Getting To Know Paul McGuigan

Submitted by Brian Pendreigh on Thu, 09/16/2004 - 16:00

Paul McGuigan was sitting in a junkie's house watching a little black and white television when he received a phone call from Los Angeles asking if he would be interested in taking over from Joel Schumaker as director of a $30 million Hollywood movie starring Pearl Harbour's Josh Hartnett.

"I was doing a film for the BBC called Little Angels, which was about two drug addicts trying to stay off heroin and failing miserably," he recalls. "Within two days I was in the Chateau Marmont (one of LA's starriest hotels), sipping cocktails with Josh."

The son of a Bellshill publican, McGuigan started off as a photographer, graduated to documentaries for Channel 4, directed a short film called The Granton Star Cause, adapted from an Irvine Welsh short story, about a young man who falls out with God and is turned into a fly. He later added another couple of episodes to turn it into the cinema feature The Acid House, and he made a big impact with Gangster No 1, prompting its star Malcolm McDowell to call him "the English Scorsese" (sic).

"Josh saw Gangster and loved it and said, 'That's the guy I want to work with,'" recalls McGuigan. One transatlantic call later McGuigan was stretching out in first class en route to LA to meet Hartnett to discuss Wicker Park, which also stars Diane Kruger, one of cinema's hottest actresses after her recent turn as Helen of Troy, and Rose Byrne, Kruger's co-star in the ancient world epic.

McGuigan manages to relate all this without any hint of immodesty, when we meet for a latte in Glasgow's West End, in between trips to Los Angeles where he has been setting up his next film.

Bruce Willis also wanted him for his new film, though McGuigan turned him down because he was not happy with the script. But no one gives him a second look when he walks into The Tinderbox in Byres Road. Forty-one in September, his dark hair is receding above a round, boyish face, he wears a blue pin-stripe jacket over blue jeans and a black tee-shirt and talks passionately, but not loudly, occasionally tripping over his words in his eagerness to get them out. He is just another anonymous guy chatting about movies with some mate.

"I just live up the road, but, saying that, you would never know I was a Scottish director. Nobody ever knows that I'm around. Scottish Screen probably don't even have me on their database.

"When I was doing this Little Angels project, I wanted to take it out to the film festivals, because to me it was an important movie that young people should see." A docudrama, it had drug addicts playing themselves. It was made for TV and he asked Scottish Screen for £20,000 to pay for a film print of it, but he says they were not interested.

"From then on I've never really spoken to them," he says. "I think that's a shame, that you've got a film-maker who is now going to do his fifth movie and they don't even know what he does.

"I could really help a lot of kids out, I could bring them onto sets, which I did for Wicker Park, because I had a Newcastle boy. He found me another way and spent the shoot on Wicker Park. He had access to the monitors, he could look at every shot, he could hear every decision I was making with my DP. Here's a young kid who is going back there and now he knows exactly what it's like to be a film director."

McGuigan believes film school is fine, but that there is no substitute for experience. McGuigan learned on the job. After a "very normal, Catholic, guilt-ridden upbringing", he studied photography at Glasgow's College of Building and Printing and had his own studio by his early twenties. Then he just took the opportunities as they came and made the most of them.

Gangster No 1 was one of the best films to come out of British cinema's Nineties love affair with career criminals, albeit extremely violent. It proved McGuigan had great visual style, that he could handle narrative and that he had an eye for new talent, casting Paul Bettany as the younger version of McDowell's aging mobster.

His career stalled with The Reckoning, an ambitious medieval drama, which shot in Spain and for which he had to build a medieval village and deal with hundreds of extras on a budget that, he says, simply was too meagre for the task. But by then Gangster No 1 was creating huge interest in Hollywood and scripts started pouring in.

The vast majority were about violence and revenge. Wicker Park was a love story, though it has more in common with some of Hitchcock's thrillers than the average empty-headed Hollywood rom-com. The central character Matthew (Hartnett) is engaged, but his future is thrown into doubt when he thinks he sees Lisa, the woman who broke his heart when she disappeared a couple of years earlier.

Matthew determines to track her down, only to discover the woman he thought was Lisa was really someone else, who is also seemingly called Lisa, and who happens to be on the point of beginning a relationship with Matthew's best friend.

A remake of the 1996 French film L'Appartement, Wicker Park is a complex story of love, passion and obsession, with as many twists and turns as The Big Sleep, though the violence here is emotional rather than physical. McGuigan was a fan of the original and jumped at the chance of directing the new version when Schumaker dropped out. "Schumaker has probably got about 90 other pictures on the go, whereas I don't tend to do that," he says.

"I wanted to do a love story and I thought that would be a nice thing to do after doing some violent movies in the past and hard topics to deal with. Also, it had an unusual way of telling the love story. It was very non-linear. I like to make movies that are complex." He admits that when he read the script he had to keep flicking back to earlier episodes to make sense of what was happening. "It's a date movie, but it's not a dumb movie."

Matthew has three women in his life and McGuigan wanted unfamiliar actresses, so the audience would have no idea which might turn out to be most important. A month before shooting he was still searching for his "object of desire" when he saw Diane Kruger on a tape forwarded by his casting director. It was only later Kruger and Byrne were cast in Troy, taking a break from shooting Wicker Park in Montreal - which doubles for Chicago - to go off for an audience with Brad Pitt in New York.

These days McGuigan more or less commutes between Glasgow and LA, where he has been setting up his next film, Fortune's Fools, the story of a group of policemen who steal a winning lottery ticket from an illegal immigrant. It had been in development for years when McGuigan came on board, but is now due to shoot in November. "I have been known to be the person who comes in and gets movies made," he says.

He spent most of last year in LA, while editing Wicker Park, and admits he would probably move there permanently if he was 25. But he is 40, married with two young children, and he misses Scotland when away, though he persuaded the local store to import Irn-Bru and followed Celtic on television, usually in a bar surrounded by Scottish expats, even after being involved in a serious car crash on the day of the UEFA cup final.

"A 16-year-old kid was driving out of her face, one of these big 4x4's. It came across the road and hit us head on." The accident left one person on the critical list. "But I still managed to go down to the game. I was full of adrenaline. I walked in and it was like I had travelled in time back to Glasgow... After the game, I just collapsed for two days."

McGuigan has been prepared to go where the jobs are, whether it is a TV documentary, a low-budget British film or a big-budget Hollywood movie, and he is just grateful to be working as a director. "Most first-time directors, 87 per cent, will never work again, or something like that, which is kind of scary" he says.

"Los Angeles has a lot going for it - the work is there, the weather is there, the lifestyle is there. But it's important that I live here in Scotland. It's where my family are, it's where my friends are. There's nothing better than walking down Byres Road and popping into the pub to see your mates."

And he likes his current status as an outsider in Hollywood. "I'm known in America as being from Scotland, 'the Scottish director'. It's always nice, something like that, to have that distinction from everyone else."

Recognition has come more readily in Hollywood than in his native Scotland.