As consumers of movies, Filipinos aren’t really trained to look at directors as brands, as trademarks assuring the quality of the product they are about to see. But even if we did, we’d still probably be confused by Bill Condon. All we would know for sure is that, whatever we were about to see, it’s probably going to be good.
A native of New York City, Condon, 63, graduated from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy. He soon hightailed it to Los Angeles, where he planned to enroll in UCLA’s film school. Instead, he found work with producer-director Michael Laughlin, writing early-‘80s horror-thrillers Strange Behavior and Strange Invaders, before branching out into directing in the ‘90s with titles such as Murder 101, Dead in the Water and Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. But just as Condon seemed destined to eke out a living in B-grade thrillers, he wrote and directed 1998’s Gods and Monsters, a sensitive portrait of the final days of Frankenstein director James Whale starring Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser, for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
After such a splashy calling card, Condon continued to defy expectations. He followed up his Oscar win for Gods and Monsters with another Oscar nomination, but this time for writing the screenplay for the big-screen adaptation of Chicago (2002). Condon has sustained a love affair with the modern-day musical, going on to direct Dreamgirls (2006) and the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017), co-writing The Greatest Showman (2017), and even directing the Broadway revival of Side Show in 2014. But in between he has hopscotched from musicals to biographical dramas about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (2004’s Kinsey) and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (2013’s The Fifth Estate), to young-adult melodramas (the last two installments of the Twilight saga), and even small, personal films such as 2015’s Mr. Holmes.
What hasn’t changed is the consistent rate of Condon’s output. During a 2004 Washington Post Q&A on screenwriting, he said, “I find that successes have one thing in common and that is that they simply never stop writing.” It’s advice he has adhered to in his filmography: He has released films at an almost steady clip every two years, and after 2017’s box-office behemoth Beauty and the Beast, he is back this year with The Good Liar, a drama which, as he says, “has a whole Hitchcock mold to it.” Adapted from the 2015 novel by Nicholas Searle—which The Guardian hailed as a “fantastically assured debut”—The Good Liar follows professional grifter Roy Courtnay (frequent collaborator Ian McKellen) as he angles for a final payday: conning affluent widow Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren).
ANCX got to talk with director Bill Condon over the phone on an unseasonably muggy morning a week ago to talk about his latest film and to look back over a career that has made a specialty of making pop prestigious, and making the prestigious pop.
ANCX: The first obvious question is, what attracted you to The Good Liar?
Bill Condon: There is a scene deep into the novel two-thirds of the way through, a scene with a deep twist in it and I didn’t see it coming. It was thrilling, and [I thought] I’d love to give that to an audience. Just something where I immediately felt, Ooh, that’s a scene I would love to do. And it really grew out of that. But there were also great parts for actors, a great story. A suspenseful, mysterious story with lots of twists… all the stuff that makes for a great movie.
Apart from Ian McKellen, you also have Helen Mirren playing lead. What was it like having titans like them on the set? What was their dynamic like?
First of all, both of them are some of the most down-to-earth people. Helen is just, like, somebody you can just hang out with. It’s not about her stature as an actress. She just pitches in, you know, if you’re running out of time and there’s still a job to do. She’s incredible. And Ian is the same way. They are both so confident, they are both brilliant in what they do and who they are. And the dynamic between them… they’ve worked together onstage and I think had a very good time. But I think having come back to each other after 15 years and making their first movie together, there was something that had really grown between them, and they grew closer after making this film. And they really were there for each other.
If I’m not mistaken, The Good Liar is your fourth collaboration with Sir Ian McKellen [after Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes and Beauty and the Beast]. Apart from the fact that he is one of the greatest actors the UK has ever produced, what is it about working with him that is so appealing?
There were scenes in this movie where there’s suddenly a hush over the crew, and you finish and people applaud and you think, Where did that come from? It just astonishes you, what he did and what he was able to expose of himself. The thrill of that, in addition to everything else: having become a close friend for over 20 years, and just having such incredible spirit and joy about him. It’s just that shock of discovery every time with him, that makes you just hungry to do it all over again.
Let’s move on to big-picture questions about your career. You’ve also had an affinity for musicals. Why are you so attracted to the genre?
I’m attracted to classic Hollywood genres in general. This has a whole Hitchcock mold to it, but I’ve done romantic melodramas and biopics too. The thing is with musicals, when they work, they bring emotion to a fever pitch that I find so exciting. For example, I just saw Rocketman, and there were moments in that movie that were so thrilling that you could only get when you combine great performances with design and incredible music. I just finished writing another movie musical with Stephen Schwartz [the composer of Pippin, Godspell and Wicked] that I am hoping we can make soon. It is one of the richest forms, and it is always in danger of becoming obsolete. And I have to say, it’s been wonderful in this new century to see that it has gone through a revival with Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, and it has endured for people. Now, it’s about what gets you out of the house. When you sit in a theater and you share that musical feeling with everybody and you go, Wow, I’m glad I’m not sitting at home watching this.
Is it too much to ask for hints of the next musical you’re working on?
It’s a Christmas musical. It’s a twist, a new way of looking at A Christmas Carol. It’s sort of a prequel-sequel told through the eyes of Jacob Marley. Obviously Scrooge will be in there, but it’s twisting A Christmas Carol and coming at it from a new angle.
You’ve worked with, on the one hand, Shakespeare-trained actors like Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, and on the other end of the spectrum, pop-music stars like Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. Is there a difference in approach in directing them?
It’s all the same. Beyoncé is a serious actor. Actors have different approaches, but Beyoncé’s approach is actually very close to Ian McKellen’s, which is a lot of thought and talk and work and thinking deep, you know. It’s remarkable: I find that the good actors, no matter what discipline they’re from, how old they are, how much experience they have, there’s always something interesting about them. It’s about thinking deep.
This is a very specific question because you directed The Fifth Estate. Julian Assange was recently arrested in London, and the U.S. is currently building a case for extradition. Do you see any implications for press freedom in his case?
Yeah, it’s scary. I think it’s complicated with him because the point of The Fifth Estate is that there was a real idealism to what he set out to do. But in practice it often gets real muddy, and his role in the [2016 U.S.] elections is nothing to be proud of. It felt like a betrayal of what he stands for. However, he is being extradited not for that, so yeah, I think it could be dangerous. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it at the end of the day, because of his work as a journalist which, I suspect, the UK will also protect.
You’ve had such an eclectic, disparate body of work. Is there a thread connecting the films that you’ve done?
I think it’s not for me to say, and it surprises me that people get so confused by them. It all goes back to the thing I talked about, which are the genres that I loved growing up, and I think the thematic connection…
How would you connect Kinsey to Dreamgirls?
That is quite clear to me. Kinsey was a film about a complete outsider, and then he changed the world because he looked at an essential question about humanity in a different way. And the characters in Dreamgirls, they were revolutionaries. They weren’t allowed into mainstream culture, so they decided to change mainstream culture. The role of the outsider in society is a valuable role, because they redefine what we think is normal and usual and accepted. That is the kind of story I like to tell over and over again.