Ewan McGregor can laugh about it now. But even though the Trainspotting and Star Wars star had been itching to step behind the camera for a while now, when the opportunity came to direct an adaption of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral, he immediately felt the weight of expectations.
Not to mention the scale of the thing. In an conversation with Co.Create about his directorial debut (which hits U.S. theaters this week), McGregor acknowledged that the film was definitely a more ambitious project than the quiet indies first-time directors sometimes choose for their first forays. Not only that, he also takes a starring role in the film—alongside actors Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning—for a story that presents a family life shattered by tragedy as it grapples with weighty material like political radicalization, religion, and what Roth describes as "the indigenous American berserk."
It was, admits McGregor, quite the "baptism of fire for a first-time director."
"It’s a funny thing—you wake up every morning going [gasps]," McGregor said. "For 18 months I woke up like that. I’m glad I don’t have to wake up like that anymore! But then you get to work and you start—you know, maybe the first hour of every day is a bit shaky as you get in there."
"But once you get there and start working with everybody . . . it’s such a wonderful thing to be doing. Making any art is just amazing. And being creative is a wonderful thing. It makes you satisfied. That if this is going to be your job, if you get the chance to work on material like this with people like this—it doesn’t really get much better than that."
For McGregor, at least, the urge to give the director’s chair a try was not about a kind of Clint Eastwood-type career shift. Leaving one’s thumbprint on a picture is just something he sees as inherent in an actor’s craft already—meaning, for him, directing didn’t feel like so much a creative shift as an extension of what he’s already doing.
"As an actor," he explains. "You already are a filmmaker—an essential part of the filmmaking process. Of course, you don’t have experience in preproduction with putting looks together or spending weeks with the cinematographer deciding how the film’s going to look. But you still have interaction with all the creative departments on the film."
"You go through wardrobe and have creative discussions with the costume designer. And then with makeup and hair you come with your own ideas, and through discussions with the director you then mold his or her ideas into your performance. And then when you’re on set working with the cinematographer, you’re working in front of their camera and are aware of how the camera’s moving and why and what effect it has. So you’re very much a filmmaker anyway, I think. I always felt like that."
His first try at directing comes amid a busy period for him, with films including Last Days in the Desert, which was released earlier this year and saw McGregor play both Jesus and the Devil. Among other projects, he’ll be in the Trainspotting sequel; he plays Lumiere in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake coming in 2017; and he’s also starring in the third season of the TV series Fargo coming next year. But American Pastoral provided a creative opportunity he couldn't pass up, even given this insanely hectic schedule.
"I never felt like I’d read anything that really explored the father-daughter relationship like it is [in American Pastoral]. I’m a father of four girls. I’ve been a father for 20 years and know very much what that relationship is like with your girls. But on top of that, Roth’s writing, using the family as a lens to tell a grander story about America and about American history—and lots of things, religion, assimilation, Judaism—I just felt like it was a dream come true, to get a chance to try my hand at it."
Some of the creative insights he took away from his first directorial experience include:
"I trusted the adaption [screenwriter] John Romano had done. The script, I thought, was really good. I felt like bringing the parents’ and their daughter’s story sort of front and center seemed to me to be the correct way to adapt this book. And I tried to allow the characters to be understandable and present different sides, so I wasn’t really telling the audience what to think. I think Roth presents lots of different ideas and leaves it up to me at the end to make my own mind up about it."
"In terms of each scene as you come to it, I would clear the set and have no crew on set, and it would just be me and the actors. We’d rehearse the scene until I felt like we’d found it, and we found it together. I would always have an idea about it and would share that with the actors and say, ‘This is what I imagined. Let’s try that.’ We’d start there. And sometimes that would be it and we’d just shoot it that way. Sometimes it would go off completely on a tangent, and the scene would be played very different than I’d imagined. But that’s always the way I’ve done my best work. When I feel like the director encourages me to be creatively involved and to really dig in and find the truth of scenes and moments."
"The period of time that was the biggest mystery to me was the very start. When you become the director and you’ve got nobody there. The producers are obviously people you can be talking to and discussing ideas with, but really you’re alone and you haven’t cast any of the actors yet—and it’s too early to be working with the actors anyway. So you’re sort of on your own. And that period I realized now was just the period where you’ve got to do a great deal of daydreaming and soul-searching and reading and thinking and finding out what the film is you want to tell in your mind. That’s quite solitary. I would allow myself to indulge in that exploration more next time."
Speaking of next time, McGregor said the directors he tends to admire are the ones who have a go at more than one genre. Which is why he’s already thinking about his next directing effort being a smaller project—contemporary, he imagines, with younger actors.
The more he talks and thinks out loud, the more details he images. He particularly enjoys romances, so perhaps a modern-day love story of some sort. ("If anybody’s got any ideas, please write in!") But definitely a smaller-scale project.
"I feel like I should go back and make something with less money and less time and maybe not be in it," he says. "I’d like to try and go make my first movie. This film feels like somebody’s second movie."