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netribution > features > interview with alex usbourne > page one
It has become a bit of a tradition at Netribution to start an interview with a description of the trendy London bar or restaurant where the interview takes place, and the standard of the food eaten. Well while Tom gets to talk in Quo Vadis, I can proudly trump him with the likes of the BBC Pebble Mill Canteen (sorry Tom). Grilled foccacia has nothing against the Beeb's watery coffee in a worn polystyrene cup. But such surroundings were soon brightened by a good chat with Alex UsbourneI'd previously come across Alex Usbourne at an NPA producer training event, and his 'northern chip-on-shoulder' attitude (Alex's words) really stood out. Before producing The Acid House, Alex produced Tales From A Hard City in Sheffield. He's a fantastic bloke, with a genuine passion for regional (ie non-London) filmmaking. From their Sheffield base at the Workstation, Alex's Picture Palace North has resisted the lure of London with films in Sheffield, Scotland, and now Birmingham. The metropolis (?!) has rarely featured in features, but for a teen comedy the Brummy accent makes for great humour.Anyway, one thing I regret not being able to put across in this interview is Alex's incredibly demonstrative body language. With each response, Alex's whole body helped tell the story. He's an old-school producer and self-confessed luddite who can get a project moving solely with his infectious and dynamic enthusiasm. Anyway, enough introductions - please welcome Alex Usbourne.

| by nic wistreich |
| photos by nic wistreich|
| in london |

How did you first come across Large?
The previous film I did was The Acid House, and that won best new British film at the Birmingham Film Festival. I’m never one to miss a great free drink after, so I attended and collected the award. The winner of the best short film was called Dirty Phone Calls, directed by Justin Edgar and written by Edgar and Dent. Anyway we met up that night, and shared a few drinks with our awards in front of us, and of course got on - feeling rather full of ourselves. Then the next day when I got back to work, Justin had sent me his script, the first draft for Large, which arrived fantastic with a bright pink - hideous pink - cover. A little letter arrived with it, said ‘Dear Alex, this is a story about a character called Jason who has to prove himself responsible in order to inherit his father’s millions'. And I just really liked that little idea, it was really clear and straight. And also the short film was with it. So I just sat down right away and read the script and thought there’s something really good in here but it will need work, but that’s what I like doing. Then I thought, “oh fuck I bet it’s an interesting script and appalling short film, and he wants to direct himself, oh brilliant’ But it really made me laugh, the short film genuinely made me laugh. So I thought well I’ve got a script here that’s got the core of something really funny and a director who can make me laugh, let’s give it a go. So I went down two days later to Birmingham and said ‘let’s give it a go’. So we did the deal and I signed up the project, and we began a really long process of working on the script. We worked about a year and we worked on it without showing anybody as a policy - each project that you do has it’s own way of developing. With this one it was clear to work in little steps and each draft to kind of look at one problem, one mechanical aspect of the engine as it were, and try and fix that, then stop, look at it and then go ‘is this bit of the engine working’ and go and tinker with that. That worked fine because they were very young, and I wasn’t in a position to be able to pay a lot of money for each new draft. So we did ten drafts before anyone even saw it, which was a huge amount of work but it was really fun to do because we were all working with gags. We had this challenge that with every draft we’d do, we’d try and get one brilliant joke in. What I really enjoyed about it is I’m based in Sheffield, and before the Acid House I did four documentaries from Sheffield, two about boxers and one long one called Tales from a Hard City that I’m really proud of. I’ve really got a big chip on my shoulder about being regional, about having heart and soul and passion from the regions. So having done the Sheffield stuff where everybody speaks Sheffield, and the Scottish stuff where I was really keen to get Irvine’s dialogue right, and I thought Birmingham, brilliant! Another dialect. And I do like to really protect the language and to enjoy the language and to make it work, so that was another challenge for me. And you’ll see - it’s such a funny accent. It s a routed film, it was routed in place - the comedy, the situation - and that appealed to me. So after about 10 drafts I was like, we'd better start, people are going to get this or they aren’t.

Did you have any money for the development process?
No, no. It wasn’t very expensive, but we did it all ourselves. And then I was going, ‘what’s our strategy here?’. Justin has his own troupe of actors called the Wonderful Players who he’d worked with and developed in his short films. So I thought, well if we can kind of do something that's not a read-through, not a full performance but something that gives a sense of the flavour and the energy of the piece and invite people up to it, that would be great. But then I thought fuck, there’s a really serious downside here: that you can do this and it’ll fall completely flat. But I thought, well we’ll do it anyway, we’ve got nothing to lose. We really spent a long time: we spent two weeks rehearsing the actors, working with the actors. We invited Robin Gutch up from Film Four and a few other financiers and we put it on. And it was great, and I think that’s when Robin thought ‘yes there is something here’. But out of that workshop me and Justin went ‘we really need to work on the scripts, some things are working, some things are not working’. And we did another two drafts, and then we did a big mail out. And it did get a good reaction. First there was Lions Gate who we met with, and then Film Consortium came on strong, came on really strong! It was Colin Vanes at first who was really keen, and then Chris Autie flipped out about it. In fact Chris said ‘my teenage children have read it, and they said they loved it’, and I realised it could really work, and Robin had stuck around as well. I think it was quite interesting for him, because he was sat there thinking what am I going to do at Film Four Lab, should I be doing really serious pieces? And he must have read Large and gone ‘Comedy, entertainment, fun, hell! I’m going to do that’, So it must have been a breakthrough for him that he could do that, and I haven’t got over that hurdle. It was about October, November last year that the money was getting locked in. So it’s quite a quick process really - a year, year and a half - developing to shooting.

You spent longer than that on Acid House?
Yes, I always think two to three years is standard and it can be a lot longer but you have to let each thing have its own time. So this has been quite brisk.

Did you have any doubts about working with a first time feature director?
Well it’s always very hairy, a very hairy and risky process but I always knew that Justin could make me laugh, both as a filmmaker and a human being. My first concern is always to make things as easy as possible for him, to get a good team around him, to prepare him as much as possible, to build as much around it but ultimately you’re always taking a risk with a first-timer. He’s pulled it off though, he has pulled it off. We’ve done very well. But yeah, first-timers you always take a chance.

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