Sometimes if you want something to exist you have to make it yourself. In the midst of a busy, burgeoning theatrical career, playwright Alice Birch put this saying into practice by writing her first screenplay, Lady Macbeth. Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with the story transplanted from Russia to 19th century Northumberland, it is a disturbing study of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a teenager sold into marriage to a cold, cruel and impotent middle-aged industrialist. After Katherine throws herself fervently into an affair, her actions turn murderous as the household is engulfed by violent events. Although a viewer can sympathise with Katherine’s circumstances, she’s capable of abhorrent behaviour and is frequently callous to those who are similarly disadvantaged. The appeal of such a difficult figure, Alice explains, was simple: “I hadn’t seen a woman like that on the screen before.”
While representation is hugely important, it is not enough to have more female protagonists if they are just saintly props. Through all of her work, Alice revels in writing complicated women. “I think that’s the most interesting part of my job”, she says, “finding people who are difficult to love and making myself fall in love with them, and then trying to recreate that experience for an audience.” This is evident with Katherine, a compelling, contradictory woman who resists simplistic interpretations. “She’s ruthless and manipulative but she’s also incredibly young and has been through appalling things, living in a claustrophobic, patriarchal environment. It’s tough for anyone to break out of that”. Despite this nuanced comprehension of the character, Alice doesn’t come to the easy conclusion that Katherine becomes an oppressor as a result of being a victim: “You can absolutely understand the things she does, but that gets harder as you progress through the film. I talked a lot with the director Will Oldroyd about how violence breeds violence, yet a different woman wouldn’t behave in the same way.”
It’s here that Alice departs from her source material. One of the benefits of adapting a 151-year-old book is that you have a bit of room to manoeuvre: the author – fingers crossed – is long dead, and the world portrayed is sufficiently different from our own that few will mind if liberties are taken. Indeed, there’s an implicit understanding that the screenwriter will use the shift in context as a way of commenting both upon the book itself and the times we inhabit. While Alice takes advantage of this latitude, changing the novel’s final act entirely, she believes the key difference is the depiction of Katherine. “Although the book is about poverty and a certain class system in Russia that didn’t feel far from what we were concerned with, I’d say I was more interested in gender than Leskov was”, she says. “Katherine’s a remarkable character in the original text, but I don’t know that he’s writing her with much empathy. She’s straightforwardly nasty and he’s pretty cold about her from the off. That felt like the biggest challenge.”
With an increased emphasis on the lived experience of its characters, Lady Macbeth nods towards the complicated history of fictional women, whose desire for some manner of freedom expresses itself as a violent or sexual challenge to the established order. “It’s a character trait we’re familiar with in literature of that period”, she reflects, “these kinds of wants and needs and passions lie dormant for years and then are suddenly triggered, opened wide.” While she’s a fan of period dramas, she admits that she often finds such elements absent in more sanitised productions. “Some period films feel quite distant to me. You put a lot of crinoline on women and suddenly they’re talking in a way I don’t recognise. We consciously tried to avoid that as much as possible, to create characters who still felt close to us now. I hate all of that politeness. It doesn’t feel realistic. Those domestic structures were a different kind of violence.”
The story of a woman responding brutally to societal restrictions had stayed with Alice since she picked the book up at university, but she was also drawn to the challenges of a different medium. “I’m very happy writing plays – I could write them forever – but I was excited by the idea of testing new muscles”, she says. Happily, she describes the experience as being a uniformly positive one, but is frank about the difficulties of being a writer: “There’s no way to say this without sounding like a massive idiot, but it’s all quite painful. I don’t have an easy relationship with writing. I don’t enjoy it.” She maintains, however, that this fraught process is crucial to creating meaningful work. “I don’t trust it when it comes out quickly. Maybe this is just what I tell myself to justify all the angst, but I believe that when you look at someone’s work, whether that’s a play or or a piece of art, anything, you can feel what it has cost its maker in some way.”
Without even factoring in the complications that arise from concurrently raising a two-year-old son (“It’s really important to talk about because it’s so much harder than people think it is”), it is refreshing to hear Alice – one of the most talented young playwrights working today – talk openly about the fundamental struggle of her job. Like a character in her work, a creative profession is not straightforward. It can be both a labour and a joy, and this is okay. Alice, undaunted, is inspired by the prospect of new tests. “I feel a bit like I want to do everything. I’m up for all of it.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Portrait by Lauren Maccabee.
After several years as a comic actress and writer, Alice Lowe was ready to take the next step and direct a film. The process, however, was a long one. “When you’re trying to get your first film funded, the difficult thing is you might be a complete idiot and they just don’t know,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t a complete idiot, but I needed a way to show it.”
Alice then became pregnant for the first time. This didn’t slow her down: six months into her pregnancy, she had an idea for a film about a woman taking murderous revenge on seemingly unrelated people. “It wasn’t my plan to make my directorial debut while pregnant,” she recalls, “but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up”. Two months later she had written and shot Prevenge, which is as dark, weird and funny as you’d hope for from the co-writer of Sightseers. “I had a very powerful deadline!” she says. “It was weird to do it all so quickly, but that helped me express the story clearly instead of overcomplicating everything. I didn’t have time to think too much.” We spoke to Alice about making the film.
Does Prevenge reflect how you were feeling when you were pregnant? There are references to pregnancy being a hostile takeover or a human sacrifice.
I had a lot of fears about pregnancy which I put into the script, but I think it exorcised them. People have asked I had a horrible pregnancy because it’s very nihilistic in some ways, but I had a brilliant pregnancy: I was making a film! I was having loads of fun. At the same time, when I became pregnant I was worried. Am I ever going to direct? Am I going to get any more work, or will I fall out of acting because people assume that you’ve died when you have a baby? All of that stuff went in. Also it was about being an outsider, because I felt that when you’re a freelancer and an artist of whatever type, you have your own rules. You don’t work by the same routines that others do, and so when you have a baby you’re locked into those routines. I don’t even have a boss and suddenly a midwife is telling me I can’t do this, I can’t do that. There’s the peculiarity of being with a bunch of women in a prenatal yoga class that you feel you have nothing in common with, but you’re supposed to feel affiliation with them because you’re all pregnant.
Society expects pregnant women to be a certain way, but your character Ruth spurns this notion at every turn. What was your thinking behind that choice?
I wanted to create the opposite of a stereotypical pregnant women. It’s not based on a psychological reality. It was metaphorical: this character who comes along and slashes through that stereotype. It’s about freedom, that this woman is allowed to be who she wants to be. There’s something cathartic and satisfying about it. There are things that are tragic about Ruth and she’s damaged as a person, but also, wow, she’s pregnant and she’s getting to do whatever she wants. It’s a bit of wish fulfilment. Ruth takes on different fake identities during the film, and the first one is quite a sweet, mumsy character. Afterwards I thought that what I’ve done is write myself a character that I would normally get cast as – once you’re over 35 you’re mostly offered these boring mum characters who wear floral dresses and are very caring – and then completely exploded her. I literally burn her clothes. I was thinking a lot about how women are portrayed in films, how other people control how you’re seen. Once you actually take control yourself, you think: that’s nothing to do with me, why would I be interested in it?
I can’t actually think of a feature film written, directed by and starring a pregnant woman before.
Someone said to me recently that I was “allowed” to make the film because I was pregnant. I thought that was very interesting, the idea that it gave me permission to say what I want. If I hadn’t been pregnant there might have been people asking why would I think a pregnant woman could feel this way. I think it’s really important for women to be able to tell whatever story they want, and this inevitable moral judgement shouldn’t be an element. I shouldn’t have only been able to write this because I was pregnant, I should be able to write what I want. When you’re a female director or writer, people lay everything at your door. You’re expected to speak for all women. “Are you trying to say all pregnant women are violent?” Nobody ever says anything like this to male writers. They understand it’s an individual character who is making individual choices.
Did you give much thought to how we should perceive her, about how sympathetic we should be towards her killings?
It was an experiment in reaction to being an actress: I’m always asked if a female character is “likeable” enough. Isn’t it interesting that we worry about that with female characters and judge them more? My theory is that if you put a likeable enough performer in a role – myself, haha! – you can sell anything to anyone. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, you’re going to go along with them. I deliberately wanted to make Ruth an unremitting, cold character that you maybe come to like and empathise with. I know it’s not the traditional revenge structure, where 15 minutes in you know exactly why the person is doing what they’re doing and it enables you to have empathy with them: you see that Liam Neeson’s daughter has been kidnapped so you can enjoy the horrific violence he perpetrates on everyone around him. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to say: so what? Why should you care what this woman’s doing? She’s doing it anyway.
What do you think is driving Ruth, then? Is it grief? Fear? Prepartum depression?
I wanted the audience to wonder whether she’d always been like this. One of the things I was trying to investigate was whether people are really changed by pregnancy. That’s the fear you have when you’re going to have a baby, that you’re going to come out some Stepford Wife at the end of it, saying “I love babies and I only talk about babies now and my previous identity has been erased!” Just because you’re a mother it doesn’t mean that your instincts or your personality completely change. I’m still me.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five. Photograph by Toby Coulson.
Toni Erdmann doesn’t quite exist. Maren Ade’s third feature isn’t named after either of its main characters but rather a mid-film persona adopted by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a shambling, melancholic music teacher and inveterate jester who elbows his way into the life of daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). By transforming himself into a stranger with joke teeth and a ridiculous wig, Winfried is able to falteringly reconnect with Ines despite bringing chaos to her personal and professional life.
“It’s only funny for us”, Maren observes, “For them it’s a nightmare. That’s why we like it.” The writer-director touches upon a range of themes in the film, from the shifting boundaries of parent-child relationships to the ethics of foreign-based management consultancy, and yet also includes a scene in which Winfried dresses up in a full-body Bulgarian ritual goat-pelt and and gatecrashes his daughter’s birthday brunch. Despite combatting jet lag, in person Maren proved as thoughtful and clear-eyed as her film.
It’d be possible to make a concise version of this story that just depicts the relationship between Ines and Winfried, but the film also deals with several broader topics. What attracted you to that approach?
There was this relationship with Ines’ father but I was equally interested in her, in her job, in the business world. I come from realism and believe it’s important that each character has their own problems that maybe have nothing to do with each other. If it’s character-driven instead of plot-driven then people take actions you don’t expect, and that’s when interesting things happen. It’s right for the situation for Ines to struggle with certain emotions, even if they make the film fuzzy or don’t fit so well into the plot. I like to make little excursions with characters and follow what interests me most, so over the whole story you get a more complicated picture of a person.
You illustrate their relationship using lots of small-but-telling details, like Winfried giving Ines a cheese grater for her birthday. Why that gift?
A cheese grater is a desperate present to give to a daughter who’s an international businesswoman, but on the other hand it’s very practical. I thought it was something that showed how Winfried really knows himself. He’s aware that it’s not a good present but does it anyway. At least he bought a designer cheese grater, but you understand why it’s annoying. I wanted him to give her something from the kitchen. It’s an accident, something she doesn’t need at all.
What effect does “becoming” Toni Erdmann have on Winfried? Does it liberate him?
What’s good for him is that although he’s hiding behind the wig and the teeth, it’s possible to be more honest with her. He’s open with his critiques. As Winfried he suppresses all his suspicions about what she’s doing in her life and job and whether they’re the right things. It’s a radical approach but they come to see each other at eye level. He starts speaking an aggressive language she understands. It was important though that you could always see through to Winfried so you don’t forget about him. It’s him that’s doing Toni and it’s out of desperation, so it’s an interesting conflict.
Ines works in a male-dominated environment which the film explores indirectly: for example, she’s asked to take a client’s wife shopping, something you can’t imagine happening if she was a man. How does she fit into that world?
It’s too simple to say there’s sexism going on among her male colleagues. For me it’s more interesting to ask why is Ines participating. She’s not forced to go shopping. She could have found a way out if she really didn’t want to. It’s something that perhaps she’s too used to, and during the film that she starts realising that. Ten times it’s funny, eleven times it’s annoying. I didn’t feel it was such a big topic. It’s only present because I took a woman and put her in that situation. It was there from the beginning so I had to decide how I showed it.
Is there a moral element to how you portrayed Ines’ job, which facilitates the downsizing of other companies?
I talked to a lot of consultants before writing because I had to understand what they’re doing. The argument they’d make was that restructuring is sometimes necessary to save a company. If you change things maybe you can make the company more profitable and save other jobs, and that’s always the dead end in the discussion. How I see Ines is that she’s not a cold person, but she protects herself. It doesn’t make sense for her to think too much about people working on the oil field. Employees become a number. Her father, who judges her for this, is in the luxury position. The enemy for his post-war German generation was really clear: it was the generation before. For Ines life became too complex, too complicated. It’s difficult for her to have a clear position. She sees Winfried’s system of values as too romantic for her, a sinking island. What takes some time in the film is that I tried to get both perspectives, to always have both angles on a situation.
It’s been seven years since previous last film, Everyone Else. Was the gap helpful?
For two years I did different things, but for the other five it was only this. It’s a long film! It’s almost three hours, so it was always like making two films. Every step took more work. I was constantly working on it, but also I participated in every bit of the project so I never left the film alone. I don’t mind that it took a while, though. It’s a luxury to never be really under pressure to leave the world of film-making before you’re happy. After three films you realise that you have something like handwriting, a way you work. Although I might want to change I don’t think I will, and that’s okay.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
“It was wonderful. It was terrifying.” Bebe Cave’s description of filming Tale of Tales could be a blanket statement for her current state of mind. As a princess who rescues herself she gives the standout performance in Matteo Garrone’s dizzying fairy tale, an impressive feat considering that her co-stars include Salma Hayek, Toby Jones and Vincent Cassel. At only 18 years of age, when we meet she finds herself at the precise moment where a childhood of occasional acting roles has become a full-blown occupation, and her excitement is indistinguishable from panic. If she seems poised for a healthy career, it is merited: Bebe’s undoubted precociousness is ultimately winning because of her evident passion for her work. Even if she is afraid, she likes to dive in head first.
You’ve been acting since you were 11. How did you get into it?
I’m the youngest of five, so all of us are competitive for the spotlight, and also I’ve got two older siblings who are actors. It was a very dramatic household! I never went to a particular drama school, I just did it alongside my studies. Now I’m out of school for the first time and life is scary because I don’t have a safety net anymore, but I’m fortunate to have known for such a long time what I want to do. A huge part of it is that it’s something hugely imaginative. I never had many friends. I had a lot of imaginary characters to interact with and I suppose I never quite let go.
Did you ever consider anything else?
I really loved school and was massive classics enthusiast. I was one of those people that’s a bit of a teacher’s pet because I was always more used to adults. I used to chat to the teachers. I was not popular as you can probably imagine. I wanted to do all these different things but it never even occurred to me that there would come a point where I’d need to decide. Last year was very stressful, choosing whether I wanted to go to university, but the decision I came to was that this is the thing I want to do more than anything else, and it’s so competitive that if you don’t give your heart to it you might be left behind. You can’t ever predict anything really, so it’s quite exciting that I don’t know what’s going to happen. As I tell my father: it’s the life I’ve chosen. University isn’t the only form of education. I can self-edify, that’s what I’m trying to convince him. He still thinks I should be a doctor.
You appeared in Great Expectations and have acted on television and the stage, but Tale of Tales is your first major film role. What was it like to work on something on a much larger scale?
The thing I loved about Tale of Tales was that it was just such a whirlwind. I had no idea what to expect and every day was a new challenge. It was a completely different way of working, because Italian cinema, or at least this is my experience of it, was that they’d take a very liberal, artistic approach to things: I wouldn’t be wearing the proper safety harness but I’d be on top of a castle.
Princess Violet goes through a very physical journey. Was it taxing?
Oh, I’ve got scars. Actual scars. There was no mucking about with prosthetic rocks. They were genuine boulders that I was being slammed into. That’s what made it so exciting and intense. The dirt was real dirt. Insects were crawling all over me. They wouldn’t let me wash my hair. That was the worst part. We filmed it in sequence so I gradually got more and more dirty and beaten-up and exhausted. By the time I’d got to the climax of the film, which has to be this strong emotional reaction to all of these things that have happened to her, it felt real.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
I’ve never worked in a foreign country before so that was another challenge to add onto it, but everyone was so friendly and it felt like a big family. Also because I loved Latin so much at school I understood some of the Italian – it’s very similar and has roots in Latin. It became an incentive for me to be able to try to learn the language because my plan is to go back there one day and marry an Italian! I think it’s going pretty well. I did a course a couple of months ago and I’m still working on it now. I’m not anywhere in the region of being confident because they speak so fast, but as long as I listen to them talk, I’ll be in a good place. I just need to smile and nod and it’ll be fine.
