Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lennon Comes Alive in "Nowhere Boy"

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Lennon Comes Alive in "Nowhere Boy"

(from 10/6/10)

This Beatles fanatic gives his stamp of approval to photographer Sam Taylor-Wood's startling debut film, Nowhere Boy, about the young, excitable, and increasingly rebellious John Lennon (Aaron Johnson). It's a deeply-moving, passionately-directed, splendidly acted, eye-opening film in which the teenager from Liverpool searches for his identity while residing with his conservative Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and getting to know his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff in an Oscar-worthy performance), Mimi's troubled, free-spirited sister. And he discovers the blues and rock n roll, and picks up a guitar. Be assured that you'll find it exciting the way the music in the film is introduced; and will get an adrenaline rush when Paul McCartney and George Harrison enter John's life. It's obvious that Taylor-Wood and her actors took great pains to get it right. In anticipation of Friday's release in New York, I interviewed the director, rising star Aaron Johnson (now part of a couple with Wood), and Kristin Scott Thomas, a favorite of mine. Below are roundtables with Johnson and Thomas, for which I note my questions, followed by my back-and-forth with Taylor-Wood.
ROUNDTABLE WITH AARON JOHNSONQ: Can you talk about how you were cast as John Lennon?
Aaron Johnson: I was filming Kick-Ass at the time they asked me to come in, so I didnt have sufficient time to work the character out or prepare. I'd spend my lunches at the studio looking at YouTube-like clips of Lennon when he was young so I could get a small sense of who he was and try to get his voice and his look. I was playing this kid with big bushy hair, so I knew I had to slick it back and try to make it more '50s. I went to the audition, and Sam will tell you I was literally just talking out loud this one sentence that I heard Lennon say in an interview, something like, "They think we're builders from Hamburg." Lennon had just come back to Liverpool from Hamburg. There's a Beatles documentary I saw and everyone in it seemed to say you know quite a lot, so I just kept on saying you know.
Q: I heard that Sam Taylor Wood knew right away that she was casting you as Lennon but went through the casting process anyway. What was the waiting period like for you?
AJ: I had one day off from Kick-Ass to do this casting thing, and I guess when you're involved in something else you just forget about it. But at the same time I expected to go back and do some more because Sam said for me to check out the documentary, The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, so I could see this other side to him that she wanted me to capture. So I watched that. Meanwhile I was telling Jane Goldman, the writer of Kick-Ass, "I want to play John Lennon next but I cant play a fucking guitar and I cant sing." They were casting young musicians, so I was up against that. So Jane brought a cassette in, and I spent my lunches watching some video that showed me how to play chords.
Q: And the banjo?
AJ: I had a fantastic teacher who taught me the guitar, banjo, and harmonica. He also taught Ann-Marie how to play the banjo for "Maggie May."
Danny Peary: How good are you now?
AJ: I rarely pick up a guitar now, which is a shame. Because on all the songs in the film I sang live and played guitar. And we recorded probably five other songs that didn't make it into the film, and I loved it. It was a fantastic experience. But once I'm done and move on to another film, I move completely away from the person I played.
Q: When you got the part, did you read the memoir by his half-sister Julia Baird, who is a child in the movie?
AJ: I didn't but I think Matt Greenhaigh, the screenwriter, used bits of that to get insight into Julia.
I picked up Philip Norman's book and a bunch of biographies. I did only a bit of that because I wanted to focus only on the earlier part of his life. Mostly I watched tapes of his interviews and saw what he looked like and what his mannerisms were, and listened to his voice. He was a free spirit and in this Rolling Stone interview I saw he talked about his relationship with his mother Julia and his Aunt Mimi, who everyone thought was his mother. There were stories of him writing the Daily Howl and poetry and how Aunt Mini would go burn that, and he'd get really fucking pissed off. He was pretty open and I used that as my research.
DP: From the research, can you say what John Lennon thought of himself as a teenager?
