If you were to look at director Anand Tucker’s IMDb profile, it would seem like his last movie was the adaptation of Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, released by Touchstone Pictures back in 2005. In fact, much of Tucker’s time since then had been spent developing the film based on Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, a project he left midway due to creative differences.
It must have been a bittersweet departure, because it would have been a fantastic film under Tucker’s guidance and he was a big fan of the books, but leaving the film allowed the director to successfully dodge the bullet and the backlash when the movie bombed horribly, something that many felt greatly accelerated the decline and death of New Line in its previous guise.
Fortunately, Tucker wasn’t to remain dormant for long as his exit from “Compass” gave him a chance to direct the adaptation of Blake Morrison’s heartfelt coming-of-age memoir When Did You Last See Your Father? with a dream cast centered around Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent portraying Morrison and his father Arthur, the former reflecting back on the abuse and humiliation suffered at the hands of his dying father.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Tucker earlier this week to talk about this period memoir, but we also had to ask a few questions about what happened The Golden Compass, which is the only time the generally jovial filmmaker got somewhat introspective during our interview.
CS: This is your fourth book adaptation although it’s also a very different movie than your last few. I know they already had a script in the works when you came on board, so can you talk about how they found you to direct it?
Anand Tucker: Well, they sent me the script, Stephen Woolley and Liz Karlson, and said, “Would you like to do it?” I read the script that night and it made me cry and the next day I said, “Yes, please!” (laughs) Then we looked at each other and I said, “Jim and Colin?” and they went, “Yeah, Jim and Colin, that’s what we were thinking,” so we offered it to Jim and Colin on the same day and Jim and Colin said yes a week later, and then we were shooting a movie three months later. I’ve never had anything ever, ever happen like that before and I doubt it’ll ever happen again.
CS: That sounds far too easy; nothing that easy ever happens when making movies.
Tucker: Yeah, nothing ever happens that easy. I used up all my easy movie karma ever, just like that. (laughs)
CS: What made all of you think specifically of Jim and Colin? They really do look like they could be related when you see them in the movie together.
Tucker: Well, Jim I think was kind of obvious because he’s a towering force of an actor. There are very few guys who could pull that off like Jim did. He’s got to be a bit of a monster, but you’ve got to love him (chuckles) because he’s not a bad man. Jim has that amazing quality because no matter what he does, you still kind of love him, do you know what I mean? He’s got a core of something. Colin, I mean, I’ve known Colin a long time because my wife Sharon directed him in “Bridget Jones,” I produced a movie that he was in called “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” so I’ve seen Colin do pretty much anything. He’s a kind of everyman actually and also I think he’s a very fine actor, and I felt this role needed someone who could… it’s a tough role, he has to be quite unsympathetic. He’s not that nice, he’s not that likeable, it’s pretty tough, and it required an actor who could carry that off, but still have the grace and the charm to take you through ninety minutes of being a bit annoying and not make you want to kill him.
CS: Colin seems to be veering that way in his career, because he also did Helen Hunt’s movie and played a similar bad guy who you kind of like. I believe it was at Toronto the same year as your movie.
Tucker: Oh, right, no, I haven’t seen that film; I must see that. We just thought if they both respond to the material and they can find their own Arthur and their own Blake inside themselves, it will work, and I think it did.
CS: They’re both great actors who can do almost anything at this point. Once you read the script, did you want to go back and read the novel as well?
Tucker: Yeah, I hadn’t actually read the book, I have to confess, so I read the book and found that incredibly moving as well. I read Nick Hornby’s book which came out at the same time, “Fever Pitch” which is sort of this similar kind of thing about a father and a son, because I was obsessed with Arsenal Football Club–that’s my football team–so I was aware of Blake’s book, but I had read Nick’s book. Both those books were the first of their kind, those kind of confessional memoirs, which there weren’t that many around at the time. (It’s) sort of easy to forget now because you can’t walk in a bookshop without falling over them. There’s a lot of those all over the place, aren’t there? Some made-up, some not.
It was one of those coincidences where something fantastic just lands in your lap and you feel incredibly lucky. (chuckles) I really was very, very lucky, and I can’t get too wishy washy about it, but making any movie is kind of chaos, but it really was a nice chaotic experience. It was as pleasant a car crash as it is possible to have. (laughs)
CS: Did anything in the book or script resonate with you personally from your own life, besides the fact that it was just a moving story?
Tucker: Well, I have a complicated relationship with my dad, and I’m an old father with a young son who is four and a half, and so it arrived at a point where I was thinking all about my relationship with my dad, and becoming a dad myself. All of those big things when you get to your forties and you start thinking about all that kind of stuff. Weirdly enough, I found there was a lot going on in the script that really was going on in my head, so I tried to make a film that dissected that, that spoke to me about those things and hopefully it speaks to other people about them.