You must find that your Italian veers towards the fantastical.
Exactly. I can say flea, I can say prince, I can say ogre. All of the important things you need in life.
The film is based on early Italian fairy tales. As they’re broader and wilder than contemporary dramas, was it important to find the emotional truth in your scenes?
You don’t want to play up to the archetypes of the character: the princess who’s a damsel-in-distress. With such exquisite surroundings and costumes, it could be easy to fall into the trap of making the way that you act overly magnificent. What Matteo wanted was to get all of that out of the picture and create something earthier. Even though I was tackling an ogre and there were magical old ladies and amazing transformations and dragons, what he wanted to bring out was that these are human struggles. At first Violet is looking for a dashing prince to come along, but she learns that there doesn’t have to be someone else to define her as a person. She doesn’t need a husband that is handsome and brave, she just needs herself.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
Kelly Macdonald’s talent has been evident since her fiery debut in Trainspotting, but the most striking thing about meeting her is her sense of perspective. Two decades into a diverse career that has seen roles in everything from Gosford Park to No Country for Old Men to the upcoming adaptation of classic children’s book Swallows and Amazons, Kelly is sanguine about the complexities of being a film actor. Hearteningly, she is determined to enjoy her work rather than worry about it. When she explains her lack of desire to act on stage again, I mention that some actors like the opportunity to hone a performance over months. Her good-natured shrug of a response is typical of her attitude: “Nah. That’s what I say to that. Nah.”
What was it like to go from playing a character over five years and 56 episodes in Boardwalk Empire back to playing one over the course of a single film in Swallows and Amazons?
Actually one of the joys about Mrs Walker in Swallows and Amazons was that she wasn’t Margaret Thompson. I hadn’t played anybody but her for a while and it felt so freeing. I had a bounce in my step. Not that I didn’t love the experience, but it’s nice to play people who talk and behave in a different way. I never went to drama school but Margaret was very changeable from season to season so it did feel like she evolved. I learned so much, it was like my drama school.
Have you found that not going to drama school was useful because you didn’t pick up bad habits? Do you ever think about it?
Oh, no. I used to, but I’m too old to worry about that now. I’ve done too much for it to be a concern. If you get to go to drama school that’s fantastic, and if you get to do this without going that’s also good. There’s a certain amount that you can only learn as you go along.
Over the past 20 years you’ve worked consistently in great projects. Has it ever been difficult?
There have been lots of long periods of unemployment. I suppose I could be called picky but even when I was struggling and something came up that I didn’t feel right for, I would probably not go in for it. I’ve always been just about okay so I haven’t had to do anything to pay the mortgage. I would coast for a while until the right thing came along.
Maybe that’s better in the long run, instead of having films you can’t stand behind you?
I don’t think it matters, honestly. As I get older I think: “fuck it”. If you do something which your heart isn’t into, nobody cares. And if it doesn’t work out then no-one will really see it anyway. A film is just there and gone. It’s all about the experience, not what happens after the shooting finishes. Obviously it’s nice if people go to see it and like it, but for me the enjoyment is in actually doing the work and being there on set.
When you’re choosing roles are you looking for a mix, then?
I don’t deliberately seek out anything. It’s just what appeals and what I respond to. I don’t have any rules. I’ve not done any horror films, that’s a missing thing that would be fun at some point.
Would you appear in a massive blockbuster?
I would love to, it’s just not been my area. It’d be great to have fun on something big and shiny but I’m not an ‘action’-type of person. Playing Princess Merida in Brave was probably the most like that but it was just my voice. My voice got very energetic.
What was it like to act purely with your voice?
It was definitely challenging – far more work than you’d expect. You have to do the lines over and over again, on your own. When you watch an animated film you take a lot for granted. There are so many sounds! It’s real brain work because you have to make noises, like making a noise as if you’re getting off a horse, and it’s very specific.
How do you make a noise like you’re getting off a horse?
Well exactly! You have to do it a lot, whatever it is. There are tons of sounds that as a cinema-goer you don’t even know you’re hearing, but if they weren’t there it would be a lesser experience.
Merida must be a role that stays with you – do you have to reprise it?
For games and things, yes. I took my kids to Disneyland in California and we were asked if we would like to meet the girl who plays her there. They got very coy around her. I was watching her being Merida and I thought, oh thank god I just had to do the voice, because this girl really embodied the character. She was so exuberant and chatted to all the families and was totally Merida the whole time. I couldn’t do that. Even if I’m doing an accent I don’t really do it on set until we’re filming. A lot of actors just stick with one for the entire period they’re working. That makes sense, but a part of my brain gets embarrassed, and if I’m making friends on set I’d feel I wasn’t being honest.
Are accents fun to learn?
It’s often weirdly helpful. Swallows and Amazons is about an English family who live in Portsmouth in 1935, so I was asked to do RP (Received Pronunciation). We did the read-through and afterwards Philippa Lowthorpe the director called me, saying she thought it’d be fun to make Mrs Walker Scottish instead. That was great because I could be freed up a little and I wasn’t just playing Period Mum, giving some kids a row. She could be more vibrant. But I’d hardly ever work if I could only use my own accent.
As a modern viewer the part of Swallows and Amazons I found most surprising was that your character Mrs Walker lets her children leave on an adventure for days, completely unsupervised. I can’t imagine anyone being able to do that now.
It’s definitely different with kids today. It’s funny seeing this mum wave her kids off in a boat to go to a strange island.
“Please don’t die.”
I know! “Don’t drown.” Things have changed. Even when I was little we were sent out during the summer and didn’t see grown-ups all day, but then we’d always seem to know when it was right to go back home.
Children can sense teatime.
For my kids everything has to be a bit more structured which is a shame. I’ve realised that I keep saying: “Be careful.” My eldest is at an age when he says “What do you mean? With what?” and I’ll realise that I’ve said it for no reason. He’s not doing anything, he’s barely moved and I’m telling him to be careful. We’re not that adventurous, but they get great opportunities. I’m so glad my son will have memories of scooting down the street to school in New York. That’s an adventure too.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Two. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
“You’ll hate digital effects, it’s full of anoraks and nerds,” the man was telling Sara Bennett. “You won’t like it at all.” Hooked on cinema at a young age by watching Hammer Horror films with her father, she knew she wanted to work in film production but was unsure where her passion could lead her. “As I loved horror, I was interested in prosthetics and make-up, so I went to college and trained in that,” she explains. “I tried to start a career and found it very difficult.” She ended up as a receptionist at an effects company, where a colleague would pass the time by describing the nascent field of digital effects to her. “He was trying to dissuade me but it just piqued my interest. I wanted to find out what it was all about. I think it’s because I’m stubborn.”
The journey from that day to where Sara finds herself now – the second woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (for her work on Ex Machina), and the first in 23 years – has been one of diligent, steady progress. Without a background in computing or mathematics, she started as a runner and worked her way up, becoming a compositor and later a visual effects supervisor. “I just fell in love with computers. It was really good because I got to see how all of the departments work, and it gave me a grounding in every area of post-production,” she says. “I was lucky. I had a lot of helpful people above me who spent the time teaching me. It means I can say to someone: ‘I know it’s painful and it’s taking ages and you’ve been drawing around someone’s arm all day long, but I’ve been there and it’ll be okay.’”
Sara’s career has coincided with the growth of the British VFX industry, which after years of domination by American companies has become pre-eminent. The unsurprising catalyst for this, she relates, was Harry Potter – like seemingly most visual effects artists in the country, she worked on a number of films in the series. The result was invaluable: “That’s what grew our industry. Before then it was small but steady and it just exploded. We had ten years of Harry Potter films. It trained up so many people, kept them employed and the level of skills just grew and grew.”
After nearly a decade working at another effects house with a close knot of collaborators, Sara and the group decided to found their own studio, Milk. If it wasn’t for the non-disclosure agreement, the shelf of awards and the Doctor Who Slitheen alien head that greet you as you enter their offices, it might be difficult to guess what it is the company actually does. The bank of computers and their well turned-out operators could easily belong to an architect or an ambitious internet startup, while the Society of Petroleum Engineers sits just a few floors below, further confusing matters.
It’s fitting that Milk’s office is so unassuming, however: given the prevalence of digital effects, they are decidedly under appreciated. Over the 18 years that Sara has been working in the industry, she has seen their use grow beyond Hollywood blockbusters to become an indispensable tool in modern film and television production. She gives an example: Milk’s work on the recent period episode of Sherlock didn’t just involve recreating Victorian London through digital mattes and CG crowds, but also removing dolly tracks, contemporary road markings, and even crew members checking their texts in the background. “A lot of the shots we work on aren’t necessarily sexy,” she says. “Maybe we’re getting rid of some cables or adding a new sky because it was overcast on the day they were filming and you want to liven up the scene. You can do hundreds of shots like that which no-one would even notice, but they’re still important.”
These effects work precisely because you aren’t aware of them, which also means they’re taken for granted. For Sara, though, that’s part of the job’s attraction. “I love doing big fantasy stuff and creatures and spaceships, but it’s also really fulfilling to add to the story. On a show recently we did a lot of matt paintings that look photoreal. It’d be a tiny 100 metre yard and we were building it out into this epic space. You wouldn’t know that 30 of those extras were actually just five people on different green screens. It’s as satisfying as the big effects. You’re building a world. The visual effects are not just spectacle, but storytelling.”
Like a headmaster who doesn’t get to teach any more, Sara’s fear is that having wider responsibilities will take her away from the work that first enthralled her. “I always said I’d never walk around with a clipboard, it’d make me miserable. I have to be hands-on,” she says. “The hardest thing has been letting a lot of compositing go. I haven’t been able to do as much as I used to, but I’m relieved that so far I’ve managed to keep a hand in while still doing management roles and supervising.” She concedes that ultimately it all adds up to the same goal: to instil in others the same delight that she felt, years ago, staying up late with her dad. “The job is often really hard, especially when there’s a quick turnaround or a stressful delivery. But what’s great about doing a film is that months later you can go to a screening, and when you’re sat in the cinema you can finally switch off and watch it all properly. It’s the best feeling because you see your work up there and the audience is utterly engaged with it, with this thing you made. You remember why you do it.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One. Photograph by Clare Hewitt.
It would be an understatement to say that Adult Life Skills is personal for Jodie Whittaker. The actress’ latest film – a sharp, good-natured comedy about a bereaved twin living in her mum’s shed – was shot in her hometown, written and directed by her best friend Rachel Tunnard, and sees her character Anna’s best friend Fiona played by her other best friend Rachael Deering. The inspiration, meanwhile, came from a holiday the trio took together in 2009, where they commiserated over how rarely they saw women like them believably represented on screen. Jodie’s enthusiasm for their passion project is evident, but perhaps most telling is her description of what happened when she learned she was pregnant, six weeks before the start of shooting. The idea of postponing for eighteen months was raised, then promptly dismissed: “Fuck it,” she concluded, “put me in a baggy tee-shirt and let’s go.”
The film takes Anna’s grief seriously but she isn’t consumed by it at all times. What was appealing about that approach?
Anywhere else this story would probably be a kitchen sink drama, but instead it’s a heightened, bizarre comedy. That’s important because if something terrible happens you’re not a different person. It changes you but you’re not fundamentally different. Even in the darkest times you still laugh, you still find things funny. There’s humour in the process of mourning – it doesn’t go away forever. You’re still you.
A consequence of that is she’s often terrible to those around her.
The thing I love about Anna is sometimes she’s a pain in the arse, particularly with her mum, but no-one gives up on her. The people that get you through these things are your friends and your family, so it was lovely that it was about that rather than her being saved by some huge love story. The sisterhood between her and Fiona was particularly great to play. I can’t think of another film I’ve been in where my character has even had a best friend. In other things I have scenes with girls where we’re talking about boys. We don’t get to just prat about.
What was it like filming in the area of Yorkshire where you grew up?
It was strange and funny. I’ve known Rachael Deering since we were five and it was the first time since 18 that we were living back at home. There was one night when it was really cold so I went to hers, sat in front of the fire, ate a chocolate orange and watched Frozen. We’d been to the shop to buy matching pyjamas because we didn’t have any and I slept over. We just reverted back. On one occasion an old mate walked past the end of the drive of the house we were shooting in, and we asked her to come back the next day to be an extra. That was her day off – she’s a solicitor, she’s got a proper job – but she dressed as a paramedic for us. We roped in everyone we knew. If you keep watching the credits at least three Whittakers show up. People couldn’t say it was too far to travel: “No it isn’t, we’re at the bottom of your road.”
Is making a low-budget independent film liberating or challenging?
Within those constraints it was an incredibly free environment. There was a huge learning curve for everyone because it was Rachel’s first feature as director, Rachael Deering’s first feature, my first time as an executive producer, but that meant it was a baby for all of us. We had lots of obstacles – losing the light, child hours, horrific weather, I was starting to show, and there wasn’t even a heater in the shed – and we overcame them together. By the end I was coming up to five months pregnant, so it was a precarious time. It felt like the start of a new part in my life. I was cold and tired and excited.
At this point you’ve been a working actress for eleven years. What has been the most important thing you’ve learned?
You’ve got to move forward. It’s all about pushing yourself and discovering new things and not putting up any guards. I would be devastated if I suddenly relied on a tried-and-tested performance. But then I’m lucky because I get to work a lot with totally different material. I could name five jobs I’ve done which are the polar opposite of each other. You’ve got to throw yourself in and trust the director. That in itself is exciting! To put your fate in someone’s hands. It’s quite scary, and can be frustrating, but it’s so rewarding because someone sees you in a way you can’t see yourself. You need to be aware enough to give yourself over to the process. I think I’ve got a good instinct. I’ve said yes to the right things. There’s loads of stuff that I’m sure in hindsight I’d say I’m a dickhead for not going in for, but then I wouldn’t have got those jobs anyway because they wouldn’t have seen what they needed to see.
Is that because ultimately your job has to start with you being passionate about something?
Yes, but that’s only because I’m in a fortunate position. It’d be very different if I hadn’t worked for a couple of years. At this stage if I get sent something and I don’t want to do it I don’t have to, and that might not always be the case. I’m very aware of my age, I’m very aware of my sex. I understand that the industry in its limited, frustrating way means that I will get to a point where I’m too old and have the wrong genitals to be in things, which is ridiculous. That’s a part of it sadly, but at this moment in time I feel properly in my skin, and I’m playing parts that I can really care about.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One.
There’s a moment early in our conversation—I haven’t even ordered a cup of tea yet—where Amanda Foster tells me that she likes hanging from the bottom of helicopters. The way she says this is so straightforward and so casual that my mind immediately does a blunderbuss review of every person I’ve ever met. The results of my unscientific audit return a moment later: no, I don’t know anyone who has ever hung from the bottom of a helicopter. Nor, for that matter, have I ever met anyone who has hung from the bottom of a sufficient number of helicopters that they can reasonably mention it in passing as an activity they enjoy. This is new.
Among her many skills, which include precision driving, martial arts and motorcycle racing, Amanda is a master of the understatement. “There was just an opening, really,” she replies when I ask how she became a stuntwoman. It wasn’t so much an opening as a void: as a 21-year-old extra on the set of the Harrison Ford thriller Patriot Games, she learned that there wasn’t a single black stuntwoman in the UK. She decided to start training, and for the past eighteen years has reigned as Britain’s only registered stuntwoman of colour: performing in some 250 productions including franchises like Harry Potter and The Fast and the Furious.
Becoming a stunt performer is long, expensive and demanding: to get fully registered requires perfecting six different disciplines and receiving qualifications in each. “You have to be an all-rounder because no two jobs are exactly the same,” she explains. “You work under all kinds of different conditions: you can be inside, outside, in water, in the air. It can be dark, light, freezing cold, boiling hot. You might be inside a car, outside a car, underneath a car…”
Six years of training is a task made even harder when you’re a single mother of three young children, as Amanda was at the time. When I ask how she juggled the process with everything else in her life, she shrugs off the query: “Well, that’s all I knew, so I cracked on. I didn’t think too much into it. You just have to do it, don’t you?”
