ANSEL FARAJ TALKS ABOUT 'DOCTOR MABUSE'

Ansel Faraj is a fresh new talent on the rise, currently working in the independent sector. Still only 21 years old, Faraj has already amassed a considerable body of work, and he maintains a prolific work rate. With an interest in many genres, a strong DIY ethic and his skills constantly being honed, Faraj is a filmmaker to watch. I spoke to him about his latest film (which premieres in L.A. in May 2013), a modern update of DOCTOR MABUSE (2013), and the road it took to get to his biggest-budgeted and most ambitious offering yet.

Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in L.A., in the middle of Hollywood, so I don't think there was ever any escape from me from going into the movies! None of my family are involved in the industry though.

Did you go to film school?
I went to some film schools, but mostly film college. When I was six years old I knew I wanted to make movies. I started teaching myself back then. I went to Santa Monica College for a semester and then went to the Art Institute for two years.

How did you teach yourself?
Aside from constantly watching movies, there were other things I did. I would get the scripts to movies and learn how to write my own scripts by following the scripts along as I watched the movies. I'd get the film industry books and figure out why certain techniques were being used in particular films. I watched a lot of 'making of' documentaries and tried to recreate some of the filmmakers' techniques in my own way. I learned from experimenting and reading a lot of 'How To' books.

How did you finance your short films and feature films?
My family has always been very supportive of my movie making and have always helped me financially. My latest film DOCTOR MABUSE is the first film where I've gotten a high-ish budget and outside financing. It's also my first big film with professional actors.

What films and filmmakers influenced you growing up?
I used to watch the classic Universal Monsters horror movies, the Hammer Horror movies and the Roger Corman/ AIP thrillers. I also used to enjoy watching John Huston films like THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948). A wide variety really. I would watch whatever classics were available. I was watching these films while my classmates were following the latest 'Pokemon' or something. They would never have any idea what I was talking about!

What were some of the first short films you directed?
I've done so many that it's difficult to remember, but one of the first things that I did was a stop-motion sequel to THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), which I'm really proud of. It continued the story of what happened to The Bride after she escaped. I used little action figures and filmed it on VHS. I would convince my school friends to come back to my house and be in my movies or help out. I also convinced my high school teachers to let me do book reports that were little short movies. I just filmed anything and everything I could think of. I think I was about seven when I did my first little short film.


When did you graduate to making longer films?

I started making longer feature films when I was about fourteen or fifteen. It was a challenge to see if I could write something that had a longer narrative and be able to pull it off. I did a weird sci-fi movie based on H.P. Lovecraft's stories. It was a really strange non linear experiment. I wanted to try to capture Lovecraft’s atmospheric writing in a cinematic way. It’s called HUNTERS OF THE DARK (2011). I like the movie for what it is, an experiment in atmosphere, but I don’t think a lot of other people like it. They don’t seem to get it I think. They expect it to be scary or violent or have great million dollar CGI special effects, when it doesn’t. It has some very odd imagery, and some nice writing. It’s much more art house, and maybe that’s the problem. But I like it none the less.

Then I got very much into 'Batman' comic books and I did a trilogy about a hardboiled detective fighting comic book style villains in a realistic setting. It’s collectively known as ‘the Adam Sera Trilogy’, Adam Sera being the name of the detective. The first one is called OLD FRIENDS (2010), and its about his hunt for a serial killer. It’s okay; it was done with absolutely no money, and just filmed randomly. I wanted to try to do an action movie, and so I filmed random action scenes, then went back in and wrote the script around these action scenes. It probably wasn’t the best way to handle things, but I was just dying to film something. The second film is way better; it was scripted from beginning to end, as a psychological thriller. Its called THE BURNING WITHIN (2012), and I sort of feel it’s the film that really let me come into my own as a young independent filmmaker. I still had no money, but at least this time I had a script. And the acting is better in it too. It’s more thought out from all aspects. The final film is THE HAUNTED MEN (2013), which wraps up the story and is more film noir. It’s about trying to tie up loose ends before death comes, whether its relationships or unsolved cases. It too is a vast improvement over the first two films. It takes its time, it’s more mature. All of these films are on YouTube to watch.

I was experimenting with different styles of filmmaking and with different genres like comedy, fantasy and others. I was finding out what my strengths were as a filmmaker and where my true interests lay.

How did you make the transition to using professional actors?
I mostly used my friends in my movies and then a family friend met an old character actor named Linden Chiles, who had appeared in Hitchcock's MARNIE (1964). Two years ago she introduced me to him. I was doing this Gothic horror anthology and I asked him if he would play Lord Henry in 'Picture of Dorian Gray'. He hadn't acted in a while so he said 'Why not?" Working with a professional actor for the first time, I knew I had to up my game and work even harder. I started trying to enter my films into as many festivals as I could to try and get my name and my work out there. I was so happy when I won an award for Honorable Mention for Best Comedic Writing at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. It was for my film BROTHER DROP DEAD (2012).  I started getting more professional people and my technique improved.

Why did you decide to make a film featuring DOCTOR MABUSE?
I saw the black-and-white 1922 original (DR. MABUSE - THE GAMBLER) a long time ago and I liked the idea of this ultimate super-villain. He has the power of hypnosis, he's a master of disguise and since he's so smarter than everybody else, he's able to constantly evade his pursuers. I thought there would be a way to do this for a modern audience. I've had the story in my head since I was sixteen and I've always thought that if I ever had the money to do it, I'd love to make it as a film. I'm interested in what makes the character the ultimate super-villain and what makes him tick. It was also an opportunity to have fun blending a variety of stylistic influences - German Expressionism, film noir and '60s psychedelia.

How would you describe the film?
It's an apocalyptic, psychological, film noir thriller with the influence of Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY (1955). There's a lot of paranoia in the film, and it constantly shifts mood and tone. Visually, the lighting scheme is influenced by Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977). At times it's very stark contrast film noir and at other times it's like Technicolor surrealism.

When did you start filming the movie?
We started pre-production in April 2012 and then filmed from June 5 to July 10. We shot using blue screen to save money and so we could film in a single location and would be able to control our environment. There are only seven crew members on the film. We also had a three week shoot where I went out and shot specific buildings in L.A. that I wanted to use in Mabuse's world. I'd then superimpose the actors onto the footage.

How did you manage to cast three actors from the 'Dark Shadows' TV show?
I've always loved the TV show. It's such a great, weird show. There was one character that I particularly loved called Reverend Trask. He used to scare me to death. He was played in the show by Jerry Lacy. When I was writing the DOCTOR MABUSE script I thought it would be great to get Jerry Lacy to play Doctor Mabuse. I thought there would be no way though that an actor like that would ever read a script written by a seventeen year old. Fast forward to March 2012 and I got the option to make the movie. I thought I would just ask him since all he could say was no. I sent him an email but I didn't hear anything. I thought I'd probably have to cast a non-professional actor in the part. There were two other roles (Madame Von Harbau and Madame Carrozza) I thought would be perfect for Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker, both of whom had also appeared on 'Dark Shadows'. To my surprise Kathryn said yes, and she had the same idea to bring friend Lara Parker onboard, whom I could not find contact info for. Two days before casting sessions were to begin, Jerry Lacy emailed me as casting sessions were underway and said "I'm sorry if I've caused you undue duress. I just got your email about DOCTOR MABUSE. I would be interested in taking a look at the script if the part is still available." He told me later that because i was such a young filmmaker he was expecting a 10 page script that he could film in a day and not a 100 page script! We talked on the phone and he liked the script. I somehow convinced him to act in the movie, and it was such a joy to work with all three actors.


What was it like working with actors you really admired?

Having the read-through at my dining table was nerve-wracking and intimidating.
It was so surreal growing up watching 'Dark Shadows' and having three of its cast sat at my dining table doing the read-through and speaking lines that I wrote. But once work starts you have to get over being a fan. You're the director, and everyone is there to work. I did deliberately wait until near the end of the shoot to ask Jerry a question about working with Woody Allen on PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM (1972) whilst I was fixing a light!

How was the experience of making the film?
It was a really interesting shoot because I was working with professional actors. i could really go into the psychology of the characters with them and they could bring all the tricks that actors have. We had a smooth shoot, and there were no rough patches. I know the actors were bewildered by the blue screen because they had nothing to work with. It was a lot of hard work but fun and rewarding.

