Interview: Murder, motherhood and moviemaking - Sightseers co-writer and star Alice Lowe discusses her directorial debut PREVENGE

 Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

In her debut film Prevenge, writer-director Alice Lowe takes a blowtorch to the picture postcard image of pregnancy. In this deliciously twisted serial killer black comedy, she plays the 30-something, very pregnant, Ruth. If things weren't hard enough for Ruth, trying to deal with her grief at the recent death of her husband in a climbing accident, she also has to battle the strange voices emanating from…her womb. Yup, Ruth’s baby seems to be talking to her, and the squeaky, bitter voice is impelling her on to murder everyone involved in her husband’s death. Equipped with a clunky kitchen knife and a dour sense of humour, Ruth waddles off to carry out the bloody deeds, though as the bodies pile up, she starts to fear she is being consumed by this being inside her. In a neat coincidence, Lowe was pregnant herself when she starred in her own debut, a directing challenge she was well-prepared for after years starring in and writing dark comedy material, ranging from Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place to Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers.

Smoke Screen had the pleasure of sitting down with Lowe at London Film Festival - where the film played in the Dare strand - to talk about murder, motherhood and moviemaking.

You can read the review of Prevenge here.

It’s rare to see a debut director write, direct and star in their own movie, and when pregnant!

AL: Yes, it certainly was greedy of me, wasn’t it! I wanted to direct, but I really didn’t think I’d direct while pregnant. That wasn’t really the plan. I came up with the idea for a director called Jamie Adams, who directed a film called Black Mountain Poets. When I gave him the pitch, he said: “its brilliant, but I can’t direct it as I do rom-coms. This is dark, and I think you should direct this instead.” I knew already that I wanted to direct, but I was wondering if I could star, write and direct while pregnant. And I had had these frustrations over a long period of time of wanting to direct but thinking people wouldn’t trust me: the catch-22 of “you can’t make a first film until you’ve made a first film.”

So I just felt that if I could pull this off it would be such a good thing. You fight battles to protect your creative voice, especially in film with budgets and lots of people scared to give you money only to see you screw it up. But this film would be low budget. I felt now was the time to take that risk. And if I got it right people would respond: “ah, I see what you can do now.” I was whinging about it for so many years, but you’ve got to get out there and do it! Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. It was terrifying! So it ended up being a kamikaze approach, do or die. But I’d made a lot of short films, and in my view you never regret making something. You regret NOT making something. I put all of that into the film.

There seems to be this gleeful aspect to the film, where all the joyful tropes of pregnancy are slashed and burned…

AL: Definitely. When it came to doing research for the film, I was technically right in the middle of the research! It was strange; like being a freelancer, joining this odd club that is pregnancy, which I have seen as being an industrialised, fetishised thing. I felt very outsider-ish about it. That was already going through my head. So when I was making the film I was pooling all of this stuff that I had experienced. I hope people do see it as cathartic! Some people have suggested pregnant women might be disturbed watching the film, to me they are about to give birth, I don’t think we should patronise them. They’re about to go through something very painful and life changing, I think they are stronger than we think they are. 

But at the same time, just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching horror or be a different person. It’s only society that would change me. All those issues were running into the film, and I do hope people watch it and feel that it’s a film talking about all the things they aren't allowed to do. There is a relief and release in that. Just because you are pregnant doesn’t mean you have to pack all that stuff away; I think that would be really unhealthy. So there’s a lot of taboo stuff I put in the film, stuff which I felt was current and people don’t talk about. Like those trendy new parenting things like prenatal yoga - those kind of things just stressed me out. I just wanted to put a pin in all that.

Your character murders a whole lot of people, did you think about how that could alienate the audience?

AL: I definitely wanted it to be quite alienating. What I was trying to do was do a kind inverse character arc, where the viewer almost starts off hating the character, only to come to empathise with them later after you come to understand them. A risky enterprise according to the screenwriting handbooks! I wanted to test the audience, see how far they could go. This woman you see on screen is pregnant, as a society we are used to such figures being seen as “nice and lovely”. The first two men Ruth kills I wanted to present as if they might be victims of some kind of feminist vengeance, but then flip it on its head by suggesting its society that she hates, and the hypocrisies she is experiencing.

It is an interesting word: “alienating”, as I did think of this as a secret sci-fi film. It doesn’t have to be out there for everyone to see, but Ruth is a sort of alien character. She’s an anti-superheroine! Her special powers are her pregnancy! She feels that what is happening to her is very strange and new. Hence the score and everything had to be futuristic in a retro kind of way. I deliberately didn’t want the audience to feel comfortable at any stage: hence all the footage of spiders and lizards early on! The scene with Mike Wozniak (whop plays the affable flatmate of one of Ruth’s male victims, whom she considers killing too) was a moment where I wanted Ruth’s worldview to be challenged too.

This feels like it would be a perfect companion piece to Sightseers; what did you bring from that and all the other films and TV shows you’ve worked on?

AL: I co-wrote Sightseers, and I think they are genetically related for sure, like siblings. A lot of this just comes down to my sense of humour, and I do have a dark one. I like improvisation, mixing up realism with surrealism. The main thing I developed on from Sightseers was having a real sense of drama, which I put into Prevenge. Some of the themes are more serious. Pregnancy is serious. I’ve seen enough comedies about it. I wanted a dark crises to be going on in Ruth’s world, death is mixed up with birth and life for her. So I was dabbling more with drama here, making it more of a thriller than Sightseers.

I didn’t go to film school, so everything is a learning curve and building on what you’ve done. Pushing it a little bit further. I do want to branch out and tackle different genres. I see myself more of a fantasy writer. I get accused of being a horror writer, but, for example, I do a lot of surrealism. I’d love to do sci-fi and period dramas. My next film is going to be very concept driven, but it not ready to be talked about yet! I would like to make films were people can sense it has its own personality, with its own traits.

Did you draw on any other filmmakers for inspiration? There seemed to be a few homages to other movies in Prevenge:

AL: Possession and Halloween certainly, I also wanted to have lots of colour in it, so I was thinking a lot about Brian De Palma. We were so lucky with locations too: like, the reptile shop was the biggest coup ever! This could have cost us a fortune. I wanted the film to look like it was a travel through the circles of hell, with each scene having its own feeling. And we actually got those things! For example, we filmed at Saatch and Saatchi, and they had huge blue ice-like table! Just what I had in my head! 

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Interview: Writer/director Ciro Guerra on going downriver in his mesmerising film Embrace of the Serpent

Writer/director Ciro Guerra’s mysterious and mesmerising new film (an Oscar nominee last year for best foreign language film) takes viewers downriver on a Joseph Conrad-esque journey into the depths of the Colombian Amazon territories, as white explorers search for a mysterious plant with fabled healing powers, guided by the warrior shaman Karamakate. Embrace of the Serpent’s narrative wanders dreamily between two eras– the early 20th century and the WWII period – and interestingly complicates the typical scenario of a “white man lost abroad” by showing both time period’s events from the perspective of the native peoples instead, even if the film was inspired by the travel diaries of Theodor Koch Grunberg (1879–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001).

Colombian director Guerra was in London to discuss how this story made the leap from obscure diary entries to an acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film, and why he decided this story would be told from an Amazonian rather than a Western perspective. You can read the entire Smoke Screen review here.

On “mythical” stories and filmmaking:

For reasons I don’t fully understand I have always been interested in mythical structures. I find something universal in them; in mythical structures, stories and characters. It has always been very appealing to me.

On researching the story:

The first step was reading the journals of the explorers [Theodor Koch Grunberg (1879–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001)]. It was material unknown to me, unknown to most people in Colombia. It is a big, remote region, and we have not heard many stories from it. I was fascinated by the stories, so I went to the Amazon to start looking around. I realised quickly that this Amazon that they described no longer existed, or was no longer reachable at least. The Amazon today is totally different. But as I started going deeper and deeper, and spending more time with the indigenous people, I started realising that the echoes of the story are still vital today. But that meant that the story had to stated drifting away from the Western narrative I had wanted to do to start with. The film became more and more suffused with Amazonian myth, which is very difficult to get into because it is almost incomprehensible; it is just so different from the way we understand the world. The film is therefore an attempt to build a bridge between two narratives: one we can understand, and the Amazonian people’s way of telling stories.

On deciding on the narrative structure:

Theodor Koch Grunberg was following in the footsteps of another explorer who had been there before, his name was Shamberg, and he had been there about 60 years before him. Truly he had been the first one to contact many of the peoples in the region. Grunberg spent two months with them [the native peoples] and they kept telling him about a myth, which he realised was Shamberg, who had been turned by them into a mythical character. Not only that, but they saw in him the same person, who had visited them two generations before, This idea of the same spirit traversing between the souls of two different men was something that was very Amazonian, but something we could understand. For me that was the key moment: I had the story and a way to connect.

On the mysterious “Yakruna plant” and native medicine:

No, the plant is not real, the indigenous peoples were clear that they did not want the names of real plants and rituals used, so we had to fictionalise that. These things are sacred and cannot be learned through a film. The film should therefore not be seen as an ethnographical document. We were looking for a true that was deeper. The superficial aspects of the film are fictional. Everything is based on something real. There are many plants that have been used for many purposes.

For example the poison plant the native peoples used to hunt eventually became used as a form of anaesthesia. The native Amazonian people also had the knowledge of how to combine plants.

On the shoot:

It was very difficult to find the locations to shoot the film, as we needed a stretch of the Amazon not affected by tourism, colonialism and Western culture and so on. We found it in the Vaupes region. It is a very remote area, so you have to take everything with you down there. We found a camp that was made to build a hydroelectric plant, and we managed to shoot 70% of the film there as the crew has somewhere to stay. The important step after finding the plan was asking for permission and collaboration from the indigenous communities who lived there. They really gave us their guidance on working in this place. They became a part of it. It is a place where you need to be very respectful. Our goal was not to have any negative impact. The environment helped: we didn't get rain, we didn’t get accidents, we didn’t get diseases. No one was bitten or attacked by anything!

 

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Ian McKellen on Richard III and Shakespeare on film: 'You can have a wonderful “Shakespeare movie” with hardly any Shakespeare in it all...'

UK-USA 1995

Directed by Richard Loncraine

103 min Digital 15

Playing in the BFI’s Shakespeare on Film Season.

RATING: ★★★★★

Back on the big screen in a new Park Circus digital restoration, and part of the BFI Shakespeare on Film Season, Richard III is looking mighty fine at age 21. A bombastic and zippily-paced adaption of the bard’s epic study of villainy and ambition, this version, originally released in 1995, was adapted by actor Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine from the National Theatre’s stage production by Richard Eyre. It helped make McKellan the international star he is today, he himself admitting it opened up the roles of Magento in X-Men and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings  (though of course he had a long history of film and TV work before).

This take on Richard III is set in a glamorous, alternate history of 1930s England, full of silk and champagne and braided uniforms. A vicious civil war is taking place, one fought with WWII-era submachine guns and tanks, and within the first five minutes a gas mask and trench coat wearing Richard, Duke of Gloucester, has murdered the current besieged King (after driving his tank through the King’s HQ wall) with a pistol. To the sounds of gunshots, the RICHARD III title flashes up on screen as McKellan rips off the gas mask, revealing a sneer under a pencil mustache. The film never deviates from this hyper-stylised tone, and the fact it embraces it so fully makes it all the stronger.

Impressively squeezing the huge play into just two hours (McKellan and Loncraine have claimed only about a quarter of the text is on screen) through bold visuals, vivid set designs and costuming that clearly defines each character and place, and working with actors who deliver the ornate dialogue with comfortable ease, Loncraine gives us a rip-roaring tale of the classic ambitious ruler who could ‘murder while he smiles’. At the heart of the film is the oversized but compelling performance from McKellan, bedecked in regalia that blends British aristocracy with Italian and German fascist pomp, lurching about the place due to his character having a limp and withered arm. Though a disgusting, murdering villain, what makes Richard III so compelling is the way we are given access to his thoughts via to-camera addresses, a very postmodern touch from the bard which survives today in the shape of characters like House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. Through these intimate conversations about his schemes, we the audience become complicit in his deeds, as Richard moves, out of a mix of spite (he is a physically disabled child of his mother’s brood after all), ambition and his own self-hatred, to murder his way through his own family tree to get to the throne. We are both shocked at how far he will go and how brazen his scheming becomes - at one point Richard woos the wife of one of his slaughtered foes in the actual morgue where she mourns - but we also come to understand that an unstable but all-too-human mixture of feelings drive him.

Aside from McKellen, there is a great cast on hand; from Jim Broadbent as Richard’s sycophantic, but increasingly fearful and guilt-addled ally Lord Buckingham, to Nigel Hawthorne as the tragically innocent Duke of Clarence, who even when being knifed to death on Richard’s orders cannot believe his brother would do the deed. The use of London’s many atmospheric and often derelict locations, including the Battersea Power Station, makes the film work well as a time capsule of a bygone era. The costumes are a riot of colour and glamour, and when added to the striking shooting locations, make the film look far more expensive than it actually was (the film was budgeted for about $5m and actually ran out of money in the early stages). Overall, a great way to introduce the unwilling or fearful to the many ways Shakespeare’s classic tales can be told on film.