Over the course of our time together, this type of response is a common one. It is easy to mistake this apparent nonchalance for guardedness, but her attitude reveals itself to be gritty positivity. The most striking thing about Amanda is her single-minded determination—surely a necessity when your job involves getting blown up regularly. “It’s something I have inside me,” she says. “I have such a drive to achieve. I need to overcome challenges. I don’t know what it is. I just have this hunger.”
The obvious question is one of the first I ask: how dangerous is it? Amanda is firm: she prefers to talk about the successes rather than the injuries. But she acknowledges that it’s a tough, unforgiving line of work: “There’s an element of danger to every stunt you do. You take the knocks. I have colleagues in wheelchairs with titanium hips. I have colleagues that have lost their lives. A good job is anything you can walk away from.” When she describes her work as being “literally blood, sweat and tears”, she isn’t using the word ‘literally’ incorrectly: “If I get injured on a job and can still use the parts of my body that work to finish that job, then I will finish it.”
In a diverse career, Amanda has focused on doubling work, which involves doing most of the stunts for a film’s lead female actor. The challenge becomes not just how to crash down a flight of stairs, execute a 180-degree J-turn in a car, or rappel from a building, but how to believably embody the person she’s doubling for. In an odd way, it mirrors the work that the actor herself does to get into character. “I like to try to move like them so I’ll study them a lot,” she says. “I’m very aware of the camera when I’m shooting so I try to keep my face directly out of frame. If you can do all of that, then there’s more footage for the director to play with in the editing. It’s always good to go above and beyond and deliver something better than what they expected.”
The same determination that brought her through the long struggles of training and nearly two decades of stunt work has now found a new outlet, as Amanda has decided to train to become a clay pigeon shooter with hopes of making it to the Olympics. While she’s always loved shooting, she explains that the thrill for her is the challenge and the chance to master something new. “It’s a different kind of skill and I’m excited to learn it, perfect it and conquer it. I need to be tested.”
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of relentless practice and dealing with completely unfamiliar associations doesn’t seem to phase Amanda in the slightest. “I’m like a baby in the world of shooting, and that’s fine,” she says. “I don’t mind starting from scratch again. Life’s a challenge. I’m bordering on obsession at the moment. I want it. I really want it. And I think that’s probably a good place to start.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Seven. Photographs by Carl Bigmore.
From its electrifying opening sequence onward, in which two teams of teenage girls face off in an American football match, every moment of Girlhood pulses with life and colour and youth. Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s thoughtful yet boisterous film follows shy sixteen-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) as she joins a gang of girls in her economicallydisadvantaged Parisian banlieue. Neglected by school, parental figures and their community, the quartet rely upon each other to weather their oppressive, underprivileged circumstances. Céline spoke to us about making the film.
In France the film is called Bande de Filles. Why did you decide to change the title to Girlhood for the international release rather than directly translate it? Do the titles reflect different things about the story?
I liked that Girlhood was more generic. It asks, “Who is the French young girl today?” Well, maybe she’s like this, which is quite a political thing to say. By chance Boyhood was released last year. At first people were saying it was a shame, but I actually like the fact that you can put the two films together. Boyhood is about a middle-class, average American boy with average dreams, and the movie talks about that, and Girlhood is about a poor black girl in the Paris suburbs. It’s striking to have two different portraits.
You mentioned Boyhood being about a middle-class boy, and Girlhood is very much about a group of working-class girls who have been abandoned by the authorities and society in general, who find strength in each other.
I wanted to show the virtues of the group. You can’t properly translate ‘bande’, but it means gang, or perhaps bunch. Sometimes it’s seen as really negative, bringing corruptive influence or uniformity, and I wanted to portray the opposite. This collective allows the girls to express themselves and empower themselves and to make a team. They speak up because they are together. I think what happens in the suburbs of Paris or at the periphery isn’t too disconnected from what happens everywhere in society. It’s just that in those particular places certain things are overt, whereas elsewhere they are more hidden. The movie’s about girlhood. We look at a place that’s bigger than life, with more adversity, but in a way it talks about all girls.
The relationship between the foursome is central to the film. How did you work with the actors? Did they spend lots of time together?
They did. We picked the girls for the alchemy between them. We didn’t pick loners, we picked girls that wanted to share. Then we did a workshop for two weeks before shooting where we all met and built the path to the film. Friendship was born. They also lived together during the shoot and so they really became close. It was important; something is actually happening between them on screen.
Girlhood is strongly colour-coordinated, right down to the blue cleaning liquid in one scene. How did you decide to employ colour and how strict were you in using it?
It wasn’t that strict. It was intuition. I have a thing for blue. Each time I go for it as if it were the first time. I use the colour like it’s my favourite cake in the bakery. “Oh, I’m going to try this!” But I’ve already tasted it before and love it. I worked with the cinematographer and the set designer, and we had an appetite for colour. We wanted it to be colourful and we worked around the palette together. For the exteriors we picked a neighbourhood because it was red and I wanted it that way. All of the interiors of the flat were built in a studio, so we picked every curtain and the colour of every wall. I was the costume designer too. I like to think of an image as not just the light. It’s also the colour of a wall, the colour of a shirt and how you build contrast in between scenes. Colour is like a thread that takes you through the film.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Five. Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
A troika of street performers stand like bored statues by the roadside. Across from their gazeless vigil, Thomas and Simone meet for the first time outside a Rome café. Simone is a journalist covering the appeal case of an American student convicted of murdering her housemate with the help of her ex-boyfriend and another man. The grisly crime, tinged with lurid sexual intrigue, has captivated the world‘s press, and Thomas wishes to direct a film about it. Before they part ways for the day, Simone offers him some advice. “If you’re going to make the film, make it a fiction,” she says. “You can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.”
If the case being discussed in the above scene, which opens Michael Winterbottom’s latest film The Face of an Angel, sounds familiar, then it may be because it is almost identical in detail to the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia—a crime for which Amanda Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison (before being exonerated and then convicted again.) Like his protagonist Thomas, Michael travelled to Italy during that time and met with a journalist, Barbie Latza Nadeau, on whose true-crime book Angel Face the film is nominally based and who originally said those words to him.
The reason Michael decided to follow Barbie’s advice, he explains, was two-fold: “With fiction you can include certain information that you can’t otherwise, because you have to prove it. But more than that, I felt that the important aspects of the story would get lost in all the details of the real case. If I made a film about the trial of Amanda Knox, then it becomes just that: a film about a trial. I wanted it to be about other things, about love and grief and Dante and family and storytelling.”
Despite the changes in specific details—Perugia becomes Siena, for example—the director asserts that he was still acutely aware of ethical considerations: “Even though we moved everything one step across, the film is as factually accurate as if it had been real. We don’t make up anything.”
The story’s appeal was not the murder itself, but the broader questions it raised about public and press interest in particular types of violent crime. “The idea was maybe we could look at why we all as consumers of the media want to hear about murder trials. There have been at least ten books written about this single case. Many TV documentaries. Endless amount of television and news coverage and articles. That obsession was a story in its own right. Why is a case like this so fascinating? Why has the media tacked on to this one specific story?”
There are salacious and compelling details in all sorts of crimes, but Michael felt that there was something about murder that attracts us. Murder stories, perhaps, fill a space left in society by shifting attitudes towards death. He elaborates: “It’s a weird paradox that we spend so much of our time watching crime and violence on TV, and yet in our own lives death has become almost invisible. All the ways in which people normally experienced death at an intimate, local level with friends and relatives, which was accepted as part of life, we’ve got rid of all that and turned it into drama.”
As he followed those covering the case, the filmmaker saw talented and driven journalists aware that they had to package the story in a way that would sell, to create a version of the trial that would appeal to their newspaper editors. The experience of this persuaded both Michael—and his cinematic proxy Thomas—to go in a different direction. Rather than dramatising Meredith‘s death or Amanda’s trial, The Face of an Angel instead follows Thomas’ creative journey as he debates with journalists and local residents, and struggles to persuade executives more interested in the film’s casting than its themes. Unbeknownst to Thomas, of course, the film that he wants to make is the one he is starring in. While Michael’s preemptive considerations were about the media, both he and Thomas ultimately arrive at the same place: a murdered girl. Where most of the coverage focussed on the young, attractive woman accused of murder, his focus shifts to the one who lost her life, whose family was irreparably damaged by the crime, regardless of who actually perpetrated it.
The Face of an Angel is far from the first of Michael’s films to take inspiration from real life. Out of the 24 features he has directed in his career, five are based on true stories. Even when not directly fact-based, however, his fictional work is similarly defined by an aspiration towards truthfulness. His film Everyday, about a family coping with the father’s prison sentence, was shot in real time over five years, while another effort, 9 Songs, became infamous for depicting a year-long relationship almost entirely through unsimulated sex scenes between its central couple. Michael’s aim is to make events on screen as natural as possible, using whatever techniques will help him do that. When I ask what’s the best sort of atmosphere to engender naturalistic performances, he replies immediately: a chaotic one. “I like people to feel relaxed, and I want to feel comfortable, but obviously I like a bit of chaos,” he says, finishing off his large glass of daytime wine.
Over the course of our fervent, breakneck conversation—he speaks at a rate swift enough to melt all but the hardiest of digital recorders—this comment is perhaps his most redundant. Of course Michael likes chaos. If his propensity for freewheeling impulsiveness wasn’t discernible from his charmingly erratic behaviour before and during our conversation, his wide, wild body of work would give the game away. Arguably the most exciting British filmmaker working today, Michael’s open mind and keen intellectual curiosity seeks restlessly for new ways to tell new stories, and lots of them, too: his 24 films were made over just nineteen years, and he always has a handful of others in varying stages of production.
Michael’s exploratory inclinations are buttressed by the frequent use of improvisation, which he employs for differing purposes, from the comic bickering in his popular series The Trip to recruiting non-professional actors to enact in real life the events of Afghan refugees for In This World. The director speaks with evident delight at the effect that mixing real and fictional elements has on a film. “I like the idea of taking characters and putting them in an environment that’s not controlled, where some people are actors and some aren’t. You know it’s a fiction, but you also know that there are other things going on. The characters aren’t on a set, they’re in the actual world. I remember seeing À Bout de Souffle for the first time, and as they’re walking down the Parisian streets you see someone look at the camera. I love that sort of stuff. It makes it real.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Four. Photograph by Toby Coulson.
The idiom ‘like herding cats’ could have been invented to describe the process of interviewing Ana Lily Amirpour. Even though our conversation took place on a sodden Wednesday afternoon in an overheated central London hotel, talking to her felt akin to being jammed on a sofa with an affable stranger towards the end of a rambunctious house party, paper cups of wine cradled in our hands.
Ostensibly we met to discuss Lily’s directorial debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Given that it is perhaps the world‘s first Iranian-American vampire western, there was much to talk about. Shot in stark black and white and set in a fictitious Iranian ghost town called Bad City, the film follows a 186-year-old vampire known only as The Girl as she makes the acquaintance of a troubled local man.
Beyond her love of music and stylish predilection for wearing a Breton top with her chador, we learn almost nothing about this complicated, aged creature other than she occasionally rides a skateboard and appears to target men who take advantage of women. She is as quiet and introspective as Lily is digressive and enthusiastic. But after many minutes conversing about raunchy band names, malfunctioning abdominal cavities, Twin Peaks and sinister casinos, Lily was finally ready to discuss the film. For the most part.
We should probably talk about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
It’s so much more fun to talk about hernias.
I understand. You must get the same ten questions over and over again. Everyone asking you, “Why vampires, Lily?”
Right! Well, we can do that. We can do whatever you want.
Why vampires, Lily?
I’ve been into vampires since very early. Anne Rice was my gateway drug. Honestly I just really don’t want to die, and I don’t want to get old, and vampires live forever. And they’re lonely.
You shot the film in California, but it’s set in Iran. Why did you choose to have America stand in for the country?
Did you think it was Iran?
I’d read that it wasn’t. But while I’ve never been there, it felt like neither one place nor the other. You could take it almost as being set in an imaginary Iran.
Exactly. That’s good, that’s how I would have answered. Put that. It’s not the real world. It’s an Iran of the mind.
Have you been to Iran much?
I’ve been there once. My film has nothing to do with Iran, though. It’s an avenue into something, and it’s Iranian because it’s an Iranian fairy tale with Iranian characters and I am Iranian, but I’m also a composite of many other things. Making a film is an opportunity to put together the things that you are and live inside a dream and not have the limits or rules of the real world defining it. If it was shot on a sound stage, I wonder if people would ask why it was set in Iran.
I’d argue that one of the interesting things about that choice is the marked differences between the shooting location and the setting. They inspire a creative tension.
People just want answers all the time. I think the questions are much more interesting than the answers.
Do you purposefully want the film to be open to interpretation then? There are definitely political readings of what happens but are you looking to create ambiguity?
I want whatever you get. Once I create a film it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s like a mirror, and each person brings what they are to it. You see things of yourself in a movie. My feeling and your feeling of the same exact film are going to be different and that’s what’s great about cinema. That’s why it’s more interesting to hear what you think than for me to tell you the stuff that I was thinking when I made it.
I wanted to ask you about Madonna because there’s a picture of her on The Girl’s wall.
Do you know who that is? It’s not Madonna. The face was changed because I couldn‘t get permission to use all those music posters she has on her wall. It’s actually the face of Margaret Atwood. I met her at San Diego Comic-Con before I made the film and she was super supportive of the idea of the film. Then when I was making it, I was told that to get the clearance for the posters we’d have to pay loads of money, so I just changed them. Margaret Atwood was Madonna, Elijah Wood and his two partners in his production company were the Bee Gees. I was Michael Jackson. It was so fun doing that.
Do you think that turns the film into even more of a side-step from reality?
Yes, it makes an alternate, Bizarro version of the real world. I think the little details are really important, like the character Arash’s watch is always at high noon.
That’s actually why I wanted to bring up Madonna. There’s a moment in the film where The Girl says she isn’t religious. In the Catholic faith people put the Madonna on their walls, and instead The Girl has a pop-culture Madonna on hers. I was wondering if that was an intentional allusion.
Wow, I never heard that. See, this is why I love movies. I recently realised why I hate E.T.
You hate E.T.? Why?
I shit my pants when I was a kid and saw it. I was terrified. And I was at a festival in Spain and met a filmmaker called Carlos Vermut. We had this big conversation about life and weirdness and madness and movies and everything, and I was talking about E.T. Did you like E.T.?
Very much so. But it’s okay for other people to not like it.
I didn’t hate the movie, I hated the alien. From the moment I first saw it, I felt wrong. I never thought, “You’re cute, let’s be friends.” It was always, “Run for the hills!” Carlos figured it out. He said,“You don’t like old people. E.T. is an old man, and you made a vampire movie and you want to live forever.” I thought, “Holy shit, dude, you just saved me ten years of therapy.”
Why don’t you like old people?
I’d like to be politically correct, but I can’t help but tell you what I think. I don’t dislike them. I don’t hate them. It’s not like that. I’m afraid of them and I think they’re gross and I don’t find them attractive. I find old people a looming, tangible sense of death. I feel like they’re an advertisement for death. Decaying, rotting inside your own body. And they smell bad. I mean, I like my grandma, but she’s gross, you know?
I’ve never been comfortable with that and I don’t know that I ever will, and I’ll become one unless a vampire comes along and rescues me from it. Or if they come up with a nano-shot where they can inject you with something cell-rejuvenating. I don’t want to die. Death is a part of everything, because everything dies, but fuck! I don’t care how many beautifully-lit photos you take of wrinkled faces, it’s just a photo. It’s not real. Go to a hospital and see what old age really smells and looks like. It’s not tasty or savoury.
You mentioned to me before that you’ve already seen fans dressed up as The Girl. What’s it like to have created a character and then have it develop a life of its own?
It’s crazy! I was talking to my dad about it a couple of days ago. It’s funny because I always say that I’m a very personal filmmaker. I’m interested in trying to figure out who I am. That’s all I’m really trying to do. So it’s cool to think that something that you do can affect someone in a weird way. In the film I’m not trying to be political or say something about women or Iran. Anything that’s happening is something I’m thinking in my own head about who I am as a weird human being on earth. Then my dad said I was changing the way people look at chadors on a massive scale, as people will associate this religious thing with something completely different now. It kind of freaked me out. Are you suffering?
