Director interview: Paul Andrew Williams

Paul Andrew Williams, the director of London to Brighton (EIFF 2006), talks about making the gritty realistic thriller Cherry Tree Lane, which received a World Premiere at this year’s Fest

Heroes are extraordinary so as far as Williams is concerned, they have no place in an authentic thriller. The same goes for redemption, ‘in real time scenario there’s no character arc, there’s not the nice family that we care about; they’re just normal people.’

The same attitude is extended to the gang members who invade the home of Mike and Christine after their son Sebastian becomes involved in drugs, ‘they are bad kids but they’re not big monsters walking through the door which I think is what a lot of people assume.’

The behaviour of Rian and Asad – which veers between violence to reproving comments towards their affluent victims depending on who is present – is perceptive, showing them not just as thugs but as easily influenced teenagers, ‘even though these guys are doing these horrible things, I think that’s exactly what they’d do, they’d adapt to the scenario. Trying to be friendly, not getting the fact that what they are doing is so horrible and wrong.’

In keeping with the realism of the film, he developed backstories with the actors and made sure the cast socialised together. Aside from being one of his favourite parts of the process, this bonding pays dividends when it comes to dynamics: ‘Relationships are weird. A lot of times in movies they are shown in very black and white ways. Family relationships are different just because you can get away with a lot more in terms of what gets talked about.’

Much of the on- and off-screen violence comes from complex emotional ties, but where is the line between grit and sensationalism? ‘We’re all in the privileged position of not being in that situation. We can make assumptions about what we might do without going through trauma. I don’t like seeing violence. However, it depends on the point you’re trying to get across. If you’re trying to make a point about violence then it’s important what you do with it.’

Cherry Tree Lane has already had an impact, nominated for the Michael Powell Award, how does Williams feel about being considered ‘best of British’? ‘It’s nice to be considered. If you don’t win it doesn’t make you the worst, if you do win it doesn’t make you the best.’

Williams is equally measured when considering future projects, he has two films in mind, one a ‘nice story about old people’ and the other ‘has a bit of killing in it’. The bottom line: ‘it’s about what you can get finance for. Do I want to make another tense, stuck-in, scary movie? Ideally I wouldn’t want to rightaway unless they go, ‘we’re going to pay your mortgage for you.”


Director interview: Iyari Wertta

Iyari Wertta’s stylish noir, The Black Panther, combines detective fiction, sci-fi and surrealism to create something completely new but where on earth did it come from?

‘I wanted to make something very different from other Mexican films. Mexico is a big country with lots social problems whereas my film is about imagination and beautiful and crazy things.’ Wertta chose to shoot in black and white not just in homage to fifties noir but also because of the light and shadows that characterise German expressionism.

The protagonist, alcoholic and detective Nico Beamonte hallucinates about Mexican icon Pedro Infante: ‘Every country has someone who represents the nation ideal. We have Pedro Infante; he is brave, drunk, likes women, partying and music and he is a great lover. That’s the Mexican image of a great man. I grew up watching his films and my mother and grandmother still shout when he comes on the TV. When he died it was a national tragedy and there is a conspiracy that he is not dead, like Elvis.’

In the film, Infante, who has been cryogenically frozen is brought back to life by an enigmatic woman and resumes his machismo while Nico struggles with his demons, ‘Pedro Infante is a great man and Nico is a loser. He lives in the past and has nothing in the present. Nico has to think of Pedro Infante to be strong. He is drunk all day, he never eats and he has no motivation. He stays in bed until a man calls him.’

This man tells Nico he must find the Black Panther – but what is this in a film of cats, big, small and stuffed? ‘For me the black panther is a black cat. When I was writing the film my cat died and I was very upset. She was the most important thing to me at that time because I didn’t have a girlfriend, I just had my cat.’ Animals are symbolic to Wertta and provide a counterpoint to Nico’s desolation, ‘When I was a boy I would go to my grandmother’s house and see horses running free but in Mexico City you only see them at the racing. The scene where you see the horse dead is a very powerful image to me.’

