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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Julian Jarrold (HBO’s “The Girl”)

Given how much media attention has been drawn by the upcoming Alfred Hitchcock biopic starring Anthony Hopkins, it’s no wonder that some may see HBO’s upcoming movie, “The Girl,” which debuts on Oct. 20, to be a pretender to the throne. In fact, they’re both perfectly viable entities in their own right, each covering a different aspect of the director’s career. Hopkins will be playing Hitchcock as he’s in the throes of making “Psycho,” whereas “The Girl” finds Toby Jones’s version of Hitch as he’s obsessing over Tippi Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) during the filming of “The Birds” and “Marnie.” Bullz-Eye caught up with Julian Jarrold, director of “The Girl,” just before a panel for the film at the summer Television Critics Association press tour, during which time he chatted not only about his look into the darker side of Hitchcock but also some of the other films and television efforts he’s tackled in his career to date.

Bullz-Eye: How did “The Girl” land in your lap? Or did you go looking for “The Girl”?

Julian Jarrold: No, it was sent to me ages ago, and…it was a little bit more based around the making “The Birds” and “Marnie,” but obviously it was still an exploration of this relationship. The writer (Gwyneth Hughes) had done quite a lot of research and come over here and met Jim Brown, the assistant director, and Rita Riggs (wardrobe supervisor), and Tippi, obviously. So he’d kind of pieced together this sort of fascinating script, and I loved Hitchcock, but I didn’t know this at all, so it was a bit of a shock, actually, to read it. [Laughs.] I knew he was odd, but I didn’t know he was that odd. Yeah, it totally changed my view of Hitchcock. Actually, what was fascinating was…I knew “The Birds” and “Marnie” and “Vertigo,” and they’re strange films. You kind of wonder where they’re coming from. And then finding out about this story, you certainly go, “Ah, I see where he was coming from…and where his personal obsessions are and his attitude to women and everything.” So it sort of illuminated all that. Which was very interesting.

BE: Tippi Hedren is here at the TCA tour, so presumably she’s supportive of the film, but how interactive was she you were making it? Did you speak with her in advance?

JJ: Well, no. I mean, she obviously spoke at length with the writer, and Sienna met her. But she didn’t come on set. I think she read the script. It’s obviously difficult when someone’s making a film like this. How do you compute that? Because it’s 90 minutes revolving around her life. But she said she saw it recently, and she seemed to love it. She saw it with her kids, Melanie (Griffith) and everybody, and it seemed to go down okay. But it’s difficult. It must be a painful, difficult thing to look at. You know, she had such a complex relationship with Hitchcock. It was daunting, because you mustn’t judge that. I wanted to show the sunny side of the relationship, where there was a sort of optimism at the beginning and he was such a fantastic teacher, but then how it changed and darkened and was abusive, really.

BE: Would you say that Hitchcock had a direct impact on your own style as a director, or do you just have an appreciation of his work?

JJ: I think most directors have been influenced by him, whether they realize it or not, because when you go back to his films, there’s so many of the images and the ideas that I’m sure I’ve nicked. [Laughs.] And the way one tries to get tension from a scene, it’s just part of movie-making grammar now. So I think most people are influenced by him. But there are several films that I’ve always been fascinated with, and “Vertigo” was one. Which I never really understood, but, actually, in making this film, it became a lot clearer. So…I wouldn’t say I was a Hitchcock buff or anything, and I certainly didn’t know he’d been like this. But he’s now part of the English culture, and he’s held in such high regard that it’s going to be interesting to see what the reaction to the film is. We’re having a screening at the National Film Theater in a few weeks’ time, so that’ll be full of Hitchcock obsessives. And I’m doing a Q&A afterwards, so it’ll be very interesting. [Laughs.] They’ll tear me apart, probably!

BE: I wanted to ask you about a bit of your other work. First of all, how did you find yourself in the mix for the “Red Riding” trilogy? And were you always going to do that particular film within the series (“1974”)?

JJ: Um…I came on, and I think James (Marsh) came on just before me, and he always wanted to do the one with the Yorkshire Ripper (“1980”). But “1974” was the one I wanted, because I sort of vaguely knew the book. Also, it was kicking off the series, so it was more fun to direct, really. Also, you know, it’s such an incredibly complex story, and there were four books which went down to three books, so it seemed to me that telling the first one was the one to do. And the type of things that happened in it, the atmosphere and all that, it was just right up my street in terms of tension.

BE: What was your reaction when you heard that your film “Kinky Boots” was being adapted into a musical?

