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Is Anybody There? - John Crowley interview

John Crowley, Is Anybody There?

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Crowley talks to us about the challenge and appeal of directing Is Anybody There? with Sir Michael Caine and a huge cast of British veterans, and why he thinks the issue of old age is such a taboo subject when it comes to confronting it on film and as members of the public.

Q. How did you first get involved with Is Anybody There?
John Crowley: [Producer] David Heyman sent me a treatment, which was two pages long. When I read it I knew I was going to make the film because I loved the tone of it. It had all the potential to be a really distinctive, funny and touching film. I found the whole idea of a child growing up in a retirement home just made me chuckle. It felt like a fantastic lend to examine the whole idea of growing old and growing up.

Q. Sir Michael Caine has talked about the importance of rehearsal when coming to films. Is that something you’d agree with?
John Crowley: I think that it’s the difference between theatre and film. I think you never want to over-rehearse a film. You want the scene to crack wide open in front of the camera so you need to rehearse quite delicately because there’s a danger of over-rehearsing. Whereas, in theatre you can’t over-rehearse. When you crack a scene open emotionally that can happen in week two of rehearsal and that’s only stage one. The next stage is figuring out how you’re going to do that eight times a week and keep it truthful. But I think rehearsal is absolutely crucial. If actors know what the target of the scene is when they come on set… if you’ve got actors of the calibre that we had, they make it look easy.

Q. The cast is a bit of a who’s who really. How easy were they to assemble?
John Crowley: When Michael became attached to it, which all happened very, very quickly – he read it, he called the next day and we met for lunch about a week later and said: “I want to do it, but I’ve got to go and do Batman Begins.” So, we had set dates, which were about eight months later. We didn’t actually begin casting until about two months before we started shooting and the truth is, it wasn’t difficult. With the great cast of older actors we have, one of the sad things is that they’re all ready for work. They haven’t retired, they just haven’t been sent scripts and there are precious few roles for them, and never roles where they all get to play with each other. So, there were a few instances where they called back within two hours of receiving the script to say “yes please”! It was faster than any casting process I’ve ever had.

Q. Did you ever have trouble keeping them quiet given the amount of stories they must have had?
John Crowley: The truth is I occasionally got a word in edgeways. Come 8am, they’d all arrive on the set and it was sort of game on! So, I hadn’t much of a hope to be honest. But it was a very jolly set and there was a lot of laughter on it. There were also a couple of scores being settled that had just been brewing since before the Vietnam War, I think [laughs]. It was great fun.

Q. How easy was it finding the young actor to play Edward?
John Crowley: Bill [Milner] took a little bit longer. We saw an awful lot of kids. But pretty early on in the process, Bill came to the fore as somebody who had an older spirit. He is jolly and very well adjusted but he has an ability to portray a melancholy that is beyond his years, and a maturity. The kid at the centre of the film wouldn’t be cutesy and child-like, he’s not of his own generation. He’s closer to Michael’s generation and Bill was able to convey that.

Q. How did David Morrissey go after his outfits and wigs?
John Crowley: Oh, he went after those with a relish that was really a bit shocking, especially those Magnum PI shorts! He took to that a little bit too readily for my comfort [laughs]. I think David is a really great character actor. I think he’s one of the best in the country. He’s totally fearless and ego-less. But the amazing thing is… a lot of lesser actors would have played the costume and played the hairdo. But David never did. It’s there, it’s part of the scene and it’s embarrassing and cringe-making but it’s because you’re taking it from that character’s point of view – that he thinks he’s down with the kids and he’s not.

Q. Why do you think as a general rule the British population is so dis-connected and dis-respectful of the older generation?
John Crowley: I’m not sure it’s just the British. But we have an ageing population and I don’t think people quite know what to do with them and how to feel towards them, which is an awful shame. There’s a huge resource that’s not quite being looked at. I understand that people don’t like to be reminded of what’s going to happen on the far side of that part of life. But it’s a crucial part of life and to sort of shut it off and somehow make old age a state that people go into once they’re past a certain age… because in general they stop being individuals and sort of join this faceless mass, which is awful.

This film isn’t a tub-thumping social agenda film in that way, but it does it by very delicately telling a couple of stories about individuals. We have all these individuals in the film who have all these great stories and the feeling should be that you could drop into any one of them and find their story.

So, we tried to do that as delicately as possible and give little snapshots of these people who have their complete worlds, such as Rosemary Harris trying her shoes on while Michael is in the next room. There’s a feeling that in each cubicle, there are individuals who are having their own private memory experience and we just go on a journey with one. But I think it’s a massive issue, which is not very fashionable to write about, and certainly not make films about. Films tend to be about youth, don’t they?

Q. Taking the name of the film, is there anybody there in the after-life?
John Crowley: I’ve no idea. It would be nice, wouldn’t it? But I doubt it very much.

Q. Can you just say a final word about working with Elizabeth Spriggs in what was to be her final role before her death?
John Crowley: Well, when she came in to read for the part she pulled out of her handbag a large roll of bubble wrap and said: “I saw my grandchild doing this last week.” She started popping the bubble wrap and hearing it as if there were noises going on around her. It reduced me to tears of laughter. But she was deadly serious about it. Elizabeth was the actor’s actor.

She was ferociously serious about what she did and yet did it with the lightest of touches. She was quite something; a real personality. She didn’t have the career that she might have had. She chose theatre at a certain point, I think, and had a career that would be very hard to have any more now, because the theatre has changed so much. But she was incredible.

Read our review of Is Anybody There?