The most important scene in the film takes place in a church where an old man tells Nico he has fallen from god’s grace. Wertta joins the dots, ‘in some ways I am Nico and the existential questions Death asks him are questions I ask myself. I don’t know if god exists, I don’t know the meaning of life and I don’t know where I am going. My parents tell me this is because I don’t have sons. They say, ‘I was like you but when you were born, I understood everything.’ It isn’t like that for me, I don’t know if I want to have sons. I’m comfortable with cats.’

The film is dream-like with childhood flashbacks and plays with ideas about the psyche, Wertta explains, ‘Nico confuses reality with dreams. He has no hope and is almost dead because he doesn’t have love or faith, just alcohol.’ At this point Wertta furtively hides his bottle of beer, surely, this isn’t how he feels? ‘No, that was just how I felt at the time.’ Fortunately, this is far behind Wertta, due to the complexity of the special effects The Black Panther was two years in post-production and Wertta also wrote the music. Difficult as it was for Wertta to capture his imagination on celluloid, you’ll discover it was certainly a worthwhile struggle.

Film: The Killer Inside Me

The Killer Inside Me

Dir. Michael Winterbottom

It is very easy to pick up on the most sensational aspects of a film, mention them out of context, and cause a little stir in the media. This is the case for The Killer Inside Me and all involved must have been grateful for the publicity. However, it is the smaller details that are of real interest.

When Lou Ford, as far is he is concerned, beats his secret mistress Joyce Lakeland to death not a spot of blood spoils his white shirt-front. He is sweating profusely but you imagine that his heartbeat is only raised by the exertion involved, not emotion.

Lou is a compelling depiction of emotional detachment, of sociopathy. Many thrillers court Freudian speculation but few go so far as to join up the lines. Lou is not a trigger-happy sheriff (even if he does wear his badge pinned to his boxers during his numerous liasons with Amy and Joyce) but a consumate politician who reassures his flock that he doesn’t need to carry a gun due to the low crime rate.

Lou is shown as educated, even refined. He is the son of a doctor, conspicuously enjoys classic music, plays piano and is even a bit of a reader. When he takes down a copy of the bible from the book-lined walls of his study, it is very pointedly next to a volume of Freud. Within the pages of the bible he finds photos of his mother, these of course are not happy family snaps but show lash marks to her backside.

As is often the case with crime narrative, female characters are fairly two-dimensional but far from naive. Amy anticipates Lou’s downfall, and had she not said her goodbyes on his kitchen floor, would have approached it with a careful tread. Likewise, Joyce, who can be seen as the trigger for Lou’s behaviour by reacting to his polite facade with a potent mix of violence and sexuality, does learn when to play her cards close to her chest.

Lou is a master at keeping clean, even close-range shots never spatter his immaculate appearance with something as expendable as human blood. Lou’s carefully maintained friendships are essential to his evasion of justice; Johnnie Pappas is so intimidated that he favours hanging himself rather than denouncing him. There are many suave detective- types who can circumstantially involve Lou with the murders but really it is his sexual desires that incriminate him.

The lash marks found on Amy match those of Joyce and that is his fingerprint as a murderer. The desire to inflict pain and suffering can only be satisfied by these women who are aroused by Lou’s misogynistic behaviour, a trait that has been bred in him by a maternal figure.

The frontier aspect of The Killer Inside Me is hard to ignore, stetsons are hung from the ends of diner booths and Lou spends much of his posing as a possessed lone-ranger, at one with his car and the road. As are the film’s pulp fiction roots which Winterbottom clearly references with the lurid opening graphics. This is slick but cutting stuff and certainly a strong enticement to read Jim Thompson’s fiction to see how deep the vein really runs.

London to Brighton

British director Paul Andrew Williams’s latest film, Cherry Tree Lane, will premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival this year where it has been nominated for the Michael Powell Award. In preparation for this, here’s a look back at first feature-length film London to Brighton which premiered at EIFF in 2006.