Director Richard Loncraine and actor, writer and producer Ian McKellen were at the BFI to take part in a post-screening Q&A of the new print of Richard III:

On the translation of Shakespeare from stage to screen.

IM: Well I’d played Richard III for the National Theatre, just a few blocks away from where we are now today actually, directed by Richard Eyre, which I guess makes him “Richard the first” and you [to Loncraine] “Richard the second!”! So I had a lot of the play inside me, including its long speeches: thought we actually had to cut out of lot of the characters and long speeches which link to the play’s past. The last third actually only really makes sense if you know about the history that preceded it. I was stuck with the idea that the audience comes to hear, rather than to see, and that an audience for Richard III would like a lot of talking! But here we are; this is a film. How much the cinema could replace the words was the question. I wasn't at all confident it could be done. But I presented a cut-down version, knowing the play very well and the essentials, to Richard. He looked at it with beady eye of a cinema man! 

RL: I just thought it was still a bit “pros-arch” still [prosenium arch], but I went to see Ian at his house, and instead of showing me the door, he asked me what we could do to fix it. We sat down, talked, and very quickly worked out - well it took months actually -  how to carve up the text. You [to McKellan]handled the text as I knew nothing about it, and I tried to create images that I guess would be…disrespectful in a way. I always thought it needs debagging in a respectful way. I think that’s where the toilet idea came from didn’t it?

IM: When you do that speech [Richard III’s first on-screen address to audience] on stage, it breaks, it starts as a public declaration, then gets very personal, inviting the audience in to the private insides of Richard. Cinematically, to make it a public occasion and then reduce it to the most private place that a man can be, was actually cinematic, but Shakespearean too! You have to give up as a stage actor on the idea that you can make a film of Shakespeare and it'll be just like the play. It won’t. It’s a translation as it were. You don’t have to regret it.

You can have a wonderful “Shakespeare movie” with hardly any Shakespeare in it all: Throne of Blood for example. Because those directors are sympathetic towards Shakespeare they get to the heart of the matter, which is the character, the complications and human nature, which is why Shakespeare has survived all these years.

RL: I was taught Shakespeare really badly at school, I really came out of school thinking Shakespeare wasn't really very good. I was the idiot, not Shakespeare! It took me 38 years, until I met Ian, for me to realise he was a genius. But I felt we had to make it accessible, easy to understand: because I didn’t understand it! I wondered how I could direct actors if I didn’t understand what each scene meant. I had to understand every nuance of what was going on. Sometimes it was not possible. Obviously we couldn’t write Shakespeare, but we did things like create names that would be spoken on screen, like “Prime Minister". Ian cut the text back and back, and I tried to create imagery to extend the story, for example trying to establish the political situation at the start of the play, with the tank driving through the wall.

IM: For the first ten minutes of this movie, nobody speaks, you think it’s going to be a silent movie. I rather like that. I want people to be sitting there wondering “when are these people going to speak”. Then they are ready for Shakespeare! Of course when they get it it starts “Now is the winter of our discontent”. What a great way to begin. I was terribly, terribly aware of the words, and wanting them to come through. So I was very pleased when Richard cast the actors he did. Maggie Smith! In just two speeches: doesn’t she give it the welly it needed!

On the character of Richard III

IM: Some actors have played Richard as if he’s a psychopath, he can’t stop killing people. But he actually only kills one person in this story, and then as a soldier. He issues orders: he tells other people to kill. Thats what tyrants do. This man is not unstable in the sense of a mass murderer. He is after power. He has ambition. He can do this because he doesn’t care. And Maggie Smith, bless her, texted me before this show saying; “stop saying its Richard’s mother that is the source of this”. But if you are born being told you are hateful and horrible, and your mother doesn’t like the look of you, it’s not a good start is it?

On the use of modern sets and clothing:

IM: Why do it in modern dress? Olivier after all had everyone in the accurate costumes for the time in his version.  Because: if you don’t, you might not know who in this story who is in the royal family, and who is just an aristocrat, or who is in the church or the armed forces and their rank - there was no uniform in Shakespeare's times to tell this. Richard is moving amongst them all. He gets on because he has a certain amount of charm.

You don’t have to relate it to the actuality of a history that might have been. It’s not real history. I think Shakespeare knew that. It’s a comment on history. In “modern-ish” dress, you just know who everyone is.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Director Pablo Larraine talks to Smoke Screen about his award-winning dissection of the Catholic Church: The Club

Chilean director Pablo Larraine is truly on a roll right now: having already delivered to us the acclaimed Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No, Larraín scooped the Berlinale’s Grand Jury Prize with The Club: a disturbing, sad and blackly funny morality tale about a group of misanthropic and disgraced Catholic priests who have been hidden away from prying eyes by the Church authorities in a sleepy Chilean coastal town. For years these men have been out of sight and out of mind, and thats just the way they like it.

But then their quiet lives are suddenly disrupted by the shocking violence provoked by a newly arrived lodger, which then leads to investigation by a live-in representative of a ‘new Church’ seemingly keen to clean up its all too often abusive act. The film has finally reached UK shores this week, having already played at last year’s London Film Festival, where the Smoke Screen was impressed enough to grant it five stars. It is certainly going to be one of the most talked about foreign language films to play in UK cinemas this year, and with eerie timing its release comes right on the heels of that of Oscar-winner Spotlight, another film placing the Church’s sordid association and protection of sexual abusers front and centre in its narrative. 

Larraine was gracious enough to grant The Smoke Screen a brief interview, where he discussed the strange-but-true origins of the film’s story, the right tone to aim for when tackling such deeply sensitive subject matter, and how he worked with real-life victims of abuse.

Can you tell us where the idea for the film originated from?

PL: What it really was, was a picture I saw in a newspaper, or maybe on the internet; a picture of this house somewhere in Germany. Very beautiful, with green fields, against a background of mountains. But if you read thew news piece you realised it was actually a place where a Chilean priest from a German congregation was living. This man had actually escaped from justice in my country, he had been accused of sexual abuse, and now he was living in this house. What was strange was how the house looked like something out of a Swiss chocolate commercial. Incredible to think that someone accused of that could be living there. I wondered who else might be living in that house. We did a lot of research, and that is really where the movie was born.

Were you ever able to get inside one of these actual houses?

PL: No, they'd never let you! I know where one or two of them are located in my country. But if you go to Google you can find out about a clerical service that actually did this: an official thing from the Vatican that was shut down in 2004. It was running for 50 years. But I was able to talk to some former priests and religious people who had left the Church for multiple reasons, that was how I came to understand how it works. The problem with this is you tend to associate this kind of thing with sexual issues, but it wasn't just that. Some priests were there because they were too old, had lost their faith, or were ill or had fallen in love with a man or woman. There were therefore many reasons why somebody could be taken to a place like this.

Who is running these houses int the film and who is the representative of the ‘new Church’?

PL: I thought it would be interesting to have a character represent the ‘new side’ of the Church, with the rest of them representing the ‘old Church’; the Church that has been running things for 2000 years. It represents the internal conflict of the Vatican, they both have different visions. One vision, the new one, was to shut down these places, make the priests face the law, be more humble and open. The other wants to keep the old ways; more secretive and obscure, and that is what the Vatican really is. Every time the Vatican makes a decision, they make it behind closed doors, lock it down. But what was interesting to me was how both sides of the Church are somehow struggling with the same fear. That fear is the press, the media. They fear the media more than hell. A scandal is going to affect everybody in the Church. That is the fear the nun plays on in the film. It’s a new paradigm for the Church. In the last twenty years, look at what has been happening. A continuous line of scandals: a priest here, a priest there. And this kind of abuse has been happening for years! But now we get to know. The victims are willing to speak. Being a victim back then was not the same as being a victim today; it was just shame and humiliation. Most people would not believe you.

How did you work with the cast, especially given the sensitive subject matter?

PL: Well, I never actually showed them the script - and I’d never done that before. Usually I work in a more regular way: you invite an actor round, give them the script, get into the process and talk about it.  I would only give them the scenes in the morning so they could work with that. Only during the interview scenes with the younger priest did I give them the script a day before, as the scenes were long. It was an interesting exercise, because you can only do it with people you really trust, and they have to trust you. Almost every actor in the movie I have been working with for many years, so we can do that. And they are wonderful actors.

It created the necessity of each performance that they would have to have a combination of presence and to be present. Just there when it is happening. It was interesting to me, a performance that feels like the person doesn't know where they are, but they the actors can control it. You can feel that. I think audiences who don’t know this or who don’t have much information about it will feel that these guys are in this sort of unknown place, an unknown human space. That creates a lot of mystery.

The film seems very non-judgmental?

PL: I’m not a journalist; it is not my job to inform people about what is going on and pass judgment somehow. What I try to do is find the humanity that they have. You have to do it through compassion. Otherwise you are looking to docudrama or news reportage. But that is already being made by other people. I don't need to judge them, or say what they did was wrong: I think the audience does that. It is more interesting if you have an active audience that is getting the message through their own perspective.

I did a lot of research and spoke to different victims. Some of them, especially those who had ben systematically abused for many years: it was like they had lost any kind of fear of talking about it. When I asked them what happened, they would tell me in a very graphic way. The same way you would describe building a house; very specific, and very graphic. I couldn’t believe it. My first reaction as a filmmaker is to film that. But then I thought it would be more interesting, specifically with their subject matter, to have the victim in the film describe what happened to him in a very graphic and specific way, so the audience will create the image in their own minds. That image would always be a more violent and disturbing image than I could ever make. There is nothing more dangerous than the human mind, so you want to work with that.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

"At its best, documentary film blows fiction out of the water": Director David Sington discusses his powerful new documentary"The Fear of 13 "

 Nick, the sole narrator and on-screen presence in The Fear of 13. Source: Dogwoof

Nick, the sole narrator and on-screen presence in The Fear of 13. Source: Dogwoof


New documentary The Fear of 13, from filmmaker David Sington (the award-winning director behind the acclaimed In the Shadow of the Moon), is a superb example of the impact a good story, told by a compelling storyteller, can make. For virtually all of the film’s running time, all we see on screen is Nick, the sole protagonist, who sits in a chair and relates to us a tale of his imprisonment and condemnation to death row, a tale full of jaw-dropping, heartrending and blackly funny twists and turns. We are told nothing about this man as the film opens, save one tantalising line of opening text that informs us Nick has asked to exercise his one remaining right as a death row convict: he has petitioned the relevant court to proceed with his execution.

Having struggled to complete The Fear of 13 since 2007, Sington now sees his finished film released in the UK on the strangely appropriate date of Friday the 13th this November. He discussed the journey of this long-gestating project to the screen with Smoke Screen on the eve of the film’s release, following a run on the festival circuit where is has received standing ovations. You can read the entire review of the film here, but beware, the below interview reveals some details about the film, which is best experienced in total ignorance of its production history.

How have both you found audiences have been reacting to the film?

We’ve taken the film to Copenhagen and London Film Festivals, and the reaction has really surprised me; way more positive than I thought it would be. We’ve been working on this film for such a long time, and you lose perspective on it. It is a very unusual film, built around a one-man monologue, and you worry the audience will get bored seeing the same guy on screen. I found myself nervous at all the screenings, we’ve had five so far. I only relaxed at the last one and watched it with the audience! We had a standing ovation at the London screening.

It is a truism that all you need is a good story, and a good storyteller. Here you had a great story, but you made particular storytelling decisions when it came to relating the historical facts about Nick’s experience.

I wish I could boast that I had brilliantly conceived it all from the beginning, but that is really not what happened. Christophe Riley the producer came across Nick’s story, and he was really the person who was instrumental in making In the Shadow of the Moon happen and bringing it to my production company, he said to me that this was like another Shadow; a really powerful story with a brilliant interviewee. Having found out about Nick’s story we were able to convince him to take part; that was quite a difficult thing to do as he was quite resistant to it. We haunted him for a bit. This was back in 2007.

We just started with a couple of days of interviews with Nick. We were very careful with how we set up the interview; the lighting and such. His reaction to that was really strong; it spooked him. He said to me afterwards; “You really put me through something there.” The first few days of interviews were incredibly powerful and super emotional, a great deal of pain, anger, fear and crying. It wasn't an interview so much as a re-enactment if you like; a re-living of the emotions and incidents with gestures and voices. I felt it was extraordinary, but I also felt it was a bit too much, so we asked if we could do it again, with a different approach.

