Interview: 'The Special Relationship' director Richard Loncraine
HBO telefilm features Michael Sheen and Dennis Quaid as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton
Looking at director Richard Loncraine's resume, he's a difficult man to put a finger one.
He won an Emmy as part of the directing team on HBO's "Band of Brothers" and picked up Emmy nods for the HBO telefilms "My House in Umbria" and "The Gathering Storm."
With Ian McKellen's "Richard III," he helmed one of the most acclaimed Shakespeare films of recent years, following that up with a tennis romance ("Wimbledon"), a Harrison Ford thriller ("Firewall") and a Renee Zellweger period piece.
Loncraine's new film is HBO's "The Special Relationship," the third film in writer Peter Morgan's trilogy about Tony Blair. In addition to featuring Michael Sheen returning as Blair, "The Special Relationship" co-stars Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis as Bill and Hillary Clinton. Like its predecessors "The Deal" and "The Queen," it's a revealing portrait of the people behind politics and power.
HitFix caught up with Loncraine for a revealing interview about Blair, Clinton and the director's process and his place in the industry.
HitFix: Around halfway through the movie, I began to look at it as this sort of platonic love story between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Was that intentional?
Richard Loncraine: I don't think so. I don't think it was. It's certainly a story, as the title says, about relationships. I'm not a very political animal and what appealed to me, though I was fascinated to learn about the politics and what happened, it was really, yeah, the relationship between two people that really fascinated me. It's always about performance and characters meeting... I think the power base, obviously, is what gives it its appeal. The climate today I think is right for a movie that's about politics. I think people are more interested now, certainly in England they are, than they were 10 years ago.
HitFix: But it seems like so much of the movie is about courtship of these two men and the wooing and the bumpy spots in their relationship...
RL: No, I think you're right. I think it's certainly a platonic love story as much as anything else, but it's set against a backdrop. If I had my druthers, I probably would have had even more behind-the-scenes than we were able to do. There's a maximum amount that you can do in an hour-and-a-half, but I was fascinated by, and I think the public are, by what goes on behind closed doors and in the corridors of power.
HitFix: You came into this project relatively late in pre-production. What was your acclimation process like?
RL: It should have been a shock, the whole process, but actually it was rather pleasurable. I've been trying to analyze why it was one of the happiest, easiest shoots I've ever done and I think partly it was because I had a fantastic crew and it wasn't a crew that I could change, since I came on a month before I started shooting. But I met some really great people. At my age, you tend to travel with your own crew and that's not always necessarily a good thing. So I was shaken up a little bit, which was good. I also wasn't exhaust the way you usually are, like when you have 12 weeks of prep and probably six months before that that you've been working on the project, but with all the doubt. The thing about directing movies is that it's the actual unknown that's so frightening. When you face the monster, it's really not usually very frightening. It's when you don't know what that monster's going to be -- how much money you've got, what actors you have, who's going to help you, who's going to try to destroy you. It's a war zone making movies, or it can be. But with this, I came into it four weeks before we started, which meant I had two weeks of prep, tech prep for a week and then I had rehearsal for a week. So I had to be up-and-running within 10 days of saying "Yes" to the movie. I rather enjoyed it. I thought it was good fun.
Editing was tricky. Editing was harder than the shoot, I think because HBO was so cautious about making sure it was political correct, not in the standard sense of the term, but in terms of the historical accuracy of the piece. So editing was complex and time-consuming. I'm not a great lover of editing. I mean, I like editing, but I think people take much too long, generally, and this was quite drawn out. But HBO is a very good company to work for. I've done four films with them now and they're pretty grown up about stuff.
HitFix: What was the particular challenge facing you in the editing room on this one?
RL: We telling a very complicated political story, with Kosovo and Northern Ireland. The thing about real life is that it doesn't fit into a cinematic structure that you normal want a drama to be. So Peter had gone a long way to solving that problem, but as you know, filmmaking is a constantly evolving process and when you shoot the movie and when you get to the cutting room, you have to say "This is what we've got. What do we do with it?" We had to use archive material, obviously, to tell our story. There were many conveniences we'd like to have gone down, which we could not do because politically they would have been inaccurate and HBO wouldn't let us it and also it would have been, I think, wrong to have done that. But trying to balance between entertainment and the political accuracy was very hard.
