Q & A with Director Richard Loncraine

“The Special Relationship” director Richard Loncraine

“The Special Relationship” director Richard Loncraine

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Richard Loncraine about “The Special Relationship,” the third film in screenwriter Peter Morgan’s trilogy about Tony Blair, which debuted May 29 on HBO.

The HBO Films presentation in association with BBC Films stars Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, Hope Davis and Helen McCrory and takes a behind-the-scenes look at the unique and sometimes turbulent political relationship between newly-installed British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Sheen) and U.S. President Bill Clinton (Quaid) as the two dynamic leaders become co-stars on the world stage. Davis plays Hillary Clinton and McCrory plays Cherie Blair.

The third film written by Peter Morgan about Tony Blair, following “The Deal,” which aired in the U.S. on HBO, and the Academy Award nominated feature “The Queen,” “The Special Relationship” is directed by Emmy winner Richard Loncraine and is a Kennedy-Marshall Production and a Rainmark Films Production. It was executive produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Andy Harries, Peter Morgan and Christine Langan and produced by Frank Doelger, Tracey Scoffield and Ann Wingate.

The Story (official version - no spoilers): “The Special Relationship” chronicles the enduring friendship and tribulations of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton. The film follows Tony Blair’s journey from political understudy waiting in the wings of the world arena to accomplished prime minister standing confidently in the spotlight of center stage.

It’s a story about relationships between two powerful men, two powerful couples and husbands and wives. Loncraine examines the nature of friendship in high places. Stretching from 1992 to 2000, the film documents Blair’s burgeoning political and personal relationship with Clinton through his election, Clinton’s sex scandal, and the Kosovo crisis.

In 1996 the Blairs and the Clintons are a unique foursome – each one an extremely bright lawyer – with a kinship forged in shared ideology and genuine affection. When world events and personal watersheds shake the very foundation of their relationship, the men and their wives must come to terms with the ephemeral nature of power and, oftentimes, friendship.

As the film begins, there are many similarities between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, both center-left politicians driven by personal ambition, yet equally driven by a belief they can change the world and do a great deal of good. What starts as the formality of friendship between two national figures evolves into a genuine connection, a meeting of kindred spirits, of ideological soul mates in their domestic agendas. The world watches as the seasoned and charismatic president takes the less-experienced prime minister under his political wing and shows him the proverbial ropes. Their professional simpatico spills over into their personal lives and draws the two couples together.

In early 1998 the world gasps as the White House is rocked with a scandal that will change the face of American politics. Later, the bond between Blair and Clinton is sundered over the festering crisis in Kosovo, as Blair’s call for action clashes with Clinton’s pragmatic approach. It becomes obvious that these are two very different men, perched on a political see-saw as their positions change, one rising as the other descends. With the eventual power shift to the incoming presidential administration, a new special relationship is about to begin.

Richard Loncraine has worked successfully in a wide range of mediums and genres, having proven himself accomplished in both film and television and within the genres of Shakespeare, horror, comedy, thriller and historical drama.

Loncraine studied sculpture at the Central School of Art before attending the Royal College of Art Film School. He began directing documentaries and educational programming for the BBC, and directed over 400 commercials over the course of a decade. His directorial debut “Flame” was a behind-the-scenes look at a fictitious rock band, starring Tom Conti, and was well-received by audiences and critics.

With the success of “Flame,” Loncraine went on to direct a variety of films, including the horror film “Brimstone and Treacle,” starring Sting, the crime drama “Bellman and True,” the spy thriller “Deep Cover,” the romantic drama “Wide-Eyed and Legless,” the comedy “The Missionary” and the mystery “The Haunting of Julia,” starring Mia Farrow.

Loncraine was acclaimed for directing Sir Ian McKellen in Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which was nominated for two Academy Awards. He went on to direct the episode “Day of Days” from the “Band of Brothers” miniseries about the invasion of Normandy, for which he won an Emmy Award.

