Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Director Thomas McCarthy Discovers “The Visitor”

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

Though Irish American actor Tom McCarthy has been in feature films since the early '90s, most audiences became familiar with him as a supporting player in several George Clooney starrers such as "Syriana" and "Michael Clayton." But for this New Jersey native, directing his own features was a goal he wanted to achieve as much a working actor in quality productions; So far that he has done that and been 2-for-2 in terms of respect and success.

McCarthy's "The Visitor" stands to become an even bigger success for the 42-year-old director/actor than his debut feature, 2003's "The Station Agent." This feature, a low-key film about disparate people (Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson) who become an unusual surrogate family. It won all sorts of awards from the Audience favorite at Sundance to several Independent Spirit Awards.

Striving to have a sleeper hit, McCarthy lined up socially conscience production company, Participant Media, to get behind his story of Syrian musician (Haaz Sleiman) befriended by a college professor (Richard Jenkins) who is inadvertently swept up by U.S. immigration and deported. Starring longtime vet character actor Jenkins (with 75 roles since 1985 under his belt) his understated performance made him the perfect lead—and this his first leading role. The rest of the cast especially Hiam Abbass ("Munich," "Paradise Now," "The Syrian Bride") hits the right balance between tragedy and romance, political relevance and personal emotionality necessary to make the film a praiseworthy.

Surprisingly, though this story sympathizes with Middle Eastern immigrants once reviled as the enemy right after 9/11, this story caught the attention of audiences and critics and became an indie sleeper this summer. While McCarthy has two high profile pictures in the works—"Duplicity, "The Lovely Bones" and "2012"—in the works, he's surely cooking up his next intimate social portrait as well.

Q: How do you balance your work as an actor with your work as a director.

TM: It’s an evolving process. My agent jokes with me. She was watching the final "Wire" episodes and said, “every time I want to say, ‘just focus on writing and directing;’ then these great things come up.”

I was editing “The Visitor” when David Simon called and offered me that role [Scott Templeton] sight unseen and I had been a fan of the show and a fan of his. So it was a pretty brutal couple of months. When I wasn’t in the edit room I was in Baltimore, and visa versa, but it was worth it to be a part of the show.

I’m also working on Tony Gilroy’s new film here in New York ["Duplicity" starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen] when I’m not doing that, but they’ve been nice enough to work around my schedule. To work with Tony and Julia and Clive, and with Bob Elswit, Paul Giamatti, and Tom Wilkinson—both as an actor and as a writer/director—it would be foolish and almost irresponsible not to work with these guys.

So it’s a balancing act. You have to choose your jobs. With acting, you have to be incredibly picky. I won’t take a job just to take a job, even to generate money because I can generate money other ways. I’ll only do it if I really want to work with the people.

Q: Do you partly see doing these roles as a chance to meet people you can later cast?

TM: Totally. You spend a lot of time getting to know Tom Wilkinson, for instance, whose work I’ve admired forever and you think, “I like him and I like the way he works. He’s a pro and he’s damn good.” He’s someone I’ll keep in the back of my mind. As a director, I couldn’t think of anything better.

So It’s all starting to mesh in a nice way. There are times where it becomes difficult to manage just on a practical level and a time level so I’m trying to gauge that. Plus I think I’d like to make another movie quicker. I’d like to do that sooner than later. I’d like to not wait another four years.

Q: It took that long?

TM: "Station Agent" was [made from] 2003 to 2004. It’s funny how time just goes by. I was writing. I did some work with the guys at Pixar for a while and did some other writing projects—one for ["Austin Powers" director] Jay Roach, and one for some other friends. I enjoy doing that sometimes because it takes the pressure off.

When I’m working on my own material that I know I’m going to direct, the process becomes very insular. Sometimes when working for another director you sort of give up. You give up a bit. You say point me in another direction and I’ll write. I’m like a hunting dog and there’s something very freeing about that.

