Jason Holmes chats with Paul Andrew Williams, writer and director of Song For Marion which is released this week, starring Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton
Few modern filmmakers have managed to successfully yoke the disciplines of scriptwriting and directing in quite the same way as Paul Andrew Williams. 'It's only because I'm tenacious,' he says. 'If I couldn't get a film off the ground, I'd try to get made another script I'd written. I'd just keep going.'
Paul, 39, first came to serious attention in 2006 with London To Brighton, a tale of gangsterism, pimps and murder set in a London crimescape at odds with the image of the cultural playground favoured by the tourist board.
'London To Brighton was one of the most pleasant experiences I've had making a movie. All the young actors who starred in the film had no money, and did it for no money, so there was no pressure. No one was waiting for us to fail.'
The film is a chilling noir illuminated by the central performance of the doomed pimp, Derek, played by Johnny Harris, whose performance - teased into focus by the steady hand of Paul - served to turn the head of an English acting legend.
Terence Stamp, on seeing London To Brighton, became intrigued with the film's young director and was gladdened to eventually work with him on Song For Marion. 'There was a lot of mutual respect between myself and Terence,' says Paul. 'Terence is incredibly healthy and health-conscious. He's a very sweet guy with a great sense of humour.'
Song For Marion's set was built in a college gym in Newcastle. 'We had table tennis tables and organised tournaments, and it turned out that Terence is very good at the old ping pong. He was quite a good player as a young man, apparently. He would play Christopher Ecclestone during takes. They were both very good.'
Song For Marion tells the story of Arthur [Terence Stamp], a pensioner and curmudgeon who, when his wife [Vanessa Redgrave] falls terminally ill, has to care for her and fill her role in the choir. It's a simple tale invested with a bitter-sweet gravitas by a powerhouse cast.
So perhaps the experience of making Song For Marion will be hard to top. 'Who knows. In a perfect world I'd make films for no money.' No money? 'Definitely. There's much less pressure and more freedom when you make films that way.'
Paul has written and directed every film he has made, but did working with Stamp, Redgrave and Gemma Arterton give him cause for pause? 'Not at all. We were all up early, working hard, knackered, eating our cereal every morning. It was normal. When you spend a bit of time with someone, it becomes normal to be in their company. Each actor needed different direction, and they all had different methods of trying to get their performances right.'
Stamp [in an interview with myself for the Huff Post UK last year] referred to 'a silkiness' in the making of Song For Marion. Was this Paul's doing? 'The final vision of the film was completely mine. Yes, as a director you fight battles along the way involving scenes and dialogue, sometimes fighting to the death [with collaborators] to keep certain takes in, but filmmaking has a huge aspect of negotiation attached to it. But if you have something you really care about, you don't let go.'
Is he a film theorist? 'No,' says Paul firmly. 'I look for naturalism in my films, but in Song For Marion I was just being truthful to the story.'
Paul feels a personal responsibility towards the success of the film. 'People have put a lot of time, effort and money into it and I feel I want to secure success for them all.
'When you raise a lot of money to make a film, it's almost certainly incumbent upon you as the director to secure the services of a well-known actor to justify the size of the budget. However, if I needed a very small amount of money to make a film, I'd probably use an overdraft and a credit card and shoot on 16mm. It all depends on how much money you need or want.'
Is he more visual or literate? 'It's all in synch with me. I didn't go to film school. I just believe in myself and what I want to do. I went into movies and relied on my instinct when it came to finding the truth, and by that I mean believing in the actor, the scene and the shot.' So it's about having the eye? 'Yes, but it's also about being smart enough to know when you've made a mistake, because believe me, there are plenty of people in this industry who are incapable of that.'
But there are those who would call Paul an auteur, an artist. 'I really don't know. It's a thing I do. And if I'm absolutely honest, it causes nothing but angst. It's a compulsion to write and direct, so much so that I can never not do it. There's nothing I can do apart from this, despite it feeling, at times, like a thankless task.'
He tells me that if he could have done anything with his life, he'd have been a footballer. 'It's a real skill and gives instant gratification,' he says. I for one am glad he didn't go down that route.
'I look at my job as experiences in the moment. When myself, Terence and his late brother Chris [Stamp] watched Song For Marion at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Chris was in tears throughout. Because it reminded him of his own dad. So if what I do in some way moves people, and affects them emotionally, then I feel that, in my job, I am doing the right thing.'
Despite the apparent lure of California and The Business, Paul is very much a man at one with the country of his birth, and with a young son, he has no need or desire to be away from him. So right now America does not appeal. Well, not yet, anyway.
And as filmgoers it would be in our best interests to expect even bigger things from this man, for with his down-to-earth demeanour and keen director's eye (something he is at pains to play down), he now travels through the film world at a steady clip, taking it all in his stride.
So keep an eye on the Oscar nomination shortlist for next year, be it for Best Actor, Best Actress or Best Director for Song For Marion, for if I were a betting man...
© Jason Holmes 2013 / firstname.lastname@example.org / @JasonAHolmes
Song For Marion is released nationwide on Friday 22 February
Photographs courtesy of Steel Mill Productions
See the trailer for Song For Marion here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kb3o7GdVBj8
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