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Why Matthew Warchus Returned to Film After 15 Years for Surprise Globe Nominee ‘Pride’

Why Matthew Warchus Returned to Film to Direct Surprise Golden Globe Nominee 'Pride'

This crowdpleasing winner of the Queer Palm at Cannes–where it closed the Directors’ Fortnight–centers on the true UK story of a group of eager, streetwise, LGBT youngsters who in 1984 rallied to support the underserved National Union of Mineworkers, taking their little-campaign-that-could (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) from the grassroots level in a small Welsh village to national fame.

Warchus’ first film in 15 years after 1998’s commercially unsuccessful “Simpatico” boasts an impressive glut of rising stars including Joseph Gilgun, Jessie Cave, Freddie Fox, Liz White, Andrew Scott, Russell Tovey and, of course, adorable 22-year-old George MacKay who plays young Joe, the film’s in-the-closet, fish-out-of-water hero who lives outside London and is a stranger in this strange land of the city. Across-the-pond regulars include Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton, and a scene-stealing Dominic West as a tortured but life-loving artist living with HIV.

Stephen Beresford’s sensitive script explodes with idiosyncratic characters going through very specific situations, and while it is cheery and warm it is never trite or sentimental. Director Warchus borrows from his background as a stage director to give the film a sprawling cinematic energy. And together they deftly evade the cliches and pratfalls of so many gay human rights stories: the AIDS issue is handled subtly, and the tissue-ridden hysterics of the “coming out” scene are altogether avoided. Its closest companion may be Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Oscar winner “Milk,” which made a significant moment in LGBT history accessible and relatable to everyone.

I spoke with director Matthew Warchus on the phone during the Toronto Film Festival, where “Pride” received a standing ovation. Next summer, he takes over London’s Old Vic, currently under the stewardship of Kevin Spacey.

Ryan Lattanzio: “Pride” is your first film in 15 years. What drew you out of silence and into directing this film? 

Matthew Warchus: 
I was sent the script which was extremely good, and it made me laugh out loud, and it made me cry. It felt important, smart, honest. It was not precious about the subject. It didn’t have an agenda and it seemed like a project capable of reaching people who think they’re not interested in any of this. Along with being really very openhearted, it’s really interested in human interactions more than it is issues, or as much as it is political issues. It’s rare to combine those things, where you have something to say that’s also entertaining and populist.

So many films that focus on gay experience are dark, and depressing, and while there are real issues in “Pride,” it’s quite uplifting, and moving.

When I discovered the story was true, my feelings just deepened. It was an incredible, remarkable bonus. I grew up in a village in the middle of nowhere in the North of England surrounded by coal mining. I recognized all of that, and when I moved to the city, I was a kid from the country, I felt like an outsider plunged into this colorful world of the theater, which I work in. I felt I was well-positioned to see both communities from an outside point of view and to bring the two of them together.

As an outsider, did you feel any kinship with Joe, who is himself an outsider thrust into this, as you said, colorful world?

Totally. I’m a straight man but I recognize his experience of coming from outside of London and being overwhelmed, and finding his own identity.

You are predominantly a stage director. How did theater elements translate to filmmaking?

Stephen Beresford, the writer, has a theater background as well. He was an actor, and has written plays, wrote the film with such a large group of characters. It’s more akin to how a stage piece might work rather than a film. It’s rare to see so many people in a film, but it was relatively straightforward for me. It was technically challenging, but I’m at home when I’m directing actors. Of course, as a theater director, what I really wanted was for people to watch the film and think, “You can’t tell that was directed by a theater director.” But I am aware that it does have a big musical number, a dance number, these large scenes, so in some sense it’s rather like a musical in its structure and how it works. 

What’s different about filmmaking vs. theater-directing?

In film, the text is not always sacrosanct whereas in theater, the text is king. We rehearsed two weeks beforehand and I said, everybody has to be word-perfect. I may not have time to do more than one or two takes. Don’t wait for your closeup. Make sure you are full-on acting in all takes. The dialogue is very quick fire. It’s important nobody improvises otherwise you can’t play a scene together unless you trust the people around you. It had to abide by some of the rules of theater-acting.

Technically speaking, how did you bring the script to cinematic life?

People say my stage work is very cinematic. I have a very musical sensibility, which helps with rhythm, structure, contrast, variation, pace and dynamics, and you need all that in editing. So it’s not a big reach for me to tell stories on film. It’s a different set of toys to play with. But it’s all storytelling. The technical aspects of storytelling are all means to tell a story, and to generate emotion using mathematics and mechanics, in theater as well. The thing that’s most different is stamina. You have to go for such a long time in film. Theater is hard work but over a shorter period of time.

How did you assemble the cast? Everyone is just perfect.

It’s an incredibly diverse group of actors who all got the parts for very individual reasons. I wanted to put together a team of people who would contrast each other and bring authenticity. It was a fun search because I knew the kind of acting I wanted, or didn’t want. It’s not a job you can take for career reasons because nobody gets to be better than anybody else. There’s no room for ego. The cast just wanted to tell this story. They all have this ability to be funny in a natural, unforced way and to play, in a real and understated way, and to have the color each character needs in order to differentiate. You can’t expect an audience to remember that many names. So there has to be something about each actor that they remember, which is what guided me.

I not only sensed the passion of the ensemble, but a specificity of the characters, which is often lost in an ensemble.

During the two-week rehearsal, Stephen and I spent an hour with every actor on their own dedicated to deepening the reality of that character for each actor. Some of them have real-life counterparts they were able to go and meet; actors without real-life counterparts wanted their characters to feel as real, and no less deep, than the real people. Everybody wanted to honor the reality of the story.

Is Joe based on a real person? He is the fulcrum of sympathy for the whole movie.

Joe is an invented character based on a friend of the writer’s. He was added, smartly, as a way of bringing in the audience members who stood apart from the story.

You manage to elide the messy cliches of the “coming out” scene. And the way the film obliquely touches on HIV/AIDS, without any melodrama, is also really smart. 

We thought so many of these issues, plus also the Miners’ strike, have been dealt with in other stories specifically dedicated to those issues and situations. It’s hard to avoid cliche. We were very keen to just do the minimum necessary to keep those story beats alive and included. The story takes place in the course of a year, and one of the ways so many character stories can exist over that time period is by very judicious treatment, not in a light way, but in an economic way. I think that gives it a freshness: it’s not always focused on the obvious, conventional way of telling certain events.

I appreciated your refusal to conform to cliche. Having to see the same territory treaded again and again gets tiresome. 

The screenwriter liked that only once we see a gay couple in bed together in this movie. The film is not about those conventional relationships you normally get in a story of this kind. A gay friend of mine came out and said, “It’s so nice to see gay people portrayed as people.” This film is a meeting place for people of all backgrounds, ages, sexualities, so the broader ideas of tolerance and compassion are more important than what separates and divides us.

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