Q: Now, finally, your second directorial effort, "The Visitor" is out. Did longtime character actor Richard Jenkins come to mind for the role of Professor Walter Vale because you had worked together in some capacity?

TM: No, I never worked with Richard but I was a fan of his. I had an idea that I was going to have this sixty something year old man and I want an actor who can really disappear into the role. I’m a big believer in taking actors and using them in ways they haven’t been used before. I did that in “Station Agent” with almost all the characters. I had a short list and Richard was almost always on the top of it. By the time I actually began writing the script I knew it was going to be him.

I was actually in L.A. at the time, working on “Good Night and Good Luck” and staying in the same hotel as Richard, who was working on another movie there. I’m not sure which one. We had the same agent and I called her and said, “you think Richard and I could set up a dinner?” And she’s like, “I think you should call Richard.” And I did; it was like, “have you eaten?” He said he’d love to get dinner.

We had never really met before. I’ve been a fan of his. He’d seen the “Station Agent” and really enjoyed it. So we went and had dinner and by the end of that meal I had his voice in my head.

Q: Was there pressure to cast someone with more name recognition?

TM: Not really. One of my producers was saying that from the beginning of this project I never wavered on a lot of things and one those was Jenkins. They were like, “We love him, but can he do it and can we sell it?”

Now they couldn’t be prouder of the film and how it turned out. Specifically they like him in that role. So I don’t think I wavered on that. There was some concern. In fact, I had that dinner with Richard, and a year later I sent him that script through my agent Rhonda. A week later, he called and said he'd let her know that he’d love to do it. We had lunch where I officially offered him the role.

He came down to New York and when I offered him the role, his first comment was, “I’d love to do it, but you’ll never get the money for it if I do it.” I remember I helped Tony out one night on “Michael Clayton.” I was there to be a voice on the phone for George Clooney.

I’ve known George for a while now and we were just hanging out and I said, “Let me ask you something. What do you think of Richard in this role?” I greatly respect George’s taste and business acumen. He said, “It’s such a great call,” because he loves Richard and has worked with him. He thought it might be hard to get the money I needed, but I didn’t need that much. I can make my movies in such a way that I don’t need that much money. He said, “If you can figure out a way to work it out where you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing than anything, go for it.”

Q: It’s better to make a low-budgeted movie than to not make it at all.

TM: Yeah, and it was difficult and it would be tough for me to make another movie at that budget to be quite honest because it would be such a struggle. When you’re working in New York, there’s a lot of huge movies shooting here and there just weren’t a whole lot of options in terms of man-power and equipment and stuff.

That’s the tricky thing about these movies. For them to work, you kind of have to play a perfect game and you’re doing so without the resources of a lot of the big films. It’s an uphill battle. I think the key for me has been original characters and that’s been my inroad into the script.

Q: People see that this story has all the right elements, but are concerned that it can’t sell. Do you push aside those concerns when you sit down to write?

TM: I do think you have to put aside those concerns when you approach a story, because to write the most interesting thing possible you should focus on one thing: the story. Let the marketing people worry about that stuff.

Overture Films has a crack team of people worrying about that. If you tell a good story that’s the best marketing device. It’s bigger than stars and bigger than having a huge company behind it. A good story sells itself and that’s our philosophy for this movie.

Q: Your film has a lot of integrity. Had you taken a different route, would it have significantly changed the shape of the story?

TM: My style is usually a bit more subtle and a bit more ordinary and about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I did a Q&A after a screening recently where a gentleman stood up—an African man who lives here in New York and works in the Immigration Rights Council—and he said, “I spent time in this detention center, you could have a gone a lot further and blown the door off this thing. Why didn’t you?”

My answer was, that until I walked into one of these detention centers three years ago, I knew nothing about them and I guarantee, most Americans have never seen the inside of a detention center. Seeing this movie will be the first time they do. So that was an indication to me that we’re at point A with this. It’s not like everyone really knows about this. So this is subtle in the sense that it’s happening everyday and not in an extraordinary way, but in heartbreaking ways.