One of the great things about HBO, is that they always keep a little bit of money in their pocket to do a few reshooting during the editing process. I've done it on all of the films I've made for HBO, apart from "Band of Brothers." But on "My House in Umbria" and "The Gathering Storm," those we went back and did two, three, four days. It was great and truthfully I'd do it on any feature. People say, "As a director, what was your vision of the movie?" Well, I never have a vision, to be honest. I have a few sort of ideas and then the vision comes as you're doing it and it evolves. I can't surf, but I image it's not dissimilar. You have to go with the wave. Directing's a bit like that and you're constantly adjusting and keeping and eye on the film and saying "Well is this the movie we started to make?" And then "Well yes it is," or is it changing? And if it's changing, is it changing for the better or for the worse. I didn't have a vision for the film, there wasn't time for a vision and I generally never do. It was really about keeping the balance in in editing and making it accurate, politically and emotionally, and entertaining.
HitFix: How much vision was in the script that Peter left for you?
RL: Well Peter, he's a very clever writer. He came up with all of the key phrases. He got all the structure and I think we went back, from the draft that I read and the one they were going to shoot, I went back read earlier drafts and used some of that in the beginning of the movie. We changed quite a lot of things. The ending was in the scripts that I read, the early ones, I thought was really inspired and helped the movie get off stage, In the end, that's what it's about, how do you end your film? Most movies start well, but they don't always finish well. I think cutting to the original footage of Blair and Bush was a very clever thing to do and brought the film down to Earth, as it were, again.
HitFix: American audiences may lack the full context. How would you say that this Tony Blair is different from the Tony Blair in "The Queen" and in "The Deal"?
RL: Things obviously have moved on in his world and it's the third part of a trilogy about his life... I think it's the best writing and performance in terms of Blair. We see his arc of character development over a much greater span than we did in the other two films... I think to go from the relatively naive character we see in the beginning, to the really rather dry and cynical character that we see at the end is perhaps the biggest arc of the three films.
HitFix: When you're doing a film like this and working with an actor like Michael who has played the role three times, what's your capacity to steer the direction of his performance?
RL: Obviously it helps enormously that Michael knew the character. I could ask him about it and we could sit down and chat between takes about Tony Blair. I was on a learning curve throughout the early part of the film. Great actors, you nudge them as a director. You don't direct them and you don't give them line readings... It's very much like steering a boat. If you get on boat and don't know how to steer it, you'll soon be going round in circles. You mustn't over-steer... That's why I love working with actors and hate it. They're obviously people like everyone else and we can insecure or hard... and generally, working with actors keeps you on your toes. There's never a dull moment when you're directing actors and I love it. Doing special effects, it's all very well, but once you work out how to do it, and I love technology, there's nothing much to do. You wait until someone else gets it right. When you're working with actors, every time you do a take... Well, no. Arrogantly as a director, I always think there's something for you to do, even if it's only to encourage or nurture. But working with an actor like Michael, he know how to do it.
HitFix: You work with Ian McKellen on his "Richard III," filming a performance he'd done many times on stage. Were there similarities between that experience and working with Michael here?
RL: Interesting. They're very different.
Michael was very secure in his portrayal of Blair. He knew exactly how he wanted to do it. Strangely, Ian, who's become a very close and good friend, was not secure on film. He's a remarkable man and working with him was an absolutely joy, but this is a man who is one of the greatest Shakespearean actors alive today and then you have this very uneducated English director who doesn't know Shakespeare from a hole in the ground, really. That's one of the funny things about directing it, that I always had to ask the question of, "Well what's this scene about? Because I don't understand it..." which you're not meant to do if you're a Shakespeare buff, you're meant to just sit there and not, so I'm a fool to be asking. I never saw his stage production and when I finally saw a video of it, I didn't really like it. It had nothing to do with how it was directed. It was just not what I had imagined. And I said to Ian, "I don't know how to do this..." And he said, "Just tell me what to do, darling. I don't mind. What should we do on this one?" He was absolutely remarkable. And "insecure" is not the word, but very much an open book. In the end, I just created an environment in which he felt comfortable, but he's been very generous about saying how perhaps his performances in film were effected by our relationship and working together. I have to say that I learned a lot from working with him.
So they're very different animals. Michael is very self-confident and knows exactly what he wants to do. Ian was not as confident until he got further down the process. They're both equally good.
HitFix: And when you're considering that arc and reaching up to 2000, how much do you keep in mind the next 10 years? We know where Tony Blair's story went from there, but do you want to show the audience that you also know where it goes?
RL: Absolutely. That was the intent of Peter in this film. I've never actually met Peter, bizarrely, but from all the conversations I've had with Peter and people who worked with him, he felt that this was a film that prepared you for Iraq, explained how Tony Blair could become a character who said, "Yes, let's join America and let's invade Iraq." So I think it's certainly tipping its hand, which is why I think going to the footage of the real Blair and Bush is an inspired idea of Peter's.
