Tony and Olivier award-winning veteran theatre director and producer Michael Grandage’s poignant sophomore feature film, My Policeman, which received its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival, opens in US theaters on October 21st before its global launch on Prime Video on Friday November 4th. Based on the novel by Bethan Roberts, with a delicately powerful screenplay by Oscar-nominated Philadelphia writer Ron Nyswaner, the film is produced by Greg Berlanti and Robbie Rogers. The captivating and beautifully crafted tale is set between two distinct timeframes. In 1950s Britain, where gay people are stigmatized and criminalized, we meet policeman Tom (Harry Styles), teacher Marion (Emma Corrin), and museum curator Patrick (David Dawson) as their lives become emotionally entwined. When the action shifts decades forwards to the socially less conservative late 1990s, we’re reunited with Tom (Linus Roache), Marion (Gina McKee), and Patrick (Rupert Everett) in late middle-age as the past continues to reverberate in their lives. My Policeman follows Grandage’s 2016 directorial feature debut, Genius, starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman.
Currently artistic director of the Michael Grandage Company, he has directed West End and Broadway productions such as Aidan Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51, Jude Law in Henry V, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in Peter and Alice. Grandage previously served as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and Sheffield Theatres where his work included directing Chiwetel Ejiofor in Othello, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon, Derek Jacobi in King Lear, Eddie Redmayne and Alfred Molina in Red, Jude Law in Hamlet, and Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov. His Olivier-winning musical productions include Guys and Dolls, Merrily We Roll Along, and Grand Hotel.
Ahead of the release of My Policeman, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Michael Grandage about the draw of the material, how he came to cast Harry Styles and Emma Corrin, his approach to the film’s sex scenes, and the piece of queer literature that’s had the biggest impact on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what were some of the things that spoke to you in Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay that made you want to be involved?
Michael Grandage: “There is a very personal story for me in it because I was born into that world where homosexuality was still illegal in England. The law changed when I was young, but because it only changed in 1967 there was still a generation of prejudice that I grew up with. The subsequent 40 years have been much more positive. One of the things that appealed to me about the script—among the many reasons I wanted to make this on a cinematic level—was that I love the idea that a film, if one’s lucky, can possibly be part of a wider debate. I thought, if we can get the right casting with the young three and they can bring with them a relatively young demographic, they’ll see what it’s like when you live in a society where you aren’t free to be yourself.”
“I consider the young at the moment to be the least prejudiced generation we’ve ever had, so it’ll be fantastic to have them as ambassadors for why we need to continue moving forward in the world and never back to that. When you’re reading a script you generally don’t start to think about the potentially wider, even political picture of something you might make, you usually go straight to the emotional heart of the thing. I did go to that too. The dual time frame was something that I wanted to explore on film. Aesthetically, I thought it’d be a lovely thing to create with a group of people. The idea that you can flow from one period to another and create a world of memory and time that’s interlinked appealed. Apart from anything else, it’s clearly a great script for actors and I love working with actors on character and backstory.”
How did you got about assembling the cast?
“Usually a director is in a room with an actor convincing them to be in their film, that’s the usual balance of how it works. In all six meetings on this film, I found myself in a room with people who were telling me why they wanted to be in the film. It’s such a lovely thing when that happens because it means that you’ve got people who are already there with you. You don’t have to put yourself through hoops trying to convince them about why it’s a good idea. We were all talking the same language from day one and it was glorious.”
“We started with the young people and decided to cast the older people to them. Harry Styles was one of the first to come on board. We hadn’t sent it, but Harry’s agent had got a hold of a script. When those scripts go into the big agencies in America they get circulated everywhere. As a director you’ve got absolutely no idea who is reading your script and sometimes you get strange calls from people who are entirely inappropriate, but that wasn’t the case here. A call came through saying that Harry Styles was looking for his next film project and that he’d read the script and would love a meeting. That’s how it started. Similarly, Emma Corrin had been sent the script and in their journey post taking on the role of Diana on The Crown, they thought that this would be a very good next piece of work for them. The whole thing was relatively straightforward and that’s very unusual because there’s always something that happens during casting where it all goes a bit wrong.”
Harry carries so much of the film with his performance, what impressed you about his approach to the role of Tom?
“It’s a difficult role for any actor because you have to be beautiful and charismatic enough to make people believe that two people have fallen in love with you, but because you’re a policeman and fighting the law—internally fighting law—he has to play his cards so close to his chest that he has to become almost monosyllabic. Tom is somebody who gives nothing away at all and so he becomes almost difficult to read. Those things sit slightly at odds with each other because normally in life when you meet somebody who’s fantastically charismatic and beautiful they’ve got a personality that is in step with that, but Tom is two different people in that respect. Harry understood all that when we first met and he knew that was the challenge of the role; somehow to be there for Patrick and Marion to respond to as a thing that they’re both drawn to, but to also give both of them very little emotionally, and that’s hard. Harry understood that if that balance can be achieved, then you start to get to the heart of Tom Burgess. That was something that he knew from day one and worked hardest at trying to make happen.”
The sex scenes in the film are really beautifully done. The intimate scenes between Tom and Patrick are obviously quite different to those between Tom and Marion. What was your approach to using those sequences narratively and working with the actors?
