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Interview with Stephen Poliakoff

HBO

Where did the idea for 'Joe's Palace' and 'Capturing Mary' come from?

Stephen Poliakoff

They came, really, from a memory of childhood when I was growing up. My father knew a very rich man who owned a building in one of the most expensive areas in London. He named the building after his wife. It was quite a beautiful building, but it was always empty, and it was always kept spotlessly clean. We used to drive past it and my father would point it out. I was haunted as a child by this building. Why was it empty? And why did nothing ever happen there? I used that as a starting point for this story of a house marooned in time, seemingly pristine and beautiful. But nothing goes on in it. I thought that was an interesting way into what I was really writing about, which was about people who are a bit cut off and in 'Joe's Palace' I was eager to explore the sense of unease and apartness that people feel in this troubled decade. Another theme is how we deal with loneliness, a difficult emotion to dramatize but such a common experience.

I wanted to write about the dislocation that's part of all our lives now, and that often stems from the past. The past always impacts on the present, but in 'Joe's Palace,' I wanted to make that connection in an unexpected and intimate way, through the prism of Elliot's story and between Richard and Charlotte, who use the house to conduct an adulterous affair.

The past has a particular hold on Elliot. He feels he will be stuck forever until he has come to terms with the past. It takes this friendship between the boy, Joe, and Michael Gambon's character to bring him back to sort of be reborn. It's a simple, but poignant lesson; we have to question and confront our past again and again and again.

In 'Capturing Mary' with Maggie Smith, it's about the house in its heyday, in Michael Gambon's father's time, when he was using it for these great parties filled with famous people. Again, it's about the past impacting on the present. And about how Maggie Smith's character was terribly scarred by this encounter with this incredibly sinister man.

'Capturing Mary' is about how we tend to think of the 50s as a more mellow, gentle time - the time of Eisenhower, when people behaved themselves and were more respectful to their parents. But it was an incredibly dangerous time in many ways because the young had to do what the old said, and often that power that the mature had over the young could be used in a very sadistic and destructive way.

HBO

In both films we see the characters struggling to reconcile their pasts, and how the young man, Joe, helps them do that.

Stephen Poliakoff

Yes, both films are linked by that. Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith's characters both open up to this young man. And he links both films because he's not a threat to them. But he has empathy. And he listens.

HBO

The house itself plays an enormous role in both films, kind of like a third character.

"With all the information and technology we've got, why is there a sense in a lot of lives of something missing? I find that a deeply interesting to write about."

Stephen Poliakoff

The house we used had never been filmed in. It had been a private mansion, but when we found it, it was being used for offices. And the mosaic floor you see in the films had been covered with this horrible old carpet. We pulled up the carpet, and this beautiful mosaic tiling was revealed. According to a local historian, nobody had seen it for fifty years, that floor. So that was quite dramatic and exciting.

HBO

In your work in film and the theater, is there a recurring idea that you're exploring?

Stephen Poliakoff

Well, I think I'm very interested in the recent past. And not just my youth, but before I was born; both my parents were quite old when they had children. And even though I was born well after the Second World War, through their memories I feel like most of the twentieth century is available to me, and that has given me great interest in the past. I've always been terribly interested in how the past interplays with the present.

I've just made a movie called 'Glorious 39,' which is about the Second World War and how many people in Britain, the powerful and the aristocratic, were trying to do a deal with Hitler, and didn't want to stand up to him, didn't want to fight the Second World War, which is true. It was only by a hair breath that Britain did stand up to Hitler. So, I'm very interested in what might have happened, as well as what actually did happen and how that impacts on how we feel now.

It's true that we do see a sense of emptiness and loss in modern life. Why aren't people happier when they're wealthier than they've ever been, despite the economic crisis going on in the world now? With all the information and technology we've got, why is there a sense in a lot of lives of something missing? I find that a deeply interesting thing to write about.

Joe's Palace

HBO Films

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