An Interview With Stephen Fingleton

Originally published on We Are Colony.

I sat down with Stephen Fingleton, BAFTA-nominated director of The Survivalist, and talked all things apocalyptic…

Pitch us your film in one sentence.

The Survivalist is about a man who survived the end of civilisation by any means necessary, who finds his life threatened when two women discover his weakness, which is desire.

Now tell us what is it actually about?

The film’s really about what people are like when you take civilisation out of the equation. Who are we? Because so much of our lives are based on our jobs, our names and the expectations placed upon us. What if you take all of those away and see what’s emergent? If all those hidden desires were at the surface…

“Everyone on-screen is a killer…we’re looking at the effects of that”.

How did you begin in creating the dystopian world of The Survivalist?

I began the film when I heard about “peak oil theory”, which is the idea that fossil fuels go into decline – not when they run out, when production slows – the economy’s need for continual growth will mean there’ll be a huge price spike and eventually it’ll lead to economic collapse and I thought it was fascinating. Our dependency on resources, whether it’s credit, which is just a financial instrument, or fresh water or fossil fuels, lead me to imagine how I would survive in such a circumstance.

The Survivalist is an act of fantasisation. If you look at most post-event films or series like The Walking Dead, to some extent they’re about wish fulfilment. We feel so constrained by our lives and by societal strictures that we like that idea that we could survive by our wits and be ourselves, truly, in a world which is “survival of the fittest”. There’s something exciting about that.

It’s about characters who have lost everyone they’ve ever known and they have been deformed by that process, they’ve had to kill to survive – everyone on-screen is a killer – and we’re looking at the effects of that.

Essentially it’s a suspense film about three characters in close proximity who don’t necessarily trust each other, but who begin to grow closer and that raises interesting questions about who they are and whether civilisation is something we agree upon as a functional way of organising things, or whether it genuinely reflects the kinship, that is in our genes, between us.

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What prompted certain stylistic choices, such as the absence of the musical score? Or the use of graphics at the beginning?

Primarily it’s about tension. How do you get an audience invested in what’s going on? In my experience, you treat them as adults and you let them do the investigation, you get them to look for clues, you get them to realise – just as in life – there isn’t a dramatic music cue before a car hits you. I was very interested in not editorialising, not providing the context, because the context isn’t relevant.

There’s very little dialogue – maybe 100 lines – again, you have to investigate the characters to work out what’s happening and hopefully the audience will be a lot more involved if they make that investment. In the first 15 minutes of the film, there’s a single character on-screen and it’s like an induction course – this is going to be the grammar of what we’re doing, this is going to be the journey. When a really interesting story emerges, it exceeds what the audience expects will happen.

The absence of the music came down to the fact this is a world without electricity, therefore music doesn’t really exist. People play acoustic instruments, but why would they do that, because it might attract attention? I do have characters in the film who play music on occasion, in their safe haven, but every time they play that music it reminds you of how much it’s fallen silent. So its presence emphasises its absence.

It also allowed us to focus on the sound design. Almost everything you hear on-screen was re-recorded afterwards. Every rustle of a branch, every creak in the floorboard, every bit of wind. My sound designer Jamie Roden and his team spent a huge amount of time creating that so we could control every element of the audience’s experience. We mixed the film in mono, and we tried to create a very heightened suspension of disbelief, it’s a very interesting experience in that regard. So much of the film is told through sound and because you can’t always tell where it’s coming from, it’s more tense. It’s an aural experience.

One critic has cited that The Survivalist is like “Interstellar Meets Cabin in the Woods”, were there any films, or filmmakers you drew from particularly in the making of this film?

That was my favourite comment. It got it down. It’s an expansive story in a small space.

I’ve always been influenced by Christopher Nolan and his making a micro-budget film and then a bigger film and a bigger film. This is my Memento… it was a twist on the murder-revenge story and The Survivalist is a twist on the Cabin in the Woods story. Typically it’s about a group of people discover a cabin and all is not well or there’s a strange man there. This film is told from that strange man’s perspective.

There are other influences as well, like Robert Zemeckis, who I’m a tremendous fan of. Marty McCann and Marty McFly aren’t so adjacent in terms of how likeable they are, even though they’re from completely different worlds.

And my big influence was Andrei Tarkovsky; a Russian filmmaker whose made some incredible films, including Stalker, which was a science fiction film but not really. It was all about the choices the characters made and I thought that was wonderful. It was so strange and spiritual and where The Survivalist really works as a film are some of its most spiritual moments and the moments I liked most in Tarkovsky are like that as well.

What was the biggest challenge of making this film?

