Genuine female mavericks always champion equal rights for everyone, no matter what situation they’re contending with, or what era they live in. That’s certainly the case with acclaimed Hollywood actress, Gloria Grahame, who garnered fame in the 1940s and ’50s for her brilliant performances in noir feature films. She not only maintained a compelling sense of herself and the characters she played, but also strongly advocated to protect the rights of everyone, especially those people who didn’t have a voice to defend themselves.
The fact that Grahame was ahead of her time, especially in supporting the woman’s movement, is impressively highlighted in the new biopic, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.’ The romantic drama, which was directed by Paul McGuigan and written by Matt Greenhalgh, not only honors the actress’ determination to always honor her ideals, but also commemorates her strong bond with one of her lovers, Peter Turner. The movie, which is based on Turner’s 1986 memoir of the same name, is being released in select theaters today by Sony Pictures Classics.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ follows the playful but passionate relationship between Peter (Jamie Bell) and Gloria (Annette Bening). When the duo first meets in 1978 in the title city, the aspiring British actor is immediately drawn to the eccentric, American Academy Award-winning actress, who’s in England to star in a play, in an attempt to keep her career viable. What starts as a vibrant affair between the young thespian and legendary femme fatale quickly morphs into a deeper emotional connection, despite their 28-year age difference.
However, with Gloria’s height of fame from the ’40s and ’50s waning, she decides to continue working, in an effort to reclaim her former glory. She even refuses to give up her work after she first receives the devastating news that her breast cancer, which she was first diagnosed with in the mid-’70s, has returned. She also refuses to seek treatment, and initially hides her prognosis from her friends and family. The duo’s love becomes strained after they decide to spend time together in New York City, as Gloria decides on her own that it’s best for Peter if she doesn’t share her declining health with him.
After the duo ends their romantic relationship, Peter decides to return to his family home in England. As Gloria’s health continues to deteriorate, she decides to call upon her former lover and finally reveal her health battle with him. She asks to spend her final days with him at his home in Liverpool, and they reflect on their time together and her overall life.
McGuigan and Turner generously took the time recently to sit down for individual exclusive interviews to talk about ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ at New York City’s Langham Place Hotel. Among other things, the director and writer discussed how they both instinctively knew that Bening and Bell would naturally capture the vibrancy, complications and love that developed between Grahame and Turner in the midst of their relationship. The duo both also mentioned how they cherished the experience of bringing the biopic on the film festival circuit, and getting to watch the movie on the big screen with audiences, especially since people responded to in such a hugely positive and emotional way to Grahame and Turner’s story.
The conversation with McGuigan began with him discussing why he decided to direct ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.’ The filmmaker shared that he met one of the producers at a screening, and “he looked at me strangely. He said, ‘I came up with an idea for this script I have.’ I was working in London at the time, and I live up in Scotland. I take the train in whenever I can, and it’s a four-and-a-half hour journey. So I read the script on the train,” he explained. The producer “also gave me Peter Turner’s memoir about his love affair with Gloria. By the time I got back to Scotland, I was completely interested.”
After reading the biopic’s screenplay and Turner’s memoir, McGuigan began pondering why he was so moved by the love story. “It dawned on me that it had a lot to do with Peter’s writing. He wrote about his memories from the heart. It’s not really written in any way other than one memory leading to another,” the helmer noted. “I also liked the idea that we all share the fact that we love, or have loved, someone who has changed our lives, in good or bad ways. I felt like their story is a shared sentiment, so I was intrigued.”
Turner started his conversation by admitting that he didn’t initially set out to write a book about his time with Grahame. “I woke up one morning, about three-and-a-half years after Gloria had died, and thought, I have to put something down on paper. I had a typewriter, and wrote, I didn’t know she was sick until she went to Lancaster, which is the first line of the book,” the writer shared. “I just continued from there, and wrote a whole series of memories, which then became a thick manuscript.”
When the book was first released in 1986, “I was surprised that it was even published. When it was published, there were 11 people who were interested in buying the film rights. I also didn’t realize that because of all of the built-in American interest, the lead role would become sought after by American screen actresses; roles for women in their mid-50s don’t come around too often, and certainly not” when the memoir was initially published, Turner pointed out. “Since there was so much interest, the film went off track a little bit.”
But then producer Barbara Broccoli, who Turner knew before filming began, “bought the rights. She put it back on track, but it was still a slow process at first. She said, ‘I might not make this for a few years, but I’m determined to make it.’ Then 22 years later, she started production.” The writer admitted that he’s glad that the movie took over two decades to be made after the producer acquired the rights, because he developed a different perspective on his relationship with Grahame during that time.
