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Interview - British Actor Brian Cox On Recreating 'Churchill'

Brian Cox Interview

Churchill is about to be released in Australian cinemas and I recently had the chance to speak with star Brian Cox about stepping into the shoes of the infamous leading character.

Matt:  How did this project first come across your radar?

Brian:  It came to me via a small company called Salon Pictures and producer Paul Van Carter.  It came out of the blue.  They told me they were doing a film about Churchill and that they wanted me for the role.  I read the script which was written by a young woman, Alex von Tunzelmann, who is an historian and specialises in historical accuracy.  I felt “this woman knows her stuff.”  It’s such an original take on Churchill but when you examine it, it’s completely on the money.

He went through this difficult time towards the end of 1943 where he was ill and had pneumonia in the lead up to D-Day.  He had doubts about the plan which was related to what happened in Gallipoli during World War I which was a failure and affected a lot of Australians.  He took full responsibility for that.  He actually resigned from the government and went into the wilderness for quite a long time.

Churchill was very ambitious, rather bumptious and a bit of a know-it-all.  He was smart as anything, a great journalist and a great writer.  He already had an extraordinary history in the Boer War.  It was fascinating to me that he had this crisis in World War II which, as is inferred from Alex’s script, never left him.  He felt very bad about it. 

Matt:  An interesting element of the film is that it doesn’t portray Churchill in a positive light.  He’s very stubborn to pretty much everyone around him, including his wife.  Do you think this will be an eye-opener for audiences?  To see a side of Churchill that isn’t as well known?

Brian:  He was certainly stubborn but the interesting thing that came out for me was that after we worked on it for several weeks and had started shooting, the army advisor pipped up and said “you know, we actually put Churchill’s plan for D-Day into a computer at Sandhurst 30 years ago and the result was extraordinary.”  He said the result was that the war would have ended 6 months earlier.

When Churchill had an idea, he was like a dog and wouldn’t let it go.  Unfortunately, it was a shift in time and he was part of another generator.  He was 70, he was quite frail, he’d been ill and he suffered from depression.  Also, the war was getting to him.  The losses were mounting.  You’d have to be deeply incentive not be affected by some of that.

D-Day turned out to be a success but there were a lot of mistakes and a lot of guys died.  Ironically, it was the Americans who came off worst.  I looked at actual videos of people manning the landing crafts and for some, none of their guys even made it to the shore.  At Utah Beach they lost 1,200-1,500 men in the first 20 minutes.  That’s something that kind of stokes the fire of Churchill’s difficult with what happened.

Matt:  Can I talk about the research that you had to do for the film?  Do you have access to any material you hadn’t heard of or seen before?

Brian:  Actors work like detectives.  You piece things together.  One thing that’s interesting in the wake of Brexit, I discovered that Churchill had a plan in the early part of the war to give French people citizenship of Britain and vice-versa.  That would help create a fermented Europe that was beginning then.  He could see the difficultly of what was going on.

Another thing I learned was about the protection of his image and this is where his wife comes into play.  She was fierce in protecting him and did so.  It’s why so much information about Churchill was kept hidden and is only coming out now.

A strong example is that there’s a video of when Churchill sat for a portrait with the English painter Graham Sutherland.  It has a red background which dominates the painting.  Churchill is only in the bottom third and he sits slumped.  He’s probably in his late 70s by this point.  He’s got a button undone on his fly.  It’s a “warts and all” portrait.

The video is of when the portrait was revealed in Westminster Palace.  He’s making a speech and if you look at his wife, she’s closely got her eyes on him.  She clearly has seen the painting but he hasn’t.  When it comes to the moment of reveal, he turns around, looks at it for a moment and says “oh, I see I’m a victim of modern art.”  The painting was given to Churchill and she had it destroyed.  She set fire to it.  That’s to do with protecting the image of her husband.  Her presence in his life was very formidable and very necessary, particularly as he got older.