The music is very important in the film, there were ten songs Nick talked about as playing at key role in his life at certain moments; such as when he was arrested, when he was a child, and in prison, listening on the car radio, that sort of thing. We made a mix tape of those songs and went through them with Nick, one by one. And we went through the whole story again over two days, and we ended up with 22 hours of material. At that point I was beginning to think that we maybe had the film now, plus we had done lots of research into the veracity of what he was saying and we had identified other people to interview. But I also started feeling that maybe I really didn't want to do that. That maybe we should just use Nick. That made it very difficult to raise money for the film, as we were asking people to put money into something that sounded super-arthouse that would be of very limited interest. So we then had to continue to self-fund to take it to rough cut.

We did a complete chronological construction of the story from childhood to present, a three-hour assembly. It was obvious at that point we had enough material, but it wasn't watchable. So we brought it down to about one and a half hours. With documentary, you’ve got your story, and you film it, but you work it out in the cutting room. I never worry about structure until later in the editing process. John Battsek, a very distinguished producer of documentaries who was also an exec on In the Shadow of the Moon, a very astute guy, he told me: “It really comes alive when he gets to prison.” After that it took me about five minutes to figure out a structure for the film, which is what you have now.

It didn't take us very long at all to restructure the film: we had Nick, black spacer, music, sound effects. We took that to Sheffield as a work-in-progress and raised the money quite easily from the BBC and private investors in the US. I worked out the structure by responding to the material.

You give the audience almost no information about Nick to start with:

If you look at the setting, it is clearly ambiguous. I obviously wanted to retain a slight sense of mystery. I knew that. Storytelling is all about holding information back. If you present all the information up front like a journalist piece, that is what kills most television and factual programming. It kills all the fun! “Once upon a time” is how you tell a story.

What effect were you looking for with the highly-stylised bridging sequences that appear in between the sections of Nick’s monologue?

Nick paints very vidid “word pictures”. If I put pictures of what he was saying on screen, that would be redundant. Words and pictures never want to be doing precisely the same thing. So I had to find images which were helpful, without being merely illustrations. The mantra was: “we must not illustrate Nick’s story.” That meant no re-enactments, really. There is the imagery of the prison, what is outside the cell door. We try and deploy that in a poetic way to enhance the mood, so we use shallow depth of field, most of the pictures are out of focus and they are typically over-cranked. 

What I was trying to do was to keep you inside Nick’s cell and in Nick’s head, with images that were in his mind but not necessarily images representing what he was saying. Or maybe more accurately; these were images in my mind when I was talking to him. I didn't want to create scenes on the whole, I wanted to create little moments, vivid images, that might flash into your mind when telling a story. Dreamlike images.

The film is also structured as a mystery, so I wanted images I could play at the beginning and the end, but only at the end will you understand what they mean. They have got to have some powerful emotional tenor, but you never quite know why, until eventually you understand. A visual puzzle to go with the narrative puzzle. It was very difficult to do. As soon as it got too literal, it was dead.

How did you build trust with Nick, and what was he like to work with?

We did show him In the Shadow of the Moon, which he really liked. That convinced him we were good filmmakers. We probably had two or three meals together before the interview. I met his wife and child. I was just trying to convince him that I was a trustworthy person in it for the right reasons.

He is very charming, quite outgoing, quite “big”. A vivid person, not quiet at all. He is good fun, and he’s funny. He is somebody I think who has to try, as it were, nothing is quite easy for Nick, you get that impression. He has to make a big effort, so as to be a nice, sociable person. He is not a very relaxed person. In the intervening years since shooting the film we had very little contact with him.

We did say to Nick: “You will have nothing to do with the editing of this film, it is a documentary, and it has to be objective, it can’t be a plug piece. We have to make up our own minds about you and how to show you. You are putting your life in our hands in a funny sort of way.” But he has had absolutely no editorial input whatsoever. And he has never complained about it, demanded it or asked for it. He has been extraordinarily trusting of us. 

 Source: Dogwoof

Source: Dogwoof

What were the major challenges you faced making the film?

The first problem was we had no money! We tried to sell the film, but a lot of the regular people you would target turned it down. So it was very difficult to decide to spend even more money on it. That was the main problem. But it was a difficult film to make, not in terms of being difficult to shape Nick’s material, it took a while, but it wasn't a painful process. It was difficult to illustrate, to put in the pictures, so to speak. 

We had three shoots in the United States, and we had a really good line producer in Haroula Rose and fantastic support from Kate Swanson, they set up a quite complicated shoot in the US with prisons and guards and extras, all on a relatively modest budget. The problem wasn’t filming it so much as editing it, making it work. 

Are there any documentary filmmakers who particularly inspire you today?

The people I really admire are the documentary filmmakers who are going out and really putting their necks on the line to get these extraordinary stories. I did think of Errol Morris’s film Fog of War and Swimming to Cambodia, which is a one-man stage show. I also thought about fiction films, classics about death row; how did they work, what did they do? Such as The Green Mile: you don’t really know until the end what really happened.

I revere the classics; the Maysles, Pennebaker, Jennings and Grierson. At its best documentary film blows fiction out of the water. The best films are way more powerful and important, they stay with you. It has to be Godfather-level fiction to compete. For example, there are plenty of films about Mexican cartels and drugs, but Cartel Land is the film that will stay with you.

The Fear of 13 is released in the UK on 13 November 2015.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

“Russell Brand...he’s like a phoenix from the ashes,” director Ondi Timoner on making "Brand: A Second Coming"

 The mercurial Russell Brand is the subject of Dig! director Ondi Timoner's new documentary

The mercurial Russell Brand is the subject of Dig! director Ondi Timoner's new documentary

He used to be just a naughty boy, but now he might actually be the messiah. Or, maybe, he is a bit of both. Viewers can make up their own minds about comedian-turned-political revolutionary Russell Brand after catching director Ondi Timoner's (Dig! We Live in Public) documentary Brand: A Second Coming. The film is released in UK cinemas on October 23, having premiered in the country in a gala spot at this year’s London Film Festival. You can read the Smoke Screen 4-star review here.

Timoner only got invited onto the documentary project as a result of Brand being unable to find a director who could shape it into something coherent, even after years of shooting, and she at first simply planned to follow him on his comedy tour Messiah Complex. But over the course of an arduous, strange and fascinating shoot, Brand’s life took a very leftward turn. He broke up with then-wife Katy Perry, abandoned a blossoming Hollywood career, headed back to the UK in an attempt to overthrow the government, and thrashed out a manifesto called Revolution. The unkempt, mercurial comedian, famed for his libertine hijinks and cheeky public stunts, now found himself installed at the head of a political wave and a new icon for younger voters.

Timoner, a director who has twice scooped the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, took some time out from the London Film Festival press circuit to discuss how the shoot took such a sideways turn, the challenges of gaining the trust of the notoriously media-shy Brand, and how the film fits in with her fasciation for “disruptors” of the status quo.

 Ondi Timoner

Ondi Timoner

The film premiered at SXSW festival, since then have you spoken to Russell Brand, has he made peace with the film following his refusal to turn up to the film’s launch event and see it again?

He had seen the film, but he was feeling sick from it. I don’t think he’s made peace with it, no. But he agrees that it was the right move: to make the movie about him. To see the myths, to see how fame plays out through his eyes. To see him be lambasted for trying to step out of that and do something different with his life. I think the journey is inspiring to watch though, and I think he’ll be happy with that. Its tough for him though, as he’s said to me, his life was tough enough to live the first time around.

What do you think about the more recent news that Brand has shut down his Youtube channel The Trews, and wants to spend more time educating himself politically?

I can’t imagine he wont come back to social media, in particular because it is such a powerful tool for organising people and disruptive activity. We couldn’t have the revolution he proposes before the internet, so he needs to use it. 

How did you get involved in the project in the first place, was it through working on the short film Russell Brand’s The Bird?

No, I got involvedbecause of my work on Dig! and We Live in Public, Russell thought I’d be good at dealing with “difficult mavericks”. The film had already been shooting for several years, Oliver Stone originated it, but it was going under a different title called Happiness: which was built around Russell interviewing different people about the concept of happiness. You seen a tiny bit of that in the film: the scenes where he interviews Mike Tyson, David Lynch and others.

Russell never gave up creative control and took it over, he wasn't happy with the way it was going, and went through various directors. At one point even he tried to direct it. So I ended up being sent the film and being asked to save it, and I didn't see a film in there to save really. So I went to a meeting to give them notes on how to make it better, and Russell was at that meeting. He was so magnetic and intelligent, and I didn't really see any of that in the footage. So that was my first hook.

Then I got sent his books and other material; actually I didn’t even really know who Russell was. I knew he was Katy Perry’s boyfriend, but I hadn't seen any of his standup, I hadn't seen Get Him to the Greek, nothing. But I was blown away, and I couldn't believe that here was this really intelligent person, and I’d been thinking of passing on the project.

He pursued me to go to his standup show when I was still on the fence about doing it. I saw him with all his scattered papers and notes about his show Messiah Complex. I saw a person just grappling with the distracting tabloid celebrity cheap fame that he entertained, thinking it would make him happy, versus this immortality that figures from his childhood like Gandhi, like Malcolm X and Che, had attained as they had put something else before themselves. He was trying to figure out who he was going to be, and how it was going to work, even as those icons are being co-opted by pop culture. It was all so disturbing to him, but I thought it was really interesting; I could look at the role of ego and narcissism in people who want to change the world. That was the original concept then, I would watch this play out on stage, start a new movie pulling back the veil on Brand’s creative process, and go out on the road and film Messiah Complex.

I had no idea that he would then move back to London, try to overthrow the government, start The Trews, write his manifesto Revolution. He left the US, he’d just bought a house, Laurence Olivier’s house. I don’t think he’s ever been in it. He left and never went back. Who does that?

 Messiah complex: Russell Brand at work

Messiah complex: Russell Brand at work

Some of Russell Brand’s work did have a political flavour to it though, as your archive footage shows.

Yeah and that made me want to seek out in the trajectory of the man. He comes from a lower middle class from a really common town which he jokingly called ‘the penitentiary of anonymity”: Grays in Essex. But you can see that he is pissed, pissed at the inequality, even back then, but he doesn't have any power, except the power of his winning personality, to cause chaos in the streets, dress up like Jack the Ripper and try to stop a corporation taking over Spitalfields Market and so on. But he had to become famous before he could truly disrupt things. But now he is called a hypocrite for it. I’m not sure even he knows how to balance it out, he could give away all his money, but then he would have no resources to make shit happen.

How did you and Russell Brand work together, and develop trust?

I had to remind him that I wasn’t the paparazzi every day. It was extra challenging as I’d never made a movie about someone as famous before; they have all this armour. They have a way of managing anyone trying to get near them, with kid gloves on.

It took a lot of work to get the filming accomplished; as Russell is someone who doesn’t like to be documented, living his private life. But he knew we were doing good work, and I would keep challenging him, keep showing him that I was listening and that I cared, that I had respect for him.

At first the way that I established trust was by putting up boundaries. Like for example we were supposed to be going travelling, getting shots, and Russell hid from me for several hours. Then I got call from his management saying I could travel with him, but not ask him any questions or film him on the way. So I just didn't show up at the airport. What was the point? I’d already told Russell that the thing I needed to make this work was travel shots! He called later and apologised, he took responsibility for trying to over control things before when filming before me, and now here he was doing it again. I showed him in that moment what I would not waste my time. It wasn't about kissing ass to earn trust.

I did finally get creative control and final cut, when he moved to England and started doing all this disruptive stuff, that meant following him to do all the interviews with his family and friends. I didn't want to leave my child at home to chase Russell around, do all this work, to then have him have final say. Given that there had been four or five directors before, obviously there was a story as to why this thing wasn't getting done. Life is too short for me to put myself in that position, and I already ended up editing thousand of hours of footage outside of what I was getting paid for, I shot the movie, produced it, it’s a lot to take on only to have someone come along and tell you to change the whole thing.

Did he object to anything you wanted to include in the film?

Yes, and I did give a lot. I changed a lot of things for him, out of respect for him and his humanity and our relationship.  There were ethical reasons too, where he felt he was transgressing in the footage, or if it was really, really private. There were some scenes with Katy Perry which were cut too. I just drew the line where he started telling me where to put stuff. I told him; “you win in this film, at the end.”

There is a line Brand speaks where he shouts to a crowd: “I may be a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist”. Your film does engage with the question of where political idealism ends and narcissism begins.

I actually ask him in the film, in that scene in the car: “So you think you’re just better than everyone else?” I think he struggles with that, all the time. I think he knows he’s special. Of course he does! How could you not have the career he has had without being special? He loves chaos, he loves mucking about, disrupting. When shooting, he loved riding his bike and having us run after him, he loved the chase, all that. He's a complete kid in so many ways, but also really, really serious! He can’t stand the fact that he is part of the distraction. He hates that our society is so unequal. But he also is in the one percent. So its this conundrum that he is trapped in. And it is so interesting.

What do you think Russell’s potential is as a disruptive figure? The defeat of Labour in the UK election in May had many questioning his reach. Has he maybe not reached his potential yet? Is that why he has retreated from the public eye recently?