The best I can do is shed some light on [this situation] and let people know this is going on right now. Even on the most basic level, families are getting separated, people are getting sent out. There are people whose lives are at stake here and can we do it better. That’s where I start with this film.

Q: It’s not just Arabs and Africans being deported.

TM: Everything. Irish. I was talking to an immigration lawyer the other day who said one of her stories was that an Irishman she was defending was stopped, and this is the kind of thing that had I put it in my movie I would have been lampooned for, and he was arrested and he was checked for papers and pulled into detention. He was a painting a restaurant on Liberty Island at the base of the Statue of Liberty where they were renovating. The police did a sweep and picked him up. If there isn’t irony to that, than I don’t know what irony is.

Q: And you’re of Irish descent.

TM: My family's from Cork.

Q: I’m surprised you didn’t feature that kind of Irish story here as well.

TM: I heard it too late, but the reason I didn’t, honestly, is my stories always start with characters and Tarek was the character. In part, what I wanted to do with this movie was not shed light on immigration, but to put on the screen an Arab character that I haven’t seen in movies and television as of late. I knew I was on to something in the audition because I had so many Arab actors come in and say, “good luck and thank you for this, we haven’t seen this before.”

I knew then that they got what I was trying to do and it was only with that character and when I was developing that character’s storyline here in New York I realized that it would be irresponsible of me to ignore the immigration issue.

Q: What made you decide to shift the focus of the film to the romance half way through and introduce actress Hiam Abbass’s character, Mouna Khalil?

TM: For me, that was the biggest challenge of the script because basically I’m introducing a character 40 minutes into the movie that we haven’t seen. So the challenge was, as you say, to shift the storyline and then how to keep them all operating at the same time.

For me as a writer and as a filmmaker that was my most challenging obstacle. I think the reason I did it is because it feels organic to me. It doesn’t feel like I’m manipulating the plot in any way and I think in Hiam, who I wrote the part for, I had an actress who could pull that off, who could come in with such history and presence that she would immediately command the audience’s interest and take the story over.

Q: There wasn't a problem with having a romance with older characters?

TM: No; that actually never occurred to me until right now. I’m 41 and still single and I know there are 21-year-olds who are married. I don’t think about that. I think there’s something much more compelling in the romance that develops between those two [particular] characters.

Q: Did you learn any drumming?

TM: I took drumming lessons. When I was doing research on my character, I read a book called "The Prophet of Zongo Street," which was something I just picked up in a bookstore to get some background on West Africa. This was Ghana actually. I read this lovely story about a man retuning home from America to his land and it was written by a guy named Mohammad Ali. I flipped over the cover and it said, "Mohammad now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and he plays the djembe in a jazz trio" and I was like, "That’s weird."

So I had my agent contact him. It turns out he went to Bennington College and knew Peter Dinklage very well. He said, “What do you want from me.” I said, “first of all, I just want to congratulate you, and second, will you give me djembe lessons.” So I took lessons from Mohammad through the winter.

Q: You could have learned Irish drumming too.

TM: I realized I didn’t have a future in drumming after the first couple lessons.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Director Stephen Walker Celebrates Being "Young@Heart"

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

Of the many surprises at this year's Sundance Film Festival, one of the most charming was a little doc called "Young@Heart." Filmed over a several months' rehearsal period leading up to a concert tour, veteran British director Stephen Walker and his wife, producer Sally George, tell the story of the Young at Heart Chorus based in Northhampton, MA. Given that Sundance is thought to be the mega-festival for the cutting edge of indie film, this documentary of people growing old with dignity—still enthusiastic for learning things and accomplishing new challenges before an audience not just of peers, but of all ages—was downright inspiring and an important treatise on coping with aging.

