Category Archives: Celebrity Interviews

INTERVIEW: RACHEL WEISZ on ‘THE CONSTANT GARDENER’

“I loved being pregnant,” says Rachel Weisz.

This wouldn’t be an astounding statement if it wasn’t for the fact that Rachel Weisz has never actually given birth. She’s talking about Tessa, her character in her latest movie, The Constant Gardener, who spends large portions of the movie sporting an enormous belly. A mixture of prosthetics and computer-generated imagery, it’s so convincing that many people have asked Weisz if she likes motherhood.

If she has had a baby, then it certainly doesn’t show. Now 34, the London-born actress is still one of the most beautiful actresses in the world. She’s fiercely intelligent, too, and her plummy but alluring accent betrays the fact that she attended Cambridge University.

“It was made by Christine Blundell,” says Weisz of her prosthetic belly. “She’s a top chick who works with Mike Leigh a lot and won an Oscar for Topsy Turvy. She’s brilliant at making things look utterly real although she did get annoyed with Fernando [Meirelles, director]. He told her that I’d only been seen from the front but, because we improvised so much, we ended up seeing me from all angles. That had to be sorted out with CGI in post-production.”

The improvisation is clearly something Weisz relished. The film begins with Justin, a British diplomat in Kenya played by Ralph Fiennes, being told that Tessa has been killed. As he investigates her death, their life together unfolds in flashback. It is in these moments that Meirelles, best known for his superb debut, City Of God, encouraged the ‘lovers’ to improvise.

“Some actors don’t like it,” she says, “but Ralph and I both like to experiment – we both share that desire to play around. Fernando likes to work with complete freedom and spontaneity. Obviously it’s a thriller so there were plot elements we had to retain. But Fernando allowed us to have freedom in some scenes. Like when Ralph’s in the bathroom pretending to be Jacques Cousteau – that wasn’t in the script. That was just him having fun.”

Ralph Fiennes, as with women the world over, evidently made an impression on Weisz.

“I love that the love story and the thriller are completely dependent on one another… it’s about two people who are complete opposites. She likes to rock the boat and he’s a diplomat who’s more reserved. As Justin investigates Tessa’s death, so he falls more deeply in love with his wife.”

“I’ve wanted to work with him since the beginning of my career,” she confesses. “And, having worked with him on [1999’s] Sunshine, I was very privileged to work with him again. He’s an incredible actor. Really, he’s a complete joy to work with. I loved every moment of it.” She finishes gushing then adds, laughing, “And he’s the best husband!”

The love affair feels thoroughly believable, a fact Weisz is extremely proud of.

“I love that the love story and the thriller are completely dependent on one another, “ she says. “It’s very original because it’s about two people who are complete opposites. She likes to rock the boat and he’s a diplomat who’s more reserved. As Justin investigates Tessa’s death, so he falls more deeply in love with his wife.”

The love story, enjoyable though it is, is only a small part of Constant Gardener’s rich tapestry. While in Africa, Tessa becomes obsessed with the nefarious machinations of a multinational pharmaceutical corporations and it is her crusading that ultimately leads to her murder. Weisz experienced many real life parallels while shooting in the shantytowns of Kenya. The plot of Constant Gardener may be fiction but it is based on depressingly real corporate exploitation.

“I hope it raises debate,” says Weisz. “I mean, it’s just a film but if it means you articles in newspapers about what these pharmaceutical companies are doing then that’s great.”

The production has had a more direct impact on the area used for shooting.

“Every single member of the crew was deeply affected,” Weisz explains, “but emotion doesn’t really help the people so Simon [producer, Channing-Williams] has created this trust for the area and I’ve recorded a commercial for the World Food Program that will be released with the film. They’re an incredible organisation. The food drops you see in the movie are them.”

Such altruism is admirable but does she worry that any attention the film draws to Kenya’s plight will be short-lived? She’s philosophical.

“Media attention may surge and fall but there will always be individuals out in Africa like Tessa. Whether they’re efforts are publicised or not, these incredible people will continue to devote their lives to others.”

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide in 2005.

INTERVIEW: ROBERT DOWNEY JNR and VAL KILMER on ‘KISS KISS BANG BANG’

As you’d expect from Shane Black, the man who created Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a buddy movie. This time, though, it isn’t tough-guy cops but a gay movie producer and a petty criminal, thrust together in a complex comedy-noir set in present-day Hollywood. Black, who also makes his directorial debut, has penned possibly his finest script ever but it’s the chemistry between the buddies – Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jnr – that makes the film.

Both stars were something of a gamble for the production, Downey Jnr because of his epic battle with drugs and drink, Kilmer because of his reputation for being an egomaniacal tosspot. City Life meets both men on the same day in different rooms of London’s Claridges Hotel. For the record, Kilmer is genuinely charming and Downey Jnr, though overly effusive and hyperactive, is, simply, a lovely guy.

“There are a lot of mean, twisted, tortured people in our business but Robert didn’t do any bad things to other people, he did them to himself. He always had a lot of love and support in the community and Hollywood does so love a comeback.”

“He’s just so happy he didn’t die,” is how Kilmer affectionately describes his co-star. “Doing this was just so much fun because it’s a wonderful thing to see someone as loveable as him make it back. There are a lot of mean, twisted, tortured people in our business but Robert didn’t do any bad things to other people, he did them to himself. He always had a lot of love and support in the community and Hollywood does so love a comeback.”