Loncraine furthered his relationship with HBO by directing “The Gathering Storm,” an inside look at the life of Winston Churchill, staring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave, and “My House in Umbria,” which starred Maggie Smith. He was nominated for an Emmy and a DGA Award for directing “My House in Umbria.” He subsequently directed the features “Wimbledon,” “Firewall” and “My One and Only.”

Q: There was a picture of Tony Blair in the paper this morning and I looked at it and said to myself, “That doesn’t look like Tony Blair.” And then I realized that my vision of Tony Blair is Michael Sheen after seeing him play the role so well in, first, “The Deal” and then “The Queen” and now in your movie.
A: Isn’t that funny! I’ve gotten used to it. Both of them (Dennis Quaid as Bill Clinton and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair) became the characters. I remember when I was doing the film with Albert Finney on Churchill (“The Gathering Storm”) and one day I got to the set very early and I was wandering around. The prop man was cutting up pictures to go in photograph frames on the set and I found a picture of Churchill and I thought, “That’s exactly what Albert should look like.”

I took the picture and went to his trailer and knocked on the door to say, “Albert, this is the kind of look” and I realized it was a picture of Albert! So I knew he was doing a good job. The same thing applies to these two. I think they’ve taken on the persona in a very clever way without caricaturing them in a bad way or doing a kind of “Saturday Night Live” version.
Q: The independent film business has changed quite a bit since “The Queen” opened theatrically in 2006. For instance, you're premiering on HBO and I would think that a few years ago this would have opened as a theatrical film given the success of “The Queen” with six Oscar nominations, including best picture and director, and a best actress Oscar win for Helen Mirren.
A: I know. Well, it is a theatrical movie outside America and the U.K. It’s going to be a feature film everywhere else in the world. But I have to say, I”ve done four films now for HBO — well, “Band of Brothers” (a miniseries) obviously was a very different thing. But the other three films I’ve made (with HBO), we could never have got the money to make them independently.
Q: What’s interesting is that this is now a way for independent filmmakers to tell stories that are hard to get into theaters and yet to still be able to reach a big audience.
A: Yes — in fact, a bigger audience than they'd probably ever get in a theatrical mode.
Q: How did you become involved with the project?
A: Well, I’d done two feature films for HBO before (this one) — “The Gathering Storm” with Albert Finney and “My House in Umbria” with Maggie Smith — and they were both produced by Frank Doelger, who’s a wonderful producer. Peter Morgan was originally directing and then he decided it was not for him. But unfortunately he decided rather close to “the off” so we were only four weeks from the first day of principal when I got the phone call. Because it came from Frank Doelger and HBO I read it instantly because I’m a great fan of anything they’re doing. I read it on a Thursday at lunchtime and Friday morning I started work. I was in there at Pinewood with a crew that I’d never met before — not a single member — which was exciting and frightening at the same time because at my age you kind of have built your crews up that you know and you trust.
Q: Yes, you have a comfort level with them.
A: You do. But, you know, I’m 63 years old and there’s something rather good about having to live off the land, as it were. It wakes you up a little bit. It stops you being quite so safe. And I met some wonderful people on the shoot. It was a really very good happy shoot. When directors leave a film everyone gets rather nervous. So it took a few hours to run the troops, but they were lovely people and they’d been chosen very wisely by the production team and the cast was equally good. So it was a joy to work on, I’d have to say. I really enjoyed it.
“The Special Relationship” — starring Michael Sheen and Dennis Quaid (Left to Right)

“The Special Relationship” — starring Michael Sheen and Dennis Quaid (Left to Right)