The film details their struggle to overcome physical adversities in order to learn the songs and actually make the tour. Going against the stereotype of this age group—whose average age is 81—music director Bob Cilman (who is in his early fifties) gets them to perform rock and soul songs by the likes of James Brown, Sonic Youth and The Rolling Stones. Over 25 years ago, Cilman had been hired to work with this community of seniors at a local assisted living apartment complex, where he got the idea over lunch at the senior center. Since that time, this chorus has included World War I vets, elderly comedians, former Broadway performers, classical musicians and vaudeville performers. Given that turn-over is inevitable, Cilman decided not to draw on songs from their own generation but ones that would be entirely fresh to them, those from Cilman's generation and more.

Over the years, the group has established quite a following. They have toured Europe and sang for royalty, and released CDs of their performances (there is a new live one out now, . Though they have been subject of other films for television, this full-length feature focuses on how they prepared new songs for a concert in their home town—not an easy endeavor—which succeeds despite several heartbreaking events. The group is so compelling that, notwithstanding Cilman's own strong personality (he now heads the local arts council as well), they become richly defined characters in their own right.

In fact, the four that came to New York to debut the film—Stephen Martin, Stanley Goldman, Patricia Linderme and Jeanne Hatch—were so engaging that it was worth seeing them at the Q&A at their premiere public screening—something that's recommended if the opportunity affords itself. And given the talk even now of this being a Best Doc Oscar possibility, there should be more chances to see members of Young@Heart not only on the screen but live as well.

Q: Younger people have misconceptions about seniors; they can be pretty perky like the folks in this film.

SW: That’s one of the things that people get from this film. For us, it’s really quite overwhelming, and I often find it hard to put into words. We’ve had a lot of screenings since the Los Angeles Film Festival [where the film premiered]; we won the audience award, which was great—the audience really loved it. Then we took it to Sundance, and since then we’ve been on this tour. God, the reactions we’re getting from audiences, particularly when the audiences get big, have been absolutely overwhelming as well.

I just sit here thinking that this is way beyond anything I created here, and it’s not even me, actually. It’s them, and that's something, because they aren’t actors, these are real people which I documented. There’s something so remarkable about them, and I’m just delighted that somehow we managed to capture that on film.

It’s clearly reaching out to audiences in a really extraordinary way, particularly when the chorus [members] come on stage for the Q&A at the end. Entire audiences get to their feet, and I’m told that doesn’t happen very often. People are connecting on all kinds of levels. There are people who’ve got parents [this age]—I’m in that situation too—and there are people who are younger, who are thinking about grandparents. There are people who are loving the music because it’s great fun, or enjoying these people’s characters. And there are people who are addressing their own mortality.

I hope the film is allowing people to address their own mortality—and this sounds so corny that I kind of hate saying it—with some sort of hope in there as well. Here are possibilities, ways to live your life. Although I hate the idea of a message film—because I think the important thing is to just make a good film—it’s implicit all the way through the story.

Q: There’s another film out now called “Hats Off” about a 93-year-old woman who became as an actress at 65 when her husband died. Especially if you include the new Rolling Stones concert film (which is of post-60 year-olds still rocking), is this a mini-trend of films happening? What were your perceptions going into the film, how did they change and what do you think about the idea of this being part of a trend?

SW: I can speak for Britain. I can’t really speak for America, though I know this country quite well since I was educated here and this is a world I feel pretty comfortable in. But it would be presumptuous of me to speak of Americans because I don’t live here now. But I do live in Britain and do think that two things are happening. One, there is a kind of reexamination of old age, and [two], that people are more and more starting to get bored with [this] youth obsession, with that celebrity obsession, and you’re finding it more and more. There are a lot of articles coming out in newspapers in Britain about actually, "you know something, I’m fed up with this, it’s so much of it" and you know, it’s actually quite refreshing.

I have a shot in the film which I’m really proud of. It’s a shot of Eileen after the announcement of Bob Salvini’s death, the first person who dies in the film, and they get on this bus and they go to this prison to perform.