Downey Jnr himself isn’t keen to talk about his addictions, mainly because “it’s all I seem to talk about sometimes” but he does wax lyrical about the two things that have helped keep him straight: kung fu and marriage.

“I’m about halfway to black belt,” he says shyly, “but I know nothing. I can defend myself against practically anybody but, in terms of hurting somebody… Well, I wouldn’t want to. The headlines! ‘His hands were registered as lethal weapons!’ I don’t want a martial art that’s aggressive. I’m angry enough as it is. I want to be like Neo at the end of The Matrix.”

His wife, Susan Levin, is a film producer and it was through her that Downey Jnr first heard about Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

“She’s reading this script and laughing,” says Downey Jnr, “and that’s unusual so I ask her what’s so funny and she’s, like, ‘Oh, nothing, just this Johnny Knoxville project.’ She keeps reading and laughing and she tells me, ‘The just had his severed finger that he had on ice stolen by a dog.’ ‘What was his finger doing in an ice bowl?’ ‘His girlfriend cut it off.’ ‘Why didn’t he go to hospital?’ ‘He did but it got pulled off again by these two bad guys called Mr Frying Pan and Mr Fire.’ When I heard that I just had to be in this movie.”

While Downey Jnr landed his first lead in years, for Kilmer the film was a chance for him to remind the world that, despite Alexander and Batman Returns, he is a fantastic actor.

“It’s a finicky business,” says Kilmer philosophically. “There are rules in Hollywood. You have to do certain things, even if you’ve just made a billion dollars. But, despite making some wrong choices, I think I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’m still working. I’m like Robert in that respect.”

That the two men obviously like one another translates into some crackling on-screen chemistry and some inspired improvisation.

“He’s Val goddamn Kilmer,” says Downey Jnr. “He’s amazing. The stuff he came up with on the spot was great. Like when he’s supposed to tell me to put my cigarette out and I ask him where and he just deadpans, ‘Throw it in that clump of dry bushes, you moron.’”

“Having Robert playing a dumb guy was really fun,” laughs Kilmer, “because he’s actually very smart but because he’s acting dumb he can’t say anything back to me.”

Though they evidently loved riffing, both men are keen to reiterate the importance of Black’s script, even if they sometimes forgot that on set.

“Improvisation is something he encourages,” says Downey Jnr, “but sometimes he’d get pissed. ‘Guys! Before you improvise all over my dialogue can you at least learn it!’” Downey Jnr breaks into a cheeky grin. “He did have a point.”

This article was first published in CityLife magazine in 2005.

INTERVIEW: AMELIA WARNER ON ‘ALPHA MALE’

“Please don’t mention her ex…” is the gentle warning from Amelia Warner’s people. This being Hotdog and not some scurrilous tab, that’s no hardship; besides, there’s much more to the talented Ms Warner than her four-month marriage to Colin Farrell.

“What’s expected of you is just bizarre,” she says of the Hollywood treadmill. “To sell a film you’re expected to do whatever the film company tells you. I think some actors” – and here, it’s impossible not to think of her ex – “give up their lives to it. For me, it’s not worth that kind of sacrifice.”

Today Warner, 24, is promoting Alpha Male, a film about a wealthy family coping with the death of its patriarch (Danny Huston). As reclusive teenager Elyssa, Warner is outstanding.

“She’s eight when her dad dies,” she says. “My mum’s dad died, actually, when she was that age. She said the script really captures it. When something that traumatic happens to a child they get frozen in that time. So Elyssa, at 19, she’s very child like. But I didn’t have to draw on anything from my own life – I had a really clear idea of who she was from the brilliant script.”

First time writer-director Dan Wilde seems to have been a hit with Warner.

“Oh yes,” she admits. “He’s amazing. And lovely. And he’s very smart, very clever – he’s got a degree in philosophy.”

Warner herself recently graduated with a degree in Art History (she has a penchant for German Expressionism), although she sounds rather despondent when asked if she’s pursuing anything connected with it.

“No, but I go to galleries and stuff. I’m always at the Tate Modern.”

Along with Alpha Male, in the bag she’s also got psychological thriller, Gone – a claustrophobic three-hander that takes place entirely within a campervan in the Australian Outback.

“It was a fantastic opportunity as an actor,” she says. “It felt like the three of us were going a bit mad. And it’s beautifully shot. I’m really excited about it coming out.”

As for the future, Warner cheerfully announces that she’s got nothing on her slate.

“I’m just being really lazy,” she laughs. “Last year I didn’t work all year until I did Alpha Male, but the longer you leave it, the more precious you get about what you do next. And I only want to do something good.”

This interview was first published in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.

INTERVIEW: GEORGE CLOONEY, ALEXANDER SIDDIG and STEPHEN GAGHAN ON ‘SYRIANA’

For George Clooney, 2005 was a hell of a year. And not just in a good way. Yes, he’s been nominated for three Oscars (Best Supporting actor for Syriana, Best Director and Best Screenwriter for Good Night, And Good Luck), but he also got to see what his own spinal fluid looked like. When it was coming out of his nose. On top of that, the USA’s rightwing continued to use him as a punchbag.

“You have to take your hits,” he says laconically in his deep, rumbling (some might say dreamy), Kentuckian drawl. “I can’t demand freedom of speech and then say, ‘But don’t say bad things about me.’”

