The Almeida Theatre’s Artistic Director Rupert Goold discusses his new film Judy, and the differences between directing for film and theatre.
When Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) has to leave her children behind in LA with their father, so she can make enough money in London to support them, she starts by playing a game. She tells her children she’ll move into the wardrobe in the father’s house, and climbs inside. Director Rupert Goold places us in the closet with Judy, taking a breath, making sure she can keep up the charade for her children, so they don’t see her break. Her children can be heard giggling outside. It’s a reminder that Judy was the consummate performer, whether on stage or as a mother. And it’s a great example of how Goold finds types of backstages and stages within the film to play with Judy’s relationship to performance.
And yet the film is often about how much Judy The Legendary Performer is something other people constructed, while Judy Garland is a regular woman with regular concerns: bills to pay, children to feed, and a need for companionship. Zellweger’s performance toys with this dichotomy, too: at times, she mimics Garland’s mannerisms and movements, and yet it’s a performance rooted in psychology rather than mimicry. We, as an audience, are aware that Zellweger The Actress is playing Garland the Performer, and yet, so much of the power of her performance is not in the echoes of Garland, but in how much Zellweger embodies a smart, damaged, and funny three-dimensional woman — who happens to be Garland.
Adapted for the screen by Tom Edge, from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, Judy is not a conventional biopic. Instead, it invites us into a few months late in Garland’s life, a difficult and unhappy time, and weaves in flashbacks to the beginning of her career to help us understand how the business traumatized her when she was young. It’s also the perfect material for Goold, whose background in theatre makes him uniquely capable of depicting stage performances on screen and keeping meta-narratives on the brain.
Much of Goold’s screen career has been devoted to adapting plays for the screen. For the small screen, he adapted his RSC stage production of Macbeth (2010) for a kind of filmed theatre movie, brilliantly brought Richard II (2012) to television audiences with Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear, and gave us Mike Bartlett’s groundbreaking King Charles III as a pared down film. Though Judy is not his first foray into the big screen — that honour belonged to True Story (2015), a misfire that mostly remained under the radar — it is certainly his most successful and highest profile. Already a legend of the stage in the U.K., Goold runs the Almeida Theatre, which mounted the Richard III starring Ralph Fiennes that we loved so much.
Back at the Toronto International Film Festival, I talked to Goold about his relationship with film and theatre, the differences between the two media, what film offers that theatre can’t, and how this all applied to his approach to Judy.
Seventh Row (7R): Judy is an inherently metatheatrical story. That’s something we see on stage all the time, but not necessarily on film. There’s the constant question of Judy The Performer vs. Judy The Woman: when is she performing, on and off stage? How did you think about exploring that on film?
Rupert Goold: I thought about it a lot in the flashbacks where each environment you think might be real turns out to be artificial. It has that Pirandellian kind of quality. The journey on the dramaturgy was as much about trying to make a film that was authentic to Judy. It was trying to capture a real woman with real, practical problems rather than just a series of masks.
I stole my favourite line in the film from an account of [Laurence] Olivier. He gave this performance of Othello that was famously brilliant one night, and I think Ralph Richardson was the one to come backstage, and say, “Hello darling! How did you manage it?” Olivier sat there stunned and said, “What if I can’t do it again?” We used that line for Judy after that first performance.
The idea that genius can’t understand its own complexity, that that’s part of its mystery and its burden, is something I was interested in.
7R: The film Judy started as a play. You’ve adapted plays for the screen before with Richard II. I imagine there are huge differences but perhaps similarities, too, between adapting Shakespeare and adapting a modern play about a famous person?
Rupert Goold: I deliberately didn’t see the play. I didn’t read it either. I tried to just work off the screenplay. I thought it would be unhelpful and colour my viewpoint too much.
It’s not to say that theatre is not a medium of subtext — of course it is! There’s Chekhov. But the Shaviered tradition of theatre, the classical tradition, where rhetoric and argument is carried through dialogue and speechmaking, is much less a screen thing, which is all about subtext and what is not said.
I made a movie of Macbeth, which I was pleased with and proud of. But when I did Richard II, I was like, “Let’s cut all of this!” Let’s keep as little of the text as possible to allow the actors to convey the hinterlands of what’s on set. That’s a slightly trite thing to say. But that is a big difference. You’re looking for the context.