AJ: We tried to cover a very vulnerable side of him that's never really been seen before. It's probably the only part of his life that wasn't ever documented. So we had to dig into all the facts and research as much as possible. I think the Lennon that we thought we knew in the Beatles, was this guy who was very defensive and quite bitter and had the barriers up because his mother Julia died. In that interview for Rolling Stone--which I listened to for his accent--he said the Beatles were a front and "I was very bitter when my mother died and didnt feel comfortable as a person, until I found Yoko." Then he found love and became a free-spirited, quite open person, and the activist that we sort of knew.
DP: Watching the movie, I kept thinking John was defiant, never compromising on anything. It's both a good and bad trait. Were you thinking of playing him that way?
JA: He's constantly trying to unravel what's happened--where his biological father was, where his mother's been--and he's constantly trying to get the love of this woman, so he's not going to stop asking questions for anything although that by pushing he could possibly jeopardize the relationship he now has with his mom.
DP: Well, he never backs down to his mother, but he also never backs down to his teachers or headmaster, or even to that kid who puts a knife against his face.
JA: That's the Lennon that everyone knows as well; that's a part of him. I guess he was like that because he felt he had nothing to lose.
Q: Do you think John and Paul McCartney became friends because Paul's mother had recently died and John had mother issues?
AJ: Paul lost his mother and John didn't grow up with his mother. I think there was that connection because otherwise they're opposites. Pauls very earnest, quite calm, and keeps to himself, whereas Lennon's sort of a rock 'n' roll rebel who is way out there, They always had an odd chemistry.
DP: Did you play or were you told to play, their relationship as being at all competitive?
AJ: Not really, because the movie wasn't hugely about their relationship, but about Lennon's journey. There are stories of it, because Lennon was starting out in music and though Paul was younger he was so advanced musically, and that scared John a bit. He didn't want to acknowledge Paul because he was a bit older and had a lot of friends his own age. I think we play on the age thing a little bit--when they meet and one asks, you want a beer? and the other answers, no, I want a cup of tea.
DP: Doesn't John seem to be a little jealous of Paul when Julia is paying attention to him?
JA: Yeah, John wants the attention of his mother, and he sees what his mother is like around other men and how she catches their eye, and all he wants is her attention on him. He wants the respect and the attention and the love. And when he doesn't get his mother, and she says bye again, he says, "I want to be Elvis, I want to be rock 'n' roll, I want women to fall at my feet."
Q: This movie came out almost a year ago in England, so what kind of feedback did you get from people there who knew John?
JA: We had a premiere screening in Liverpool, so his family and his friends were there, including Pete Shotton and the other boys from the Quarrymen. When we introduced the film we mentioned there were people in the audience and it was dead cold--no one raised a hand--and we thought it was going to be a painful evening. So we let them watch the movie, and at the after-party, they came up to us with tears in their eyes. Pete Shotton was very complimentary. We took them down memory lane.
Q: Did you get to meet Julian or any of the family members?
JA: I met Julian, not while doing the film, but after, in Cannes. I was just at his gallery opening downtown. The family has been very supportive.
Q: And Yoko?
JA: Yoko, who knew him most intimately and really had an understanding of who he was, has been a huge supporter of the film and very complementary of our performances. We're really grateful to her because she gave us the rights to "Mother," which she had never done before.
Q: Did you meet Paul?
JA: Yes. He gave us the rights to "Hello Little Girl" which he's never done before. He said he loved the film. He said, "It's not a documentary or anything but John didnt really punch me in the face." He thought it was quite good.
Q: What's your favorite John Lennon song?
JA: There's quite a lot. I suppose "In Spite of All the Danger" is one of my favorites, because it was the first-ever song the Quarrymen recorded and I sang it in the film.
DP: Is there one question you'd like to ask John Lennon?
AJ: I dunno what that question would be. I'd really have to think about it.
Q: You had an incredible year this year; obviously your profile has been raised here in America with Kick-Ass, this movie is getting a lot of critical praise; and you've become a parent with Sam Taylor-Wood. So what has surprised you about this year and how has fame affected you?

