Interview with director Steven Soderbergh and actor Terry Stamp, mostly about one particular scene of the Limey
Interviews by Jason Anderson
Says Terry Stamp, who plays Wilson in the 1999 film, The Limey, “There were these scenes, let’s call them 7, 8 and 9. And those were three big dialogue scenes between the Lesley Anne Warren character and myself in three different locations. Let’s say the first one was in her apartment and we did that, and he shot it. Then, we thought, oh, we’re going home. And Stephen said, ‘Oh, you know that scene 8? Where you’re on the waterfront?’ And we said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Do you know that?’ We said, ‘Well, yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, could we just do it now?’ And I was so up for him, he’s given me the break of a lifetime, and I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ And Lesley Anne said, ‘Whu, whu, yeah, I suppose we could.’ Then she’d go to me (furtively), ‘Why’s he doing this?’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry about this, you know the words, we’ll do it.’ ‘How should we do it?’ ‘We’ll do it like it’s written in there.’ So he shot. And then he said, ‘You know that scene no. 9, when you’re in the cafe? Do you know that? Could you do that?’ And as it was mostly my dialogue and I learned the whole film — I don’t mess around — I said, ‘Yeah I could do that.’ And Lesley Anne said (whispery), ‘What’s he doing? What’s he doing?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And we shoot it. She’s on the phone: ‘What’s he doing? I don’t understand what he’s doing.’ And I said, ‘I don’t understand what he’s doing, but I don’t care. We’re working for the greatest director in America, what do you care what he’s doing? Do we trust him or not? I don’t have to know what he’s doing.’”
So, what’s being discussed is a particular scene in The Limey, in which Wilson and the Lesley-Anne Warren character have the identical conversation in 3 different places – in a restaurant, on the phone, and walking along the waterfront harbour area. The dialogue flows seamlessly, while the screen flips through the 3 areas. Which of course, doesn’t make sense, or does it?
“It makes memory sense,” says the director Stephen Soderbergh. “That walk-and-talk scene is one of my favourite things in the movie and it’s an idea that I’d always wanted to do, and something I felt could work even though it makes absolutely no sense. And I’m amazed that people sit there… and they take it. I think because … it should feel like something that’s remembered. Here’s a guy who remembers, ‘I had a long conversation with this woman and we went to these different places but I can’t remember which parts were where,’ and I just took that idea. It was very disorienting for Lesley Anne, because we shot the entire scene in three different locations with different blockings. So it was like six sets of the scene, and I was grinding a lot of footage. Terence told me later she kept going up to him and saying, ‘What is he doing? I am so confused.’ Terence would just say, take it easy, I’m sure he has a plan. And then she saw the film and said, oh I see. But it was so counterintuitive to her, she was really taken aback.”
“So when we get to scene 8, we do scene 8,” says Stamp. “And he says, ‘Do you think you could also do scene 7 while you’re on the waterfront? Do you think you could do scene 9?” So, in the end, we’ve got these three scenes each shot in three locations so I can’t imagine what he’s doing. I knew he wanted to expand the episodic time concept, but it was beyond my wildest dreams, really. It was just so elegant, sparse and wonderful. I thought it was like a perfect film. And Lesley Anne Warren was on the phone to me, ‘Oh no, this was cut and this was cut.’ And I said, ‘Listen, it’s perfect, how much more painful must it have been for him knowing what wonderful things he was cutting.’ You can’t complain when a movie is great, and that’s what I felt. He got what he intended to do and the film had manifested to him as he was shooting, it was showing itself to him.”
“There were a lot of things like that in the film,” says Soderbergh, “Ideas that I’d wanted to try, and this movie seemed like the good skeleton to hang them on. I think the crime genre is the perfect one to inject with your own aesthetic preoccupations because it can hold it. The spine is so solid that you can digress and abstract things and never lose people.”
A very brilliant and strikingly original bit of cinematic sampling comes in The Limey. There’s a little known 1967 British movie called Poor Cow, starring Terry Stamp as a young man. “It’s this Ken Loach movie,” says Soderbergh, “which I’d never seen. Lem sent me over this fifth-generation tape he had and I just went, oh God, that’s gonna be amazing. Because the whole documentary style that Loach uses was perfect, it just looked like someone was following Terence around London. And then to see him, God, he was beautiful. He still is, but Jesus, he was just astonishing.”
So, Soderbergh uses the footage from Poor Cow to recall Wilson’s earlier life in London with his young wife and daughter – rather than someone else’s film – they act as fragments of memory that appear throughout the movie as projections of Wilson’s imagination.
