Interview with Uk film director Si Wall-Part Two

Here’s the second part of the interview I did with Si Wall, here he talks about Drinking Chocolate, his film about two homeless people the middle-aged Johnny and teenage runaway Lola and the unlikely friendship they form. He also talks about developing the Caitlin McCarthy scripted Resistance, a period drama about Czech resistance fighter Vera Laska, his love of the films of Suzanne Bier and the state of the British film industry.

You’re currently developing Resistance, how’s that coming along?

It’s my passion project really, I know you should be equally passionate about everything. But I mean I’ve written my Oscar acceptance speech [laughs]. But at the time that I got it I was getting about 3 or 4 scripts a week and some were quite good but not for me, some were going to be heavily reliant n some special effects and that’s not what I’m about. And this actually sat in my inbox for quite a while it was called ‘Vera’ at the time and it just didn’t inspire me to read it, it’s  a little old ladies’ name you know. And after a while I opened it and printed it out and read it and I physically, I know everyone says it, but I physically couldn’t put it down and right at the end it just made me cry and then I put it down had a cup of coffee and read it again straight away. I was really inspired by the script but then you realise that it’s fact based, it’s not just a piece of drama. What I’m reading about is actually the early part of someone’s life  and it’d be really easy to say it’s a World War II drama which it is. But it’s actually a story about this woman’s [Vera Laska] courage and her refusal to die, she refused to be a statistic, she refused to be just another number in Auschwitz, and at that age 15-21. She  survived World War II through her strength of character it’s not through circumstance because a high percentage of people who went to Auschwitz didn’t come out. She just refused to accept that. It goes back to her character and she sums that up because in the rest of her life she’s dedicated to teaching others, to writing books and to fighting for human rights. She was a strong human being and my only regret is that I’ll never get to meet her because she died in 2005 and I just want this story we’re going to do to do her justice, because it’s this woman’s life.

Czech resistance fighter Vera Laska, the subject of Resistance.

How did you get Caitlin McCarthy’s script?

I got a script in my inbox called Free Skate and I liked it but it wasn’t for me and out of politeness I asked for another script, because she’s written some of the best stuff I’ve read in the last 18 months and everything she’s written wins awards it’s that simple. That’s when I got Vera as it was then called. I’ve got so much respect for the woman because I know how hard it is and it’s ever since reading Caitlin’s work that I don’t call myself a writer now because Caitlin is a great script writer and I write stuff now and again, that’s the difference. As a screenwriter she’s destined for great things so I’m really lucky to be associated with her on Resistance.

What do you think are the challenges of directing a period piece?

I have to go back to Suzanne Biers, in Denmark they have the Dogme school of thinking where they do away with lighting, make-up and wardrobe and it’s all very stripped down and as real as you can get. And her key word is accuracy and I think to do a period piece you have to put your mind into 1939 Czechoslovakia and male it accurate that’s the only way it works. Because for me we could make the most beautiful film in the world and if I hear someone coming out of the theatre and saying ‘oh what a great film, but the buttons on the uniform are wrong’ that would just cripple me, it really would. Because it’s a detail that could’ve been accurate.

It reminds me of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s perfectionism with getting everything looking absolutely right.

The guy that actually did the music for the pilot of Mad Men has approached us to do the score for Resistance and again because his understanding of doing a period thing you trust him a little bit more to understand what’s involved.

How did you first get the idea for your first feature Drinking Chocolate, what was the inspiration for it?

I actually know someone who was asked to go some streets and do a little research so he did. And I met him  a couple of weeks later and we were just having a drink  and he got really emotional about his two weeks on the streets and he had tears in his eyes, which is quite moving. It was also more moving because he’d been a career soldier being shot at for a living and he lived that life where he was not easily shocked, he doesn’t get very emotional and he has the ability like a lot of military people to distance himself from what’s going on. And when he was getting really emotional and really upset, the thing that actually got to him was that he was faceless, he became anonymous almost within a day of being on the streets. So I thought it would be a good thing to write and make into another short and it was gonna be maybe 15-20 minutes and it just kinda carried on, it never really finished. And it went from being about a guy to being about a young girl. It evolved into what it is now, it’s very different from how it started. Because it was going to be about this 45-year old guy and it ended up being about a young girl and an older guy. And we haven’t done stereotypes there’s no drugs, they’re not drunk, they don’t beg, they don’t steal. But it just makes you aware, I hope it makes people aware, of the challenges that are faced on the streets. It’s not getting off drugs or stopping drinking, it’s actually getting off the streets, and it’s hard I just think it’s  a horrible place to live.

Carrying on from that, it seemed important to you to not just portray stereotypes but to show why they are there in the first place and why it’s hard to get out of that situation.

I hope that by giving Johnny and Lola (the two main characters in the film)  they’re own personalities- they have their own kinda messed up relationship. But by making the faceless homeless people that we all see in central London all the time by actually make them coming alive, maybe somewhere down the line we’ll see a homeless person and think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Some of the time people on the streets it is self-inflicted and we all kinda get a bit distant to that, but not all the time. And what I wanted to do is just maybe by having these two homeless people not on drugs, not drugs, not involved prostitution, actually trying to create a better life which Johnny and Lola do they help each-other. But by showing them in that light we’ll have a little bit more empathy for the people who are caught in that trap.