It’s also worth noting that there are two Churchills.  There’s the private man who had a great sense of humour.  He was child-like at times.  I’ve always said all babies look like Winston Churchill and Winston Churchill looks like all babies.  When you think about it, the smoking of the cigar is like thumb sucking.  It’s a comforter.  This film delves into that private side which all made sense to me.

There was an element of Churchill that was unlikeable.  He was the MP of my home town and so I grew up with a great ambivalence towards him.  He cursed my town.  He made a speech from the railway station that “I will see the grass grow green over the industrial wasteland of this city”.  He was right.  Now though, there’s no question in my mind that just like Mandela and Napoleon, he was a man of destiny and that destiny lay with the success of World War II.

Matt:  Talk us through the physical aspects of your performance.  What was the process for getting Churchill’s looks, mannerisms and voice down pat?

Brian:  I really wanted to try to avoid any kind of fat suit or prosthetics.  I’ve always had a battle with my weight and I’m a diabetic which is also dangerous.  I decided to just let myself go.  I’ve just subsequently lost about 30 pounds in weight.  I’m still broad in the shoulder and in the chest but I don’t have the gut any more thank God.  That was one thing.

I shaved my head and had my hair bleached.  I also had to fill in my chin because Churchill didn’t have a cleft chin.  For me, acting is always an internal process.  Two of my favourite actors are Spencer Tracy and Charles Laughton.  Laughton had this great thing of “thinking a part” and he became the character that way.  Tracy did the same.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Brian:  There’s a couple of films I’m doing called Being Dead and then another film in Canada with Greg Kinnear, Amy Adams and Blythe Danner called Strange But True.  I’m then going to do a TV series for HBO.  I’ve already shot the pilot.  It’s about a media family who are in the process of deciding the succession plan for their father and who is going to take over when he retires.  It’s a family that owns newspapers and television stations so it should sound familiar.

I play the patriarch of the family.  The first episode is about him giving his empire away but it’s also about him taking his empire back.  The series is called Succession and it has the lovely Australian actress Sarah Snook who plays my daughter.  It’s written by Jesse Armstrong who has been involved with Armando Iannucci and worked on shows like Veep and Peep Show.  It’s produced and directed by Adam McKay who made The Big Short.  It’s really good and they loved the pilot so we go to series between the end of July and September.

Interview - Director Alex Kurtzman Breathes Life Into 'The Mummy'

Alex Kurtzman Interview

The Mummy had its Australian premiere not long ago and while he was in the country, I had the chance to speak to director Alex Kurtzman about his film.

Matt:  You’ve had the chance to write so many big-budget action blockbusters.  How did this opportunity to direct finally come along?

Alex:  I’ve had the great privilege to work with a lot of amazing directors and they’ve been very generous with me.  I got to stay with them on set and see them work and watch their styles.  At a certain point, I developed a strong itch to do it myself – to take what I’ve learned and apply it to something.  I knew I wanted to do a project that I was passionate about and I have loved the Universal monsters for a long time.  When the studio came to me about The Mummy, I was very excited to throw my hat in the ring and they fortunately said “yes”.

Matt:  Have you always had a love for action movies?  Are there films that you look up to and use as a kind of benchmark?

Alex:  For sure.  I love all kinds of movies.  In terms of action references, I grew up in the era of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.  Those were particularly exciting because they were so rooted in character.  They were big ideas that had small human stories.  The action films that I tend to be drawn to are very similar.

Matt:  Take us through a shootout scene.  There are parts in the film where we see guns being fired, bullets hitting walls.  How do you pull that off and make it look so realistic?

Alex:  For the scene you’re talking about, we shot that in Namibia which is an amazingly beautiful place.  We built that entire town in the middle of the African desert where there’s absolutely nothing.  You’re importing enormous amounts of things.  Those buildings were all rigged to explode, collapse and reset within 10 minutes which was amazing to watch.

