Across several decades of film and television directing, primarily out of the U.K., Richard Loncraine has built up an impressive body of work that covers both comedy, drama, and everything in between, including real-life stories and surreal journeys. He first came to the attention of most Americans in 1982, with his one-two punch of the unnerving Brimstone & Treacle and the Michael Palin sex comedy The Missionary. Since then, he’s tackled Shakespeare (Richard III with Ian McKellen), political dramas (The Gathering Storm and The Special Relationship, both for HBO, for which he also helmed an episode of the groundbreaking series “Band of Brothers”), and lighter fare (Wimbledon, Firewall, My One and Only)
Loncraine’s latest is Finding Your Feet, co-starring Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie as estranged, aging sisters who reunite when Staunton’s character leaves her cheating husband of 40 years and attempts to restart her life among Imrie’s groups of friends, who include the likes of Timothy Spall, Joanna Lumley, and David Hayman. The film is funny, touching and features a some impressive dance routines to boot.
I spoke with Loncraine recently about the film, working with such an impressive group of British actors, and why the advanced age of its characters isn’t really important to the story. Please enjoy…
With just a few adjustments in one direction or the other, this film could have been a much broader comedy or a much more serious drama, and you found a really nice balance here. Was that tone in the script or did you have to work at achieving that balance?
Good question, a very interesting question. I don’t think it was a conscious decision on my part. We shot the movie to begin with in continuity, which is very unusual. So the opening sequence we shot first, and I immediately knew within the first day that it was too broad. There were a lot of smart-ass lines in the film, a lot of one-liners—some of which were quite good and hopefully they’re in the movie, and some which were quite dreadful and aren’t in the movie. I did very quickly think I needed to change tack in the film, and luckily we shot it because it starts much broader, then it continues on.
I think we were very lucky there, because what the film does—it’s not going to change cinematic history; it’s not Gone with the Wind and it’s not trying to be, and I couldn’t achieve that even if I wanted to—is creep up on you. I think you start watching it and think, “Where are these characters going?” Then gradually, you actually realize you’re involved with them and you care about them. And by the time it goes a bit sour when Bif announces her cancer, I think you’re actually with the people, which is to me the secret to any movie. If you care about the people, you’ll probably like the movie.
There are a few things about this film that snuck up on me. One was that I wasn’t really enjoying Imelda’s character very much, then suddenly I realized “I like her now,” and I don’t know when that happened exactly.
[laughs] That’s very interesting. It’s a bit like, I did a film called Richard III with Ian McKellen many years ago. There’s a scene in that, it’s the famous Lady Anne scene, where she’s over the body of her third cousin, but we made it her husband, in the mortuary, and McKellen comes in, and he’s murdered her husband. He’s lying dead on the slab, and by the end of the scene, he’s asked her out to dinner, and she’s accepted. Shakespeare is such a great writer that you don’t see the sleight of hand. Having watched it many times, it’s when she spits at him and puts herself at a disadvantage—the balance shifts.
In this little movie, Finding Your Feet, there is a point—I think it’s probably when she’s in the bath when she’s being really rude to Tim Spall in the van, and her sister tells her off and says, “Stop being such a cow; stop being so rude to people.” Then you have her feeling sorry for herself. I think it’s about that point in the movie when Imelda’s skill as an actress, because she knows what she’s doing at every second, she started to change her qualities. It creeps up in many places. I think when Tim and her are dancing together, when they at first don’t want to be anywhere near each other, then something goes on in that scene, and they just smile at each other. Tim does this little look at the end like, “Oh, dear. What just happened? I think I enjoyed that.” Again, nothing to do with me. I can’t claim any credit for that skill, but it’s interesting that you were aware of a change of emotion in her, and I completely agree with you.
The love story is another thing that snuck up on me. I had assumed where this was going was this male/female relationship, but the real love story here is between the sisters.
Absolutely. The film is not meant to be about dance at all. In fact, I remember saying to the producers early on, “We could change it for a cooking school. It wouldn’t matter.” It’s about the people. It’s about their relationship. It is, as you said, about the sisters. That’s why I cast the sisters first, because it’s their story, really. Tim obviously has a significant part to play, and does it wonderfully, but you could make that movie without his character. It would still work as a story, I think.
Absolutely. And it’s fun to see Celia, who I’ve seen for so long in so many roles, take on a leading film role.
Isn’t it great? I worked with her first on the Albert Finney film, The Gathering Storm, where he played Churchill, and she was so good in that. I thought from that moment on, she should be playing leads, not supporting parts. I’m very pleased, and I hope this will change her career a bit, because she deserves it.
She’s in this television series here in America called “Better Things.” She’s not in every episode, but when she pops up, I’m glued to her.
She told me she had to get her clothes off in one episode, to get naked. She’s a very wonderfully mad lady. She really is not dissimilar to Bif in real life. In fact, when I was going around to talk to her about the script early on, she went to make a cup of tea, she came back and found me photographing the floor of her living room and her desk. I said, “Sorry, Celia. I’m just taking reference of how untidy one human being can be to use for your character.” I know her very well. All of those things she is. In fact, she did say, “Don’t move anything, because I’ll never know where to find it.” That’s where that line came from.
As you say, this film isn’t necessarily about dance specifically, but it’s in there, and there are a couple of really fun musical numbers. Did you make any adjustments in shooting those numbers? There are several schools of thought about directing dancers.
I made more emotional adjustments. We decided very early on that we had to strike a very specific note with the dancing, because we could have used doubles, we could have had close ups of incredibly talented people, we could have used face replacement. I felt that we had to sail a very careful line between them being good enough to be invited to Rome but not so amazing that you stop believing them as ordinary people that you would know from your own street at home. I’m not sure we’ve achieved it for everybody, but it was very much considered.
There were some other decisions. I decided very much in the Rome sequence that we should really only see it from the audience’s point of view, except when there was a narrative on stage, for example when Celia starts to faint, we then cut onto the stage with the actors watching what’s happening. But for the rest of the time, you’re always from the audience’s point of view. I don’t know if I broke any new ground, and I don’t know if I’ll get hired to direct a dance musical, but it was interesting learning curve.
The age of the characters is almost superfluous. It’s not really addressed in the film; it’s not the butt of any of the jokes. Was that important to you?
If you’re the age I am, I know that the joke is that people forget where things are. Definitely as you get older, you forget. I go upstairs to get something from the bedroom and by the time I’ve got to the bedroom, I forgot what I’ve got to get. Most young people don’t do that. There are certain things in there—when she finds her phone in the tumble dryer, that’s based on my wife, because she actually did that and does it all the time, not always in the dryer, but she does it in other ways. Her glasses are usually on her head when she’s asking me, “Have you seen my glasses?” Jokes about old people are there, but hopefully they’re done in a way that they don’t seem too silly and too repetitive. But no one talks about aches and pains and groans; they just get on with stuff, which is what we all try and do at my age.
At the same time, these characters have clearly lived full lives. It’s not like we don’t know that they’re older. I’m guessing that people who are older don’t talk about being old day after day, they just live their lives.
We have a thing at our house when we have a dinner party with my contemporaries: you are not allowed to talk about illness, because it can dominate the conversation when you’re old. That’s the only thing that old people tend to do talk about, but otherwise they’re young people with creaky bodies. They do everything a bit slower and not quite as well as young people, but that’s.
Richard, thank you so much. It was great to talk to you.
It was a real pleasure. It was good to talk to you. You asked me some great questions. Thank you so much. Have a lovely day.