I think he’s thought about that, yeah. He wears his heart on his sleeve in many ways. He said in The Trews after Miliband lost: “Maybe I just don’t have any impact in politics?”  He was very self disparaging. It was eye-opening for him, how much work there was to do. 

We talked once in his tour van, and I wasn't filming at the time, and he said to me that he doesn’t think that artists have ever had any impact on history, meaning he felt he wouldn't be able to. I argued him I totally disagreed with that, and that our commentary was extremely vital to opening people’s eyes and seeing people questioning, holding up a mirror to society. He utterly disagreed. I nicknamed it “the art debate” and I really wanted to include it in the movie. It is interesting to think about the timing of that conversation, as he was about to write the Revolution book, but we had no idea he was! He didn't say anything.

That book was his manifesto, but Russell comes from a very personal place with his humour, and I think he did that again with his book. So he mixed in his personal anecdotes and humour - as he really believes in the power of humour - in with his manifesto. People and critics did not like that. I think the problem was not just he was stepping out of the doc but that he turned it into this gonzo journalism, a self-reflective and slightly narcissistic manifesto. That was the problem. It was painful for him to be criticised so much on that book. He just feels like he can’t win.

But I think that he has the power to really get kids involved in a way that they never were before. He speaks to them, engages with them, he can explain and make politics entertaining. Look at The Trews for example; its great, and for him to think it cant make a difference just because Miliband didn't win, well, that’s not right. Never underestimate Russell Brand, he’s like a phoenix from the ashes.

Brand: A Second Coming played at London Film Festival 2015 and is on general release on October 23.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Deeds not words! Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep and Sarah Gavron on Suffragette

It has been a while since this writer can remember attending a film press conference where all of the panel guests were women. But with women's movement drama Suffragette, which opened this year's London Film Festival, women were not just foregrounded in the casting, but were built into the DNA of the production from the ground up. The director, screenwriter, and most of the producers were all women. The film explores the journey of young London factory worker Maud Watts, a working class wife and mother, who grows more and more passionately committed to the burgeoning Suffragette movement in the early 1900s, in response to the terrible working conditions and oppression she encounters at all levels of her existence.

At a press conference to announce the launch of the film at the start of the festival, director Sarah Gavron, writer Abi Morgan and cast members Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep discussed how the film was designed to highlight the status of women today, the challenges of getting a film made in which the main roles were all given to women who were not designed to be either funny or romantic, and who they felt were the Suffragettes of today.

How much resistance was there in terms of getting the film off the ground?

Abi Morgan: Sarah and I have been on this project for about six years, but it has been truly Sarah’s passion project for the last decade. That should give you some idea. FIlm’s take time, but I think putting over a film fronted not just by one woman but by an ensemble of women- and they are not being funny and it’s not romantic - is hard. I think that became a huge obstacle. But we had an incredible group of producers out in the front Fay Ward, Alison Owen and “our man” Cameron McCracken, and I think of all of them as feminists. So it really took both men and women to bring this to the screen. 

Sarah Gavron: It was a tough proposition but we wanted to stick to our guns. We did have champions; those producers who are sitting in the front row. There were others too: Tessa Russell at Film4 back in the early days, the people at Focus,  Cameron McCracken at Pathe who makes political and existing films, often directed by women. We were lucky to have those people around us.

On the lack of widespread knowledge about the Suffragette’s movement today:

Sarah Gavron: When we were talking to the academics who advised us on the film, they told us there weren't  surprised, it took age to get women’s history taken seriously in the academies, it took a long time to get it onto the school curriculum . I personally wasn't taught anything about it, I remember just a few lines at the bottom of a page in a history book. And I think it’s partly a symptom of inequality.

Meryl Streep: There are so many stories that haven’t been told; that’s an important part of this film. There is no such thing as “women’s history”; there’s just “history” which women have been shut out of. There are some brave souls who have done some ‘spelunking’ to try to find out about it; like Amanda Foreman who has a series on the BBC called “The Ascent of Woman”. We can’t get it in the United States: but I think there’s interest. It is a question of rousing that interest. For me, I knew a great deal about the Suffragette movement in the United States but I didn't know about it here. And I also didn't know the condition of women here in 1913. I didn't know that the marriage age was twelve for example; shocking. I didn't know that once a woman was married she had no further claim to her name, any property she brought to the marriage, her children; she had no say in how they were raised or educated or even if they were sold off to be married. But to me that’s recent history; my grandmother was alive then and had a couple of children; and was not deemed capable of voting. It feels recent to me, and I’m passionate about it. Its means something to me.

But what I think is the great achievement of this film is that it is not about the women of a certain class like Emmeline Pankhurst; its about a working girl. I think that is part of why we can enter the film so easily and empathetically, as Carey plays this young mother who looks like us, but who’s circumstances are out of her hands completely.

On the film’s connections to the status of modern women:

Carey Mulligan: For me, what I loved about this film is the it didn't feel like a documentary of the time, it felt more like a film about today. I always felt its resonance with where we are; a film to mark the achievements of these women and what they gave us, and to highlight where we are in the world. Of course we still live in a society, in a world, that is sexist, that goes throughout our history. I think for me it was great moment to re-understand what women went through to get the vote and for me to be empowered. Of course in the UK here we are largely very privileged, but the film does relate and talk to the situation in the rest of the world for women, in terms of their vote, not just living standards and wages and the way they are treated. We always felt that bringing the film back around to today and looking at where we are now was the most important thing about the film. Give people the history, but also open their eyes. It has really done that for me.

Meryl Streep: I agree. To make a film like this, it will circulate the globe. It will encourage people who have very little hope; people who’s lives look very much like those of the women in 1913 in London. 

As for the appearance of sexism today: the lack of inclusion of women in decision making bodies in every single enterprise in the world. For example, the decisions being made about refugees; why are the bodies making decisions about them not half women? Two places you cant vote in the world: Saudi Arabia, and The Vatican. If men can’t look around the board of directors in a company and not think something is wrong that half are not women, then we aren't going to make any progress. 

How did the cast work together?

Sarah Gavron: Well none of the cast had worked together before, but when we got together to rehearse -  we had three weeks of sitting in a room with Abi to discuss it plus months of prep before that - they all immediately formed this bond and became great friends. We actually had problems stopping them laughing and getting back to work! I had nothing to do with it. An unusual sense of camaraderie, and I wonder whether it was not just because we were telling this story that everyone felt passionate about, but also because there was this unusual balance; we had lots of men and women in key positions. That was exciting; to see lots of women on screen together. 

Abi Morgan: It’s quite rare to get this length of rehearsal period, but this means you can make things more bespoke for the actors and also start to listen to them; they are the keepers of the character. One of the things that is very interesting to me is that the great quote we use in the film was no act of genius on my part, it was Carey Mulligan who found it. I think that is when great work happens, when you truly start to collaborate and the actors discover stuff and bring it into the film. It is a beautiful end to the film, that quote, and I struggled to find that. It was down to the actors who understood the themes of the film and had journeyed through it.

Who are the Emmeline Pankhurst’s of today?:

Carey Mulligan: Malala Yousef (nods of agreement from all panel guests)


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Legends of the East: director Brian Helgeland discusses working with Tom Hardy to recreate the Krays in LEGEND


Where better to screen Brian Helgeland’s new take on the Kray twins - Legend - than in the cinema of the Shoreditch-based cultural centre Rich Mix? The film stars Tom Hardy in a CGI-assisted double role as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the London gangsters who rose to power in the 1950s-60s East End and rubbed shoulders with celebrities and politicians before finally being jailed for murder. Following the special screening of the film at Rich Mix, director Brian Helgeland (writer of L.A. Confidential and director of 42 and Payback) and Chris Lambrianu discussed the making of the film and the history of the notorious crime brothers.

The Lambrianou brothers were junior associates of the Kray twins, with both Tony and Chris Lambrianou serving 15 years each for being involved in the murder of Jack "The Hat" McVitie in 1967. Chris Lambrianu, having long since renounced the Kray’s after serving his sentence, served as an advisor on Legend.

Q: Can you tell us about the prep work you did for the film? Did you shoot around here?

Brian Helgeland: Our production office who we prepped with were in Bethnal Green, so we were here every day for months. But before that I spent a lot of time in Bethnal Green and the areas around the East End, shot a lot in the area, though a lot of it isn't there any more - Vallance Road for example was torn down and rebuilt in the 1960s. But we shot in E Pellici’s cafe, for example, and Cedra Court; we didn't have to change anything there. Chris took me on a tour of all the places where they were buried, where they went to school, where they boxed.

Q: How has the area changed since then?

Chris Lambrianu: I think the more it changes the more it strays the same. If you look at the East End as was, it was Jewish craftsman, who really brought something to the area, then you had other people move in, like black people in Cable Street, or Maltese in Aldgate. Now its changed again. The East End can absorb the pressure of immigration.

Q: How did you get involved with the Krays?

CL: In the East End you were either a boxer, a footballer or a thief. I wasn't that good at football, I wasn't good as a boxer either, though I had a bit of bottle I was never going to be a champion. So I became a thief. You could learn that in the East End; starting out nicking things from the markets. And at the end of the day, you finished up in trouble like that, it was like a university. You learned, then moved on up to something else.

Q: Brian, how much did you rely on people like Chris to create the film, and did you look at other sources?

BH: Well, there are at least 50 books on the Krays, and that is probably underestimating it. A lot of them are poorly done, really. Then there is a tabloid history from over the years, and other unreliable sources. I relied on all of it, but I also met people who knew the Krays , primary sources, as they say. The truth was very elusive in a way. How I tried to approach it was almost forensically; to get rid of the extremes on both end and focus on the middle, and try to find where people agreed on things. I was actually disappointed when I started, as I felt I really couldn't grasp them and I couldn't get to the heart of Reggie in particular. But I had to be with them, they are my protagonists, though that is not to make excuses for them.

So I ended up spending a day with Chris, and I had been trying to find out something about Frances (Reggie Kray’s wife). Freddie Foreman, for example, I had already asked about Frances, and I had a photo of Barbara Windsor and Frances at a nightclub sat together. I showed her the photo and asked her about Frances, and she couldn't really remember outside of remembering her as pleasant and fun to talk to. So she to me was the ghost that haunted the Kray story, in a way. And at the end of that day with Chris, we went to the Carpenter’s Arms to have a pint, and it was closed. It was cold and twilight and Chris was waiting for his ride home, but before that I asked him “Can you remember anything about Frances?” He immediately said; “Frances is the reason we all went to prison”. And I knew that I had arrived at something, as Chris went on to point out that Reggie used to be the one to sort out any investigation, if someone in the neighbourhood was seen talking to police Reggie would go knock on the door, etc. But when Frances died, he stopped doing that, and they could feel the police get closer.

CL: He went to pieces. I saw the saddest man I’ve ever seen walking away from the Carpenters Arms. Off into the night, he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. There’s that saying ; “A man reaching up his hands to gather the stars, sometimes ignores the flowers that grow around his feet.” I think Reggie did that, I think they squeezed the life out of her. I think it’s evident on screen; he [Brian] gives Frances a voice. Frances was a nice girl; that’s how I will always remember her.

Q: Chris, what are your memories of the Krays? Were they really legends?

CL: No, the legends in the Kray framework were, for example, my brother Tony’s wife Pat, bringing up two children on her own waiting for 15 years. That is love, that is dedication, all on her own while her husband rots in prison.

People got caught up in the Krays; they lost control, they went totally crazy. At the end of the day they brought everybody down. They could be charming, kind, generous, caring, but they could be very, very ruthless. Without a thought they would harm people. Walk into a pub and shoot a man stone cold dead. They had that killer instinct and lost all control over it, enjoyed it. We all paid a very heavy price, but the wives and loved ones, fathers and mothers, paid a greater price.They, to me, are the legends. The Krays lived in darkness, I don’t think they learned anything frankly. They could've been legends, but became something else.

BH: I think at the end of the day, the truth of them is elusive still. This is my version, my go at it. Trying to get to a more human part of it. As far as the glamour goes, there is a glamour element to gangsters, certainly to the Krays, but that is not the same thing as being good. There was a mystique to it, a glamour to it that I think is undeniable. But I wanted to show that and poke a hole in it at the same time.

Q: The film is quite funny…

BH: I’m a big believer that any moment can be funny and sad and poignant all at the same time, that's how life is to me. That's how this world seemed to me. When I hear bad news my first instinct is typically to try to joke about it. Also, in terms of the structure of the film, I wanted it to be funny to start and then strip that slowly away. When Ronnie says; “who’s laughing now?” when he shoots McVitie, it is almost like he is addressing the audience.

Q: How did you end up work with Tom Hardy? Was he your first choice, and did you always intend for him to play both twins?

BH: I wrote the script without thinking of anyone, that's what I do. In movies with twins there is a tradition of one actor playing both roles, like in The Parent Trap, or twins playing the roles. I knew I needed a Reggie first, but I had no idea if the actor playing him would want both roles. Tom was the first actor I went to; I had seen him in a film called Warrior and I thought that film featured quite a Reggie-like character. Tom had read the script, but when he sat down with me all he wanted to talk about was Ronnie, where all I wanted to talk about was Reggie. At the end of our dinner Tom said; “I’ll give you Reggie if you give me Ron”. That was the deal, and we kind of held our breath and jumped in, knowing we would have to make that go away, the fact that Tom was playing both parts.

