I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Strange, but of all the films I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, ostensibly a showcase for American independent cinema, my favorites were directed by Brits who weren’t in the official competition. Both got their starts in small, regional English theaters performing bit parts and then quickly became directors winding up at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre in London. Antonia Bird, as Resident Director, and Danny Boyle, as Deputy Director, overlapped tenures for a short time before making the leap to great success directing television films. Bird’s Priest and Boyle’s Shallow Grave are their feature film debuts. Bird has just completed her second film, for Disney, Mad Love, a dark trip down America’s highways featuring Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell. And Boyle is about to begin Train Spottingwith his Shallow Grave collaborators, writer/physician John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald.
Three self-involved and somewhat obnoxious roommates living in a large and spectacular Glasgow flat seek an equally cool, solvent, and sexually compelling fourth to share in their insular little world. They find Hugo (played by Keith Allen, a household name in Britain) who is all that—and more. He is, after one night in the flat, stone-cold dead—and he’s left a gift; a suitcase stuffed with piles of money under his stinking bed. Kerry Fox, of Jane Campion’s An Angel At My Table, plays Juliet, a cool headed doctor; Christopher Eccleston of Let Him Have It is the arrogant yet mild-mannered accountant David; and the young, all too cheeky journalist Alex, is played by Ewan McGregor. With mesmerizing camera work and references to Hitchcock and the Coen brothers, as well as American film noir Shallow Grave is a tale of friendship and trust turned sour by the acquisition of a huge hunk of cash and the doing of a dastardly deed. It is, I should add, loads and loads of sinister fun.
Susan Shacter Did you work with Antonia Bird?
Danny Boyle Very briefly. She was a director and I was just starting out as an assistant director, a lowly person …
SS She got a head start; she started directing at 18. How did you get started in theater?
DB I did some acting in college, but I always found myself organizing things rather than acting. Then I did a bit of directing. That was it. The power! I didn’t like being out of control, which happens in acting. So I wrote away to this radical touring company in Britain called the Joint Stock Theater Group.
SS Radical in what way?
DB They were quite political. They did a wonderful play called Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill. Sexual politics, material like that. They’d workshop for weeks exploring ideas. I thought the play was just the best so I wrote them. I got a job as an assistant stage manager. And then Max Stafford-Clark, who did Cloud Nine, took over The Royal Court Theatre. I trained under him and worked my way up to become a director there.
SS How does one train to be a director?
DB You basically assist other directors and watch them work. As you get better at it, you direct a scene yourself or you go over lines with individual actors. When you’re in your early 20s, you need a base, something to come away from or to stay with. This kind of training gives you that taste, that discipline.
SS Were you influenced by his taste?
DB Very much so. Everybody used to copy him, including myself—his language, his style. I was looking for an imprint, something to help define myself.
SS When did you rebel against the influence of Max Stafford-Clark?
DB After about five years, I remember having this conversation with him in a bar. I said. “I want to run this theater now—are you going to leave?” and Max said, “No, you’re going to leave aren’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I am.” So I did. Anyway, I had always wanted to make films but I could never get into that in Britain. It was very much an elitist, rich man’s club. It’s less so now but it doesn’t have the Clerks tradition you have here where you just get a camera and make your own film with your mates.
SS So, what about film school?
DB Film school? I come from a Northern England working-class background; there was never any chance of getting involved in that. I came up through the theater and then I went to Belfast. BBC has a small broadcasting station there where they make films, and I got a job as a producer. Nobody else wanted it because it was a very dangerous time in Ireland, a lot of shootings and killings. This was the mid-‘80s. When I got there I said, “I’m going to direct the films as well. This is going to save you a whole bucket of money. You only have to pay one salary, and I’ll do all the work.” And I did. Anyway, the thing about film is that all you need is enthusiasm and a good cameraman who will teach you basics.
SS I wanted to ask about the visual aspects of the film—the images, their compositions, the camera angles.
DB The way I work is that I get a huge book, and I stick images in it, photographs from all sorts of places. Then I show it to them and talk them through it. People are much more accurate with pictures. And then I ask them to contribute pictures to it and that’s where lots of the ideas come from.
SS What people?
DB The actors, the cinematographer, Brian Tufano, the producer, the writer. I get everybody on the set to look at the book so they know what the film is going to be about.
SS So everybody has the same vision in their head.
DB Right. So they’re thinking visually. For instance, the script is obsessed with the parts of our bodies. I wanted to make people feel a bit dislocated, so we isolated heads and hands.
SS Were those all your ideas?
DB It’s very much a collaborative film. The producer, the writer and myself wanted it to be the work of three filmmakers. We encouraged the actors to feel like collaborators as well.