What things did you learn making the film?
I honed my skills at making a little money go a long way in terms of how expensive the movie looks. I learned how to develop characters better, how to talk with actors about how they saw their characters and then incorporate their ideas into the script. Dealing with blue screen was a huge learning curve. 70% of the film was filmed using the process. I've now got it down to a formula, and enjoyed the challenge.

At what point did you realize you had a strong film in your hands?
It wasn't really until I was going through the footage and starting to edit it, noticing some of the strange angles and lighting choices, that I realized we really did have a good movie. When you're working on a movie, whether it's funded by Warner Brothers or your family, once filming starts it's a constant uphill battle to ensure everything is working and you're getting what you need. You don't really have a moment to step back and reflect on how things are going.



Is the editing process something you enjoy?
Editing is where you make the movie but it is a pain in the neck. It's very stressful and frustrating but it's rewarding when you can see that scenes are working. I like to spend as much time editing as I can get, so I can fine tune the movie to what it needs to be. With DOCTOR MABUSE the ball started rolling quickly so the editing process was sped up. But I didn't let that interfere with getting the film right so that it would be a good, entertaining movie that didn't drag in parts. I've gotten better and better at doing that with each successive film.

Do you feel there are themes that recur throughout your work?
I never thought about that until recently when I went back and looked at my old films. I guess duality is a theme that keeps cropping up in my work.

Which filmmakers do you admire the most?
Christopher Nolan is brilliant. Peter Jackson is a big hero of mine. I relate to him because we both kind of started off in the same way. I also like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher. From the past I like Ken Russell, Fellini, Robert Altman, Orson Welles and Kubrick. There are so many others.

What future projects do you have in the pipeline?
Well, in June I start filming DOCTOR MABUSE II, which is going to be a lot of fun. Everything goes to hell for all of the characters, and that’s always a lot of fun to play with. I talked another 'Dark Shadows' actor to come on board, the awesome Christopher Pennock, and he’s playing one of the new villains - that’s all I shall say on the subject. And then in December, I have a very bizarre road movie-fantasy-superhero-mashup film coming out called THE RISING LIGHT, which also stars Nathan Wilson, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and Linden Chiles – all from DOCTOR MABUSE. I’m also going to be directing a really cool cyberpunk mystery/comedy next year that I wrote, which I’m really looking forward to. So I guess you could say I’m quite busy at the moment, but I would not have it any other way.


I spoke to Ansel by telephone on 27th November 2012. I would like to thank him for his time.

A message from Ansel - ''DOCTOR MABUSE will be playing at the Los Feliz Cinemas 3 in L.A. as a midnight screening on May 3, 4, 10 and 11. Additional screenings to follow in NY and at film festivals around the country.''

All photographs are copyrighted by Hollinsworth Productions.

The DOCTOR MABUSE website.

Various Ansel Faraj films can be viewed here.

The website for Ansel's production company, Hollinsworth Productions.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

AN INTERVIEW WITH WAYNE KRAMER (PART 3 OF 3)

Wayne Kramer is one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged over the last couple of decades. Favouring the crime genre, he's an uncompromising writer-director whose films are exciting, authentic, provocative and challenging. Kramer's first film THE COOLER (2003) drew acclaim and commercial success, and secured Alec Baldwin an Oscar nomination. RUNNING SCARED (2006) is now a huge cult film, and a once-in-a-lifetime blending of grindhouse crime movie thrills and Grimm's fairytale storytelling. CROSSING OVER (2009) is an ambitious drama focussed on the trials and tribulations of various immigrants in the sprawling city of L.A. Kramer's new film PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES (2013) is due to open soon. This is the final part of a three part interview. I talk to him about various topics close to his heart.  

You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.  

Do you always try to go in a different direction for each film?
I don't really look at it like that. Everything is based on its own merits. I'm not someone who has a problem being typecast as a director of crime stories or dark, intense films. I'm certainly not the guy Hollywood comes to when they need someone to make something like THE HANGOVER (2009). I've been offered bigger Hollywood films - franchise sequels to films like UNDERWORLD (2003). I just didn't think I could bring anything distinctive to films like that. The characters and the look of the worlds have already been created. I'm just not a gun-for-hire kind of guy. I have to feel very passionate about a project in order to take the journey because it's going to be hugely stressful upon my life. After I walked off BULLET TO THE HEAD (2013), a project that I was going to be well compensated for, I ended up doing PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES, my new film, for no money. I put my fee back into the production just so we could get some production value on the screen. It was kind of a palate cleanser. It's all for the love of making films. I have a hard time faking anything. If I did a film that I had no interest in making, where everything was a slog, it would turn out to be a bad movie. The excitement and the vitality of a director has to be felt through the entire process and communicated to the actors. I can never see myself cashing a paycheque and making a film I would never go see.

What can you tell us about PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES?
It's the first film I've directed and not written myself, and is unlike any film I've done. It's written by Adam Minarovich from TV's 'The Walking Dead'. I just loved the sensibility of the script and I felt like that could've been my voice. lt's very darkly humorous, very black, and is going to upset a lot of people. Many people are just not going to get it. It's very transgressive. It's closer in tone to some of the early Coen Brothers film like RAISING ARIZONA (1987) or THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). It's very quirky but it has some crime film elements to it as well. It has a sort of redneck, PULP FICTION (1994) structure to it. You'll get to see actors like Paul Walker, Elijah Wood, Vincent D'Onofrio, Matt Dillon and Brendan Fraser doing stuff you've never seen them do before. It was a very stressful production because there was never enough money. Anchor Bay is releasing the film later this year.

Do you think there's a section of the audience that would really like you to return to the edgy, romantic, character-driven drama like THE COOLER?
I think so, yeah, and I'm not against that. I have a project that I'm hoping to shoot next year. It's a futuristic love story called ECSTASIA. I think it will satisfy both fans of THE COOLER and RUNNING SCARED. The film is very romantic and heartfelt like THE COOLER, but every bit as intense as RUNNING SCARED.

How has Hollywood changed since you made THE COOLER?
For one thing, I don't think there is an independent theatrical model anymore. If I was making THE COOLER today it would probably be straight to DVD or Video On Demand. Nobody is willing to spend the marketing dollars for these small, artistic movies. I think the independents have been decimated. The only notable independent theatrical release of last year was BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Even ARBITRAGE with Richard Gere and Terence Malick's TO THE WONDER, although highly regarded, got a Video On Demand release at the same time as a small theatrical release. Just because a film is independently financed, it doesn't mean that it shouldn't be experienced on the big screen. I think all of my films, for example, benefit from being seen on a big screen. A lot of effort has been put into those sweeping techno-crane moves and Steadicam shots. I feel bad that most of the fans of RUNNING SCARED never got to see it in a theatre. Even on a 65" screen the effect is diminished. It's sad that the theatrical experience is really reserved now for just the comic book or franchise movies.

Has the rise of PG-13 rated films made it hard for you to get films made?
Yes, extremely hard. You always read fans complaining on message boards about films being edited down to a PG-13, but when quality R-rated films are made, audiences don't turn up for them, which mystifies me. Recently there were a couple of terrific R-rated pictures that did little box-office. It makes it harder for filmmakers to make the case for an R rating. I remember when all the big action films were R- rated - LETHAL WEAPON (1987), DIE HARD (1988), POINT BREAK (1991), TERMINATOR 2 (1991), SPEED (1994), THE MATRIX films (1999 - 2003) . It wouldn't happen now. My favourite Walter Hill film, 48 HRS (1982), wouldn't get made today as an R-rated film. You have to wait for the DVD now to see films as the director intended - the 'director's cut' or the 'unrated cut'.

How do you feel about the proliferation of alternate cuts of movies?
I will support a director bringing out his own cut 99% of the time, except when he's butchering his own film, which is a rare case. Tony Scott is a director I love. MAN ON FIRE (2004) is easily one of my favourite films. But he released a director's cut of REVENGE (1990), and he cut the heart out of it, literally gutted his own film. Walter Hill did a similar thing when he added an opening voice-over and comic book panels to THE WARRIORS (1979). I don't think directors should be allowed near their material again if the original cut has entered the popular consciousness and been embraced. I'm not against tweaking bad special effects, but for the most part these films are products of their time, time capsules. You end up muddying the marketplace by releasing so many versions of a movie. Oliver Stone did three or more cuts of ALEXANDER (2004). I mean who the hell knows which version to watch of BLADE RUNNER (1982)? I love the original version and I miss the noir-ish narration in the other versions, although I do prefer Ridley Scott's ending.