We had the most incredible designers and stunt folk working.  It’s a lot of planning which is the short answer.  We spent a lot of time choreographing the sequence in advance and going down to every detail.  There’s real explosions going on and so the actors and crew have to be safe.  What looks very chaotic on screen is very kind of controlled.

Matt:  I’ve seen all kind of stunts in movies but one that freaks me out above all others is an underwater scene – where someone is swimming around trying to find air.  We see that in this film with what does look like Tom Cruise.  Is there any level of danger at all when pulling off a scene like that?

Alex:  The water stuff is extremely dangerous because you’re going so deep and because you have to oxygenate correctly.  There are divers all around and Tom Cruise likes to do everything practically so there are no stuntmen there.  We were in a very large water tank.  If you don’t rise to the surface correctly then you can really hurt yourself.  The actors have to train and learn how to use rebreathers for a long time.  It’s exhausting work but hopefully it gives the audience a really exciting and scary experience.

Matt:  Special effects seem to be able to do everything these days but was there stuff here that you couldn’t pull off?  Anything that was simply too much for the visual effects guys?

Alex:  The fun about working with Tom is that’s never really allowed to be a thought.  You’re always asking yourself how you can deliver something for the audience that they’ve never seen before.

In the case of the plane crash sequence, Tom was excited about doing it in zero gravity and so we shot it over the course of a few days in a real plane called the Vomit Comet.  You fly up towards space at the speed of a rocket and then you free fall for 22 seconds.  In that 22 seconds, as you’re plummeting towards earth, we’re rolling the camera.  The audience is seeing actual people tumbling through a plane that is going straight down.  You see all the movement that you could never achieve with cables or CGI.

Matt:  I have to ask where the sound guys came up with all the spooky mummy noises.  It sounds like a mix between a strong wind and someone screaming.

Alex:  I’ve worked with a team over the last couple of years that are unbelievable.  Our mixers, Christopher Scarabosio and Paul Massey, have done everything from the Star Wars films to Pirates of the Caribbean.  They really know what they’re doing.  We spend a lot of time developing sound.  It’s one of the key emotional experiences than an audience has.  They may not be aware of it but it impacts them massively.

We spent a huge amount of time thinking about Sofia Boutella’s voice and what we wanted to do with it.  We put whispers behind it and augmented it in certain ways so that it had a very creepy effect but still found grounded in reality.

Matt:  This appears to be part of a bigger universe of films that perhaps we’re going to see more of in the near future.  Can you tell us what else is in the works?  Are you in the loop about where the storylines are going next?

Alex:  Yes.  I am very much in the loop.  The next film we’re going to be doing is Bride of Frankenstein.  A lot of people involved really love these Universal monsters.  Bill Condon will be directing.  He’s a massive lover of James Whale and he directed Gods & Monsters which makes him the perfect director.  He just did Beauty and the Beast and he’s such a brilliant, talented guy.  I’m a huge fan and I’m excited to work with him.  I think the idea is to take each of these monsters and give them their own film.

Matt:  Do you have certain plot points that you were told to include in The Mummy knowing that they’re going to be expanded upon in future films?

Alex:  Not so much in The Mummy.  The intention was to open the door a crack but not to overwhelm the audience with too much information about it.  You want to wet the audience’s appetite and get them excited about the things coming up.

Interview - Geoffrey Rush On Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Geoffrey Rush Interview

It was shot here in Queensland and it was a pleasure to catch up with Geoffrey Rush to talk about his returning performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales…

Matt:  Looking through you resume, you’ve made a lot of films but you’re somehow avoided sequences and big franchises with the exception of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  Did you think this series was going to be as big when it started out back in 2003?

Geoffrey:  The four previous films have done extremely well financially and there’s a massive fan base out there.  Even I get fan mail from places as unlikely as China, Russia and Slovenia.  I’d hate to imagine how much Johnny Depp gets.  They write about such detail in the plot and it’s great to get that positive feedback.