Tea time: a rare smile in Brighton

As a woman, with her eye swollen shut, wipes garish make up off a young girl in a graffitied station toilet before locking her in the cubicle while she searches for chips, we know, like them, that we are in for a rough ride. Kelly has been asked by her pimp (Derek) to procure a girl for a millionaire with condemnable tastes and Joanne, a homeless eleven year-old smoker and tough-talker appears suitably exploitable.

Williams’s elegant splitting and shifting of chronology lends an ideal balance of suspense and pace, encouraging the viewer to question the motivations of silent but brutal men and desperate women until the closing scenes. The violence of the film is effective for its restraint and blood is reserved only for the most reprehensible of characters.

Not without sympathy, Kelly’s initial actions are mitigated by her fiercely protective treatment of Joanne, she denies her nothing because spoiling her with cigarettes and food is all she can offer. Her body may be a commodity but she also uses it for charity as she knows there is only one way she will earn a train fare.

When Joanne names a teddy bear after her mother or is framed by the serene horizon behind Brighton Pier, the girl who sticks a cigarette behind her ear and demands the readies seems ridiculous but not inconsistent. Other characters speak far beyond their dialogue; Derek’s lackey is not a brawn-bound lover of carnage but someone as short on luck and opportunity as Kelly.

The millionaire’s son is inscrutable, his thick-lipped sneer and poise promises violence but he is defined by passivity. He watches his father bleed to death in the austere white walls of his bedroom, he talks harshly to an inconsolable Joanne but does not act until he has heard the full story, ensuring people dig their own graves.

London to Brighton is taut, chilling and draining. Beautifully executed it is a seamless thriller; gritty, unflinching and entirely believable but without an edge of humane black humour.

Sinister: This character is all the more dark for the fact he looks like the evil twin of the very cheerful Robert Webb

Film review: Dogtooth (Kynodontas)

Dogtooth (2009)

Dir. Giorgos Lanthimos

Some people will do anything for a quiet life. The ‘seen and not heard’ rule, nannies and corporal punishment are all examples of this but Father has his own methods. His far from pubescent daughters think that ‘play’ means to inhale anaesthetic and ‘race’ to see who wakes up first. He does, however, pay for his employee Christina to have sex with his son and even if he does think that a pussy is a ‘big light’ he can at least impress her with the merit stickers on his rickety single bed. Aside from creating an alien vocabulary, the parents have mastered lip-reading, never cry in front of the children and have convinced them that their non-existent second son was fatally wounded by a cat. This later prompts Son to attack an invading moggy with a pair of shears and when Christina trades copies of Jaws and Rocky for sexual favours from Older Daughter, the blindfold Father has imposed on his family starts to unravel.

For a film that features sibling incest, Dogtooth is suitably disturbing. Watching two full grown adults scrabble after a model airplane or Father calmly duct-tape a video cassette to his hand in order to beat Older Daughter over the head are just a couple of the scenes that will extract gasps. It is hard to know what to make of a film where the characters down an entire glass of orange juice or milk at once for fear that will lose its freshness or where we are invited to watch two mature women scamper around in swimming costumes with a childish ignorance of the signification of their own bodies.

Even outside his perimeter fence, Father’s conversation is stilted and distant and the film has a starkness that extends beyond the clinical white walls of the isolated homestead. The final scene where the camera is fixed on the boot of Father’s car is too long, leaving us to ponder if there really is a convincing message behind its grotesque contents.