It is a very technical performance, to the point where even his body double, who we shot over, would have to learn Ronnie’s physical movements before Tom even did them, so Tom would have to work that out in his head, how he was going to physically react to another actor, teaching another actor how to do it. The discipline was really good for the performance.

Legend is in UK cinemas now.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Looking into the Silence: Director Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun on facing the Indonesian genocide in "The Look of Silence"

Joshua Oppenheimer and Indonesian collaborator Adi Rukun discussed their new, powerful expose of the perpetrators of the Indonesia genocide - the documentary The Look of Silence - at a recent Q&A at Sheffield Doc Fest. You can read the Smoke Screen review here, and what follows is an edited version of the Q&A the collaborating duo took part in with the audience. This was the film's UK premiere. The Look of Silence is playing wide in cinemas across the UK now, having already scooped a haul of awards on the festival circuit including a Grand Jury prize at Venice.

The film serves as a companion piece to Oppenheimer's 2012 film The Act of Killing, and was filmed before its release. Within it, Joshua Oppenheimer further explores the terrible legacy of the Indonesian genocide fifty years ago, this time through the lens of one family. Adi was born in 1968, two years after his brother Ramli was slaughtered in front of many eyewitnesses. Now an optometrist, Adi lives with his elderly parents and his children. Inspired by his work with Oppenheimer on the Act of Killing film, where he assisted Oppenheimer in gathering material, Adi decided to confront some of the murderers himself. The film tracks his journey.

How did this sequel come about, following your work exploring the Indonesian genocide in The Act of Killing?

JO: I began working on the 1965 Indonesian killings, and more precisely on the present day legacy of fear, impunity, corruption and violence back in 2003 in collaboration with Adi and his family. This was more than two years before I met Anwar Kongo, the main ‘character’ in The Act of Killing.  When we started that work, Adi was particularly central to bringing together survivors from his community, so they could tell their stories. 

After three weeks, the army threatened all the survivors, but they said to Adi: “Don’t give up, try to film the perpetrators, see if they will tell you what they did”. I was afraid to approach the perpetrators myself, but when I did, I was horrified to find that they were boastful. In fact the first perpetrator you see in the film just at the very opening was the very first one I met, it was a neighbour in Adi’s village. When I approached him I found him boastful, and he introduced me to others, who were the same.

Adi wanted to see the footage, and when I showed it to him and members of the Indonesia Human Rights community, they all said: “you must continue”. So I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find. Anwar Kongo from The Act of Killing was in fact the 41st one filmed.The first time I brought two together was the terrible afternoon of January 2004, where two men took me down to the river playing victim and perpetrator, explaining how they helped kill 10,500 people at just that one spot. Including, they ultimately revealed, Adi’s brother Ramli. 

At the time I had no idea I was filming the killer of my friend’s brother, and they were posing for photographs as if it was a happy day out. For me it was one of the worst days of my life, they were boasting, but reading as if from a shared script. I had to accept that this boasting was not a sign that these men were psychotic, because it was systemic. It was political. It was then that I started feeling as if I was in Nazi Germany, 40 years after the holocaust, but with the Nazis still in power. This was not the exception to the rule, a surreal freak occurrence. This was the rule. This impunity we are seeing is the story of our times.

I knew that day I would drop everything I was doing and make two films, and I would spend as long as it took to tell the story. One film would be about the perpetrators and the stories they tell; that of course is The Act of Killing; a flamboyant fever dream of a film,a film about escapism and guilt. 

I knew also that I would make a second film about what this does to human beings, to a family, to memory. To not be able to mourn or work through this, to be stuck in trauma because you are surrounded by the powerful men who killed your loved ones, who kept you living in fear for half century. So this film would be a backwards-looking poem composed for all those destroyed by this silence. That is The Look of Silence.

How did you work with Adi? And how has Adi’s life been affected by this experience, after bravely confronting all these perpetrators?

JO: We shot the film in 2012 after we started editing The Act of Killing but before that first film had had it’s first screenings. After that, we could no longer safely return to Indonesia. So we had a window.  I wasn’t sure exactly what we would do when we started, but I knew Adi would be my main collaborator, though not necessarily my main character. (Speaking to Adi) but you said you personally wanted to confront the perpetrators.

Adi Rukun(translated): I wanted to do this because it had been so many decades spent living in this silence and fear, not just my family, but millions of other families.  My children were being brainwashed at school, taught lies, and stigmatised. Even after 50 years. This wasn't ending.

I am not a brave man, I am easily fearful. But, somehow this has to end. Somebody had to open the way to end this silence. 

My family worked with the film team for a long time on ensuring our safety, and we moved to another location in Indonesia, far from where we had been living so we can rebuild.

JO: I think that what I learned making The Act of Killing was that nobody has the courage to demonstrate remorse. In 2009-2010 when we had finished shooting that film, I had given Adi a videocamera to use as kind of visual notebook, to look for metaphors to help with the second film. Ari would send me tapes as I was editing, and I would watch them as I could. In 2012 when I arrived back in the country I asked him what he thought we should do for the second film, and he said that after seven years of watching the footage I had been shooting: “it’s changed me. I am a different person after watching how the perpetrators speak. I now need to meet them, meet the men who killed my brother and see if they can talk openly with me about what it means morally”. 

I immediately said: “absolutely not; it’s too dangerous”. There has never been a non-fiction film made as far as I know where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators retain a monopoly in power. Certainly this has never happened in Indonesia. But Adi took out the camera I had given him and showed me one tape. Trembling, he put it in the camera and pressed play. He showed me the section of film that he shot; the scene where Adi’s father is crawling through the house lost. And Adi said, crying, that this was the first day where his father couldn't remember anyone in his family. 

Adi told me that he became angry at himself, asking why he was filming this if he couldn’t help. But then he said to me that he realised in that moment why: “This was the moment where it became too late for my father, because he had forgotten the son who’s murder destroyed our family’s life, and his life. It is too late for him to heal, he cant remember or work through it. But he hadn't forgotten the fear. Dad became like a man locked in a room, who can’t even find the door, let alone the key. I don't want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my mother, father and me.”

Did you find anyone who expressed remorse from that generation

JO: Adi told me: “I think that if I meet the perpetrators, they will welcome the chance, unconsciously they've been waiting for a chance, to somehow acknowledge that what they did was wrong.”

Adi had said to me, looking at the footage of one of the perpetrators demonstrating killing that you see in The Act of Killing: “It is clear he feels very guilty here.” And it doesn’t look like guilt to us, but it looks like guilt to you [to Adi] because I think you are remarkably empathic. In that moment you [Adi] thought that you would go to them, they would apologise, see that you were not there for revenge, and they would seize the opportunity to get this off their chest. You could separate the killer from the crime, forgive the person, and live with your neighbours in peace finally, not in fear as killer and victim. 

There is an insight there I think. I think all of the perpetrators are torn to shreds by what they’ve done, and the boasting is a sign of that. It is not pride; if you think about it, boasting is never a sign of pride. They are boasting because they are insecure and are compensating for that. I felt that we were unlikely to find that the perpetrators would have the courage to apologise in that way, and I told you [to Adi] so. But I felt that we could show why we fail: it is not a fear of Adi, it is a fear of themselves. A fear of their own conscience; a fear that leads to anger and threats, that stops everything. If we can show that, we can show how torn Indonesian society is; something every Indonesian knows, but doesn’t wasn't to think about. If we can make that something that they have to think about, the through the film perhaps we can succeed in a greater way than we could have succeeded through individual confrontations.

The Look of Silence is in cinemas now. 





Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Interview: Beyond Clueless director Charlie Lyne on getting clued up about teen flicks


Born from an obsession with that most recognisable of genres - the American teen movie - director Charlie Lyne’s debut film Beyond Clueless is an intoxicating cinematic essay that dives into the fog of hormones, bubble gum and light beer that is the American teen’s life on film. Lyne, who previously was known for founding the Ultra Culture blog and writing for The Guardian paper, built his film from some 300 teen movies on nearly a dozen formats, backed by a Kickstarter campaign and working mostly out of his bedroom. The film is scored by pop duo Summer Camp and narrated by one of the genre’s veterans, actress Fairuza Balk (The Craft). Having enjoyed a limited cinema run in the UK after playing various international festivals like SXSW, the film is out on home video release, which fittingly also includes a VHS option for the truly committed, from March 9. You can read the Smoke Screen review of the film here.

What’s it been like going through the looking glass; moving from your Ultra Culture blog and writing for The Guardian to directing films, as opposed to critiquing them?

Well, it is certainly not a total shift. I think my previous careers were really useful, and in a way the film itself is a form of film criticism and so not much of a departure for me. The biggest thing for me I think was the way it changed how I look at film criticism. I didn't want to be one of those people who made a film and then declared that now I’d seen how hard it was to make film I could no longer critique them. It’s not that hard! I think that misses the point about what is so valuable about criticism. While we’ve been lucky on the whole and had mainly positive reviews, there hasn't really been much of a correlation between whether a review has been positive or negative, and whether it’s been interesting to read. When I read criticism of my film, I’m looking for something that’s really engaging, even if the writer didn’t like it. Thats a useful thing to learn, not that it doesn’t stop the initial sting of a bad review! That is hardwired.

How long had you been thinking of directing?

It seemed to come together quite quickly actually, when we began a Kickstarter campaign. I think in a more abstract sense it had been sitting there for some time though. These were all movies that I fell in love with when I was 14 or 15, and I never really fell out of love with them even if my perspective on them got a bit more complicated later. It feels like I'm exorcising demons, but in terms of this project, it’s amazing how quickly it came together.

What was the production like?

I don’t think this film broke down into pre-production, post production and production so easily, that all kind of went out the window. The bulk of it was editing, which took about nine months. At the very beginning, there was a lonely stage sitting at home for 10 hours a day, watching and re-watching all these films again and taking notes, trying to form some sense of cohesion between the 300 films.There were about four of us making the film at any one time, so a few people took some bullets for me!

Why the focus on this narrow definition of the teen movie? Your film focuses exclusively on American teen movies made after 1990.

The main thing that we always want to achieve was to make something that felt very self-contained, like the world of a genre that you could step inside and not be pulled out of. So it was a practical decision: we didn’t want to be jumping around from the 50s to the 90s within the space of the same minute, pulling people out of it.

When it comes to the focus on American films, it’s the same thing really. The thing we were after was peculiarly American, that world. Other teen films, like British teen films, really don't feel like they share that canon, language and universe, they all feel slightly more idiosyncratic and quirky. It felt necessary to narrow the field. That language, that predictability; those were the things we were looking for. Also it helped make a list of what could have been 3000 movies drop to 300-odd.

Can you talk about the editing choices in the film, how did you want the film to flow, once you’d chosen the movies you wanted to source extracts from?

One of the useful things about the earlier states of production - when I was trying to structure out the film - was that we had time to talk about how we could maybe structure our film like a teen movie itself: starting with the first day back at school and ending with graduation and including all the plot points that you know fall between those two things.

So that was really useful, as it meant there was some prevailing structure that we could always fall back on. Beyond that, the challenge was to find a balance between critiquing a genre while also remaining in that evocative audio-visual space that it creates. It had to bounce between those two things, with a rhythm that wouldn't pull you out of either one.

How did you structure the narration, and what made you choose Fairuza Balk to do the voiceover?

I did intend at the start to read around the subject, but I found in the end that there were so few good books on the subject, at least that I could track down. So I decided in advance to not read them. If had ended up reading just one or two I might have ended up too heavily influenced by just a few texts and their take on things. Also I wanted the film to seem really personal and idiosyncratic, so it felt really important to just present my own ideas even if they came across as odd to some. So yes, what you hear on screen are all my own ideas about Eurotrip and so on, filtered through Fairuza’s voice.

Fairuza was kind of a dream choice for me. She came on late in the day; we basically had so little money to work with when it came to getting the film made before presenting it to anyone to see if they'd take a chance on it. I’d already made the mistake of thinking we could get her, and had been hearing her voice in my head when writing it. We had a list hanging above the computer where we were editing the film, and she was at the top of it. She’s associated with that world but her voice to me just instantly draws me into it. She perches perfectly between something that sounds like an insider’s view but also she’s right on the periphery too, looking in from the outside as our navigator.

The soundtrack by Summer Camp is really striking, is that something you aimed for right from the start also?

Summer Camp were the first people involved really, it was really when they agreed to do it that the film became a real thing in my mind. I had been a massive fan of their music for years and it felt like a perfect fit for it, not only because their music so often reflects and absorbs itself in Americana and teen culture, but it’s so successful at creating a world and guiding you through it. Their albums feel very self contained. Sometimes they would take the lead creating some kind of backing track, other times I’d take over. It was a fascinating collaborative back and forth. Everyone on the team was doing more than one job, but it really feels like they were screenwriters as well as composers, they had a massive influence on the shape of the film.

