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Paul Morrison and Matthew McNulty

Interview with Paul Morrison and Matthew McNulty

By Joffre Agnes

Touching, sincere and well-acted, Little Ashes, the new film about Dali, Lorca and Bunuel's tempestuous youth, friendship and love was both deeply moving and convincing (our review here). Therefore,  I was extremely excited when our team was asked to interview its crew. I admit it might have raised in me the hope of approaching Robert Pattinson but still, I was not that disappointed when I found out we were going to interview its director Paul Morrison and the actor Matthew McNulty. And with good reasons. 

Little Ashes
Little Ashes

Matthew Mc Nulty embodies Bunuel
Matthew McNulty embodies Bunuel
Matthew McNulty embodies Bunuel. His character is so impressive, charismatic and impulsive that his judgments exert a strong pressure on his two friends. Well, not exactly the type of person one meets with pleasure. However, Matthew McNulty is far from being that harsh. Gentle, smiling and maybe a little shy, he answers the questions naturally and even makes some jokes: Success is not about to go to his head!

Playing Bunuel is a big deal, and yet, as Matthew McNulty confessed, he read the script only two weeks before shooting! “It was kind of a last minute thing. But, from reading the script I was just like: “I want desperately desperately to be in it”!" As excited as he was about being involved he readily admits that there it was also a huge weight on his mind: the pressure of playing such a huge Spanish cultural icon as an english actor.

Matthew McNulty
Matthew McNulty

Getting it right may not have been that easy, thought I as we agreed he was “such a great icon”. Conversant with Bunuel's work and major place in the history of cinema since he studied it at university, Matthew McNulty was less at ease when it came to the man himself. It is certainly not the easiest thing. Bunuel’s personality is complex and the actor does not have that much time on screen: which means that all his scenes are crucial and very strong. On top of that he had to take a Spanish accent… How did he cope with that? “It is confidence in the script initially that helped me. I wanted to be true to that because that is the only thing that I could use as an authority on Bunuel. Indeed, even having seen his films I did not know that much about Bunuel, the man. So it was also about asking the crew and making sure, during the rehearsals that I got it right. Especially screenwriter Philippa (Philippa Goslett) who was the most informed thanks to her research.”

What was the hardest scene to shoot? The one which involved dancing, he laughingly answered first but, “in terms of emotion, there is the scene when Bunuel enters the room when Dali and Lorca have just kissed. There is this tension, the scene is just incredible. Most of the scenes came naturally, but we worked very hard on this one. In fact, because of the budget, we had to know what we were doing before shooting.” And what scene did he enjoy the most? First, the one at the Residencia because all of the young cast is present and it grasps perfectly the essence of that time and the one when Bunuel simply explodes. Well, Matthew McNulty is not the kind of actor to be scared of difficult scenes!
Concerning the accent, it does not seem to have caused him any major issues: the Manchester-born actor is kind of used to working on accents and, as others would say, he got by with a little help from his (Spanish) friends during the rehearsal week.

Paul Morrison and Javier Beltran
Paul Morrison and Javier Beltran

An English actor playing with a Spanish accent, an English director working on three of the greatest Spanish geniuses, a mixed crew… How did this idea come to Paul Morrison’s mind? He told me that the genesis of the project was quite a long story… more than 200 pages long to be precise!  Indeed, it first came to Paul Morrison as a very long script written by Philippa Goslett who did a lot of research about Dali, Lorca and Bunuel. Everything started at that time, six or seven years ago: “I was absolutely fascinated! I knew very little about it, I mean I knew about them separately as artists (...) Then I suggested to Philippa that she rewrite it as a love story. I wanted the love story to be the backbone of the film. When it came back to me, it was the combination of a very intimate story between four people with a big picture of social, artistic and political change. To unite all that in one script, that excites me as a director! That is what cinema should be doing.”

Having a mixed crew was also essential for him: “I wanted to make a film that Spanish people would feel as Spanish and that, hopefully, seems to have worked.” And it was a delightful experience for the crew. Matthew McNulty cannot help smiling when he speaks about it: “Yes it was great, you know, different cultures… It was also great in helping us understand our Spanish persona. Especially Bunuel since he is typically Spanish, he is quite liberal when it comes to politics and surrealism but still has quite a typically spanish conservative way of life

Lorca and Dali
Lorca and Dali
Pointing out the love story between Lorca and Dali: here is what Paul Morrison aimed to do, to use as the “spine” of his film. Not that I disagree but I had to note the extremely controversial aspect of this point of view. The director, aware of the debate he raises, seems to be ready to defend his views: “I think what Philippa did is closer to the truth than anyone else has got and it is very close to Dali’s own account of what happened. In an interview he gave to a French newspaper in his sixties, he said kind of the same thing. As he was about to die he had no reason to lie or to hide anything. And there are the letters between them. Well, there is enough evidence to prove that something happened, that there was something to their relationship. I trust the story that we told.”

As the filming process appeared to me as magical and cloudless, I could not help asking about the difficulties… Both of them mentioned time pressure as a major obstacle. “Most of the scenes were very agreeable to shoot, the actors were great and so the scenes were delivered in two or three takes which was magic! But sex scenes are always hard to shoot particularly when you are under pressure, time pressure. And so it is with scenes involving a lot of cast and extras. For the dinner scene especially, we needed a lot more time that we  actually had. So you end up kind of shooting by numbers. That is not what I prefer to do” said the director.

Robert Pattinson mania
Robert Pattinson mania

Paul Morrison mentionned the cast: How did the director manage to find such young actors able to play such great figures? Once again this was a long story involving good hunches which turned out to be an extraordinary stroke of luck! Indeed, at the very beginning, he was looking for some reasonably big names because of the budget. “But it never felt right! What felt right was to get younger people that, at that time, were less well-known but they were more excited, vulnerable and trusting in what you started.” By “less well-known people” he means, among others, Robert Pattinson… Hard to believe but the heartthrob vampire was, when the movie was shot, only known for his role in Harry Potter. Lucky draw! Of course it is going to be extremely benefiting for the film but Matthew McNulty and Paul Morrison don’t think only about advantages they can take from the situation, they are also interested in Robert Pattinson’s own career. How nice! Speaking of it, Matthew McNulty said: “Yes this is definitely a good thing for the movie. And I think the audience will appreciate the performance and respect him as an actor. That will make more people see and appreciate the film.”

I wish I could stay longer but time has come to leave the two men who gave me the impression of being extremely proud of what they did. It would be a shame for both of them to stop forging ahead, so, do they have any stimulating projects?

Paul Morrison is about to shoot a new film about another painter, Charlotte Salomon in Germany and France. As far as Matthew McNulty is concerned, the rising actor was recently lucky enough to star in Ken Loach's upcoming movie, which was very exciting for him. You will soon be able to see him as a huge Cantonna's fan in "Looking for Eric".  As a Manc, was it the case? Ironically not at all since the young actor is a Manchester City supporter.... Well, such betrayals are what it takes to be a good actor! 


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