Thursday, September 02, 2010

"You've got emotions running through your body and you're experiencing something you never expected" - An interview with Paul Andrew Williams

After his extraordinary debut London to Brighton, Paul Andrew Williams' career took a surprising twist with the 2008 comic horror The Cottage, and his third film finds the director in new territory once again. Cherry Tree Lane is a compelling, intimate thriller that unfolds in real time and takes place in a single location, drawing great tension from its story of an ordinary couple coming face-to-face with a trio of violent teens. The film is another interesting offering from the talented British writer/director, and I met Paul Andrew Williams earlier this week to talk about it.

Since London to Brighton, the choices you've made have taken you in a new direction with each film. Is that policy something that's important to you and something you want to maintain in your career?

If I still have a career! [laughs]. I don't know, I didn't really think about it like that. I do have different projects and while I have some projects that are similar to other ones I've got, I've got some that aren't similar to any of them. It's just the luck of the draw, really. I like stories and I like different characters, and I'm not a real stickler for genre, to be honest. I don't look at genre as being important to me. It's just all about the stories.

The violence in The Cottage was very gory and exaggerated for comic effect, but you've taken things to the other extreme in this film by keeping the violent acts off camera. Can you talk about that decision?

The truth is I'm not a massive fan of violence when it's real. Silly stuff like The Cottage – or Piranha, which I watched the other day – stuff that's nonsense is one thing, but I always think, "Do I need to see that? Do I need to see a woman be punched and raped?" I don't like to see that stuff. Also, if you were to do that in a film like Cherry Tree Lane, you're just over-egging it and it suddenly becomes more about "this incredibly violent movie." You can let people make up their own mind about what they see and what they don't see, and people have said to me that this film is so violent, but it really isn't. I mean, what's the point? It doesn't make the film any better because you see someone being raped or hit.

Instead of showing us the violence, you focus on the tension in the film. How much of a challenge was it to develop and sustain that mood?

It's about picking up on little moments and it's mainly about the silences. For one thing, you know the kid is coming home, so you know that this poor kid is going to walk through the door and get battered or whatever, and you've got that hanging over the film. Also, you've got a beautiful woman like Rachael sitting there tied up and you've got this kid who slowly has things taking form in his head, and it's about finding a way to build that up and put it in there without making it too obvious.

Does the fact that the film unfolds in real time add to that tension?

I guess so, because you're not allowed to have a breather, you can't get out of the house and focus on something else. The idea was to tell it in real time so we could see what could really happen in this hour and twenty minutes.

In terms of shooting, what was it like working in such a confined space?

Physically, it was a challenge, in terms of having a lot of people in the room and getting very hot. The DP would say things like, "You can't do this, we don't have enough room for the cameras," but for me the challenge was to make it as cinematic as possible without having all of the moves, and I really liked that. These are the confined spaces we find ourselves in and now we have to make the most out of our limitations. The DP was great and we both talked a lot about the best way to shoot it, the best way to light it, he was such an asset, but when he came in I was very clear about "This is how I want it to be."

The budget for this film is much smaller than The Cottage. Was it easy to transition back to that smaller scale of filmmaking?

Yeah, it was bigger than London to Brighton and smaller than The Cottage. For me, you turn up on the day and you use whatever tools you've got. If you're making a film for X amount you've got certain tools, so you plan a shoot around whatever's available. It you don't have all of those tools you simply have to plan it another way, and I quite like having boundaries there so we know where we can and can't go.

Were you getting offers for bigger productions after The Cottage and London to Brighton?

There were always things around but projects were stalling and it's just so hard to get a film made in this country. There were projects that had most of the finance in place but then the casting would be a problem, and by the time you have a cast you might not have that bit of financing anymore. So the idea was, "Let's just shoot something." I'd had the idea a while ago, and I started writing it in April and we shot it in July.

Was it important to you to emphasise the mundane and ordinary nature of this setting and these characters?

Well, it is mundane. The thing is, when it comes to things like mugging or crime or tragedy, the way we experience it is via media and usually via entertainment. When that's the case it's always made very adventurous, exiting and dramatic, when in all honesty life is not that exciting. The idea was to play it as real as possible. There's not going to be raving and masses of drugs and some supercop coming in to save them – they've got 45 minutes to wait and they're bored.

Did the young actors bring a lot to their roles, being closer to that world than you are?

You're right, they are closer to that world, and while I didn't change the script much after writing it, we improvised and workshopped through the auditions and then did some character work. The question was always "Is this genuine?" and while we'd go back and change a line here and there, it's predominately as it was written.