JJ: [Laughs.] I was amazed, actually. And, in fact, somebody told me that it’s very, very similar to the script. I mean, it makes sense, in a way. It’s a shoe factory, which is unbelievably visual and would make a great set. We had some great music in it. And Lola is such a fantastic character. So I can imagine it. But…I dunno, really. I’d be interested to see it. [Laughs.]

BE: More recently, you directed the Boy George biopic, “Worried About the Boy.” How was that experience?

JJ: Yes, well, it’s interesting when you’re making…well, like this one, really, where you’re making a film about someone who’s still alive. We were touching on a period in his life that was full of optimism but also a lot of pain and tragedy. So that was tricky. And we were worried about how he’d think of it. In fact, he was very happy. And, y’know, I grew up in that period, so it was great to back and enjoy all that. [Laughs.] It was a very sort of tight budget, but I loved doing it. It was such fun, really, to explore all that world.

BE: What were the challenges involved? It’s been awhile since I watched it, so I can’t recall: did you have access to Culture Club music?

JJ: Yeah, we got it, but it took a long time. And, of course, we didn’t have many tracks because the point of the film was…it wasn’t a biopic of Culture Club. It was Boy George before he became Boy George, so we finish when he becomes Boy George, and we finish on the famous track (“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”). It was really about the world of the club and its characters, the blossoming of the New Romantic movement and the eccentric people that were part of that world, and…it was about England, really, and how suddenly there was this explosion of freedom and reaction, I suppose, as well, to political things that were going on. That was always the idea of it, as opposed to trying to do a biopic of Culture Club.

BE: Looking at your filmography, the one item that seems to be a bit of an anomaly, at least compared to the usual topics you’ve covered, is “Anonymous Rex.”

JJ: Yes, well, that’s fair enough, I suppose. [Laughs.]

BE: How did you end up directing that film, given that it’s so different from everything else you’ve done? Or was that, in fact, the reason why you did it?

JJ: I read the script and I thought…it was very film noir-y, and I’ve always been fascinated by film noir, so I read it, and, y’know, when you read on the page that somebody becomes a dinosaur, somehow it’s not as significant as when comes to actually making the film. [Laughs.] But I was just charmed by the script, to be honest. I thought it would be fun. But, as you say, it was somewhat of an anomaly. I was really just dipping my toe into it for fun. But I certainly wouldn’t say it was on the route map of my top hits. [Laughs.]

BE: So what were the challenges of bringing it to the screen? I presume there was a certain amount of makeup and costuming.

JJ: And CGI, actually. It was mainly CGI, in fact. So there were those challenges, but then there was also having the budget to sustain what we wanted to do, which is always a battle with something like that. And CGI wasn’t as advanced at that point. It’s extraordinary now what you can do. Absolutely extraordinary. Even with the Hitchcock film…we’ve actually put a CGI Hitchcock head on top of Toby, you know. [Laughs.] No, but the prosthetics now are just so fantastic. They’re unbelievably good. So things have moved on so much that anything like that is now possible, but I guess we were making it at a point when, unless you had Steven Spielberg amounts of money, it was tricky. Very tricky.

BE: When given the choice between period pieces and projects set in present day, do you have a preference for one over the other?

JJ: No, I’ve done quite a lot of period pieces, but…I mean, the interesting thing about doing a period piece is, as a director, you can control everything. The settee you’re sitting on, the color of settee, what color your shirt is. And there aren’t any nasty parked cars in the background that distract. Everything can be controlled and worked with. That’s the fantastic opportunity with period pieces. You can really create the world that you want to create. But I enjoy mixing it up whenever possible. It’s fun to do contemporary stuff as well.

BE: I’m curious about your experience working with Crispin Glover on “Crime and Punishment.” I interviewed him a few years ago, and he’s, uh, pretty intense.

JJ: [Uncertainly.] Sorry, who was that?

BE: Crispin Glover. [With equal uncertainty.] Um…was he not in “Crime and Punishment”?

JJ: Not unless it was a tiny, tiny part. And he was very quiet. [Laughs.]

[Writer’s note: I kept this bit in the interview to keep myself humble, but what happened was that Jarrold’s Wikipedia page has a link to a version of “Crime and Punishment” in which Glover did appear. Unfortunately, it’s not the one directed by Jarrold but, rather, by Menahem Golan. This is what happens when you rush to prep for an interview during the TCA tour.]

BE: Well, let’s move on to “Appropriate Adult,” then. There’s obviously a bit of a difference between working in film and working on television, but that was a pretty intense series, to say the least.

