Song For Marion - Paul Andrew Williams interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
PAUL Andrew Williams talks about bringing Song For Marion to the big screen and some of the challenges he faced along the way.
He also discusses working with screen legends Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave and getting them to sing, why he respects his own grandparents so much and how he sought to freshen up the genre a little bit.
Q. Can you talk about the genesis of the film and how everything came into place?
Paul Andrew Williams: OK, basically my girlfriend at the time… this was years ago because I wrote it six years ago. We’d been watching this programme called Young At Heart. I didn’t watch it, I just kept looking in from the lounge and eventually she dragged me in and I saw half of the last song. So, about six weeks later I just started to think what would make my grandad come out of his shell a little bit and do something like that. And that’s basically how the idea of the story came about. And then when London To Brighton came out, I had a meeting with BBC and David Thompson at the time and he said: “What have you got?” And I said: “Well, I’ve got this idea about an old man who joins a choir…” So, he said: “We’ll do that.” And that’s how it started.
Q. How much of you is in this script? Is there much that’s autobiographical, that maybe echoes your own relationship with your family?
Paul Andrew Williams: You always have to be careful about what you say because my family is still alive and they might be offended. But obviously there are experiences that I’ve had and my family have had that are in the film. Hopefully, there are elements in the film that are relatable to most people. There are so many bits from the film that I can take from any period of my life, or from things that friends tell me. I think that hopefully it’s all very family orientated.
Q. You have a great cast. How easy was it to assemble?
Paul Andrew Williams: We were very lucky. We have a great cast. Sometimes the stars align, sometimes – and I’m not saying who – there are people who you’re progressing with in terms of them being in the film and that doesn’t work out due to dates and lots of different reasons, and eventually when you get to filming it, it’s worked out the way it has. I think that’s the same with most films, to be honest. And remember, I wrote this six years ago and people come and go but eventually you get left with people who are very behind the film and that’s what we were looking for.
Q. How was that first day on set when you had Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave there? Were there any nerves?
Paul Andrew Williams: No. Not because I’m so brill, just because I’d met them both individually and they’re both actors and extremely professional. When you work with actors, it’s very good to establish the dynamic of director-actor, friends-pals, straight away. So, after I first met them I felt comfortable with them after spending about five minutes with them.
Q. Given what you’ve just said, surely one of the first things an actor will do when being offered a part is to look at the back catalogue of what the director has done before. So, while I appreciate this was written six years ago, did that make for some interesting initial meetings?
Paul Andrew Williams: Well, what was interesting is that, obviously Terence and Vanessa didn’t have a clue who I was. So, they basically went on the script. Terence had seen one of my films before. I showed him London To Brighton and he thought it was very good. Gemma [Arterton] and Chris [Eccleston] had seen some of the films. But I think what they… especially what Terence saw from that film and from meeting me and from the script, was that I sort of like working with actors and performance. It’s very important to me.
Q. Terence is known as a beautiful, immaculate dresser and here you have him as a pensioner. Did he take some persuading to do that?
Paul Andrew Williams: Basically, when I first met him it was quite clear that there was a… he said this to me: “I’m a good looking man.” So, it was about taking that step. He’s playing someone who is old and although Terence is old, I think certain people try and hang on to the perception that he’s not that old. So, it was a leap he had to take. And once he agreed to do that, he was totally open. The only thing that he really brought to a couple of scenes was his hat, which is in a couple of scenes.
But he totally embraced the fact that he had to look old. He tried to lose weight. The thing is, he’s so health conscious and so healthy that he just looks good. He still looks incredibly attractive. His eyes are always sparkling and he’d be the first to admit how beautiful he still is [laughs]. But he’s a really great guy and he’s been around for a long time and that’s one of the things that made him a bit of an icon in this country, was the fact that he was an amazingly attractive young man, and now he’s an amazingly attractive older man.
Q. Can you explain the process of each song and how it was committed to film – both Terence’s song and Vanessa’s?
Paul Andrew Williams: I had to convince them both to sing those songs because when they came on board they both said: “Well, there’s this wonderful song that I know…” And I replied: “Well, that’s one song that you know, it’s not necessarily this!” It was the same with Vanessa. So, they both obviously practised and they both wanted to do it live and they both wanted to do it really only once. So, both times we had three cameras. And once they’d done it once, they did it again but we stopped focusing on the close-ups and sort of moved around. Both of them were very nervous and both showed it in different ways.
But I was also very insistent that it didn’t matter how well you could sing, it was not about that. For everyone in the choir, it wasn’t about how well they could sing, it was about how much they liked doing it. Vanessa was the first one to do it and it broke me. I had to go and cool down. It was incredibly stressful at the time but she did the song, it was great and that was when we all lost it. And we all managed to achieve not having to go and do it again, so it is the version that they did on the day. For Terence’s song, we had four hours with that audience. So, we shot in the theatre for two days and it was mental. But Terence was very good.