The biggest problem with a lot of films is your cast; if you haven’t cast correctly or had the time and I made a decision in this that I was going to cast it right and get the time I needed on-set. And so I would spend a lot of time rehearsing on set with the cast. The process was so centred around them and that meant sometimes I ran behind because I was so focused on getting the best performance from him. So making sure they had the time to do that when you’re surrounded by a big production machine was one of the big challenges.

The other major challenge was creating the sound, which we were making from scratch. To make it sound realistic but totally controlled as well was the thing that took the longest out of any aspect of the movie.

Did your short films – one of which is a prequel to The Survivalist – provide a good starting point from which to direct your first feature?

Short films are essentially sketchbooks for oil paintings. We did a prequel to the movie called Magpie which was funded by the BFI as a trial run for how I would direct The Survivalist and I cast Martin in that and he was so good I cast him in the feature and we were shooting within a matter of months. It was a great experience – we had a lot of the same crew – it was fascinating beginning to establish the language of shooting a feature film. It’s a brilliant idea, if you get the chance to make 15 minutes of the movie you’re going to do you find out what works and what doesn’t work. In Magpie the performances are really good, but the one thing I didn’t like, if this is set in a world where everyone is starving, the actors look very well-fed. So I knew for The Survivalist they had to lose weight. So for 10 weeks prior to the shoot Martin began dropping his eating massively. We had a nutritionist who advised Martin (McCann), Mia (Goth) and Olwen (Fouere) on cutting back their diet. Olwen remained on the diet throughout the whole production. That’s something that came from the experience of shooting Magpie.

“The biggest lesson I’ve always taken forth with me – and it’s taken a long time – is that the actors tell the story”.

The film is a very lean, tense thriller, was that the case from the get-go or did you have to leave a lot on the editing room floor?

The premise was fundamentally suspenseful because you have three characters in a cabin and there’s not enough food for all of them. So whatever way you cut it, every scene should be full of tension. Every single scene. Anytime anything is happening on screen, one of the characters could die. I’ve sat through screenings with 300 people where nobody goes to the toilet because it’s so tense.

A lot of that as well is to do with my editor Mark (Towns; Lilting), who has a strong background in documentary and has won a BAFTA for it, and we’re very disciplined in making sure the audience have the best experience. It’s essentially a cable we’re running the audience along and the tighter that cable is, the better the experience.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?

There’s so many great scenes in the film because of the decisions the actors made. My favourite sequence is probably the arrival of the women through to the shaving scene and walking that scene through with the actors really added to the realism of it. When Martin takes the actors inside [the cabin], I didn’t tell the actors I was going to film that. I kept the camera rolling, so when Mia walked into the cabin for the first time it’s the first time she’s seen it. She’s looking around and the focus-puller is a bit caught off guard and he’s trying to keep her sharp. There’s a really magic to the first time you do anything. In fact in that scene one of the actors is wearing a microphone but you don’t notice because you’re looking at their faces. That was absolutely fantastic. It’s going to be rare for me to get the opportunity to work with three actors as talented as Martin, Mia and Olwen and have the freedom to do that on set. When you move to a bigger production, it’s more controlled, there’s less chance for improvisation and one of the special things about this is you’re rarely going to see a better cast given the space to make interesting choices.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a filmmaker?

They’re all really important. The biggest lesson I’ve always taken forth with me – and it’s taken a long time – is that the actors tell the story. When I got into filmmaking I was obsessed with the camera, with formats, dollies, cranes but I’ve worked for a long time with my editor and he says the most important thing is what you’re cast do. He says I can’t do anything if the cast haven’t given me something to cut with. And I had to make a lot of choices and compromises, as you have to with any low-budget film, in order to protect the actors so they could deliver their performances and it’s really reinforced that in the process because as long as the actors can tell the story, you’ll be alright.

The Survivalist is out now, alongside two more of Stephen Fingleton’s short films; Insulin and Away Days, only on We Are Colony.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch to Receive Variety Award at BIFAs

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It’s a big year for Benedict Cumberbatch. To say that he currently appears to be the most in demand actor in the business seems both obvious, and an understatement. Not only is he garnering significant Oscar buzz for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, but the news was just awash with his recent engagement to British theatre director Sophie Hunter (in an admirably discreet and classy submission to The Times ‘forthcoming marriages’ section).

And now a press release details that he is to be honoured at the 2014 British Independent Film Awards on 7th December. Alongside his nomination for Best Actor, he will receive The Variety Award, which historically “recognises a director, actor, writer or producer who has helped to focus the international spotlight on the UK”.

THE IMITATION GAMEThe Imitation Game has also been nominated at the British Independent Film Awards for British independent film; screenplay for Graham Moore and actress for Keira Knightley.

Considering that Cumberbatch is the UK’s most illustrious and acclaimed (or any other superlative you might care to label him with) export of late and has 7 films in production, as well as a hotly-anticipated role as Hamlet in the Barbican’s 2015 production of Shakespeare’s renowned play, this award seems well-justified.

