Simon Rumley: Living with 'The Living and The Dead'
Simon Rumley is one of those UK filmmakers whose work never seems to get the recognition it deserved. His debut feature – the brilliantly crafted faux documentary Strong Language – showed his talent for sharp writing, creating compelling situations and making a lot out of a tiny budget. His follow up films The Truth Game and Club le Monde – which, with Strong Language, formed the 'youth trilogy' – confirmed his talent as a director and writer. Yet, as inventive and enjoyable as the films were, they still seemed to have trouble permeating the consciousness of the cinema going public. Thankfully, his latest film The Living and The Dead (which is reviewed on the resurrected Special Edition HERE ) didn’t just permeate their conscious: it skewered it and then slapped them around with its raw subject matter and brilliantly intense style. Laurence Boyce caught up with Rumley to talk about the film, which was released on DVD on May 12th, and other projects.
Where did the initial impetus for The Living and The Dead come from?
The impetus was twofold I guess. On a more generic level, I'd made my youth trilogy consisting of Strong Language, The Truth Game and Club Le Monde and although they'd be critically very well received and came out theatrically on dvd etc, not much else happened. I wouldn't go as far as saying I was disillusioned with the industry but I figured if I was going to carry on making films, I should change tact and try something different. I'd tried writing a more linear narrative called My Mate Charles about the highs and lows of cocaine consumption but that didn't get me anywhere either - I had an ineffectual producer on that and I remember being called into the BBC which at the time was a first and being told by the head of a drama department that I would never make my film and this person 'knew' this because she'd tried to make a similar film apparently - that was the sole purpose of the meeting as far as I could see. Anyway, I thought things had to change! I'd pitched a couple of dark/horror projects but back around the late 90s the general reaction to horror in the this country was a snobby 'oh we don't do horror' so this was where I was heading.
Roughly at the same time (early 2000s), my father and then my mother died. My dad was a sudden heart attack. My mother was diagnosed with cancer in December 2001. By March 2002 she was dead. You live through these things but it was a tough time, especially watching my mother go from being a happy, healthy woman to, literally a cadaver. I spent the majority of the time with my mum although her sister did most the care work. At one point they were both sitting in the living room and I walked in and they both looked moribund and I thought 'I am the living in the home of the dead'. Immediately I liked this as the title of a film and so started to think about what I could do with the title. By the end of 2002 I'd written my first draft and although the film is not autobiographical, it was informed by my experience of looking after my mother.
It seems that – with such an intense character piece – that any 'wrong step' with the casting process could have sunk the film entirely. How did you approach this process?
Yes, I think that's a pretty accurate assessment. Ironically, I didn't audition anyone. I spent a few sessions with our casting director, Joyce Nettles, discussing all the younger British actors of the time and they were all too obvious or too good looking or too something for the part of James. I think at the end of the second session Joyce suggested that if I didn't want someone 'famous' I should check out this recent graduate from RADA. This happened to be Leo Bill who by that time had done three features, all with reasonably substantial characters and all of whom were completely different from each other. He had a quirky appearance and was convincing in all the roles so I met up with him and he loved the script, I loved him and offered him the part there and then. Ironically, the next day our financing fell apart and it was another 18 or so months before we returned with the financing in place. Again, we didn't approach anyone else - went straight to Leo who was still excited about the script and said yes again immediately.
The father interesting to cast and in fact I had the idea of Roger but hadn't seen him in much else apart from 'Only Fools And Horses' although I knew he was a very respected theatre and tv drama actor. I got an up to date photo of him on my computer and kept looking at it as I was reading through the script, tying to imagine what he would look like and what nuance he would furnish the role with. Halfway through this process, I decided he was perfect...He has a very interesting face which I felt could cope with the disparate and opposite emotions required in the script. Similar to Leo, Roger read the script and responded to it immediately.
As for the mother role, it's a very thankless, frankly unpleasant role to have to play and my main concern was that the actress exude a complete selfless love in a very traditional matriarchal way. Kate does this perfectly I think and actually read the script when she was on holiday in the South of France. We spoke on the phone and she was keen to be involved and didn't seem to be too concerned at how dark her role was so she came on board and did a great job. Actually, she and Roger had known each other as friends for about 16 years or so so it was great as a director to have this couple who really had a background to their relationship...
A small cast and one location. What was the filming like as the rawness and urgency in the film seems to indicate a small crew and short shoot.