JJ: Yeah, it’s less well known here, that case, but in England you just need to say the words “Fred West,” and everyone goes… [Gasps.] He’s considered the worst, probably because it was a husband-and-wife team. But it’s considered just the darkest, most horrible thing and something that can’t really be explored and certainly not something that should be on television. So when they told me about the project, that was essentially my first reaction as well. But the writer (Neil McKay) was very sensitive and found an interesting way in. There was this curious case of a woman who was a trained social worker, really, who had been brought in to be…I mean, in these cases, if there’s any danger of someone having a learning disability, you’ve got to have a social worker in there to make sure the police aren’t abusing anyone. So this woman, who’s inexperienced and quite vulnerable, is sitting in next to him, and it provided a fascinating way into the subject, because he manipulated her and got inside her head and confessed to her. It has its parallels with the Hitchcock film, actually: it was about a relationship of power, in a way, where the guy kind of dominated and manipulated. And Dominic (West), who’s a fantastic actor, he really…you know, the pressure was on, because you can’t do a character like that halfway or you’ll be hung up. So he did a lot of research, and there’s a lot of available interviews with the guy. A lot of it took place within one small room, so it was a very intense, almost contained drama. And that interested me a lot, actually. No car chases. It’s all between the two or three people sparring with each other. So it was fascinating, and it had a very strong reaction in the UK and went down very well, because…I guess because it was trying to talk about something you shouldn’t talk about, you find a sort of shared humanity.

BE: It’s interesting to see the variety of material that you tackle as a director, from the pastoral to the intense. Do you go out of your way to keep yourself challenged?

JJ: Yeah. I think it’s definitely nice to…I don’t want to get lazy, where you just do what you did before. You don’t want people to be saying of you, “Oh, that Julian Jarrold, he does period dramas, so no contemporary dramas for him,” or, “Well, this is a thriller, and he only does romances.” But if you can persuade people that you can do all of that…in this business, people like to try and pigeonhole you, but the variety is the joy of it, really. I suppose that there’s some romance in the amusing things I’ve done, and in the darker stuff I’ve done, hopefully there’s some humor in there as well. It does all feed into each other a bit. But I do think it makes you a better director if you explore all of these different areas.

BE: Do you have a project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

JJ: Well, I was very pleased that “Red Riding” did get the love I thought it deserved. It got more love here than it did in the UK, though. I think people just sort of got it better here. We were trying to tap into…or (writer) David Peace was…those sort of ‘70s conspiracy thrillers, but it was touching on painful subjects in the UK and real cases as well. And, uh, the police didn’t like to be portrayed in that way. [Laughs.] So…I don’t know, really. I’m just very happy to be able to make the stuff that I’ve made. “Brideshead Revisited,” I suppose, didn’t get as much as perhaps it should’ve done. But we were competing with a TV series that everyone knew very well, and it was a sacred text as well.

BE: Are there any other such “sacred texts” that you haven’t yet tackled but you’d like to take a shot at one day?

JJ: Well, one day I’d love to do “King Lear.” But who wouldn’t? [Laughs.] I’m always fascinated by Thomas Hardy as well, actually, who I always think is unfilmable. It’s never that satisfying when you see the films. But there’s something in the atmosphere in that world that I think I could do very well.

BE: As far as doing “King Lear,” do you have anyone in mind that you’d love to see play the part, or would you rather not jinx it?

JJ: Well, I’ll wait until Toby Jones is a bit older, then I’ll see if he’ll do it. [Laughs.]

BE: To bring it full circle, as far as Toby playing Hitchcock, I talked to him earlier and he said that he didn’t see himself as being right for the part, but then it turned out that he was only an inch shorter than the real Hitchcock. Was he your first choice? Not that he’s not a wonderful choice, but he wouldn’t seem to leap immediately to mind for the role.

JJ: No, he wouldn’t. [Laughs] Yeah, the whole casting thing was a nightmare, because we knew if we got it wrong, it just would not work at all. And, I mean, there’s nobody that looks like Hitchcock. Not actually. It’s an impossible thing. So we went round and round the houses, but he came in and…maybe it just came out on that day – not from him – that he was the same size, and he talked so intelligently about it, and his approach about how he would try and get the feel of the part, I got the sense that he really would throw himself into it and do all the work. A lot of actors, I think, would go, “Oh, I can do Hitchcock. I’ll watch a couple of videos on YouTube and turn up.” But Toby’s not like that. His whole life’s gonna be put on hold while he immerses himself in it. Which he did. And we were lucky with the prosthetics as well, because we got the best person we possibly could’ve done, and I think that helped maybe as well. They’re such delicate decisions when you make these things, and there’s always these crossroads: do you go this way or do you go that way? I’m just very glad we went the way we did. But his performance as Truman Capote (in “Infamous”) was important for us, just because, y’know, he wasn’t like Capote, was he? I knew someone who could disappear into a part like that would be perfect for Hitchcock. And he was.