Richard Loncraine is set to return to the director's chair this week with his new movie Ruth & Alex, which sees him team up with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton for the first time.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about Ruth & Alex, working with Freeman and Keaton, and finally getting the chance to make a movie in New York.
- Ruth & Alex is set to hit the big screen here in the UK, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Ruth & Alex is a romantic comedy really - I think they call them dramedies - so it is not all comedy. It is about real people and Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton play an elderly couple living in New York. They live in a five-flight walk-up - in America the film is called 5 Flights Up - but his hip is going and he is struggling to get up the stairs. The film is about the weekend they decide to sell their apartment and move to Florida to a retirement home. Alex doesn't want to go at all and is really not interested but his wife thinks it's a good idea and has been slightly bullied by her niece, who is an estate agent.
It is about the weekend of the open house, the chaos that ensues and what happens to that couple. It is a very optimistic film. I am sixty-nine this year - Morgan is a bit older than I am and Diane is a little younger - and you get to a point in your life where you decide, well I did, do you gently shuffle down and eventually fall off the coil? Or do you grab the last section of your life and run with it? For me, the best answer is to keep doing stuff and keep doing things.
That is really what happens in the movie. Nothing actually changes in the movie, as they don't go anywhere and they deal with the days as they go by; should his hip finally go then they will deal with that problem then.
Really, it is about how you can look at things... you are very much longer than I am and in your twenties probably... as you get older dynamics shift and how do you make this last section of your life exciting? It is like starting again.
If I have got the film right, it is a very optimistic film for people over fifty or sixty who are starting to have to address how they deal with retirement and getting older. They say that getting older is not for sissies and I can concur with that. If you grab it, then the monster is not quite as frightening, if you have got your health. The film is really a film about optimism and the life of a grown up couple.
- The movie sees you back in the director's chair, so where did this project start for you? And what was the appeal of Charlie Peters' script?
I didn't know the book at all. Charlie is an old friend and I did a Renée Zellweger film with him some years ago. I was staying with him in Connecticut about three years about and while I was there I asked him what he was up to and he told me that he had written this script and Morgan Freeman had optioned it. I was like 'ooooh, I would love to read it as I am a big fan of Morgan.' I read it, loved it, wrote to Morgan's production company and they said that they would meet me. Morgan's producer Lori McCreary met me in London and very kindly said 'would you like to direct it?' And I was like 'absolutely.'
Then we had to find a cast and a lady to go opposite Morgan and Diane was who was hoped to get and we got her; which was very lucky as she is a very sought after actress. We changed it quite a lot from the book as they were living in Manhattan and moved to Williamsburg; in our story, I have sent them in Williamsburg because the view of Manhattan from Williamsburg is very beautiful but the view of Williamsburg from Manhattan is shit. It was an exciting journey. Of course, like all of these projects, getting the money is never easy and we didn't have a vast amount.
Lori and I said that if we didn't get the money by a certain date then we were going to have to delay. I think at 12 o'clock on the date that we set the money came through and I jumped on a plane from France the next day. We had five weeks to put the film together, which is not long as you usually have ten to twelve weeks on a small film. It was quite a rush.
- Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman are two of the greatest actors of their generation. How did you find working with them?
They are professionals and they have been doing it... a lot of directing is about shutting up - my wife will tell you that I don't do that enough as far as she's concerned. With great actors and really good actors you nudge them you don't really direct them. You make sure that you have got the script right as the script is the bible that we all use to make the film and you don't fix it on the day; you may tweak it to make it a little bit better but you have to have it right before you start. Working with them really was... you are a sounding board for them.
That is why I love doing performance movies and effects movies because every time you do a take, there is a job for you to do. You don't just set the camera up and stage the action but you give the actors feedback on how they are doing, whether that take is the right one or if it can be improved. They were delightful to work with. Morgan has a wonderful sense of humour and he teases everyone all of the time.
The two of them got on really well, they discovered that they both loved old Broadway musicals and spent most of the time - when we weren't shooting - sitting on the sofa singing old Broadway songs in harmony. They were delightful to work with, a real joy.
- That does lead me into my next question. When you are working with such good actors, as you do with this film, how much does that change your job as a director?
Well, you do have less to do. Every actor is different and movie stars come in different categories; movie stars who can act and you have movie stars who can't act and just play themselves and never change. If a movie star is very successful, they will always have a series of things that they know will work for an audience.