Again, a pretty accurate observation! Actually, our crew was about 25 to 30 people. It's the first film I've worked on where I think everyone did an excellent job and where individual members strived to what was best for the film as opposed to what was best for their ego or showreel. It was producer Nick O'Hagan and my own conceit that we only work with people we'd worked with before and liked/respected. We more or less managed to do this and with the help of our continuity person Helene who threw in a few suggestions, it worked out well.
In spite of the tough subject material everyone pulled together and at the end of the shooting day pretty much hung out at the same pub so, yes, it was a relatively intimate and personal but ultimately very enjoyable shoot.
We shot the film in 18 days - 3 x 6 day weeks, so a pretty tight schedule. We didn't have any extra days to re-shoot so we all had to be pretty focused and concise in what we were doing. Actually quite a few people were skeptical that we could shoot the film in such a short period of time but I'd worked with Milton Kam before (DP) and I knew he was very quick and I knew I always know what I want so I was confident we could pull it off as was Milton. In the end I think we averaged 22 set ups a day with a maximum of 26 which is pretty impressive. In the end we finished with about half a day to go! I should also say that between the producer/line-producer and ADs we had a very organised team and this helped immensely as well.
The film did well on the international festival circuit. Were you surprised by this, especially the success amongst the genre film festivals?
Well.....We premiered in Rotterdam in 2006 which was a surprise in itself. And from that, we were offered a handful of more cutting edge big indie type fests like Buenos Aires and Stockholm and Durban. In terms of the genre film festivals, I have to credit and thank journalist and Frighfest main man Alan Jones for really getting the ball rolling. Alan had come down to the set to interview myself and Milton for Fangoria. He wanted to see the film when it was finished so we had a screening for him and about 2 other people who both blew out. Alan however didn't blow out, came to see the film, loved it and immediately started spreading the word. Ironically, I think he had a harder time convincing he fellow Frightfest selection to programme the film but in the end they did. I knew next to nothing about genre film festivals but he introduced me to the largest ones (Sitges, Fantasporto and Fantasia in Montreal) and they all took the film. Once it had been shown in these places and Frightfest, the whole thing really took off and to date I think we've played 40 festivals now.
In terms of whether I was surprised, I guess the answer is yes and no. The stylisation of my film was largely inspired by Korean and (to a lesser extent) Japanese cinema - directors like Park Chan Wook, Kim Jee Woon, Kim Ki Duk, Takashi Miike. I like that they make films which are stylish, intelligent, dark, disturbing and at times extreme and these are all elements that I'd like to think are imbued within the core of The Living And The Dead. I guess these guys have all done pretty well on the genre circuit and the great thing about this circuit is that if people like something, they'll really support it and spread the word. Ultimately I was surprised by how the people who loved this film really, really loved it and that in the end, we won 15 awards around the world for it...
The film has definitely divided reaction: seemingly people absolutely adore it or hate it. Again, were you prepared for this and what's your take on this?
Again, yes and no I guess. I wanted to make a film which challenged and disturbed and grated on people so, frankly, given that this was my aim, I think I succeeded but inevitably, not everyone wants to be subjected to such emotions in the cinema. Also, whilst some people love the alternative realities and the challenge to work out what really is going on, some people don't have the patience/disposition/desire/mental capacity to entertain this! I think it's like taking acid - some people love it but for exactly the same reason some people do love it, others hate it. I have to say the majority of journalists seem to have appreciated the film for what it is and for eliciting an strong emotion from an unusual subject, and for bending the convention of what 'horror' is. Generally, even the journalists who haven't liked the film have acknowledged it in terms of its film-making and style etc.
I think the public have been more divided in terms of the love/hate and certainly it seems to have immensely offended some people but you can't help but be impressed by a guy who wrote he was going to burn his copy and any other copy of the film he happened to come across! Although not really a horror film per se, it's been marketed as such and so I can imagine that if you're a horror schlock fan and are expecting Friday 13th pt 13, you're going to be rather confused as to what you're watching. I think one review likened the film to being hit in the face which is a relatively accurate description and I guess not everyone wants to be hit in the face in the name of entertainment!
What are you currently working on at the moment and how is that panning out?
At the moment I have three projects in various stages of development.
The first one which looks like it's going to happen this summer is called Little Deaths and is a psycho sexual horror anthology containing three thematically linked 30 films by three different directors - myself, Sean Hogan and Andrew Parkinson.