Which films have you been enjoying recently?
I watch a lot of international films. Right now South Korea is kicking the rest of the world's ass with almost every film - OLDBOY (2003), THE CHASER (2008), MOTHER (2009), A BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005), THE YELLOW SEA (2010).

I love the crime films from the UK and have been discovering or rewatching stuff recently. Guy Ritchie kind of hijacked the genre a bit, and made it more of a comedic thing, but I've always been knocked out by the style of LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) and SNATCH (2000). The likes of GET CARTER (1971), THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979), MONA LISA (1986) and SEXY BEAST (2000), are some of the best crime films out of any country. I don't think it gets any better than Michael Caine's performance in GET CARTER, or that film's Roy Budd score. I have so much love and respect for the film, and I revisit it all the time. I love to bookend it with Caine in HARRY BROWN (2009), which not many people saw, but I thought was terrific. It's like a more resonant DEATH WISH (1974). I also loved VILLAIN (1971) and THE SQUEEZE (1977), and I recently saw a film called PAYROLL (1961) that was really good. Very hard-hitting movies. I like Danny Boyle too. He always does interesting stuff.

The French are making great movies too. I saw Jacques Audiard's RUST AND BONE (2012) twice in the theatre. Marion Cotillard, (2012) gave one of the most beautiful, subtle, brave performances I have ever seen. She and Michael Fassbender in SHAME (2012), which I also loved, were robbed of Oscar nominations. European actresses like Marion and Monica Bellucci are so bold. RUST AND BONE is actually the kind of movie I want to be making, with even more of a crime angle to it. That film just sucks you in with its authenticity and its unconventional structure. Jacques Audiard is a fantastic filmmaker.

The sex scenes in that film reminded me of those in THE COOLER between William H. Macy and Maria Bello.
Yeah, I can see that too. We're both not trying to pass the scenes off as Hollywood fluff where everyone's having sex in their bra and panties and the actress is covering her breasts with an elbow. When that happens, it just pulls me out of the movie. The artifice of what I'm watching becomes obvious to me, as opposed to a fly-on-the-wall scenario where you're just watching a couple having sex as it would naturally play out with all its awkwardness and humour. It's tough because you need actors who are game and willing to trust you. I won't cast certain actors when they tell me they love the script but they won't do the nudity. They don't really understand what I'm going for tonally. Agents and managers tend to convince their talent that it's a bad idea to be naked in films. It doesn't help that it gets reinforced when Seth Macfarlane sings 'We Saw Your Boobs' at the Academy Awards. Every actress who was highlighted in that reel or any new actress coming up is thinking "I don't want to be mocked like that." Even worse, you have sites on the Internet that start exploiting scenes when an actress goes nude in a movie. They've messed it up for all us who are trying to make authentic cinema.

Do you think mass audiences are uncomfortable with nudity in films?
People have become enormously uncomfortable with it. Nudity is so alien to modern American audiences that such scenes are now relegated to arthouse films and pay TV. And in the case of SHAME, for the media it all becomes about the size of Michael Fassbender's penis. I saw the same mentality in the preview process we had for CROSSING OVER. All Harvey Weinstein had to do was severely cut down the sex scenes and the preview scores jacked up 15 to 20%. Audiences came out of the film wondering if they really needed to see that degree of nudity. I remember all those great movies from the '70s like STRAW DOGS (1971), NIGHT MOVES (1975) or ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) where if a woman woke up in bed in the morning, she was naked. It was naturalistic, and the actresses accepted and understood why they were doing it. Maria Bello in THE COOLER and Vera Farmiga in RUNNING SCARED were completely game. That should be a lesson for a lot of actors out there. Actresses like Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts will do whatever is necessary for a scene. But then you have actresses like Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson who say they will never show their breasts on camera. Well that's fine, but then you're not going to be giving an honest depiction of a sex scene. Don't pick projects that are going to have sex scenes if that’s your attitude. And in the case of Jessica Alba, don't play a stripper in SIN CITY (2005) and keep your clothes on! Either go for it or don't go for it. Doing a sex scene authentically means simulating how you would actually have sex with a partner in real life. In DOWN TO THE BONE (2004), Vera Farmiga was willing to not only be physically naked but emotionally naked. I was blown away, and that's why I cast her in RUNNING SCARED.

Do you enjoy filming the sex scenes?

I actually hate doing them. They're the worst scenes to shoot. It's always very difficult, uncomfortable and intense on the set while doing them. Honestly, you just want to get them over with. You appreciate the actors’ commitment to their craft and the necessity of having such scenes, but there’s little joy in filming them.

Which filmmakers who have worked in the crime genre do you see as under-rated?

There are many, but at the moment I'm tired of people trashing Michael Winner as a director, who recently died. He had decent chops when he cared about what he was doing. LAWMAN (1970), for example, was a phenomenal film. It's wrong to compare his '70s films, which had that very '70s style with the zooms and so forth, with modern filmmaking styles. He did go downhill in the '80s with the DEATH WISH sequels and other films, but there are many other films one can look at at. For example, the original DEATH WISH (1974), THE STONE KILLER (1973), THE MECHANIC (1972) are very entertaining. Actually, DEATH WISH II (1981) is a guilty pleasure. It's so depraved. The uncut version of that film gives any of the '70s movies a run for their money in terms of content. I miss the '70s and early '80s. Things weren't so calculated back then. People didn't worry about whether a film was going to gross $150m or spawn a franchise. It was all about good stories - CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971), CHINATOWN (1974), THE LONG GOODBYE (1973), even the early Burt Reynolds films like THE LONGEST YARD (1974) and WHITE LIGHTNING (1973).

As a big fan of the James Bond series, would you like to direct one of them?
I would love to direct one but i don't have those action credentials or arthouse prestige to get me in the room. I wish they'd make an R-rated Bond movie, but there's too much money at stake for it to ever happen. CASINO ROYALE (2006) was in my opinion an R-rated Bond movie. If you had taken out the character of James Bond and replaced him with some generic action hero, I have no doubt it would have got an R rating. It's one of the most brutal studio movies I’ve seen. I loved it to death. I think it's probably the greatest Bond movie ever, save for maybe FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963).

What advice do you have for budding filmmakers?
If you have writing skills, write something that you think you think you could make for a low budget, like Quentin Tarantino did with RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). Try and find an 'in' where your voice can be heard. Remember that it's all about the storytelling. The visuals are super-important, too - but I can't tell you how many films I have seen with dazzling visuals that had a story that went nowhere. There are so many tools available to filmmakers today. Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to break into the business because the kinds of movies that the system wants to finance are franchise movies based on pre-established properties. But if you can show you have your own sensibility and a unique take on storytelling, I think someone's always going to recognise it. Growing up, we never had YouTube where you can go and make a film on the cheap, upload it and then have someone say "This is the next big director." Find your creative voice and cast the most talented actors you can. If you can sell a script and get financially independent for a couple of years, like I did with MINDHUNTERS, it's certainly going to help you make the right choices. The only guarantees you get from working in this business are failure and rejection. You have to see beyond that and put the sweat and commitment into refining your craft.


I spoke to Wayne by telephone on 31st March 2013 and would like to thank him for the kind use of his time.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

AN INTERVIEW WITH WAYNE KRAMER (PART 2 OF 3)

Wayne Kramer is one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged over the last couple of decades. Favouring the crime genre, he's an uncompromising writer-director whose films are exciting, authentic, provocative and challenging. Kramer's first film THE COOLER (2003) drew acclaim and commercial success, and secured Alec Baldwin an Oscar nomination. RUNNING SCARED (2006) is now a huge cult film, and a once-in-a-lifetime blending of grindhouse crime movie thrills and Grimm's fairytale storytelling. CROSSING OVER (2009) is an ambitious drama focussed on the trials and tribulations of various immigrants in the sprawling city of L.A. Kramer's new film PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES (2013) is due to open soon. This is the second part of a three part interview. I talk to him about his experiences making his unfinished and unreleased first film BLAZELAND (1992), THE COOLER, RUNNING SCARED and CROSSING OVER. 

