Clive Owen Talks Parenting, Producing & Patience

by | September 25, 2009 at 2:42 AM | The Movies

The Boys Are Back is the new drama from Academy Award nominated director Scott Hicks (Shine), so we definitely need to pay some attention now that the Oscar pool is so much more open this year. Clive Owen stars as a sportswriter and father in Australia trying to relate to his young boy Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) while his wife is taken by cancer, at the same time he’s trying to reconcile with his older son Harry (George MacKay) from a previous marriage whom he rarely sees. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, but it’s not maudlin or sappy at all. It’s just a look at parenting from different point of view – a devastated point of view. Owen recently spoke to reporters about this emotionally challenging piece about just how much the process of grieving is complicated by having to take care of a child’s feelings as well as your own.

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“It was very beautifully written, very very honest exploration of parenting from a guy’s perspective,” Owen says about the script that drew him to the project. “It was very full and very emotional. I read a lot, and every now and again, you go ‘oh my god, here’s a great one.’ That’s what it is. Considering how many films are made and how many scripts are written, it’s rare to come across great scripts. You really notice it when you do. You read a lot, and you suddenly see something of real quality.”

So enamored was Owen of the script that he took on the role of producer in order to make sure that no one changed it or meddled with it. “It took four years to get the film going and lots of work on the script,” Owen admits. “Scott and I are very collaborative and we were trying to make the same film. It was really just to add some protection to that, to make sure that getting the film up and going and the honing of the script, we could keep faithful to the film that we were trying to make. I would never do a producer credit just for a vanity exercise, because there’s no point, but it does give you an extra standing when the script is being discussed with people that are putting the money in. It gives you an extra position, and it’s just to acknowledge that I was literally there from the very start.”

Hicks’ involvement was crucial to Owen as well. “I thought Scott was the perfect person to direct it,” he says. “He’s got a sensitivity and an intelligence and a delicacy. This is a very intimate film and it demanded that, because two of the three main characters were children. You needed someone with patience and understanding. His patience with young Nicholas was the key, really. Everything was structured around that. He made the crew very much on their toes – we could change direction at any point if Nicholas was tired today. It’s a huge demand of a kid of that age, being thrown on a movie set – that kind of attention, those kinds of demands made of him every day with his lines. We kept very loose, in terms of capturing magic. If he suddenly did something that was really interesting and real and alive, we would try and shoot it. There’s a number of things in the film that weren’t really intended, but we were just quick to capture it, or he wasn’t quite aware we were filming. That demands a real lightness of touch and a huge patience as well. Understanding. He’s terribly sensitive, terribly intelligent and I really loved the way he put the whole film together.”

That’s not to discount Owen’s own part in carrying the film, which included befriending young Nicholas and establishing a rapport. “The first conversation ever about the film with Scott, I said ‘you find a great young boy, that’s a big step forward to a good film.’ It’s crucial. The film rests and falls on you believing in that relationship. So I made sure I got there very early, I spent time with him away from everybody else, away from his parents, away from the film crew. I took him to safari parks and fun fairs, so that whatever happens in the film – because some of the film is quite tough between us – he trusted me. He’d always come back to the place where ‘I’m okay with Clive,’ even if we’d just done a scene that’s a little unusual. I knew that it was important that he was safe with me. He’s an intelligent, open kid. For sure, it was important I did that. I wouldn’t have liked to have turned up and just gone ‘hi’ and tried to make the film. It always takes time with kids for them to trust you. He’s very, very bright and there were never any problems.”

For the record, Owen had no problems with MacKay either. “He’s a fine actor. He’s a seriously good actor. I was really, really impressed with him,” he gushes about his teenage co-star. “Unlike Nicholas, there’s no accident with what he’s doing. He’s very skilled beyond his years. He’s a very full actor – even when he’s not speaking, there’s a lot going on. When I saw him and saw what he was doing, he would be moving and not really doing much. Just him watching me and the other little one relate, you find moving. You feel the history of what he’d missed. I just think he was a great find for the film.”

But enough about everybody else, Clive, how about you? How did you manage to delve into the emotional heft of this story? “It helps that I find it so upsetting as an Idea. Explaining to my little boy that his mother might not be around for much longer, I find very upsetting just as an idea. It’s tragic and devastating. I’ve got two girls, so the idea of that conversation is haunting. I can relate to it. Then, when it comes to doing it, it’s about concentration and putting yourself in the place, but ultimately it’s because I understand and relate, and see how sad that would be.”

In fact, it’s his own fatherhood that really let him relate to the whole film, as he reveals when discussing his career path. “I don’t really have a plan in that way,” Owen says, dismissively, of the notion that his choices are calculated. “Honestly, if you look at the last few years and look at the films that I’ve done, that shape is completely unplanned. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s instinct. It’s something that relates to me and something I want to explore. I’m not going to do something because that’s the ‘right kind of thing to do’ or ‘I should be doing that kind of film.’ I’m wide open. I’ll do any kind of film if I think I’ve got something to offer to it and I think it resonates and I believe it and I think it’s worthwhile doing. The career is what it is, there was no plan there. That’s the way it’s gone. Parenting is a huge part of my life. I’ve got two girls, and outside of movies, that’s what I do. I bring up my girls and hang with my girls. Here was a chance to explore that fully, and I’ve never done that, so I wanted to do it.”

The key is that, at least for The Boys Are Back, that exploration isn’t done with the usual tricks of the trade. “It was something I was very passionate about from the beginning, to avoid the sentimentality,” Owen insists. ” I had great faith. It was really interesting exploring the tougher elements, when things weren’t going well – when the little boy has his big tantrum and you don’t know how to bring him out of it. All parents relate to that. We’ve all been there. We’re not bad parents because of it, but that’s what happens. There was something very human and understandable about it to me. There are endless versions of this where mommy’s going to die very soon and we weep and we hug, cue the violins, or if he has a little grump, it’s not that serious and we come back together. It’s not like that. Parenting is much more volatile. It’s up and down and around. I wanted to do that, he just sort of feels his way, because I knew people would relate to it.”

Yet, even Owen has been surprised with just how people are relating to the film. “The impressive thing about all the advance screenings is that people have been very moved. There have been a lot of tears. People get very moved by it, but everyone for different reasons. It’s not like there’s that one big scene. The weirdest things are triggering people, and I suppose it depends on your experience. Have you lost somebody? Have you separated? Did your parents divorce? Have you been estranged from your kids? Whatever it is that’s been big in your life, you’ll connect to and go ‘gosh, I’ve been there, I’ve been there.’ Everyone comes up having been moved by something different, and that’s very rewarding. I do think it’s a very full film. It’s not heavy-handed in its exploration, it’s not manipulative, but there are endless points of recognition with people. All of it’s understandable.”

One has to wonder, with Owen being a real-life father of two girls and playing a father of two boys, how do they compare? “The energy levels are very different between boys and girls,” he notes. “My friends who have children the same age as mine and have boys – the energy levels are much higher. I don’t think it would have been quite as volatile, in a way. Girls just tend to be a little calmer. I think it would be very different. A guy bringing up two girls, I think it would be easier. I don’t know why. I think very often, especially at certain ages, girls are generally ahead in the maturity stakes.”