“Well, you’ve just said the most important thing, which for me was to make all the intimacy scenes like a scene in a book, actually focused on the narrative. Quite often in film you get scene scene scene, sex scene, scene scene scene. Somehow it’s just thrown in like, ‘this is when they have sex and now let’s go back to the story’. I wanted our sex scenes to be story scenes like the other scenes all around them, so that you get to know about the real difficulty and heartache around Marion and Tom navigating their way physically into each other’s lives. Then you get to see the complete abandonment and freedom that Tom and Patrick experience when they meet and start to physicalize their relationship.”
“The five of us—the three actors, myself, and a wonderful intimacy coordinator, Ben Wright—all talked about how we could achieve those two opposites. I also wanted to explain to them what I wanted the intimacy in the film to be like from a visual point of view, so I recommended a few important films that had made an impact on me through intimacy. We also talked about the sculptural nature of how I wanted some of it to look as well as the choreographic nature of how I’d like it to be. They all bought into it and they knew what I was after. Very early on I made a promise to them and said, ‘Listen, we’ve all got to trust each other on this and so I want you to know that whatever we shoot, I will show you. You’re not going to come along to a premiere and see it for the first time. I want us all to be on the same page. But I am going to ask that we shoot quite a lot of different things so that in the edit I can get an extended intimacy scene between Tom and Patrick, where you can see a real exploration of what was for Tom probably being with a man for the very first time.”
“I wanted to see what Tom was feeling and exploring in that moment when he realizes that he feels freer with Patrick than he ever does with Marion. I wanted to explore what that looked and felt like and how much we could tell that story through intimacy. I wanted to take the intimacy and for it to play a role. I wanted there to be different kinds of intimacy between the two men, and there are three or four different acts, but I wanted the central scene to be something that was tender, beautiful, but also telling a story about somebody experiencing something for the first time and how open and free it felt. I wanted to show on screen what it looks like when somebody feels free in an intimate scenario, particularly in a society that categorically said, ‘what you are doing here is against the law, and you shouldn’t be free to do it’. Those two things contradict each other slightly and I wanted to show that contradiction within the framework of the film and then in the bedroom, where these things clearly happened in the 1950s but they weren’t supposed to.”
What were the films that you asked the cast to watch?
“It’s not a gay themed film, but there’s a very beautiful film by Alain Resnais called Hiroshima Mon Amour. The opening sequence is a couple on a bed and the way that their hands navigate their backs and their flesh generally is like the most extraordinary piece of sculpture. That’s very exciting to me just in the way it looks. It’s like a painting come to life. So I asked them to watch that as well as the extended intimacy scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Unlike in our film, that scene is intercut with another sequence. It goes on and on, with these two people in bed, and it tells you what you can achieve by keeping a camera on an intimacy scene as opposed to fading to something else or moving away.”
‘The other big influence for me generally was Joseph Losey’s film from 1963, The Servant, which I think is a work of absolute brilliance. In that film there is this incredible convex mirror that sits over the mantelpiece and sees everything that James Fox and Dirk Bogarde do, all the interaction between them. As a gentle, affectionate homage to that film, I asked for a convex mirror to be put in the hallway of Patrick’s apartment. So when the two men kiss for the first time, rather than shooting in the normal way you might shoot it, I wanted to shoot it through the reflection of the convex mirror because it is a kind of voyeur in the hallway, like us, we’re watching it in a slightly voyeuristic way and so is the mirror. So that was also a film that I pushed the cast towards. Those three films have been huge influences on me and I wanted to make sure that the cast knew the kind of language that I was talking about.”
You also included some personal touches in Patrick’s apartment I believe, including photographs and artwork.
“My aunt was an artist in the early 1930s and so I thought, well, this is the 1950s and Patrick loves art, so he’d probably buy some stuff from the 30s. So I put one of her works up. I also found a picture of my own parents in the 1950s at a fancy dress party. They would have been around the same age as Patrick in the 1950s, they were all in their twenties together. So I thought they could be two friends of his at a party and put that picture on Patrick’s mantelpiece. Then I included a picture of my own partner. He sits on Patrick’s desk in a photograph. Which is a bit grim actually, now that I think about it, because we learn halfway through the film that Patrick’s boyfriend was beaten to death. But it’s there as a thing of affection for Patrick as somebody he loved and it was important to me that my own partner was somewhere in this film.”
A final question for you, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“Well, I’m going to answer it honestly, but you’re going to accuse me of shameless self-promotion! My next project, which I’m currently in rehearsals for, is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It is one of the greatest novels ever written on gender identity and I’m lucky enough after all these years of knowing it, reading the book and seeing it through Sally Potter’s movie, to finally be getting to do a stage adaptation of it with Emma Corrin as Orlando in the West End. So you’ve asked me a question about my favourite LGBTQ+ culture and I can promote it. It’s too perfect for words. It’s one of my favourite books that helps people understand gender politics. It’s an amazing piece, written in 1928, so nearly 100 years ahead of its time. I’d recommend it to anybody who hasn’t come across it.”
When did you first read it?
“It was at school actually. We had the most inspiring English teacher who suggested that we should all ‘look beyond the curriculum’, as I can remember him saying. He pointed me in the direction of Virginia Woolf and that’s how I came across Orlando. Maybe he knew something about me that I didn’t know at the time.”
By James Kleinmann
My Policeman directed by Michael Grandage opens in theaters on Friday, October 21st 2022 and globally on Prime Video starting Friday, November 4th 2022. Orlando runs at London’s Garrick Theatre from November 26th 2022 until February 25th 2023.