It’s the second to last day of TIFF 2012 and Paul Andrew Williams is just getting started. Of course, we’re relaxing over lunch in a swanky looking, but vastly less crowded hotel in downtown Toronto, and Williams doesn’t seem the slightest but nervous that his film Unfinished Song (then known as Song for Marion) goes on later in the evening as the closing gala. The nerves are there for him, as they would be for any filmmaker, but even as a reporter closing out a hectic festival and entering into his last interview, the relaxation and joy of someone in such a position is heartening to see.
It’s also heartening to note that Unfinished Song seems a lot more in step with Williams’ warm personality than a lot of his previous work. Before embarking on a mission to tell the story of an elderly man (iconic actor Terence Stamp) begrudgingly joining up with an old folks acapella group to respect the wishes of his terminally ill wife (equally and possibly even more iconic Vanessa Redgrave), his output had been markedly darker.
Making a name for himself in the UK with such menacing thrillers as London to Brighton, The Cottage, and Cherry Tree Lane, he also wrote the script for his most recent effort and garnered him a British Independent Film Awards nomination to go along with the work put in by his leading actors.
We chatted about the departure for him, working with British cinematic heavyweights, and picking just the right kind of music for the right kind of mood.
Dork Shelf: This is definitely a bit of a change of pace for you to go the crowd pleaser route. What drew you to want to tell this story?
Paul Andrew Williams: I had written this about five or six years ago, so it was really just that other films I had been working on had managed to get made earlier. I’d always liked the idea of always being able to tell different kinds of stories, and when I go to make a film I don’t ever think about who’s going to be alienated or more accepting or receptive towards it. I try not to really think about the choices I’ve made, and I really just tell myself to focus on making the film.
Obviously, I knew this was a bit more of a commercial and crowd pleasing kind of film, from the subject matter that it touches on and the fact that there’s more than a fair bit of emotion to it. It was a much bigger and different kind of journey than I had been on with some of my other work, but ultimately it’s just a different kind of film. It was just something else that I happened to be passionate about. I don’t sort of look at it as different. I mean, yes, obviously it is different, but it’s still doing what I love doing which is telling stories.
DS: Was there a personal connection to this story at all? Because it seems like from how you talk about it that something really struck you to make you want to tell this one.
PAW: Well, I think that everyone’s got family and there are definitely a lot of small personal elements in there, and with everything I’ve done there are those aspects at some point, but a lot of it really came from just observing older people, and observing love and devotion within that generation and sticking with people no matter what, it just seems so much more firm and solid and respectful that I would say modern day relationships among younger people even of my age. That struck me more than anything as something I wanted to talk about.
DS: It’s a tough tone for a film to pull off because this kind of film is hard to do because it’s a younger person trying to treat older people with respect. Is there ever that temptation with making something a bit lighthearted to go a bit broad with it instead of reigning it in?
PAW: Well, some people think this is pretty broad. (laughs) I think it’s all individual. Someone said to me recently that people will get from the film what they put into it, so their own experiences and cynicisms and joys or whatever will come out. For me after I had written the script and got to know all of the characters and found out what the actors were going to be and what they could do for you, was to just have the idea to make it and do it for real. I feel like there’s this idea that old people shouldn’t be allowed to do a lot of stuff and that they’re somehow way past love and tenderness, but to find actors that can make that realness come to life is key because that’s not really how old people are.
DS: Was Terence Stamp always one of your first choices for the lead?
PAW: I always wanted someone LIKE Terence when I was writing it. Terence just suits the character very well. He has this incredibly expressive face in terms of how surly he can look, but he also has this really great smile that he can use when he wants to. When he came on board it was really interesting the stories that we talked about from our own experiences and other people we knew. He immediately lived up to his reputation as someone who would come in and do a lot of work and put in a hard effort right before we even shot anything.
DS: It’s also a film about music, which is hard to do with pop songs thanks to rights issues, but was there anything you wanted to use that you couldn’t get the clearance for?
PAW: Well, I mean, there are some songs that you’ll just never get unless you’re a multi-multi-billionaire, but almost all of the songs that were in the script were the ones that were on screen. There are a few I would have liked, I guess, but there’s so much to it like you said. You have to make sure all the actors are comfortable, but even before that you have make sure that pretty much anyone involved with any given record are okay with it.
DS: Well, you got Motorhead, which was a pretty huge get for a movie like this, I think.
PAW: (laughs) That was actually one of the easiest ones to get! And I think the idea of people doing a sing like that in the way that we’re going about it and having it be in a film like that could be seen in a lot of ways as being really flattering. And I mean, it’s always different, especially now when you have something like Glee and there are all these different versions of songs floating out there, it’s certainly become a lot more hip, popular, and acceptable to allow your songs to be used in projects like this. That helps.
DS: Do you think if anyone were to compare this to something like Glee that it would necessarily hurt or help you at all?
PAW: To be honest. I have no idea because I’ve never once watched the show. Everyone says good stuff about it. This film is just in a way kind of like that in positive ways, I think. This isn’t offensive and relateable to a wide range of people. It doesn’t pose a wide range of challenging arguments and debates. It’s about one family and how normal they are dealing with a situation that we’ll all go through at some point in our lives.
DS: How were Terence and Vanessa as singers?
PAW: They were good! The thing is that when we started the film it was very important to me that all of the singers weren’t super amazing because I think they had to be real. I think Terence and Vanessa can hold a tune and they have real voice to sort of lead the film around them, so it was great to have them on board.
DS: The chemistry between Terence and Vanessa is great, but almost as interesting is the chemistry that Terence has with Christopher Eccleston as his son. What was it like directing the two of them?
PAW: Well, they were both really great and they both really liked each other before coming on to do this one. They were easy to work with and they did a great job because father and son relationships are always things that are interesting to work on and convey. They had to have a close relationship, but also this lack of communication that the two of them still worked on together. It was really great to watch.
DS: You also have Gemma Arterton as the sort of coach of these singers and an interesting way of straddling being open and happy to everyone around her in public and then the second everyone looks away, she’s pretty miserable. She’s kind of the exact opposite of Terence’s character in a lot of ways.
PAW: And she’s really what most of us are like. We’re all very nervous in that same way whereas we can be really confident in another environment. It’s harder for her to feel comfortable with herself than it is it for her to feel comfortable around others. And again, she was another person who was very down to Earth and very cool to work with.