He has been making movies for almost 40 years, but even Emmy-winning director Richard Loncraine knows that four weeks of prep for a movie about four of the world’s most prominent political figures is not without its challenges. The Special Relationship, now playing on HBO, tells of the relationship between Tony and and Cherie Blair and Bill and Hillary Clinton in the mid- to late 1990s, a time when shared ideologies eventually gave way to political scandals.
The third film in writer Peter Morgan’s Blair trilogy (following The Deal and The Queen), The Special Relationship sees Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory reprising their roles as the Blairs, with Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis stepping into the parts of Bill and Hillary. MM caught up with Loncraine to discuss the politics of moviemaking.
Jennifer M. Wood (MM): How did you come to be involved with The Special Relationship?
Richard Loncraine (RL): I had worked with the producer, Frank Doelger, on two previous HBO films (The Gathering Storm with Albert Finney and My House in Umbria with Maggie Smith). When Peter Morgan decided to not direct, Frank called me on Thursday morning and I was at the studios the next morning meeting the crew. Wonderful script, great cast and a good friend to produce! It doesn’t get better than that!
MM: How is it different to work on a film about four very powerful people who are still around to see it? What sort of research and preparation did you do?
RL: It didn’t really matter to me what the real characters thought of the film. I felt the script reflected my own political view of the events, so I just tried to make the story truthful and entertaining. I only had four weeks from reading the script to the start of the shoot, so I had to see a lot of documentaries and news footage. I had no time to read all the bios, but I had a wonderful assistant who pulled out the important stuff.
MM: I’m sure you had some great resources in Peter Morgan, who has written extensively about Blair, and Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory, who are reprising their roles. In what ways were you able to defer to them that wouldn’t typically be the case on a film?
RL: The fact that Michael knew the character of Blair so well helped enormously and Dennis had spent time with Clinton at the White House. We had voice coaches on the set at all times and Frank Doelger’s knowledge of the social and political background to the story was fantastic. If I was ever in doubt about anything, I had access to people who knew the real players intimately.
MM: Every actor has a different method of working, but how did your style change with Quaid and Davis, considering they were playing these roles for the first time, as opposed to Sheen and McCrory?
RL: I don’t think it did change. As a director you are constantly making adjustments in your dealings with cast and crew. So it was really changing minute by minute, but that is the norm. Much of my job is to create a good environment for the actors to feel they can take risks in.
MM: What’s your opinion on impersonation versus portrayal in this sort of film? Some actors seem to get sidetracked in trying to duplicate the exact look, speech patterns, etc. of a well-known public figure. What do you think is most important in order for an actor to “get it right?”
RL: We decided to not use any “rubber” to make the actors look like their real-life counterparts. Dennis had a nose made, but he and I decided that it did more harm than good and seeing the film now I think that was the right decision. Hope had false teeth and they all wore wigs. In the end it is their acting skills that do the work.
MM: Do you know if either the Blairs or Clintons have seen the film? Did you have any access to them in the making of the movie?
RL: I’m sure none of them have seen the film yet. I had no access to any of them. I can imagine that Bill and Hillary might like it but Blair is unlikely to be very taken by its story.
The Special Relationship is now playing on HBO.