Scannain caught up with producer Barbara Broccoli to talk about her latest film Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which is in cinemas from today. Best known for her role as producer on the James Bond franchise this marked her first film away from 007.
The film, which is directed by Paul McGuigan, is based on the memoir of the same name by Peter Turner ,and tells teh story of Turner’s romance and friendship with Hollywood star Gloria Grahame in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. What starts as a vibrant affair between a legendary femme fatale and her young lover quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Turner being the person Grahame turns to for comfort. Their passion and lust for life is tested to the limits by events beyond their control.
The film stars Annette Bening and Jamie Bell as Grahame and Turner respectively, with support from Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber, and Leanne Best
At its heart Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a touching love-story. “That was the attraction in trying to tell this story. Peter’s book, the memoir, is a love story from his point of view. That’s what Paul has done so successfully with the movie. When I was trying to get it set up over the years people would say to me ‘Oh who remembers Gloria Grahame anymore?’ That’s not really relevant. The people who know will be interested. The people who don’t will find out about her. We the audience are in the same position as Peter Turner. In a world pre-social media. He didn’t know who she was. He didn’t know anything about her. He just met this extraordinary woman and started to discover about her over the period of time. It’s fascinating isn’t it? When you meet someone you don’t know everything about them and it’s the discovery, the courtship.”
I knew them together. I’ve known Peter for 40 years. I met him when I was quite young and I saw them together. And that was the thing that struck me. They were two people who really got one another. It was like they saw each other. They looked into each other and saw who they really were and not all the other stuff. that was the thing about Gloria. She had a lot of baggage. And for a lot of people when she walked in a room the baggage came with her. Here she was in a situation with somebody who just saw her. The vulnerable lonely person that she was. Gloria was very no-judgemental. Very ahead of her time in that respect. When he revealed things about himself she went ‘Fine, no problem’. The fact that he had had relationships with men at a time when people were not able to expose their sexuality, and she was just ‘Okay, so you’ve slept with men’. It was unusual for those days. Now it’s more commonplace. There was no affectation to her at all. That’s why she didn’t really fit into the Hollywood system. You had to conform, you had to behave, you had to play by the rules, and all of those things. Which she didn’t like!
It’s crazy to think of a Hollywood star pitching up on the theatre circuit in the UK like that. “When the roles dried up as she got a little bit older and she was looking for work… Actors are just like any other profession, you have to work. You want to work. You don’t always get to pick and choose. You go where the work is. So she came to England and worked on the stage, because she started as a stage actress and she loved the theatre. She was plucked from New York and taken to Hollywood. So she played regional theatre and she got to play all of these great roles, but it wasn’t a particularly glamorous or lucrative way to pursue her career, but it was what she was able to do. And that was where she met Peter. She was in Primrose Hill living in a bedsit in a boarding house. A long way from Malibu. That was where I met her, and I only got to meet her a few times, but I was really impressed by the fact that she didn’t put on any airs or graces. You knew when she walked in a room that she had it, she was someone, she had that sort of aura about her. She didn’t care if people knew who she was or not. She was just her. She was Gloria.”
There’s a moment in the film where a bartender asks Peter in an aside ‘Is that Gloria Grahame?’ and he responds ‘That’s who she tells me she is’. “It’s pre-social media. A lot of young people who have seen this film, alot of them have said to me how much they love it because it’s a pre-social media courtship. They are really quite fascinated by a relationship where you just talk to somebody and find out about them. You don’t know what their status is or all of the things that they’ve done this week. All of the things that make it so hard for people these days to actually discover the other person. So young people are really responding to this movie which is really exciting for me. And of course we she her through Peter’s eyes so that’s our way in to the movie. And it’s a very touching story.”
At the heart of the film is a superb pairing of Annette Bening and Jamie Bell who really sell the relationship. “Annette is such a magnificent actress and I’ve known her for many years. I first talked about this with her 22 years ago but she was way too young. She had learned about Gloria Grahame when she was doing The Grifters for Stephen Frears, because he said look at Gloria Grahame movies as an inspiration for that character. So that began her love-affair with Gloria Grahame. I talked about it with her then and she was too young so we waited. Then when she said to me ‘Okay, I’m ready for it now’ two or three years ago we started the challenge of trying to find Peter. Jamie Bell’s name came up and we were very enamoured with him because if you look back to Billy Elliott he’s been such a versatile actor. He’s just been doing all kinds of interesting roles and perfecting his craft. I was in LA with Paul McGuigan and we were meeting Annette. We got Jamie to come over to my house and sit with her. When the two of them got in a room together it was really electric. We started talking about the script and about one of the scenes, and he said ‘Should we just read it?’ and they started to do the scene together and I started to cry. It was so strange, it had never happened to me before, they started to read the scene together and it was just so moving in the way that they did it. So we were like we don’t need to look at anybody else. He’s our guy. It was incredible. I’ve known Peter 40 years and to see somebody who could capture those elements that make Peter Peter, his essence. You know his humour, his stubbornness, all the things that she was attracted to . Annette is one of the greatest actresses on earth and for him to hold his own with her was so impressive. I think that they are both incredible.”