A lot of people talk about the prison performance, which is, I think, very moving. But there is this shot just before they start, of all of them lined up waiting to go into the courtyard, and there are these harsh fluorescent lights throughout the prison, and this shot that I did on Eileen’s face full of lines. There are a million, billion lines in her face, she looks like 170, and to me it’s a beautiful face—I really think she has a beautiful face—and I just hold the shot for ages. It’s a huge close-up. They’ve just heard this news [about his death], and you can see she’s registering what it all means when she’s standing there waiting to perform. To me, that shot speaks volumes.

This is not a woman who’s botoxed to the hilt, this is not somebody who’s trying to be young in that kind of plastic sense, but this is someone who’s genuinely young at heart, somebody whose spirit is young—and because it is, she’s able to embrace her age at the same time and not be frightened of it, not even to be frightened of death, which she talks about quite openly. She even tells us where she’s going to be when she dies: on a rainbow.

That’s amazing, and audiences respond really well to that. We’ve had so many people who come out of screenings and say, “I’m so sick of all these 'bang ‘em up, shoot ‘em up' movies, one after another, which is so anti-life in a way and here are these real people, living with real life and reaching out to us." They find that inspirational, as I did, but I didn’t think anybody else would. It was when I was making [the film], but I was really shocked, and again—it’s one of those verbs I really hate using because it always looks awful—but actually it’s completely sincere, quite humbling actually, to see that response from others.

Q: As a documentary filmmaker, you’re always piecing together what’s dramatic and drives a story from the material you collect. But those deaths were something couldn’t have been anticipated. Was there something else you focused on before death arrived and shifted the film?

SW: When I first saw the chorus in London I was incredibly excited by the challenge of [filming it]. I’d seen them before and I saw Eileen, amongst the many others, step up to the microphone and sing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash. Great shock, amazing to watch, very funny, but it could be a one-trick pony. You know, "ha ha that’s great, isn’t that funny, goodbye, a five-minute news item, the end."

But when I saw that—and you don’t have to be an Einstein to see it—[I realized] what you’re actually looking at is somebody singing about life and death. At the end of the song, when she calls out one more time “should I stay or should I go,” the audience all shout out “stay,” what they’re actually saying is "live" and I found that very moving. Of course, all their songs do that. When Lenny stands up and sings “Purple Haze,” he’s not singing about drugs, he’s singing about dementia, and the fact that he can’t remember the words is actually part of the point.

“Road to Nowhere” is actually a celebration of being on that road to a place that is nowhere. It’s not clever-clever, but the songs are really good and they mean something. So I came out of that theatrical experience, saying to my producer Sally George, "this is an amazing opportunity to make a movie about old age like no movie that's been made before"—because what we can do is a rock opera about old age. We can actually look at old age through the medium of rock music, rock music people will know and identify with because they’ll know the words. And that immediately struck me as being an incredible challenge.

The music videos came out of that first conversation. I said, “You know, this is the way to sell it, because we’re never going to get a film about old age off the ground anywhere.” I had made films, actually, about old people before, different ones, and had close relations with my parents, and before that, my grandparents, and find that—and I hope this doesn't sound patronizing—they’re human beings, for God’s sake! They have a lot more wisdom than any of us in this room, frankly, and I just thought, let’s see if we can do this.

So the challenge right there was to make that story. In fact, I went back and looked at my original proposal recently, and apart from the deaths—which obviously we didn’t anticipate—it’s the movie that you’ve got there, or very similar. I knew we were going to be absolutely unflinching about certain aspects—really look at the fun things like sex. People don’t talk about the taboo, but why the hell shouldn’t they have sex, and why can’t they talk about it? They have organs like the rest of us, so why the hell can’t they?

