Friday, April 30, 2010

"You've got to learn a lot from every script you write" - An interview with J Blakeson

With his debut feature, British writer-director J Blakeson has proven that limited means are no obstacle for inventive filmmaking. The Disappearance of Alice Creed takes place mostly in a single location, and the film features just three characters, but through his taut screenplay, slick direction and the outstanding efforts of his cast, Blakeson has crafted a first-rate thriller. The Disappearance of Alice Creed is released in the UK this week, and I met J Blakeson during last year's London Film Festival to discuss it.

Having just three characters and placing most of the action in a single location seems like a very restrictive setup for a writer. How did you negotiate the obstacles this premise involved?

I started with the restrictions before I really had a story, because I knew I wanted to write something that I would be able to direct myself, and if nobody gave me any money I could just do it on my own in my flat with people I knew. There was a bit more in the back of the van for a while, because I thought a flat and the back of a van were very findable locations, so I restricted myself to them for the main body of the script before I came up with anything else. I thought of doing a kidnapping film because it's automatically a tense story, and I wanted to do a thriller because I like those "situation to the limit" films, like Panic Room, Phone Booth or... what was that other one with Jodie Foster?...Flight Plan. There's one situation and one location, and you have to get as much out of it as you can, you have to try and out-imagine the audience and wrong-foot them at every turn.

I quite enjoyed it to be honest, because the thing with being a writer is that you can go anywhere. Look at Adaptation, that Charlie Kaufman script, where he starts at the beginning of time and goes all the way through evolution before beginning his story. You can go anywhere your imagination will take you, and sometimes the hard part is just pulling it in and keeping it simple. The film I was working on before this was The Descent 2, which was an assignment I was writing with a friend of mine, and there were restrictions in place there. Not only are they down in the cave, where everything looks the same, but they've already been there before and done it all before, so we really had to out-imagine our limitations there, and I enjoyed that because it's kind of a neat puzzle to be solved. So once I knew I was doing something that could be achieved on a low budget, the limitations didn't scare me, in fact it's quite good because within those limitations you can do as much as you want, because you have this kind of border around you.

And once you have moved past the writing stage, what are the challenges of directing a film like this?

Well, you're in the same locations again and again, and shooting the same interiors again and again can make it seem like a soap opera, when they're always in the shop, the pub or somebody's front room. I knew we had to try and make it cinematic, because three people in one set can feel very much like a stage play, and I knew I didn't want to do the shaky-cam, faux-verité style. My touchstones were more people like David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and the Coen brothers, people who have a very deliberate style.

Did you storyboard the film before shooting?

We storyboarded some of the sequences that would be more complex to shoot because we didn't have a lot of time. It was anything with quite a lot of setups, really, just to make sure we could build the sequence in the time we had, and the scenes where it's just people talking we didn't have to storyboard because you want to give the actors as much freedom as possible. We storyboarded before we had seen any locations as well, as the preparation time on this film was really quick, so sometimes we had storyboarded something that didn't work on the location, and we had to make something up on the spot. So, the opening sequence was storyboarded, and the bit where they're eating soup, and we storyboarded some of the wood sequence as well.

Speaking of the wood sequence, was there a very deliberate Miller's Crossing reference in there?

It was, it's a heart-on-sleeve Miller's Crossing reference. I think if someone's begging for their life in some woods, you just have to throw in a Miller's Crossing reference. There are little references to other films all the way through, but most of them are very small and obscure. What happened there was, we storyboarded a version of that, but it was the same shot as when we're over their shoulders, so we just let it run for a bit and it turned into a Miller's Crossing shot. We were looking at the monitor and we thought, "Hmm...I've seen this somewhere before" [laughs].

The film has so many twists and surprises. Did you plan the whole story out first, or was it something that simply developed as you wrote the script?

I started on page one, and I didn't know where it was going to go. It was quite exciting because I've been writing assignment work where you have to go in and pitch for it, then write a beat sheet, and a first draft, but here I was writing for myself, so I didn't have to worry about that. I had a list of things that could happen – what if she needs to go to the toilet, what about making a video for the father? – and a list of scenes you sort of expect, like escape attempts, and questions about who is really in charge. So one was a list of active questions and one was a list of moments, just two hand-written A4 pages I had done very quickly that I stuck up on the wall in front of me, and that was all the prep I did, I wrote it very quickly.

