“When Did You Last See Your Father” is based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Blake Morrison. I spoke to director Anand Tucker about adapting the book and about fatherhood.
What is it that makes relationships between fathers and sons so difficult?
Have you got all day? There’s a really kind of basic thing at the heart of that. It’s programmed not to work. One of the tragedies at the heart of the relationship is that the son has to rebel to find his own place in the world. I am at the moment the absolute hero of my 4 year old, all about what he wants to be, and then he will get to the point where he does not want to be me any more and wants to kill me so he can begin to know who and what he is apart from me. And in a way thank god for that because they have to leave home.
Do you think the current generation has as much difficulty communicating with their fathers as the last did?
I think about this all the time at 5 am when I’m trying to build Lego cars and remember that my father in his 80’s and in a different generation never did that. He’s a lovely man but I struggle to remember if he ever played on my level ever. We’re all trying to be best fiends for our children. That was never an issue up to the last 20 years, and it is both good and bad. You want to be their best friend but they need you to be their parents. Even with the best will it’s still a complicated relationship. The people you love the most are the hardest to really see, to say, “I love you.” I suspect that maybe fathers like Arthur (played by James Broadbent in the movie), we don’t have those kind so much in the contemporary Western society, but probably do in the rest of the world. My father is Indian, and he is still like that: the father the absolute head of the family, the family is the important thing, not the individual. In the West, it’s more about the individual. It is a part of consumer culture, Byronic self-expression. There’s probably a generation of dads trying not to be Arthur Morrison.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting this non-fiction book for a feature film?
I started in documentaries and pretty much every film I’ve made has been based in non-fiction. True life is so extraordinary in a way, stuff that doesn’t work in fiction stories. You come up against all the problems of how movies work. Movies are blastedly simple ridiculously stupid thing where B has to follow A, if you’re trying to tell a narrative story. We decided not to have a scene on the deathbed where it all got resolved as you would have in the usual movie. Mostly that doesn’t happen in real life. In fiction movies you get the big hug and “I love you” at the end and it offers us a fantasy but without that it offers a chance to connect in a human way, very powerful and moving. You get to a place of truth and still get the emotional resolution. Through Blake’s interior journey he gets to tell his father that he loves him even though he’s already dead.
Movies can give you a particular point of view but in true life stories there is no such thing as the truth, just everyone’s version. Getting answers was the thing that was driving Blake, but the point was he’s got to get over it. There was something very moving in Beaty’s refusal to give him an answer. He has to learn that he’s not the center of the universe and he wasn’t the only one who had a relationship with his father. It is beautifully old-fashioned when Blake asks her about her relationship with his father and she says, “You’ve got to leave me something that’s mine.” I like the fact that in life you don’t get all the answers.