I just thought, that’s sickness, we’ll talk about somebody who can’t walk properly, because they’ve got spinal stenosis like Stan Goldman. We’ll talk about death as well. I had every intention, and in fact I had interviews of many of the chorus talking about death experiences in their own families, or near-death experiences themselves, which would certainly have been in the film but for the fact that people actually died in the film. That, of course, is what took over, because suddenly you’re in the now rather than retrospective.

But I also knew it had to be fun, because these people were fun, too. One of the things I’ve worked on in my own films over the last four or five years, is that I do move from comedy to pathos very quickly because I think that you do need to find the comedy and the pathos, and the pathos and the comedy. I think both work really strongly, as they do in real life, when they’re actually joined at the hip.

Q: The music videos adds so much of a dynamic to the film...

SW: Absolutely. I didn’t direct the music videos, Sally did. I was going to direct the music videos, and what actually happened was, I was swamped with 140 hours of material. I mean, we storyboarded them very closely together and worked on them really closely together. But actually in the end, I said, "Sally, I just can’t do this." So we worked on them, she flew out, she’s a really good director. We work pretty closely together, kind of very 18th rate Coen Brothers, but it works really well like that— we kind of always think as one. So we very quickly worked out that we wanted to think of really interesting ways of standing out of time. I had been really influenced by a lot of different [music videos], but I love [music videos] just for the kind of glamorous style. It’s really just fun how you can take music and do stylized things with it.

There was also a very successful series, a drama series back in the '90s in Britain, which I think came here, called “The Singing Detective”—this guy has cirrhosis and he’s in a hospital and suddenly you’re across a cut and you’re into a music video type world. I always thought, God, what a great opportunity, to step out of time. I never wanted this to be a classic observational documentary. I knew that I wanted to make the film authored.

And the reason I wanted to make the film authored was because I knew that the way to work with these people was to treat them like I would treat anybody, and like I treated my parents and my grandparents or their friends. That is to say—I wouldn’t say these are my parents, but—come on, Steve, tell us about your sex life. Once you’re into that kind of dialogue, you’re a personal friend. You’re not into that kind of interview with somebody up against a bookcase with a potted plant and a lampshade behind them, and they just magically speak from questions you never really hear, you’re in it and you have to be honest about that. So I knew that was one thing I wanted to change about classical observational narrative documentaries. But I also knew that these videos would be really an exciting part of it by stepping out of time.

We worked them out. We thought, there’s Eileen in her old people’s home, why don’t we move from an old people’s home into a real Punk protest song, “I Wanna Be Sedated”? Some of these guys are sitting in an old people’s home, it’s the true punk song, what they’re really saying is, don’t treat us like this, and they’re singing it angrily. It’s got an edge to it; it’s not cutesy-wootsy. Invariably, large audiences applaud when they see that because they’re totally not expecting it, it comes out of nowhere, which we really liked. So we worked those things out.

"Road to Nowhere" was a very interesting one to place, because—and it was actually something I felt very strongly about—it was one evening I remember saying, "You know, if we’re being really bold about this, we should start that song in a hospital and we should start it while this guy, Bob Salvini, is being put (inaudible 24:48). We should do that because that is the road that he and all of us are on, and these people sing with joy about that. They’re actually smiling as they talk about it, you know, and here’s a guy, whatever happens it’s a good life—if he makes it to the concert that’s great, if he doesn’t that’s not a tragedy, actually, but it’s very sad. So we did that, and then we looked at it, and we thought Gosh, have we gone too far on this? So just to be absolutely sure we weren’t going to be doing something that was absolutely tasteless, I did send that to Bob Cilman, and also to the Salvini family. I said, you’ve got to let me know if you’re comfortable with this. They both came back and said they really liked it.