Hits he most certainly did take. For his anti-Iraq War stance he was “pigeonholed as a traitor” by rightwingers.

“This made me mad,” he chuckles. “So I made these two films.”

While Good Night, And Good Luck, a superb reconstruction of Ed Murrow, the broadcaster who went head-to-head with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, was very much Clooney’s baby – he wrote, directed and produced – the man behind Syriana was Stephen Gaghan.

Born in 1965, five years after fellow Kentuckian Clooney, he’s a slim-built, good-looking guy with blue eyes and blonde hair. Having won an Emmy for writing NYPD Blue and an Oscar for Traffic, he’s one of Hollywood’s most respected scribes. He’s incredibly serious, although his speech is peppered with mordant quips.

“I got the name Syriana from an overheard conversation when I was at the Pentagon, researching the film,” he says. “It was early ‘02 in Washington. These people had taken over the White House in 2000 and they had big plans for the Middle East. It was a heady day of Empire and they were talking about their policy in the Middle East. It wasn’t about Iraq, it was about Iran, Syria and the possibility of re-drawing the map, yet again. They were talking about making a new county and said it could be called Syriana.”

He laughs, adding:

“It’s funny that on the poster George has got Syriana written right across his forehead; it means ‘asshole’ in Japanese.”

A highly complex film, following the trail of corruption and money that oil spreads around the world. Characters include energy company CEOs, middle men, lawyers, disillusioned oil field workers seduced by Islamic fundamentalism and Clooney’s washed-up CIA agent. Opposite him is Prince Nasir, first in line to the throne of a fictional oil-rich country. A moderate Muslim and progressive thinker, he’s dismayed at the way in which none of the money generated by oil has filtered down to the people. He is determined to steer his country towards democracy and a less rampant form of capitalism. This doesn’t go down well with the US government.

“In a way,” says Alexander Siddig who plays Nasir, “my character isn’t just for the West to see, it’s for the Arab people to go, ‘Oh no, wait, you don’t have to be a crazy screaming guy to be intellectual’. Sadly I don’t think many Arabs will see it but may eventually get the DVD. In fact, they’ve probably already got it.”

While both Siddig and Clooney have their take on their own character, as the man responsible for every aspect of Syriana, it’s Gaghan who wraps his head around the big picture. Just how big the subject of oil is as it relates to America’s military-industrial complex came to him when he was at the Pentagon.

“I went to see the deputy secretary of defence who was running the bureau of counter-narcotics,” he remarks, matter-of-factly. “It’s so big in there it’s like it’s hallucinogenic. The hallways are so long – you’ve never been in a hallway like this before. You can’t make out the end of it. Jesus, I thought, the American military is a large operation. And I went to this room and the sign on the door said ‘Bureau of counter-narcotics and counter-terror’. After the fall of communism, the system was just trying to find another reason to exist, so it finds the War on Drugs – a war against brain chemistry – and then the War on Terror. Both wars on abstractions. When the World Trade Centre came down, I knew then that George Bush was going to turn it into a giant war, not just a police action.”

As neither Gaghan nor Clooney are fans of Dubya, it’s a little surprising to find that Syriana was bank-rolled by Warner Bros., a company that, as part of AOL-Time-Warner, back Bush’s Republican party to the hilt.

“I was surprised Warner Bros. stepped up,” admits Clooney. “It was green-lit two years ago and back then the climate in America was very dark. It was like McCarthy in a sense. People would come to me and whisper, ‘I agree with you’ and I’d go, ‘Why are you whispering?’ Everyone turned into chickenshits.”

For Gaghan, it wasn’t just that Warner Bros. financed the project that amazed him.

“I was surprised they let me do it,” confesses Gaghan. “Two hundred twenty locations, four continents, five languages, 400 speaking parts. The scale of it for a second time director was, on paper, impossible. But that’s not the way it works out. With a movie it doesn’t matter what size it is, the problem is just the same: what the fuck is this scene about?”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing folly in Iraq, Clooney is happy to report that the situation is a lot better. “Bush has a 38 percent approval rating,” he beams.

But, as a quick online search reveals, George’s popularity isn’t that high with people for whom ‘liberal’ is a dirty word.

“What the hell’s wrong with ‘liberal’?” he spits. “We’ve got blacks being allowed to sit in the front of the bus, we thought McCarthy was a schmuck, we thought Vietnam was wrong, we thought women should be allowed to vote… when have we been on the wrong side of a social issue? And yet they’ve demonised the word ‘liberal’.”

Siddig, well known to Star Trek fans as Deep Space Nine’s Dr Julian Bashir, has a much more global perspective on the issues raised. Born in Sudan, the nephew of the then Prime Minister, he was forced to flee aged just eight after a military coup.

“I was literally bundled on a plane and sent off to England where my mother already was,” he recalls. “At Heathrow airport I stayed with this British Airways stewardess for eight hours while they tracked down who I was from my passport. But Sudan has all the elements of Islam in one place – there are fundamentalists living alongside a more accessible, moderate version of Islam. And there’s a lot of oil there, too.”

While Gaghan “could care less” about right-wing critics, Clooney’s higher profile means he’s still a target. None of this has made his tough year any easier. In fact, if the majority of Clooney’s detractors weren’t rabid Christians, one might suspect they’d targeted him via voodoo. On the last day of shooting Syriana, he fell victim to a freak accident. Those with weak stomachs might want to look away now.