Does the teen movie genre appeal to you in the same way today?

The films have the same appeal for me now today, but a more multifaceted one. The pang of joy they give me is still very real, I get reminded of the first time I watched them and had my first emotional reactions to them. But it is a more complex feeling now, as I’m more alive to the problems and weirdness of many of the these films, what is going on just beneath the surface. It is a more fraught experience watching them now, but still powerful.

Beyond Clueless is available buy on VOD, and a special limited edition VHS, from March 9, 2015. See the official website for details.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

On the ultimate trip with Kubrick; the cast of 2001: A Space Odyssey speak

 Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea in  2001: A Space Odyssey.

Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You can't get away from Stanley Kubricks grandiose, mysterious and undeniably trippy 1968 space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the imposing, sleek monoliths from the film, 2001 looms over all cinema genres, not just science fictionEven director Christopher Nolans new sci-fi film Interstellar, released in the same month that the BFI and Warner Bros studio have released a new digital transfer of Kubricks movie, openly pays homage to its predecessor.

Eventually becoming a huge box office and critical hit following its release  2001 is now a permanent fixture in all the major “best of charts. It remains still in the top ten of the Sight and Sound Magazine Greatest Films poll, and was recently voted No. 1 in a Time Out London poll for the best 100 Sci-Fi films. It is fair to say that 2001, with its largely dialogue-free narrative, avante- garde music and benchmark-setting special effects, has gone beyond being just a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece; it is spoken of and written about as if it is a piece of art.

Though the most famous character in 2001 is undoubtedly supercomputer HAL 9000, the human presence in the film's second half is made up of astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole, two men on what must be the loneliest mission in history aboard the spaceship Discovery. The pair are bound for Jupiter, following the path of a mysterious alien transmission from the alien monolith found on the moon. Actors Keir Dullea (Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Poole) were reunited this month in London to celebrate the 2K digital reissue of 2001 playing as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, and kindly shared their memories with me of going on “The Ultimate Trip” (as studio MGM sneakily billed the film when they realised how certain 60s youthful audiences were enjoying the film).

The two are an interesting double act; Dullea’s precise, carefully-considered answers contrast with the curmudgeonly Lockwood’s more roundabout ways of telling stories. Both are sharp as a knife when it comes to recalling various behind-the-scenes memories, thought that did not prevent the pair putting our interview on hold on occasion to get stuck into a friendly row or two as to the order of certain scenes in the film. Both remain fierce in their praise of the director who gave them the job.

You can read fuller version of my interview over at Grolsch FIlm Works who originally commissioned the piece, but here are some highlights below:

 Lockwood and Dullea then and now

Lockwood and Dullea then and now

On getting hired by Stanley Kubrick for 2001:

Both Dullea and Lockwood were already Kubrick fans when they got the call to join 2001, so for both it was no brainer to sign up for the space mission. Keir Dullea was actually in England at the time, shooting an Otto Premigner film. Wandering in to a Battersea Park funfair one day, he encountered a palm reader who warned him: ‘I see a rocket ship in your future.’ ” A week after that, Kubrick called. 

Lockwood already had secured a place in sci-fi history, having starred in the pilot of a little show called Star Trek (where he plays Gary Mitchell, ultimately the villain of the story, in a one-off role).  He'd already worked with Kubrick on Spartacus.  At the time he remembers he was: “getting a lot of jobs, doing rather well, enjoying it, chasing beautiful girls and driving Porsches: the routine.” Then his agent called with Kubrick’s offer. Lockwood jumped at the chance: “I was a giant fan of Kubrick, even though I was a cowboy. I knew his stuff. I thought he was a genius.” 

On working with the legendary director.

Neither Dullea or Lockwood will have any truck with the myths that Kubrick was a strange, obsessive loner who enjoyed pushing his actors. Instead they found him professional, courteous, and amazingly curious, seemingly about everything. Says Dullea: "I’d just finished working with Preminger, so let me tell you, it was like going from hell to heaven! [Kubrick] was so easygoing with us, he never raised his voice, ever. He put us at ease quickly and was never demanding in the way you might imagine he would be. He was so prepared, the most prepared director I had ever worked with, so I guess he could relax about everything else.

Lockwood liked Kubricks directing style, the way he let professional actors get on with the job on set and when the cameras rolled: I asked him once why I got the part, and he told me that he thought I could do a lot without doing anything. Stanley never said anything, thats what I liked about him."

For Lockwood: There is only one Stanley Kubrick. People who are really good at something have to have an IQ! They have to be intelligent! I meet students out of film school and they say things like: I wanna make films like Stanley Kubrick. You cant tell after just five minutes with them; theres just not the grey matter there! Kubrick was curious, and so very, very intelligent.

Dullea remembers Kubrick as: “the most curious man I ever met. I remember the Pentax camera had just come out that year: he stopped shooting and took hours to find out all about it!

On their characters:

There is little dialogue in 2001, even when the film moves out of the prehistoric era. Dullea noticed that Kubrick cut more and more dialogue away the more takes they did. To help the cast, Kubrick prepped them via fictional biographies: “Our characters had double doctorates in sciences; the concept was that by year 2001 NASA wouldn't be taking astronauts from the military necessarily: they'd be looking early on at young men from high school and college, narrowing it down in terms of choosing based on their psychological profile.  

Both actors have little stories about they shaped the direction of 2001 with their own input. Lockwood laughs as he recalls how Stanley Kubrick challenged him to come up with a better idea of how the astronauts would confront HAL once he started malfunctioning. After a trip to a deli on Golders Green courtesy of Kubrick's driver, Lockwood scribbled out a scenario where the astronauts would plot in the pod, where they felt HAL couldnt hear them. Only a few hours previously, Lockwood had feared Kubrick was going to fire him for complaining about how he felt the narrative had been constructed. For his part, Dullea suggested to Kubrick that he break a wine glass during the sequence where Bowman ages in huge jumps in the strange artificial hotel room, after his voyage through the star portal. 

 On finally seeing 2001 in the cinema in 1968:

Both were blown away by seeing the film on the big screen, Lockwood in particular as he was extremely stoned at the time. Corralled by a film journalist for an interview after the screening, Lockwood remembers the man commenting: “ Well Mr Lockwood, you still look like you’re out there in space!” Dullea was struck by the Dawn of Man sequence (with its famous jump cut from the bone in mid air to a satellite orbiting Earth); as it was a section of the film that neither of the actors had worked on and thus were seeing it for the first time. 

On talking to younger audiences about 2001:

Though Lockwood deplores modern audiences “with their lack of attention thanks to MTV-style fast cutting”, Dullea is upbeat about 2001 finding new audiences now. He recalls that on the autograph circuit he started noticing that: “more than 50% of fans now were not born when 2001 came out. That speaks to the trans-generational aspect of this film. The genius of this film, of Kubrick, has appealed to generations up to this moment.”

2001: A Space Odyssey will be back on cinema screens in a new 2K digital edition across the UK from 28 November and will play an extended run as part of the BFI "Sci-Fi : Days of Fear and Wonder" season.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

"The lesson of the film is: don't arrest journalists..."- Jon Stewart on making his debut film, Rosewater

 Jon Stewart and  Rosewater  star Gael Garcia Bernal on set

Jon Stewart and Rosewater star Gael Garcia Bernal on set


Playing as part of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival’s Debate Gala strand, Rosewater is the debut film of director Jon Stewart, also known as the long-standing host of the satirical US news show The Daily Show. The film’s plot traces the fate of real-life London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, imprisoned and harshly interrogated in Iran for filming footage of protests against what was widely seen as a rigged election in 2009. He was eventually freed after mounting international pressure from Western politicians and the media. The film was a deeply personal project for Stewart, as Bahari had actually appeared in a Daily Show segment filmed in Tehran shortly before being detained, thus leaving Stewart feeling personally connected to his fate, and later driven to take on the subject matter for his debut feature once Bahari was safely home after 118  gruelling days in prison. The interview with Stewart is below, and you can read Smoke Screen's review of the film here.

 Jon Stewart on the red carpet for the UK premiere of his debut film  Rosewater

Jon Stewart on the red carpet for the UK premiere of his debut film Rosewater

Why was it so important to make this film now?

I've always wanted to sit in those comfy directors chairs, but if you’re not a director you are not allowed to sit in them! No, seriously, Maziar and I became friendly after he was released, and his memoir is so compelling and well-observed, analytical and beautiful that I was honoured that he would trust me to even try to film it. 

What is your opinion on the state of US media today given how it seems so driven by special interests?

Well, certainly commercial interests. But part of the difficulty there is that we have created this 24 hour, seven days a week infrastructure for news, that is really built for catastrophes, for earthquakes and events like 9/11. In the absence of grand stories, rather than going into hibernation, I think that the media today is incentivised to sensationalism and urgency. They take ordinary news and amplify it to the level of catastrophe. It has created this incredible momentum towards urgency and fear and war, and I think it has been really destructive force for American politics in general. Apart from that though, we are really good! Good sports coverage!

How did you decide on taking artistic license in some scenes, for example during the sections of the films where Maziar hallucinates the figures of his dead sister and father whilst in prison? Does that come from the book?

There was some artistic license. Those scenes are sort of an embodiment of Maziar’s ability to sustain himself in that installation. One of the things that is so torturous about isolation I think is that it removes your ability to process the isolation and your distress. I used to work in restaurants when I was trying to become a comic, and there would be little things during the day, for example, like a guy sitting two people at a four top, and the rest of my day would involve me chatting to my friends along the line of; “You believe this fucking guy? He sat two people at a four top!” That is your outlet for all that occurs to you. But imagine you have removed from you your ability to process what is happening to you, with that reinforcement your friends. Suddenly you are alone, so you turn it internal, and you rely on family, and culture and your history and experience. It was a way of trying to express that cinematically, as it is so interior.

As a first time filmmaker, what have you learned from the experience?

I honestly feel that the best thing I learned about it is to trust your discomfort, and to never be afraid to admit your shortcomings. Hire people around you who know what they are doing, and who can raise red flags as often and as early as possible. Your best ability is to recognise when someone has a great idea or when one of your ideas is shit, and you don't want to waste anyone’s time pursuing that.

What was the impact on Maziar, seeing his story visualised?

Well, part of what is interesting about him is his ability to compartmentalise things, and I think that is what allowed him to write such a compelling memoir. The lesson of the film really is: “don’t arrest journalists, they are trained to remember shit, they pay attention and analyse and have an eye for articulating the parts of their experience that you might not want people to know.” That being said, on set there would be moments on set where I would say, “Hey Maziar, can you cover here and tell me if this is what the cell looked like, etc etc?”  And I would suddenly think, “I am that asshole, I am that guy making him relive it!” But it was the moments with the family that were much tougher for him; the scenes with him and his sister. I think he had more difficulty with those emotionally.

Rosewater played at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and is out wide release on 14 November in the US, with UK release TBC 


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

From Mad Men to Bad Men: John Slattery talks directing his stellar cast in God's Pocket


 John Slattery at the BFI for the preview of  God's Pocket

John Slattery at the BFI for the preview of God's Pocket

Mad Men star John Slattery’s feature film directorial debut, God’s Pocket, is released across the UK 8 August. Last week the director was in town at the BFI for a short discussion about putting his new blackly comic crime drama together. The film is set in the gritty, blue-collar Philadelphia neighbourhood of God's Pocket, where small time crook Mickey Scarpato is forced by his wife Jeanie to investigate the mysterious death of his violent stepson, Leon, who was killed in a construction “accident.” Mickey has to struggle not only to somehow piece together the cash for the funeral whilst investigating what happened, but also has to help his friend Bird avoid getting hit by the local mob too, all whilst a local columnist comes sniffing around for the truth…and for his wife Jeanie.