What do you mean?
The heat. Are you?
It’s a bit sultry.
Humid. But it’s good. It puts us in a fever dream state. Would you do it, if a vampire came and gave you the choice of being a vampire? Have you ever thought about it?
I think you should take some time over your answer.
It’s a big question.
It is a big question. I’ve been thinking about it since I was nine, so I know.
I probably would.
Yes, me too.
The idea of murder and blood doesn’t particularly appeal, but I’d rather not die.
I’d rather not die too! And I imagine some part of me would be like a cheetah. I don’t think a cheetah feels bad when it kills an antelope. A vampire is part human so of course there’s the guilt, but it’s better than lots of other ways I can think of dying. Taking something’s life in a very meaningful way, versus having a stroke? There’s no contest. Dying at the hands of a vampire isn’t a bad way to die. It’s pretty magnificent.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Four. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
“You can’t always be Hamlet; sometimes you have to play a talking refrigerator.” Alfred Molina graduated from drama school 39 years ago, but he tells the story as if it happened last week. “One of my acting teachers said that. Of course, it got a big laugh. He said that the important thing was to not look down on those moments and think they’re beneath you. I was very young at the time, in my late teens, and didn’t quite appreciate what he was trying to communicate. I realise now he was talking about self respect and taking pride in your work, applying your craft with the same dedication, effort and concentration to every job regardless of what it is. The trick is to be the best talking refrigerator you can be.”
Alfred emanates good advice. He can’t help himself. One gets the sense that he’s held on to every shred of wisdom he’s received. His conversation abounds with references to former teachers, acting colleagues and old friends who have had something useful to pass along. Over a tremendous four-decade career, in which the actor has played Hamlets, refrigerators and everything in between, it’s clear that the early lessons stuck. Alfred’s large body of work, which includes roles in everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to An Education to Boogie Nights, has been defined by the gusto he brings to each part. “I’m definitely a very different actor now than when I started, but what remains constant is that I still get excited by the job.”
Maintaining such enthusiasm over a long career is difficult, and Alfred has seen the fire go out for several of his peers. “There’s no judgement involved here: it happens for all kinds of reasons and it’s important to bear that in mind, because it’s not that actors become lazy necessarily,” he says. “It’s often that the job becomes hard. We all get older and our energy levels aren’t the same. It can be a very physical gig.”
He mentions his time on the TV drama Monday Mornings, in which he played a hospital’s chief of staff: “I was joking with the producers and said, ‘I’ve reached an age where you can just stick me behind a desk and I’ll do a lot of shouting and pointing. I’m really good at that now. All the youngsters, they can do the running and jumping. I’ll just shout and point.’ They kind of took me at my word, and I ended up with all these scenes where I had big long speeches haranguing one person after another. But it was okay. You develop different strengths. You eventually become the actor you were destined to be.”
Alfred has avoided languor by finding how to conserve his energy and be more efficient. “When I was young I would run in like a bull in a china shop. On the first day I’d be all pistons going, all engines firing, and then by the second I’d be exhausted with a ton of work still to do. You learn which battles to fight as well as how to fight them.”
Due perhaps to his dexterity with accents, marauding eyebrows and bearish carriage, Alfred has played his share of villains, but in person he laughs generously and conveys both warmth and gentleness. He’s the sort of figure you’d want to run into if you scraped a knee or lost your wallet. Manners are as important to him as the work he puts in. “Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the right way to do something and you find yourself struggling. I’ve been on lots of sets where actors will suddenly shout out because they’re so frustrated. What’s important is to not lose your rag at your inability to nail the performance and then turn around to someone and go, ‘You! It’s all your fault!'”
As frustrating as those difficult moments are, Alfred believes they’re the key to remaining enthusiastic. “About ten years ago I was talking to an actor friend who’s much older than me. I asked, ‘How do you stay fresh?’ and he said that when offers come in you should always try to take the least comfortable one.” If every job might have something more to offer, Alfred understood, then he wouldn’t get bored or stale. The stance is an admirable one, but he concedes that practical considerations have a bearing too. First and foremost he’s a working actor, which means popping up in all sorts of projects—sometimes it’s Magnolia, sometimes it’s The Pink Panther 2.
After dozens of roles in every medium it might be difficult to identify specific turning points in a career, but Alfred immediately brings up playing Doctor Octopus, the tragic yet diabolical villain of Spider-Man 2, who he played a full thirty years into his career. Yet the part introduced him to a whole new audience. He explains, “Before then I’d mostly done smart, high-end independent films that were well-regarded but didn’t make huge amounts of money.” In contrast, Spider-Man 2 had the highest-grossing opening day in history at the time of its release. “It was just a massive, massive undertaking; at one point we were occupying seven sound stages on the Sony lot. You soon realise the actors are a small cog in a much bigger machine, but once you’ve embraced that you can have a wonderful time.”
A decade on from Spider-Man, another turning point has presented itself with Ira Sachs’ family drama Love Is Strange, one of this year’s best and most affecting pictures. Alfred co-stars with John Lithgow as George and Ben, a couple who are forced to live apart when they lose their flat as a result of getting married. While their predicament is a consequence of discrimination, the film is more interested in depicting the nuances of the pair’s long relationship than underlining the injustice of their circumstances. For Alfred, who has been involved in gay rights activism for several years, the emphasis on the commonplace was part of the appeal. “Everything that happens to the characters are things that happen to all of us. Their crisis isn’t insurmountable, nor is it life-threatening. George and Ben are quite delightfully ordinary in a way that is reassuring and recognisable—these are people in the world. It would have been less of a film if they’d been special.”
Instead of Love Is Strange relying on unrealistic narrative convolutions to provide interest, Alfred feels that the film’s power comes from exploring what’s extraordinary about the ordinary love at its centre, and that this is what the title refers to. “I like to think of it in the Shakespearean sense. In Hamlet, Horatio says, ‘O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!’ where strange means something magical and mysterious and ultimately wonderful. You have no understanding of how it’s happened or why but it fills you with joy. That’s what I take from the title, and that’s what love is. It’s some indefinable thing that saves you, that protects you and gets you through life. And that’s the same for anybody.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Three. Photograph by Clare Hewitt.
“When you’re a kid no one fucking expects you to do anything. Nobody relies on you for anything. Whereas when I was nine, I was relied upon to be on set every day and know my lines and to be a part of keeping a whole huge machine running smoothly.” The nine-year-old in question was Daniel Radcliffe, and the huge machine was the Harry Potter franchise, still the most financially-successful film series in history. Coming from any other former child actor you might expect this to be the start of a tirade about their lost youth, but Daniel is trying to explain how the experience led to him being a happier adult. “I really enjoyed that responsibility. I enjoyed the fact that it was something I loved and I got to go to a place that I cared about.”
We’re generally unsurprised when child performers fly off the thread. In part this is because it’s a dispiritingly familiar narrative, and in part it’s because, well, why wouldn’t they? When a person becomes world famous before they’ve even started puberty, it’s no great wonder to see them end up turning to bitterness, religious fundamentalism or drugs to quell the peculiar hangover of their youth. With this in mind, the strangest thing about Daniel is that he doesn’t seem to be strange at all. From his eight cinematic appearances as the eponymous boy wizard through to his later pursuit of a diverse series of stage and screen roles, his life in the public eye has been almost entirely devoid of controversy. “I think a lot of people do wonder how we didn’t go off the rails when we were that young, how fame didn’t fuck us up,” he says. “My answer is that for a lot of the time we were working. I used to say this back then and it’s absolutely true: I only felt famous for about two weeks a year during Potter, when the film would actually come out and I’d go and promote it. The rest of the time it was all work.”
There’s a lot one could say when attempting to describe Daniel—that he’s articulate, engaged and energetic, that he peppers his conversation liberally with quotations and swearing, that he’s about the size of a hat—but the most immediately obvious thing is that he’s incredibly polite. My grandmother would love him. Labelling a person as polite sounds dismissive, insinuating a certain obsequiousness, but it’s his best quality. He’s polite in a way that suggests compassion and sensitivity. One gets the sense that the quality took early on and never left: he talks with conviction about formative experiences working with badly-behaved actors and resolving to avoid their example.
Whenever conversation turns to Harry Potter, which happens with understandable frequency, Daniel gives the impression that he was unhappy for much of the time. Obliquely negative references to his adolescent life creep around the edges of his sentences. The only refuge from a tumultuous youth, he explains, was acting. “I remember particularly in the early days when I was still really not enjoying school I would just sit in my school room on set and I’d know… I’d recognise the runner who was coming to get me. I’d recognise their footsteps and know that I was going to set, and I’d just be so excited.”
Daniel talks about the set in an almost talismanic manner. As he became increasingly well known the gap between him and his peers grew concordantly, which makes it understandable that he longed for an environment where he was viewed primarily as a co-worker. “Because I was an only child, I’d always been quite good at talking to adults. It was something I always relished, not being patronised. And as soon as I was about fourteen and people could swear in front of me they treated me like any other person on set,” he says. “At school the world is divided into who’s cool and who’s not, and on set everyone just got on with it. It was much more like the real world and I immediately liked that about it. Set was like a sanctuary for me, and whatever else was going on in my life as a teenager I could always forget about it when I was there.”
Perhaps it’s because he’s had so much of it, and for so long, but Daniel says he never felt seduced by fame. “The danger for people who become famous very young is that it becomes a part of their identity, and it’s a fleeting thing.“ I ask if it’s strange to move through a world where everyone knows your name, and he says yes before I can finish the question. “It makes you slightly uncomfortable because you feel like you should know them as well and you don’t. That said, you get used to seeing yourself on posters and buses. It’s an odd thing to say but you just do. It’s almost like you see a different person after a while. But even though you get used to certain aspects of it, there’s no part of it that stops being weird, and I think that’s right. You should always be finding it weird. You’ve got to acknowledge that this is not a normal way to live.”
Other than the discombobulation that arises from being one of the most recognisable figures in the country, another side-effect of having your own movie franchise from the age of nine is that everyone’s opinion of you has been settled for years, based largely upon the work you did as an unseasoned actor. Daniel is sanguine on the subject: “For a long time I was still obsessing over little bits and pieces that I didn’t like of those films, and I just had to accept at a certain point that basically my acting lessons, both good and bad, are all committed to film. That’s what I learned in front of people for ten years, and there will be some moments in it that I’m really proud of and some moments that I go, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ But you learn and you improve. That’s the only way you can grow.”
Daniel thinks a lot about his development as an actor. It’s not that he’s insecure about his abilities, but rather that he’d like his best performance to be ahead of him. “That’s what I’m battling against really. Towards the end of Potter I used to get asked a lot if I felt like I’d peaked. ‘Fuck no!’ was my reaction. I don’t want to have peaked at 21, although in terms of commercial success I almost definitely have. But that’s not how I define it and it’s not what matters to me the most.” He concedes that it’s easy to not care about commercial success when you’ve already had an unprecedented amount of it. “I know so many people who are either looking for a franchise or are incredibly relieved because they’ve just got one,” he says. “It makes your career. It’s important to stress that the reason actors like to do franchises isn’t just because it makes them loads of money and really famous. 99.9% of actors have absolutely no control over what they do. If they get given a shitty script and someone’s paying them, they have to say ‘Great, thank you, I’ll do it.’ I’m in a very fortunate position where I’m able to do things that I’m passionate about. That’s the freedom that it gives you in a massive way and so I’m very relieved to have done mine early.”
He has used his freedom to good effect. The projects Daniel has chosen outside of Harry Potter are marked by their variety and idiosyncrasy, from playing a young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings to his eleven months on Broadway starring in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “Doing things that are a bit bolder is just part of my make-up, particularly at the moment,” he says. “What excites me is breaking new ground for myself, and I’m interested in following good stories and good material.”
This strategy has increasingly led Daniel to smaller independent films, but he claims that the experience is generally the same. “Every film shoot is chaos, whether you have $3 million or $300 million, and you’d better like that or you won’t enjoy the industry. The only differences are superficial things, like how long do you have the crane camera for. On Potter we had two cranes every day, just lying around whether we were using them or not, and it never struck me as odd. Then of course I get onto another film and I hear people talking about renting a crane for a day and realise that the budget of the film wouldn’t have covered the visual effects of one scene in Harry Potter.”
Of his upcoming, typically varied roles, which include Igor in a grisly retelling of Frankenstein and a murder suspect who wakes up with horns and paranormal abilities, his most surprising is also the most straightforward, co-starring in the romantic comedy What If. A sweet, witty, sharply-written film—albeit a rather conventional one—What If features Daniel as a medical school dropout trying to hide his feelings for his new friend Charity (Zoe Kazan). After playing several troubled characters, seeing him as a romantic lead is an unexpected pleasure. Rather than the physical challenges he’s faced in other recent performances, Daniel found himself pushed instead by the need to play a character that audiences would find actively appealing. “You definitely don’t think of it like that. Always the best thing to do if you’re trying to remove self-consciousness is to concentrate on the other person in the scene. So rather than thinking, ‘Am I being charming enough?’ I would just think, ‘I’m going to try and charm you. I’m going to try and make you laugh.’ That’s what most of the film was for me, going to work trying to figure out how I was going to make Zoe Kazan laugh that day. Which is a great job to have.”
More than the politeness, even, what comes across most clearly about Daniel is his passion for acting. Even as an adult, there remains a tangible sense of a boy who was unhappy at home and happy at work, who accordingly decided to treat the latter as a sort of gift. “I’m lucky that I have job I love and I know that if you want to succeed in this industry you have to work really, really hard. And I’m good at that. I like it. So I just throw myself in.”
But what does succeeding mean when you’ve already been the star of the biggest film series of all time? What’s a goal? How do you structure the rest of your life? Daniel pauses for a moment. “Obviously I’m not financially motivated any more. And commercial success isn’t the be all and end all, although you still want people to go and see your movies. Essentially I just want to keep getting better and better at my job, and I’ll do that by continuing to work with a wider group of people and on different projects and varying the things I do as much as I can. Success to me is if I can work for the rest of my life. That would be a good, successful life.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-One. Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
The film is over, or near enough. The end credits song has started, the screen is fading to white. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, however, are caught in a loop. As the couple tear across a snow-straggled beach, stumbling and laughing, the image resets. They stumble and laugh again, and the image resets. They stumble and laugh again, and the image resets. When blankness finally engulfs the seafront and we lose sight of the pair, we can imagine them still out there, repeating the same actions over and over again. The scene appears to be non-literal but its insinuation is clear: they’re trapped, and they don’t even know it.
Of the 109 minutes that make up Michel Gondry’s sublime Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s these final 29 seconds that form its most curious part, recasting a seemingly optimistic ending as something decidedly more ambiguous. What’s additionally intriguing is that this slim, easily-overlooked sequence doesn’t actually appear in Ouroboros-aficionado Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-winning screenplay. In a career marked by the use of elastic, dreamlike imagery and practical in-camera effects, it stands quietly as one of Michel’s most inventive moments: a canny visual metaphor for characters stuck in the same patterns of behaviour, doomed to repeat themselves with or without the aid of memory-erasing technology.
A first viewing of his latest film Mood Indigo suggests that Michel is stuck in a loop of his own. Based on Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream), it depicts a romance between quixotic Colin (Romain Duris) and unflappable Chloé (Audrey Tautou). On its surface— frequently the most compelling and pleasurable area of his work—the film bears an unmistakeable resemblance to Michel’s previous output: a dance sequence where the characters’ elongated limbs cavort wildly could have come from one of his many ground-breaking music videos, while a vehicular cloud that Chloé and Colin ride on their first date wouldn’t be out of place in his earlier feature The Science of Sleep. In aesthetic terms at least, the director is repeating himself. A game of Michel Gondry Visual Whimsy Bingo would be over by the end of the first act, somewhere around the time that Colin chases a pair of disobedient shoes around his apartment, heckled by a tiny man dressed as a rodent.
Considering the infectious energy of his work, one might expect Michel to be similarly excitable. In person, however, he is thoughtful and reflective, given to disarming bouts of emotional honesty. He remains surprisingly boyish even at fifty—a documentary about him featured on his first released collection of music videos was aptly titled I’ve Been Twelve Forever—but his disposition is that of a man who thinks carefully about what he makes. He acknowledges Mood Indigo’s aesthetic repetition but is keen to clarify the reasoning behind it. “I thought I had to bring something that was part of my visual world,” he says. “Boris Vian’s kind of surrealism really influenced my music videos, so I thought it made sense to use the same elements to recreate a story by him. It seemed only fair.”