AJ: The most wonderful thing of this year us is becoming a father, and seeing my little girl. Shes gorgeous. I was probably up at 4 or 5 in the morning to change her nappy, and Sam was up in the night to feed her so she's a trooper. The press schedule is always difficult and it's about ten times more now, but were coping with it. I don't think I have a problem with the fame because that's not really an issue. I dont get recognized on the street. London is different because if you're out at night you make the news. So if you're going to go to an event there you're expecting it. It's work-related, I suppose.
Q: Are you getting more film offers now?
JA: Definitely Kick-Ass has opened doors to new projects. And Nowhere Boy may do that too, hopefully, because I like going for something different.
A ROUNDTABLE WITH KRISTIN SCOTT THOMASDanny Peary: You have another film out now, Leaving. The obsessive woman you play in that French film who abandons her family to be with her lover and John Lennon's Aunt Mimi in Nowhere Boy, are seemingly completely different characters. But since they both are repressed in some way, do you see any similarities?
Kristin Scott Thomas: I didn't when I was doing it. It never occurred to me but I guess you're right. They're both coming from the same place; they both have abandonment issues. Suzanne in Leaving just gives up everything because of her desire to feel something; and Mimi in Nowhere Boy is just terrified of losing everything and feeling things. She's hanging on like mad to John. She has poured every atom of her love into this boy and is trying to control him and is trying to give him what she considers to be best for him and turn him into a doctor or something magnificent. The character in Leaving is doing the absolute opposite, shedding everything and trying to start again.
DP: But they're both coming out of a shell. Mimi smiles a lot more as time passes.
KSM: Yeah, I think Mimi comes out of the shell. Or she just peeks out. She remained very tough and defensive, I think, until she died. But I never met her, so I dont know. What I did in the film was pure invention, and I just had to trust it was right. You have to get the source right, and I think her motive was just love of this child and being very protective. She didn't have any children of her own. She lost the love of her life in the war. He was a doctor or vet and she was a nurse and he died of pneumonia or something so she lost that. So now she has this little boy who she's taking care of because she doesn't feel her sister can take care of him. And she's just overwhelmed by the love she has for this boy and wants to give him everything for the best.
Q: Was there an Aunt Mimi in your life?
KST: My granny was a bit like Aunt Mimi. She was very strict, tough love. No nonsense! In fact there are shots of me, especially when I have my reading glasses and a cigarette, when I look so much like my grandmother. In the fifties, straight skirt, pearls, lipstick. That type of woman hung around a long time! I don't know if you noticed but Aunt Mimi has a very different accent from John's and isn't like anyone else's in that area of Liverpool. She was upwardly mobile and extremely careful about the way she spoke. Luckily we have recordings of her speaking, so I was able to get that right--well, not exactly right. I worked with an accent coach.
Q: What was your first memory of the Beatles and in particular John Lennon?
KST: I must have seen them on TV when I was about six or seven. I wasn't really a great Beatles fan, so the reason I made the movie wasn't "Oh, I really need to make a movie about John Lennon,
" but that I was really affected by the story of this boy discovering his talent and this love triangle between a boy and the two very strong intellectual women in his life. And how motherhood can form a child. The film is not about the Beatles but, as I said, a boy discovering his talent. How come some people are just hugely talented? Where does that come from? How does one nurture a talent? How do they discover it? How does it become genius? That's what's interesting to me.
DP: Do you have more of an appreciation of Lennon's music now, and the Beatles?
KST: Yes, now that I know where he's coming from. Now I can see what I missed.
Q: What's your favorite Lennon song?
KST: "Mother."
DP: How would you compare working with Sam Taylor-Wood on Nowhere Boy and Catherine Corsini on Leaving, which is also coming out now?