Part 1 can be read here and Part 3 here.  

Can you talk about your first feature, BLAZELAND?
It was a super low-budget feature that still sits in my garage and, like Tarantino's unfinished film MY BEST FRIEND'S BIRTHDAY (1987), I don't think the world needs to see it. It would only be a disappointment for anyone who has enjoyed my other films. It never got completed in post-production and it was just a horrendous experience. After I'd made THE COOLER, a DVD company reached out to me by email and said "Hey. We just did the Final Cut of the Richard Stanley movie DUST DEVIL (1992) for DVD. Are you interested in us doing the same for BLAZELAND?" I said to him "You'll probably need about $1 to $1.5 million to get the film to the point where it's even viewable." That was the last I heard from him!

I promise you BLAZELAND is not on the level of DUST DEVIL. The world's not missing anything by not seeing it. There are a few touches in it that are interesting. We shot it down in Fullerton in Orange County (California). I was very inspired by Brian De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974). It was sort of in that vein.

What was the story of the film?

It’s about a rock star who is believed to have died in a car crash, but in fact he'd only had his vocal cords severed by shattered windshield glass. Nevertheless he cannot sing anymore. He and his handlers decide that it's better the world thinks he's dead so they can sell more records. It had science-fiction aspects like a crazy quack scientist who convinced him that if he could find a singer with a similar voice, he could perform a vocal cord transplant. It had this 'Scooby Doo' quality where these rock singers are lured to his Gothic estate and keep getting killed and dumped in the swimming pool because they are not the right match for his voice.

Why do you consider it 'a horrendous experience'?
It was a nightmare to make. I didn't cast the film properly and the producer, like myself, was inexperienced. We started out raising $30,000 and pretty soon we were begging for more money – and I think we eventually spent about $100,000. We lost the entire first week of photography due to an incompetent cinematographer (the first of three who worked on the film) - everything was out of focus and over exposed - and if I was smart, I would have pulled the plug after that first week. I think with the right production team behind me and the right budget, it could have been a cool film. The financiers never saw a dime back. I still feel terrible about that. There was some good music in it as well. We had six original songs written for the film.

What did you learn from the experience?
BLAZELAND was a disaster but it proved to be the greatest film school. I don't think you know how to make a film until you make one. You just can’t be taught it in a classroom. There are better ‘film schools’ than film school. Go and become a director's assistant or an intern on a film set. You'll see what filmmaking is really like. The artistic energy you utilize as a filmmaker is probably 25% and the other 75% of your energy is spent waging war. You have to fight for the great stuff you see onscreen. You have to fight for everything. To get the money to find the time to block a beautiful Steadicam shot. For techno-cranes to get some of the cool shots that you see in RUNNING SCARED. To cast the right actors. To hire the right composer. To afford animated end credits if you want them. It's horse trading from Day 1 to the end. You don't make a lot of friends amongst the executives or the
producers because you're constantly pushing them and pushing them until the elastic band is about to snap.

What are some common misconceptions of filmmaking?
People see filmmaking as very glamorous but it isn't for the most part. It's a grind. I storyboard and pre-visualise my films months ahead of time and it's lonely work. It's just you and the script, drawing up the camera moves. Because the film hasn't been greenlit at that point, you're doing it on a leap of faith. When the production designer and cinematographer come aboard you start to tweak the storyboards, or you find real locations and have to figure out how to adapt a shot for the location. The visual design of the film is a part of the process that I really love. Whether it's figuring out the colour schemes with the DP, working with the production designer to create the sets or orchestrating very specific camera moves. The filmmakers that I admire the most are the ones who really use the camera in a very specific, original way.


 How difficult is it to make sure that the intense nature of your films is maintained throughout the shoots?
When people tell me they like my movies or that I'm a good director of actors, I refer back to the script, because that's where it begins. Being a writer-director you have a complete understanding of your script and you can communicate that to your actors. It's about guiding them to hit those notes and removing all the barriers from their performance. If there's an intense scene, I'm not going to go to an actor and say "You said 'fuck' five times too many." It's about having them authentically communicate the tension of the moment and not putting the brakes on them so that it goes where it needs to go. Having game actors who can get there is invaluable. There's been little improvised dialogue by actors in my movies. It's been more improvisation of the physicality of a scene.

After the success of THE COOLER, did Hollywood approach you to make similar films?
I was getting lots of offers from the indie sector to do quirky, low-budget dramas centred on gambling and con-men. The studios were offering me thrillers. I was going to do this thriller for New Line called 'Westward'. I liked the script but it didn't ultimately happen. In a way, I'm glad it didn't happen because I could continue to be the writer-director that I am. I'm more comfortable writing and directing my own material. There's just a more organic flow of ideas and it's better for me when dealing with actors. Everybody puts more faith in you as director and the direction you're taking them if they know you're also the writer.

How was the experience of making THE COOLER?
Great from beginning to end. I was fully supported by the producers, especially Ed Pressman, who incidentally also produced De Palma's SISTERS (1973) and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. The cast was great. Everybody turned up and did their best. We had a very short schedule and very little money but we pushed it. It had a good release. The world got to hear about it. Although, it seems to have fallen off the movie radar these days. It has never appeared on Blu-ray (despite my efforts to interest Lionsgate in releasing it on Blu), which mystifies me. I get more interest directed at RUNNING SCARED now. RUNNING SCARED is one of those films that, for whatever reason, people really respond to now (although it still has its detractors) but didn't go and see when it came out.

Why do you think that was?
Well, for one thing, the marketing was very restricted in the US because they wouldn't allow us to show children in jeopardy. The trailers didn't accurately represent what the film was about. I think teenagers and young adults when they discovered the film later on thought "Wow! This isn't what I thought it would be like at all!" When it came out on DVD, word of mouth gave it a new life and now a
lot of people have seen it.

Do you ever write roles with particular actors in mind?

Sometimes, and it does help you find the voice of a character. But it's difficult because there's a specific speech pattern that every actor brings, and it almost always never works out that you get the actor you want. In RUNNING SCARED, there was kind of a Mark Wahlberg quality to the lead character, Joey Gazelle. I don't know if we ever approached him. We might have tested the water. 
Usually, when an actor has done a role for me I can't see anybody else having done it. For example, I cannot imagine any other actor bringing the same level of commitment to RUNNING SCARED that Paul Walker did.

RUNNING SCARED was a real turning point for Walker's acting I felt.
I know that Paul considers that role to be one of his favourites, and he really connected with it. He loves that kind of intense material, and unfortunately it doesn't come his way that often. The thing I remember saying to Paul is "This is a very hysterically pitched performance." Just imagine if it was exhausting for the viewer, what it must have been like for Paul, doing ten takes for each scene! He was a great partner in crime. I'm not even sure if another actor could have gone as far as he did in maintaining the pitch of his performance. Every day we would be conspiring and having a blast while the rest of the crew was just mortified! We were shooting in Prague and they had no idea what we were making. I think they thought we were making a snuff movie or something. Paul and I are pretty close and we're still looking for those kinds of opportunities to do another movie like RUNNING SCARED that is super-intense, and has a ticking-bomb plotline.

I like how in your movies, RUNNING SCARED included, the sex scenes always reveal character.
It was important to show Paul and Vera's characters being very much in love because later in the film Vera had to have a lot of faith in him during the course of the night. She had to believe that he wasn't going to do the worst thing she could imagine him doing - killing the kid who stole the gun when he got hold of him. She told him "You're not evil because I know what real evil is. I've just seen it." I wanted to contrast all kinds of messed up characters against each other - there's bad, there's worse, and there's the really fucked-up in this world. Playing that against a Grimm's fairytale template was fun to do in the execution of the production design. I wanted to feel like everything had real stakes. There's no brakes to Joey - he's in a tail spin fearing for his own and his family's life as the shit continually hits the fan.

What are the chances of your director's cut of CROSSING OVER ever being released?
I don't see my cut being released any time soon because it's controversial with regard to the Sean Penn scenes and after my experiences in post production on the movie, I don't have a good relationship with Harvey Weinstein. It's a shame because it was a really good film at one point, and they just cut the guts out of it. The director's cut was a different animal, a whole different movie, although I wasn’t allowed to finish it. It's one of the heartbreaks of my career. It's really difficult for me to look back on the movie with any kind of fondness, given how altered the theatrical cut was.

