Based on true story, “Still Mine” tells the story of Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) who decides to build a suitable house for his sick wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold). However, things get more increasingly difficult as local city officials and building codes try to prevent Craig from finishing, only for Craig to rebel against a series of stop-work order and continue building the house. I had the opportunity to speak with director-writer Michael McGowan and Cromwell when they were in town as the film made its Southeastern debut at this year’s Miami International Film Festival.
With this movie being based on a true story, how do you first come across the story and what made you want to make a movie out of it?
Michael McGowan: I was working on a script with similar themes. I just read the article and flew out to see Craig Morrison the next day. I was really charmed by him and I proposed to him that I could option the script. It was just as simple as that.
What was it in Michael’s script that compelled you to make this movie?
James Cromwell: He sent me the script. I read the script. I read it quickly, I read it badly. I guessed I liked enough where I said, “Well, make it is going to happen or maybe it’s not.” I gave some him very terrible notes and forgot all about it. He sent me a second draft as I was going someplace else. As I was getting ready to shoot a picture, I was reading the script and I thought, “This is not as good as the first draft.” I realized the original script was wonderful and I am really we got back to it.
There is a great mix of laughs and dramatic moments. As a writer, how easy or difficult was it to make a movie is equally balanced?
McGowan: You never know until the audience sees it. It might be the Irish, but you can laugh at a funeral. It’s nice to try to juxtapose the humor. I really tried to be true to the characters in the world and that what was my motivating idea behind it. You can’t really say, “At the 84th minute, I hope they are going to really croak,” but when you are editing it, you know where you can push people musically to get a good reaction because you are having that same reaction.
How hard was it to make a house out of scratch?
McGowan: It wasn’t hard to do because I didn’t have to build it (laughs), but it was hard for our schedule because we ran on a really tight schedule. We really had a great master carpenter, who also Jamie a lot with his stuff. I am sure it was a lot harder for them then what we realized. It was a lot of work.
With the master carpenter teaching you how to do their job, how was it for you to learn what they were doing for your role?
Cromwell: You mean how to hit the nail in the head instead of your thumb? Usually, I’m the kind of actor where you show me once or twice, I can do it. I don’t do it creatively, but I know how to do the process.
What was the most difficult part about shooting this movie?
McGowan: There are always days where you feel beat up and by the end of it, you ask yourself, “Why am I involved in this stupid profession?”, but we didn’t have anything big. The hardest thing was making sure the caterers showed up for lunch (laughs). We had difficulty with catering where we shot, but you are against in what could have gone wrong. It seemed like everything was working for this film. We shot by the ocean and two weeks before, it was solid wall-to-wall fog and rain. We could not have made that stuff work. As soon as we got there, it was sunny and beautiful. Stuff like that could have happened didn’t. It always seems we had a descent plan for how to execute something that worked out.
Cromwell: The most difficult part about making this movie was that it was my first lead of all the films that I have ever done, which requires a different approach like trying not to give it all away in the first scene. It is a skill, a learned skill and I would love to have another shot at it because I think I could do it better next time.
As this is your first lead role, when you see yourself on screen whether it is this movie or other movies, do you critique yourself to see what you could have done differently?
Cromwell: I prefer to have playback, but sometimes, you can’t have that under most circumstances. First, it is expensive because you need a playback operator and secondly, it threatens a lot of directors. I only watch my performance. I see what is necessary for me so that I can see it right at the moment and I can fix it. That appeals to me a great deal. Once a film is shot, the thing that mostly happens is that I go see all the things I would have fixed in my performance and sometimes, very rarely, I see a moment that surprise me and I go, “Oh, that’s not bad. That was nice.” I learned that because I am a character actor and you have to watch yourself because nobody else is watching. Nobody is concerned with you. When you are doing a leading role, directors really focus on you and they are actually looking and they will tell you what you are doing wrong. It’s easier for them.
You’ve played non-fictional characters like George H.W. Bush in “W,” Prince Phillip in “The Queen” and William Randolph Hearst in “RKO 281.” You have also played fictional characters like Captain Dudley Smith in “L.A. Confidential,” Arthur Hoggett in “Babe” and Dr. Arthur Arden in “American Horror Story: Asylum.” Is the approach different playing a real person than it is a fictional character or is it the same method?
Cromwell: It is absolutely the same. Someone said, “What was it like playing President Bush?”We all have this feeling who this person or that we know who Phillip is. The truth is that we don’t. We know newsreels and know what somebody else has written about them, but we don’t know the person at all. The person is a mystery. What I’m playing is the person so I really get to tell you and show you and communicate to you who I think the real person is and that real person is me. It really isn’t important whether my portrayal of Phillip is identical or not. Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon and it doesn’t look at all like Nixon. He sometimes doesn’t even sounds like Nixon, but he has inherited some similar qualities from Nixon. The most important thing is to play the human being you are creating, which is my job.
“Still Mine” is now playing at MDC’s Tower Theater. Click here for showtimes.