Rupert Goold: “There’s a directness to Judy Garland’s acting that still would work today”

Judy Garland (1922-1969) was a legendary American screen star, singer and dancer who became a household name when she appeard opposite Mickey Rooney in several romantic and musical comedies at MGM. By the time she was twenty-two and had made screen classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), she had become a screen legend.

Consequently the 4 feet 11.5 inches girl next door became one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers of the 1940s. Later in her career, she was twice nominated for an Academy Award (1954 and 1961). She was the first female, and so far youngest recipient ever, to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award (in 1961 at age 39), and in 1999, thirty years after her death, she was ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth Greatest Female Star in their top twenty-five of Greatest Screen Legends (the AFI defines an American screen legend as as ‘an actor or a team of actors during the classic film era with a significant screen presence in American feature-length films whose screen debut occurred in or before 1950, or whose screen debut occurred after 1950 but whose death has marked a completed body of work’).

An MGM publicity still of Judy Garland (1922-1969) during the 1940s. Photograph: Film Talk Archive.

Judy Garland had a very productive career from the mid-1930s till she died in 1969. By 1959, when she was only thirty-seven, she had made thirty-nine films, had done over five hundred radio shows and more than one thousand two hundred concerts.

In 2001 a four-hour biographical miniseries was made for TV, called “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” (based on her daughter Lorna Luft’s 1998 biography “Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir”), with Judy Davis playing Judy Garland.

Now, fifty years after she passed away, Garland’s first biographical drama, “Judy,” is out. Stage and film director Rupert Goold directed Renée Zellweger in a breathtaking and tour-de-force performance as Judy Garland which earned her a British Independent Film Award, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a BAFTA and an Acadeny Award as best actress (this paragraph has been updated on February 10).

The film is based on Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow” and starts at the end, when Ms. Garland embarked on a troubled five-week run at London’s Hippodrome nightclub The Talk of the Town in the winter of 1968, after suffering the consequences of a lifetime of addiction and falling into hard times. By then, she was broke and basically homeless. Says film director Rupert Goold: “Up until this day, there’s a reason why Judy is still so important to so many people. You see her struggles and her ability to overcome them, or to make fun of them, as she was an incredibly funny woman.” And to this day, she is still extremely beloved.

“Judy” is a one of a kind movie with Renée Zellweger in the most memorable role of her career so far, revealing all her fragility and vulnerability. She acts, she dances and she sings—she doesn’t mime, she really sings all of Judy’s songs in the film. And although nobody will ever sing like Judy Garland—she is unparalleled—“Judy” takes you on an incredible journey of make-believe. It’s not a biopic as the ones we usually get to see, but still, “Judy” brings its leading character back to life more than ever. And what a character she was, so talented and so versatile!

Filmmaker Rupert Goold (b. 1972), a renowned stage director who also made “True Story” (2015) starring James Franco, Jonah Hill and Felicity Jones, was a guest of honor at the latest Film Fest Ghent in Belgium (as reported here before) to talk about “Judy” and the making of the film, and especially about Renée Zellweger’s stunning transformation to become the Hollywood icon.

Mr. Goold, Judy Garland was one of the many stars at MGM. Your film is based on the play “Over the Rainbow,” so it was an obvious choice why the film is about Judy Garland. But other than that, was there maybe another reason why you chose to do a film about her?

I think Judy Garland’s legacy is distinct from many of the Golden Age performers. Her acting style still feels very fresh. Even the “Andy Hardy” films, they’re obviously period, but there’s a directness to the acting that still would work today. So I was very drawn to her screen persona as an actress. When I was growing up in the 1980s, I suppose this sort of pinnacle of Hollywood’s golden image was Marilyn Monroe, the blonde pre-Pamela Anderson ideal woman. I think now in our age of identity and questioning certain kinds of social norms, family structures, gender fluidity, or sexual fluidity, in some ways Garland was a very twenty-first century figure. Part of that has to do with the kind of life she led, but also because of her rebellion against the studio system, against how actresses should behave, or what they should look like. The more I read about her life, the more I was drawn to that. She was like a maverick figure.

When you did your research, did you also get in touch with her family?