So, Ok if the family is happy, the musical director’s happy, and I’m happy aesthetically, it’s okay. If some audiences think we are—which actually nobody’s said so far—then they can deal with that. But as a filmmaker I felt comfortable that I hadn’t actually trespassed on a private world. Equally, you’ve got to be very careful with grief, because we made the decision not to film on that bus when the announcement of Bob Salvini’s death was made. I felt very strongly that is actually crossing the line, when people are hearing about somebody’s death the first time—to hear it with a shot of the bus but to see the grief in a shot of their faces with a camera. It’s just wrong. Other people might do it, but I wouldn’t do it, I just feel you cross the line.

Q: What did pitching Bob entail?

Pitching Bob was an interesting one.

I made this film as the director, and Sally George is the producer, and Sally George is also my wife and we worked very closely together on this film. It’s actually the first time we’ve worked together, which is in itself an interesting experiment because at three o clock in the morning, instead of doing more interesting things, we actually sat having meetings in bed, which is disastrous, really. But nevertheless we love each other dearly.

And we have what then was a 13-year-old daughter, and we took her to see this show. We loved it and she hated it. That is a really hard age to see grandparent-type people jumping up and down and singing rock songs—you’re just trying to be really cool at that age. It plays very well to college students, actually—even 17, or 18 years-old and upwards are fine. But at 13, you just can’t... It’s really difficult to get that age group. So after the show was over, we started to kind of mill around.

We tried to get to Bob, but it was impossible because he was surrounded by all kinds of well wishers. So we ended up talking to his amazing assistant, Diane Porcella, who, although she’s technically the administrator, basically keeps the whole thing [together]… He’s the genius, and she enables the genius to happen, so she’s incredible.

So we talked to her. What I didn’t know then was, they had nine other production companies and HBO, all kinds of people, after them at that time. And there was little us, rapidly going broke with a new production company, working out of our kitchen at times, and desperately looking for an idea. We went up and said we thought the show was wonderful. What chance and all the rest of it, and Diane was playing it quite cool because she had all these offers from much bigger companies than us—HBO, for god’s sake—and we were small. Then she turned to Kitty, our daughter, and said "What did you think of the show?"

And Kitty said, “I hated it. I thought it was really embarrassing.” And that’s the moment... Diane told me that was the moment she decided we were the right people to go with. Because she felt—and this was her logic—that if our daughter was able to be that honest in front of us, then we could be trusted, because [Kitty], knowing that this was potentially a gig for us, felt comfortable enough that she could just say that. Now if you asked Diane, she felt "That was okay, because they brought this kid up to say what she feels and she thinks, and that’s exactly what we need here. We don’t want to be lied to, we want to know how [the people who would direct this would] feel." I was amazed when Diane told me that a year or two later.

Q: Has your daughter come around?

SW: She adores them now. She thinks they’re great. She’s two years older than she was then, she thinks they’re great all the time. Because I went “Oh God! thanks, Kitty, that’s really great, Christmas forget it” (laughter).

Q: How has this changed you?

I’ve become very close to these people. I could give you the banal, pat answer. I did that once in a Q&A, and I really hated myself afterwards—and I lay in bed and I said, what the fuck was I doing giving that answer? The banal answer is it’s changed me because I realize there’s hope and inspiration in these people and therefore my life, etc. etc. and I must call my parents more often, there’s that side of it.

But the truth is, what this has actually done, I’ve really grown to like these people. I’ve spent a lot of time with them and I’ve gone back to see them again and again. I really try when I’m over here to see them. These have become friends. Fred Knittle and his wife have adopted Sally and me. He said "you’re now our adopted children," which means we get fed a lot when we go over there, and they are the most incredible people. I know that for me to try and define or delineate how this has changed me is ludicrous.

What I do know is that it has. What I also know is, the way it has is not likely to be clear or felt, really, for another 20 or 30 years, if I get that far. The fact is, this film will be a very distant memory; but the impact of what I’ve been through with these people will have an impact on me in some way, and it really does and they really do mean a lot to me.