In addition to Bening and Bell, the film features an all-star cast. “Going to the set every day was like having Christmas every day. It was a very intimate film and I loved working with Paul McGuigan and all of the fantastic creative people that we had like Eve Stewart, Urszula Pontikos our young female cinematographer… we had a lot of women… but the actors, just watching the actors… It was a masterclass in acting with Annette and Jamie, Julie Walters, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber… it just goes on and on… And then there was the Elvis Costello of it all. That was a real Christmas present. Both Paul McGuigan and Colin Vaines, who is the other producer on the movie were reading Elvis’ autobiography, and he mentions Gloria Grahame in his autobiography. We were in London getting ready to shoot and he had a concert at teh Palladium so we went along to see him. And in the middle of the concert there were these huge photographs of Gloria Grahame and we were like ‘Oh my God!’ So we went marching around to the stage door after the concert and knocked and asked can we come see you. He let us in and we asked if he like Gloria Grahame and he said he loved her. So we said we’re making this movie, would you like to write a song? So we sent him the script and he started working on it. And then literally on Christmas Day he sent us the song. Paul said it was the best Christmas present you could have. It’s just this beautiful, lovely ballad about her. We went back to the Liverpool playhouse, where we had filmed Gloria and Peter in the Romeo and Juliet scene, with Elvis and did a music video there and it was just so touching.”
The film shot on location in Liverpool, even managing to get back to Peter’s house from the 1970/80’s. “We went back to the house and it was very emotional for Peter because it was a huge part of his life. It was great when we did the initial scout there with Peter and Annette came too. We just sat on the train and then wandered around. It’s such a great place Liverpool, and it’s so evocative of the period. And the people were very welcoming. We understood how Gloria could have fallen for it. Fallen for this place where it was a place of safety with a welcoming family who wanted to do the right thing, wanted to take care of her. Didn’t really care who she was, she was just a person in need of comfort and companionship in a period where she was very vulnerable in her life. As Julie Walters says ‘ wish you had told us. I would have put the electric blanket on!’ It was very touching to me. I like celebrating the goodness in people and in a family just trying to do the right thing. And the conflict and tension that brings into the house. I love the humour and the conflict. Like all families!
Gloria Grahame is not a name familar to most but she was a huge star in her day. “I love the line, and Matt Greenhalgh is a wonderful screenwriter, I love the line when Jamie first sees her in the boarding house and the women who runs the boarding house says to him ‘Gloria Grahame, big, very big in the black and white movies, not doing so well in colour!’ It’s such a great line. It tells the whole story. She was so much identified with that ‘Film Noir’ period, the kind of sultry wonderful vulnerable but tough character. She was so versatile. When you look at what she did from Oklahoma, The Greatest Show on Earth, In a Lonely Place…which is a great movie with Humphrey Bogart…she was a really phenomenal actress. One of the things that I hope will come out of this movie is I hope that people will see some of those movies that she was in. Like The Bad and the Beautiful…they are some of the greatest movies that we have from that period. As women get older they are kind of discarded, but they still need to work. She was in that situation where she loved what she did and she had to work to raise her family, so she went where the work was.
Grahame fought against the ageing process to her own detriment, refusing chemotherapy as she would lose her her. “It’s very touching and I think people really understand that and sympathise with that. They understand what she’s going through. Women as we age are not considered viable sexual beings any more, you’re over the hill or this and that, and I think that that vulnerability is so wonderful. I really think that the way Annette Bening plays that character, without any vanity, she totally allows the camera to completely embrace her and it’s a really brave performance. She wasn’t at all concerned with being a woman of her own age. She’s so beautiful and sexy and I think its one of the reasons that people are responding so well to the movie. They like to see real women, grown-up real women, in real life situations being reflected on screen. I think it’s really important to show women in those situations.”
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is out now in cinemas nationwide.