Based on the 2015 novel by Nicholas Searle, The Good Liar reunites Gods and Monsters and Mr. Holmes director Bill Condon with acting legend Sir Ian McKellen for the fourth time – and the equally legendary Helen Mirren is along for the ride.
In what promises to be a twisty thriller, McKellen stars as Roy Courtnay, an accomplished con artist who sets his sights on wealthy widow Betty McLeish (Mirren, of course). However, things are not as they seem, and soon reversal piles upon reversal and secret after secret is revealed, as is the nature of such things.
Original author Searle knows of which he speaks when it comes to subterfuge – like John le Carré before him, he’s a spook-turned wordsmith whose work has been compared to not only the elder statesman of British espionage thrillers, but also Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith – fine company indeed.
But it’s director Condon to whom we speak now, and he seems to positively relish bringing a literary thriller to the screen with no small amount of Hitchcockian flair.
What shape was the project in when you came on board, and what attracted you to it?
Well, there was no shape, there was just a novel, and I got involved with it when it was in that form. Then we went to Jeffrey Hatcher, who had written Mr. Holmes, and he started writing the script.
What attracted me to it was reading the novel and I came across one scene about two thirds of the way through that had such a wonderful twist in it, and I thought, “My God, I’d like to make this and see this with an audience: this moment, this scene.” And it has indeed been fun – we’ve done a few previews and seen that scene work in the way that I hoped it would when I read it.
But, in general, I was drawn to two incredibly juicy parts, a movie that has a real kick and surprising relevance – which is hard to talk about until you see it – and something in the Hitchcock mold. I’ve tried various classic Hollywood genres, and this is a flat-out thriller/mystery with some humour, which is something I hadn’t tried and was eager to do.
What kind of Hitchcock character is McKellen playing? Is he a Cary Grant type?
Not quite. Think more Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, you know? It’s the darker Hitchcock – it’s Frenzy. It’s Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt with Teresa Wright. It’s that Hitchcock villain that you start to weirdly root for. You both want him to be exposed and you don’t at the same time.
Hitchcock said that, by seeing a crime being planned and committed, no matter how heinous, on some level the audience wants the criminal to get away with it.
Absolutely, yes, and this movie very much plays into that. It’s more along those lines.
Did you always have McKellen in mind for the role?
I did, I did. It’s my fourth with him, and this is my third in a row with him, after Mr. Holmes and Beauty and the Beast. I’m always looking for an excuse to work with him again and it immediately seemed like a great part for him, partly because he’s obviously one of the great stage actors of his generation – some people say the best Shakespearean actor – but sprinkled throughout his career on stage has been a real gallery of villains, of baddies. Then, of course, he did movies and Gandalf arrives, which probably is closer to representing the real twinkle and charm and sweetness of the real McKellen. If there’s one role people around the world know him for it’s certainly that, and so he hasn’t played the villain in a while, and certainly not in movies, so it was fun to explore that with him. As with anything with him, he just brings great humanity to it, and so you have this real comprehension of what would make somebody behave that way.
It’s difficult these days, I think, to find roles of that quality for actors of that age and caliber.
That’s so true, and that’s what was a real turn-on for me here, too. They’re both really, really crackerjack roles and, my god, these are actors with a lifetime’s worth of experience and wisdom, so letting them play, and then play opposite each other… I’d seen them both in Dance of Death onstage, and I think that would easily be fifteen years earlier, but the fact is that they’d never done a movie together. Mirren again, was a first choice as I read it.
Later on, I got to know the author, a first-time author who’d been in the British Foreign Service, and he admitted that he’d written it with Michael Caine and Judi Dench in mind. He’d started several years ago so, in a way, they’re half a generation older than the leads we wound up with and very different, as you can imagine. But it was so much fun to be a part of that and to watch them go at it.
When you’re dealing with actors of such experience and talent, what do you as a director bring to the process?
Frankly part of it is – and I think this is true with any actor – you want to set up an environment that’s as comfortable as possible in order for them to do their best work.
And in this case where it gets tricky is that they approach things entirely differently. Ian likes a lot of rehearsal, he likes a lot of talk, a lot of examination of the text. She likes a little bit of that and then she doesn’t trust any more; for her the most important thing is what happens naturally on the day, the unexpected thing. She doesn’t like to over-think or over-talk it. So, as a director you’re stuck trying to figure out how to satisfy both, you know?
And there are ways; in my case I just spend a lot more time with Ian talking about everything, and that’s what helps him. In a way that becomes a part of it, just trying to figure out how to serve each one best.
And like any great actors, in my experience, they really want feedback and collaboration. In the case of this script, it’s intricate and it has layer upon layer upon layer. I felt I could most often help them by keeping it all straight for them and reminding them that a certain line might have a different meaning – not that they weren’t aware of that at all, but it was fun to keep reminding them of the larger picture.
You yourself are an experienced screenwriter – was there ever a point where you considered adapting the novel yourself, or did you always have Hatcher in mind?
Always Jeffrey – I thought of that immediately upon reading it. Partly because I was finishing another movie as this was going on, and I just love working with him. He’s a great Anglophile so he’s able to straddle both a visceral, exciting style of screenwriting which also stays true, culturally, to its English roots. It actually had been a while – I’d done writing on Beauty and the Beast but I’ve only just finished an original script. It’s the first time I’ve done that in years because I’ve been so busy making movies, so it’s been fun to get back to it.
Given the current box office dominance of big event pictures, coupled with studio risk-aversion, was it difficult to mount a production of this more modest scale?
I gotta say it’s thanks to one executive at New Line, Andrea Johnston, who loved this book and really promoted it there. We always knew – it was made at a very modest budget for a study film – and you know that’s the trade-off when it’s not an obvious tentpole film. You have to make it more inexpensively. I think people are starting to see that it’s time to have a completely varied slate, and I think we’re seeing that this summer, right? It’s been going on for a few years now that quite a number of these “can’t lose” movies, more than people ever really acknowledge, don’t make it because people aren’t that interested. I’m just sensing there’s maybe a swing back to a whole variety of films that used to be on a studio slate.
You yourself are no stranger to directing tentpole films, such as your Twilight movies and Beauty and the Beast, and you were attached to direct the Bride of Frankenstein remake for Universal under their Dark Universe banner. Is that still going ahead?
It might be but not with me sadly. You know, there’s a few in every career that are the ones that got away, and that was a heartbreaker, because I think we were onto making a movie that would have been pretty remarkable. I understand that people get nervous, because that was one film that would have been expensive.
Finally, what are you hoping audiences take away from The Good Liar?
As I said – and it’s impossible to talk about now because you have to see it, it’s one of the final big twists – there is a real kind of political/social relevance to it at the end of the day. It does answer a big question, or at least speak to a big question, that has been on a lot of people’s minds. Other than that, I just hope they feel like they’ve had the whole meal. One of the things that appealed to me about it even in book form was that you’d be able to make a movie that has thrills and excitement and mystery but also some real emotional stakes, drama, and this extraordinary acting, so it feels like you get the whole thing when you’re watching it. I hope.
The Good Liar hits Australian cinemas on January 23, 2020.