As a director, I'm a very exacting filmmaker in the way I design my films. I spend a lot of time in post production ensuring that every cut and every moment is the best that it can be and the best for the story I want to tell. Then you get someone saying, "We don't need that scene." If you don't have the power of final cut, you don't have the power to stop your film from being damaged.

What material was taken out?
All the storylines were edited down. Sub-plots were just taken out or edited down. The entire resolution of the Jim Sturgess/ Alice Eve story was cut out. They get back together after the fight in his apartment. He is actually there when she gets arrested. There was a scene where the Korean teenager is put through an initiation ceremony where he has to kill a dog. There was more stuff to do with his girlfriend. Sean Penn played a border patrol agent and his scenes were an important framing device that revealed itself to be a ghost story in the end. When Sean’s storyline was removed, we also lost pretty much the entirety of Alice Braga's performance. You see her in the movie now for about twenty seconds. Even Harrison Ford's storyline was changed in places. There was a backstory to him that had to do with his daughter.One of the cuts that rubs me the wrong way is the loss of a scene where we see Harrison Ford doing detective work and going to the motel where his partner’s sister was murdered. He deals with a motel clerk (played by M. C. Gainey, who isn't even in the film anymore), and asks for the surveillance tapes. In the theatrical version, they used this little Band-Aid of voice-over to explain that, which seems so hokey to me. Even the music score was fucked with. John Murphy composed a beautiful score that they rejected.

Was your version more sexually explicit?
Yeah. A big sex scene between Alice Eve and Jim Sturgess didn't make it into the movie. The sex scenes between Alice and Ray Liotta were way more explicit than you see in the final movie, including full-frontal nudity from Alice. I was really upset that we lost a lot of the dialogue in the scene where they negotiate the terms of their deal. Once Alice’s character realised the bind she was in, she tried to protect herself by telling him what sexual acts she would and wouldn't do - for example, she wouldn't put a bag over head, she wouldn't do certain kinky acts, etc. They cut out all that interesting dialogue. Harvey was constantly trying to make her character more sympathetic, and I thought it was a mistake.

How longer was your cut?
My cut was about twenty minutes longer. It really has a different and more epic feel to it. You felt like you moved across this entire canvas of the stories and struggles of the characters.

Why were Harvey Weinstein and others unhappy with your cut?
I think he wanted to make a more ‘commercial’ version of the film, or arrived at that mindset later in post because I didn't get a single note from him during the shoot. I've always been pretty much left alone to shoot the film I want to make. For me as a director, post-production is always the most treacherous period. This is when people start whispering in each other's ears - "This is too violent. This is too dark. This is too long." And then you become vulnerable to these attacks from financiers or producers who are now trying to make the most commercial product out of a movie that probably wasn't that commercial to begin with. People who suddenly decide they're going to be the director in post-production become a real problem. Nobody who sees a film gets to witness the behind the scenes battles. It's tough making a film. From my point of view, If you just roll over and say "Sure, whatever. Let's do it that way" you're never going to get a good film out of it. It might be more ‘commercial’ due to safer choices being made. Maybe.

The film was what it was. I tested my cut three times and I got a decent score for a dark, R-rated film. it tested at 70% three times. That's an above average score which indicates the film is not for all audiences - which was true. By cutting out all the sex and additional scenes, Harvey Weinstein got the score up into the 90s, but with significant harm done to the quality and tone of the film.

In the case of the theatrical version, you can cut a movie so tight that it feels long, because nothing seems to hold you. So much material was cut from the movie that you almost feel indifferent to what's happening onscreen. It becomes a film that starts to drag as opposed to being compelling throughout. There's just so much more to it that would have fleshed it all out and added texture. Even including the metaphysical framing device with Sean Penn would have made it feel more distinctive than the CRASH (2004) clone it was reduced to.

How was the shoot?
It was a good shoot, actually. I have always had good relationships with my cast and crew. Everyone got on well. It wasn't one of these shoots where all the actors are at each other's throats or having issues with the script.

It must have been difficult promoting a movie that you were unhappy with in its released version.
I had such ill feeling towards what had been done to my cut that I couldn't bring myself to promote it. I just didn't think I could fake it.

How did you feel about the negative critical reaction?
The film has a 16% 'rotten' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is crazy. As disappointed as I am in the released version, it's still professionally put together, all the performances are strong, and it's well shot and well scored. I usually only read a few reviews of my films to see which way they're heading, and then I just switch off, so I don't have the deepest analysis of how the film was reviewed. But I do think many critics tended to jump on the hate bandwagon, and I felt all the reviews were heading one particular way. CROSSING OVER was an insider's point-of-view of the immigration system and most of the stories played out in an emotional way. The majority of critics felt that the movie was pedantic and overly melodramatic. Aside from the cynicism of the critics, I just don't believe Americans are interested in seeing a film that is critical of the country itself.

People from outside the US seem to embrace the film more. But in the US, critics were so antagonistic. Perhaps it was because rumours had been going on for about eighteen months that that we were having problems in the cutting room. There was also an Iranian group that lobbied Sean Penn to get certain scenes changed or taken out (none from his storyline) because they were angry with the 'honour killing' plotline, when in truth, it wasn’t really an honor killing, as depicted in the film. This happened in the middle of production, and it all leaked out there.

Do you think that many critics or audience members perhaps agreed with Summer Bishil's teenage Muslim character (Taslima) being deported for expressing what they felt were extremist anti-American views?
The character was always intended to be very ambiguous in terms of how you could come down on her. She was not an innocent and had an extreme point of view regarding the 9/11 hijackers, but at the same time she did have the right of freedom of speech as someone living in the United States. The character was based on a real teenager who was ultimately deported. I was always fascinated by how easily her life was destroyed. If the authorities had kept her in the country, they could have kept an eye on her if they wanted to. I think it was more of a teenage phase with her. By deporting her to Bangladesh they almost guaranteed that she would become an extremist and possibly even a terrorist. I wouldn't be surprised if
she has nothing but hatred for the US. It's like a textbook example of how to make a terrorist.

The film was based on a short film you made with the same title. How different was that film?
The film as you see it today has nothing of the short film in it. It was really the Sean Penn/ Alice Braga storyline that was cut from the film. I think we filmed the original short film it in 1995. Jacqueline Obradors gives a good performance in the Alice Braga role. She played the FBI agent who arrested Taslima in the feature film version. It was shown on PBS TV out of San Francisco, and was on some sites in the early days of the Internet, but it's imposible to find now. The original plan was to put it on the DVD, but I don't think anyone was interested after the film flopped.

What was funny or disturbing was that on the film version, before any of the extreme re-editing had taken place, I was told by the Writers’ Guild that I couldn't have a 'Written & Directed By' credit because the script was based on previous material. I told them that the short film accounted for maybe seven minutes of a 2 1/2 hour movie, and I reminded them that the likes of BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) had been based on a short film and had gotten the credit I wanted. But they still said no. When the film was re-edited and the Penn/ Braga scenes had been taken out, there was now nothing of the short film left. The Writers’ Guild still refused me the credit because the film was based on previous material. It was absolutely absurd.

I spoke to Wayne by telephone on 31st March 2013 and would like to thank him for the kind use of his time.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

AN INTERVIEW WITH WAYNE KRAMER (PART 1 OF 3)

Wayne Kramer is one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged over the last couple of decades. Favouring the crime genre, he's an uncompromising writer-director whose films are exciting, authentic, provocative and challenging. Kramer's first film THE COOLER (2003) drew acclaim and commercial success, and secured Alec Baldwin an Oscar nomination. RUNNING SCARED (2006) is now a huge cult film, and a once-in-a-lifetime blending of grindhouse crime movie thrills and Grimm's fairytale storytelling. CROSSING OVER (2009) is an ambitious drama focussed on the trials and tribulations of various immigrants in the sprawling city of L.A. Kramer's new film PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES (2013) is due to open soon. This is the first part of a three part interview. I talk to him about his experiences growing up in apartheid era South Africa, and his formative filmgoing experiences.  

Part 2 can be read here, and Part 3 here.