Q: So you have about four weeks to prepare and start shooting?
A: Well, sort of four weeks. But you have to have technical “reckies” and you have to have rehearsals so I only really had two weeks because we had a week of technical “reckies” after two weeks and the fourth week was rehearsals with the actors. So it was really sort of about 10 working days I had, but it seems to have all functioned. We hit the ground running, as it were, and also I think it was probably quite an easy shoot for me because, first of all, I had a wonderful producer and the producer and I knew each other, if not the crew. But, also, I wasn’t as tired as you usually are.
Q: Why was that?
A: Normally when you do a film you’ve probably had 12 weeks prep, but you’ve probably worked on it for six months before that and there’s been the thing of arguing with the studio, not enough money, the actors not doing the part that they said they would do. So you’re “hanging your rags” a little bit by the time you start normally. In this one, there just wasn’t time to get upset or nervous or worried about anything. I just had to get on with it. So I was quite lucky, I think.
Q: You were shooting at Pinewood and you live in London so, at least, you were able to go home at night and get some rest.
A: Which is not always an advantage. My kids are all grown up and have left home now so it’s just my wife and I rattling around the house. But the problem with living at home when you direct is you tend to bring the troubles of the set home to your family. It’s very hard to switch off. So it’s not always a blessing. In this instance, because it was a relatively trouble free shoot and there weren’t kids to attend to when I got home, it was fine. But often (in the past) I would make a choice of going away from my family to direct rather than being in the comfort of my home.
Q: When you jumped in to start this, how did you work with the actors?
A: We had a week’s rehearsal. I never normally like more than a week on a feature film. I find unless it’s something very specific it’s not really rehearsing. You use the script. You have a read through, of course, which is always the dark moment of everyone’s directing life because you know it can never get any worse than the read through because everyone’s doing it differently, everybody’s nervous in different ways. You have one actor who’s shouting because they’re nervous, another actor who’s mumbling, so it’s always chaos. But it’s really breaking the ice, I think.

You’re exorcising the ghost of the movie. And then you get down the next morning and bring in the main actors and you start reading it. But it’s more about rehearsing each other, I think, than rehearsing the lines — because everyone’s on the book still. No one’s off the book, as it were. What I do is work out who’s nervous about what scenes. Usually, you’re wrong. You know, the scene that the director thinks, “Well, this will be the one they’ll have trouble with,” they sail through. But ones where you think, “This will be easy,” someone has a problem with.

So it’s really a great opportunity to be prepared. Moviemaking today is all about preparation because they give you so little time. You know, when I was younger a B Movie was a 12 week shoot. Well, these days you’re lucky if you get six weeks for an A Movie. So you do have to be very prepared and those few days with the actors where you all get to be not quite so nervous because there’s no camera there are very valuable.
Q: Now in this case, Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis were new, but you had so many other actors who’d played their roles before in the first two films in the trilogy. Was that a good thing?
A: I think so. Well, Michael Sheen knew the character so well. It gave me the freedom to not have to worry about his character. I had to worry more about the things that you actually should worry about as a director, which is, “Do all the bits join together?” And, “Does anyone want to watch it?” You can get diverted. Obviously, you break the movie down into all these tiny little bits and, of course, you shoot them completely out of continuity. You shoot the end at the beginning and the beginning at the end.

And really that’s the hardest thing to do, I think. What lens I put on the camera and how you make it look pretty — with the kind of talented people I had round me, that’s pretty easy. What is never easy is hanging on to the emotions of the movie — “Why are we making it in the first place?” “Is it entertaining?” The fact that Michael knew his character so well gave me a lot more freedom to be attending to those other things.
Q: I did a column with Michael when “The Queen” came out. I loved his performance and hoped he might get a supporting actor Oscar nomination, but that didn’t happen.
A: He did a wonderful job. I think this is his best Blair, if you like. He’s done a wonderful job in this. It’s probably the biggest Blair part. In “The Queen” he was, perhaps, slightly overshadowed by the Queen in the movie. He absolutely shines in this one.
Q: When did you shoot and for how long?
A: We were shooting in June 2009 and we shot for about six weeks.
Q: Looking back at production, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
A: The shooting really wasn’t challenging. I don’t like working too late. If you start filming at 8 o’clock in the morning you really don’t want to stop filming past about 7 o’clock in the evening because you get diminishing returns after that. So I’m never one for shooting too long in a day. And I won’t shoot six day weeks under almost any circumstances because if you shoot six days I have to work seven days and if I work seven days I’m going to make a mistake quite soon.