No. But Rosalyn Wilder [Garlands personal assistant in her last few months], played by Jessie Buckley in the film, is still alive and she was around on the set. I talked to Rosalyn about details, like what did the theatre look like, or how did the band play the intro. I was less interested in what Rosalyn said about Judy Garland herself, because I didn’t want to feel that somebody would contradict the fictional creation that we were going to make. And so I read several biographies of Garland, and there are a lot, but I didn’t read too many first-hand testimonies. I preferred to see Renée’s performance of Judy, that was most important to me. I did read [Judy Garland’s fifth husband] Mickey Dean’s book on her, “Weep No More, My Lady: The Best Selling Story of Judy Garland” [published in 1972], about his life with her, a very strange book in fact because it was very self-promoting, but it was interesting because that was the period of our film. Also, in 1969 Liza Minnelli [b. 1946] was becoming a Broadway star, she was an adult, and she wasn’t around her mother particularly that period. And Judy’s other children Lorna [b. 1952] and Joey Luft [b. 1955] were really young. I’m sure that if somebody made a movie about my mother, I would want it to be very accurate, but my view of my mother is only my view. We did send the script to them, but in a way the more mysterious the subject is when you’re making a story about a real person, the more the journey up the mountain to discover them becomes interesting.

Academy Award-winning actress Renée Zellweger as Hollywood screen legend Judy Garland. Photograph: Pathe UK.

What did you see in Renée Zellweger to be the perfect Judy Garland?

I’m aware that she may not be the obvious choice to play Judy—Renée is blonde and bue-eyed—but I was looking for an actress who was in her forties, who could sing and who could be funny, everything that Judy was in our film. I remember when Renée was announced to play Bridget Jones, this beloved English sweetheart, she just did it and it became an iconic role. That was very ambitious of her, and I hoped to find an actress with that same ambition, someone who could say, ‘I will play Judy Garland, I can play Judy Garland,’ which is a pretty powerful statement on its own.

Her transformation is incredible, isn’t it? How did you guide her to become such a perfect Judy Garland? It was much more than just putting on a wig.

Yes, we did it in various stages. The first stage was the singing, when it was only about music, so then it was strictly vocal work which was almost like a technical process. Then there was the hair, make-up, teeth, eyes, and in a way that was a process that we all had to go through, because I knew it would be important to Renée, and of course it would be important to the film, to make sure she looked right. We looked at a lot of work from that period, there is a lot you can find on YouTube, there are lots of TV interviews, home videos, we talked about the physical gestures—actually a lot of that was Renée. She would put up her Ipad on the table while looking in the mirror, look at Judy and then she’d repeat and imitate her a lot. We did the same with audio recordings, do the exact synch with Judy, talking like Judy. And then we’d start reading the script. But at that point, I felt that my job in the filming event was to get rid of all that, because it was not about giving an impression for five or ten minutes, like you do in a sketch, but we needed a full character, a full life. That was about finding the parts in Renée that are like Judy, about her as an actress and as a woman, about the emotionally fragile quality.

‘Clang, clang, clang went the trolley…’ Renée Zellweger sings “The Trolley Song,” a song and dance number Judy Garland originally brought in Vincente Minnelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944). Photograph: Pathe UK.

Judy Garland had an enormous musical repertoire. What criteria did you use to pick out the songs you used in the film?

That was hard, because some of the songs that Renée liked best and that she sings beautifully, as well as famous Garland songs like “The Man That Got Away” [from “A Star Is Born,” 1954] are not in the film. We always tried to find songs where the contents of the words spoke to the moment the character was in, and actually for “By Myself” which was not a that well-known song and which is the first one she sings in the club, I wanted it to sound like a Puccini aria, a rock-climbing kind of impossible dramatic vocal number. Some of the other songs are more intimate ballads. We also filmed several songs that didn’t make the film because there wasn’t enough time. They’re on the album that Renée has put out. And also, our movie is an independent movie and the music rights were a big part of the cost [laughs], so sometimes we tried to balance how many songs we could afford. “Over the Rainbow” for example is a very expensive song, so that was also something we had to keep in mind [click here for Ms. Zellweger’s “Over the Rainbow” in “Judy” and Judy Garland’s original version in “The Wizard of Oz”]

Did you shoot the musical numbers back to back?

Yes, the ones in the theatre we did. Those were crazy six days.

Did your experience as a stage director help you to stage those musical numbers?