“In the torture scene,” he explains, “I threw myself over the back of a chair I was taped to. I hit the back of my head and damaged the wrap around the spine that holds it together. I was losing spinal fluid, which doesn’t hurt your back but makes your head feel like you’ve eaten ice cream too fast. That’s because what holds your brain up is spinal fluid, and if you haven’t got enough your brain sinks and the spinal fluid comes out – out though the nose.”

That must have put paid to his legendary partying.

“I go to bed at nine o’clock every night now,” he says. “It’s called positional: the longer you’re up, the more your brain sinks so as the day goes on your head hurts. It’s hopefully getting better but I still have to do blood patches – they take 30cc of blood and they shoot it into my spine. And that hurts.”

He’s half relishing telling the story for the look of horror on my face. But afterwards, he slumps a little and looks tired.

“It’s been a very difficult year,” he says. “Everybody has that year when they age ten, and this was that year for me.”

Here’s hoping he at least gets one Oscar for his trouble. Even without the injury, he deserves it.

This article was first published on the FilmFour website in 2005.

INTERVIEW: MICHAEL CATON-JONES and CLAIRE HOPE-ASHITEY on ‘SHOOTING DOGS’

Most people in the West hadn’t heard of Rwanda prior to April 1994, when a million Tutsis were murdered by the Hutus. It was the worst case of state-sponsored genocide since the Nazis but the Western powers, then half-heartedly intervening in the former-Yugoslavia, didn’t lift a finger.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” admits Michael Caton-Jones, director of Shooting Dogs, a film depicting the massacre of 2,500 people at Kigali’s Ecole Technique Officielle. “And I felt that if I, as a relatively smart person, don’t know about it then I’m damn sure a lot of other people don’t.”

Long established as a Hollywood director (Memphis Belle, The Jackal, Rob Roy and the forthcoming Basic Instinct 2), Caton-Jones seems an unlikely candidate for a gritty ‘issues’ movie. But, as the Scottish-born director explains in his Connery-esque rumble, he was looking for a change of pace. He got it. As well as spending five months in Africa, dealing with BBC Films proved a culture shock.

“Compared to Hollywood, the BBC feels really amateur. They’re essentially a TV company. You have good technicians, good directors, good actors but they’re poorly served by the executives.”

Caton-Jones’ first obstacle was persuading said executives that the film should be shot in Rwanda and not, like last year’s Hotel Rwanda, in South Africa.

“There’s a tax deal if you film in South Africa,” he says, “but within five minutes of landing in Rwanda I knew we had to film there, not least because of the intangible benefit of being amongst the Rwandans. Because, not wanting to paint myself as a saint, I realised this wasn’t about me, it was about them.”

And so it was that the film’s cast and crew came to be comprised of people who had survived the genocide. Which made the job of Claire Hope-Ashitey, the 17-year old London-born actress brought in to star as a Rwandan schoolgirl, somewhat daunting.

“I felt really inadequate to begin with,” she admits. “I felt like I was intruding. But everybody was so welcoming.”

As Marie, a track-and-field prodigy, Ashitey’s running tops and tails the film. She laughs, confessing to having, ahem, “exaggerated” her athletic skills to Caton-Jones.

“I thought it would be fine but the first few days I was there, that’s all I had to do – run up and down. I’ve never ached so much in my life.”

Both as athlete and Rwandan, Ashitey convinces utterly, an achievement made all the more astounding upon discovering that, although she will soon be seen alongside Clive Owen and Michael Caine in the Alfonso Cuarón-directed sci-fi Children Of Men, Shooting Dogs was her feature film debut.

If Ashitey’s time sounds challenging, for Caton-Jones and his production team it was a logistical nightmare. Not only did virtually every scene require the marshalling of hundreds of extras, but the shoot was filmed at the Ecole Technique Officielle itself. Although a vital component of the film’s dusty, sweaty and, inevitably, bloody realism, it created some disturbing problems.

“The school was still in use while we were filming,” says Caton-Jones says. “There was one instance where we had the actors playing the Hutu mob outside chanting the songs that would have been heard at the time. Some of the teenage pupils, who had survived the massacre as young kids, just completely melted down and went into traumatised shock. Some of them had to be hospitalised.”

Although regret is evident in Caton-Jones’ voice, he has no time for commentators who feel that, by telling the story through two admirably brave white characters (John Hurt and Hugh Dancy), Shooting Dogs is side-stepping colonial guilt.

“Ask a Rwandan if they’re offended,” he instructs Hotdog, sharply. “They didn’t care that it was two white men taking you into this story – they understand it’s because I didn’t make it for them. They know what happened and I made it with their blessing.”

Ashitey concurs:

They were so happy that someone was trying to tell their story. People came up to me all the time and said, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”

“It’s a fatuous argument,” Caton-Jones continues. “It’s the sort of thing people come out with at a dinner party in someone’s luxurious Western home. Accusations of racism tell you a lot more about the person throwing them out. Some things are more important than the colour of your skin. To me it’s, like, give yourself an award for missing the point.”

First published in Hotdog Magazine in 2005.