What are some of your strongest moviegoing memories from growing up in South Africa?Every film that came to South Africa up until the time I left was heavily censored and they weren't cut in any subtle way. They'd cut the film physically. You'd feel the frame jump and see that the content had changed. We didn't have television until I was 11 or 12 years old. Everybody saw their movies either in a theatre or if they had money (which we didn't) they rented 16mm film prints and projectors. I remember that the first film in South Africa to get away with the word 'fuck' was Al Pacino's ...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1979). Until then any nudity, blasphemy or profanity was just cut out.

The most extreme example of seeing a film in South Africa and then seeing a very different version that the rest of the world saw was the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). They cut out all of Gloria Hendry's scenes because Roger Moore was romancing a black woman. The only reason I suspected there might be more to the film was because I had a View Master film as a kid and there were pictures of Roger Moore and Gloria! At first I thought they might just be publicity stills. When VHS came on the market, we got the PAL system, which is the same as the UK, so we got tapes recorded from TV broadcasts smuggled into the country. This is how I saw the complete version of LIVE AND LET DIE. I didn't expect a James Bond film to be censored!

Another interesting example of censorship was THE OMEN (1976). South Africa was a religious country at the time, dominated by the Dutch Reform Church, who decided what was and wasn't socially acceptable. The whole ending where Damien survives was omitted, and the movie ends with Gregory Peck raising his arm to stab Damien at the altar. THE OMEN was also restricted to anyone under 21!

It was the most absurd way to watch films and grow up. The older movies suffered less because they were more suggestive. You wouldn't believe the films that got banned - Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979), THE WANDERERS (1979), THE EXORCIST (1973) and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) was released but they withdrew it after a couple of weeks.

Your own films present violence, sex and language authentically. Do you think there's a link to your moviegoing experiences in South Africa?
I definitely think there was some kind of reaction in me that made me want to go to the US and become the kind of filmmaker whose films I could never see or never see uncut in South Africa. It wasn't an absolutely conscious goal of mine, but it lingered in me and motivated me to make films that were audacious enough to have been a threat to the South African government. Although today it's completely lax there and they probably have less censorship than the US.

Was there a particular film that you were obsessed with growing up?
From the youngest age I was obsessed with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I had heard a lot about it from people who had travelled overseas and seen it. It just seemed like the most fascinating movie of all time. It was a 'forbidden fruit' to so many people. When I finally got access to a VHS player, I picked up a bootleg for about $50. It must have been fifth-generation quality but it still blew me away. It was crazy that I could go to a music store and look at images from the film on the sleeve of the soundtrack album, but not be able to see the film legally.

Was there a particular filmmaker you were obsessed with?
Brian De Palma was the filmmaker for me when I was growing up. A new De Palma film was always an event for me, even though I would always be seeing heavily censored versions. He has a beautiful, operatic style in the way he moves the camera. It somehow never pulls me out of his movies. I actually like CARLITO'S WAY more than most of his other films because it's in the crime genre, which I truly love, and he did an amazing job at using his skill set. I'll always remember seeing a bootleg of SCARFACE (1983) in South Africa. The critics just tore into it in America. I absolutely loved it at the time. Now all the reviews are revisionist and it's seen as a landmark film. I also remember going to a different country to see BODY DOUBLE (1984) which had also been banned.

You have said that James Ellroy is one of your favourite authors. Were you reading him back in South Africa?
No, I wasn’t familiar with his work at that point. I think he had written 'Blood on the Moon' (1984), but I hadn’t read it yet. I discovered him by chance when I picked up 'The Big Nowhere' (1988) in a supermarket in Orange County because the cover fascinated me. The book blew me away. The next one I read was 'The Black Dahlia' (1987), and that just did my mind. I love the stylistic approach he takes to his prose. The hardboiled quality of his writing is so unapologetic. I think his best book is 'L.A. Confidential' (1990). After that book I declared him a genius.

Given your love of De Palma and Ellroy, how did you feel about the BLACK DAHLIA movie that was released in 2006?
Let me just say it wasn’t the movie I would have made of the book. I had wanted to direct DAHLIA and I had had some conversations with the producer about it. David Fincher was attached to it for a very long time and the producer said they'd
come to me if Fincher ever stepped away. They didn't and went to De Palma. I thought "Fine. It wasn't meant to be."

Your love for John Barry’s music has been well noted. Why do you think Barry didn’t score any films for the last ten years of his life?
Barry had his era where his sound was right in step with the sound of movies but when film scoring went in a more Hans Zimmer direction, his music just didn't evolve like Jerry Goldsmith’s, who would redefine his sound every decade. It was still beautiful music. I would still rather have gone see a movie that had a John Barry score than any other composer, but the movie had to be able to wear the score. There were less and less films that could handle a John Barry score.

I came to Roy Budd's music a little later and I really love his work too. He did GET CARTER (1971) but I think that if you want to listen to the best John Barry score that John Barry didn't actually write, you should listen to Budd's score for FEAR IS THE KEY (1972).

Is it true you tried to get Barry to score some of your films?
I actually tried to get Barry to score THE COOLER and CROSSING OVER. I temped the opening scene to THE COOLER, where we travel over the Vegas skyline, to a track from his album 'Eternal Echoes' (2001) called 'Fred and Cyd'. It's a beautiful big-band jazz piece. When I tried to get him to score THE COOLER, he passed on it because he was busy with THE INCREDIBLES (2004) - which didn’t work out for him. He apparently composed some demos and they were rejected by Brad Bird. I don't know if he ever saw THE COOLER (his agent said he did), but I know he did see CROSSING OVER because I spoke with him about the film. He passed on that one because he said he didn't connect with the movie. I later heard from his agent Richard Kraft that in the last ten years of his life he would flirt with projects but just couldn't pull the trigger on them. That's not to say he didn't find fault with CROSSING OVER. It didn’t speak to him and I accept that. Although I would have thought it would have been a great project for him, given his own immigrant status. Both Harrison Ford and Harvey Weinstein also wanted him. It was still interesting to talk to him because we had a long conversation before and after he saw CROSSING OVER. I also had lunch with him and his music editor many years earlier when he was mixing his score to the short film, THE WITNESS (1993). But he didn’t remember that lunch when I reminded him of it – and why would he? He had no point of reference for me back then. But I have about fifteen signed Barry CDs from that day (I brought the covers with me), so it was significant for me.

As a kid I never really noticed the credits to the movies I was watching, but every time I would be blown away by a music score it would always be a John Barry score. It's interesting that nobody has ever been able to replicate those low, dissonant chords and melancholic sound. I'm not saying no-one has tried. It's a sound that will be forever lost. I think every Barry fan was hoping for one last great score but unfortunately we never got it.

Did you experience any culture shock coming to the US from South Africa?
It was all very positive in terms of finally getting to the US. I'd wanted to live here since I was a small kid. I'd tell my parents of my plans and they just thought it was a phase and that when I was older I wouldn't care anymore. I didn't enjoy living and growing up in South Africa. It was under apartheid and it was a very repressed country. In the films I saw, whether they were from the US or the UK, the world seemed to be a more progressive place and people were treated as equals no matter what colour they were. Of course that was all a cinematic illusion borne out of watching films and TV shows (on 16mm) like 'The Mod Squad'. There was, and still continues to be, a huge amount of racism in the United States today, although it’s a lot more subtle than the institutionalized racism I grew up with in South Africa. Back then I never saw black people driving cars or having a first-class or middle-class lifestyle. It was ridiculous. It never sat well with me. I would always get into political arguments with my parents and family saying "This isn't right." The last straw for me was when I got conscripted into the military for two years. After that I was like "Get me the hell out of here." My brother was the smart one. He kept putting it off and putting it off until they finally did away with conscription.

Do you have any anecdotes from your time in the military?
It was a miserable experience, but hey, it was part of my life, I lived it and it was formative in some way. But the amount of stupid people you saw in the South African military was unheralded. I got into a Film and TV Unit which used to make training videos. These officers down in Pretoria were so bored with their lives that they wanted to earn 'danger pay'. At that time they could earn extra money by being assigned to the Angola/ South Western African border where there were still ANC incursions into the country. So they flew us all up there to make a training video that could just as easily have been filmed in somebody’s backyard in Pretoria or Johannesburg. And of course they didn't give us malaria tablets and out of the entire group I was the only one who contracted it. I actually ended up getting it twice. We were also doing these training videos of soldiers clearing trenches, working with live grenades and live ammo, with the equivalent of M16 automatic rifles being fired just off to one side of us as we ran backwards filming these soldiers, with live rounds passing within inches of us. It was nuts! We could have tripped at any moment and been riddled with bullets.