Showing at Cameo Picturehouse until May 20th

Blog On Avoiding Absolutes

Printed in The Student 23 March 2010

Avoiding absolutes

Professor John Carey, author of What Good are the Arts?, talks to Susan Robinson about his biography of William Golding, the perils (and benefits) of reading and making culture inclusive

Professor Carey’s admiration for William Golding was apparent when he discussed his latest biography, The Man Who Wrote Lord of Flies at Glasgow’s Aye Write! Festival. Following the event, I ask Carey –who has published studies of canonical authors such as Donne, Dickens and Thackeray- what motivated him to write about Golding? “I’d never written a biography of a living author before, someone I had actually met while he was alive.” What appears most exciting to Carey is having access to the private thoughts of Golding, he talks of the “inexhaustible” archive, comprising of a nine thousand page journal, plans and three unpublished novels. It took Carey six months to read the journal and he explains his dedication towards the task ahead of him: ‘I had never actually tackled a figure who was quite unknown before, and dealing with material that was quite unknown. You come across something and think, ‘my god, I’m the first person to have read this’ it’s like finding a Shakespeare sonnet…amazing!”

Carey’s enthusiasm is the result of a long wait to realise an ambition. He wanted to write the biography while Golding was still alive but his family “wouldn’t hear of it”, Carey explains, “He died in 1993 and no one has looked at the stuff and I think the reason, one reason is because of David [Golding’s son]. Not so long ago, any kind of mental illness was absolutely not talked about and shut away. I think that Ann, his wife,  really would have not wanted anyone to look at the journal, because there really was a lot about David.” Carey considers the biography his greatest achievement due to its comprehensiveness but also, “I’ve never done anything like this before and suppose I never will again, you’ve got to find an archive no one’s touched.”

Carey also wrote about Golding in his work of cultural and aesthetic revision, What Good are the Arts? He recounts how a group of book-shunning young offenders responded to the themes of exclusion and isolation in The Lord of the Flies and advocates reading as a remedy for boredom and apathy: “People are starting to realise more and more that reading has therapeutic potential. It’s not only for young offenders, people in prison, but also people in hospitals, people recovering from breakdowns particularly and that idea that you get out of yourself into some other kind of world.” Carey recognises benefits of film and music but argues literature “gives you ideas in the way that other arts cannot always do. I find that with books they change because you change, as you get older, as you develop new parts of yourself you find something different.”

Despite widespread concern about the decline of reading, Carey remains positive: “I can’t believe that books are any different than when I first started out and I don’t think that people are any different. I think people have imaginations and curiosity. I don’t think literature is a frail flower that needs protecting I think it’s enormously dynamic and that that there always will be young people who respond to it.”

Carey draws a distinction between making and appreciating art, suggesting that participation in the creative process makes culture more inclusive and productive. In that case, can innovations such as blogging be beneficial by giving a platform to a new demographic? “At the Oxford Literary Festival  there was an event which I took part in where there were two critics, me and John Mullan, and two people who run literary blogs and they were terrific. They were having very serious public discussions of literature. Obviously blogging can become very trivial and abusive and so on but it didn’t seem to happen in these blogs. It seemed to be people having a voice that hadn’t had it before. It’s a way of starting a kind of creativity because once you start thinking and writing about a novel or any work of art you are in a sense creating because you’re interpreting. I think the internet will change things for the good, I don’t think it will replace literature.”

Carey has written extensively about cultural elitism but also the relation between academia and the public in Intellectuals and the Masses. Did his own background, being from a non-academic family, give him a different perspective from his peers? “It makes you very intolerant of the kind of exclusiveness that used to be in universities and the kind of assumption that people without backgrounds in cultured families are somehow inferior.” However, it’s not a one-sided divide: “I think it has to be said, separates you from your family, a lot of people find that. I found that teaching students from families that never sent people to university. Seamus Heaney writes about it in his poems and how, the more books you read the less you have in common with them. Of course, some families will react with great positivity and are glad to learn themselves but sometimes it does cut you off, both from the family that you belong to and the new community that you have joined, who’ll never quite accept you.

Carey is emphatic about the love of his own family and how this did not impinge on his own academic life, however his peers were not quite so forgiving: “I started reviewing for the Sunday Times in 1975 and have done it ever since. And that is looked down on.  And writing, as you do have to if you write for a newspaper, writing for a big public and not writing just for academics. And I don’t see the point in writing just for academics. That’s something that academics don’t like, that you should question the worth of it. I think what I’ve felt disapproval of.”

