First and foremost, many congratulations on the Moet BIFA nomination. What has the general reaction been towards yourself and The Return?
Thank you. From what I can tell audiences are enjoying The Return for offering something that’s immersive and that doesn’t spoon feed you. A lot of people who connect with the film crave watching it again as soon as the credits roll which has been good.
In addition, are there any fellow nominees in other categories this year that you were very impressed by?
Of course. Just so much range out there. In The Discovery Award category alone there’s the remarkable documentary ‘Orion’ by Jeanie Finlay, this incredible modern grotesque from Steve Oram called ‘Aaaaaaaah!’ and an absolute gem from Heidi Greensmith called ‘Winter’ with great performances. Chanya Button’s ‘Burn Burn Burn’ looks excellent but I haven’t managed to see it yet. For me Ben Wheatley’s ‘High-Rise’ is a highlight, I’m so glad it got made because it’s probably my favourite Ballard novel.
The initial standout from watching the film is the decision to shoot in 35MM. With the length of the shoot/scale of the production in mind, what were the challenges faced?
35mm was crucial for us as a means to achieve atmosphere. It complemented the story by adding textures to the criminal landscape of street level London and, I think, contributed to bringing the audience into the world of the movie.
The challenge was no different to any other production with ten hours in their day. 35mm really focussed us on and off the camera. It meant emphasis on rehearsal and solid pre-production so that when we came to shooting we were ready. I maintain that shooting 35mm was cheaper than digital for us because of this. It also meant that the road between calling ‘cut’ and the cinema screen was shortened. What you see up on screen is pretty much what we shot, mostly first takes. I think that kind of immediacy can be valuable for a micro-budget film like The Return.
Whilst embracing various gangster genre tropes, the film feels refreshingly restrained. Was that a great intention of yours?
With suspense you’re managing and teasing expectation so the restraint came from wanting to make the story feel like it was in prone position, a coiled spring ready to release at any point. So when you’re working with the kind of narrative conceit that we have in place for The Return I think it’s vital to give the audience something to hang their hats on. That’s the beauty of working with the tropes of a genre. It’s a shorthand. It allows you to accelerate an audience’s experience of a story before, hopefully, offering something new or unexpected.
The tone and structure of the film possesses an inquisitive and almost ‘surgical’ quality. Was there a real eagerness to keep the audience second-guessing until the final stages?
I think you’re spot on. The Return is an investigation without a detective. It’s an investigation into what it feels like to be caught on the wrong side of a lie. That’s where the structure comes from. “Things aren’t always clear first time round…” I think that’s quite a true experience of life. Which gifts us the thriller genre’s ultimate universal flaw – the fact that you can never really know the whole picture. Not until it’s too late. We wanted to see how far we could take this so in The Return you never really know the whole picture until the final frame.
With such a jigsaw puzzle of a narrative. Were there any particular inspirations/influences you drew from to help lay the foundations of the concept?
The foundation of the concept was actually quite straight-forward – it’s a lament for a criminal with a catastrophic blind spot. What the retrospective investigation generated, though, was something more cerebral where narrative structure is true to a blinkered point of view. The Return was our attempt to push the subjective point of view to the Nth degree.
Joseph Conrad’s jump cuts, Nicholas Roeg’s vision and insight and Christopher Nolan’s structural renovations have been hugely informative on how narrative structure can mirror, evoke and induce a state of mind for an audience. I’m indebted to them and many others too.
There’s a line in the film ‘If you want to work, get out there and adapt’. Considering your music video beginnings, were you daunted by making the transition to film?
Regardless of format my priority has always been audience – is it watchable, is this coming across, will someone like this? Making music videos was a healthy and natural introduction to things because it gives you room to make mistakes but it also ensures you make your deadlines – the videos are for someone else, there’s a band involved, there are fans to consider.
I borrowed the lessons learnt doing music videos and applied them on The Return. It really is no different. You have a script, a cast and crew and an audience in mind and you try to shoot it well, on time and under budget. Narratively speaking my appetite was for longer forms such as movies and novels long before I made my first music videos. So when it came to shooting The Return I didn’t feel like I was leaping into the unknown.
The steely narration of Sam Donnelly’s narration and the immaculate capturing of London personally made the film feel ‘everyday’. Were you keen to keep it grounded whilst retaining the grit associated with such fare?
‘Grounded’ is the perfect word, that was exactly the intention. Crime is often a household affair, if not a family affair, and that was a liberating thought for a production with very few resources. We knew that a complex criminal character unleashed onto the streets of London was going to be both entertaining and, importantly for us, doable. For us, including everyday elements worked as an antidote in a film where we were constantly stress testing the audience in other ways.
The first viewing greatly satisfying. But you suspect that you would garner more from repeat viewings with The Return. Would you agree with this?
We wanted to create something that was going to draw your mind back to the events of the movie long after the credits roll. Like we’ve talked about, one of the ideas buried in The Return is that “things aren’t always clear first time round”. But I would issue caution over the importance of garnering information. Some of my favourite movies are thanks to the world they build and the feeling they leave me with afterwards. For me no understanding was needed while I watched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for instance, which dazzled and hypnotised me many times before I started thinking ‘what’s this about?’. Needless to mention ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
Of course, working the UK festival circuit and gaining various plaudits, particularly at Raindance. Where do you stand on the state of the British film industry? Is there enough support for up-and-coming filmmakers in this country?
In a nutshell, yes. The British film industry is genuinely unique and packed full of talent. So the opportunities are there.
One thing I would say is that, with the shifting distribution landscape and change in audience viewing metabolism, I’m not sure that onus should be placed on ‘the industry’ over ‘the filmmakers’. Both should be offering solutions to each other and working together to connect film with audience.
Finally, are there any other projects you’re currently working on which we can look forward to?
Absolutely. I’m working on a film about a brand new type of criminal that centres on rivalry and dangerous technology.
Official Site: www.thereturnmovie.co.uk