Q. When Vanessa is singing True Colours, the reaction shots from Terence are great as well. Was that a playback?
Paul Andrew Williams: She did it to him. The first time she did it, we didn’t have a camera on him because we only had three and they were all on Vanessa. But then she was like: “Why didn’t you get them on Terence?” So, then we did it again and Terence is a pro, so he nailed it. And we actually did it again a couple of weeks later when the weather wasn’t so shit. But of course that whole thing worked between them both.
Q. I notice the name of the Weinstein’s on the production notes, did they exercise any of their influence?
Paul Andrew Williams: I never met Bob. I met Harvey a few times. Regardless of the process, my experience with him is not a bad experience at all, actually. I think when you go into a deal with the Weinstein’s you hear stories, but you also know what they can do is incredibly beneficial to a project. And I think what they did do was very beneficial to us. So, I haven’t got any bad words to say. I fought the battles I wanted to fight and conceded on the battles that would allow me to fight the other ones. But all in all I think the experience was positive.
Q. What was the atmosphere like on-set?
Paul Andrew Williams: We had a really good time on-set. All of the films I’ve done prior to this, they’ve all been very dark subject matter, so it’s always been incredibly important to make sure the atmosphere on-set is a good one and fun, so no one gets too dragged down. With this film, it was no different. You had a choir of elderly people who sort of knew each other, or some of them did and had sung together. But others got to know each other because they spent four weeks together before we started shooting rehearsing the songs. So, they all had a great time and they’re all still friends. The thing is, when you do a film it’s such a stressful time anyway that you have to do your utmost from the top down to make sure everyone has a good time. If you start having a shit time and you’ve got five and a half weeks left of it, it’s just horrible. So, it’s very important that we all have a laugh. People make mistakes but we all get on with it and carry on and have a beer and do the pub quiz, you know…
Q. Vanessa is also very believable as a dying woman. Can you give us some insight into her preparation?
Paul Andrew Williams: Well, we drugged her every day without telling her [laughs]. To be honest, it was very interesting how she went about it. Obviously, she’s been around that illness with certain people, so she’s seen it. And when she started to do it, she wanted to shave her head. But actually her character was in remission, so she wouldn’t be completely bald. But she was basically prepared to do anything. She didn’t want to shy away from anything at all. Even when we were doing the moments when she dies, and we were doing the death rattle, she was talking about a time that she heard it in her life. She is very convincing and that’s because she’s such a brilliant actress. There were times when I was watching her and I was going, ‘what is she doing?’ You then look at the rushes and realise that actually she’s very clever. Actually, she’s a very, very, very clever woman.
Q. Is it true that Gemma Arterton spent six months learning the piano for her role?
Paul Andrew Williams: Well, that sounds amazing but it’s not strictly true. It wasn’t six months. It was probably a few months and that’s not to slag off her commitment. But it sounds like she went to some hardcore piano training school. She learnt various bits and she did really well. What’s in the film, she played. She’s a very committed actress and it was interesting to work with her. She’s so down to earth. It was great to speak to her on the phone, and then I met her and she was totally up for it and just like one of the gang really.
Q. The film doesn’t veer into over-sentimentality. How difficult was that to achieve?
Paul Andrew Williams: Thank you very much by the way. What’s interesting in terms of how people view a film and sentimental moments, there are always going to be people who feel it was just right, as well as those who want more and those who feel it’s too schmaltzy. I think what I tried to do was try and make it within the genre as real as possible. I had cancer myself when I was young and life still goes on. Life stays the same, it’s still the same family, it’s still the same arguments and that was important for me to bring that in. Yes, the mum is dying and the father and son don’t get on but they are just living a normal life, so it doesn’t seem so distant and it’s not so far removed from our own lives that it doesn’t seem believable. It’s when it becomes unbelievable that it doesn’t work. We were aware of it in the edit.
In all honesty, there are elements of the plot that are fairly predictable. It ends in such a way that you can probably see it coming before it does, so in a way we were already in a situation where we needed to try and keep it as balanced as possible. You just have to make the film and hope the audience likes it. But it all comes down to individual taste in the end.
Q. So what did you do to freshen up the genre or give it a twist?
Paul Andrew Williams: Well, what I think it boils down to… my gran died and my grandad was… one of the things that interested me in making a film about these people and their story was that I really admired my grandparents very much. Sometimes I totally disagreed with their way of life. Sometimes they were a pain in the ass for what they were. But when I look at what they were to each other and the strength that they had… nowadays that couple would have split up 40 years ago, whereas the determination and the actual marriage as something that you really work on and you stick with and you stay with and that’s my partner and we’re a team and love is a very different thing… all of that, that makes that generation and the love of that generation between couples so interesting.
The bond is so strong. I was trying to work out how to have that between two people. So, for example, in scenes where they go to bed and are talking – you don’t often see that generation in a bed together and there’s still tenderness there. So, it was just trying to do it in a way that recognised the fact that a certain generation of people are very united in how they deal with things and also very practical and also very forgiving. And also a certain type of person like Arthur might never have spent more than two nights away not in the same bed. It’s kind of incredible considering how I am now. And the fact that they are such a team. So, that’s what we tried to do.