He points to the film’s epigraph, a quote from Vian himself: “This story is completely true, for I imagined it from beginning to end.” To stay faithful to the book, Michel explains, he needed to produce something with its own distinct reality, a recreation of the sensation of dreaming. “In a dream all sorts of things happen that are completely impossible but you still believe them. I think it’s something that happens in your mind so you can have rest and you don’t wake up. The logical part of your brain gets disconnected. It’s not really functioning. And that’s what I’m doing when I make this sort of world.”
In light of this, the decision to adapt L’Écume des Jours seems less like creative stagnancy and more like an earnest attempt to pay tribute to one of his key inspirations. Looking at Mood Indigo through the prism of Boris Vian, the filmmaker’s efforts appear less self-derivative: at one point Colin plays a pianocktail—a musical instrument that concocts beverages based on the tone of the song being performed—a charming detail that feels like it could have been created by Michel and yet is a straight import from the book. It prompts the question, though: considering that he had already directed two decades’ worth of feature films, music videos and commercials influenced by Vian, what could he gain by going directly to the source? “It’s a book that every adolescent reads in France, and it’s a sort of life-changing experience,” Michel answers. “You believe that literature has to be something quite academic or proper, and suddenly you find this writer that speaks to you, no matter when you’re from. My son was born in 1991 and he loves the book too. It feels like every generation discovers this thing and it has the same liberating impact on them.”
The appeal of producing an adaptation, he argues, was not the aesthetic overlap, but rather the idea that his unique approach could bring the story’s emotional core to life. “It depends on your tastes. Sometimes people would feel it’s too much. I feel all that was part of the story. It’s a way for the two main characters to express the love they have for one another.” While Mood Indigo is reminiscent of his other efforts in that most of its budget seems to have gone on wool, cardboard and pipe cleaners, in its finer moments Michel uses the fanciful, lo-fi art direction to pinpoint the emotional state of his characters. The apogee of Colin and Chloé’s relationship finds the couple floating giddily through a chapel as if underwater, while later the colour drains steadily from the screen as the narrative veers towards despair. On these occasions, much like the repetition during Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s dying seconds, he finds a poetical, cinematic way to articulate the eddies and tides of the heart.
In a monologue at the beginning of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, his 2013 documentary that combined a feature-length Noam Chomsky interview with hand-drawn animation, Michel described that project as a way to focus his “often shattered creativity.” I wonder if he finds focus a struggle, given the way his ideas teem in many directions at once. While his gift for mise-en-scène is undeniable, the director admits that it can be difficult to reconcile his penchant for bold visual ideas—which find an ideal home in heightened, three-minute music videos—and the demands of a longer narrative. “It’s a struggle in the sense that I’m not sure what’s better for a movie, if it needs to be very narrow in the way it’s shot, or if you can go for a wider ranger of styles and elements and still keep the concentration on the main characters,” he says. “I like movies that explore and that go off in unpredictable directions.” When drawn on the subject, he confesses his uncertainty. “It’s something I wonder. I never know if I’m doing the right thing or not. Sometimes I think it would be better if I forget everything that I know how to do, to just shoot two people speaking. But I’m trying both.”
Michel mentions The We and the I, a terrific, largely unsung film that grew out of an after-school workshop he ran in the Bronx. Starring a group of young non-professional actors playing versions of themselves, the film followed the teenagers on a bus ride home from school. “There were no special effects, no tricks. It was just kids on a bus and their relationships, about how they start off shallow and mean but become deeper and more philosophical as the group becomes smaller.”
He makes the valid point that even if his current film shares its creative DNA with earlier projects, he has been increasingly experimental in recent years. “I think I try different things. I’ve done documentaries like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and the one with Noam Chomsky. The main thing that’s important about being a filmmaker is that you always have another project. I started making features thirteen years ago and I’ve made ten movies. I feel very lucky because I keep trying things that are new.”
As Michel has searched for subjects to interest him, he has homed in on projects whose narrower releases allow more emotional freedom. “When I do a movie that is smaller in budget I have less responsibility to be commercial and reach out to a bigger audience,” he says. “I can really express deep feelings, and those feelings are not necessarily shared by so many people.” While he’s made efforts to take his work in new directions, particularly through documentary, in his fiction work he finds himself returning to the same emotional territory again and again. This often takes the form of a profound romantic neuroticism, where a male protagonist frets over disenfranchising a woman to the extent that his worry sometimes ends up doing that very thing. There’s a conspicuous number of emotionally insecure leading men in his films, and they’re almost as much of a hallmark as the elaborate single takes or the portmanteau inventions.
Michel confesses that the trend deliberately reflects his own experiences. In life, as in his films, he appears preoccupied by the subject. “You go too far into your attachment with somebody that it’s nearly pathological and becomes scary. It’s like when you’re in a big relationship and the person leaves and you feel an extraordinary sense of love and missing; I feel that before the relationship even starts, and sometimes it makes the person go away. It’s something I’m trying to get control over but have never been able to, so I talk about it in my movies.”
His estimable forces of whimsy mean his work is occasionally dismissed as confection, but for all of their frivolity Michel’s films are honest about human behaviour in its most awkward, ill-advised forms, even when those forms are inspired by his own life. While he admits to being unsure about whether being so personal is the best strategy for a filmmaker, he says it’s given him perspective on his past actions. “I’m trying to use my brain more to make the right moves when I want to be involved with somebody, but it’s stronger when it comes from the heart or the guts. So my movies make me feel I’m really stupid to react like I do. I’m trying to change because I can see it even more clearly, but I’m not sure I’m really succeeding.” No matter how many of his films touch on the issue, though, Michel can’t help himself. “The emotion has stayed the same all my life. I’m fifty and it doesn’t change a bit. It has been exactly the same problem: you meet somebody you like, you’re in love, you’re really excited and you think your life will be changed forever. And then you start over again.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-One.
Noah Taylor is fishing in his coat pocket again. He doesn’t say anything, of course—he’s nothing if not unfailingly polite—but it’s clear that he doesn’t want to be here. Finding what he’s looking for, he pulls out his second cigarette and waits quietly for the next question. While the chill Brighton morning may have something to do with it, Noah acknowledges that he doesn’t relish talking about himself. Perched on a bench near his home, reticence enfolds him, much like the coat that is buttoned up against the wind.
The discomfort Noah is experiencing is similar to the one he struggled with earlier in life. After making his debut as the star of the coming-of age classic The Year My Voice Broke, he appeared as the lead in over a dozen films. Halfway through his 27-year acting career, however, Noah had become exhausted with his profession. “I felt like I needed a break from it, really,” he explains. “I got into acting when I was so young. It quickly became my job, and I’ve always looked at it in those terms: a job, rather than a driving passion. Maybe that’s my problem.”
A talented, engaging actor whose off-beat good looks were simultaneously boyish and weary, Noah’s professional doubts coincided with his growing stature, as his frazzled performance in the Oscar-winning Shine led to roles outside his native Australia. Having always been more enamoured with music and art than acting, Noah wanted the opportunity to enjoy his other interests and made a conscious choice to step away from leading roles. “The idea was to do smaller character parts. That way you can work and have a relatively normal life.” He takes a drag of his cigarette. “It was probably not a very smart step.”
Noah has a tell: whenever he’s disappointed by something, a slight, resigned smile breaks out across his face, more amused than regretful. “I’ve never really figured out the mechanics of career,” he says, looking back. “It actually became harder to get work, in a strange sort of way. What you really should do is a larger role every now and again that gives you a bit of leverage in other things.”
His voice sounds like you imagine a shrug might, but he’s being a little hard on himself. Even as he felt the broader effects caused by his decision, Noah was still in demand: flourishing as a character actor, he’s worked with a remarkable list of filmmakers, from Terrence Malick to Wes Anderson. To this day, seeing his name in fourth or fifth position on a movie poster is a watermark of quality.
As if to prove the point, his latest effort, The Double, is one of the strongest films of the year. In his second collaboration with Richard Ayoade after the director’s 2010 debut Submarine, Noah plays the only friend of the film’s lead, Jesse Eisenberg, a shy office drone who discovers he has a more popular doppelganger. Even by Noah’s standards, the role is a small one, but his presence never fails to brighten the film. As exceptional as it is, The Double is much like any project where Noah pops up and disappears again: you miss him when he’s not around.
On the rare occasions in recent years when Noah has been the lead he’s made bold choices, even if some of them didn’t work out. He gives another of his slight, resigned smiles when discussing Max, a problematic film that saw him playing a young, art-obsessed Adolf Hitler.
“Hitler’s very difficult,” Noah says. “He doesn’t have a moustache in the film, but it’s very easy to slip into Charlie Chaplin, and the last thing you want is to make it comedic.” Another pause, another drag of his cigarette. “But it seemed like a challenging thing to do at the time. I don’t know if it was the best idea in the world.”
Acting remains a job, but these days Noah conducts it on his terms. Studiously avoiding a move to America, despite the lift it could have given his career, he instead made a home in Brighton. As a place to live, Brighton is probably the equivalent of choosing character roles over leading ones: more pleasant, less starry. He says the city reminds him of St. Kilda, the seaside town in the suburbs of Melbourne where he grew up. “I think if you grew up near the ocean it’s in your blood to want to be near the sea.”
Ageing has been good for him: his face, which has become leaner and more grizzled, can convey despondency or malice. Where many of his early roles were the earnest protagonists of memoirs, he now plays more varied characters. “I’m actually enjoying acting a lot more than I did when I was young. The roles are more interesting,” he says. “I tend to play more villains. My plan is to mix villainous and comedy roles. That’s a happy, sane balance. Somehow they come from the same sort of place: you can be quite over the top with both.”
Noah is at his most effusive talking about the filmmakers he works with repeatedly, directors like Richard Ayoade and John Hillcoat with whom he’s built a strong partnership. “It’s much more fun to work with the same people. You know where their heads are at. In an ideal world I’d work with three or four people that I like.” Noah says he is willing to do anything for an interesting filmmaker. This approach is epitomised by his presence on a freezing cold bench in the dead of winter, ostensibly to talk about The Double: despite his minor role in the film, he’s enduring something he doesn’t really enjoy in order to do right by a director he believes in.
Striving for his happy balance, Noah now has a recurring part in Game of Thrones as Locke, a deliciously cruel man-hunter who’s overly handy with a machete. “It’s a behemoth, that thing,” he says. “Every set-up would probably be the biggest scene in a modestly-budgeted movie.” Noah enjoys the character of Locke, but compares the production’s rigours to that of playing a competitive sport. “Working on it is fun, but physically exhausting: being beaten up by Irish farmers at four in the morning, in the mud, in the rain. And this goes on for fifteen hours. Acting wears you down a bit.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty. Photograph by Toby Coulson.
“I was thinking recently about the nationalisation of electricity, and how I grew to love pylons,” says Clio Barnard. Her fondness for transmission towers was stoked while writing her latest film, The Selfish Giant, as she discovered the ’Pylon Poets’ of the 1930s. Left-wing and modernist, the Pylon Poets believed that industry and technology could bring a form of emancipation to the common man. “Pylons are incredibly beautiful objects, but it’s more than that,” she explains. “For one brief period, before the railways and other resources were privatised, they belonged to everybody instead of to just a few.”
That time is, of course, long gone, and The Selfish Giant portrays that loss as devastating. Set in contemporary Bradford, the film focuses on Arbor, a troubled, desperately poor thirteen-year-old who scavenges copper to sell to a guileful scrap dealer. Whilst the pylons dotting the landscape serve as a reminder of Bradford’s post-industrial decline, it is Arbor’s heartbreakingly limited circumstances that epitomise The Selfish Giant’s indictment of Thatcherite policies. It was during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, long before Arbor was even born, that state-controlled companies like British Gas, British Airways and British Telecom were privatised, the commitment to providing full employment abandoned, and council houses sold off in their millions.
“Perhaps it’s a bit idealistic and naïve of me, and maybe people stole cable when the railways and electricity were nationalised, but I can’t help but see the effects,” Clio says. “There’s something about being so on the margin where even the idea of having a commute to work is completely meaningless, and so everything’s up for grabs.”
A social-realist drama in the tradition of child-centered classics like Kes and The 400 Blows, The Selfish Giant is one of the year’s most moving films. It is also one of the year’s most political films, but furthers its arguments in a beautifully understated fashion: even though it implies that everything that happens to Arbor is ultimately the result of government directives from decades before, Clio avoids proselytising, leaving the audience to connect the dots for themselves. “It was a conscious decision that the messages in the film would be unspoken. Sometimes I’d worry that it wouldn’t come across, that it needed to be more explicit, but from the responses I’ve had, it seems to have worked. It’s not absolutely down the line, there’s room for interpretation.”
Drawn to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Selfish Giant, Clio wanted to make a fable about greed: “A fable appears to be a very simple story, but when you scratch away it becomes complex. It’s a really difficult thing to do.”
As an artist and a documentary filmmaker, Clio’s desire to create a fairly straightforward story was a departure. The Selfish Giant’s roots can be found in her debut feature, The Arbor, an audacious documentary about the tragic Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. Filmed on the street where the dramatist lived (Brafferton Arbor, with which The Selfish Giant’s protagonist shares his name), the documentary featured actors lip-syncing to recordings of Dunbar’s relatives and neighbours. “The Arbor was quite complicated structurally, and had this formal experimentation, whereas The Selfish Giant is relatively simple,” Clio says, “But if it’s simple, I hope it’s deceptively so.”
Whilst making The Arbor, Clio got to know the children who would hang around the estate as they filmed. “In a way, Wilde’s original story is about the dangers of excluding children. It seemed that a lot of the children I met while making The Arbor were excluded—literally, from school—but also by being pushed to the margins because of an increasing gap between wealth and poverty.” One of the boys she met, Matty, became the inspiration for Arbor. After briefly contemplating making a documentary about him, Clio decided to fictionalise his story instead.
“One of the peculiar things I found was that what was happening to him in real life was more extreme that what we did in the fictional version. A gunman came to his house and Matty managed to hold the door against him, but if you put that within a film it would be kind of clichéd. Sometimes when you’re telling a story you have to cut out the stuff that’s really happening because it’s too familiar on screen.”
Clio instead concentrated on the thriving horse and cart subculture that she had first discovered ten years earlier. “In Bradford it’s almost a craze for teenage boys to go out on a horse and cart collecting scrap,” she explains. “Part of what fascinated me is that there’s a timelessness about it. There’s something that connects back to Victorian England and Dickens.” It was in the re-appropriation of materials that Clio found a surprising postscript to British industry’s deterioration. “It reflects a shift in the global economy. Detroit has a massive scrap metal trade, like Bradford. All of these big post-industrial cities are gathering all of this copper and then it gets sent to China.” By using horses and carts to recycle the detritus of industry, the children are accidentally green in their methods, a practice born out of necessity.
Marginalised but resourceful, Arbor—like his real-life counterpart—is drawn into a difficult working life that a thirteen-year-old shouldn’t have to abide. Clio’s subtle, powerful argument is that the exploitation of the disadvantaged is the logical endpoint of a society that values revenue above people. Ultimately, the film’s selfish giant is not the scrap dealer who profits from the hardships of children, but the libertarian principles that allow him to prosper.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Carl Bigmore.
Anwar Congo is hanging his friend. Standing on his old killing floor, he pulls the wire tight around the man’s neck, trying to demonstrate the efficient, brutal way he used to do it. The former leader of a death squad that took part in the 1965-66 genocide in North Indonesia, Anwar estimates that he personally killed as many as a thousand men, women and children. Now an elderly man with a sad, kindly smile and plagued by nightmares he can’t quite douse with alcohol or drugs, he is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary new documentary The Act of Killing, in which Anwar recreates his crimes against humanity in the form of the gangster movies, westerns and musicals he grew up loving.
Later in the film he returns again to the killing floor, situated on the roof of a shop that today sells knock-off designer handbags. Where earlier he was laughing, joking and doing the cha-cha-cha, now he looks stricken. Overwhelmed by the enormity of what he did, Anwar stumbles to the edge of the floor and promptly throws up, making a retching noise that would surely be familiar to him: it sounds like someone dying.