Once Broccoli and the other producers actively started production on ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,’ and decided to hire McGuigan to direct it, he then began thinking about how he would approach making it. “I came up with this idea about how this couple’s memories are more fluid than how memories normally are in cinema. But I also had to establish the place and time, even though that gets in the way of this very intense story that we’re trying to tell,” the filmmaker shared. “So I came up with these transitions of time; the characters would walk through the memories, which would bring us into the next scene, that take place in a different time. So I thought about how I would achieve that, including if I would use greenscreens, and how I would edit the transitions.”
The director also started thinking about Grahame’s movies, and how he could “bring her overall life to the big screen in my film. I was getting inspired by everything, so that’s why I thought that I had to make this movie, and I’m glad I did,” he disclosed.
Further speaking about the transitions he used to link Grahame and Turner’s memories through time in the drama, which also shows both of their viewpoints of their relationship, McGuigan then explained why he felt that it was important to showcase both of their perspectives. “What was interesting about Peter’s book was that it was told entirely through his point-of-view, which was the way the script also was when I first received it. It was also set over a three-year period, which isn’t a great deal of time. So I knew that I didn’t want to tell the story in chronological order,” the filmmaker revealed.
“Their memories inspired us, and we knew that the audience could share those memories. The story is told in somewhat of chronological order, in that they meet, fall in love and have an intense affair. They then have the big fallout and break up,” McGuigan disclosed.
“That’s when I stopped and thought, I don’t really like this woman at times, because I don’t really understand her. So my next biggest job was to figure out how to let the audience in on what Gloria was thinking, and why she did what she did,” the helmer shared. “So we came up with the idea of showing some scenes twice, from the two different points of view. That was a big departure from how the original screenplay was written.
“But I thought the change was important, because I was beginning to question Gloria a lot. I didn’t question her in a bad way, but you begin to dislike her because you don’t know why she was acting in such a way,” McGuigan explained.
“This movie strips everything away, which is quite different from my previous films, which are complicated and visceral, which I like. So I had to figure out how I was going to change my style for this movie,” the filmmaker noted. “I also had to figure out how I was going to take things away, because I usually add layers. But I knew I wasn’t going to add bombastic music, big visual set pieces or action sequences. So I was left with an amazing acting troupe, which was led by these two great actors, Annette and Jamie, and a great story. I’ve been making movies for a long time, so the process of making this film was a revelation for me.”
McGuigan then noted how the movie stays truthful to Turner’s memoir, especially since the writer was involved in the filmmaking process. But the biopic added one significant scene, during which Turner helps Grahame achieve her dream of playing Juliet on stage. The scene in the movie shows how “that was the last thing she did. We thought it was nice, because we asked Peter that if he could change one thing, what it would be, and he shared that dream of Gloria’s. So that scene became important, because it was all about these lovers.”
Turner expressed his appreciation over how McGuigan approached adapting his memoir for the screen. “Paul’s very heartfelt, honest and clever, and I responded to him and who he is. I have also seen his previous work, like ‘Lucky Number Slevin,’ and the episodes of the television show, ‘Sherlock,’ that he directed. I thought he was a fantastic director after seeing his other projects,” the writer disclosed. “We didn’t talk much about the film after our first meeting, because I didn’t want to impose anything. So there wasn’t much for me to do on the set but admire what he was doing.”
The director also discussed the casting of Bening in ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.’ The actress was already attached to play Grahame when McGuigan signed on to helm the biopic. “Annette and Barbara had spoken about making this movie, on and off, for about 20 years. But Annette was too young when they first began talking about” adapting Turner’s memoir for the screen. “But they then met again at an awards show, and Annette asked Barbara, ‘What ever happened to ‘Film Stars?’ Where did that go?’ Barbara then said, ‘We may have found the right people to make it.’ Annette then wanted to speak to me,” McGuigan divulged.
The filmmaker spent significant time with Bening as they were developing the screen version of Grahame, both before and during production. “Gloria was never an old lady; she was always vibrant, fun and complicated, which was important for us to show on screen. So our job was to go back, and think about how she would have felt during that time,” he explained.
Turner is also happy with Bening’s casting as Grahame, and Bell signing on to portray him, in the film adaptation of his memoir. “Unashamedly, I love the film and their performances. They mean so much to me, and I admire their portrayals, on a very deep and personal level.”
During the production of the biopic, Turner “spent more time talking to Annette, because she’s very thorough. Annette came to Liverpool, and she was so fascinated with everything there. There’s more to know about Gloria’s career as an actor than mine,” the actor sentimentally shared. “I was just a person who had loved someone.”
When Turner first met Bell, the writer instinctively felt that the actor was going to be great in the role. Turner humbly shared that “We did talk a little bit. He says that I helped him more than I did, but he was just being kind. He’s so perceptive, and is so knowing. He asked me, ‘Is there anything else that you want to say to me?’ I said not really, because I knew he was going to be great. So I just said, ‘Just make the part your own, and know that everyday on set, you’ll be with me in my heart.’ I knew that he also had the wonderful Annette Bening, and the director, to help him.”