In each of your films you've pushed your actors to play very extreme emotions. Is that something that you find easy to do?

Actors love extreme emotions! [laughs] The thing is, in our lives we don't often experience extremes, so trying to find a way of interpreting that and getting something across is a challenge. My thing is that I always want to do it for real, and when you experience things like shock or grief you don't have the great, Oscar-winning score coming in. It's fucking shock, and it's hard to deal with. Perhaps that's difficult for an audience to watch because it's not very exciting or filmic, but it's much more effective and realistic for me if it feels real.

Perhaps inevitably, the film that Cherry Tree Lane brought to mind was Funny Games, but while Michael Haneke has a message he wants to ram home in that film, you have a sense of ambiguity around the moral and themes of your film. What's your view on that?

Well, I haven't seen Funny Games and I made a conscious choice to not watch any home invasion movies once we had set about doing this film. I didn't want a message, I didn't want a moral in there, and I didn't want to say, "I want you to take this from my film" or to feel like you've been educated. That's not this film. There are films like that, but for me this film is just as non-judgemental and as neutral as possible. When you make a film like this or London to Brighton, people assume that you've gone into a project thinking, "The audience will take this from it" but that's not what I'm trying to do. It's interesting to me that people think, "Who am I meant to be rooting for?" Some people tell me that they felt a bit of sympathy for the kids, and I think, well that's up to you. You should be big enough, old enough and clever enough to be given a load of information and take something from it. I hope an audience should be able to get what I've done, I guess they might not and you could say that's my fault.

I was interested in your decision to bring those other kids into the film at a late stage, because I thought that threatened to undermine the sense of tension that had been established.

Well, I take that on board, totally. I did read a review that mentioned that and I think it has taken some people out of the story or out of the moment, and I can accept that. Would I have done it differently? What I wanted to get across was the idea of this guy being on the floor and not meaning anything to them, and then there are a few moments when Corinne looks at him and just feels awful. There's also the idea of this innocent young kid coming into this situation, and what's he going to do? It was natural for me to have these people come round, but did I pull that off? It's subjective, isn't it.

The final image is very powerful. Was it always in your mind to end it that way?

Yes, I wanted people to wonder what he's going to do, not because I want a big debate but just because I wanted to ask, "What would you do?" People talk to me about scenes in the film and say, "I'd fucking kill them, I'd do this, I'd do that" and I think, you're saying this from the luxury of not having to deal with it. None of us can put ourselves in his shoes, and we have no real idea how we would react in a situation like that. It's a luxury to be able to say, "Yeah, I'd get up and kill him" because we really don't know. Even when you say basic things like, "If my girlfriend cheated on me I'd leave her right away," that's not always the case because you've got emotions running through your body and you're experiencing something you never expected.

You mentioned earlier how difficult it is to get films made, and the UK Film Council played a bit part in funding Cherry Tree Lane. As an independent filmmaker, how do you view the current filmmaking landscape in this country?

It's getting harder and harder to make films that aren't necessarily commercial. If you're trying to make something with a certain budget, and that's not necessarily a high budget, there are boxes that have to be ticked way before you start shooting. Who's going to star in it? Is it entertaining enough? How are we going to market it? All of those things are very important because it's a lot of money to risk. With a film like Cherry Tree Lane, the only way I would have been able to make that on a bigger budget would have been to have Daniel Craig in it, and then it would have been a different film.

In terms of accepting those compromises, would you consider taking on a more commercial project to help get a more personal film off the ground?

Yeah, I've obviously been thinking about that, but I've learned through The Cottage and this film that you can't think about the audience too much. You can't second-guess them, because you know some people are going to hate it and some people are going to like it, so all you can do is make what you believe is the best you can do. In this film, there are little moments and every now and then someone will say, "I really liked that moment, it was very effective" and you think, "Thank God, I'm not mad. Someone got it," [laughs]. That's the most rewarding reaction you can get.

This last question actually ties in to the first question about taking your career in fresh directions, because in the production notes it said you're currently working on a drama about a choir for the BBC, a period piece, action-adventure monster project, and a sci-fi noir project. That's a pretty eclectic slate.

Yeah, those three are all around and they're all in various stages with various people. Nothing's certain until it has been released as far as I'm concerned. I would say those projects are all much more commercial than anything else I've done, but hopefully they'll retain some respectability. I mean, I don't think you can say that just because something is commercial it doesn't have respectability, because I think you can do both.