Achieving The Look Of Love

Director Michael Winterbottom on his Paul Raymond biopic.

by Amber Wilkinson

Steve Coogan and Tamsin Egerton in The Look Of Love
Steve Coogan and Tamsin Egerton in The Look Of Love

Paul Raymond biopic The Look Of Love tracks the King of Soho (played by Steve Coogan) from his stage show beginnings through to the building of a property and top-shelf magazine empire, highlighting three key female relationships in his life - with his wife Jean (Anna Friel), daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) and lover Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) as a way of exploring both his attitude to life and love and the changing face of pornography in Britain. We spoke to director Michael Winterbottom about what drove him to take on the challenge of exploring the porn baron's life.

When the film premiered at Sundance, you said that it started off being really a movie you were thinking to make about different periods but ended up beign a biopic about him - can you tell us more about that?

Michael Winterbottom
Michael Winterbottom

What I was intending to say was that at the beginning it seemed like it would be the life and adventures of Paul Raymond and that he would exemplify all the things that were going on in Soho during that period. The ups and downs of his life and career and the business of the sex industry and entertainment industry. The social side would be quite big and the business side would be quite big and the Soho side would be quite big - and hopefully some of that is still in the film.

It does seem like there are loads of stories in the film, there are loads of anecdotes about Paul Raymond. His career was incredibly long, with lots of ups and downs but it became more about his personal relationships. the characters of the wife and Fiona Richmond and his daughter Debbie are important characters but, in a way, that's how we organised it.

A section about his relationship with his wife, a second section about his relationship with Fiona Richmond and a third section his relationship with Debbie. Obviously, they're even and cross-over, it's not as clear cut as that but that became the way we thought about how to film because there's so many stories you could tell about Paul Raymond. So we thought let's make this the way we think about what should be in the film and what shouldn't be in the film.

You've made lots of road movies in the past and, although there isn't a physical road here, we are still going on a journey with Raymond.

I guess that's right, you follow one character along his journey. It's a journey through time rather than a geographical one. When we started it felt a little bit like one of those picaresque novels, like Tom Jones or whatever that would often have a kind of a journey element to them as well. In a way you get a picture of the world through the character but it's all very vivid. People live lives which are full of little adventures and they are quite set in a way, quite linear. So obviously when you're doing a film like this, you're taking one person's story across 40 years, so you shape it a little bit like a road movie because it is quite linear and you have characters that pop in and pop out, whether it's the 50s or the 60s, the 70s or the 80s.

Despite the film being about Paul Raymond, like many of your films, it has very strong female characters.

I like the fact that they were really strong characters and we were lucky in that we cast three really great actors in Imogen Poots, Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton. When you get good actors, they want to make their characters as vivid as possible. With Paul Raymond, women are objectified and women are exploited and the image of women is very important rather than the reality of women. So it was good, I think, that the three biggest characters in the film really are all women and they're quite complex women and at least two of them are quite strong women.

There's no point in doing true stories unless you try to be honest with the material you have. I'm sure there could be lots of other stories you could tell about the sex industry that are about victims and are about exploitation. But in the case of his character, his wife Jean was a partner in the business. She started out with him and she was I think just as tough as him and just as out there and ballsy as he was. It was great to have that character in the film. In a way, Paul Raymond did like to engage with strong women.

How easy or difficult was it to research the film?

In this case, it was quite an unusual experience doing research on this. We started by watching quite a lot. There's quite a lot of archive on Paul Raymond because, I think, he was quite an early proponent of PR, the idea that your name or your character could be your brand. Of course, these days celebrities are throwing things on the back of their celebrity but he was already doing that, even though he was famous for his business. He was always selling the Paul Raymond brand, so there is quite a lot of stuff of him on TV.

Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond
Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond

So we started by looking at his public image, then we tried to as many people as possible who knew him. His relations, people who worked with him and people who came across him. What was interesting was that we got quite different opinions from different people. It was quite a fractured or fragmented picture of him. Everyone had a completely different version of Paul Raymond. We tried to include a bit of that in the film, in that he's a little bit of a blank and you see different aspects of him in relation to different people and different situations. It seemed, from what we heard, that this was a construction because it was hard to get a very intimate sense of who he was.