When you have just three characters, the relationships and the dynamic between those characters is really what your film will stand or fall on. Did you have to put a lot of work into getting that aspect of the script right?

I really just had to do a lot of thinking, and I'd sometimes have to go away and watch other films and do other stuff before coming back to it again. So by the time I came to it, I didn't know exactly what these characters were, but I sort of knew what I wanted them to be and where I wanted them to go, although sometimes you would plan to go one way and the characters would take you somewhere else. Sometimes you'd think that's slightly more interesting than what you had imagined, so you can always take them back if this road doesn't go anywhere, but you just follow it and then you end up at the midpoint of the film...which I won't reveal.

That's the problem with this film. It will be a nightmare to review because there's so much you don't want to give away.

I know, and try cutting the trailer [laughs].

Let's talk about the casting, because all three actors are perfect for their roles. How did that come together?

We were incredibly lucky, because this came together really quickly, in less than a year. I first spoke to the company who made it around this time last year, October 2008, and it was about a month later when they said they wanted to do it. Then we hired Adrian Sturges to produce it and we set about trying to cast it in six weeks, but it was over Christmas, which takes two weeks out, so we really had around four and a half weeks to cast it. It actually made the casting process it a little bit easier, because we had a start date in February, and if people weren't available they were knocked off the list. The first person to come in and read was Gemma, who had been suggested to me by the casting director, who had cast her in St Trinian's and had followed her career. I had only seen Gemma in St Trinian's and Quantum of Solace, and they were both very different roles from this one, so I thought, she's good in what I've seen her in but this isn't the kind of thing I'd immediately think of her for. I thought she looked great and she's obviously talented, but can she bring the intensity and emotion that the part requires? She came in and read, and within about five minutes I just thought, OK, she's insanely talented, let's hire her [laughs]. She had just finished making Prince of Persia a week before, which was a massive shoot, I don't know how many weeks or tens of millions that took, and this was a four-week shoot, low-budget, on the Isle of Man. She was going to be in it all the way through and a lot of the dramatic moments fell on her, so it was a real showcase for her talent and a real test for her talent.

That opening sequence in particular must have been a real test for her. It's a difficult scene to watch, what was it like to shoot?

That was my second day as a film director. Obviously, I'd done all of the preparation, but it was my second day on set, and that was the day I was dreading the most. What I wanted to show was that when you commit a crime against somebody else, you're doing a horrible, horrible thing. Sometimes you see crimes on TV and people get over it very quickly, but when you get mugged in the street you spend weeks getting over it, you wake up with nightmares, you can't leave the house. There's no such thing as a victimless violent crime, and they're doing a horrible, terrorising thing to this girl, so I wanted to show it as that. I didn't want it to be glamorous, I certainly didn't want it to be exploitive, and I just wanted it to be very uncomfortable to watch. I also wanted to show how meticulous it was and to show that they didn't have any interest in who she was, she's just this object they're bundling around.

Obviously, Gemma read the script, and I explained that there would be nudity on certain pages, and she was fine with that. I had a long discussions with her about how we would shoot it, I showed her storyboards, and I asked her if anything was going to make her uncomfortable. On the day, we had a closed set and the crew was very sensitive, so as soon as I said cut we all left the room, the prop guys covered her up and untied her, and we just gave her some time to gather her thoughts until she told us she was ready to go again. She had the freedom to cut the camera at any time, and I just wanted to make her feel as comfortable as possible, basically, because she's a collaborator. You know, as cool as it sounds when you're growing up and you read stories about Friedkin letting off shotguns on The Exorcist, or Herzog and Kinski, I'm not like that. I really value actors and they're great actors, so they don't need me to manipulate them into giving a scared performance. I know that Gemma knows how to act scared, so I don't have to really make her scared, and I want her to feel like a collaborator with me, that she's creating with me rather than being put through the mill. Cinema is very important to me but it's just a film and that's her life, so it's not worth messing with her head when I could just shoot it a different way. It was tough, though, and I worried about it an awful lot, but on the day I think everyone else was more freaked out than she was. We were all like, "God, this is horrible," but as soon as I said cut, she'd ask "Was that alright?" and start giggling. She's such a fearless actress, and she's certainly stronger than I am.