CS: When you directed “Shopgirl,” you had–I don’t know if you’d call it a benefit or what–but you had the author of the book on as a producer and on the set every day. How much did you want Blake Morrison involved in the process of making this film?
Tucker: Blake was very involved; I love Blake. We had many lunches beforehand where I asked him many searching and intimate questions, and he was very helpful during pre-production. Even though it’s important to universalize the story, the details are also very important, so he was very helpful on getting all the details right about the house and the décor and all that kind of stuff. Then he was the most terrifying audience at the end (chuckles) when he came to see the movie… but I’m glad he liked it.
CS: I’ve spoken with a lot of filmmakers who do adaptations and you never know, because some writers don’t want to have anything to do with the movie once the rights are sold, some want to be involved. Obviously you’ve done enough adaptations that you know the drill, so Blake did want to be involved with adapting his book?
Tucker: He was very generous in that he put himself and his book into my hands. I think it helped that it was already ten years in the world, so the book had become it’s own thing already and there was a distance between him and it, which meant that there was a distance between him and the whole business of turning it into a film. I think that was helpful for Blake, and by the end, after he had seen the movie a few times, he turned around and said to me, “Well it’s quite difficult now because every time I think about my dad now, I just see Jim.” There was a very good article in “The Guardian” about the whole business about seeing the book of your life turned into a movie, it’s a really, really good article. I’d heartily recommend it. (You can read that article here.)
CS: I was curious about that, because I wouldn’t imagine that Jim or Colin would look anything like Blake or his father and I wondered whether that mattered or not.
Tucker: The thing is that it’s not about making “lookie-likeys” or carbon copies. It’s about capturing some kind of lightning energy of the emotional truth, so that’s really what I was going for, and I think that’s what’s there, I think that’s what works. If anything works, I hope that’s what works.
CS: Speaking of look-alikes, you also have two young actors playing Colin’s character at various ages, and both did amazing jobs, especially Matthew. Did you have any plan for shooting a certain order, whether it’s their scenes or Colin’s first, to make it more believable that they’re playing the same person?
Tucker: No, we had a very, very short schedule, like six weeks to shoot the movie, so there wasn’t the time to do the nice stuff that you’d like to do. I think the secret of all these things is casting. If you get the casting right, that’s it. I don’t like rehearsing, so we cast the movie and we spent a bit of time talking about it beforehand and then we just went off and shot it. We didn’t rehearse, we just did it, and Matthew who is the young Colin, the young Blake, is a very clever actor. He spent a lot of time just watching Colin and then we’d talk a bit, and he’d just do these little things that were little Colin mannerisms that just nailed down his character. I think that worked very well. For me, it was all about them being as much as themselves that felt relevant to the script and the movie rather than trying to be something that they weren’t.
CS: You were able to have Colin and the young actors playing him on the set at the same time? That’s not often the case in many movies like this.
Tucker: Yeah, there were times when they were there because in one day we would have to do all sorts of things, so that did work out, yes they were there at the same time, just purely by circumstance. (chuckles)
CS: Why don’t you like rehearsals? Is it just a matter of trying to capture as much of the initial performance on film as possible?
Tucker: I think filmmaking is such a mechanical process. It’s very easy to squeeze all the life and spontaneity out of it, so I love in the midst of all the planning and everything, just throwing the human bits in as a big old burst of chaos and spontaneity and see what happens. If you trust your actors, it’s amazing what they can give you.
CS: This being a period piece, with even the present day stuff being period in some ways, did that pose any challenges in making the film? You were shooting out in the country which I’d assume is similar to how it was back in those times.
Tucker: Well, there was a challenge because we were doing three time zones and each one was a period because even the latter one was ’80s period, so that’s quite a stretch on a 4 1⁄2 million pound budget, whatever that is, nine million dollars. I worked with a production designer who I’ve worked with for ten years, who did “Hilary and Jackie” and my first film with me, who is just great, and she managed to make every penny go an incredibly long way (chuckles), so yeah, that helps and we had beautiful countryside, so shoot as much out in the country as you can.
CS: Was it a very difference experience going back to this after doing “Shopgirl” which more of a studio movie with a bigger budget?
Tucker: Not really. I have to be honest with you, “Shopgirl” was a really nice experience. I really enjoyed L.A., I thought the crew was great. In the end, you know what? It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got 200 million dollars or twenty million dollars or two million dollars, it still comes down to a camera and an actor. The thing of it is it’s just all politics. I spent a couple years involved in “The Golden Compass” ship, which makes the Democratic primaries look like a kindergarten tea party.