INTERVIEW: JENA MALONE ON ‘CONTAINER’

“He wanted me to speak in a totally flat monotone,” says Jena Malone. Breezy and upbeat, her speech, like many young Californians, liberally peppered with “dude”, “man” and “awesome”, it’s hard to imagine the 21-year old doing a Rainman. But, for Lukas Moodysson’s difficult, dark and arty montage piece, Container, that’s exactly what she does. For 70 minutes.

“I do the voice-over for the main character,” Malone explains, “who’s this fat man who’s autistic and, in his head, a woman. So I had to create a very soft interior rhythm, like that voice inside of you where you can’t define the difference between something that’s your own thought and a thought that’s just born inside of you without you consciously creating it.”

To achieve this, Moodysson had Malone fly over to Stockholm from LA and, after only a brief nap, locked her in a customised recording booth.

“There was a mattress on the ground and they’d rigged it up so I had to lie down and give this sort of monotone whisper for three hours. It was actually much more technically demanding than I could ever have imagined.”

Just to up the weirdness factor, Moodysson didn’t let her see the film she was narrating because “he didn’t want the voice-over to sync with the image.”

Although she’s a well-established screen actor, winning plaudits in Donnie Darko, Saved and Pride & Prejudice, her next gig is another voice-over.

“Yeah, man, it’s weird,” she says. “It’s Into The Wild, with Sean Penn directing. I’m in the film a little bit but mostly it’s narration. It’s really intense and beautiful and I can’t wait to get into a dark room with Mr Penn and explore it.”

First published in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.

INTERVIEW: KEN LOACH ON ‘THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY’

“Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead…” growls Ken Loach. “It’s always good to throw a snowball at those bloody imperialists.”

The public perception of Ken Loach is that he’s spiky, probably dour, most definitely from The North and unashamedly leftwing. Only the last of these is true. In reality, he’s affable, self-deprecating, witty, and was born in Nuneaton (which is in the Midlands – we looked it up).

Loach’s reputation stems from his work. Having cut his teeth in theatre and BBC television, he first came to public notice for Cathy Come Home in 1966, a TV play about homelessness so powerful that it directly resulted British law being rewritten. Firmly rooted in reality, politically radical and emotionally moving, it formed the template for his career. His latest, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, tells the story of two brothers who join the IRA and fight together during the Irish War of Independence of 1920-1922, only to take different sides in the ensuing Civil War.

“I think what happened in Ireland is one of those stories of permanent interest,” he says. “Like the Spanish Civil War [the subject of his 1995 film, Land And Freedom], it was a pivotal moment. It reveals how the struggle for independence was thwarted at the moment of its success by a colonial power.”

No, Loach really isn’t a fan of the British Empire. He famously refused an OBE in the 1970s, saying, “It’s not a club you want to join. It’s all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest.”

Considering his views, it’s unsurprising that the film’s central protagonist is a highly principled, unbending socialist, played by rising star Cillian Murphy. For Loach’s detractors, this is another example of his politically biased filmmaking. Loach is unapologetic.

“The IRA was a volunteer army. You read the stories that existed at the time, and people were incredibly principled. Your starting point for telling a story is trying to find a group of characters who contain contradictions that unravel. In the unravelling you say everything about the situation that you want to say.”

The story was also dictated by budget. Because Loach and his team didn’t have the cash to reconstruct the war’s bigger clashes, they chose to focus on the guerrilla warfare of the IRA’s Flying Columns.

“They were men who did their ordinary job during the day and then got up every now and then to carry out an action,” Loach explains. “That was appealing, to have a group of farm labourers who kick out the world’s most powerful country.”

But Loach, despite what his critics might say, wasn’t interested in presenting freedom fighters united in solidarity.

“It wasn’t like that,” he says. “It’s a pattern you see time and again – how different interests unite to face a common oppressor and then, ultimately, how those contradictions inevitably work their way out.”

In Ireland, the defining, dividing moment, was the treaty of 1922 which gave Ireland partial independence and, of course, left the North as part of the UK.

“People who seemed the most straightforward backed the treaty. I mean, Michael Collins was a perfect case – you couldn’t have a stronger fighter for independence but when it came down to it he was all for taking the treaty, probably for some good reasons.”

Loach is in no doubt who was responsible for Ireland’s civil war:

“Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead. When it wasn’t in their best interests to keep denying independence, they sought to divide the country by giving support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the same hands.”

With such an inflammatory message at its heart, not to mention a sympathetic attitude towards the IRA, Loach is bracing himself for an outraged barrage from the rightwing press, as endured by Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins.

“I’m expecting some hostility,” he admits, cheerfully. “The War on Terror is the current cliché and this is a film about people who, at the time, were considered terrorists.” He laughs, adding cheekily, “That just might be contentious.”

This interview first appeared in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.

“DO WHATEVER THE TV TELLS YOU…”

INTERVIEW: Cast and crew of Brit body-horror ‘Await Further Instructions’

Is there anything more terrifying than being stuck in the house – unable to so much as wander onto the patio for a crafty cigarette – with your own family? Yes. Imagine that scenario but ON CHRISTMAS DAY. Such is the inventively claustrophobic premise of Await Further Instructions, which sees grumpy patriarch Tony trapped inside with his nearest and not-so-dearest over the festive season. The force imprisoning them is some sort of sentient black goo, and the only contact they have with the outside world comes from the ever-vigilant television. Its first message: AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.