Joshua hadn’t intended to direct a film about mass murder. Sent to North Sumatra to produce a documentary about a community struggling to organise a union, he lived amongst plantation workers whose families had survived the genocide. “Their parents and grandparents had been accused of being Communist sympathisers, although they weren’t necessarily—they were just in a workers’ union,” Joshua says. “They were put in concentration camps and sent out to be killed.” Despite the passage of half a century and the recent end of the dictatorship, the survivors’ families were still under constant surveillance from the military. This was not only their main obstacle in organising the union, but also hampered Joshua’s efforts to film them. “As we started focusing on the genocide, we fell under their suspicion and the military police would stop us. It was frightening for everybody.”
It was around this time that Joshua interviewed his first perpetrator, who immediately started bragging about all the people he’d killed. “I realised this was an extraordinary situation. The perpetrator wasn’t a psychopath. He was boastful because he was in power and no one had ever forced him to admit that what he did was wrong. It was like if the Nazis had won.” He recognised the potency of speaking to the murderers rather than their victims, as well as the shocking ease of doing so.
Joshua redirected his efforts. “I filmed every perpetrator I could find, asking, ’Who else do you know? Are there any other members of your death squad still alive? How about the commanders?’ Within minutes of meeting them, they were all offering to take me to where they had killed, to show me how they’d done it. I worked my way across the region, realising that these men were talking about how tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people had been killed in this one area. And no one had ever documented it before.”
He understood by then how the killings had occurred, but Joshua wanted to grasp the nature of the boasting. “Why were they doing it? How did they want me to see them? How did they really see themselves?” To learn more, he started encouraging the perpetrators to take part in simple re-enactments of their killings. “I was saying, ’Look, you want to show me? You’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in history. Your whole society is based on it. If you’re so keen to tell me what you’ve done, go ahead and show me.”
Anwar was the 41st mass murderer that Joshua interviewed. “I lingered on him because of his pain and his trauma,” he says. “Anwar’s sense that what he did was wrong was not just there under the surface whilst he was boasting, it was motivating it. He was this outrageous allegory for impunity, but his attitude was this rather desperate, defensive effort to convince himself that what he did was okay.”
Joshua continued to film for another half a decade with Anwar, travelling to Indonesia for three or four months at a time. “I would come back with an enormous amount of footage. If it were the days of celluloid it would have taken up an aeroplane hanger.” The basic reenactments were replaced by more and more elaborate genre parodies, spurred on by Anwar’s dissatisfaction with the results. “When I would screen the footage back to him, he saw that there was something wrong with the picture. But he wouldn’t dare say what it was: that the whole thing was rotten.”
Joshua speaks in perfectly-constructed miniature essays, as you’d expect from a widely-published academic, but it becomes obvious that his emotional investment in the film is as deep as his intellectual engagement with its meaning. When reflecting upon his complex relationship with Anwar, he becomes uncharacteristically emotional. “Not for one second did I forget my moral judgement of what he did, of course, but the demand that I placed on myself is that I would always treat these people as human beings and let myself become as close as they would let me,” he says. “The thing about Anwar is, not only is he charming, but he’s nice. He was the most caring person on the set. When you become close to someone you let down your guard and you let them in, so when they show you something horrible it’s really painful. You’re vulnerable in a different way. To go with him on that journey into the horror of what he did—intimately, and not to flinch—that was hard, and really painful. I had nightmares throughout the process.”
The film purposefully mirrors Joshua’s ambivalence towards his subjects, walking, as he describes it, a tightrope between repulsion and sympathy. There are parts of The Act of Killing that are among the most harrowing footage you’re likely to see in a documentary. Yet it can be riotously funny as well. Throughout the film, Joshua uses comedy and Anwar’s affability to disarm the viewer. He describes a scene where Anwar and his co-stars try on different hats whilst making one of the re-enactments: “It’s very funny and lovely and they’re open and we like them in that moment. We warm to them as human beings and then in the next scene they do something horrible, violent, cruel.
“Normally in film you prepare the viewer by giving cues, but I tried to do the opposite. We enter the most terrible moments in the film with them, arm in arm, so we can see how it is that we human beings do these things to each other. What the film demands is that the viewer put themselves in Anwar’s shoes. If they identify even a small part of themselves for one moment, the whole edifice whereby we divide the world into good guys and bad guys collapses.”
As traumatic as The Act of Killing can be to watch, it’s nearly impossible to look away from. The film is so dense with powerful, unforgettable moments, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes funny, that it’s unsurprising to learn how many thousands of hours of footage it’s been distilled from. Beyond its striking imagery, however, there’s something utterly transfixing about the perpetrators’ apparent nonchalance towards the crimes, their brazenness inspiring a mixture of horror and fascination. It’s hard to believe that such evil could not only be unpunished but rewarded.
Due to the continued presence of the genocide’s perpetrators within Indonesian society, honest discussion of the killings has always been taboo, but after screening over 500 times in 95 cities, The Act of Killing’s release has triggered open national debate on the subject at last. A not-unexpected side effect is that the killers don’t boast about their crimes any more, but Joshua thinks their newfound reticence is less to do with personal reflection than the result of fear of public reaction, whilst privately they hold on to the excuses they’ve employed for almost half a century. “If you or I had killed and had the opportunity to justify what we’d done, I’m quite sure we would, because otherwise you have to wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror and see a murderer,” Joshua says. “The irony is that the justification of genocide is not a symptom of the lack of remorse or humanity, it’s the opposite. It’s the sign of the fact that it shows that they know it’s wrong. That’s why they’re so stridently denying it. ”
The Act of Killing is a shocking exploration of how great wrongs can be tolerated by an entire society, but what’s most powerful about the film is its depiction of the devastating moral toll genocide takes upon its perpetrators themselves, and how that unexpressed guilt can be exploited to do further harm. “So, you’ve killed,” Joshua elaborates, “and then the government gives you an excuse in the form of anti-Communist propaganda to justify what you’ve done as something heroic. And you cling to that excuse for dear life.
“The tragedy is that once you’ve corrupted yourself by killing one person and justifying it that way, when the regime asks you to kill others for the same reason you have to, because if you don’t it’s tantamount to admitting that it was wrong the first time. It demands more and more and more evil, including oppressing your victims so they keep quiet and don’t challenge your version of events. The film shows that the very people who would be enjoying the fruits of their victory if they were genuine heroes are in fact somehow destroyed by what they’ve done.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Andy Lo Pò.
Kier-La Janisse had a plan. A Medieval Studies PhD student living in Vancouver, she hoped to spend her life translating Latin texts. Then an acquaintance decided to create a neighbourhood zine and invited the members of her close-knit community to participate. “I really didn’t want to get involved,” Kier-La explains. “But by the next Thursday when we were supposed to hand in our work, I was the only person that actually came with something. After two issues I thought, ‘If I’m going to be the only one who cares about this, then I’m going to just make it about what I like. Forget all this neighbourhood poetry. Let’s make it about horror movies.’”
In the sixteen years that have passed since she changed the zine’s name to Cannibal Culture (later CineMuerte), Kier-La has become a leading author on the genre and a prolific film programmer, curating film festivals across North America. Horror films were her gateway to a broader interest in cinema, but she has retained her love for ‘trash‘ films, an inclusive genre encompassing countercultural cinema, exploitation films, and the kind of cult movies can only be seen on old, pink prints. “Their damage is part of the charm,” she notes.
Like her initial foray into publishing, many of the steps on Kier-La’s journey were unintended: a one-off horror movie workshop grew into a non-profit, community-based film curriculum that continues to this day, while her first festival arose out of a booking misunderstanding with a local cinema. “They thought I was running a horror film festival, so I decided, why not create one?”
Meeting Kier-La, it’s easy to see how festivals, magazines and organisations keep forming around her. Aside from her steely resolve, her zeal for films that most people dismiss is infectious. She doesn’t just talk about movies, she evangelises about them. You come away from her presence with a burning desire to find the nearest film retailer, and a shopping list to get you started.
Alongside championing the orphans of cult cinema, Kier-La’s work allows her to study the genre from a different critical perspective.
Often ghettoised for their violent content and dark excesses, Kier-La argues that horror and exploitation films are self-reflexive in a way that’s ignored by the wider critical community. “Academics don’t give horror fans the credit for knowing as much as they do or being as critical as they are,” she says. “You see these books of academic criticism come out, and we’ve already been putting these ideas together for years. I think it’s funny when academics say, ‘Oh, I’ve discovered this self-reflexivity in horror!’ It’s always been there, but whatever.”
Her most recent book, House of Psychotic Women, is a good example of her approach. Examining cinema’s persistent fascination with women driven to madness by obsession, paranoia and hysteria, Kier-La discusses respectable films like Black Swan and Antichrist alongside more left-field examples, from barely-released exploitation curios to gory rape revenge films.
Exploring the surprisingly pervasive trope of cinematic female neurosis through anecdotal and personal writing, Kier-La contrasts the experiences of the films’ characters with herself and the other women in her life. Intimately and often painfully, she details how her own complicated upbringing led to a strange sort of affinity with the tortured female protagonists of her favourite films.
In Kier-La’s estimation, writing about film in an autobiographical way allows her to explain horror’s appeal to those outside the community, especially considering its delicate relationship with gender issues. “I think the fact that I’m able to explain why I respond to these movies helps answer a lot of questions for people who might not understand what a woman would get out of horror films. Lots of people think of horror films as these single-faceted, misogynistic genre exercises. But even the ones that are that way—the one that are totally shallow and misogynistic—I tend to enjoy them too, just on another level. When I watch a film, I almost always look for discomfort.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seventeen. Photograph by Tess Roby.
Warrick Brownlow-Pike is a famous television cactus. Before his current job as the puppeteer for CBBC’s Dodge the Dog, Warrick spent three years performing Oucho, a banana-loving, water-hating cactus who spoke his own language called Cactinian. “My interview for that was in a pub. We were sat there with our drinks and they said, ‘We’ve got this character: it’s a cactus. It can’t pick anything up, it can’t walk around because it’s in a pot, and it doesn’t speak any English.’ Where do you go from there? I didn’t know, so I just started gibbering on like a madman, going, ‘Aw, di di di, aw, losoli!’ ”
Oucho’s unique language developed a following. “After doing it a few times kids started picking it up and deciphering it, realising that losoli meant lovely and Flicky Herman was David Beckham and anananadi! meant banana. But then once you’ve said it on children’s TV you can’t change it the next day, because otherwise kids would write in. We had to keep a dictionary in the end. It got crazy.” Alongside human co-host Ed Petrie, the pair presented live continuity links and had two programmes of their own. “We did a lot in a short space of time, so I suppose we burned ourselves out. I remember asking myself a question and going ‘Di, di.’ ‘No! You don’t speak Cactinian on your own!’ ”
If you’re under the age of 12, it’s likely that you’re familiar with Warrick’s work. One of Britain’s most prolific puppeteers, he has worked for everyone from Cbeebies to The Jim Henson Company (assisting with the Muppets when they come to the U.K.) If his face was on television as much as his characters, he’d be famous. For Warrick, anonymity is part of the appeal: “That’s the brilliant thing about puppets. You get to do all these things and nobody knows who you are. You don’t want to be famous; you want the characters to be. It’s the best of both worlds because you can go shopping and not be noticed, but then you put the puppet on and everyone goes, ‘Oh, it’s you! Come in! Have cake!’”
While still only 27 years-old, it’s easy to see how Warrick has risen to the top of his field so quickly. It’s difficult to recall ever meeting anyone so singularly passionate. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s my only thing, you know? It was never an option that there would be anything else. I just wanted to do puppets, and had blind faith that it was going to happen. I didn’t go to college or university because there are no puppets in college or university.” As if to prove his point, every inch of Warrick’s workshop is covered with puppets, designs for puppets, and books on puppetry. “When I was young, I never consciously had to think ‘Oh, I must put in some time today’. When I was doing other things I wanted to go back to doing it. Anything else was a chore.” As he talks, Warrick still can’t help himself, picking up puppets again and again to demonstrate his points. Even when he’s not holding one, Warrick uses his gift for mimicry to leap into the voices of the people he’s talking about, from co-workers to the Queen (whom he once performed privately for).
Warrick was just two years old when he found his calling: “It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. I was sat in front of a repeat of the Muppet Show. The curtains opened and all the Muppets came out, singing and dancing to the music, and I was in heaven. In that moment I thought, ‘I don’t know what this is, but it’s what I need to do.’ I just knew.” As Warrick’s passion developed his mother supported him, winning competitions so he could go to the premieres of Muppet movies to meet the performers. “Maybe you wouldn’t be too happy if your kid said, ‘Oh, I’m going to play with puppets for the rest of my life’ But she never did.” Instead of discouraging him, Warrick’s mother instead used her “genius for sewing and making things” to help him make his first puppets. “We watched lots of programmes and tried to figure out the shape of things. We learned where the seams would go and how to do the hands. I had these big books with photographs of Muppets in them. I’d try and work out what someone was doing and realise that they were just leaning against the wall.”
The pair finished their first puppet when Warrick was 7. He points it out, sitting alongside other efforts. While his early puppets are clearly inspired by their Muppet forebears (his second one is essentially a yellow Kermit), they’re still impressive, with or without parental guidance. Now Warrick uses professional puppet-builders who realise his intricate designs for him. “If I do myself it takes me about a week, which is why I don’t very often.” Even sourcing materials is time-consuming: “You can’t go to one place. You have to get foam from somewhere, fur from somewhere else, fleece from another place, eyes made out of whatever you can find to make eyes out of…”
Working primarily for CBBC, Warrick now finds himself in a strange position where the performers he idolised as a child are his peers. “Ed the Duck was our boss. She’s gone from performing that character to being in charge of the whole department.” Puppetry is a small world, but an open one; Warrick’s met almost everyone in the industry at least twice; once as an awestruck child and again as a peer. On his first job (performing the hands of pop song-singing rats for a show called Space Pirates) he found himself working alongside the original performer of Otis the Aardvark, who had once called him as a child to offer encouragement. His heroes never seem more than a heartfelt letter away: during a chat about full-body puppet costumes, Warrick mentions that he once wrote to Carol Spinney, the man who has performed Big Bird for 43 years. Later he brings out Carol’s reply: the letter, written on paper the colour of a large avian, features a drawing of Big Bird hugging a puppet which Warrick designed himself. The spirit of the Muppets is an open-hearted one, and it’s been clearly absorbed by Warrick. It’s easy to imagine him writing the same sort of letter to a young fan.
In a world where children’s entertainment is increasingly computer-generated, puppets are endearingly old-fashioned. Even at the heights of the industry, puppets are still made of felt and string and foam. Whenever Warrick picks up one of his beautifully-designed puppets, it’s hard not to notice their stands – homemade devices which are basically teacup holders with the prongs removed and half a tennis ball stuck on top. “That’s what I love about puppets,” Warrick explains. “This little thing is just balls and fluff, but you can make a connection with it, between the puppet and the person.”
Puppeteering is an extreme form of method acting, in its own quiet way. When Warrick’s under the CBBC desk performing, it’s as if he stops existing. “The crew will say, “Dodge can you step left, Dodge can you step right, Dodge do you want a cup of tea?” People just talk to the puppet and I talk to them through it. I stop being me and go into a weird state. I love to see him live there, in that world, and to see the relationships he can have with people.”
“I remember the first time I met Kermit the Frog,” Warrick says, instantly giddy. “It was only a few years ago. He smiled and I started blushing. ‘Oh my God, Kermit’s smiling at me! What do I say to him?’ Then I thought to myself, ‘Oh don’t be stupid, it’s just a puppet.’ But it wasn’t. It was Kermit. That’s me as an adult, flustered by the fact that a puppet was smiling at me, and I’m surrounded by them every day. Even knowing how it all works, I can still watch the Muppets and love it, because I believe them. I believe that they’re real.”
Despite it becoming his profession, Warrick is still just as enthusiastic about puppeteering. “It’s a dream. If I wasn’t there being paid for this I’d be at home doing the same just to please myself. Today, yesterday and tomorrow, I’m still doing exactly what I did when I was six, except now there’s a TV camera and thousands of children are seeing it. It was only my Mum before, but it’s just the same, really.”