He credits his school masters at Sheen Grammar School as a strong influence, “looking back I think about how brilliant they were, how they engaged your interest right from the start and made you want to know what they knew. And that’s the great secret -heaven knows how you do it- and it seems to me once you’ve done that, once you’ve really made someone want to learn, then you can go home really.” Otherwise, Carey asserts “I think it’s the authors you read who really captivate you that teach you and in my case it’s George Orwell.” Carey devoured Orwell’s collected letters and journalism throughout his twenties, “He seemed to me someone who always believed in something and always the right things, never really gave up on his beliefs, never, like so many authors, turned into a reactionary but was completely true to his beliefs. I thought he was terrific and still do. And think he is also a great stylist, he teaches you how to write in absolutely lucid prose even about very complicated things.”

Orwell’s influence is apparent in Carey’s highly readable style but is there an identification of ideas? “Absolutely, yes. Mind you, when you say identification, one of the things I think about literature is that you don’t necessarily have any ideas yourself. When I was an undergraduate I don’t think I had any ideas at all. I just read the stuff and thought, my god, how wonderful!”

“I suppose by the time I read Orwell perhaps I had got some beliefs and ideas and there probably was some matching there but more it was still learning from him. But that’s what I feel about the issue, it’s a kind of another life which you live through the book and that changes and adds to you.” I suggest that is comforting for an undergrad to hear from someone such as Carey that it took him time to formulate ideas, he expounds: “How was I expected to have ideas? When you read, I don’t know, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, you read these great authors and think, ‘for heaven’s sake if I could only think and write like that’ and that’s what keeps you going. You want to learn but the idea that I would criticise them in those days made no sense at all. I’m not sure it does now with writers like that.”

It is hard not to be intimidated by great authors but perhaps approaching their work without an agenda is not necessarily a disadvantage?  “What’s the point in reading if you’ve already got the agenda? It seems to me that ideally you should read with an open mind.” He notes that this is sometimes easier said than done: “It does seem to me there’s a sort of limit that we really shouldn’t be able to allow that’s disgusting, anti-Semitism say, or really any other pernicious belief.” He recalls a discussion with Anthony Julius (“terribly clever bloke”), lawyer to Princess Diana, author of Trials of the Diaspora and, incidentally, Jewish about T.S. Eliot: ‘there’s a good deal of evidence that Eliot was actually anti-Semitic to a degree. And I remember Anthony Julius saying, ‘could you consider that a book could be great but at the same time also deeply anti-Semitic?’ And I said no, but a lot of people would say yes. A lot of people would say you’ve got to judge it apart from what your particular beliefs are, it seems to me like saying you’ve got to make yourself inhuman.” Carey admits there are two ways of looking at it but “the way I’d look at is at some point something you might call a moral judgement has to come into play.”

“Particularly with D.H. Lawrence, I don’t think Lawrence was evil at all, I think he was desperately anguished by the First World War and things that were happening to mankind so he said things that I think he would have denied, or withdrawn, or corrected when he was in a calmer mood. The trouble is with Lawrence is he’s so powerful, so animated, and passionate. He says these things, says them with enormous power and thought, about his hatred of mankind and you can be carried along by it and you see how he felt. In the last resort I do still think Lawrence is a great writer, even if you have to dissent from some of his views. I think I would try and plead for the times he was writing in and what he was going through. He’s the most acute case apart from Ezra Pound.” Perhaps you can only sympathise so far? “Exactly, and if you sympathise beyond that point that would be quite a worry.”

He explains that this is why he is pleased when people agree with What Good are the Arts ?, “I think not agreeing with it and believing in absolutes is terrifying in a way, particularly when you’re applying it in moral matters and religious matters then it becomes dogmatism of a quite ugly kind.”

Blog on and on and on…

The Features section has been updated. If you missed any of my articles in The Student you can find them there. Makes me realise how little I’ve written recently. Does that mean I will endeavour to write more in the future? I’m not sure.