You come out of scenes much more quickly [on screen] than you do on stage. Your scene structure is less important. I think theatre is measured by the quality of the greatest scenes in an evening. You can have a play like Othello, which is not a great play, but it has incredible, great scenes in it. Whereas, a screenplay needs to be consistent and move with much more consistency than a play does.
There are a whole host of technical differences between how you stage on camera, which is almost literally the polar opposite of how you stage on stage.
7R: In what way is how you stage on camera the polar opposite of how you stage on stage?
Rupert Goold: In theatre, you’re trying to constantly open up the space, subtly and discreetly, so that what you want to be looked at is presented to the audience — for a proscenium theatre, in particular. Whereas on screen, you’re constantly trying to occlude. You’re glimpsing. You feel as if the camera is just capturing and peeking behind things. So your blocking is completely different. It took me a while to work that out.
I’d say the other big difference is that your central relationship on stage is with your designer because the visual world becomes the conceptual world in how you choose to tell the story. Whereas on screen, you central relationship is with your cinematographer, because the camera is effectually doing that job.
You’re directing actors in a very different way on stage and on screen.
7R: How is it different to direct actors for stage and screen?
Rupert Goold: In theatre, you’re trying to build a foundational structure to a performance that is really going to survive eight shows a week over a long period of time. It’s much more based on rhythm and the actor having a clear sense of how a scene develops from the one before.
Of course, a screen actor has to do that, because they’re shooting out of sequence, so they have to do it another way. But basically, I think the screen actor has to give themselves to the director much more and trust the director will toggle that and remind them. Because what a screen actor has to do is be incredibly open to the moment. The director has to be very quick and precise at stimulating little hits of lightning and surprise rather than constructing a sort of edifice. Often, the best moments in screen acting are almost by accident, and you have to jump on those. Whereas, accidents can be tricky in theatre, sometimes.
There are moments in our film where Judy is performing on stage, and the two things collide, and those are returning me to my comfort zone. I know what that’s like.
They’re fascinatingly different. What I find really extraordinary is how there is more transition between the art forms now. The filmmaker Joe Wright’s done some plays recently in London. But probably, your mentality is going to coalesce towards one or the other. Danny Boyle is a great theatre director, and he still is, but he’s basically a film director now. I guess there are people like Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry who are sort of dancing a bit between both media.
In America, it’s much more divided. There used to be, in the era of Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, much more transition. But now, perhaps it’s to do with New York and LA being different centres, not many stage directors seem to be doing screen, and vice versa. Whereas in London, there’s maybe a little bit more cross-pollination.
7R: Obviously, you have your roots in the theatre. But what do you like about film that you can’t get in theatre?
Rupert Goold: I love the fact that every day you’ve made something. You can see the ingredients in your shopping basket at the end of each day. You may not be happy with them, but you’ve got them. Whereas you can have a day in theatre, and it can be brilliant, but then you come back the next week, and it’s gone. Or vice versa.
I love the editing process. For a director, it’s extraordinary. It’s just you and the editor: it’s pure creativity. In theatre, you’re never not with your acting company. If you cut a scene in a play, that can be a complicated and emotional experience. You have to manage a whole set of technical problems that that will cause for that night, but also a whole set of emotional problems [are created for] the actors who’ve now lost that scene. In film, you can just go, “Let’s try it without that.” It’s very simple.
Theatre has its other benefits. Theatre has that extraordinary sense of it opening. And you sit there with an audience, and when it’s on, it’s on. With screen, I’ve done stuff on TV that’s played to millions of people, but you don’t really feel them. Although with social media, it’s some sort of gateway.
7R: It’s not the same thing as having that energy in the room.
Rupert Goold: It is kind of extraordinary though when you see something broadcast, and you’re following it on Twitter, and you see all the responses coming in. You don’t even get that in theatre. In theatre, you can tell [from the energy in the room].
There are many reasons why film school is a great thing, and it’s presumptuous to think that theatre directors can do screen. I remember Sam Mendes said this to me: the one thing theatre does teach you, is you spend many, many hours in the room with the audience. Film directors don’t have that experience with the whole preview process. You know about tension, sense of humour and gags, just instinctively, because you know when a room is paying attention and when it’s not.
7R: Does that mean you like to do test screenings?
Rupert Goold: Test screenings are interesting. But even when you’re editing, I think you’re aware of how it might hold. We did a couple of test screenings on Judy, and we had lots with friends and family. They were instructive in places. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work in both.
7R: Can you tell me more about the editing process on the film Judy?