I think my favourite performance of the three came from Eddie Marsan. He's an actor who can be ferocious but also incredibly vulnerable, and you really exploit both of those extremes with this role.

When Eddie was first suggested to me I was slightly cautious, only because he has so much humanity in his face, he brings with him so much empathy, and I didn't know if he could do that pure, hard-as-granite character. As he was written on the page he was very much a one-note hard man, but Eddie bought so much more to it. He's got that kind of small man complex, he's like a ferocious dog, and obviously he has worked with people like Mike Leigh, so he's very focused on his character. He likes to get into his character's emotions and stay there, so for the first week I was quite scared of him! [Laughs] He was very serious and focused, and if I gave him direction, I would just go up and whisper, "Do you mind just doing it like this?" and he would quietly say "OK," and I'd go off and leave him to do it. By the second or third week, because his character relaxes a bit, and because we all got to know each other a bit, we could have more of a laugh and a joke. We had a great time making the film, and it's really weird when you watch Eddie being so hardcore in a scene, and you know that he cracked up immediately afterwards.

Was it a challenge to sustain the film's tension while simultaneously making sure you didn't push things too far and go over the edge?

I've been a writer for a while now, and when I first write a script for people to read I want the tension to be there on the page. We set things up in the first reel, and from there I basically wanted it to be sequence after sequence, so by the end of each sequence we would know a little bit more about the characters, and the story would be moved forward. In editing, it was somewhat irritating when we were running over length because we couldn't just take a sequence out; you need the gunshot to get the bullet in the wall, you need the bullet to get to the toilet, and so on. We just had to keep tightening it, so hopefully it feels relentless in a good way. I likened it to a balloon dropping, and we have to almost let it hit the floor before we tap it up in the air again, so the editor and I worked really hard on maintaining the pace and keeping things moving. Of course, when you're in a flat all you can do is talk to each other, and I didn't want that, I wanted stuff to happen. I had a rule that if I was going to use something I would make the most it – so if I have a gun I'll use it a lot, if I have a set of keys I'll use it a lot, if I have a bullet I'll use it a lot – and it will hopefully mean something different every time.

You have been writing for a couple of years now and working in short films. Was directing features always your goal?

Since I was 19, when I made my first actual film, the goal was to make features. I moved to London to become an internationally successful film director when I was 21, but I had no money, was unemployed and didn't know anybody, so I started writing. I thought it was better to have some work than to have no work, and maybe if I keep writing then they'll let me direct one, and eventually it worked, ten years later [laughs]. In a way, I'm glad it took that long, although I was attached to make a film three or four years ago and I got very close to making it, but it didn't happen.

Is that a project you could resurrect now?

I think scripts I wrote that didn't get made are a bit like ex-girlfriends; I was obsessed with them at the time, and I still have real affection for them, but it would probably be a mistake to go back. People still own them, so who knows? If my currency gets higher then perhaps somebody will try to resurrect them, but I won't be going back to direct them. That was me then and I think I'm a much better writer now, and I've become much more focused on the type of films I want to make. It's the old cliché that in your 20's you're kind of looking for yourself, and by the time you're 30 you know who you are, and that's where I am right now. You've got to learn a lot from every script you write, and I've written some really bad scripts, but in every bad script I've written I have learned something, and hopefully I haven't written many bad scripts in the past five years. I wrote my first script when I was 17, and it was awful, and when I read it now it's horribly embarrassing, but the next one was a little bit better and so was the one after that.

So what are you up to next?

Right now I'm writing a script which I owe to somebody because they gave me time off to make my film, so I'm doing a re-write on that, and I'm also working on the next script I'm going to direct. At the same time I'm reading other people's scripts, because I'm signing with a US agent, I haven't decided which one yet, and they send a lot of scripts. So we'll see what happens, because I want to direct a lot, and if I just direct my own scripts then I can only make something every two years, and that's if it goes well. I really admire people like Soderbergh, you know, he makes so many films and has his stamp all over them. I haven't read anything that has blown me away yet, but if a script comes along that's really amazing then why not?

Well, I'm looking forward to the next J Blakeson film, whatever it might be.

So am I! [Laughs]