So we always have weekends off, which means I go into the cutting room for one day because I believe in editing as I go along so I can see if there’s something wrong. I’ve got a chance of fixing it before the film finishes. So I have one day in the cutting room and then one day just relaxing — cycling out with my wife, seeing the children and trying to forget about the movie completely. So the shooting was really rather relaxed.

But the editing was more complicated. And that was quite stressful because we had to make it politically absolutely accurate and, of course, real life doesn’t always fall into the right dramatic patterns that you’d like it to. So it was very time consuming. We spent probably three times as much time editing as we did shooting.
Q: Do you shoot a lot of takes?
A: No, not really. I’ll do as many as we want to do, but I try to do a lot of masters where the camera is moving. I use the crane and dolly a lot. I’m not a big fan of steadicam unless you’re doing an action sequence. So I tend to use a crane with a lot of tracking and I always shotlist my movies before I start. I wasn’t able to do the whole film before I started on this one because of the time. But I think that even if you don’t stick to it, to have an idea of how you’re going to cover a scene when you get there on the day just helps to concentrate everybody’s mind.

Sometimes an actor will say, “Well, I don’t really want to stand by that window” and you have to be quick on your feet to think of another way of staging the scene. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not it does. So I like to be as organized as I can and I like to run a very enjoyable ship. I’m not a director who subscribes to the idea of pain being an important part of the process. I think that if people are enjoying themselves then largely they’re going to do better work. I know I am.
Q: Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis come across very well as the Clintons, but, of course, they’d never played them before, whereas Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory had played the Blairs in the two previous films. Was it difficult for them to get the Clintons down so well?
A: Well, Dennis knew Bill a little bit. He’d stayed at the White House for a long weekend and he’d been out in the Presidential limousine and they’d played golf together because Dennis is an avid golfer. So it must have helped a lot that they’d spent relaxed time together. And Dennis comes from that part of the country.

Hope had never met either of the Clintons, but she’s a wonderfully talented actress. She was such a lovely lady to work with. (We had) false teeth made to change her mouth shape a little, which she on many occasions forgot to put in. So we’d be half-way through a wonderful take and thinking it’s all going marvelously and she’d suddenly go, “Oh, dear — the teeth!” We’d have to start again. She wore teeth and that was the only cosmetic thing we had on the whole film.

Dennis had a wig, of course, and Hope had a wig. Dennis had a particularly good wig. He had a bald cap and then a wig over the top of the bald cap because Clinton’s got very fine hair. Dennis put on about 30 pounds to get the body weight right. We had a false nose made, but Dennis and I decided that it was unnecessary and would probably distract more than not having it because I think people would look at it and go, “Well, that’s obviously not Dennis Quaid’s nose, therefore it’s a false nose, therefore we don’t believe the character.” So I think we made the right decision in not having it.

We had voice coaches to keep an eye on their accents. Obviously, not being American even though I’m married to an American and have spent much of my life here, my ear’s not going to be as attuned as yours is to their voices. So we had voice coaches and in the ADR sessions Dennis and Hope listened to all their dialogue and said, “Well, I think I’ve got that word wrong, let’s change that.” So we kept polishing it and buffing it until we hoped we had near as possible the right characters.
“The Special Relationship” — starring Michael Sheen and Dennis Quaid (Left to Right)

“The Special Relationship” — starring Michael Sheen and Dennis Quaid (Left to Right)

Q: Have you had any feedback about the film from Tony Blair?
A: No. He won’t have seen it yet. I think Michael met Tony Blair at a party out in Los Angeles some years ago, after he’d made “The Queen.” But we’ll find out. I’m sure we’ll probably never know what the Clintons think, but who knows, we might hear.
Q: When Michael met Tony Blair what did Blair say to him?
A: It was quite a large dinner party and they weren’t sitting next to each other. You’d have to really ask Michael this, but I think Blair said he hadn’t seen “The Queen.” But he seemed to know an awful lot about what was in it, I recall. So he probably had seen it, but didn’t want to admit he’d seen it. That’s probably the scenario, but I can’t vouch for that.