SS Antonia also worked very closely with the actors in her film. Is that an English tradition or is that a theatrical tradition?
DB If you work with actors in a theater, two things happen. First, you spend four weeks with the actors and nobody else. You establish a vocabulary where you can talk to each other. So if the actors know you’ve done theater, they look at you differently than they would look at a person who’s never done theater. They feel on some level you’re as mad as they are, and you’ll understand their paranoia and insecurity. That common vocabulary helps because you have to do film very quickly. You only get about a week before shooting starts.
SS Many film directors are so dictatorial and power-crazy that they don’t want to hear anything the actor has to say. But I think we’re all control freaks. Photographers, directors …
DB Oh, absolutely. That’s what it’s about. And we steal all the time. One of the great things about Quentin Tarantino is that he admits this. I steal ideas from everywhere, anything. There aren’t any original artists out there anymore.
SS Tell me about the origin of the script and how you worked with the writer.
DB John, the writer, is a doctor, but he was at that stage where you can’t specialize straight away; you have to do general work. He was doing that at the casualty department in Edinburgh and was living in a flat. And he wasn’t getting on with his flat mates.
SS Is the screenplay autobiographical?
DB To a degree it is, but I certainly hope there are no dead bodies involved. If there were, I don’t think he would have revealed them for publicity purposes. (laughter)
SS It’s the perfect alibi: “I never would have written this script about something that I actually did.”
DB That’s right. John wrote it and sent it to Andrew, who was a runner and location manager. He really liked the script and sent it to David Aukin who runs Channel 4 Films. He’s the financial mastermind behind The Crying Game and Four Weddings and a Funeral. He said, “Get yourself a director and we’ll talk about it.” They sent the script to 20 directors, and everybody had to go in and pitch their ideas. When I read it, I thought it was so cinematic, a quality you don’t normally see in British scripts. I could see the film. I went in and told them what I’d seen, and it was exactly what they wanted. I particularly said that these characters should be rich. Many directors had gone in and said they should be poor.
DB Because if they were poor, then you’d have an excuse for their obnoxious behavior.
SS It would make them likeable in some way.
DB And I said, “No, no, the whole point is that these people don’t need that money. They’ve got good jobs, nice, secure professions. They have this beautiful flat. But they are bored with each other and want a new ingredient, a new roommate.” And we cast Keith Allen in that role. Everybody expects him to play quite a big role in this picture because he is …
SS A star. And then you kill him off right away.
DB Exactly. You can imagine the kind of impact it would have had if we had cast someone like Daniel Day-Lewis (which we tried to do). Everyone would have said, “I know how this film is going now. She’s gonna fuck him, he’s gonna do them over … ” and then you burst in the door of his room and he’s dead. I love when you can twist around a different corner that other people can’t figure out.
SS The film was definitely not predictable. So how did you work with the writer?
DB We all kept honing down the script. We were determined that it would be a short film, very lean, and should hurtle towards its objective. We locked it and shot it very precisely. We didn’t get lost. Because you can …
SS Storyboard it.
DB No. I don’t storyboard at all. You can’t admit this because the financiers would never give you the money: You prepare the film so that people know what you’re doing, but you have this secret agenda which is waiting for the adrenaline of the day. It especially works in a film like this because you’ve got the set for 20 days, and you can feel the final moment coming. You hold it back and wait for the panic of that morning. I always go in a couple hours early and just walk around the set and try to figure out how we can express a certain scene better—sometimes you get a great idea, so you do it. Sometimes you don’t, so you go back to what you planned to do anyway.
SS Do you watch the shot on a monitor?
DB No, no.
SS Recently. I’ve been on a couple of big Hollywood sets visiting friends and I’ve noticed the director doesn’t look at the actors. He’s with his back to them, looking at a monitor.
DB I’m a big believer in the importance of the director watching the actors. You try to make them your collaborators. And then you get all the credit. It’s absolutely brilliant. (laughter) The guy who taught me that was Max Stafford-Clark; he said, “Listen to actors because you’ll get all your best ideas off them. And then you nick them.”
SS The roommates’ decision to keep the money after Hugo’s death—is that a device to explore the psychology of greed? Were you more interested in the psychology of friendship than the plot?
DB We were principally interested in the plot. If it’s a good story, people take what they want out of it because it is interactive. But the psychological aspects are protein that you’re feeding off the whole time—the details of the characters’ relationship, the effect that this money has on them. What we didn’t want to do was stop to reflect on the psychology of the film. It’s a feel-good movie because it encourages you to laugh about cruelty.
