ADRIAN SALPETER interviews IAN MCKELLEN about EMILE
AS: You’ve said “You can’t give a good performance without a good script.” What is it about Carl Bessai’s script EMILE that allows you to perform?
IM: I’ll probably only know that when the film is cut together, because Carl’s working method is very much in the moment. When we decided that I’d join the EMILE adventure, there had been a number of changes in the script that I’d first read, mainly to accommodate a British actor playing a Canadian character. Carl was very generous in incorporating my suggestions. Despite the difficulties of a very small budget, it’s been a continuing process of development of which I’ve been a part. So it wasn’t a completed script that attracted me, rather its basic plot and then Carl’s willingness to adapt and modify, which made me think perhaps I’d be able to fit in here.
AS: What is EMILE’S story and why do you think it’s one worth telling?
IM: EMILE takes place in Canada, where it’s being filmed in the western reaches of British Columbia. There must be many a fascinating story from this area, although this is a fictional one, an imaginative treatment of some episode from Carl’s own family. His family, and Emile’s are rooted in the empty prairies of Saskatchewan. When Emile emigrates to the UK to take up a scholarship at a university there, he just stays abroad, although there has been one return visit home which was traumatic. When the film introduces Emile, he’s just retired from his academic job at the university where he studied as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate and then taught for many years. He has decided rather aimlessly to return to pick up an honorary degree in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. There he meets up with what remains of his family and remembers and begins to understand the past.
Why would such a story be of any interest to those who know little about British Columbia? I think it’s particular enough to reverberate for anyone who has ever been separated from family or who has neglected family life, or just lived away from home for a long time. Perhaps Carl would put the emphasis slightly differently and explain that this tale is the third in his trilogy of films about people at a crisis point. Emile’s crisis is of approaching death; a time for reassessment. I had to keep reminding young Carl that 60 isn’t a terminal condition! Indeed Emile has energy enough and is lucky enough to reestablish relations with his family. He has a second chance to put right the wrongs of his earlier life. That was an initial appeal of the story for me.
Some independent moviemakers face (even race) toward the mainstream and with films that, however cheaply made, are disguised as Hollywood product looking for a large audience. Thank goodness that was not at all Carl’s intention. His film is unashamedly parochial. Yet as with Fargo, for example, a film about the particular may well end up intriguing a general audience who don’t realise that they could ever care about people far-removed geographically from their own experience.
AS: So just having wrapped one of the larger films in recent history (X-MEN 2) and got on a ferry and done this independent feature, what is your experience been like on “the other side of the tracks” so to speak?
IM: It feels different but in a good way. Enjoying any job depends on the people you’re working with, whether you get on with them and, if you’re a foreigner, whether you’re welcomed and whether you like their attitude as well as their talents and so on. From that point of view, expensive films and cheap films are equal. Wonderful people will work for a lot of money or very little money. There were certainly tremendously talented people working on XMEN, but for me it was sporadic work. Over 15 weeks in 2002, I sort of dropped in on the filming, on average one day a week, so I couldn’t feel I was part of the whole process. No grumbles, as I had the time to explore British Columbia and host a few parties overlooking Vancouver! On EMILE I have worked the same number of days packed into three short weeks. So the difference between the two experiences is one of intensity. This rate of work wouldn’t be tolerable for a long period but that wouldn’t happen because the reason we’re working the way we are, is because of the limitations of the budget. That is the obvious, big difference between the two films.
On XMEN, or Lord of the Rings, there are enough funds to go on shooting a scene until Bryan Singer or Peter Jackson and their crew are happy that it’s right. To film a page of dialogue a day is thought to be quite good going on a major film: 100 pages take 100 days. Well, Emile’s 130 pages are shot in 15 days. When the point comes at which Carl says “that’s it,” it’s rare to have shot the scene from a variety of angles There may not have been time for a close up, nor an extra medium shot which would give him extra latitude when he is editing it. (Carl wrote the script, directs it and is the director of photography.) We are all flying by the seat of his pants. He has the cast and crews’ trust, more than normal, even as we mock his catch-phrase – as the light fades and the dollars run out – “Love to shoot, dudes!” I think Peter Jackson never did less than seven or eight takes for each set-up in Middle-earth and sometimes 15 or even 25 until he saw what he wanted on his little monitor, and would say his catch-phrase: “excellent,” the cue to carry on to the next scene. Well Carl Bessai has to hope it’s excellent just as long as the camera didn’t shake or the actors didn’t fluff their lines. He has to hope that any mistakes don’t show. Doing a scene only once (and if it’s done well that will be it) can feel thrilling and in itself needn’t be a bad thing. Yet never having the freedom to waste film or time because both are in very short supply must be a constant worry for a director. Carl literally can’t afford more celluloid then he’s got in his budget, and I know he was worried one week that he’d run over his allotted time so that he had to ask if there was any little bit of unexposed film left in the camera when it was last switched off. Even a derisory 80 feet could be used for the next short take. The bonhomie and the closeness this sort of work engenders amongst an underpaid unit with far fewer people in every department than on an amply financed movie, do give an added boost of excitement to the enterprise.
