I was fortunate enough to attend a special screening of Song for Marion at the Curzon Mayfair where the film was followed by a Q&A with director Paul Andrew Williams, star Terence Stamp and producer Ken Marshall. From their answers, it emerges that Song for Marion was a very personal film for many involved. Stamp speaks of second chances and Williams argues what makes his film stand out from the recent Quartet that also featured an elderly cast and singing.
They started off by discussing where the idea for the film came from. Williams revealed he wrote the film six years ago and Ken Marshall who has worked on Williams’ previous films talked about the desire to be able to take their mothers to see one of their films.
Terence Stamp spoke of being approached to play Arthur: ‘I thought it was a great script. I wasn’t sure about whether I was right for it. Then they showed me the first film that Paul had made called London to Brighton which was obviously made for sixpence and a toffee apple but it was wonderful. Then I met him and he kind of talked me into it.’
He then talked about drawing on his experience of his own father for playing the role: ‘He’d been a merchant seaman from the age of 15 and he’d been a merchant seaman during the war and shipwrecked three times. So by the time the war finished and I started getting to know him, the kind of grace had been knocked out of him and he was very stoic and I can’t really remember having any emotional connection with him at all really. And so I thought to myself, if I get in trouble with this, I’ll just think of Tom and I’ll play it like him’.
Stamp went on to discuss preparing for the role: ‘I didn’t really research it much. I thought I know Dad and I know how he was; I know how he was with me so I’ll know how to play it with Chris [Ecclestone who plays Arthur’s son]. What I wasn’t really prepared for was the kind of energy on the set. It was very unusual. Working with artists like Chris and Vanessa and Gemma, there was a kind of underlay of energy and from the first day, the whole thing was very emotional and what was wonderful personally was that the emotions were the kind of emotions that I never really had before on set and I think what most film actors are hoping for is that the best of themselves will manifest in between action and cut and the irony is that you can’t do anything about it. There’s no way you can kind of reach it. Either they come and they’re there for you or they’re not. And they were just there and they seemed there for everybody. I just thought I’m not going to bother; I’m just going to learn the words and get out there. Fortunately the director got those takes and printed them which was a big luxury.
On director Paul Andrew Williams, Stamp said ‘he said to me at the end of the first week, he said rather loudly, “Wow you and Vanessa you just nail it on the first take” and I said “listen, when you’ve got a Redgrave and a Stamp, you’ve got a hundred years of film acting”’.
Williams chimed in: ‘It’s true that there were a lot of first takes used but we spent like three hours rehearsing each scene before that first take. What was very interesting was that when I met Terence, I remember he talked about the first take and stuff like that and it’s actually true that a lot of the time the first take, sometimes the second, is always the most natural. And it was interesting with an actor such as Terence just how much you only see afterwards. I have to be honest I think Terence was amazing in this and it was just so interesting to see how different actors work and part of the director’s job is to try and understand that and try and understand what a certain actor might need at some point and when to step back. I hope we came to an understanding fairly quickly. When he says it was one take, there were so many times when it was really there and I don’t think had it been someone else, it would be the same.’
On why he chose Stamp for the role, Williams said: ‘Anyone who has seen Superman 2 [in which Stamp played infamous super villain General Zod] would know that when you watched that film, you can see Arthur all over it. To be honest after I met Terence it was really interesting because I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t slightly intimidated by meeting him. But the fact that when I turned up and he was there in his shorts and his t-shirt and his sandals, this is London obviously, and after half an hour, I realised I was talking to somebody who I could talk with and talk about the character but I also felt this guy is going to the character justice. Obviously when you write the script, there’s a big element of yourself that you put into it, your own stories and your own family and I think it was very clear early on, just as he was getting on the tube, not in a limo, he was getting on the tube that I was like man this is going to work really well and I was very excited.’
On how comfortable he was with singing in the role, Stamp answered after a long pause: ‘This was a very unusual kind of occurrence really because earlier in my career I had turned down the wonderful Joshua Logan who’d asked me to play King Arthur in Camelot and I turned it down because I genuinely thought that I couldn’t do justice to the score and I felt that I would be re-voiced when the film was finished. So I turned it down but I turned it down for the wrong reasons. I turned it down because I was frightened. In all the years since, I’ve kind of regretted that because I had to get a lot older before I realised what he saw in the young Terence as King Arthur and I was sad that I didn’t have that as part of my resume. And when this came up I had real reservations about being up for the part. I didn’t feel that I could do it how it was written and I was also very worried about the song and then I heard that they’d got Vanessa and I thought wow, she’s the wife, my character’s called Arthur and I have to sing. So it really felt to me that life was giving me a second chance and I know it sounds superficial but for a performing artist, things like that make a great deal of difference because I suddenly thought to myself if this has got my name on it, I don’t have to worry about it. I’ll just do it, I’ll just get on with it, I won’t worry about it. And in fact I only had time for two lessons with the singing teacher I know and we went through the breathing and then I just learned the words and I sang them to myself every moment of the day and night. But the film went so swimmingly well that I thought I’m not going to worry about this song, I’m just going to do it. Because it was very small budget, we only really had time for one take. I know they boasted about Les Mis that they sung it live, but we sung it live in one!
When asked about the similarities between Song for Marion and Dustin Hoffman’s recent directorial debut Quartet, Williams said: ‘I haven’t seen it. That’s not a comment against Quartet, I just haven’t had time. I think the idea of having a story that features singing, that’s a similarity, a story that features some characters who are from an older generation, that’s similar but from friends and people I trust who have seen both films, actually from what I gather, there’s actually not that many similarities in terms of the whole shebang. Also we had Terence.’
It will be very interesting to see where Paul Andrew Williams' career heads next and I read in Total Film that Stamp might be doing a sequel to The Limey so keep your eyes peeled.
Song For Marion is out 22nd February 2013. My short review is here.