INTERVIEW: Paul Morrison, the Therapist-Director of "Solomon and Gaenor"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 8.25.00) -- "Solomon and Gaenor" is writer-director-psychotherapist Paul Morrison's heartbreaking narrative feature film debut -- and was also nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year. Not bad for a guy used to doing half-hour art dramas and full-length documentaries for the UK's Channel Four. A Romeo-and-Juliet tale of forbidden love, the film stars rising actor Ioan Gruffudd ("Horatio Hornblower," "102 Dalmations") and pretty young newcomer Nia Roberts as two lovers from very different sides of the tracks in early 20th Century Wales: Gruffudd plays Solomon, a closeted Orthodox Jew, while Roberts's Gaenor is a devout chapel-goer. Filmed in both Yiddish and Welsh, the movie depicts a world (and a juxtaposition) never before seen on screen.
Morrison first discovered the surprising presence of a Jewish community in the Welsh Valleys while working on a documentary series about British Jewish identity called "A Sense of Belonging." Morrison received initial funding from Welsh Channel Four and with the help of his producer, Cheryl Crown, received support from the Welsh Arts Council, followed by Channel Four and the English film lottery -- a true to form story of British film financing. Says Morrison, "Making it was hard, but nothing like as hard as waiting for the money."
In between meetings for his next project in New York, Morrison spoke with indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman about the Oscar nom, the move from docs to the dramatic, and his background as a psychotherapist.
indieWIRE: What was it like being nominated for an Oscar for your first dramatic feature film?
Paul Morrison: It was a dream. It was lovely to have that recognition. We had taken it to some festivals in Europe and around the world, so it was the end of a process, really, because we had won some prizes, already. I had known that the film could touch an audience. It did feel important; it does mean a lot, because hopefully it will help get the next movie off the ground.
iW: When did Sony Classics pick up the film. Were they on board early?
Morrison: Well, in fact, we were well down the road with another company. It was picked up after the Academy Nomination screening. Afterwards, several people independently called the Sony Classics people and said, "Have you seen this film?" And so we pulled out of the other deal and went with Sony Classics, because they have a very good reputation with this kind of film.
iW: So you have this career of mostly documentary work; what was the impetus to go and make this very dramatic, emotional story?
Morrison: A lot of my documentaries are built around people; I tended to tell human stories. So that kind of emotional core is something that's been in my work, anyway. I had a very good run; Channel 4 was fantastic. I made documentaries and series about a lot of subjects that I really cared about, felt passionate about and then two things happened: one, I felt that I had done everything I wanted to do in documentary; and two, I got tired of the form, which is looking for stories in reality. I became more interested in making the stories. Moving over wasn't easy. It was a long process. There's a sort of mistrust of documentary directors.
iW: Can you talk about some of the roadblocks you faced as a doc-maker?
Morrison: There's the idea that documentary filmmakers don't know how to work with actors. But when you've made people-centered documentaries and you've been looking to get performances out of real people, actors are easy, because they're actually working with you, with a lot of experience and training. Another thing was people said that your best chance to do your own movie is write it yourself. And that was a long process, to learn how to write a screenplay. You realize that writing a screenplay is a very specific skill. "Solomon and Gaenor" is maybe my fourth screenplay. I wrote a treatment first, and we got money to write the screenplay on the basis of the treatment. And writing the treatment is the hard bit, because that's the story.
iW: What about your background as a psychotherapist; did that allay any fears that you weren't going to understand actors?
Morrison: I don't think I sold it hard enough, probably. Mostly, I think it just brings a nice balance to my life. The film world is so crazy; [psychotherapy] brings me down to earth. It's also about, in a good movie, you're lead deeper and deeper into your characters. The layers drop off them and sometimes you need surprises, unexpected things about your character, and that's not so different from the process of psychotherapy. I like to go deeper, and that I'm not afraid to touch the extremes of emotion. And also, stories, you get to hear a lot of amazing stories, both of human suffering, but also human courage and heroism. There's often no greater hero or heroine than that person sitting opposite you in the chair. You can't imagine.
iW: Did the idea for the film come out of research?
Morrison: I was researching for a documentary about Jewish identity in Britain a long time ago and I came across an exhibition of the synagogues of South Wales. And although I'm Jewish, I had no idea there were Jews in Wales, in the valleys. And I got curious about it and that brought the opening image of the film, of that black-coated, bearded Jew striding over the mountains and through the slag heaps. And from that, I discovered the story of the riots and the juxtaposition of these two cultures felt very powerful and the love story came from somewhere in me.
iW: You have these two very different languages in it; how did that work?
Morrison: I wrote it all in English and other people translated it for me. But I worked very closely with them, so that hopefully the nuances in the English weren't getting lost.
iW: It must have been a delight to hear those languages side by side?
Morrison: It was fantastic, especially the Yiddish, because the actors had to work really hard to conquer the Yiddish. That felt like an important act of reclamation for me, because Yiddish was lost in Britain in the space of one or two generations.
iW: Was casting Ioan Gruffudd a coup for the production?
Morrison: At the time, he wasn't as big as he is now. It was very satisfying to cast him, and we knew he was going to grow in status. But there wasn't any Welsh actor as good-looking, as good an actor, as believably Jewish and Welsh-speaking.
iW: So I take it you want to continue making narrative films?
Morrison: I'm desperate to get on with the next one. I have had some projects that I've been developing, and I've been doing meetings with my agent in Los Angeles, so I don't know which is going to run. But I have a project that I want to do which is a ghost story, an American story, which is about the story of a marriage. But it's also about loss and resurrection.