan says. “I was like, that’s brilliant because that’s really what I was gonna say as well. You don’t need to be putting the violins down, you don’t need to be putting big scores down, it’s a very simple story in its truth. But it’s a timeless story, isn’t it, people falling in love.”
Bening’s great scene in the film comes in a close-up, when she finally accepts the gravity of her condition. As much as the movie is Peter’s story, her work in such scenes convinced McGuigan to include more of Gloria’s perspective. “The cinematographer, Urszula Pontikos, who operated the camera, I remember her taking the camera away and she was in floods of tears,” the director says. “She had to go away for 10 minutes. It was obviously too much. That’s when I knew that very moment was the scene where we changed the point of view into Gloria’s.”
McGuigan first experimented with translating a character’s unspoken thoughts to the audience while directing several episodes of the recent TV series Sherlock (starring Benedict Cumberbatch). “With Sherlock, we used the text up on the screen and we used all these different layers of visualizations,” he says. “It’s breaking the fourth wall a little bit because you’re showing the mechanics of how something works rather than hiding it.”
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool too finds a way to break the fourth wall without canceling out our willing suspension of disbelief. But it’s the lack of one other ingredient — saccharine — that makes the emotional life of a film about a faded movie star feel true and real.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ opens Friday, Jan. 12 at the Landmark Clay Theatre in San Francisco and Jan. 19 at theaters in Berkeley, Palo Alto, Pleasant Hill and San Rafael. For more information, click here.