“He enjoys a well-crafted shoot-out.” Martin McDonagh is talking about the main character of Seven Psychopaths, his latest film. “He thinks… No, wait, that’s me. I enjoy a well-crafted shoot-out.”
It’s easy to see how Martin could get confused. Played by Colin Farrell, Seven Psychopaths’ main character is Marty, an Irish screenwriter making a film called Seven Psychopaths starring an Irish screenwriter called Marty. McDonagh is well aware of the danger of being so meta: “It’s something you can only really get away with once in your career, if at all.”
From his debut play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1996, through to his superlative 2008 film In Bruges, McDonagh has become famous for his black comedies that veer sharply between melancholy and violence. In Seven Psychopaths, the character Marty is tired of writing violent films, wanting to make something, “as much about Gandhi and peace and love” as it is about carnage, even while he’s drawn into a world of serial killers and dog-nappers.
It would be understandable to assume the character’s exhaustion is in some way a reflection on McDonagh’s own career, but he feels that’s where the similarities peter out. “I didn’t want to get away from violence, because I never felt like that was all there ever was in my work. Hopefully there’s always been a moral through-line in my writing. Seven Psychopaths isn’t so much about myself, but about questioning Hollywood’s fixation with violence. Does everything have to be about men with guns, and psychopaths? But I had my cake and ate it, because the film is violent. I didn’t want to run away from it, but to use it as a way to talk about more interesting things.”
Martin’s darkly hilarious plays—of which he penned seven before his film debut, In Bruges—were born out of a distaste for safe, conventional theatre. “When I started writing, the things I was seeing on stage were so undramatic. They were all about chatting and drinking tea and politics and nothing would ever happen. And I wanted it to.” Martin understood how violence could raise a play’s emotional stakes: “On stage, if someone hits someone out of the blue, or even just takes out a gun, things change. The appeal of those violent bits is that you can go anywhere after them. There’s something exciting for an audience member to see those things and be worried and scared for the characters. The idea, ‘Fuck, anything could happen.’”
Martin says he never set out to shock or be controversial. His violence and outrageous humour are always there to serve the story. He gives the example of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, his play about the terrorist group INLA. “If you’re dealing with men that violent you have to be truthful to that on stage. I guess doing a black comedy about that subject is going to be a bit controversial, but I’m probably always going to write black comedies about things. It’s just the way I think.”
As a consequence of his uncompromising writing, Martin’s well-observed characters and fine ear for dialogue were sometimes lost in the hysteria over his plays’ brutal lurches. “I definitely felt like an outsider at the time, having Irish heritage and writing these black comedies that had degrees of violence in them. The theatres that put on my work supported me, but around the milieu of theatrical people I always felt like we were the dirty outsiders.”
From a notorious incident where he swore at Sean Connery at an awards ceremony (“He started it!” Martin says, gleefully unrepentant fifteen years later) to his increasingly challenging plays, Martin learned the value of his outsider image. Belying the content of his plays and his reputation as a provocateur, he is warm and playful in person, “I liked playing up to the perception,” he admits. “I come from a punk rock background so it was cool to kick open those doors and shake things up a little bit.”
In 2006, McDonagh made his most shocking declaration yet: fêted as one of Ireland’s best playwrights and aged only 35, he had said enough as a playwright. It was a declaration that later proved to be premature but, nonetheless, McDonagh feels that theatre isn’t the best place for him. “I always loved films more,” he says.
What held him back from making the leap earlier was a concern over control. “I would have found it impossible to just hand over a script to someone else. With a play not a single line can be cut if you don’t cut it yourself, and if you’re there the whole time there can’t be a line said in a way you don’t agree with. But with film, a screenwriter is the lowest form of life on most sets. Your opinion is lower than the tea ladies’.”
Martin decided to wait until he could both write and direct something, making his debut with the short film Six Shooter. Although he had never even directed a play before, the short won an Oscar, which now sits on his kitchen shelf. Six Shooter’s success gave Martin the confidence to make a feature film, In Bruges. The film has become a cult favourite but not the smash McDonagh might have hoped for. He shrugs it off. “I liked that it wasn’t very successful. I remember liking the early De Niro/ Scorsese films and almost all of them flopped when they first came out. You don’t care about that as a fan. You just love the film for the film. That’s all that really matters.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Thirteen . Photograph by Trent McMinn.
Roy Williams sits at his kitchen table, quietly ferocious. In front of him lies a neat black notebook which he is filling up with a new play, crowded with writing that looks distinctly like shorthand until you examine it closely. Quick to offer a handshake and a cup of tea, it would be difficult to tell from his cosy kitchen and polite, thoughtful demeanour that he has written some of the most emotionally devastating plays of the past few decades.
One of our finest playwrights, Roy’s work offers clear-eyed, occasionally brutal assessments of race, class, identity and aspiration in modern Britain. His writing, while fundamentally hopeful, is nonetheless acutely aware of the many contradictions and corruptions that make up society.
Roy has created close to a play a year since his 1996 debut The ‘No Boys’ Cricket Club, which may have something to do with his fearsome work ethic. Today, Roy has been writing since six in the morning, as he does every day, and yet is still alert and bright. “I’ve always been an early riser. I don’t know. It suits my character. You wake up and you’re feeling fresh and alive: you want to get your thoughts out of your head and on to a piece of paper. I like going to bed with a problem and waking up with a solution.”
Williams was raised in Notting Hill, and remains a staunch supporter of QPR football team. “I grew up in an area where football was a common thing you could talk about with your mates. It just sort of stayed with me, really. I love it. It’s a vibrant, passionate game.” His relationship with football reveals something of his approach to theatre. “A good game of football can be like a great night of theatre—it can be exhilarating and exciting and unpredictable. Last night’s game proved that: Arsenal lost three nil in the first leg and needed to score four in the second leg. People said it was impossible, but they came one goal from succeeding,” he says, recalling the team’s sensational exit from the Champions League the day before, despite trouncing AC Milan three-nil in their final match.
He continues, “No one could have predicted that, and that’s what you want from a good play. You want something that’s going to make you experience all of the emotions that human beings have in the course of two hours. It’s something that has stakes.”
>While Roy still continues to be in love with the theatre, he has become increasingly involved with film and television. He adapted his Olivierwinning play Fallout for television a few years ago, and has co-written the upcoming Fast Girls with Noel Clarke and Jay Basu, about a group of teenage girl athletes. “It’s a challenge. It’s such a different medium. In theatre you’re dependent on dialogue, but TV and film can do so much for you with the camera and editing. Those tools can tell the same story, so there’s not such a need for the characters to be talking. I’m relearning it all: how can I tell the story through the way the characters look at each other or act rather than what they’re saying.” Even so, theatre provides a perfect medium for his talents. “I think, for me, it’s still the best. It’s alive.”
After sixteen solid years of work, Roy is still writing as much as ever, his output slowed only by the long programming schedules for theatres and the glacial pace of producing film and television. “I don’t think I’m as prolific as I was. My time has been taken up. But I think it’s okay because you can write a play and disappear for two years and come back and deliver another piece. Playwrights come and go anyway. It’s not like actors, where you follow their career and go, ‘That last one wasn’t as good as his others, I think he’s going out of fashion’. We don’t have that star quality. I’m glad we don’t. You’ve just got to ignore all that stuff and keep plugging away.”
Drawn into theatre by playwrights like Barrie Keefe who wrote characters that sounded like him, Roy’s plays are likewise populated with characters, often young, poor and troubled, who speak like regular people, colloquially and in short sentences. The naturalism of their interactions is key to making you believe in them: you’ve met his characters before in your own life, which makes the sudden spirals into tragedy or violence so much more affecting.
As a result, there’s a disparity between the people the plays are about and the people who are seeing them. “I think audiences—let’s be honest here—are attended predominantly by white, middle-class people. And if I go to the Royal Court or the National, those are the faces I see. I’m not complaining about that, that’s just the way it is.”
This might be a shame considering how Roy first fell in love with theatre, that the people who might be similarly affected by his work don’t see it, but he’s philosophical about it. “My plays are about certain people, but they are for everybody. Ultimately, I’m writing for theatre, for a theatre-going audience. I honestly don’t care if the audience is black or white. Would I like to see more black faces? Of course I would, but not everybody likes theatre. They’ve got to have an interest first.” This might be a reason why television has started to increasingly appeal to Roy. “I suppose the real difference is that film and television are seen by a lot more people. I’ve had stuff on TV and in one night more people will see it than will see six weeks of a play I’ve had on at a theatre.”
The cups of tea finished, Roy has to get back to work. There’s a notebook that needs filling. He reflects on how he is able to keep it still interesting for himself, sixteen plays later: “You need to keep writing about what makes you laugh, what makes you pissed off. What makes you pissed off may be in complete contrast to what pissed you off ten years before, so you write about that—about that difference. You write about what matters to you now. So those are questions I’m always throwing at myself. I’m just trying to keep my wits about me.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eleven. Photograph by Fiona Essex.
Crispian Mills has been alright for a while. “I’ve been alright for a while,” he says, “I’m not fighting against myself.” Polite and thoughtful, if a little wary, he concedes that this wasn’t always the case. “I was pretty delinquent at fifteen, sixteen, and I spun out on a whole tangent. I was in love with music and that’s what drove me mad.”
We’re here to talk about Crispian’s directorial and script-writing debut, A Fantastic Fear of Everything. A funny, peculiar, very British film, it stars and is co-produced by Simon Pegg. The film tells the story of a paranoid children’s book author who is convinced that death lurks behind every corner. At nearly forty, this is Mills’ second high profile career.
After his teenage years had passed in an intoxicated fug, Crispian gathered some friends together and formed a band in 1993. It’s not an unusual story, but the difference from all of the other music-obsessed youths doing the same thing is that the band was called Kula Shaker and within three years of forming they’d become one of the biggest groups in the country, with their debut album K selling over a million copies and echoing the success of bands like Oasis and Blur. Crispian was 23 at the time and famous almost overnight.
“I didn’t enjoy being successful. I appreciated that I was lucky and that it was rare and all of that, but personally I didn’t enjoy it because I had a very idealistic relationship with music and being in a band. I wanted a band of brothers, an extended family.” In the face of sudden popularity, Crispian became instantly nostalgic. “The happiest times we had were during the struggle. We struggled together for about three years, which felt like thirty at that age. When we became successful it happened quite quickly—within a year of being signed—and the pressure interfered with the relationships, with the joy we had of just being in a band.”
Crispian describes the situation as if success had taken something away from them, turning what was a private joy into a business. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who feels that their first record,“ was really a little film,” he particularly resents the music videos the band were pushed into making at top speed. “We made possibly the worst videos of any band at that time. They were the heart of the series of disappointments of being in a band. You want to have great videos and they’re terrible, and you suddenly feel like you’re losing a grip on your passion. It’s being presented by other people now, not by you.”
Suddenly the band were making money for people, and their record label had a vested interest in their future. Crispian explains, “As you fight to take control, you fight to break out of a certain straitjacket that you’ve allowed yourself to be put in unwittingly, or a straitjacket that you’ve woken up and found yourself in. Trying to wriggle out of that is very difficult, and you can end up self-destructing in the process. Which is what I did.”
Kula Shaker’s self-destruction came in the form of a front page exposé in the Independent on Sunday about comments that Crispian had made about wanting to have swastikas on stage. Mills later clarified that he’d been referring to them in the context of his long-standing love of Indian mysticism, of which they are an ancient symbol, and that he was totally opposed to Nazism. However, the damage was done. The spiralling result was that the band’s next album barely made the top ten. Crispian carried on producing music for a few years, but the moment had passed.
In a way, he feels that Kula Shaker’s demise happened at just the right time: “Somebody said to me once that becoming a man is really difficult, hard work. You don’t just suddenly grow hair on your chest and that’s it. It’s a long struggle. It was important to hear that because I was finding it really difficult. I was about to be thirty and it was like my own little secret that I still felt like a kid.”
He now has what seems like a wryly-amused detachment from his past, as if it all happened to someone else. Crispian is reflective about the dramatic rise and fall of Kula Shaker: “That’s the music business. You get young people, pump them up, chuck them out into the Colosseum and see what happens. It’s an invaluable life experience, if you survive it.”
As Crispian’s music career wound down and his options narrowed, he rediscovered a love of cinema: “It upset me when I realised I wanted to make films. I was conscious that there was a huge apprenticeship that I’d missed out on when I was doing music.” He spent the following decade writing scripts that were almost made or that never got close. It was a morale-sapping process, in which scripts would be quietly canned without the writers even being told.
Crispian says, “In hindsight it was a pretty good experience to get battered like that. What was comforting in the last year or so was realising that there’s an amazing amount of experience, knowledge and skill that you can apply from music into film, and that’s actually quite invaluable: tempo and pace and editing.”
Simon Pegg has a theory about Crispian’s first career. He posits that Crispian’s time in Kula Shaker was “a rebellion against what would inevitably be his calling”. Crispian doesn’t shoot the idea down: “I think it was an unconscious rebellion. Maybe I would have been more open to being honest about how much I loved films if I hadn’t associated it with the family.”
It’s understandable that Crispian’s family once cast a shadow over his youthful ambitions. The son of actress Hayley Mills and director Roy Boulting, as well as the grandson of John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell, filmmaking has been the family business for so long that it’s not surprising that Crispian would want to establish himself in his own right. “When you’re fifteen or sixteen you want to find out who you are, separate to them, don’t you? That’s the important thing. But as you get older you realise there’s so much more. You’re partly a product of that heritage. So you join up the dots.”
Crispian has now come full circle: in the middle of shooting A Fantastic Fear of Everything, his mother visited him, and pointed out the soundstage they were using was the same one on which she’d met his father whilst making a film called The Family Way at the age of twenty. He seems to be at peace with the idea. “It’s all part of the same experience of being young and wanting to be your own person. You find your rebellion. You’re fighting against the man, and that can be your family, or it can be your record company
David Gyasi fell in love with acting during his first school play. “I was a landlord in Gypsy. This dude had maybe three lines, but I was so nervous. I came on stage and knocked on the door and yelled ‘Madam Rose! Madam Rose, will you open this door? Madam Rose!’ I walked out the door and this farce was going on, and I was chasing her around, and everyone just fell about laughing.” As he talks about the experience, banging on the table in front of him and affecting a perfect American accent, David’s eyes light up. “I thought, ‘Ooh, I like this. It feels nice, making people feel happy. Wouldn’t it be amazing to do that for forty years?’”
For the first eight years, David forged a steady career as an actor, popping up in everything from Holby City to Welsh-language soap Pobyl y Cwm. This was good until it wasn’t: British television provides solid employment for actors with bit-parts as doctors, patients, policemen and criminals, but moving past that stage is difficult. David hit a wall: “I felt like things were becoming stagnant. It’s not inspiring to come in and say a couple of lines. It felt like I’d done that consistently for about five years, and in any career you want to keep challenging yourself. The roles had just stopped doing that for me. I started to think, well, if this is it, then I want to get off the boat.”
Ready to walk away from acting entirely, David decided to give his career one last push, moving in with his in-laws, changing agents and heading to America. After years of trying, the challenging roles that he’d been seeking started to finally come, one after another. It’s heartening to see a genuinely talented performer receive the touch of fortuity that all actors need if they’re to make it big: this year alone he’ll be appearing in The Dark Knight Rises, Cloud Atlas and Doctor Who.
David’s biggest challenge to date has been as one of the leads in the sprawling BBC drama White Heat. He plays the role of Victor, an immigrant law student who quietly suffers racial abuse in 1960s London. Gyasi initially had doubts about even accepting the part. “Victor’s observant, but he’s very quiet,” he explains. “When I read that, I interpreted it as a weakness, and I thought, ‘I have nothing to say about this guy who is suffering this racism. I can’t get inspired about someone who doesn’t even speak up nor have a response.’ He’s an educated man, he’s intelligent. It really frustrated me, and I didn’t want to play him.” His attitude changed after discussing the role with his father, “He smiled, and said that you have to realise that this guy has an endgame; Victor is displaying dignity and focus, and in that there’s strength, because he’s aware that he’s heading to being a lawyer and a QC—that’s where he’s going. And if he gets involved in these little altercations, it’s an environment where he’d be the one to be arrested by the police, because of the racism ingrained in society. My dad said: you were away from home and you had to remember that.”