All set in modern day London, my film is called Bitch and is a psychological tale about revenge, Sean's is called House and Home and is a take with a twist on sex and torture movies and Andrew's is called Mutant Tool and is essentially about a mutant with...well, an unnaturally large tool!
We're very close to signing a deal with a UK distributor and an international sales agent and I think it's a very exciting project, and very un-British in terms of its edgy subject matter which we believe can only be a good thing.
The second project is called Stranger and is about a couple of American venture capitalists who see a murder in rural China and then the murderers see them and start chasing. It's a subversive chase/thriller along the lines of Duel meets Lost In Translation. I was in LA recently and met up with Eric Stoltz who's on board to play one of the venture capitalists. We've currently got an offer out to another excellent American actor.
Thirdly is an adaptation of the extreme cult novel Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite - about two gay serial killers who meet by chance in New Orleans and fall in love with the same potential victim, causing a battle of wits as to how best to torture the victim to death. Not many laughs here but if it happens, this'll be one of the craziest films ever made and make Irreversible or the Devils Rejects look like child's play. The French distributor of Cannibal Holocaust told me that if I ever made this film I may well end up in jail, the producer of Videodrome said it was the most disturbing thing he'd ever read and there was no way he'd ever put his name to it and the producer of Monster said it was 'despicable'...I'm coming up with a lot of virulent opposition with this one but actually, the younger genre people it's gone out to have been like, 'holy fuck dude, you HAVE to make this film...' So we'll see...
You've made many critically acclaimed features but – despite the acclaim – the films have never gone massive like they should have. Do you ever get frustrated with the British film industry as it is?
Yes indeed...But no-one said it was going to be easy and, errr, no-one was right. I do find it remarkable that after 4 critically praised films made for a cumulative budget of under £1m, someone hasn't come to the conclusion that if I was given a bit more money or a slightly more commercial script I could do something pretty good but hey, that's probably why the industry remains in a perpetual state of mediocrity. Ironically, my friend Tom Clay who suffered s similar fate and moved to Thailand has just got his second film into Cannes. One of the toughest things is finding a producer who is good both creatively and financially and there are very few of those around and probably even fewer who have made inspiring films. I don't think there's been a better British film than either of Nicholas Roeg's Performance or Don't Look Now and they were made almost 40 years ago so either he was doing something very right, the British film industry is doing something very wrong or I have peculiar taste...
I've always produced everything I've ever made cos if I left it to other people I don't think we'd be having this interview! I'm focusing now on making films outside of the UK (see above - China/US) because realistically, I don't see the point of expending so much effort on making films in the UK anymore. Obviously, that said, my next film, Little Deaths will be shot in the UK and I'm very excited about it!
And linked in with that, this seems to be a great time for making low budget British features. Warp X, Digital Departures have led to such films as Crack Willow and Dogging amongst many others. Do you think 'great, a creative environment that I can now work in' or "Dammit: I was ten years too early'
Actually, I don't think either ...and I contacted Warp X a good few times but got nothing back from them so although they claim to be very cutting edge (and maybe they are - I haven't seen any of their films), I don't think it's very cutting edge not to respond to emails or phone calls!
Whilst I feel I could have made more features and utilised my talent more over the years, I've made 4 independent features in 11 years which is an OK record and I've always done what I've wanted to do and generally been pretty proud of what I've done. I've never been one for waiting for people to give me permission to do something so I guess I'll carry on doing what I'm doing and hopefully one day this mythical someone will wake up and give me some more money and the world will be a better place for everyone! But if not, then I guess I'll try to carry on doing low budget stuff and at least become a cult director or something...
And finally: anything you care to say about films, filmmaking, your career or even the price of fish?
Hmmm, well I have just bought a couple of packets of King Prawns from my local highstreet supermarket cos they were half price and freezable but generally I'm not too good on the price of fish.
Well, when we were shopping the script around for The Living And The Dead, a fair few people said 'you can't make a film like that!' When we did make it, we took it to quite a few sales agents and they all said it was impossible to sell and/or market. In the end a great company in LA called Imagination took the film on and have sold it to 25 territories. Generally, the industry and the majority of people in it are full of shit and so it's better to not listen to anyone but to forge your own path and hope that along this path, people will appreciate what you're doing and will help you on your journey (you always need help)...Of course, this may not be very helpful for your bank balance however...
Many thanks to Simon Rumley for his time and enthusiasm.
The Living And the Dead is available to buy now on DVD from DNC Entertainment.
For more information go to www.simonrumley.com (where all the stills in this article were taken from!)