When Did You Last See Your Father? is an unflinching exploration of a father/son relationship, as Blake Morrison deals with his father Arthur’s terminal illness and imminent death. Blake’s memories of everything funny, embarrassing and upsetting about his childhood and teens are interspersed with tender and heartrending scenes in the present, as he struggles to come to terms with his father, and their history of conflict, and learns to accept that one’s parents are not always accountable to their children.
Directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie), from a screenplay by David Nicholls, adapted from Blake Morrison’s novel of the same name, the film stars Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee, Claire Skinner, and Matthew Beard
After 2 years as a director on the BBC’s cultural flagship, The Late Show, Anand Tucker joined Oxford Films where he made many documentaries including a Bookmark profile of Anne Rice which won him a BAFTA in 1993.
His first drama, Saint Ex, starred Bruno Ganz as Antoine de St Exupery, writer of The Little Prince. He then went on to direct Hilary and Jackie, which won Oscar nominations for Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths, before forming Archer Street Films and serving as a producer on the award-winning Girl With A Pearl Earring.
His last film, Shopgirl, starring Clare Danes, Steve Martin and Jason Schwartzmann, based on Martin’s adaptation of his own novella, premiered as a Gala Presentation at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival. Buena Vista released the film to critical acclaim in October 2005.
Bijan Tehrani: What was your first encounter with the “When Did You Last See Your Father” story? Did the producer contact you, or did you read the book?
Anand Tucker: I was sent the script by the producers, Steven Wolley and Liz Carlson. I went to have a drink with Steven in London’s famous Groucho Club, and then read the script that night. It made me cry, and I thought ‘Goodness, that doesn’t happen very often.’ It was a beautiful script and really touched me. I thought I would love to try to make it into a film.
BT: Did you have any meetings with the writer of the book?
AT: Yes. Once I had signed on to do the movie I sat down and had lunch with Blake Morrison. We had several lunches and lots of chats, and I got to know Blake very well over the course of the film.
BT: When I watched the movie it made me think that it is the story of your life. One cannot make such a movie without adding to it something of himself. Knowing the writer so well must have helped you to make such a wonderful film.
AT: Yes. He had already written the book on which it is based, “When Did You Last See Your Father”, about twelve or thirteen years ago. That had already existed in the world as a work of art. The actual challenge of making the film was to take that very specific story and try to make a movie that was still true to itself but also in some way universal; a film that could speak to everybody. That universal story about the father-son relationship, how you translate that — this became the challenge.
BT: When one reads the book and watches the movie, one sees that it is not a word for word translation. But it is a very faithful adaptation of the book.
AT: It is faithful in terms of its emotional truth. When you make a film you are inevitably fictionalizing. You are adding another layer onto what is already, in some ways, a work of fiction – even though it is a true-life memoir. But then when you make the movie you sometimes have to create scenes that do the work of ten scenes in the book, so you have to make new scenes. But what you hope is that at the end of the whole process you have a work of fiction that somehow captures the emotional truth of the whole story.
BT: The reason that I think this movie touches people is that I don’t believe that there is anyone who does not have some sort of experience that is presented in this film.
AT: Well yes, we all have parents, every family has secrets, and we all have to face becoming parents ourselves, and the loss of our own parents. These are absolute givens for every human being, whether your father is around from when you are born or not, you still have to deal with them. What is interesting as well is that the more particular it becomes – that it was Blake’s story and was set in Yorkshire in a particular time – the more mythic they become. It is a delicate balance to achieve. I love true-life stories for the way that they do weird things, weirder things than fiction can do sometimes.
BT: Watching the movie twice, I cannot say what was so magical about the scenes set in the past. There was something about them that was different from the scenes set in the present. Was there something you did when you were working on the visual style of the scenes set in the past?
AT: I storyboarded the movie from beginning to end, and we art directed it very carefully. We were quite careful with color in the present day world and the past world, but in a subtle way. I was also very careful that in the present day the camera hardly moves and all, while in the past the camera has a lot more vibrancy and moves a lot more. All of this should be done so that you don’t realize it is happening, but it should have an affect on you. I am a great believer in mise-en-scene; I am an old school filmmaker like that. I think you have to marshal all of your tricks in a very careful and subtle way to achieve the emotional affect of a film.
BT: Was there certain logic behind moving the camera in the past?
AT: The idea behind that is that there is energy and vibrancy and searching that goes on when you are younger. The whole message of the movie is that in the present Blake is all tied up and full of rage and anger, and is stuck in his life because of all the things in his past. That is what he has to come to terms with and get over. So there was a metaphor there in terms of what I was trying to do with the camera and what Blake’s state of mind was.
BT: The other issue is the casting, which is magical. Everyone is perfect. How did you go about the casting of the film?
AT: Jim Broadbent (Arthur) and Colin Firth (Blake) were easy, because they were our first choices for those roles and they both said yes right away. The hardest part of casting was finding a teenage Blake, Matthew Beard. I didn’t want someone who looked like Colin – I hate that look-a-like casting – but I wanted to find someone who had the right emotional quality. If you cut from Matthew and Colin they don’t look the same, but they feel the same, that was for me the important thing. The other key casting was Juliet Stevenson as the mother. That is a very difficult role. She is a very big character in Blake’s life. Blake Morrison wrote a whole book about his mother after his book about his father. In this story she only has a small role to play, but she was very important. I needed someone with a lot of power who could do a lot with very little, and Juliet is one of those actresses who can pack a lot of power into a relatively small role.
BT: Deaths are always very tragic in films for the audience, and weigh heavily at the ending. In this film, something happens in real life and someone is too old, and we come to terms with it. It was not a very big tragedy; we accept it and accept the way it happens. It was very natural and beautifully done.
AT: That is what I loved about the screenplay. You get to the deathbed scene and if you were doing a fiction film that would be the moment when the father would hold the son and they would say, ‘I love you Dad’, ‘I love you son’, and everything would be ok. But the truth of the matter is that you are incredibly lucky in real life if that actually happens to you. Mostly life is about never getting to say those things and missing all those moments, and having to deal with it afterwards. And what I think David Nichols, the screenwriter, did so beautifully is he managed to find a way to give you the reality of that deathbed scene and still give you that moment of redemption later on. That poetic and metaphoric moment when Blake realizes what has really been going on, and has the ability to let go and come to terms with it, and forgive himself and get over it- I really admired that in the screenplay, and tried to execute that as best I could in the film.
BT: Your work on documentaries must have helped you on making a film like this.
AT: I am obsessed with things somehow feeling truthful, even though it is all an artifice. I try to find the deeper truth of what it means to be a human being and what it means to interact with each other. When you make documentaries you are trying to take very real things and turn them into slightly more fictional narratives. You do the opposite thing, but it is helpful to have done one in order to do the other.