I enjoy working quickly. At the end of a long day on a big budget movie, very little usable film may have been shot and the actor may well have no idea which bits of his performance are going to be cut together to make the finished product. On Emile – time and again – Carl lets a scene play as the actors feel it and want to play it, so that they, rather than the editor, establish the rhythm of the storytelling. On the whole I prefer to work with just a little bit more resources, so that one can say “there’s another way of doing that scene, can’t we give it a try on film?” But this is not a disastrous way of working. Equally, as has been said, no one goes to see a movie because it came in under budget! There are no marks for thrift from critics or audiences.
AS: Should there be any social responsibility in an actor’s work?
IM: Professional actors, perhaps before anything, are trying to earn a living even though most of them don’t manage it. Some of us might well have other ambitions beyond that. It may be simply to get better as an actor, and I’ve done that in the theatre and film. Before we made RICHARD III, I did a number of odd jobs, as it were visiting other people’s movies, trying to learn how to act in front of the big camera. Then you might be very concerned with the message of a script – for me BENT is an extreme case, whereby Martin Sherman educated the world about the pink triangles, the gay people who were ill-treated alongside the yellow stars and other badges in Nazi labour camps. We had a huge responsibility to get that story right. But the reward is people’s amazement, people’s horror, people’s determination after having seen such a film or play, that they are going to live life a little bit differently as a result. Knowing something that they didn’t know before, they can now apply it to their own lives. That’s a wonderful gift that art can have. Doing Shakespeare or Chekov or Ibsen or Stoppard or Strindberg or Noël Coward or Bernard Shaw or Peter Shaffer you are likely to be in that territory, because the stories they choose to tell and the way they tell them aim for a relevance beyond themselves.
My taste is for movies and plays which are out of the ordinary in that they aim high and like aircraft are built for speed, so that the rudder can be pulled at just the right moment, and aerodynamics take over. In the movies, we are looking to the aerodynamics for that precious moment of lift-off. Every so often you achieve flight and you feel a million dollars because you’re no longer thinking of a million dollars you’re not thinking about what you’re earning nor the status that it might bring with it. On board will be your audience and they can fly away to places they never knew existed in imagination or in fact — like Victoria, British Columbia. That’s enough of that metaphor!
If I thought that all I had done was entertain people since my life began with just a talent to amuse, I’d be disappointed. I want on occasion to be amusing and distract an audience from the norm, but I have tried to develop a talent to tell the truth about human nature, and so open up the world a little.
AS: So when your picture, or Lord of Rings appears on the cover of TIME magazine following a less than noble individual, Osama bin Laden, on the cover - what is your reaction to that? Is film the only sacred form of storytelling left?
IM: Seeing your name or image in such places should be taken with a bucketful of salt. I noted that the report about Lord of the Rings made it clear in the second paragraph that Time is owned by the same conglomerate who finally own the film and then you wonder how did Lord of the Rings get to be on the front cover of an AOL/Time Warner magazine? It’s certainly sweet to see myself there or on the New Zealand stamps or a Burger King mug, but I do realise it’s Gandalf and not me who is the celebrity.
I’m interested in how movies are marketed — otherwise why would I be talking to you now? Not because there’s any merit in just getting my name in the papers. The point is to bring the attention of a potential audience to a film that might appeal to them. I am intrigued as to how that contact can be made, whether it’s through an interview or through my website. I’m interested in what the critics say for the same reason: critics are all part of publicity, a crucial part. So I don’t mind putting myself out and advertising a project that I’m involved in, that I’ve spent weeks, months maybe years working on. It’s not the same business as other advertising, which persuades people to buy something that they don’t really need like another high-calorie snack or another pair of designer jeans. (Though I once lent my body to a Gap ad which made it onto the London double-decker buses). I hope that there are some people who will go and see Ian McKellen act because they’ve caught on to the fact that he doesn’t do rubbish: not to say that he’s always good or always right, but his intentions are, I promise. In over 40 years there are only a couple of jobs that I wish I hadn’t done.