It didn't really feel like people knew the real Paul Raymond, the man behind the mask so we thought maybe in the film it's almost a bit like there isn't a Paul Raymond. He just has all these public images and sort of exists in public spaces. So when, for instance, Fiona Richmond leaves him and he's by himself in the flat, it's kind of like there's nothing there. Debbie sort of rescues him, by taking him back out into clubs and bars and restaurants. In a way the real Paul Raymond is the public Paul Raymond.

People who knew him said that when you went back to your apartment after a night out it was like going back to another nightclub. His domestic life was very undomestic, it was almost like he didn't have a domestic life.

You shot a lot of the film on location in London, did that make it easier? Did you shoot it in a linear way or were you filming one time period one day and another the next?

No it was a nightmare to shoot. I wanted to film it in Soho because Soho is very important and I wanted to get a sense of it through the decades because it's such a unique place. But, of course, Soho is in the middle of London, it's very busy and full of people who've got there own things going on so the shoot was a nightmare. It was worse than you'd imagine.

Chris Addison, Imogen Poots and Coogan in the film
Chris Addison, Imogen Poots and Coogan in the film

Some days we'd be shooting 60s, 70s and 90s in the same day. We brought everything into Soho that we'd need so that everyone could just go into a building, get changed and come back out. But, particularly from Steve's point of view, there was a lot of wigs and ageing and make-up stuff. So it was a complex shoot. Whenever you period film it's fiddly but in this case it was five different periods so it was even more fiddly and more complicated. And then trying to shoot period in the centre of London in Soho was also tricky. But you could say there were iconic places that had been there for the entire length of our story. We got genuine stuff rather than having to fake it.

You've worked with Steve several times now, do you like working together and do you find your relationship has changed as your work together has progressed?

I do like working with Steve, this is the fourth film we've done. It was a different film in a way. It was quite a tricky. The ones we'd done before were more simply comic. Obviously, at the heart of it, it's about the people he loses. We wanted to show this big life with a glossy, happy, shiny surface but underneath that it's sad. But because it does span 40 years and there is a lot to get in so it's quite a busy film as well so there was a different texture to the filming than the ones we've done before but he's always great fun to work with.

With the character of Tony Wilson [in 24 Hour Party People], I knew Tony Wilson and he was alive and incredibly helpful. So it was easy for Steve to see what he should be playing. With this, it was awkward and different because we didn't want to make Paul Raymond into a hero nor for that did we want to make Paul Raymond incredibly funny.

Tamsin Egerton on the set with Michael Winterbottom
Tamsin Egerton on the set with Michael Winterbottom

That didn't seem to be the truth of it. You pitch it in an area where you're showing his weaknesses and limitations as well. No matter what anyone's done, whether you lose your daughter, you're separated from your son, you can feel for the man but you don't want to make him into a great guy, really funny, he's a genius sort of thing. So you're trying to find a way of playing him that allows people to think about the character and think about the story and find these feelings for him but without making the best possible version of Paul Raymond that we could possibly make.

Is there more pressure when you're dealing with a real person rather than a purely fictional narrative in terms of getting the detail right?

You try to be as honest as possible. They are real people and therefore you should try to respect that. So obviously it's a work of fiction and there's a lot of imagination and all the dialogue is made up and so on and to some extent, we're projecting, from Steve and all our experience, what Paul Raymond might be like and giving an idea of Paul Raymond on to the facts of Paul Raymond's life.

But you have to respect the facts of his life. You try to avoid getting anything wrong and certainly not deliberately change things. For instance, that whole story with Derek [his son from another relationship], is what happened - they met once and he left. If, in reality, he had seen him hundreds of times then it would be completely false to pretend he saw him once. You have to respect the facts and find a way of selecting them organising them that makes the film interesting.

I think that's part of the attraction, real stories are always more awkward than fictional stories.

You've always been a prolific director and your work rate shows no signs of flagging.

it's more enjoyable to be working than to be out of work. When you're doing a film it's fun, you're going on location, you're working with actors, you're working with crew, you're talking to writers. All those things are enjoyable types of work. On the other hand, when you're not making a film, you're basically looking for money and that is less enjoyable sort of work. It's the phase when you're actually working that's always the enjoyable phase.

The Look Of Love is out across the UK now.

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