There was a recent screening of this new film at CinemaCon in America and the press were saying “it’s just like the first film” and I thought that’s kind of good.  Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the two directors, they are young enough to have been in college when the first film came out.  Their working model was to capture the original spirit of the whole idea of telling this story.  With the development of technology over the past 15 years, the 3D visual effects in this are really pushing the envelope.

Matt:  How does it work getting you back on board for these films?  Are you contractually obligated?  Or do you look at a script and then sign up?

Geoffrey:  There’s no contractual obligation but there’s a kind of lure for me because Barbossa started out as a “spat out of hell” villain in the first film and I thought that’d be it because I got shot.  Gore Verbinski then phoned me up and said they were going to do all these amazing things in parts 2 and 3 and said they were going to use some voodoo magic to bring me back to life.

In the next one I was a politician and then I started working for King George II and now I’m obscenely wealthy.  Barbossa is the king of the sea – he’s kind of a corporate pirate.  That is until Javier Bardem’s Salazar comes back from the Devil’s Triangle after being in underwater purgatory for 25 years.  His aim is to eliminate every pirate on the planet.  The stakes are very high.

Matt:  Is it easy slipping back into the character of Barbossa given you’ve played him several times or do you looking to do something a little different each time?

Geoffrey:  There are little shifts because of the way he keeps surviving.  We’re all about 20 years older in this story.  Barbossa is ruthless and he runs with what is most opportunistic for him.  He feels different each time but once I get the costume, the wig, the hat and the monkey, it springs into life.

Matt:  You have such a distinctive look in the film with the beard, hair and weathered face.  How long did you spend in the make-up chair each day?  What do you do to pass the time?

Geoffrey:  It’s about a two hour job which isn’t too bad.  On screen, it’s only me, Johnny Depp and Kevin McNally who have been in all five films.  The make-up teams, costume designers, camera operators, the stunt guys… a lot of them have been with the franchise since 2003.  It’s a big boisterous family reunion each time and we love to catch up and chat when getting ready.

Matt:  I was reading this film has a budget of $320m USD which makes it one of the most expensive films ever made.  You’ve made a lot of smaller films but does it feel different being on the set of a film like this with so much being spent?  Are the snacks a lot better?

Geoffrey:  I don’t know how accurate that figure is.  It’s certainly triple figures.  It’s definitely huge.  There are parts where we’ve got 12 to 15 galleons all converging on each other.  In the first film, we went out to sea a lot.  We’d go 30 kilometres off shore every day for several weeks.  For this film, we were on a backlot on the Gold Coast and all of those ships were on extraordinary hydraulic machinery so that they could create the dark, brooding, ugly seas that Salazar exists in.

In terms of playing the scenes, it feels the same.  I remember Johnny saying to me on the first film that while we’re just doing dialogue in a ship’s cabin, it’s no different from an independent film.  You just have to play the scene and make it work.

Matt:  Was it nice to be able to shoot the film in Queensland?  Any sites we should try to keep an eye out for?

Geoffrey:  A lot of it was studio bound.  They shot around The Spit on the Gold Coast and also up in the hinterland.  We then spent about 2 weeks up in the Whitsundays doing some location filming.  I don’t know whether you’ll be able to spot any locations because the art department did such a good job.  I walked down to the beach and went “my God, this looks like the Caribbean” and then you’re told that 40 palm trees were put in last night to make it look more Caribbean.

Matt:  You get to work alongside a young Queenslander who many have tapped for bigger things – Brenton Thwaites.  Did you get to spend a lot of time with him during the process?

Geoffrey:  To an extent but it was more off screen than on screen because our characters don’t overlap that much in the plot.  He was certainly around playing his guitar and he’s a very fine young man.  His co-star, Kaya Scodelario, plays this brilliant young 18th century scientist.  She’s a funky young actress and I really like the storyline those two share.

Matt:  And what was it like to work with Javier Bardem?

