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.
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.
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.
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
shape was the project in when you came on board, and what attracted you to it?
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.
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.
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.
kind of Hitchcock character is McKellen playing? Is he a Cary Grant type?
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.
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.
yes, and this movie very much plays into that. It’s more along those lines.
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.
difficult these days, I think, to find roles of that quality for actors of that
age and caliber.
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.
you’re dealing with actors of such experience and talent, what do you as a
director bring to the process?
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
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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