HitFix: Gotta backtrack quickly. You had no contact with Peter at all?
RL: That's not quite true. We had two phone conversations. He wasn't heavily involved in the process after I became involved, but there were copious notes left, but there wasn't really time. We had a fantastic script and we were off to do it. Once I'd gotten the gist of what he wanted it to be about, there wasn't much time to talk to anyone about it.
HitFix: Did you go back and watch the two Stephen Frears films, "The Deal" and "The Queen," for pointers or continuity or what have you?
RL: I don't think I was influenced by them, or I'm not aware I was. As a director, I sort of just get on with it, really, and let it evolve. I suppose I was aware that "The Queen" was a very different beast, a much fluffier piece of work. "Fluffy" sounds insulting, but I mean a lighter piece. Ours was nots. But the characters of the Queen and the Royal Family were, I think, painted with a slightly broader brush than it was appropriate to do with this film.
HitFix: Though you do have Bill Clinton here and he's a character who's also easy to paint with a broad brush. What was your process like with Dennis Quaid to make Clinton larger-than-life, but perhaps not too big?
RL: Dennis knew Clinton and he'd been to the White House and spent the weekend with him, a casual weekend, not an official weekend. That helped enormously for Dennis. And Dennis is a movie star. He has a charisma. He has something that comes off him that you can't buy. You don't get it in acting school. You're born with it, I think. Dennis has some of the charismatic qualities that Bill Clinton, who I've never met, I perceive as having. I did look at a lot of Clinton stuff and I saw how he was. We had voice experts on set. Dennis comes from the same part of the country as Clinton, so that helps. He worked on the voice. He put on 30 pounds for the character, so he was heavier set. I hope we didn't fall into caricature. Someone will have to tell me. I don't think we did. I think Dennis was able to avoid that.
HitFix: Were there points where you had to steer Dennis back from going too broad?
RL: I think his barometer was pretty good. He might suggest something and then try it and I'd look look at [producer Frank Doelger] and Frank would look at me and I'd go, "Hmmm... Well, it's good Frank" and Frank would say, "Yes, but it's probably not good for these reasons..." And then we'd discuss it for five minutes and decide what to do. It was a very civilized shoot. Filmmaking is either the most wonderful job in the world, or it's the most dreadful one and you can wake up every morning and burst into tears knowing you're going to go to work. This was not one of those cases. There was an atmosphere on set that was always collaborative. It's unusual. Doesn't always happen. And you can't buy it. There are actors and producers in this business who I won't read scripts from, who I know that I won't get along. I don't even bother to look at them, because they'll probably be wonderful scripts and then I'll be suckered in. You can't guarantee, though, even if you choose the nicest people and the best scripts that the shooting process will be one that you'll enjoy. But you can try and sometimes you'll get lucky. This was an example where we really did get lucky. That doesn't mean you're going to make a great movie. Sometimes you can have a wonderful time and make a s*** movie.
HitFix: You mentioned that this is your fourth time working with HBO and that they've very involved in the post production process. What is their hand in the actual making of the movie?
RL: They're supportive. You don't have the chain of command that the studios have. You don't have a dozen executives around. You have one, Len Amato, who runs the film division. They only make three or four films a year. So you have Len, who's the head of it, then you have Frank Doelger, who was the main producer on it, really. We had Kathy Kennedy, from Kennedy/Marshall and she's no slouch when it comes to experience. We had the BBC's involvement. So there were quite a few chiefs, but they didn't really come around much. Once people look at the first couple days of dailies and they realize that you're not off-the-wall, they leave you alone. It's like if you have a big corporation that buys a small one. If they're bright, once they know that they company's bottom line is working, they keep away from it. They don't try to change it. So this is the fourth film I've done with HBO and they've all been lucky enough to win Emmys, so they're extremely nice and generous to me in terms of how I get on with things.
With Dennis playing Clinton and a film predominantly paid for by America and for America and you're talking about one of their heroes, if you like. It depends on which side of the fence you're on, as it were, but I would say there was more good about Clinton than bad, for me. If you got that wrong, you got it very wrong, so there was certainly a lot of attention to how Dennis was playing it and within a few days, everyone was calm and happy and moved on.
HitFix: Since, as you say, you had an American movie star playing an American icon for American audiences, was there a push-and-pull to make sure that things stayed equitable in the balance between Clinton and Blair?