My job as a director is to try to get the actor to be confident enough and secure enough to do risk doing other things and take some risk with their performance. To do that I have to get to know them as soon as I can and that is not always that easy. I had met Morgan a couple of times before we started but I didn't meet Diane until two days before we started shooting as she was writing a novel and I was trying to set the film up.
We didn't have any rehearsal time, which normally have, not really to rehearse the lines but to rehearse each other to see which parts the actors are nervous about. It is really about getting the actors to trust me as early as I can so that they don't... they always say that they trust you but, of course, they don't really mean it because they don't know you. Why should they trust you until you have proved that you can be trusted?
- I was reading that you are a director who likes to have some rehearsal - but you weren't able to do that with this project. How difficult was it not having that rehearsal time? Did you enjoy being thrown into the mix?
We only had twenty-eight days to shoot the movie - I think I did a movie with Julie Walters in twenty-three days - and that is pretty fast, as you would normally have about forty. I had to move it along. However, it was fine and I really enjoyed it. I always have shoots where people have a good time because I think that we all work better it we are enjoying our work and we have an environment in which we have a laugh as well as working hard.
But you can't always guarantee that. Sometimes you do everything that you can to bring together a cast and crew that are talented but are also nice people that you like and want to spend time with. Sometimes that falls like sand through your fingers and you can't hold it together emotionally; it dosen't mean if you have an unhappy filmmaking process that the film will be bad.
On this one, we all seemed to get on. The American crew were lovely.
We were running all over New York and we had teamsters, who I was nervous about, but they were lovely people who were really efficient at what they did. They really helped and were very efficient at moving their trucks around Manhattan in a way that I never thought that they could do.
- I believe that this was the first time that you had filmed in New York?
Yes. I met my wife in New York and I have always loved it. I was there when I was seventeen as a student at the Royal College of Art and I spent nine months running around American - mostly in Manhattan. I have always wanted to make a film there as it is an incredibly photogenic city and it was lovely to be back there making a movie. I really did enjoy it.
- The movie played at the Toronto Film Festival last year, so how have you been finding the response to the film so far?
Pretty good. I have only been to a few big screenings; we showing it to 2,500 people in Toronto and then about 1,500 the next day. I think people really like it. If you are eighteen years old this may not be a film that you would want to go and see - why would you? I think if you are an eighteen year old, a twenty five year old, or a thirty five year old and you take you mum, dad or your grandparents along, you will enjoy the movie. With older people, word of mouth seems to be really good and it has had a release in America. They released the movie in theatres the same day as it was released online - where you can download it and pay for it - and that has proved pretty successful and the figures seem very encouraging.
So far, I have been really encouraged. It is not a very plot driven movie and you could criticise it for not being about very much. It is like many French movies - the French seem to be able to make movies that are just about people, a weekend away, a day in their life, their relationships, and their love for each other. The English and the Americans don't do that kind of film as well as the French and the Italians use to. This film fits into that genre and has found an audience I am pleased to say.
- During your career, we have seen you move between film and television, so how does working in the two mediums compare?
I don't really treat them any differently to be honest. I have done a lot of HBO stuff, which were movies and TV series Band of Brothers; that is the only series I have done and everything else have been single movies. I don't think that Gone With The Wind is a lesser movie when you see it on the TV screen than when you see it in the cinema - you just get more of it in the cinema.
I don't approach television films and differently to how I approach feature films. In many ways, you have more control in television than perhaps you do in cinema. HBO in particular are very supportive of directors and writers in a way that sometimes the big studios aren't. I have been very lucky to be able to make films in both mediums and I think that they are getting closer together as television screens are getting bigger and bigger.
I think we are going to see more performance movies released on television, which is a shame in a ways because I think comedies and horror movies do play better with an audience. I don't think dramas necessary do and I think a decent TV screen is a pretty good way of seeing a story - as long as it is a big one.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the rest of 2015?
I am doing a film called Finding Your Feet, which I am shooting in London this autumn. We are just casting the lead roles now - I cannot tell you who is in it, as it is not confirmed.
Again, it is a comedy drama, which is quite sad in places. We will be shooting between September and Christmas and it's called Finding Your Feet. It will be out next year.
Ruth & Alex is in UK cinemas and on demand from July 24, 2015, courtesy of Signature Entertainment.