Johnny is a quite an enigmatic character, you never learn much about his former life apart from hints was this deliberate?

Yeah it was actually because I think if you get too caught up in what’s happened and why they’re there and the history-and we have hinted at it without elaborating on it…just because if it isn’t self-inflicted I don’t really know that that’s important. A lot of people have lost their homes, lost their families and  choose to be isolated, and Johnny  is quite a cold, lonely man by choice. And we show how as much as he helps Lola, Lola gets under his skin a little bit and gets to him in a way that people haven’t got to him in quite some time and that’s why there relationship is a bit dysfunctional, but it works I hope.

Did the relationship between Johnny and Lola evolve as you were writing it?

Yeah it did, it’s kinda hard to write a 17 year-old girl having a relationship with a guy that’s nearly 50 because what do they have in common. But what they actually have in common is that they’re both homeless and she needs him in the beginning a lot more than he needs her, he’s just helping her get clean and have some food. But gradually he gets to used to her being around and having a bit of life in his life. And I think-not in the traditional sense-but they end up being co-dependent in a way. They do rely on each-other and it becomes their normal life even though there normal life isn’t normal, it becomes normal to them. And maybe in the outside world we’d see it as  a bit dysfunctional and that was always the way it was going to go.  The other thing I think it’s really easy to insult an audience by giving them everything, and I think if you just give them a question and let the audience decide. Which we try to do with Johnny we never show his intentions are good or if he’s grooming her for something, if he’s replacing her for his lost daughter, if he’s using her, we never show that.

It seems to me that Lola projects her previously dysfunctional relationships onto to Johnny.

I’m glad that you noticed that because we spoke to victims of abuse before we got that down on the page.  And with those who haven’t experienced it [sex] as love and affection, sex becomes almost like a punishment or something that’s been put upon them. The teenagers we spoke to kinda thought it was normal, if someone buys you a coffee that would be the payback kinda thing, because they’ve been abused, and we had to show that in the way Lola is over-the-top affectionate so hopefully the audience get that.

Why do you think there aren’t so many films out there about homeless people, do you think people find the subject too bleak?

It’s not a very nice subject in all fairness. I really don’t know. I just think it’s a really easy subject to ignore, you can be the most charitable giving person there is, it’s really easy to have a phone and be talking to a friend and step over the homeless guy on the way to the tube, or the guy selling The Big Issue and it’s pouring down with rain and we just wanna get out of the rain. And we’ve all done it, we’ve all been too busy to actually stop and say ‘can I buy you a cup of coffee?’ and I think because of that-I can think of another film that explores two homeless people-and I think because of that hopefully we’ll attract an audience and they’ll enjoy the film. Even though it’s set in homeless London I think we actually see two people who have a friendship and all the things that go with it. So it’s not just a dark bleak film about being homeless it’s actually a film about two people and their lives.

That’s what I noticed, it’s not unremittingly bleak there are moments and aspects that are uplifting such as Lola’s love of dance and the kindness showed to Johnny and Lola by a few people.

There are kind people out there that will stop and say hello and say hello to the guy on the street or the guy selling The Big Issue. We all try and have that intention to be as good as we can. But if we had made a completely bleak film I don’t think I would’ve watched and I don’t care  whether your rich, or homeless or a student  I think we all aspire to be something. I mean I aspire to win an Oscar or a Bafta, we all do it. The fact that your homeless doesn’t stop you dreaming in fact it probably makes your dreams more realistic and achievable and all she ever dreamt about was being a dancer. Homeless people still have dreams, hopes and ambitions  and we have to address that.   

Moving on to talking about film more generally, what do you think the future holds for British independent filmmakers. Do you think it’s getting tougher or do you think there’s still a lot of people out there with the determination and talent to make it.

I think yes, it’s definitely getting tougher probably 5 years ago it was easier to go out and find some money. Yes the future’s bleak I think there is always going to be more filmmakers with good ideas than there is money that’s the bottom line. However the best advice I was given  is to stop moaning about it and just go make a film. Digital cinematography has made filmmaking relatively cheap  and you know what, if you can’t afford the film you’ve written it, change it to something you can afford. There are films out there made for a few hundred pounds, make your first film. Get friends involved, beg, borrow, not steal I’m not advocating you steal anything! But you do what you can do and that’s all part of the creative process. When we were in Marbella we had no money and we thought on our feet and we came up with something that was ok. Sometimes you can sit around moaning about the lack of money and opportunities, when if you flip it around it makes you more creative. So you can blame and the film industry and go and get what I call ‘a proper job’, and I don’t want a proper job so I have to be bit creative with the script and with the people I’ve got around me, that’s it.

If you want to find out more about Si Wall and his projects  go to these websites: http://www.resistancethemovie.com/

http://www.drinkingchocolate.net/

http://www.siwall.net/

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