Unsung Auteurs: Paul McGuigan

March 23, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Scottish director Paul McGuigan, who helmed The Acid House and Push.

FilmInk first spoke to Scottish director Paul McGuigan in 1999, on the eve of the Australian release of his feature film debut The Acid House. Five movies later in 2009, we were on the phone again, speaking to Los Angeles-based McGuigan back in Scotland (“I’ve come back for the summer; people don’t normally do that, but I do the opposite”) about his then latest feature, Push. A thriller set in modern Hong Kong, the film follows a couple of young people (Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning) with special powers who are being hunted by a government organisation.

Throughout his career, McGuigan has tried to challenge expectations, which has often meant that critics haven’t been kind to his work. “I remember one review for Gangster No. 1 was, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, cunt, fuck…’, and that was it,” he says of the hard-hitting, vernacular-laden 2000 cult film starring Paul Bettany in his breakout role. “I’ve been slagged off enough to realise that they come back later and tell you how great you are. That’s happened to me all my career.”

Paul McGuigan on the set of Wicker Park with Diane Kruger.

A successful photographer, McGuigan moved into TV commercials and social documentaries before making The Acid House, which was based on three short stories by fellow Scotsman Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting). McGuigan then moved onto 2002’s thematically and formally odd The Reckoning (which saw him reteam with Paul Bettany, along with Willem Dafoe); the stylish 2004 emotional thriller Wicker Park (an adaptation of the French film L’Apartemente starring Josh Hartnett and Diane Kruger) and 2006’s snappily entertaining Guy Ritchie-style comic thriller The Wrong Man aka Lucky Number Slevin, again with Hartnett, this time up against Bruce Willis, Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman.

Along with 2009’s Push, every movie that McGuigan directs attracts its critics. “They should go and make a film themselves,” McGuigan says. “Reviewers are only really necessary when you’re trying to figure out what movie to see. I knew that Push would get ripped apart because (a) we didn’t get a hundred million dollars, and we did it for just twenty odd million dollars (b) the expectations are very high in these kind of genre movies and (c) this is quite a cerebral movie for this genre. I think that I did something really interesting in this film. I’d be really upset if someone wrote something really bad and I agreed with them,” he laughs.

aul McGuigan with Daokta Fanning and Chris Evans on the set of Push.

The script for Push was brought to McGuigan by executive producer Amy Gilliam (daughter of Terry), whom he had worked with on Gangster No. 1 when she was starting in the biz in the camera department. Although he admits that the script needed work, McGuigan was attracted to a fantastic premise – government experiments have created individuals with special powers – set in the real world. “Conspiracy theorists talk about secret experiments in the fifties during The Cold War,” he told FilmInk when asked about the introduction in the film, which sees a montage of gruesome images pointing to this scenario being a reality. “Then I looked up the whole idea of psychic powers, and I thought, ‘What if this really did exist?’ I then went to Hong Kong, armed with the idea that we were going to shoot the film as if this was for real.”

Apart from adding this foreword to the film, McGuigan, a big fan of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies, also chose the Hong Kong location. “We went to various countries in the Far East to see where we would film,” he explained. “It just seemed so obvious that if you’re going to hide from someone, it’s harder to sniff you out when you’re amongst millions of people all living on top of one another,” he said in reference to Chris Evans’ character, who is trying to evade capture from Djimon Hounsou’s government operatives.

Paul McGuigan on the set of Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool with Annette Bening and Jamie Bell.

“I’d been watching Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, and that was one of the reasons why I shot Push in hand held,” he continues. “I’d been looking at how to shoot in Hong Kong, and I’d heard that Wong Kar-Wai shoots what he sees on the streets and augments it with beautiful backdrops and beautiful movement of the cameras. I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that in this kind of Hollywood movie?’”

The result is unlike any film of this genre (it’s handheld, with rickety special effects, set in the grimy streets of an Asian metropolis), but it sadly failed to make an impact on audiences, and has since faded from view completely. “It’s at odds with people’s expectations because we’re all spoon-fed our genres. We all think that our genres should be this way or that way. I’ve never felt that way. When you did The Proposition down in your part of the world, it was a western, but it had a really modern feel. That was exciting, even though some people hated it. I like to do movies that are polarising like that. When the DVD for The Proposition came out in the States, it went straight to number two and it’s been there for a while. It’s the same with all the films that I’ve done. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because my movies aren’t instantly recognised as a genre.”

Paul McGuigan on the set of Victor Frankenstein with James McAvoy.

Since Push, Paul McGuigan has found a surprising home in episodic television, which has seen him bounce freely from genre to genre on top-tier shows like Scandal, Sherlock, Luke Cage, Devious Maids and many, many more. McGuignan’s constant refusal to sit comfortably in any one genre has seen his subsequent big screen efforts disappointingly fail to make a major impact, despite doing very strong work in the fields of horror (2015’s Victor Frankenstein put a fresh spin on the classic tale with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe) and nostalgic romance (2017’s highly engaging Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool boasts a terrific feel and great performances from Jamie Bell, Annette Bening and Julie Walters).

A filmmaker not afraid to push himself creatively, Paul McGuigan has a wonderfully diverse range of movies to his credit, and he deserves far more praise for them…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Rose Bosch, Dan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. Pierce, Tamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.