KST. Sam was easy. Catherine was the complete opposite, one great big fireball of insanity. But I would make another film with both of them in a heartbeat. But it was a totally different experience. Sam is very, very measured, softly spoken, very gentle, and light and sunny. She'd say, "Please stand here." She is a photographer and has a very strong sense of framing. And it was the first time I really realized how much a frame and the shape of the picture can tell a story, and how as an actor you can evolve within that frame. You may realize you might need to do only half as much acting. It's a very interesting visual idea being part of a shot rather than just performing. Its sort of anti-Actors Studio. Working with Sam was pretty organic and simple.
MY QUESTIONS TO SAM TAYLOR-WOODDanny Peary: Was the beginning of A Hard Day's Night, in which John and the other Beatles run from their fans, the inspiration for your films opening scene?
Sam Taylor-Wood: Absolutely. I thought of the opening scene in which they're all running and George falls over--and I thought John tripping and having that opening chord would excite everyone. This is the John Lennon who was a Beatle. That film was an influence on me because it was great just seeing the quirkiness and humor in that.
DP: I'm sure you were, but were you conscious to the fact that all the characters have pain underneath yet you were trying not to make a depressing movie?
ST-W: Yeah. There had to be that pain because that's what the story was, but I also wanted humor, so I tried create a total balance. John was known for his humor, especially his sharp sarcasm. We felt some of it came from Aunt Mimi, because that kind of humor was apparent in some of the footage we saw of her. I had to have a lot of humor in the movie or it would be too dark and gut-wrenching.
DP: Because of your art background, did you study John Lennon's art to get insight into him?
STW: I didn't study his art at college. I had seen some of his drawings but didn't really become aware of them until recently. I can say he was a great draftsman, something I always envied in other artists because I definitely wasnt great. While making the movie, I mostly learned about the spirit of John Lennon and how creative he was on a full spectrum of things.
DP: Of course, music is vital to the movie. You had to shoot alternative scenes because while filming you didnt know if you could get permission to use three songs that three scenes were dependent on. What were the songs?
ST-W: "Hello Little Girl," "In Spite of All the Danger," and "Mother."
DP: John says at one point, "Why couldnt God make me Elvis?" And then Julia says my favorite line in the movie: "Because he was saving you for John Lennon."
ST-W: That's one of my favorite lines as well, because it was fun to play with. The other fun part was never mentioning the word Beatles. It is a film about the young,
pre-Beatles John Lennon and the story is interesting enough to stand up even if he didnt go on to become one of the Beatles.
DP: Why did you think to cast Kristin Scott Thomas as Lennon's prudish aunt?
ST-W: I'm a great admirer of Kristin's. She has portrayed such fantastic characters and such strong women. I thought she would understand someone like Aunt Mimi, in the sense that she wouldn't just create a dragon-like character but would see the vulnerable side as well.
DP: Why do you think the sisters, Mimi and Julia, are so different?
ST-W: I felt that it was almost as if they were born in different eras. Mimi seemed to be a product of the fifties and Julia was ahead of her time and more sixties-spirited. They were born about eight years apart.
DP: I thought it was ironic that you had Mimi, who rarely smiled, reading "The Happy Prince."
ST-W: That came from a note by Yoko. She said Mimi taught John about art and Van Gogh and the writings of Oscar Wilde. She said that Mimi really encouraged John to read Wilde.
DP: The characters make dramatic transitions during the course of the film, so did you shoot at all in chronological order?
ST-W: No, we were all over the place. It was difficult for Aaron to play that role because we were jumping all over the timeline due to such a tight schedule and low budget. It was guerilla-style filmmaking at times.
DP: What did John Lennon think of himself at that time in his life?
ST-W: I have no idea. Well, actually there was a revealing line of his: "I had to decide at school whether I was completely mad or a total genius. I decided if I was mad they would have put me away." So I think he believed, "I am brilliant and am going to be somebody." That helped him focus while going through turbulent times.
DP: If you got to ask John Lennon a question, would it be about his mother?
ST-W: I've never thought of that, but I think it might not be a question about his mother but about his thought process and his writing. One of the reasons I was drawn to this film is how he withdrew into his imagination. That withdrawal into a different world was how he coped when life was difficult. That's what I think!


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