He remembers one scene that highlighted the tightrope walk of restrained emotion that the role demanded. Victor is leaving his chambers in a smart pinstriped suit, when the police decide to search him for no reason. Gyasi says, “In the script, he has to put his hands up against the wall while they search him. So afterwards he takes out his handkerchief, wipes his hands and puts it back in his wallet. I was so incensed by what had happened that I took out the handkerchief, threw it on the pavement and walked away. The director came up to me and said, ‘That’s good, we’ve got that, but try one with a bit more dignity.’ So we did another take, and there was something quite powerful about wiping my hands and folding that handkerchief and putting it back in my pocket, and walking on. They had no hold on him.”
For the upcoming film Cloud Atlas, the key to David’s character came directly from his research: in the role of Autua, a Moriori slave in 1850, he worked with dialect coaches to create an entirely new accent. “Because the Morioris became extinct in the early twentieth century, there’s no record of the way they spoke. The Maoris were the closest link, but they were integral in making the Morioris extinct, so in order to honour the Moriori tribe we couldn’t just use the Maori accent. But listening to old Maori accents, they sounded slightly African, so we built a bit of that into it, and then a bit of the modern day New Zealand accent into it as well.” He relished the challenge: “I love it! Love it. Anything I can get involved with to do with my character I just love.”
When talking about acting David Gyasi is at his most animated and articulate. For him, the act of performing is infused with frank enjoyment, and acute engagement. He describes how, during the filming of The Dark Knight Rises, he was never even given the pages for the scenes he was in. “Christopher Nolan just told me my lines, and then I had to do them. He’d say: ‘Okay, he’s going to come out and you’re going to say this, this and this. Action!’ And there are two hundred people waiting for me to do it. It was very scary, but it was freeing, because all of the work that you do in building a character, you’re given a license to ignore it, and just give your instinctive, initial reaction. Your interpretation—the part of your soul that you’re baring for everyone to see—that’s taken away, and what’s left is a pure performance. It’s weird. It’s as if I don’t know the film yet.”
It’s the sort of story you find yourself repeating to friends. Phone conversations, chats at bus stops: “Did you read that thing in the paper about that woman?” The kind of story that lodges somewhere in your brain —unbelievable, horrific, depressing, and absolutely true.
A woman, Joyce Vincent, is found dead in her flat, surrounded by Christmas presents, the TV still on. Her body has been there for three years, and no one has noticed that she’d been missing, or the awful smell coming from the open window, or that she hadn’t paid a single bill. Neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic, Joyce was just 38 years old when she died. Once bubbly, vivacious and an aspiring singer, now the police can only confirm that the decomposed body is hers by comparing its teeth with a photograph of her smiling. It’s not the sort of story that one forgets.
If anything, the actual cause of Joyce’s death is the least compelling part about the quest to discover what happened to her. What about her friends? What about her neighbours? How can a person just be forgotten like that, for so long? It makes you wonder how it happened. More selfishly, it makes you wonder if it could ever happen to you.
It’s easy to see the case’s appeal for a documentary filmmaker: a tragic real-life mystery that raises questions about community and friendship in modern society, a society where communication has never been easier. The kind of documentary that might be made about the case can also be imagined: a retelling of events by a reassuring narrator, carefully laying out all the known facts. Interviews with the police, perhaps a few loved ones expressing shock. A generous smattering of photographs of Joyce from when she was alive.
Over the five years that it took Carol Morley to finance and make Dreams of a Life, her examination of Joyce Vincent’s lonely death, many funding organisations would push her to do this very thing. “They’d question who would want to see this story told the way I wanted to make it,” Carol says. “It might have been easier. But if you’re telling people what to think, don’t make a film—write a journalistic essay, or make factual television.”
A film without voiceover, captioning, or many of the other crutches employed by mainstream documentaries, Dreams of a Life instead relies on testimonies from the people that knew Joyce, with dramatic re-enactments of their stories featuring the actress Zawe Ashton. “I was really interested in the idea of constructing somebody,” Carol explains. “She’s not here to actually contribute herself, so you can only ever construct that identity through other people.”
These glimpses of her life through anecdotes and re-enactments show the many different sides of Joyce Vincent, while also being distorted by time and the slipperiness of memory. The interviewees’ stories are often contradictory, not just in the details of events in Joyce’s life, but in how they viewed her. “We’re trying to get close to somebody, but it was important to me imply that what you’re looking at is a reconstruction, that it didn’t feel like I’m presenting you with the ‘truth’.”
By being honest about the limitations of filmmaking, Carol illustrates how difficult it is to truly know a person, and without Joyce present to give her own version of events these fragments are all that anyone has. “I think that’s what film does so beautifully, better maybe than any other medium. You can push forward ideas of contradiction within a person.” It leads the viewer to contemplate the nature of identity, both in how someone presents themselves and how our own perceptions of people are coloured.
The theme is a familiar one in Carol’s work. Her first documentary, the Alcohol Years, also built up a picture of a woman’s life through the testimonies of the people who knew her. In that film, the person was Carol herself, exploring her libidinous, intoxicated youth in Manchester from the ages of 16 to 21. Aside from a shot of her tongue, Carol is absent from her own documentary too, refusing to confirm or deny any of the claims made about her.
You can imagine that a part of her wishes she could: the difference between the interviewees in the two films is striking. Where the recollections of Joyce’s friends are complimentary and rose-tinted, perhaps due to her death, Carol’s old friends and associates aren’t so forgiving, questioning the mythologising nature of the documentary and her own actions of the time. One interviewee claims that everyone hated her, a sentiment that isn’t unique. Did she recognise herself? “It’s weird. I saw it a couple of years ago, and it means different things, because I’m getting older. So now it’s also about the person who made that film. I recognised what was going on, but I’m not even sure if I do know who I am.”
The slander of the Alcohol Years is no more or less truthful than the eulogising of Dreams of a Life. The testimonies reveal as much about the interviewees as about the subjects themselves. Their interviews are fundamentally about themselves, too: in Dreams of a Life, again and again an interviewee will talk about the last time they saw Joyce alive, and imagine that if they’d done something differently then perhaps she might still alive. “They’re writing themselves into the narrative,” Carol agrees. “You’re going to look back at something and imbue it with a significance that you wouldn’t have. When somebody dies the tendency is to think, ‘What did I last say to them?’ or, ‘What did I last leave them with?’”
As much as that response is to do with ego and self-image, it also stems from friendship. The interviewees feel guilty because they fear they might have been able to do something to save Joyce, and they’re burdened by their awareness that they can never know for sure. Even after her body has been found, most of Joyce Vincent’s friends didn’t make the connection.
Carol thinks that these lapses in effort, tragically, may be the real reason it took so long for Joyce Vincent’s body to be discovered. “You don’t necessarily worry about these people, even though you think about them. You just assume that they’ve gone on to better friends, or someone more interesting than you.” The guilt of the interviewees is an extension of the guilt we all feel, as we let friendships drift, assuming that we’ll see our old friends again at some point. All the while, the years pass.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nine. Photograph by Rosanna Durham.
Paddy Considine doesn’t have the social filters that most people possess. His conversation leaves scorched earth in its wake, with none of the neutered reserve that one usually finds in a high-profile actor giving an interview. When he talks, his body tenses up with energy and frustration. It’s an electrifying, vaguely frightening experience. You feel he might just punch you in the face. A part of you almost wants him to, if only so he can relax a little.
It’s not that Paddy is incapable of being polite, it’s simply that he doesn’t have the time or patience to be anything other than his bracingly honest self. He’s desperate to be correctly understood. His speech repeats itself, trying to hone in on the best way to articulate his thoughts. Understandably this makes him a little wary. Paddy explains, “I have to be mindful when I’m interviewed. It comes over like a moan, like I’m this moaning bastard actor. But somebody’s got to care.”
Right from his breakthrough role in A Room for Romeo Brass, Considine’s performances were intense, aggressive and soulful, marked by a brooding intelligence. Paddy disagrees about their quality. “Some people are very good at acting,” he says. “I’m not. I’m not good at it.” This isn’t an attempt to be modest. Considine has appeared in major films, but he chafes at the world of commercial filmmaking, explaining, “It’s such a generic, turgid environment to be in. It doesn’t lend itself to a brilliant creative process. It’s like having a straitjacket on. And that’s all I’m fighting against, it’s the straitjacket.”
The problem is that while Paddy loves acting, he hates how restrictive the filmmaking process can be. He yearns to properly inhabit a role. “I call it ‘drop the glove’ acting. You know, Marlon Brando drops the glove in On The Waterfront, picks it up and starts stroking it. On some film sets, you drop the glove and someone goes, ‘Cut!’ If I’m on a set doing my lines and I forget to say a certain word, I’ve got someone coming up to me with a clipboard telling me off. That’s not making films. That’s not creative. It’s not being in the moment. It’s mechanics.”
Sadly the freedom Paddy seeks doesn’t come as often as he’d like. His working life has been a balancing act, he says. “I don’t have the choices that people think I have. The truth is that two out of three films I’ve made, I’ve done them to make a living or because I’ve no alternative. If you don’t act and say, ‘I’m going to wait for a really great role,’ and then you wait six months, people aren’t going, ‘Where’s Paddy Considine?’ You’re just forgotten.” The result is the feeling that he’s wasted his time. “You want it to be a perfect record, but it isn’t. I can’t live up to it.”
On one particularly bad shoot, matters came to a head and Paddy had finally had enough. “I thought, ‘Something’s got to come from this: I’m so frustrated that I’m either going to destroy this room or I’m going to have to use this somehow.’” He chose the latter, channelling his rage into writing and directing his first short film. “It wasn’t enough to rely on other people’s scripts, or rely on other people full stop. There were a lot of times that I thought, ‘I could do this job better than you, mate.’ I had a story of my own to tell. It was something I was compelled to do. I had no choice.”
The short won a BAFTA, and now Paddy has expanded the story into a heartbreaking first feature, Tyrannosaur. As a film, it is almost unbearably harrowing—it opens with its protagonist kicking a dog to death and goes downhill from there—but it’s also surprisingly gentle and sweet. A film of tremendous power, its greatest strength comes from the stunning performances it showcases. Frustrated by years of working with filmmakers he felt were more interested in costumes and art direction, Paddy focussed on the people who anchor the story. He was committed to protecting his actors from over-zealous production staff. “I’d say, ‘If you drop anything, you do not stop until I say cut. You’re in it. There are no mistakes. Unless something falls on your head, you do not stop.”
It’s when talking about the experience of making the film that aggravation finally loses its hold on Paddy. He looks genuinely happy, and no matter how good an actor he is you almost never want him to do it again. The intensity and passion which makes his acting so remarkable also colours his frustrations, and it’s saddening to watch. In writing and directing, however, Considine has found what truly satisfies him. The change in focus makes him seem like a different person, one more at peace, and less in danger of an aneurysm.
Considering his love-hate relationship with it, will he continue to take acting work? “Yeah, and I’ll continue to moan,” he says, laughing. Paddy feels he’s earned a grumble. “Some people are capable of just acting, of going and doing their job and coming home and running a bath and it’s no big deal. At least I’ve done something about it. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and made a film.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eight. Photograph by Ross Trevail.
It was 2004 and Joe Cornish’s roof needed fixing. “This weird thing happened. The Adam and Joe Show got cancelled and then there was something that we didn’t really expect, which is that all the executives at the TV channels just suddenly swapped. Everyone from Channel 4 went to the BBC and loads of people from the BBC went to Channel 4. We didn’t know what was happening. And suddenly they just weren’t interested in us at all. I remember the new head of Channel 4 saying, ‘Look, Joe, whatever you get offered, just take it.’ He was trying to stop us from insisting on doing our own thing. He wanted us to get involved in panel shows and stuff like that. So I remember thinking, ‘Maybe he’s right, maybe we should have a go at that kind of thing.’”
Cornish was offered the role of team captain on a new game show called HeadJam, presented by Vernon Kay. “It was a lot of money for two days. I remember vividly thinking, ‘Ah, I need to get a new roof. That’s that solved.’” He took the money, and if you missed the show at the time, it’s exactly as you imagine it would be.
Today, Cornish’s first film, Attack the Block, is being released in cinemas amid a raft of positive reviews. He still works with Adam Buxton, finding themselves at home in a popular 6 Music slot on Saturday mornings. Also, as a lifelong fan of Tintin, he’s co-written the screenplay for a film version with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat that’s been produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Steven Spielberg. It’s a long way from slumming it with Vernon Kay. Where did it all go so right?
Perhaps a more telling question is, why did it take so long for it all to go so right? Cornish had always wanted to be a director. “When I was a kid, I’d love making up movies. I would draw the posters. I’d write the title and come up with a tagline and the cover art and do a credit block. When I was a teenager the wall of my bedroom was papered with these made-up films.”
He met Adam Buxton as 13-year-olds at Westminster School, where they shared this love of filmmaking. “We made some pretty appalling Super 8 epics. I directed them and he would star in them.”
Joe went off to study film at Bournemouth University, and after that the pair reunited for their little-seen, much-loved late-night programme the Adam and Joe Show, where they assimilated their love of movies and pop culture into inventive parodies. Films were remade with stuffed toys, TV shows were spoofed with Star Wars figurines, and overly-serious arts programming was poked fun of by having Adam interview people like Pat Sharp and Handy Andy about their craft. They did anything they wanted, in other words. “We were amazingly lucky. We were, what, 25 or 26, and to get our own half-hour on Channel 4 was incredible. We were definitely spoiled.” The show reflected that, dizzy on its own potential.
The pair didn’t realise quite how lucky they were. Then the Adam and Joe Show was cancelled and for years they bounced from place to place, unsure of how to bring their cult success to a wider audience while staying independent. They kept facing the same problems. “It’s not something they teach you at film school. The ground is always shifting. Just when you think you’ve found your safe harbour, the flipping harbourmaster will change and they’ll pull down the pier.” Eventually they found their niche in radio, taking over Ricky Gervais’ XFM show and eventually moving to 6 Music, quickly becoming one of the fledgling station’s biggest draws.
Despite success, Cornish couldn’t help but think about filmmaking. Friends with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, he cameoed in Shaun of the Dead. It must have been hard to watch his friends suddenly hit so big. It wasn’t long before it affected him, though. “One of the nice things about getting older is that people who are your age rise up around you.” Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were developing a Tintin film with Stephen Moffat, who worked on the script until he left to run Doctor Who. “They needed to find someone to take over from him and do the last few passes. So Peter Jackson called Edgar Wright, and Edgar Wright called me.” After dreaming of filmmaking since childhood, it became as easy as that. “The thing for me was just the work. I absolutely love Tintin so I wanted to do it right. I wanted to please them and make it good and do good work.”
It’s that work ethic that led Cornish from the perils of the “professional funny person” circuit. As well as Tintin, he and Edgar Wright are adapting the comic book Ant Man for Universal. And then, of course, there’s Attack the Block. “When I was growing up I used to love low-budget, high-concept movies. You know: movies where directors are a bit too ambitious and they don’t quite have enough money, so they get over obstacles by being inventive and clever practically.” Ambitious is certainly the word. “We made a low budget film with eleven young actors who had never really been in front of the camera before, with creatures, with stunts, with chases, with explosions, with special effects, all shot at night. We definitely wanted to try and bite off more than we could chew.”
This desire to strive beyond himself is what defines Cornish. “On Attack the Block it was all day, every day for at least 18 months. Properly all day every day—weekends, Christmas, I couldn’t go to my brother’s wedding. And the quality of the film is directly, unambiguously related to the amount of time you spend on it. You could go and have a drink instead of editing, but if you stay editing for another two hours it will be better. When the equation is that simple, of quality to time put in, there’s not much of an excuse to slack off.”
The hard work has paid off. Funny, scary and thrilling, it’s surprising just how fantastic the film is, a sci-fi horror comedy that also happens to be a sensitive and insightful portrayal of contemporary poor urban Britain. It’s like the Wire meets Predator 2.
After a long run of non-stop work, Cornish has returned to his 6 Music show with Adam, but other than that, the future is open. “I’ve got an idea of the thing I want to do next, but I’m completely open in terms of any other writing assignments or DIY work or children’s party entertaining.” It must be odd to be at something of a loose end. “It feels a little bit exciting, a little bit scary, and a tiny bit boring. Like life.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Six. Photograph by Trent McMinn.