CS: I definitely want to ask you about that after we finish talking about this movie. It’s odd how Jim and Colin don’t really have many scenes to interact even though this is still very much a two-handed movie.
Tucker: Exactly, you feel like they’re together, but they’re actually not. It’s actually the young Matthew or Colin that gets to spend all the time together.
(Note: The next paragraph has a spoiler for the movie if you haven’t read the book.)
CS: I was wondering if there ever was a point where someone thought about putting more scenes with the two of them together?
Tucker: No, no, that’s how the movie worked out. It was all Colin with his dying dad who can’t speak. (laughs) That was the story, the fact that they couldn’t talk, and even when they could, he didn’t get to ask the question that he wanted to get. It’s the English story of never getting to say what you need to say, and reflecting on what happened in the past. It was all building up to the big climax, which is the moment where they do hug each other at the end, but in order for that to have impact, they have to be kept apart. You have to feel the distance between them.
CS: As far as figuring out where all the flashbacks should go, was a lot of that taken directly from the novel or the script? How important was it to keep those faithful to the book in terms of where they were placed?
Tucker: No, no, the script definitely became its own thing. The scenes that are all attune to the book, but generally, when we couldn’t shoot the movie in North Yorkshire, we had to shoot it in Derbyshire for financial reasons. When you’re making a movie, in the end, even if it’s from true life, you’re making a piece of fiction, you’re fictionalizing like crazy, and you hope that at the end of it, you’ve somehow still captured the essential truths of what you started with, with a bit of luck. (chuckles)
(And another small spoiler follows in the next couple paragraphs.)
CS: One of the most surprising scenes I think, is Colin Firth in the bathtub. I don’t want to say too much about it’s very surprising if you know his body of work. Was that something from the original novel that he was aware of when he signed on?
Tucker: Yeah, that was a key moment in the book. When the book came out, it was quite shocking for it’s honesty, and the fact that at the very moment when his dad was dying, he was having a wank thinking about the first time he had sex. It shocked a lot of people, but it was very honest. It was a key moment and summed up for me what the book was sort of about, that life, death, and sex, all these things are sort of messed up together in one big, big mess of… being a a human being is a really messy business basically. I thought it was really important to keep that, and I thought Colin was very brave to do it. I don’t think it was easy. (laughs)
CS: It definitely showed another side of him we haven’t seen before, which is very surprising I think.
Tucker: (laughs) Yes, Colin naked wanking in a bath; you don’t see that every day.
CS: Since this movie was at Toronto last year, you’ve had a few months to take some time off after finishing it, so what have you been doing otherwise?
Tucker: Well I finished that and I produced a movie for my partner called “Incendiary” with Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor which we just finished a few months ago, and now I’m trying to get another movie made, a spy thriller I’m hoping to do shortly. There’s a few irons in the fire, so I’m desperate to make a film. (laughs)
CS: Has “Incendiary” gotten distribution in America yet? Sadly, I missed it at Sundance.
Tucker: No, there’s a deal in progress at the moment, but I can’t talk about it, we’re in the midst of sorting that out.
CS: Do you think you’ll stick with book adaptations for the foreseeable future as far as your own movies. Do you have a preference for doing them?
Tucker: Oh, no. I’ve got all sorts of films I’d like to make, it’s just the vagrance of the film business that these are the movies I’ve ended up making (chuckles)… but I’d quite like to do something with cars and guns and bombs and girls… or something with girls and bombs and cars.
CS: Well, there you go. As far as what happened with “The Golden Compass,” when we did the junket in Toronto for “Shopgirl,” you either had just come on board or had already been working on it.
Tucker: Yeah, I think that’s right. I just got the gig and then eighteen months later, things didn’t work out.
CS: Did you really spend eighteen months working on the movie?
Tucker: Yeah, I spent eighteen mournful months, but you know, it was an amazing experience and I was really upset it didn’t work out. I haven’t seen the film because it felt like a chapter in my life and it didn’t end particularly happy for me, but there you go. I’m sad it didn’t work out.
CS: But in hindsight, leaving it allowed you to do this movie, and many people blame the movie for the death of New Line, and you’ve been able to escape without taking any of the blame for that.
Tucker: Well, you could say that, yes. (laughs) I’d like to think that I would have made a movie that was a success, but there you go. I WOULD say that wouldn’t I?
CS: Is there something bittersweet about the whole thing since you got to do this movie instead?
Tucker: Listen, it was so great when this movie happened, because literally it was the day after I left “Golden Compass” that Stephen sent me the script, so it was like this little blessing from heaven. This lovely, fantastic thing that turned up for me and I felt really lucky and it was great. I was very happy to get to make it.
When Did You Last See Your Father? opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, June 6.