Did you ever write a script incorporating your experiences?
No, I haven't written anything on it. It's hard for me to look back but I also don't feel that the world has a fascination with South Africa unless it's something like DISTRICT 9 (2009). When you sit down from the POV of a writer/ director and start to think "What am I going to do with my next two or three years?", you want to invest your time in something that you feel people will have an interest in seeing.

Did you ever run into fellow filmmaker Richard Stanley in South Africa?
When I was about 16 or 17 years old, the South African Broadcasting Network held a short film competition. It might have been in it's second year. Richard and I were in the same competition. I think he won it. We made all our films on Super 8, and Richard's film was a STAR WARS (1977) like effects piece – really well done. I did a documentary on an African bodybuilder that worked at the gym I used to go to. It shows you what an insular community it was way back then in South Africa. Only a few people were making films. I loved HARDWARE (1990). I thought it was a fantastic film when I saw it in the US. I was trying to get into the business myself at that time.

How did you manage to break into the movie business?
It took me a long time. I arrived in the US in 1986 at the age of 21.  I took the approach of breaking in through writing. I was just writing script after script, hoping to interest someone and sell one. My goal was that if someone liked one of my scripts enough, I would attach myself as director or they wouldn't get to make it. I thought I was going to do that with MINDHUNTERS (2004). But then they offered me a lot of money for it (this was in 1997) and I was broke and newly married at the time. I never had any real earning potential until that point. I didn’t want to lose the deal, which would have happened had I stuck to my guns about directing it, so I took the money. I knew the next time I found myself in a similar position I could afford to insist on directing. Which is what I did with THE COOLER. People weren't open to me directing it and wanted a name director. They wanted to buy me and the co-writer Frank Hannah off. I said "It's not going to happen and I don't need the money." I was now in a good position to stick to my guns, even if it took four years for the right financier (Ed Pressman) to come along.

I spoke to Wayne by telephone on 31st March 2013 and would like to thank him for the kind use of his time.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

AN INTERVIEW WITH STUART BRENNAN

Stuart Brennan is one of the most prolific and exciting actor-filmmakers working in the British independent sector. As a producer he founded Burn Hand Film Productions, which was responsible for the likes of RISEN, THE REVEREND and the forthcoming SMOKE. Stuart also collaborated with Welsh filmmaker Neil Jones on these films, and acted in all of them too. To add to all of this, he also frequently writes or co-writes the screenplays to his films, and has directed various short films and feature films as well. I spoke to Stuart about his increasingly busy and diverse career.   

How did you get involved with acting?
Originally I wanted to be a professional footballer, but my parents wouldn't support me. While I was in college, I got offered a play. I'd always been interested in acting since I was a kid. My parents came to see me in the play and afterwards they told me they thought I had talent, and that I should consider taking it up as a career. With their blessing, I withdrew my application to study Law at Oxford and decided to study Drama at Winchester. From then on, I threw myself into any acting gig I could find.

By the time you started working with Neil Jones, how much experience had you gained?
I did about 25 short films as an actor at Winchester University with different students and independent new companies. I did one short film that some juniors were producing, and they were having problems with where to put the camera and I found myself coming up with creative solutions. I really enjoyed the whole process, and I thought "This is easy. I'd like to do another film." I had no idea how to go about finding a film project. I decided the best way was to just write, produce and direct my own film. That way I could also make sure I was going to be in it. It was called GETTING HIGH WITH LEO and I don't think it will ever get released. It was a great learning experience. After that I did another short film and a couple of feature films. And then I met Neil.

How did you two meet?
He was also a student at Winchester. We both signed up for the University newspaper. He was going to cover politics and I was going to cover films. He came round with the editor one day. I remember I was in my dressing gown, ill and feeling sorry for myself. He handed me a script he had written and asked me "Would you mind reading this script?" We ended up filming that script as THE BOND (2006).


What was your first impression of Neil?

He seemed like a really cool guy and not out to impress anybody. A straight-shooter. His script was so creatively written that I told him he should direct it himself. The characters were so detailed and he had an eye for what worked. I was really sure he could make his ideas work visually.

What was THE BOND about?
It's a gritty drama about two guys. One of them goes to jail for a crime the other one has committed. The film looks at their relationship after they meet up years later.

Why do you and Neil make a strong creative team?
I'm an incredible optimist and have lots of energy. Neil is more of a realist, and grounded. The dynamic works really well. I'm always pushing us forward and Neil's always bringing us back a little. We're good friends and we've been through a lot of things together over the years, both professionally and personally. We've always supported each other. There's a tremendous bond between us. It's kept us together this long and although we've done films without the other, we enjoy our partnership and I'm sure we'll work together for a good few more years.

How did you and Neil come to make RISEN (2010)?
After THE BOND we made some more short films together, and after we graduated from Winchester we decided to try and collaborate professionally. RISEN was a project close to both our hearts. The project came about because we were on a bus to the Cannes Film Festival, and I suddenly realised I had never asked Neil what film he would make if he could make any film he wanted. He turned to me and said "The story of Howard Winston, hands down." I had never heard of him. Howard was a real legend in Wales - an incredible boxer and an incredible man. He lost three fingers from his right hand but still managed to win a World Title. I thought it was a great premise for a film, and once we got back from Cannes, we started researching the story further with the idea of making a short film.


We had just set up a company in Wales, Burn Hand Film Productions, and because of the Welsh aspects of the story we thought we'd be able to get some Welsh funding. Unfortunately, it never came about at all in the end. We ended up financing the short film with our own credit cards. It got really well-received and the greatest thing about the project were the people who came up to us and were genuinely moved by how we'd recreated the period and shown Howard in such a positive light. We were inspired by that to go ahead and make a feature film version of the story.

We wanted to raise a decent budget and get a good cast and crew. The idea was to make a film that would put us on the map. The next 8-12 months were spent working on the script, and, as I was going to play the role of Howard again, I worked out with Don James in the gym. Don was one of Howard's friends. (Howard died in 2000.) We got Howard's family and the entire community of Merthyr Tydfil involved in the film.

What obstacles did you face making the film?
We raised the cash, started filming and then some of the money fell through. Production had to be halted, and as we'd spent some of the budget, we now owed quite a bit of money to the investors, which for a pair of guys in their early-'20s was a big pressure. The next five years were spent raising more cash, paying people off and filming as much as we could. We also had to keep the spirit of the project alive. Temple Heart Films were our White Knights. They saw the rushes and said "This is a great project. We want to help out." With their help, we got the film completed and released. I still get e-mails from people telling me how much the movie means to them. Neil and I are both very proud of the film.

How well did the film do?
It did really well on the festival circuit in the US, had a small theatrical release and played on VOD too.


How demanding is it producing and acting in your own films, as well as sometimes co-writing too?

I've done it for ten years, and I guess I've got it down to a fine art now. I get heavily involved in pre-production and then I step aside during the actual production period to focus on my acting. This involves bringing on a very good line producer and production manager. It's about being strict with yourself and others, making sure others respect the boundaries. That said, it happens quite a lot that when I step on the set I have to deal with a production problem before I get in front of the camera. It's a difficult thing to juggle when you've got 101 things on your mind. But it's fun and I love doing it. Once filming is over, I get heavily involved with post-production.

What are the main pressures of producing independent films?
We're trying to compete with Hollywood films in the marketplace but we don't have that kind of money for our budgets. Finding money is the biggest pressure. You have to make every penny count too. That's where the stress really kicks in. There's no spare money. RISEN and THE REVEREND were financed through a multitude of investors (crowd-funding), which is always difficult because you're dealing with a lot of people. Our budgets are getting bigger, and with bigger films what you really need are a couple of committed investors, which is the point we're trying to get to. I always try to be brutally honest with our investors, which I think they respond to. The sky's the limit one way, but the floor is the limit the other way.

Do you have any horror stories trying to get your films financed?
Every producer has horror stories. I've had investors steal my projects or pull out a week or even days before production was about to begin. Sometimes people get excited by the idea of investing in films but then the reality hits them. It's also often just bravado.



What are some of the joys of producing?

It's a joy to take something which was an idea or a conversation and turn it into a film that people enjoy. That's what it's all about for me.

