Interview: J BLAKESON

On November 18, 2010 there was a delightful conference call between myself and director J Blakeson, who just struck gold with The Disappearance of Alice Creed, an amazing crime thriller. He is an amazing first-time director and his work has been noticed by several important people, including the Nolan brothers.

This interview focuses almost entirely on “Alice Creed”, but we also talk about some other work he has done and may be doing in the future, and what it was like to record inside the legendary Abbey Road studios, known as the place where the Beatles did some of their best work.

GS: You made some short films prior to “Alice Creed”. Shorts seem to be growing in popularity. Do you think this is true, and if so, why?

JB: I imagine because you can edit on a laptop now, making it a whole lot easier to make a good-looking short film. Also, there are more outlets, more people buying short films now. I shot my own films, and used to edit them away from home, and now you can edit them yourself rather than investing 1000 pounds to get back an amateur look. You can shoot and edit right inside your own apartment. I think that’s probably the reason: you can make them so much cheaper.

GS: Is it also a way to attract potential investors?

JB: Well, yeah, most of the time you try to get an agent by showing them your short films, and then you try to get a company, using short films to prove you can actually direct. Someone isn’t goingto let you direct if you have no experience whatsoever. I made one short film specifically to show that it was possible for me to direct and it not look awful. It’s a bit of a calling card, it gives people sort of a take on what sort of director you are.

GS: You scripted “Descent 2”. How the heck did you get involved in that project?

JB: A friend had a project he was trying to sell to Working Title, but they didn’t want to buy it and it was never made. So we were out trying to sell it to another company. We tried to sell it to the company that made “Descent”, who did not want it, but they liked the way we had written it, and they asked us if we wanted to pitch for the sequel. And we said yes. It was one of those rare films that had a green light before it was even written, before it even had a script. I had written four or five scripts that no one ever made. In this case, we knew they would make it and we would get credit. We pitched for it and we got the job. We got called back in and rewrote it, then they rewrote us. The final film doesn’t really look like the last version we wrote. It’s not the one we made, really.

GS: “Alice Creed” only has three actors. As both writer and director, what did you do to bring out the character development?

JB: Character development and really good actors is key. What I did is I did write them all back stories and I knew what the back stories were, so I could find their voices. At the same time, I was very keen about not saying too much about who they were. The story is two days with three characters in a flat, you didn’t really need to know too much about the big picture and who they were. It didn’t matter what happened to them when they were 5 years old. I wanted it to be just about the situation. When you’re in a situation with strangers, you don’t find out much about them beyond what they do, by their actions. I knew who the characters were and let the characters guide me. But if they go a different way than you planned, sometimes you just have to let them go. You can tell a lot about them from how they react to each other. And that’s how it works in real life, when you see how someone reacts to a joke or how a couple might argue with each other. You’re making these judgments about them all the time. And you don’t need to know where they went to school, to know who they are. When i started out ,the characters were very much archetypes of the genre. But on screen, they’re not flat, they’re much more complex human beings. Life’s not that easy.

GS: When filming the scene where Alice has just been kidnapped, you employed a safe word for her to say in case she felt in danger. What was the safe word?

JB: It was a word that Gemma could choose, and if I remember right I think the word was “marshmallow”. It has nothing to do with the scene. I totally forgot at the time (of the director’s commentary), but they asked me at a recent Q&A and the producer reminded me.

GS: You were inspired by “Panic Room”, “Phone Booth” and “Reservoir Dogs”, among others. What writers or directors have you admired?

JB: “Panic Room” and “Phone Booth” were not so much inspiraton as just films I had watched to see how other people had done single set movies before I tried to make one, tried to direct it. I’m a big fan of Stanley Kubrick and also Billy Wilder, the way his characters are really complicated human beings. I like that. Take Alice: even though she’s the victim, she does not have to be angelic. It makes the situation more ambiguous to watch. I like David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. With regards to “Panic Room”, I love David Fincher’s work. Anybody whose films grab you and come out of them thinking, “I wish I had made that.”

GS: You were fortunate to get an actress as talented as Gemma Arterton to play Alice Creed. How hard was it to find an actress willing to go through with the intense, almost rapelike scenes?

JB: I thought it would be really hard before we started casting it. But Gemma was one of the first people we gave it to, she was top of the list for the casting director, who thought she would be great in it. I haven’t seen anything similar to it that she had done. I had seen her stage work, and I asked her to come in and audition. The producers were not very optimistic that she would come in to do it, because she had just got off of “Prince of Persia”, which was a big movie, but she came in and she loved the script. And she was trained in a very intense way, having gone to the Royal Drama School in Britain. I thought it was going to be really hard, but Gemma is the first person who came in and the first person we cast. She loved the cast. The other two were harder to cast. She’s incredibly talented, and she hasn’t really been tested enough in her acting. Normally she’s just been running around looking pretty. I think she can get some really challenging material and just blow people away.

GS: Did you have to petition for an R? This seems like NC-17 all the way.

JB: Really? No, we did not have to petition to get an R. Though in the UK it’s an “18”, which is a year older. I think it is somewhere between the two, R and NC-17. A lot of things you think will happen don’t really happen. It’s a very intense, horrible situation, and because it’s a horrible situation it feels like it’s a lot tougher than it actually is. But if you look at the MPAA guidelines, we followed them and didn’t break any that would get us an R — no real full frontal nudity from Gemma, though we do have lots of swearing. I don’t like glamorizing violence too much and making it look attractive. If you make something look kind of cool and glamorous, women being terrorized or naked, you can get a PG-13. Though, if you make it real like it is, it’s NC-17 or “18”. It’s almost like if you are being childish, you can get away with it. But if you are more grown up, you get restricted.

GS: The score was recorded in Abbey Road Studios. Is there a sense of the historic when you step inside the place?

JB: We actually recorded in the room where the Beatles recorded, which is a smaller room. I got a real kick out of it, because we had a smaller budget. We only had one day there and we had a lot of material, so it was very intense. At the beginning of the day we were like “Wow, Abbey Road” but by the end we just like we had to get it done. It’s like when you first shoot a film, you’re like “oh wow, there’s a camera and crew and a set and everything” and you feel like a kid in a candy shop. Then soon enough it’s work and you have to get it done. The place sounds so much nicer, which is why everyone uses it. And we mixed at the other big studio in London, Air Studios. That’s where Nick Cave does soundtracks. Getting to record in the two biggest studios in London, and getting to play around, it’s a real thrill.

GS: Word on the street is that you will be the director of “Hell and Gone”. Can you confirm this, and what will you bring to the project?

JB: I’m talking to people, I very much like it. I think it’s a great script, but officially we’re only in negotiations. The Hollywood Reporter thing got out because I am talking to them, but that’s about it.

GS: The reports are a little bit premature?

JB: I’m definitely talking very seriously about it. But until it’s signed and sealed, I don’t want to count any chickens. I’m very optimistic, but I don’t want to walk down the road of hubris. Nolan is a great guy. I’ve read a lot of scripts in the past year or so, but this is like the only one that has reached out to me that I want to be involved in. I feel very fortunate.

GS: Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to your next film — hopefully “Hell and Gone”.

JB: Thank you, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you.

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