Rupert Goold: The Shakespearean model is character is defined in action. You don’t know about King Lear or his daughters; something happens, and it goes from there. We live in a slightly different storytelling culture now. You have to set the character up a bit. There are some great films that just kick off, and you follow the character. But the balance of setting up who Judy was and who she is now in her life, and then getting going with she’s got to go to London, that was a tricky one. We needed a whole lot of story beats, or character beats, to come out. But also, we needed to get on with the story.
The other thing about making a film as opposed to a not-for-profit play is, of course your theatrical producers will have some relationship [with what goes into the final product]. I’m lucky enough to run the [Almeida] theatre, so I listen to people, but no one tells me what to do. But when you make a movie, there are many of you collaborating. People are much more financially invested, and you have to acknowledge that.
The question of how much suffering, for example, we could take or wanted [in Judy]. Like, the trolley montage: that was in and out because it’s really just a “and then some time passed.” We shot it in some much more really cool, surreal ways, as well. And then, I was like, “I think it’s a bit long. I think we should just lose it.” The producers were like, “No, it’s really fun!” And I was like, “yeah, but it’s not telling us story.” I don’t regret it. I love that it’s in. That’s a healthy dialogue. But it speaks to what the overall tone of the piece should be.
I think my favourite 20 minutes of the film is the section between her first performance and when Mickey comes back, when she is really lonely. And you see that in her childhood, and in the dressing rooms, her interactions with Rosalyn, and when she goes back to the boys’ flat. I found that incredibly moving. But I also recognize it’s quite interior. Although I may be really interested in loneliness, thematically, not everybody is.
7R: I imagine one of the exciting things about editing a film is you really get to choose where people are looking. Of course, you can direct our eyes on stage with blocking and lighting, but you have more control here. What was that process like?
Rupert Goold: Above all, you can really, really dig into performance. I knew what I was after in each scene. Often, Renée would do things, and it would surprise me, and I would be game. But I would keep going on the takes until I got what I thought I was after, and then we’d see if there was anything else there.
Sometimes, you’re aware on the day that that five seconds are magical, but the next five seconds on that take weren’t. The mosaic is fantastic in editing. On stage, sometimes you have a great scene, and the next scene is not so good. And you go, “Well, that’s the night you saw it on.”
The control freak in you can go that thing I think is brilliant is what you’re going to see every time you see this movie. But on stage, you can’t guarantee the repetition.
I love editing for performance. Understanding how tiny, tiny details physically can be so luminous is a really great thing to be able to shape.
7R: What are your thoughts on rehearsals for film and for Judy?
Rupert Goold: Controversially, I’m not a massive fan of them. It’s weird, that. I know a lot of theatre directors who do screen really love them.
We did rehearse a little bit. I think working with your actors on the text, table work, is really valuable. Although Renee and I did a lot of that, it was two or three weeks before shooting.
But I think you’re trying to capture the liveness on camera. So the more you go over it… Of course, actors will say, “That’s fine. I’ll turn it on when you call ‘action.’”
For staging in the space, opportunities arise. The light falls in a different way. The actors in the space you’re working in naturally move a certain way. In general, the actors’ intuitive staging is probably worth responding to. It might not be right, but the movement will come from some authentic motivation.
I think anything that dilutes the creativity of the shooting section, so when you turn over to cut the final take on that sequence, is a problem. Rehearsals can do it. Whereas, in theatre, of course, it’s essential.
7R: Is that because there are things that are less controllable in film?
Rupert Goold: Your rehearsal is your editing process in theatre. It’s how you’re constructing the rhythm. But you don’t need to construct a rhythm on film because the edit will do that. You’re just trying to maximize what the actor is going to offer in that moment.
Sometimes, you may need to rehearse quite a bit because the actor may be worrying too much about when to pick up the receiver [picks up phone receiver on table, to illustrate], and therefore you need to rehearse. Or equally, they may need to understand their text better. But my experience is less is more when directing on camera.
The more you talk, the more there is to think about, the more third eye you see in the actor, going like, “Oh, he gave me that note.” Nine times out of ten, when you give a note, the actor will play the note. Often when you give a note, you’re saying, “Everything you’re doing plus the note. Not just the note.” So you have to find a different vocabulary for that.
In theatre, you can go, “Well, you were playing the note there, weren’t you, but we know where we’re heading.” Next time we come back to it, it’ll happen. But you don’t get that opportunity on camera. You’re weaving it in, in theatre, whereas you just have to get the moment on camera.