Geoffrey:  He’s fantastic because he emerges onto the set having spent 25 years under water and he’s half crustacean.  In every line of dialogue, he had squid ink oozing out of his mouth.  It was quite a thrill.  I got to know him back in 2001.  We were both nominated at the Oscars that year – I was for Quills and he was for Before Night Falls – and so we hung out a lot during the award season.  Also, his wife Penelope Cruz was in the last film and so he was on set a lot for that. 

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Geoffrey:  I’m currently on the National Geographic Channel playing Albert Einstein in a 10-part series called Genius.  After that, I’m just waiting for the phone ring.

Interview - Director Gurinder Chadha Takes Us Inside 'Viceroy's House'

Gurinder Chadha Interview

Her directing credits include Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice, and Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging.  Her latest film is Viceroy’s House and it was a pleasure to speak with Gurinder Chadha.

Matt:  You’ve made such a wide away of films up until now.  Where did the inspiration come from to tell this particular story?

Gurinder:  This is a grand, epic, historical, costume drama but it’s also a very personal story.  It’s about the last days of the British Empire in India and during those last few months when Lord Mountbattens were the last Viceroy of India.  India ended up being partitioned and my ancestral  homeland ended up being on the wrong side of the border.  It became part of Pakistan and my family ended up leaving as refugees.  Growing up in London, I therefore never had an ancestral homeland of my own that I could go and visit. 

That said, I never wanted to tell this story because it’s a big story.  40 million people were displaced – the biggest forced migration in human history.  Over a million people died.  I appeared on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are” a few years back and as part of that, I ended up going to Pakistan.  I was very touched by the warm affection I was greeted with and I also realised how much people had suffered in the same way as my own family.  I then decided that I wanted to make a film about the partition but given 70 years had passed, I wanted it to be more healing and more conciliatory than some of the more aggressive films that had been made previously.

Matt:  I have to confess that I didn’t know about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.  Is that a common reaction as you’ve taken this film around the world or am I just hopelessly ignorant?

Gurinder:  No, you’re not hopelessly ignorant.  As the film says, “history is written by the victors.”  There are versions of history that we have been told and taught at school.  My film focuses on the history which is not the version that I was taught at school and not the version that the British Empire wanted to put out at the time.  The film is based on top secret British documents that do tell a very different story of what happened.  It’s even an eye-opener for a lot of British people. 

Matt:  A lot of what we see in the film are meetings behind closed doors and important items being discussed.  How easy was it to research the film?  How do you know what is depicted is a fairly accurate reflection of what took place?

Gurinder:  Paul, my partner and writer, read about 20 books, we interviewed a lot of academics, and we met people who had actually been there at the time.  The film is actually based on two books in particular.  The first is ‘Freedom at Midnight’ which is known as the seminal book on partition.  After that, another book came out called The Shadow of the Great Game that was written by Narendra Singh Sarila.  He was a former ADC to Lord Mountbatten in 1948.

In 1997, he was in the British Library writing a book on the Maharajas and an Indian librarian came up to him and said “sir, I think you should look at these documents that have just become available.”  Narendra being a diplomat understood immediately what this woman was showing him.  The documents told a very different story to what we knew and so Narendra ditched the book he was working on and then wrote The Shadow of the Great Game.  

Matt:  How much did you learn during the process?  Did your opinion about the events and their aftermath change at all?

Gurinder:  Absolutely.  I had a particular history I’d be told that in 1947, Lord Mountbatten was sent to India with the task of handing India back but when he got there, we started fighting with each other and so Mountbatten had no choice but to divide the country.  I was at a reception at Clarence House and I met Prince Charles and I started to talk to him about the fact I was making a film about his uncle and he was very interested.  He said “do you know about the Narendra Singh Sarila book?” and he also mentioned a few other things.

The documents Narendra found talked about how partition wasn’t a reaction to events at the time but was more of a political act that had been concocted at Whitehall for specific reasons.  That’s what the film is about and I don’t want to give too much more away.