RL: I think so. I think everyone wanted to make sure that the balance was right. I think HBO wanted to make sure that this film was not biased too much about Tony Blair and the BBC wanted to make sure that Tony Blair was equally well represented. I think probably that if I were to criticize America -- and God forbid I were to do that, being married to an American and loving the place -- there is an insular quality sometimes about America, like where the World Series actually only involves American teams. And I think American can be guilty of not looking outside its own borders as much as it might do. So there's no question that Bill was going to be the prime interest, but ultimately getting the wives right was more complex than getting the men right. The men were always pretty much there, initially, but I think we moved around the amount of involvement for the two wives, Hillary and Cherie, in post-production as much as anything, because there's only so much time time you have on screen. We didn't shoot much extra, but we had scenes where we thought, "Is this right, balance-wise?" You could make 10 films about these people. It's a pretty fascinating subject. You could certainly make another one about the life of Hillary and Bill, easily, and you could do another about the Blairs, but that wasn't the brief. The film was called "The Special Relationship" and it is, predominantly about the two men and not about the two women...
HitFix: You've talked several times about the easy and pleasure of making this movie. How does that impact the way you approach future projects, looking for the same things?
RL: I think for me, I'm excited by the idea of not knowing about something. As you can see from my meteoric rise into mediocrity, I've chosen pretty strange things over the years and I have a very checkered career. I tend to jump around, because I love to learn about new stuff. I didn't mind being exposed in terms of not knowing the subject. That was half of the charm. I just look for a good script, to be honest. There are certain subjects that I find harder than others, but my agents say, "Does this idea appeal to you?" and I go, "Oh, not terribly, but can I please read the script, because I might be wrong."
HitFix: You say "checkered," but I'd go with "eclectic." Is there a film on your C.V. that you feel is perhaps the most like your own personal sensibility?
RL: That's tricky. I think probably the one that hardly got shown called "My One and Only" with Renee Zellweger, which I did before this, which I just loved. I thought it was just such a generous film and had a spirit. I'm not very good at unhappy endings. I'm a bit of a softie. I tend to cry when, you know, "Dog Saves Baby From Drowning," I'm in tears when I read the newspaper. My wife comes and looks at me like I'm someone from another planet, because she says I'm so pathetic. I'm not very good at horror movies. I don't like violence terribly. I'll put violence in a movie if it's appropriate and necessary, but I won't ever dwell on it, because I think you don't need to. I think you can make things shocking and frightening without actually seeing blood and vomit and all of the other things that are shown in so many movies. I think those are weaknesses in the filmmaking process and not strengths. There are so many films I love, but "Richard the Third" and the Albert Finney film ["The Gathering Storm"] and "My House in Umbria" and the Renee Zellweger, but probably that one because it was the most recent. I was very hurt by the fact that we couldn't sell "My One and Only." You probably didn't see it did you?
HitFix: No, sorry...
RL: Oh, don't worry. It's a beautiful movie. She's fantastic in it. It's all the things the studios said they wanted to have and no one wanted to buy it, bizarrely. It's a studio film that we made independently and it got some great reviews, but it didn't get distribution. We tried to sell it in 2008 after the crash and they said, "Oh yes. It's a nice enough film, but we'd rather have two cheap horror movies, because they're easier easier to sell than a film that will appeal to 40-year-old women...
HitFix: That's the kind of thing that could either make you never want to have a business experience like that again, or that could make you want to rush out to have a creative experience like that again. Where do you find yourself?
RL: Oh, I'm 63, 64 years old. I'm not rushing anywhere, apart for to enjoy myself and to see my grandkids and my children. For some time now, I've looked upon every movie now as the last one, really. If I get asked to do another one, great. If I don't? That's fine. There are many things I love to do in my life. I'm an avid cyclist. I love to cook. I'm an inventor, I make things in my workshop. So I'm kind of looking forward to doing other things, really. I love making movies. I hope I get offered another job. And, of course, as a director you have to be ambitious and you have to want to do it, and I do, but it's not the only thing I love to do.
I'm hoping I'll be brave enough at some point the future to say, "I'm not a director anymore, don't send me any scripts because I'm inventing or I'm writing, going to to do the book that every arrogant director thinks they can write." So I hope I'm brave enough to close the door one day and not sit on the edge and say to my agents, "Well, I'm only reading the good stuff," because all that will do is make me as stressed as you can be in this business. I've had a wonderful life in terms of making movies. I have no regrets. I'm not a household name and people don't recognize me in the carparks, but I'm pretty proud of the films I've been involved in and if I get a chance to do another one? Great. If I don't? Well, so much...
"The Special Relationship" airs on HBO on Saturday, May 29.