Melding savage satire with gleefully grim gore Await… has been a hit at horror fests across Europe and beyond. VODzilla caught up with the team at Manchester’s Grimmfest back in October and discussed our trust in TV, dysfunctional families, body-horror and Brexit.

IN CONVERSATION: Ian Winterton with Gavin Williams (screenwriter), Johnny Kevorkian (director), Jack Tarling (producer) and Grant Masters (lead actor).

So, congratulations on a brilliantly taut horror film. How did it come about?
Gavin Williams: I had the idea 10 years ago, New Year’s Eve 2008, and I was travelling down with my then girlfriend and I’d bought an album by a band called The National and this song comes on called Apartment and the lyric is ‘Stay indoors until someone finds you / do whatever the TV tells you’ and that rattled around my brain and I started thinking it was a good set-up for a horror film
Johnny Kevorkian: They can’t work out what it is – is it terrorism or whatever – they can’t get out and they then have to figure out…. It communicates with them via the TV. It sends them their first message ‘Await further instructions’.

It was conceived of during the festive season and is set over Christmas – was that always part of the idea?
GW: Not immediately but when you start developing an idea, you take the premise to its logical extreme to up the tension, the conflict. One thing about being an independent filmmaker is you’ve got no money so you look for an idea can you make cheaply. This was set in one location, so it has that idea of conflict baked into it. My first thought was it was a horror film so lots of teenage kids trapped in a house but then I realised it had to be a family – the hierarchy of that, and dysfunction that can be transmitted down the generations. So it soon became about being stuck in a house, unable to get out, with your family. For most people that would be bad enough but when you think ‘When would that be the worst possible time to happen?’ then the answer is Christmas.
Especially with racist granddad – Game of Thrones’s David Bradley.
JK: Getting him attached to the project was a highlight. And he was, of course, utterly brilliant.

With Granddad’s racism, and his antipathy towards his grandson’s Asian girlfriend, and also Grant’s character, Tony, the father, stuck in between the older and younger generations, how much did recent events play into the film?
Jack Tarling: You mean Brexit? Well, the funny thing is, it was shot in 2015 so it was pre-Brexit. But these things don’t come out of nowhere. At the time David Cameron’s talking about migrant swarms coming into the country and that sort of thing so, looking back, it was in the air. And, of course, on the TV.
Grant Masters: There’s also the religious aspect to my character. There’s media indoctrination but then he’s influenced by something older – religious indoctrination. Which, obviously, is heightened because it’s Christmas.
GW: And TV is sort of this god, too, that you dedicate your life to for hours and hours each week.
The uninvited guest.
GW: Yes. The TV is the antagonist but, in a way, the family do it to themselves. This is what society is – all this bad stuff simmering away just under the surface.
JK: What was good was having quite a long rehearsal period – on the set – so the actors can come together to really feel like genuine family.
GW: Also, as I was first working the idea up, the Credit Crunch was kicking of, and there were lots of people on the TV hearing that there wasn’t any money in the banks and so going down to the banks and queueing up outside banks themselves. So the panic and paranoia that the media can generate and, broader than that, the idea of technology and how, as a layman, a lot of it you can’t understand. If the TV tells you something, is it safer to follow instructions?
JT: There was a delay after the shoot because we had to wait our turn for the CGI and various other things – but that delay has helped us a lot in a way because we’ve since had the rise of nationalism, Brexit, Trump. I keep saying I’d like to shake Trump by the hand.

Ugh. You don’t know where they’ve been.
JT: [Laughs] No. Maybe not then.

The single location really works and it’s testament to your set designer that it’s all actually shot in a studio – you really can’t tell.
JT: We hear that a lot. To get cast and crew into a real house with all the equipment wouldn’t leave much room for creativity.
JK: Yes, Nina Topp, our production designer, was brilliant. We basically shot it outside Yorkshire on three stages. One whole stage was the living room and kitchen, and then the stairs and the upper level, and then the final phase. It meant I could design the shoot down to the last detail – the set was designed to incorporate room for cameras to make certain shots. I had to work all that out beforehand and Nina’s design took all that into account.
JT: It’s a studio in North Yorkshire, about half an hour out of York. The shots of the town is actually a village about 20 minutes away called Hemingbrough.
Thanks to IMDb I can tell you that Await Further Instructions is the only film to have ever been shot there.
JT: [Joking] Maybe I’ll use that as part of the marketing…

It’s testimony to the writing that, although there are all these current issues swirling about beneath the surface, it’s not too on the nose. For this reason – social commentary coupled with very gory body horror – it brings to mind the films of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.
GW: It’s all those things – it’s about a range of issues which will give it more of a shelf life.
You shot the whole thing in five weeks?
JT: Yes, and a week of that was the end sequence.
It’s hard to talk about without spoilers but this very much focuses on Tony…
GM: How much can we talk about it without spoiling it?
JT: Well, the sort of techno-Hellraiser transformation is up there on the poster. There are certain things we really don’t want to reveal, but if we don’t let people know that there is going to be some juicy horror, then the audience might not buy a ticket. The poster lets people know to expect some Cronenberg-style body-horror, but the wider story, why they’re locked down in their house, we don’t want to give that away.