McGuigan added that everything Grahame did during her time with Turner “was to protect him, which Annette brought to the screen. Gloria did the ultimate thing of sacrificing her relationship with someone she loved, because it would be better for him.”
The helmer then shared that “The only other actor I met during the casting was Jamie. He went to Barbara’s house in Los Angeles with Annette, and we read a couple of scenes. Barbara said that he was amazing for the role. The thing with Jamie is that he’s a working class boy who had an ambition to be a dancer, and that’s quite unusual and hard if you’re a kid.”
But Bell’s aspiration to become a dancer when he was younger proved to be similar to Turner’s dream of becoming an actor. “Peter grew up in Liverpool with a working class family that loved and supported him. But they didn’t quite understand why he wanted to become an actor. So I felt that was an interesting connection between Jamie and Peter,” McGuigan admitted.
Bell’s performance of Turner was so powerful that when the cast and crew held a private screening of ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ for the author, the filmmaker “heard him sniffling. I knew he would be strongly affected by it. There was one point on the screen where Peter and his family were bringing Gloria downstairs on the chair, and he fell on the floor, and was really crying.”
The filmmaker added that he “later asked Peter what triggered that reaction, and he said, ‘That’s exactly how it happened. My parents were at the bottom of the stairs, and there was a struggle to get Gloria down the stairs.’ This was the point when he said goodbye to the woman he loved, and he knew that he would never see her again. That was the point where he gave him back his story, because he trusted us enough to give us the story when we began filming.”
Turner admitted that watching his life story being filmed on the set, and brought to life by the actors, made him realize how lucky he has been to have his life and memoir adapted for the screen. “I thought, this doesn’t happen very often-many people don’t have a movie made about them while they’re still alive. So I really enjoyed the experience,” he shared.
Besides the private screening for Turner, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ also had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, and then screened at such festivals as the Toronto International Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Savannah Film Festival. McGuigan spoke about what the experience of attending the festivals, and watching the movie with audiences, was like. The premiere at Telluride was a humbling experience for the helmer, as well as the rest of the cast and crew.
While the filmmakers were entering the screening at Telluride, “Barbara suddenly stopped, and I was like, ‘What are you doing, Barbara? Come on,'” McGuigan shared. “She was like, ‘What if they hate it? I never thought about anyone hating it,’ because she loves it so much. I was like, ‘You’re telling me this now, when there’s 500 people in the screening?!?’ Jamie was behind me, and I told him, ‘Barbara asked me, what if they hate it?’ He said, ‘Yes, what if they hate it?’ Then we were all getting ourselves into a panic!”
The filmmaker added that everyone who worked on ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ “loves it so much, but we know that we can’t satisfy everyone. But we want the audience to share the story. So sharing the movie with audiences was nerve-racking. I wasn’t really watching the film at Telluride-I had never seen it with such a big audience before. So I was actually watching the audience, and they really loved it. They were laughing a lot, which was great.”
Turner also cherished the experience of bringing ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ on the festival circuit. “The first time I saw the movie on the big screen with an audience was at Telluride, and that was an amazing experience. It was a relaxing and low-key time, and I enjoyed seeing people’s reactions to the film. I didn’t think that people would cry as much as they did,” the writer admitted. “There were times when I couldn’t leave the screenings right away, because people would be crying on my shoulder, and would want to shake my hand…I had not idea that it was going to be a film that people responded to in such a hugely positive and emotional way.”
By the time the film was shown in McGuigan’s native Britain, at the BFI London Film Festival, “there was a big standing ovation for Annette, and (her husband,) Warren (Beatty,) and Jamie were with her. We received a nice hometown reception,” he shared.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ was filmed in real locations and at a studio in London, and “During the first week of production, we also shot in Liverpool. That experience was nice and containable, and we were able to shoot on the streets. Usually when people see a film set, they hate you. They’re like, ‘I’m not going to be able to park my car, you’re going to make noise at night and the lights are going to shine through the window.’ I totally understand all these things,” the helmer noted. “But everyone in Liverpool was so nice.
“Then when you get to London, it’s always about the location. We were based at Pinewood Studios, and a lot of our exteriors were actually shot there, such as the beach scene,” McGuigan disclosed. “We also built an airport in the studio to stand in for LAX. I enjoyed that, because I love being in a studio.”
The filmmaker added that “When you’re on location, you have the factor that anything could happen that you can’t control. Filming in London is tricky, because nothing’s that close. Getting permission to shut things down is also tricky. I’ve actually shot some projects here in New York, and it’s actually a lot easier than in London.”
The director added that he wanted to film everything for ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ on a sound stage, “but it was a creative decision to also shoot in real locations, which actually helped the movie. The locations helped show that Gloria and Peter had a heightened sense of the world, especially when they were in love. We had projections (on greenscreens) when they were on the beach, and also while they were driving the car, in L.A., and (Annette and Jamie) were pretending to see things. That was fun to do!”