Michael Grandage Talks Injecting Cinematic Excitement Into 'Genius', Planning a 'Photograph 51' Film (Q&A)

Michael Grandage H 2016
Sarah Lee/ the Guardian/Sipa USA

Michael Grandage H 2016

The multiple Tony and Olivier winner tells THR of making the scary transition from stage to screen (a la Sam Mendes) and casting Brits and Aussies to play iconic American authors.

For someone whose only previous film role — in front of or behind the camera — was playing a screaming amputee in 1994’s The Madness of King George, Michael Grandage, 53, might appear to have done well having his directorial debut land in the Berlin Film Festival’s main competition.

The intervening two decades have, of course, seen the Brit rise to become one of the most celebrated theater directors on either side of the Atlantic. His most recent West End production, the Nicole Kidman-starring Photograph 51, received rave reviews, sparking talk of a U.S. move, while his Broadway revival of Hughie with Forest Whitaker began previews on Feb. 8 (he flew to Berlin for just 24 hours for the red carpet).

And then there’s the film in question — Genius, which dives into the world of celebrated New York book editor Max Perkins and stars Kidman, Colin Firth, Jude Law, Dominic West, Laura Linney and Guy Pearce. Ahead of the film's world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, the director spoke to THR of making the scary transition from stage to screen (a la Sam Mendes) and casting Brits and Aussies to play iconic American authors.

You’ve lined up an enviable A-list cast for your film debut. How did that happen?

Colin was attached to it when it came to me. His agent is also Nicole’s agent, so she’d seen the script and called, long before we were doing Photograph 51. Jude is a longtime collaborator in the theater. Laura was just somebody whom I adore and thought she’d be perfect. I have to say, if it’s always as easy as that, I’ll be really, really happy!

Even though you are a successful theater director, were you worried about undue levels of expectation for your first film?

The only thing going into the film I felt confident about was the interaction with the actors. But the rest, the technical side particularly, was all alien. I’ve never been to any kind of film school. So I spent a year shadowing friends. I did a bit of work with Kenneth Branagh, going to the Cinderella and Jack Ryan sets. I also surrounded myself with really good people. They could have patronized the hell out of me. But the whole thing was a very collaborative process.

Did other theater directors who have moved into film offer you any advice?

Sam Mendes gave me the most amazing tip, which was such a simple thing. He said, "Use every single day of your preproduction well, because it will yield results as soon as you go into the shoot." It’s true. There’s nothing more satisfying than turning up on set and having hundreds of people all looking at you going, "Does he know what he’s doing and does he know what he wants?" and the moment you open your mouth you go, "What I’d like to do is...." You literally watch them relax, because they go, "Oh, thank God."

The story of a book editor doesn’t initially sound like an edge-of-seat cinematic experience. How were you drawn to it?

I was phenomenally attracted to the story from the first word. I realized, just to be selfish for a second, that while it was a story about an editor and his relationship with his writers, it also dealt with what a director does, which is taking the genius of the raw material and crafting it in order to bring it to the public. In this case, the writer is Thomas Wolfe and the editor is Max Perkins, and we watch this huge manuscript — hundreds of thousands of words — start to come down, with lots of tears and lots of laughter. And of course, this exposes what the film is really about — friendship. I’m with you, on paper it’s a dry subject, but I hope in reality it’s something with juice in it.

You’ve got West playing Ernest Hemingway, Law as Wolfe and Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Do you think Americans might be upset about their literary greats being portrayed by Brits and Australians?

We now swap all the time. We’ve had an American playing Margaret Thatcher! If all those Americans can come over and play famous Brits, then a few Brits can play a few famous Americans.

How does West look as Hemingway?

Brilliant. He made a complete transformation, partly due to an extraordinary hair and makeup department. I’ve worked with Dom before, and he does get into character. Even if he hadn’t got the right mustache and hairpiece, he would have still been Hemingway.

How do you now see your new film career fitting in alongside everything else?

Well, I want to do more, and I probably will do one as early as this year or early next. It was very odd. I kept waiting for the process that was going to be the unsatisfying bit, but I loved every part of it. Which is why I want to go back and do another quite quickly. I want to do a film of Photograph 51, with Nicole.

It seems incredible that your only other film work was The Madness of King George.

And it was a non-speaking role. Actually, it’s a screaming man, so I do have some vocals. [Director] Nicholas Hytner had been working with a group of us, so when he got his first film, he wrote a little card to all of us with parts, saying, "I can offer you a sailor, pig farmer, amputee...." I went, "Ooh, I’ll be an amputee." I did the same with Genius. I wrote to a lot of my collaborators, explaining that I could offer "actress in theater," "station master," etc. And all my old friends and colleagues from my theater performances are in there somewhere.

Which limb were you missing?

It was my leg, I think.