Matt:  There is a balance in the film where you try to show the viewpoints of both sides – those who wanted a single India and those who wanted it partitioned into two countries.  Was that always your intention and was it easy trying to find that balance without looking like you were trying to favour one particular side?

Gurinder:  I worked very hard to make a film that was as balanced as possible.  We had a very heated political situation where everybody was working to their agendas and everyone was “right” in their own way.  I wanted to present everyone’s position and then show how it was the little people who got squeezed.  That was my intention.

Matt:  In the film there’s the story within the story – and I’m referring to the relationship that develops between Jeet, a Hindu and Alia, a Muslim.  Where did that part of the film come from?

Gurinder:  In a film about division and boundaries, I felt it was important to have a love story at the core.  That then became the personification of the sacrifices that people make when choosing between love and nationhood in this case.  The story was an amalgam of people we had met as part of our research.  So they were fictional characters but through the love story, we could see the impact of the political decisions that were made. 

Matt:  I’m always curious about historical dramas about the casting.  How much of an impact does the “look” of an actor come into play when choosing them?  Do you try to cast actors that have the appearance of their real life counterparts?

Gurinder:  With famous historical figures, you have to find a resemblance.  You don’t want them to mimic people but with someone like Ghandi for example, people know him all over the world.  It behoved me to find an actor who resembled Ghandi.  It was the same with Nehru, Jinnah and the Mountbattens.  The Mountbatten’s real life daughter, Lady Pamela, is alive today and we met a few times.  She was very charmed by Hugh Bonneville but she said he was a lot chunkier than her father (laughs).

I think Gillian Anderson did a very good job of become Edwina in the way she held herself and walked and talked but she didn’t mimic Edwina.  She was definitely Gillian Anderson playing the character.

Matt:  Where was the film shot?  Did you have the chance to use the actual Viceroy’s House from back in the 1940s?

Gurinder:  The film was shot entirely on location and we ended up getting very lucky and shooting in the real Viceroy’s house.  All of our big exterior scenes were shot there in Delhi.  The house is now home to the President of India so it was quite a coup to get that permission.

The second major location where we did a lot of the interiors was a wonderful palace which is residence to the Maharaja of Jodhpur.  It was built in a similar style to Viceroy’s House around the same period.  That palace is still home to the Maharaja in one of the wings but the rest is a very, very fancy hotel.  We had to work with the hotel in order to shoot our movie.  There were certain days when we were only allowed in certain parts of the hotel but we made it work.

Our third location was the ruins of a big fort in Rajasthan that had been built a thousand years ago.  That’s where we built our big refugee camp.

Matt:  You’re working here with one of my favourite composers – A.R. Rahman whose credits include Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours.  Do you just throw the music completely over to him or did you have something in mind to guide him from the outset?

Gurinder:  When I met A.R. to talk about the film, he said that he’d vowed to never work on a film about partition.  I then tried to persuade him otherwise.  It was a very interesting process watching him work.  He saw a rough cut of the film and then he walked over to his piano and started playing a tune.  I quickly turned my phone on to record it.  In the end, that became one of the central themes in the film.  For A.R., he has to feel very emotional about the story before can start composing.  That’s what’s so wonderful about him. 

Matt:  Have you had the chance to screen the film in India or Pakistan yet?

Gurinder:  Not officially.  At the Berlin Film Festival we did have some journalists from India who saw the film.  Two of them I spoke to were very complimentary because for them, they felt it was refreshing to see a film that stood back and looked at the events of 1947 from a less aggressive perspective as to what is normally shown in India and Pakistan. 

Matt:  Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Gurinder:  I’ve got a pretty full slate.  I’ve been very excited by the recent changes to television and long-form drama and so I’ve been working on a couple of big dramas set across India, Africa and Great Britain.  I’m quite excited about that.  There’s also another movie script I’ve been working on which is the closest thing to the Bend It Like Beckham world that I’ve written in the past 15 years.  I felt it was time to write something again based on the British Asian community.