Glasgow, Scotland — Scottish director Paul McGuigan was filming a BBC documentary about heroin addicts in Newcastle, England, when Hollywood called asking if he would be interested in directing "Wicker Park," a remake of French director Gilles Mimouni's romantic mystery "L'Appartement." Starring Josh Hartnett, Diane Kruger and Rose Byrne, it opens Friday.
"One minute you're watching a black-and-white TV in a crack house, and the next thing you know you're sitting in the Chateau Marmont sipping margaritas with Josh Hartnett," says the 40-year-old Scottish director over coffee on a rainy February night, in a cafe a few minutes from his house (which once belonged to Johnnie Walker.
Little known outside the United States, McGuigan had just finished "The Reckoning," an adaptation of Barry Unsworth's novel "Morality Play," about a troupe of traveling medieval actors, which was released this spring. His 2000 film, "Gangster #1," is a riveting, visually stunning portrait of a young London gangster played by Paul Bettany -- the kind of signature work that gets a director noticed.
McGuigan has a prescient instinct for up-and-coming actors -- he cast Bettany before he became known in "A Beautiful Mind" and gave German model turned actress Kruger, who went on to play Helen in "Troy," her first English-language role. But "Wicker Park" came with Hartnett attached.
Nevertheless, he loved the script, about the true loves and obsessions of four characters in Chicago, and agreed to get on the next plane to meet with Hartnett.
But not before running across the street to Tower Records to pick up some CDs.
"You have to have a rhythm for something, a feel for it, and the way I do that is through music," says the dark-haired, leather-jacketed, straight-talking McGuigan, who also had a spell directing music videos. "I said to him, 'Look, let's not bother talking so much about the script, let's just drink a bit more and just have a laugh.' " They listened to Coldplay, the White Stripes and Rod Stewart. McGuigan told Hartnett: " 'If this feels like the kind of rhythm of the movie to you as well, then you know we're on the same page.' And of the 10 songs I picked, four of them are in the movie."
McGuigan says that most of the propositions he gets tend to be dark, revenge-killer scripts, not Hollywood date movies. " 'Wicker Park's' a love story. It's the most commercial film I've ever made," he continues. "You'd never think that the guy who made 'Gangster' could make a PG-13." But he says he realized when he read the script that it wasn't your average dumb Hollywood date movie.
"I was so confused, I hadn't a clue what was going on, and I love films like that," he says. "It's a very complex story. It was just told in a very nonlinear way -- it's very European."
He says that the producers were interested in him precisely because he wasn't an obvious choice.
"They thought it was a really interesting idea to bring some new European with a kind of very strong visual sensibility to work with Josh," McGuigan says, "because Josh was looking to do something with more of an independent feel to it rather than the big Hollywood movies he'd kind of done before."
A teller of tales
McGUIGAN, a former photographer and documentary maker, says that in his early years he wanted to become a priest. "I grew up as a Catholic boy in western Scotland, and when I grew up I had a really bad speech impediment and I couldn't really communicate very well," says McGuigan, an enthusiastic talker who is still occasionally tripped up by a pronounced stutter. "I felt it was kind of interesting that the priest was always the one to say things, to tell stories. So I suppose that's the evolution of me becoming a film director. It's just another way of communicating."
McGuigan says he storyboards everything to give himself and the rest of the filmmakers a blueprint, then throws it away and never looks at it again. "I'm really irritating to work with," he says, "because I'm always changing things and seeing something else." He leaves room for the actors to put in their two cents and has twice changed the ending of a film in the middle of shooting it. He works with the same director of photography, Peter Sova, on all his films, and the two have developed a shorthand way of communicating and a visual style.
"I hate just cutting to a close-up because now we're getting serious about something," he says. "I like for the actors to make their own close-up, basically for the camera to be moved by the actors, not the actors to be moved by the camera. I did documentaries for years, and you realize that your camera's always slightly a beat behind everything, because you haven't got a clue of what's gonna happen next. It creates a sense of tension and uncertainty, and that's what I like to do on set."