Cumberbatch commented: “I am delighted to receive this prestigious award and would like to thank Variety and The Moët British Independent Film Awards for this incredible honour. It is made even more special by the recognition of The Imitation Game in this year’s nominations, a film I am very proud to be a part of.”

At various press conferences for The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch has played down the anticipation that he might receive an Oscar nomination and claimed that as long as it shines a light on Turing’s work, or creates greater interest in The Imitation Game, then he is happy.

The Variety Award was bestowed upon Paul Greengrass last year and has previously been awarded to Jude Law, Kenneth Branagh, Liam Neeson, Sir Michael Caine, Daniel Craig, Dame Helen Mirren and Richard Curtis to name a few.

imagesCumberbatch’s ascent to mega-stardom seemed to begin with his portrayal of the hyper-intellectual Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series, and continued with roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Parade’s End and last year’s Academy Award Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave.

So far this year, Cumberbatch has been filming Black Mass, playing Bill Bulger alongside Johnny Depp, and Shere Khan in Andy Serkis’ Jungle Book. He is also part of the voice-cast in DreamWorks Animation’s Penguins of Madagascar, which is released later this year.

He is currently shooting The Hollow Crown for the BBC and Neal Street Productions, in which he plays Richard III alongside Judi Dench. Next he will shoot Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray and based on David Grann’s novel, where he will play British explorer Percy Fawcett, who set out to discover the City of Z in the Amazon in the 1920s.

If one thing seems certain, it’s that this spotlight won’t be fading soon.

Hollywood hitting a wall?

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Once upon a time there existed such a thing – an institution, a marvel, an industry – as silent cinema. The transition from this mute art form to the sounds of actor’s voices that mark our movies today was supposedly characterised by chaos, upheaval, rapidity – the sudden realisation that sound was the way forward! (As depicted in the beloved film Singin’ in the Rain). Such is the film industry’s propensity for dramatization.

And now it appears that much the same rhetoric is being employed in regard to Hollywood. The glittering, gold-mine of movie stars and moguls, big budgets and even bigger egos, could potentially be usurped by a different system.

Indeed, legendary filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have recently diagnosed the terminal condition of this beloved filmmaking industry. (For a full interview, click here).

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They speak about the ‘Going for the Gold’ gambling mentality (and reality) which will inevitably be its undoing. Hollywood are betting on a few large-scale $250-million blockbusters every year. Sooner or later, say the directing duo, the entire industry will go bust when those few large expensive feature films flop, and the entire industry will be re-defined.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

Such evidence can be found in massive flops like John Carter, Green Lantern or the 3D Mars Needs Moms which all lost something in the ballpark figure of $100million. This slew of un-savvy investments could certainly spell the death knell for the industry.

Spielberg points out the seemingly inevitable conservatism of the movie industry in the face of expanding content choices: “You’re at the point right now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal – and even maybe historical – projects that may get lost in the shuffle.”

He lamented that it’s becoming harder and harder for even brand-name filmmakers to get their projects into movie theatres. In fact Lincoln – you know, that Oscar-winning, $180million-making, historical biopic – was intended for HBO. And if Spielberg is having a hard-time convincing studios to get behind him, imagine how tough emerging talent will find it to break into the industry.

TV is fast becoming the way to go, with a recent glut of big name actors popping up in TV series; Claire Danes in Homeland, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Laura Linney in The Big C, Diane Kruger in The Bridge, the list could go on.

It hardly seems surprisingly considering that TV shows are starting to exhibit a lot more integrity, variety and genius than the film studios, which have recently churned out duds like The Lone Ranger, After Earth, White House Down and Pacific Rim. The Lone Ranger costing Disney more than $200 million to produce and took in $29million on its opening weekend at the box office. 

Spielberg suggests that, soon, Hollywood’s rose-tinted glasses may take a turn for clarity, when it edges further and further toward bankruptcy. And will ultimately forced to change its corporate ways. That change might include: movie-going becoming a rarer, more special and more expensive occasion – likening itself to the theatre; movies being released in all formats, everywhere, at the same time; and most movies coming to us via online services. This, the pair suggest, will mean a bright future for movie-makers with a particular vision – they will be able to make a living out of globally aggregated niche audiences.

And whilst that may very well be the only way to sustain, or resuscitate a floundering business model, it seems somewhat poignant that such a favoured pastime will be reduced to a ‘birthday treat’, or to laptop screens only as more and more people undoubtedly revert to downloading their entertainment.

When this door closes, another one might open – independent films may rise in popularity – but if greed sends Hollywood to the grave, it should be a lesson to us all that mainstream isn’t always the way to go.