I think so. Working on the stage is so familiar to me, I didn’t think about it particularly, but it probably did in terms of how a musical theatre performer builds the story of a song. The way you stage for camera is so different from the way you stage for theatre. Having spent all my life around performers and singers, I’m familiar with the world backstage, like the wings before they come on, to walk on stage, to walk off stage, the dressing room, arriving at a theatre, leaving a theatre, staying in hotels, worrying about your voice, the adrenaline you get on stage, the fear, or the depression after a performance… And that’s also my favorite part of the film, when you get that great performance of hers, then you cut to her, and pfff. I stole a line from Laurence Olivier about somebody who did this incredible performance, then came backstage, and everybody said, ‘That was amazing!’ And he said, ‘What if I can’t do it again?’ Which we have in the film, Renée does that brilliantly. I think it’s very true to Judy Garland as well, very true to performing in general. If you could turn it on and off, it would make your life so much easier, but you wouldn’t be that great performer. The mystery of some nights when you hit it and some nights when you don’t, and you can’t know why it works and why it doesn’t work, that’s part of the strangeness of genius. So my background of being around actors may have helped about the sensibility of the film, more than just filming the stage performances.

Renée Zellweger in an Oscar worthy performance, playing Judy Garland in “Judy.” Photograph: Pathe UK.

You use a lot of close-ups when Renée Zellweger is performing. Was there any specific reason for that?

I hadn’t really thought about that… One idea was, how do you make singing on camera feel different, because we see so much of it on TV. What we see on television on the talent shows, the camera is usually far back. There may be six cameras, but you couldn’t put a camera right there because then the audience can’t sit. So I was trying to find something that felt different from the visual language we normally get. Renée was also very nervous about the singing, so part of it has to do with that. The closer you can get to an actor, the more relaxed he or she is. There is this strange thing, particularly on camera, with a director and an actor where you are in a sort of a dance, the actor is completely in a dream state and when you’re there with the camera, I like to be really close. The closer you are, the better you’ll get it. It’s about intimacy, I think. And it’s interesting to do that in a song.

What about the flashbacks that you use, going back to Judy Garland’s early years?

That was really hard. For some people the use of the flashbacks is their favorite part of the film, but particularly in America they feel they cause a rythmic imbalance. I can understand both positions. Once Judy gets to London, the structure of the film is kind of episodic, there’s not really a plot. We had this idea that in the flashbacks she had a pact with the studio about fame and in the second flashback she learns the consequences. In the third one she rebels and in the fourth she’s punished. In the fifth flashback she comes to a deeper understanding of her relationship with the audience. Those five beats were reflected in a similar structure when she’s older. So it’s a helpful spine for us to know. But it was hard. And we shot at least one other flashback that we didn’t use in the film. It was a scene with Margaret Hamilton who played the witch in “The Wizard of Oz” [1939]. Dorothy [character played by Judy Garland] is going to the forest in Oz when Margaret Hamilton in full make-up would appear like a witch and Judy was crying. Margaret was a very close friend of Judy’s and had her own fight with the studio, so she sat down with her and said, ‘Judy, what’s wrong?’ And she talked about being a woman in Hollywood. It’s a really lovely scene, it’s on the DVD extras, but it was an example of how a structure couldn’t take too much time away from Renée.

Film Fest Ghent (Belgium)
October 13, 2019

[De trailer van “Judy”]

FILMS

TRUE STORY (2015) DIR Rupert Goold PROD Jeremy Kleiner, Anthony Katagas, Dede Gardner SCR Rupert Goold, David Kajganich (book by Michael Finkel) CAM Masanobu Takayanagi ED Nicolas De Toth, Christopher Tellefsen MUS Marco Beltrami CAST James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Conor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll

JUDY (2019) DIR Rupert Goold PROD David Livingstone SCR Tom Edge (play “End of the Rainbow” [2005] by Peter Quilter) CAM Ole Bratt Birkeland ED Melanie Oliver MUS Gabriel Yared CAST Renée Zellweger, jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Richard Cordery, Royce Pierreson, Darci Shaw, Andy Nyman

TV MOVIE

KING CHARLES III (2017) DIR Rupert Goold PROD Simon Maloney EXEC PROD Rupert Goold, Mike Bartlett, Roanna Benn, Greg Brenman, Matthew Read TELEPLAY Mike Bartlett (also original stage play) CAM Philippe Kress ED Elen Pierce Lewis MUS Jocelyn Pook CAST Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Richard Goulding, Charlotte Riley, Margot Leicester, Priyanga Burford, Tamara Lawrance