In terms of editing decisions, another unique choice Soderbergh made was to leave the violence off-screen. “My approach to violence in movies is that it should be unappealing, it should be not pleasant, and it should be very abrupt,” says Soderbergh. “It shouldn’t look pretty and it shouldn’t be lingered on. That’s the only thing that I keep in mind.” As for the warehouse scene with Wilson at his most savage: “It was written in the script: he goes back into the warehouse and we stay outside. Which I thought was absolutely the way to do it. It was much better to hear it, and then he comes out and he’s got blood on his face and the image you get… you get it. I think you’ve got to be careful about that stuff. I always have. In my movies, when there’s been violence, they’ve always been like that. Other filmmakers, I don’t know. Sometimes I see a film and I can tell that they’re digging it. Because those things are hard to shoot and you only spend time on things you like, so I can tell in a film when a director digs this shit and it makes me uncomfortable. I go, oof, he’s into this. You don’t spend all that time on that stuff unless you’re into it and that always makes me uneasy.”
Then, there’s the two ‘60s icons, Peter Fonda and Terry Stamp, who don’t belong in a movie together. Two very different kinds of anachronisms. “They’ve never left the periods that they began in,” says Soderbergh. “That’s what I loved about it. Wow, two completely different worlds, yet with a similar kind of baggage. Both guys who kind of march to their own beat and retained a certain kind of integrity about who they are. I know when we went to Artisan to pitch it and I said, Terence and Peter. They said, ‘Oh yeah.’ The image of those two helmets on a battlefield facing each other is really interesting.”
“The press (in its reviews of The Limey) in general has been pretty good,” says Soderbergh. “But when we were in Cannes, we got the most scathing review I’ve ever gotten in my career from a guy in the Hollywood Reporter. We were laughing at it: ‘Holy shit!’ He said it’s 15 minutes of plot stretched out to 90 minutes. And I thought…. yeah. That describes every European art film I’ve ever loved. That’s exactly what we’re doing. That’s why I felt the story had to be so simple because if it were any more complicated, the explosion of the narrative, people wouldn’t be able to sit through it. They have to be confident that it will return to what they’re familiar with.”
Addendum: additional Terry Stamp material
“I ran into this guy the other day. He said, ‘Heere, I was inna, Miami, at the Disney, and I come out and there’s like FUCKING Pamela Anderson there, and I said, hallo, I’m a friend of Terry Stamp, can I have my picture taken wit yooo.’ I thought, my God, that must’ve frightened her out of her life.”
More talk about his role as Wilson, in the Limey.
“I was in Hawaii on holiday, living on the beach, my agent got the message to me about him wanting to talk to me. I got a lift into town, phoned him on a public phone, imagining he was gonna offer me some cameo part as an English sadist, and he starts rapping me this story. ‘You know this film, Poor Cow, I’m gonna use footage and get rights, blah, blah.’ I was just flabbergasted. I hadn’t thought about Poor Cow for 25 years.
“I had to view it because I had to remember the voice I’d used, remember the movement pattern that I’d used and I had to kind of tether the Limey to the young Dave Wilson, there had to be a certain continuity, albeit with a lot of patina. The voice had to be aged, the movement had to be compounded by living in a cell, those technical things.
“(In prison) Wilson has amassed this huge shell for protection. He’s not like a Bruce Willis or a Sylvester Stallone or a Victor Mature. He’s survived prison, he hasn’t been broken by prison, but how would a guy who’s lean, like a greyhound, with nowhere to run — how has he survived prison? And I figured that he, if a guy with a razor blade comes upon the sleeping Wilson, hoping to cut his lungs out, he’s at a disadvantage, because Wilson’s never that asleep. The fact that that guy believes Wilson is asleep gives Wilson a tremendous advantage. In that sense he’s a con, an ex-con, but he’s like a Zen monk. He’s at one with himself, his mind never drifts off. He always has an aura of awareness. He’s a guy who’s always in the moment. He goes through L.A. like it’s butter. I had to summon up as much awareness as I’ve ever been called up for a role.
“Point Blank is one of my favourite movies, so when Stephen told me, I’m gonna make a kind of Point Blank, I was in heaven. I figured what made Lee Marvin so ominous was that his lowest tension was his highest intensity. So I thought, that’s how Wilson has to be. He has to be totally relaxed and totally coiled all the time. When he explodes, when he kills the three guys, that’s the only time you see him boiling over. That’s the very frightening aspect. I really like the fact people are sympathetic to him. In his mind, the kind of politicians, the people who make genetically altered foods, are cowards, they’re criminals within the law. He’s the real thing. He’s not a corrupt policeman or a corrupt policeman. He dances to his own drum. And I think that’s very attractive because it’s how we’d all like to be. It’s just that life pushes us out of shape, takes us away from ourselves. So any guy who stays close to that, you can feel empathy for that. Because we’ve all had moments where that was true.”