When we went to Los Angeles last year, we won the audience award. Suddenly every studio wanted the film and they all bid for it. It was all terribly exciting. We had that kind of amazing, husband-and-wife-from-Hammersmith in London and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a bidding war. It's an amazing experience, and we were really out of our depth. We work first for television, and with that we just humble along and deal with our overdraft and our mortgage like everybody else, and that was an amazing experience.

When I flew back to Northampton and was told that Eileen was very unwell, I went to see her with Diane, and then, three days later, I was due to fly back to London. I was on my way back to London, heading to the airport from Northampton to Boston's Logan Airport, and I had this really strong feeling that I had to stop by and see Eileen again. I tried to ignore it: “come on, you're going to miss my flight” but that voice goes “fuck off, go see her now” and so I did. This was just after L.A.

I was at her hospital bed and she was morphined out of her mind. The doctor said that she could hear me and understand me. I was with her for about an hour and I remember stroking her hair—she has this amazing white hair—and I remember saying, I was so glad I did this. I remember saying to her—it’s so corny I’m really embarrassed about saying this—I said to her, “You know, you’re going to be a movie star. You’re going to be up there on that screen forever.” I said, “It’s there, Eileen. You’re going to go on and the audience is going to love you and they’re going to keep loving you forever.”

I told her that and kissed her goodbye, and two days later she was dead. But I absolutely know that she heard that. I’m so pleased I did that, because you can’t go back when they’re dead, you just can’t. I just thought that, in a way, that defines the relationship, if that makes some sense. I find it easier to define things through concrete examples rather than generalities.

Q: She was such a star onscreen.

SW: She was an amazing person. I had a real issue there [over whether] I should put that caption at the end, should I not put that caption at the end. I thought, gosh you know, I could go on a real high here, because they’ve just had this great thing, this concert. I went, you know, Steven—I talk to myself a lot, but I remember the dialogue was this, actually—this is really what it’s about, and what you’re really saying is, this is a life well lived. She opens the film and she closes the film. This is true to the philosophy that I always felt was central to the film, which was, we have to be unflinching about this. There is mortality, we are all going to die, all of us, but that doesn’t mean that the manner of our lives can’t be amazing and also our deaths, too. And I think she had a good death.

Q: How did you decide what to cut out and what will be added to the DVD?

SW: It was the toughest edit I’ve ever done in my life. As I was saying in an earlier interview, the reviews have been wonderful on this film, which has been great. But I remember one reviewer said somewhere—and he really did like the film—but he said, "it was all very well that Stephen Walker could just turn on the camera and off he went and started filming this thing. It was just that easy."

Hardly. The truth is it was two months of pre-production and then 140 hours of material and then we cut it. And if you think about the elements in this film, you’ve got five or six front characters you have to empathize, with otherwise you don’t care about any of it. You’ve got a whole chorus that you can’t lose sight of in the background.

You’ve got four music videos that have to be placed, not arbitrarily but so they’re actually commenting on what’s going on. You’ve got five songs that have to be tracked all the way through to a concert, so when they step up to sing “I Feel Good” you’re on the edge of your seat thinking it’s going to be a car crash. That’s really manufactured. We are quite manipulative with the audience about how we actually get you to that point. We’ve got two deaths to put in there as well. I mean, one is difficult enough; but then a second one, that’d feel like, frankly, an anti-climax, to make that really matter as well.

It’s very interesting that if you deconstruct it, you only have three interviews, three moments where we interview Joe, the second guy who dies in the film, but you think you know him, and when he dies, it matters. But actually if you take any of those out or position them differently, you don’t even know that he dies, it’s not quite clear who he is or that he’s died. So all of that has to be carefully and painstakingly constructed out of 140 hours into a film that this reviewer said is so simple—which is a great compliment, in a way.

There’s a huge amount going on underneath that, of actually one million doors and which is the right door that doesn’t lead to a million more but takes you in the right [direction]. This could have been a disaster easily, actually, and it’s wonderful to us to see that for whatever reason, at least for most people, it seems to be working.