Friday, April 09, 2010

"It was a rollercoaster, man, it was into the darkness and out" - An interview with Justin Kerrigan

Welsh filmmaker Justin Kerrigan made a huge impact with his energetic debut film Human Traffic in 1999. The director's take on his generation's drug-taking and clubbing lifestyle became a cult hit, and established Kerrigan as an exciting young talent, but it has taken more than a decade for his second feature to hit cinema screens. In I Know You Know Kerrigan explores his relationship with his late father, building a compelling tale of double-lives and psychological trauma around superb central performances from Robert Carlyle and newcomer Arron Fuller. Earlier this week, I Know You Know had a charity premiere in London, and I met Justin Kerrigan a few hours before the screening to discuss both the film and the long and difficult journey behind it.

How did this project change for you in the eight years it took to make it? If you had made it directly after Human Traffic, do you think it would be a very different film?

Over the eight years of making the film, I was writing it for seven and I wrote over 40 drafts of the script, so I took the story in a lot of different directions. At one time it was a coming-of-age story, at one time it was a love story, one time it was a black comedy, one time it was a spy thriller, and now it's a little bit of everything. It kept on changing, and I've just been making so many different versions of the film over this period.

The style of the film is very different to Human Traffic. Would you say this is a better reflection of your sensibility as a filmmaker, or is it simply the approach the story required?

I shot Human Traffic that way because it was that kind of film and those kinds of characters. With the characters being hyped-up, high and clubbing, I thought at the time it would be best if the camera was moving all the time, whereas with I Know You Know I knew it was always going to be about the performances. I wanted to lose the movement in the camera, so the camera hardly moves at all, and I want each film I make to be different. I didn't want to make Human Traffic 2, I had done what I wanted to do on that subject, and when I finished it I didn't know what I wanted to do. Then, out of the blue, my father died unexpectedly, and there was nothing to remind me of him. There were no pictures and no objects, just my memories, which I thought were fading fast, so I kind of went into a panic because I wanted to remember him again, I wanted to bring back elements of him. I locked myself away and didn't answer the phone, I just wasn't interested in anything other than making this film. I wanted to make this film as a testimony of love, that's how it started, and as time went on I was just filling this void, the greatness of his absence. Then it became important to me to understand this double life he led when I was a child, so I kept on having different reasons for making the film, but about five years into it everybody was trying to get me to stop, because they could see what it was doing to me.

Was it simply that you were too close to the material, and you had lost perspective on it?

It was an obsession. There was an idea that I could shelve it for a couple of years and come back to it, but I knew that because of the nature of the material I wasn't going to want to go here again. I thought, now that I'm in here doing it I'd better stick with it and get to the end so I can move on, and if I walk away from it and leave years of work uncompleted, I'll never want to go back. I just had to get it done, had to get it out of my system. I had to see it, understand it and move on. I could never do this again, but at the time there was nothing else I could do, this was my way of dealing with what happened. I really wasn't interested in a career move, which would have been to do Human Traffic 2, or another youth culture film. I wanted to do something new and different, but when my father died I just thought, OK I need to understand this.

It was very strange, because the film started with the death of my father and as I was finishing it my son was born, so I felt the cycle was complete, but since it's finished I've had another son, and now my great-uncle, who played the Ernie character (Karl Johnson), who was my guardian and brought me up, has died. It has been an insane father-son experience with this film, such a strange, strange time. It's crazy when I look back on it now. Ten years, you know?

I saw that video on YouTube of your diaries during those years, and it's hard to watch at times because you constantly seem to be pushed to the edge of despair by this whole project.

That's just the stuff we could show! [Laughs] It was a rollercoaster, man, it was into the darkness and out. At the time when the film is based, I think I subconsciously tried to forget it, but when I decided to make the film I started to track down people who were at the funeral or were connected to my father so I could interview them. But I realised that nobody knew about this time because it was our secret, so I had to remember it all again. To start, I would sit at my desk with my eyes closed and I'd try writing in my father's voice. I could see him and I'd kind of mumble in his tones, and the first time I did it I looked down, and it was his handwriting exactly. The whole journey was just crazy, and I'm relieved it's out. It's a total catharsis.

At what point did you really start to crack the storytelling problems you were having and get the production together?

There were lots of moments when I thought, "That's it", but on reflection it would keep changing. In the end, I was lucky to find Sally (Producer Sally Hibbin), and I think if I hadn't found Sally I'd still be rewriting it. She got it made. She only makes films that she really cares about, and she could relate to it in some way so it was important for her to get it made. Sally has a great reputation for getting unusual scripts made, but it still took her four years to do it.

How did you approach Robert Carlyle to play the lead role?

We sent him the script and he agreed to meet me the next day. I went up to Scotland to meet him and, there was this immediate connection. Bobby totally got it and related to it, and although his upbringing and my upbringing were completely different, there were themes within the father-son relationship that hit home. When I came out of that meeting I was a bit shell-shocked, but Sally had made Riff-Raff with Bobby so she knew how to gauge his reaction, and when he left she said, "You didn't just imagine that, it really happened." Then it felt like the film was really going to happen, and then the hunt was on for the kid. We looked at kids all over Wales and London, and this boy came in who had never acted before (Arron Fuller). He just blew us all away in the audition, but we were wondering what he was going to be like with Robert Carlyle, so we brought him down and did some improvisations around the prison scene. When we got to the end of it, Bobby just looked at him straight in the eyes and said "Fucking genius" [laughs], and the pressure just released, because we knew they were going to click and it was going to work. Bobby really took Arron under his wing, and Arron studied Bobby, he studied all of the actors, and he learned how to save his performances for the right times. That's something an actor learns over years, but Arron was doing it on week 2, and we were all really impressed. I'm very proud of that boy. We finished the film a year and a half ago now, but because it hasn't come out yet nobody knows about Arron Fuller.

That central relationship is so important as well, because if we don't believe in that then the film doesn't work.

Exactly, the film was always going to live and die with the performances. That's why I didn't move the camera, I thought if I had to move the camera to enhance the performances then the film hasn't worked. I was just careful about getting the casting right and concentrated on getting the performances from them.

But was it a strange experience directing Robert Carlyle to play your father?

It was very weird, because Bobby's a chameleon, he can do anything. You can talk to him and then he'll take all of that information, and he'll come back and surprise you. In some of those scenes he looked like my father, he sounded like my father, and he was doing things that I felt were coming directly from my memory. When I was watching Bobby doing scenes like the kettle scene or the darker scenes, it was really trippy because it felt like I was watching my nightmares.

Now that you've got this one out of the way, so you know what you're doing next?

I'm writing something at the moment, writing number three.

Is that another personal story?

It hasn't started off that way. I'll probably find some personal way through it by the end, but right now I'm just making it up and I've got to say I'm enjoying the writing process again. I didn't enjoy the writing process of I Know You Know at all, it was like a bad drug. Now I'm just writing a film that I want to see.