The film boasts some very effective in-camera visual effects which adds to its Eighties horror vibe.
JK: The Fly is very much an influence – the transformation. But all that Eighties horror, yes. Using practical effects, before CG. Everything you see on screen here is practical effects – we’re using puppeteers, wires, prosthetics – it was physically all there.
GM: Dan Martin did the effects – all the stuff on me. He came in and put it on me every day. And we had technicians on set and a puppeteer for some sections. He’s worked on stuff like Ben Wheatley’s High Rise and A Field in England, and he was working on something massive at the same time and he kept coming to our set and saying, ‘I much prefer doing this’.

In this era of bland 12-certificate so-called horror movies, there are some refreshingly horrific scenes. The in-utero baby and the skeleton, for instance… But it’s still only a 15 – what do you have to do these days to get an X-certificate?
JT: Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it to get an 18 as that would limit its commercial potential.
So, Tony, how was that last week of the shoot? Gruelling?
GM: I’ve worn extreme make-up for a few stage jobs before but this was the first time I’d done it on film. I had to be on set for 4am for a week – different layers of the prosthethic s had to be put on. The worst thing was the contact lenses – constantly having to drop water into my eyes. But, really, I loved it. What actor wouldn’t? And being the monster was a real key change after four weeks of playing grumpy dad.
JK: The last film I did had 25 effects shots and this has more than a hundred – and most of them practical effects. I loved the fact that, in the script, you really don’t know where the story is going to go. So many scripts you get to read are samey and wouldn’t be a challenge to do as a director – this was the opposite.
JT: But it’s the characters first – they’re real and three-dimensional. That way the situation, the horror, has more emotional impact. Mike Leigh meets David Cronenberg somebody said…
GW: I’m very, very happy with that description.

This interview appeared at VODzilla.co here

INTERVIEW: PAUL PROVENZA ON ‘THE ARISTOCRATS’

By Ian Winterton
First published in CityLife magazine in 2005

There’s a T-shirt, popular with scientists I’m told, that bears on its front the legend: “Memes don’t work”, while the reverse reads, “Tell a friend.” I think this is a great joke (because it makes me feel clever), which not only shows exactly how subjective comedy is, but how jokes work mimetically. For instance: did you ever hear the one about the man who went into a theatre agent’s office and said, “I’ve got a great act”? No? Well, now you have.

The joke, known as The Aristocrats, is the subject of an astounding new documentary by comedians Penn Jillette (the larger half of magicians Penn & Teller) and Paul Provenza, whom I meet for morning coffee in the Sheraton hotel during the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He’s a good-looking, square-jawed Italian-American, wearing a bright blue T-shirt that, while not sporting a dubious gag about memes, does show several photos of John Cleese performing his famous ‘silly walk’.

“We can trace it back at least as far as the mid to late nineteenth century,” he says in his confident, New York accent. “Jay Marshall, the older gentleman who first tells the joke in the film, he just died about two months ago at the age of 84. He first heard the joke when he was seven years old, by a guy who was in his eighties.”

Provenza finds it hilarious that “they think the perfect time to tell a child this joke is when they’re seven”. The joke is, you see, one of the filthiest ever told.

“We chose it because it’s got a set-up and a punchline and in between there’s a wide-open field,” says Provenza. “There’s no actual record of what that middle part is, but it usually contains sex, incest, scatology, bestiality. But it’s all subjective. In some parts of the world the joke would be about a guy eating pork.”

Needless to say, the pork joke doesn’t make it into Provenza’s movie. It’s outrageously foul and, therefore, one of the funniest movies ever made. But, in setting out to make the film, Provenza and Jillette’s intentions were serious.

“When Penn and I get together we talk very pretentiously about art, philosophy, politics, pussy – whatever it is, we’d talk pretentiously about it,” Provenza explains. “Penn was obsessing about jazz improvisation – what is genuine improvisation and what is just a sort of twisted recapitulation of something you’ve already heard? I said, ‘You know you’re talking about comedy?’ and then we started talking about the similarities between jazz and comedy.”

This line of thinking inspired the duo to investigate what it was that made comedians uniquely funny. They chose the Aristocrats.

“Not because it was transgressive,” Provenza insists, “but because it was simple. If you wanted to do the same with jazz musicians, you wouldn’t have them all perform Mozart, you’d have them do Mary Had A Little Lamb. And, with the Aristocrats, so many comedians already knew it so we didn’t have to explain anything. Everybody was on the same page right away.”

The film contains a roll-call of American comedians – Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lewis, Drew Carey, Jason Alexander – with British contributions from Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly. There’s even a South Park segment. Baring a few exceptions, they all live up to movie’s tag: “No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity.”

“We had to put that on,” says Provenza, “because, in the States, we have this thing that everything public has to be clean. Every journalist in the US asks us about the language, whereas in the UK, no-one could give a shit.”

At the time of our interview, Provenza hasn’t had much feedback from the British public (its UK premiere, later that evening, goes supremely well), nor indeed from our comics. This being the Edinburgh Festival, I tell him that I found myself having a pint with Stewart Lee the previous day who, it turned out, caught The Aristocrats while in the US. He looked at me very seriously and said, “That film is great. It totally made me reappraise my attitude to comedy. In fact, if I hadn’t seen The Aristocrats, I wouldn’t have written the act I’m performing this year.”

Provenza is delighted to hear this.

“I’m taken aback,” he exclaims. “That’s the hugest compliment I could ever get. I’m really, really, really in a good mood now. Stewart is phenomenal. One of the best stand-ups around. He makes me weep, he’s so funny.”