 John Slattery and star Christina Hendricks at the BFI

John Slattery and star Christina Hendricks at the BFI

  • The film’s plot is adapted from the original novel from Pete Dexter (Who Wrote The Paperboy, which has also been adapted into a film by director Lee Daniels). Slattery read the book some twelve years ago or so, but had to wait until the rights were available after trying several times. Whilst waiting for the rights to fall into his hands, Slattery wrote several drafts, and honed his directing skills directing several episodes of the hit AMC cable TV show Mad Men, in which he stars as Roger Sterling. Finally getting the rights after directing a few episodes of the show, God’s Pocket felt like the next logical step as opposed to it begin a calculated plan to be a film director.
  • The cast is top notch: including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, and Britain’s own Eddie Marsan. Hendricks was cast when Slattery realised she’d be ideal for the role of Jeanie whilst actually directing her during an episode of Mad Men, and he gave her the script. Once Hendricks and Hoffman were on board, Slattery was able to get the rest of the film to fall into place quite easily.
  • Slattery wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman for the role of Bird originally, but it was Hoffman who suggested he take the role of Mickey instead, something Slattery immediately realised made more sense. Slattery himself never really considered acting in the film himself, the only part he felt he would've been right for was that of columnist Richard Shellburn, which ended up being taken by Richard Jenkins.
  • Smilin’ Jack Moran is played by British actor Eddie Marsan, who Slattery had seen in various Mike Leigh films. He was the first actor Slattery wanted to play the wolfish funeral home director. It took some doing, as Marsan didn't want to leave his family in the UK for extended periods.
  • The distinctive faded, murky look of the film, which is set in the early 1980s (matching the book’s setting), was partly guided by Slattery and his DoP’s Lance Acord’s decision to remove the colour blue as much as possible from the mix as it simply didn't work very well, thus leaving the colour palette tipping towards green and ochre. They did try to shoot on colour reversal stock, but couldn't get the 35mm film, thus leaving the film shot on digital with post production.
  • Slattery doesn’t immediately plan to direct again, though he would like to, as he doesn’t have a story he likes to hand. Right now he is enjoying some time off having spent so long on Mad Men (the final part of the final season has been hot, but has yet to air). 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Due South: David Gordon Green discusses why it had to be Nicholas Cage for the lead in his new indie drama 'Joe'


The following are extracts from a discussion with David Gordon Green about Joe at the Hackney Picturehouse, London, on 8 July 2014.

Joe is out from 25 July 2014 across the UK and on VOD, and is reviewed here.


PH: From what I understand, when you made your previous film Prince Avalanche, it was quite a therapeutic experience with a lot of freedom. Was Joe a kind of continuation of that?

DGG: Prince Avalanche was like the minimal movie: “Let me go grab my 15 friends and collaborators I work with regularly and make a movie for as close to nothing but still shoot it efficiently and effectively, make it in about 15 days, really strip down the process with no one talking to us. We really liked it, so we started wondering: “what if we had just a little bit more money to add some other elements to the narrative, but still had the same kind of protective shell.” We did it again recently; we recently finished a new movie with Al Pacino (Manglehorn). In my head this is a weird three-movie chapter of my career with films made very cheaply and very quickly, very economically. Nobody asking my why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s been a refreshing series of movies, but it also kind of makes me want to go back and shoot a bigger movie! I have a whimsical headspace, I can wake up with any kind of harebrained scheme about what to get into next.

I’m glad to say that the process of making Joe, having a very agreeable and fearless actor on board like Nicholas Cage, and an ensemble of a lot of unlikely secondary characters, was a real pleasure. It was great making that movie, even though it dealt with some pretty difficult subject matter. 

 David Gordon Green at the Hackney Picturehouse

David Gordon Green at the Hackney Picturehouse

PH: There’s quite an interesting and quite tragic story behind the actor who played the role of “G-Dawg” (AKA Wade, played by Gary Poulter).

DGG: The actor’s name was Gary Poulter. The “G-Dawg” thing came about as we already had an actor and screenwriter working on the film both called Gary. He wanted me to call him Ozzy, but I ended up getting him the “G-Dawg” jacket made instead.  He was a gentleman that my casting director found at a bus stop in downtown Austin where we shot the film. A lot of the time when casting I talk to people who are in the kind of real-life situation that I am interested in. So in this case I was looking for a drifter family, and there’s quite a significant homeless population in Austin: soup kitchens and other forms of support for this community. So I had sent my casting director out looking for people willing to talk to me, so I could get into the headspace of the where and why, to try to bring some authenticity to the movie. So at this bus stop, while my director was interviewing this other family he found, G-Dawg started asking him what he was doing, wanting to know about the movie and being in it. My casting director got him on tape for a few minutes answering a few questions, played it back to me later to see if I thought he was interesting, and I told him to bring him in. 

I had him read for the part of the guy who cuts up the deer. I also said to him there was a two day part playing the guy who runs the convenience store, and asked him to read for that. Then we just started talking after the end of the auditions for the day, I was getting his life story, talking to him about what he was into, the difficulties he had had and was trying now to work his way out of. And I found myself saying: “hey this is crazy, but do you want to come back next week and read for the third lead in this movie?” He just came in and blew us away. At the time I was trying to get Tim Blake Nelson to do it!

PH: I read that he and Nicholas Cage got along quite well as their were both massive fans of heavy metal.

DGG: Yeah, they could both quote this Vincent Price monologue “Welcome to my Nightmare” from Alice Cooper. They’d do it all the time: recite the long monologue. So when they met and realised this, it was love at first sight. And they’d lip sync to each other’s dramatic voices. We actually shot a scene with him speaking the monologue, played against a slow tracking shot that moves towards him and the actor who plays his wife sitting on the floor of their house, the camera slowing moving towards his face as he combs his wife’s hair. Couldn’t figure out where to put it in the movie. He’s also a good skateboarder too, which is interesting, so I have a lot of footage of him skateboarding. But this isn’t really the kind of movie where you can put a gag reel on the DVD. 

PH: He died shortly after the film was completed, didn’t he?

DGG: Yeah, a couple of months after we wrapped, before he could see the movie. I’m really sad about that in one way, but when we wrapped he was kind of reluctant to see the final thing. He said something along the lines of: “if we’ve done our jobs well I don’t really want to see the result.”

PH: This movie is based on a book I understand?

DGG: Well, my first job out of school was as a production assistant on a story about Larry Brown: who was the author of Joe. One of my film professors, Gary Hawkins, was making this documentary about him as part of a series: “The Rough South”. So I got to know Larry and got to reading his books. This was a very biographical book for him, about his youth. I kept up with him for a while. He died a few years ago, and Gary Hawkins, came to me saying that he had written an adaptation of the book for the screen and that: we should make a film out of it.

I would say it is a very respectful adaption of what Larry’s book was. For me also, having just come off three comedy films in a row and a TV series (East Bound and Down), I was really looking to do something different, so when I read this great character piece, this great Southern regional piece, that I also could film in my own backyard, it just really appealed to me. Plus I’d just had kids and wanted to stick closer to home. So this script just spoke to me on just about every personal and professional level. I just had to find the right guy to be in it.

PH: Was it always going to be Cage?

DGG: Whenever I read a book I’m always thinking about a movie version of it. When I was reading the book for the first time I was actually picturing Robert Mitchum. Of course he was too old at the time, and then died. So I found myself wondering, who had the qualities: the physicality of an action hero, the dramatic capability and range of an Oscar-winning actor, and the wit and humanity that I felt needed to be injected into what is a pretty grim tale. I couldn't think of anybody else who leads in those arenas as successfully as Nicholas Cage. Cage is an unpredictable force, and this was not like any movie he had done before. And this is his first beard I think.

So I wrote him a letter, at a time when he hadn't worked in a year. If someone like that doesn’t work for a year you know something is up. So I called his agent and was told he was taking time off. “Time off” means soul-searching. So I wrote the letter asking him if he would talk to me about maybe reading this script. By whatever backdoor method, he ended up reading the script and the book and called me, without ever responding to the letter. I still have the voicemail that he left. Then he flew over literally the next day, out to Austin to join us in the van during the Prince Avalanche shoot.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Director Richard Linklater discusses his twelve year project 'Boyhood'


  Boyhood , with Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Lorelai Linklater

Boyhood, with Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Lorelai Linklater


I had the privilege in June to be in the audience for the BFI South Bank Q&A event with director Richard Linklater, who was in town to discuss his new film Boyhood, released in the UK July 10. The film itself earned a rare Smoke Screen rating of five stars, as you can see for yourself here. If that still doesn’t convince you that this is one of THE highlights of the year in cinema, feel free to head over to the Rottentomatoes page for this film, where the aggregate score currently sits at 100%.

The film itself was shot from 2002 to 2013, covering 12 years in the life of young Texan boy Mason and his family, using the same cast throughout. Thus over three hours you see all the actors age in line with their characters. There are no prosthetics, no CGI ageing/de-ageing effects, and no on screen text cues to tell you when a time jump has occurred and what the onscreen year is.

 Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater

The story is life itself: Mason and his older sister Samantha learn to face the realities of growing up, while their divorced parents cope with the ongoing challenges of parenting in an ever-evolving landscape. The cast features Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, with newcomers Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater playing the children. This film really carries the electric feel of a true experiment, even if it bears some similarity to other film and TV projects such as Michael Apted’s Up series.

Below are some nuggets from my own notes of the event relating specifically to Linklater's new film (with a good deal of conversation also focusing on his Before trilogy, which are an obvious and interesting set of films to compare to Boyhood), his ideas of cinema and time, and how he selects and works with actors in particular. The BFI also have an edited video of the event on their site, where you can watch Linklater go into greater detail about his earlier career, and his work in film promotion and preservation.

Linklater was also kind enough to indulge me with this:

 RIchard Linklater signed my BFI Programme for the event. For real.

RIchard Linklater signed my BFI Programme for the event. For real.

The following links are worth checking out:

Official Boyhood Site.

BFI Video of the Q&A (edited)

BFI’s Sight and Sound short video essay on Richard Linklater's interest in cinema and time 

Note: this interview contains spoilers. The interviewer was the BFI’s own Exhibitions Director and Head of Festivals, Clare Stewart.

 Richard Linklater at the BFI

Richard Linklater at the BFI

CS: I want to zoom in on Boyhood briefly. You commenced it in the time in between Tape and Waking Life and School of Rock. How did you embark on this whist continuing your film trajectory?

RL: We shot in the summer of 02, and then I went from that onto School of Rock, we just jumped in. I had the idea around 2000-2001, I was thinking about it while at the Venice Film Festival with Tape and Waking Life, when I was pitching the idea. I found that actors got it, I tend to divide the world between actors and everybody else. Actors were like “yeah!”. Ethan and Patricia were saying to me: “think of the storytelling possibilities”. So they were in when I described it. But then I talked to the money people, producers and such and it was like I was speaking a different language. They were like “we get our money…when?”. It was kind of hilarious, the different worlds. But I got lucky eventually: IFC came on board and gave us a little money every year. So we jumped into it in summer 2002.

I think the biggest gap was between years one and two, because I was doing School of Rock and it was difficult with Ethan and Patricia’s schedules. It’s such an impractical idea for those reasons. Towards the end there was a certain momentum but in the early years I guess the end felt so far way, it felt so abstract.

CS: Im going to ask you to elaborate on your fascination with time which runs through so many of your films.  A project of this kind, and also the Before Trilogy: there are few parallels in the history of cinema. It is a huge undertaking with few examples of how to go about it in terms of creative and practical terms. What was your starting point in that sense?

RL: If you think about it, time is kind of the building block of cinema. If you want to think about it like a painting, time is like the paint. It is unique to film: the recording of actual time, but also the ability to manipulate it. I was always excited about that. I was always thinking about storytelling: “why can’t you do this and that, and would that work?” So that is where the idea for Boyhood came from. I just think there are a lot of possibilities in narrative, in storytelling. And in those boundaries time is the thing that loosens it all up.   

I was kind of betting the whole movie on there being this cumulative effect in the way we perceive cinema, and it would have this power, so that you would invest and care about these characters through the sheer accumulation of time in the way we do in the time of our own lives. I think that is unique to film, the way you identify with what you are watching. I was betting on that. It works that way, hopefully.

Then you can get away with the little things that generally have no place in cinema. You can’t stop an action film to stare at a dead bird: it doesn’t advance the story or fit into the formula of efficient storytelling. But it works here, because you care, hopefully. That is what I was aiming for from the beginning: concentrating on the minutiae, like the film was a memory.

CS: Can I ask you about how the scripting process works, how you work with actors, and about the degree to which the spontaneity we see in your films comes from improvisation or you being definitive about what you want them say.

RL: Well I worked with actors on this film as I always have: It is very collaborative, but we never improvise on camera. Never. It is aways rehearsed, there is very much a workshop/rehearsal process. Here (talking about his 1991 film Slacker) I would cast a lot of non-actors, but it was all structured: I knew the beginning, middle and end and what happened in each scene. Kind of like Boyhood.

Within that structure it was very loose though. The cast contributions are what made it special, unique. Thats what a collaboration is, you get to a place you couldn't get to alone. I cared what worked for the film. I trained as an actor and that’s how I wanted to work: as an actor. Not just say my lines and hit my mark, I always treat actors as artistic collaborators, whatever the age. Ellar in Boyhood became that. When he was seven it was a little different but by the time he was eleven and twelve I was giving him assignments. At one point I asked him: ‘write some dialogue imagining you had just met a girl.’ I kind of pushed them into the writer mode a little bit, knowing it was going to be rewritten and workshopped, I felt we’d arrive at what works for the film no matter how we got there. I wanted to include them.

CS: Was Ellar a professional actor, and likewise were your actors in Slacker professionals?