What makes a good producer?
You have to be able to talk with anybody. If you don't ask, you don't get. You've got to ask a lot of favours when you make a film, from the guy on the street to business people. You've got to be able to have the confidence to send your script to some of the biggest stars on the planet. You have got to have steel inside you and not fear rejection.

What's your process when you take on an acting role?
I'm very research-oriented. For RISEN I researched everything I could about Howard's life. As I was playing a religious man in THE REVEREND, I read a lot of The Bible. I've studied pretty much all the schools of acting that are out there. I like the Stanislavsky method of building a framework for the character before you begin. I follow some of the Method teachings of people like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. I try to ask myself questions about the background history and personal life of the character I'm playing. I'll do anything that will help me better understand and inform my character. After all this, I figure out how my character will move and talk. I then focus on each line and each scene, trying to see how to approach them and bring in any colours or ideas from my research. I'm fully prepared by the time I get to the set, and take notes from the director and other actors. It's a long, hard process but a lot of fun.

How does the writing collaboration with Neil usually work?
Well, it depends. For example with RISEN, I wrote the first four drafts and Neil came in and kept tweaking it. Neil wrote THE REVEREND. In pre-production we get together and clear up any differences we have with the script. In general both of us go away and work on our own scripts and don't tell the other what we're working on until we present the finished work to the other. Half of the fun is surprising each other.

You can lose your objectivity, unless you write together, which we don't because our writing styles are so different. There has to be a perfect time to present your work to another. You need to be able to lay your hat on it and feel happy with your work and ready to accept criticism. It's good to have someone look at your work with a fresh perspective. When you're close to a project, it's hard to be critical sometimes.

What's an example of something you've learned from working with Neil?
I've learned that as an actor it's great to have a vision for your character but it needs to fit in with the director's overall vision of the film. On THE REVEREND I imagined my character doing his sermons in the style of an American preacher. Neil felt it would be inappropriate because I was playing a Baptist reverend. I think he was right, because it wouldn't have fit with the overall tone of the film.

What was your first reaction to Neil's REVEREND script?
I thought it was really cool and different. It wasn't your average vampire film at all. It certainly wasn't TWILIGHT (2008)! It had a lot of heart to it, and I enjoyed the parallels to the story of Job. I was also really intrigued to see how Neil was going to make some of the violent scenes work. When Neil told me he wanted to give the film a Spaghetti Western vibe, I was intrigued even further.
 


How was the experience of working with Rutger Hauer?
Amazing. We called up his agent and told him we had a small part for Rutger that would be one day's work. His agent responded that Rutger probably wouldn't want to do it, but I said "Well, we'd appreciate it if you'd give him the script anyway." The agent got back to us and said "Actually he wants to do it, but he wants to speak to you guys first. " Neil and I couldn't believe our luck. I think we had a night on the town to celebrate.

Neil and I set up a Skype call and we nervously awaited talking to him. We had a good hour-long chat with him and he asked a lot of good, insightful questions. At the end he asked if he could see RISEN. We sent him a copy of it and he enjoyed it. Rutger wanted another chat with Neil to go over the character, which they again did on Skype. We managed to find a day in his busy schedule when he was free. He flew from South Africa, where he had just made THE HEINEKEN KIDNAPPING (2011), to the UK. A few days later he was going to be filming Dario Argento's DRACULA 3-D (2012). We spent three days going over some of the issues he had with the script and working on getting him costumed. We filmed his scene the next day.

I'm a big fan of his, and it was a thrilling, incredible experience. He has real nervous energy when you talk to him. He literally doesn't stop talking, and he's always moving. His eyes are always flickering everywhere. He always has interesting thoughts or ideas. Then, when the camera starts to roll, he switches to become the coolest guy on the planet. I thought he gave a wonderful performance and I loved working with him. It's rare to be able to work with someone on that level in your career, especially in the beginning of your career. It gave the crew a real boost.

Did you get to hang out with him and talk about any of his great roles?
Even though I didn't have any scenes with him I spent a lot of time with him hanging out in his dressing room, chatting about different projects. He's a really cool guy, very passionate about what he does. He enjoys working with new filmmakers and promoting their work. He has a great bullshit radar and he doesn't get involved with anything for the wrong reasons. Rutger's very project-oriented and isn't solely motivated by money.


How was working with Shane Richie in a very different role from his TV persona?

I love Shane and had worked with him on RISEN. I was really intrigued to see him play this evil pimp. When he arrived to the set, he was buzzing. He came straight from filming 'EastEnders' and had been driving for two or three hours. He jumped out of the car and came running to Neil and I, saying "Guys! I'm so excited to be here!" He had all these interesting costume and make-up ideas for his character, and came back an hour later how he looked in the film, all ready to go.

Shane was really excited to be doing something fresh and different. He's a great actor and he has real range. It's the first time I can honestly say I've ever been intimidated by another actor in a scene. We did the interiors of the pub first - the scene where he walks in and throws me into the tables. I was so caught up in his performance that I almost forgot my line. I asked Neil for another take because I was in a completely different zone. He really blew me away and it was fun to work with him. He's been acting for 20-30 years but he still loves acting. He really took the character in an unexpected direction and I'm proud of his work. Shane's been getting some great reviews. We did a Q and A once and an audience member couldn't believe it was him in the role!

THE REVEREND has had mixed reviews. How do you feel about that?
You have to be able to take the rough with the smooth. It seems like people are at least responding in some way to the film. We're proud of the film. With our movies we are trying to make our own kind of movies. We're not setting out to make something obviously commercial. Our films focus on character and story in the way something like John Carpenter's THE FOG (1980) did. 
 





Do you feel that British critics should get behind your films more?

If they don't like our films, that's fine. But I do feel that a lot of British critics see an average independent British film as something like THE KING'S SPEECH (2010) or SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008). Well, the latter cost about $8m and the former $15m! These filmmakers are not having to beg, borrow and steal to make a movie like we do. They should support low-budget film production more, and consider what the likes of Neil and I have to play with and what we're trying to do. We don't have the time or the resources to make a film that's going to have universal appeal. That's a very hard thing to do. When it happens, as with something like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), I take my hat off to the filmmakers. But we do try to make real films, and not just fodder for the DVD market.

Does having a low budget stimulate creativity?
Yeah, it does. In pre-production you've got to figure out how to do every little thing with the amount of money you have. You really have to collaborate. It makes everyone focussed and excited to come to work. I enjoy it when I watch a low-budget film and I can see how they've increased the value of a location by, say, filming during a festival and making it look like they organised the festival just for the film.

Which current filmmaker do you admire the most?
Christopher Nolan. He takes the low-budget attitude of making every single thing count, and applies it to big budgets. I haven't been disappointed by any of his films. I think he's a superb filmmaker. He always takes you on a rollercoaster ride, and you just don't know where it's going to leave you. I'd love to work with him.

What are your hopes for future collaborations with Neil?
I'd like our films to get financed a bit easier, and to have bigger budgets. Right now we have five projects in various stages of development. It would be great to be able to shoot three or four films a year.

What projects do you have in the pipeline?
SERIAL KALLER is a horror from the award winning director Dan Brownlee. It's a slasher movie, set in a BabeTV Studio. It's the first movie from Loaded Films (Loaded Magazines new company). I'm the skittish producer trying to take control of the situation, as girls are dying around me! TOMORROW is a powerful drama being directed by Martha Pinson and exec produced by Emma Koskoff Tillinger and Martin Scorsese. I can't say any more about this project at the moment, but it's incredibly exciting! My next collaboration with Neil Jones is SMOKE. It reads like a British TRAINING DAY (2001) with Danny Dyer and Tamer Hassan. I play a nasty Polish money launderer. IRIS is a drama from Matt Walker, about a husband and his wife struggling to have children. I'm the lead in this one, which is a touching true story about love, loss and hope. I'll also be on stage this September in a touring play of 'Houdini' being directed by Peter Snee. It's coming to the Stoke Rep Theatre, Blackpool Grand Theatre, Windsor Royal, Swansea Grand and Dublins famous Gaiety Theatre. I play Harry's brother Theo and the show is going to be incredible! It's proving a busy year!`



I spoke to Stuart by telephone on 7th September 2012. I would like to thank him for his time.

Burn Hand Film Productions' site.

Thanks to Richard S. Barnett.


Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.