Later on, at Provenza’s invitation, I’m sitting in an audience comprised entirely by comedians who are in Edinburgh for the festival. As well as Lee, faces I spy include Jimmy Carr, Stephen Merchant, Barry Cryer, Andy Zaltzman, Lucy Porter, Brendon Burns, Dara O’Briain and Andy Parsons. When Provenza introduces the film, the warmth of the reception is palpable – he is clearly a well-loved figure. The film goes down incredibly well. Having seen it before, I get to watch the audience reacting, a pleasure equal to viewing the film for the first time.

“That’s why you’ve got to see this film in a theatre,” Provenza had told me before. “Half the fun is that the laughs aren’t all universal, and neither are the points at which some people walk out in disgust.”

No-one walks out during the comedians’ screening. It seems, as had happened in the States, comics have embraced the film.

“If comedians didn’t get it,” says Provenza, “that would mean we’ve got it really wrong. But they love it, not just because it’s funny, but because you get a real sense of camaraderie. Even though we shot 100 people in 100 different locations, there really is a sense that they’re in the same room. It’s got that sense of community that nobody has really captured before.”

And, importantly, it acknowledges stand-up as an artform.

“Yes,” agrees Provenza. “Everybody thinks they can do comedy just because they can make your friends laugh. They think they have what it takes but maybe they’re not up on stage. If Tchaikovsky’s up there on the piano, you wouldn’t think you were as talented as him just because you can play chopsticks. Comedy never gets the respect as an artform.”

The Aristocrats may change that. Or it may not. Either way, its barrage of “unspeakable obscenity” is stomach-crampingly funny. It really is. So spread the word. Tell a friend.

INTERVIEW: SIMON PEGG and NICK FROST ON ‘SHAUN OF THE DEAD’

By Ian Winterton
First published in CityLife magazine in April 2004

Blending those evergreen themes of cannibalism and the living dead into a tale of romance, Shaun of the Dead promises to believe life into British films. Again…

“Zombies…” says Simon Pegg. “Hmm. They’re…”

Beside him on the comfy-looking sofa is Pegg’s porky buddy, Nick Frost.

“Zombies are shit,’ he says matter-of-factly.

“Yes,” agrees Pegg. “Shit. But very scary.”

The first time I ‘meet’ Simon Pegg is at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square. He’s just introduced the “firstever screening anywhere” of romantic-zombie-comedy (that’s a romzomcom to you, mate) Shaun of the Dead and, while on my way to purchase popcorn, I see him in the corridor. Pale and shaking, he is a picture of abject terror.

This isn’t surprising – as co-writer and star, he has invested several years of his life to Shaun. He needn’t have worried, though – the film is, to use one of Pegg’s favourite self-invented phrases, “fried gold”.

Thursday at London’s Charlotte Street Hotel sees Pegg infinitely more relaxed. Both he and Frost exude the infectious jubilation of two guys who are having a bloody good week – feedback from the screening has been overwhelmingly positive and that bible of the movie industry, Screen International, is going to put them on the cover. The two of them are the living embodiment of a Homer Simpson ‘whoo-hooh!’

Signing Shaun posters when I walk in (“I’m going to draw a knob on this one,” Frost says), they retire to the aforementioned comfy-looking sofa.

“Zombies are shit,” says Pegg, “in that they’re not fast, but they’re scary because they’re like the nightmares where you can’t run away. Even though zombies are slow, you can sprint all you like but they’ll still catch you.”

Pegg and Frost like zombies a lot.

“We used to plan what we’d do if there was a zombie attack,” Frost tells me. “We decided we’d flee to the Isle of Wight, but every day we’d have to go on patrol because the zombies could enter the water at Portsmouth and walk along the sea bed and then stumble up onto the beach.”

For such rabid zombie fans, it was inevitable that a film like Shaun would come about. Inspired by an episode of Spaced – the surreal sitcom that earned both guys a cult following – in which Pegg’s character, Tim the slacker cartoonist, hallucinated that the zombies from the Resident Evil video game were real.

Pegg says: “Edgar [Wright, director] had so much fun with those zombies that we decided to make a feature film.”

How important was Edgar to the film?

“In many ways he is the project,” Pegg says. “I always said…”

“The owl is the pussycat?” Frost offers.

“The owl is the pussycat.” Pegg nods. “Smokey is the Bandit. I always said Edgar was the third writer on Spaced – he provided the visual side and that’s true of Shaun. Plus, we wrote it together.”

Pegg plays the titular hero, a regular bloke who finds his girlfriend trouble further complicated by a zombie plague. Accompanying him in his battle against the undead is Ed, a lardy Xbox addict played by Frost. Obviously not based on Frost himself in any way – how did he get into character?

“I’m a great believer in the Method,” Frost says in thespy tones. “First, I shaved a hole in my hair because I thought it would be funny for Ed to have this bald patch in his hair – like he’d been jackassed at a party. And [he grins, proudly] I shaved off my pubes. So instead of just acting itchy I’d actually be really itchy all the time”

Pegg shakes his head, pityingly. “He’s still shaved.”

“Yeah,”‘ Frost confirms. “I shave it once a week. I like the feel.”

He looks down at my tape recorder.

“Oh,” he says. “Bugger.”

This interview first appeared in City Life Magazine in 2004.