RL: I met young actors, the kind who had agents and resumes, who had really thrown their hats in the ring. Ellar had only been in one indie film, and some commercials. He was six. But it told me that he had family support, which was really important, as I really needed his parents to not say at year eight: ‘he never wanted to do this.’ I wanted it to be professional. Ellar never wavered. But I did want to get people who had acted, who knew they wanted to do that. In Slacker on the other hand, and to a degree Waking Life, I was giving cards out or I had friends recommend people, and I wasn't necessarily looking for the best actor as opposed to the most interesting unique person. I thought I could get a performance that would work for the film. Everyone can act, who hasn't been in a school play? But who can be themselves on camera and bring whatever you think is unique about them? Ive always had, in certain parts, good luck with people who don't have full training. Ive found that, in certain moves and in certain parts, that its not always necessary to have ‘great actors.’

CS: In your films what resonates is the way you often hone in on particular characters who really demonstrate a sense of place. Austin obviously here in Boyhood, and I'm thinking of Bernie, where all of the incidental townspeople in that film are very rich individual characters.

RL: Yeah those were all local people. No actors, though some do local theatre, but most are not actors.  I was just looking for authentic people who can be themselves on camera, but doing material they haven’t necessarily written. Not everyone can do that. I cast a wide net, meet a lot of interesting people, but then I give them a test like I will hand them some lines and then get them to act out on camera. Some people just cant process that, they can’t bring who they are to it on camera. 

CS: Before Sunrise - did you really have the other two films in mind when you embarked on that film?

RL: No. Doing Before Sunset, the second one in the trilogy, is possibly the scariest thing I have ever done in my film career. Twenty years ago we were in Vienna shooting the first one! We felt compelled: Jessie and Celine had remerged in our lives and we felt they were saying something about that point in our lives, about being 32  as opposed to 23. But it was scary to revisit them, to maybe mess it up and mess up the first film. But Boyhood we had actually started a year before Before Sunset, so committing to doing this life project I think emboldened Ethan and I to do another life project! But we didn't know there would be a third one either.

CS: There are nine years between the films…

RL: Yeah, it just worked out that way. It seems to be about five to six years in when we start wondering ‘is there something new to say about a part of life?’

CS: One of the things that is so wonderful about the films is that we are invited in, it is extremely intimate, but at the same time, everything that they go through seems to be incredibly familiar.  How did you strike that balance creatively?

RL: Well I think Jessie and Celine, and the family in Boyhood: they are not extraordinary people. There is something normal about them, so I think there should be a lots of familiarity. We are more similar than we are different in what we do in our lives. It is a challenge to make that watchable and cinematic. It takes a lot of work. The scripts of these films are very delicate and laborious: to make it seem improvised. It is really highly structured.

CS: It strikes me that you are a filmmaker who is extremely interested in playing with technology and the opportunities it affords you: Tape and Waking Life. I read somewhere that you shot all of Boyhood, conversely, on 35mm. Weren't you fearful that that technology might become redundant while you were making it?

RL: Not at all. There is nothing more stable than a 35mm negative. Had I started on the best HD camera back in 2002, I’s have been on my fifth by now. It was never even much of a decision. But I didn't like the way digital looked back then, it looks better now, I’ve shot 2 of my last 3 films on a Lexa. We caught a little bit of the death spiral of 35mm towards the end. But it was still good to hear ‘check the gate’. It is dying. But technology is great. In 2002 and 2003 we were getting booms and mikes in the shot and things and I would just joke ‘we can fix that with the technology of the future.’  It was funny, but I wasn't really kidding; it came to pass. It became incredibly inexpensive. For example, even just a month ago, I was showing the film and I hadn't ‘finished-finished’ it, and there was some poster in the background from the National Football League which it turns out we didn't have the rights for. So we were like ‘screw you, we can fix that.’ Back in 1993 that would’ve meant thousands of dollars on rotoscoping to take it out. I like technology in that way!

CS: We’ve touched on your acting collaborators, but I'm interested in those you build behind the scenes, often uniting a broad and diverse range of people. I’m thinking of key people like John Sloss, and Athina Rachel Tsangari, the Greek director/producer who was actually in Slacker, and who then produced a film called Dogtooth and then made her own debut Attenberg

RL: Yeah she worked with me on Before Midnight on Greece, and I made her act in it too!

CS: You’ve also carried with you Lee Daniel, your cinematographer, and your editing team.

RL: Probably the most constant in my life has been Sandra Adair. That’s a key position. You kind of have to share a certain cinematic brain, or at least we do now. It makes it easier. It was very different on Boyhood though. Normally with a film an editor will weight in after a film is shot. But with Boyhood we were shooting every year, then edit 15 minutes or so of footage, and then we’d have a year to think about it.  But as the film went on, we would always edit that year’s material and attach it to this ever-expanding film, and then edit the whole piece again. I would have a year to think about it, I would sit alone with it, maybe at 2am in the morning. But I got feedback from Sandra really early on; I can sit and talk with her in a way I really can’t with anyone else in my world. It was like therapy, talking with her, and she would give me feedback. In a way it was like discussing a finished film, except in this case this was a theoretical future film! It was a wonderfully different approach, but we had the luxury of time. We spent about two years total editing. For a low budget film that is not what you usually get, plus we spent two years in pre-production too.

Everything about Boyhood was kind of crazy, none of it really makes sense. 


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

"We're only here for the bad guys…" - Smokescreen interviews 'The Dirties' Director Matt Johnson


 Owen Williams and Matt Johnson as Owen and Matt in  The Dirties

Owen Williams and Matt Johnson as Owen and Matt in The Dirties

The Dirties is out across London from 6 June 2014

Read the SmokescreenLondon review of The Dirties here


Finally making its way to the UK after winning awards at Slamdance (Best Narrative Feature Winner), Vancouver and Toronto film festivals and earning the support of Clerks director Kevin Smith in the process, Matt Johnson’s debut feature The Dirties grapples with tragic subject matter that comes ripped straight from the headlines. Employing a mock-documentary approach, Johnson’s film (co-written with Evan Morgan and from a story by Josh Boles), focuses on two school friends and movie addicts, Matt and Owen, who are the targets of regular and vicious bullying from the school jocks grudgingly referred to as ‘The Dirties’ by the long-suffering duo. Matt and Owen, when we first meet them, have arranged to be followed by a camera team with the intention of documenting their attempt to put together their home-made revenge movie for a school project. Titled ‘The Dirties’, their DIY no-budget submission to their class is a revenge splatterfest that pays homage to their love of action and scifi movies. The plot, for what it is, sees the pair play exaggerated, gun-packing alter egos of themselves who effortlessly demolish their school nemeses with a hail of bullets, knives, and movie catchphrases.

 However, when their presentation to class is over, Matt has the camera team stick around and record the production of his next epic home-made movie, one which increasingly begins to take on the shape of a dark obsession as opposed to the earlier lighthearted homage. Though Owen initially laughs it off, Matt’s intention appears to be to film ‘The Dirties' again; but for real this time. As in real guns and real casualties. But it will be ok, Matt says repeatedly, because just as in his favourite movies where the good guys always win, their film’s avengers would not be Columbine-style crazies but would only go ‘for the bad guys’. As Matt grows visibly more intense about his plan, questions begin to nag away at both Owen, and us the viewer. Is this just an attempt to push an idea right up to the edge of execution so as to provoke? Or, as we see Owen start to suspect, has Matt started to really lose sight of the borders of reality in this grand attempt to both shape his own destiny and have his revenge?

OV: How and why did you settle on this controversial subject matter for your debut film, and why then take the mock-doc approach?

 

MJ: Well the idea was to make a fake documentary. We were really inspired by a Belgian film called Man Bites Dog, which is an insanely impressive first feature, so far ahead of its time its ridiculous. It is a fake documentary about a guy who goes around Brussels in Belgium basically killing people.  And that was huge inspiration for me and Josh Boles, along with the Orson Welles film F For Fake. We were just compelled to do something in that same style - Its all a lie, but its also all real. I wanted to play myself, I wanted everyone around me to be real, I wanted it to feel like a real situation whilst doing something so dark you almost couldn't believe it was real at the same time. I find Man Bites Dog quite comedic, whereas I think we were trying to keep our film more like a real documentary.

Why found footage? I think its not entirely a correct distinction. Really here what we are trying to do is show you the kind of footage that would be shot by a kid. That is different from found footage, as the conceit with found footage is that it is something found accidentally and put together by the government or something. That is not what happened here. Matt shot this movie with the intention of making an actual film, and the intention of people seeing it.

 

OV: I wanted to ask you about the tone of the film. I found it very funny, but there is a growing sense of doom too.

 

MJ: I think the tone is all happening in the audiences mind. I think as you as the audience begin to learn more about what is happening, so you begin to realize: my god, this could go bad!. But for us, I was not thinking about scaring the audience at particular moments, it just kind of happened by accident.

 

OV: Have you got a feel for the reaction the film is provoking in audiences, and particularly those communities affected by the subject matter within the film?

 

MJ: Yeah, whenever we screen the film in high schools, those are always the best screenings because I think young people understand this movie in a way that others dont. We shot the movie after all in real high schools with real school kids. So the reaction from my generation I feel, and the generation below, has been really positive. The film is out on Netflix now in the US. That has been a real eye-opener. Now there are thousands of people seeing the film at the same time and then writing in on sites like Letterboxd to express their views, and that makes this a completely different experience to when films like this were just released theatrically in the past. That has been really rewarding.

 

OV: Id like to talk to you about the themes and concepts the films tackles. A surface level reading might just see it as a critique of movie violence and guns. To me I read into it a study not just of bullying and its terrible effects but also of surveillance culture, and the dangerous appeal of action cinema narratives that promote easy kill the bad guysolutions as opposed to showing the real consequences of violent acts.

 

MJ: I actually never really thought of the surveillance element!

 

OV: There is a scene where Owen shows Matt how they can set up surveillance cameras outside the girls lockers. It just served to remind me of how kids these days can become filmmakers, or spies, so easily with off-the-shelf kit thanks to technological developments.

 

MJ: Well that is all about something that is allowing you to become your own movie star. Deeply, at its heart, this is a film about a young kid who wants desperately to become a movie star. He is trying to become the star of his own film, and he believes that that, somehow, will be the solution to all his problems. I think the key point in the film where this becomes clear is when Matt stops referencing famous movies and quotes and scenes from them, and begins to create his own movie. He starts quoting himself, and openly debating what he, as a movie character, will be like And that shift really is the central axis of the entire film. As a society, more and more we are making ourselves into movie stars, whether it be through Facebook or selfies. We have Avatars, all part of a massive machine that allows us to say: this is me, look at me.

 

OV: The scene where Matt is on the cliff, directing himself, springs to mind as really key here.

 

MJ: Exactly, that is where we see Owen forcing Matt, or trying as best he can to force Matt, to confront psychologically what he is doing: which is that he is always acting, he has become this ersatz simulacrum of the real person. Matt of course vehemently denies there is a difference, saying at several points: this is me, I am me, and this movie is me, so don't get in the way. Matt continues to be that movie character right to the end.

 

OV: And the kind of movies Matt likes are those which offer clean cut solutions through violence to all kinds of problems.

 

MJ: Bingo! Thats why, to him, when he does what he does, there is no need to ask about ethics or morals. The good guys have to kill the bad guys. You do what you need to do to get to act three. Nothing else matters. So you killed 50 guys? What does it matter if you were the hero; you aren't going to jail. Matt is now immune to the reality of what is going on. Which is what I liked about combining the fake documentary approach with all these action film narrative cliches; by that I mean that if what Matt was doing was taking place in a by-the-numbers action film, hed probably get away with it!

I keep thinking about how our film compares to the Schwarzenegger film The Last Action Hero: in which there is the movie world and the real world. In our film, we are trying to make the real world the real real world. Formally that film is fascinating, I wonder why we dont see more films like that. I like to think our movie is a little like that, in that Matt thinks he is in that movie narrative where good conquers evil and there will be zero bad consequences for the hero. But in reality he is in a documentary about real life. He cant see the difference.

 

OV: Have you found people have been led by the design of the film to come up with left-field readings of it? I personally found myself wondering if the final minutes of what we were seeing was the real worldbeing filmed by the camera crew, or was this whole thing still Matt and Owens class project but on a bigger scale?

 

MJ: Some audiences have wondered if the camera crew and their cameras actually exist. Thoughts about that kind of ambiguity did cross our minds, but such a reading wasn't really our intention. To us, this is a movie that Matt is making. The idea was interesting yes; that at some point we might cut back and show the camera crew in some way and suggest it was staged. But we didn't go that way. The problem is then that we would've let everyone off the hook, nothing would matter, and there would be no tragedy. I think it would've undercut us. Lots of people have different explanations for the end of the film, especially as we keep the camera operator somewhat ambiguous. We were trying to create a feeling of complicity within the audience - that definitely is happening there.

The Dirties is out across London from 6 June 2014

Matt Johnson will be attending screenings of the film at the Hackney Picturehouse and Genesis Cinemas in London on Friday 6 June.

Hackney Picturehouse tickets can be purchased here.

Genesis tickets can be purchased here.

 The Dirties Official Site


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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.