AS: You’ve had a number of brushes with Judaism in your film career. What is it about stories that involve Jewish characters that appeals to you –
IM: (laughs) It’s not so much the Jews, but the Nazis. Nazis are for my generation the worst possible behavior privately and publicly that human beings could visit on each other so that’s likely to be of interest to contemporary story-tellers. Stephen King wants to write an extreme story, he plants a reconstituted Nazi living and hiding in California (APT PUPIL) – BENT is very much a metaphor for what it is to be gay, all sorts of different gay characters, living under the Third Reich, in a repressive regime where homosexuality is absolutely forbidden (as it was in my country until I was 27 years old). “THE KEEP,” well, that was a story about awakening some ancient evil force, which could only be achieved by a current evil that matched it, so he went for the Third Reich. Perhaps if Shakespeare had been alive in the 20th century, Iago would have been a Nazi officer, who knows? But as for Jews, no, I get a little bit nervous about playing Jews, because not being Jewish I would have to work hard to believe in myself. “Magneto” (X-MEN) is actually Jewish – in one version of the story – in the opening of the first movie young Magneto is discovering his mutancy when he’s put in Auschwitz, about the time that Max in Bent is suffering in Dachau. This year I’m playing the title role of Antonio, the gay man in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I’m happy to let Al Pacino play Shylock the Jew.
AS: You’ve said that “you’re not trying to solve the world’s problems – just your own”. Would you say that each role you play brings you closer to figuring that out?
IM: It’s a great privilege, acting. You’re paid for thinking deeply about yourself, but in the context of thinking deeply about the character you’re playing. You wonder where the two can meet and sort of stick together. Acting can be a form of disguise, literally putting one on, making yourself unrecognizable, and that’s a sort of acting I enjoy in myself and other actors. As a young gay actor in the closet, I was perhaps using acting as a disguise, displaying my emotions publically in a way that I wasn’t always prepared to do in life. Many an actors’ work, rehearsed so nothing can go wrong, is a compensation for some lack of confidence in their own lives, yet when they stop acting and go home, they leave their confidence behind. The other side of acting is not to disguise, but to open up and reveal yourself. Being prepared to do that is the mark of what is likely to separate the good actors from the bad ones, or less good — certainly the best-intentioned actors from the worst.
AS: How did you get the script of “Emile”? How does an independent filmmaker get a script to you?
IM: You’ll have to ask Carl Bessai this but I think that he contacted my agent in London and asked could he send a script. I think I see most things that people send my way. It was before I came over to do X-Men, and so without any commitment at all, I suggested that we meet while I was filming in Vancouver where Carl lives. Meeting Carl, having enjoyed his script, clinched it. After a couple of chats we had to decide whether we were going to carry on or not because if we were we were going to have to work hard and quickly to get it done. The sun was out, the view over the bay was beautiful and it just felt the right thing for me to do. What else can you go on than your feelings? Working with people who live and work in Vancouver I can feel I too have lived in British Columbia and not just visited.
AS: What are the films that you rent or watch or choose to go and see for a night out at the cinema?
IM: I like a good story (laughs) and I like a stylish film. To feel some decisions have been made. I don’t rent, I’m not sure how you do it — you have to join a club do you?
AS: Do you not have a VCR and DVD player at home?
IM: I do, but I don’t know how they work. I can’t turn them on properly. It’s pathetic, let’s not talk about it. I have a few DVDs — usually ones that have been giving to me. What did I go out and buy? TOY STORY – still in its wrapper. I don’t much like watching movies at home. I prefer sitting in the dark with a lot of strangers, and it’s obvious isn’t it that the theatre experience can’t be reproduced. You have to be there, that’s what makes live theatre so special. It’s only for those people – you’re not feeding the world, it’s just those people. I know they pay a lot of money for it, but it’s special to them. Now, cinema – the film exists wherever it happens to be playing and there’s an audience watching it. It’s just not the same watching it at home on your own with the ability to stop and come back to it…or take a phone call or turn the sound down or heaven forbid watch it with commercials – none of this was what was intended. There’s not a filmmaker in the world who imagines he’s making stuff for TV – they’re all making it for the big screen. It’s a fact of life and it’s deeply deeply regrettable I think that most films will be seen by most people, not where they’re intended on the big screen, but on the box or worse still on the back of an airline seat.
I’ve got friends who seem to have every DVD ever released and it’s rather alluring to be able watch any film ever made yet it’s a sort of reminder of what film can be like — it isn’t film itself.
Adrian Salpeter is a film producer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.