SS Why did you have Alex, the journalist, triumph out of all of them?
DB Oh, Alex is the only one that has any real loyalty. He would save Juliet. He doesn’t entirely trust her, but he would share the money with her.
SS Do you think Alex was in love with Juliet?
SS Do you think they were both in love with her?
DB Absolutely. And David has the male thing—as soon as you express power, you feel comfortable, and you find people start to respect you. You start to feel sexually … centered. (laughter) When he starts to hurt people, it makes him feel … better.
SS Was Juliet the most amoral of the bunch?
DB She’s the coldest. She was always the outsider. I think women control men, anyway. The crucial things in life, like having children, women decide on their own because they have to. We’re way behind them. I don’t blame them. I just think that’s true.
SS I don’t—but maybe I’ve just been hanging out with too many controlling men. (laughter)
Tell me about the sexual dynamic of these three characters.
DB Alex, the journalist, had an affair with Juliet so long ago, they’ve almost forgotten about it. But he still longs for her and she uses this; she manipulates him. He’s quite at ease with his sexuality—he’s almost bisexual. David is also desperately in love with her but cannot express it. You know, they always say that crime is left-handed.
SS I don’t know that expression.
DB Crime is slightly clumsy—you leave a mark, not only for the police, but also on yourself. There’s some awkwardness about you that doesn’t fit with your nature. And there’s a price to pay for murder. David can’t cope with what he’s done. He dreams of it and becomes obsessed with sawing off those peoples’ hands. And that accompanies mistrust—which is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—the money—and who’s gonna get it.
SS Tell me about the rehearsal process.
DB What normally happens in rehearsal is you waste a lot of time. We knew the film would stand on the relationship between the three actors. We thought, how could we bind them together? So we decided to move into a flat in Glasgow. The three actors and I lived there for 10 days. We rehearsed in the living room during the day, and in the evenings we would cook together and watch videos.
SS What did you watch?
DB We watched The Grifters, The Day I Believe, Goodfellas, the films we thought were in some way relevant to this film.
SS What was relevant about Goodfellas?
DB That kind of storytelling that hurtles along with the film.
SS Did you fight at all?
DB No. We weren’t there long enough. Ewan made a few prank phone calls.
SS People that he knew or strangers?
DB People that he kind of knew. Another time, we went to this party and he said, “I am just going to be obnoxious, absolutely obnoxious.” And he was. He just did these things as acting exercises. It is like being a kid—making a film. You’re just so irresponsible.
SS What about the design of the set? I felt the flat actually became a character in the movie.
DB That was always the idea, that it would be the fourth character, a haven where they could ignore the phone and the abuse of the outside world they despised. And anybody who came into the flat got humiliated or murdered, eventually. So we wanted to celebrate the flat. We made the colors rich and sexy and seductive. It should make you feel like nowhere else was worth going, really.
SS But do you think that these guys ever had girlfriends, or that she ever had dates?
DB No, because it was such a secure place. They become more interdependent, binding together more and more tightly.
SS Why was Shallow Grave set in Scotland?
DB The writer is Scottish and was studying at Edinburgh. Plus, Edinburgh is quite an interesting city for a film of this nature. It’s a secure, safe, middle-class city. There’s a great tradition of solid businesses like medicinal research, insurance, banking. Very professional, bourgeois. Also, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, grave snatchers …
SS It has a great Gothic tradition.
DB All this solid, lovely architecture but beneath it, it’s a cesspit—a repressed cesspit of desire.
SS And what leaps do you have to make from directing theater to directing television and film?
DB Theater is closer to film. Television is very different. You never get any feedback from television. You never feel …
SS Any response.
DB It’s very depressing. You work so hard to create something unique and it just goes out on all these isolated screens and nobody cherishes it. That’s what’s wonderful about cinema. People experience and react to film collectively.
SS Who are your heroes in terms of directors?
DB Billy Wilder, Hitchcock, Nick Roeg. I love virtually every film that I see on some level. It’s really bizarre.
SS What are your other creative influences?
DB Photography as well. Hopper was a big influence on this film. I had many of his pictures in our book.
SS Edward Hopper?
AB Edward Hopper, yeah. Cartier Bresson photographs. There’s a wonderful, slightly out of focus, photograph of Kim Novak when she was a star in the ’50s. She has taken her jacket off in a train dining car, and a line of middle-aged business men is staring at her. It is pure cinema, that longing for something desirable, forever outside of reach. I gave that photograph to Kerry for her character Juliet.
Click here to read Susan Shacter’s interview with Antonia Bird from this issue.
Susan Schacter photographs sort of well-known people for somewhat well-known publications.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee