Building Comic Characters - ANDY SERKIS & The Boys Get Jolly
We did a lot of casting, a lot of casting. Everybody will tell you casting is so important. The agents in town were all very supportive, particularly since there is not much out there for young actors. There are TV soaps and other drama series or a bit of fringe theatre – even that is very competitive – so if you approach with a film and their actors like the script, often they will be very helpful. Agents take on a lot of actors straight out of drama school and most actors find it very, very tough to get work, especially in those first three or four years. So I saw a lot of actors and they all seemed to like the project and then also, I had Andy Serkis on board from very early on in the lead role. Of course all the actors had heard of him and respected him, so it wasn't so much for me that they wanted to do it, it was for a chance to act with him [smiles]."
Chris Payne, witer/director The Jolly Boys Last Stand - out now on DVD
We know the name Chris Payne as a newspaper by line, but what are your credentials as a filmmaker?
I fell into it by accident. I tried to make documentaries, but could never get any of my ideas commissioned. Then through the New Producers Alliance in London I met a producer called Tom McCabe. Tom was a telecoms entrepreneur who had been to drama school about 20 years previously. He'd set up a film production company in Ealing Studios and wanted an office assistant and I helped him out there. Then after a couple of years later he produced The Titchborne Claimant with a director from the National Film School, David Yates and it was those two who encouraged me. It looked like I was going to become a producer, but there were a lot of camcorders lying around and it occurred to me that I could make a film for very little money on a camcorder. A lot of students then – still do – spend years of their lives trying to raise money to make a short film on which they never expected to see a return. It seemed to me that it was a better return just to dive in, make something cheap and disposable and have fun doing it... and then go back to producing.
Where did the idea for The Jolly Boys Last Stand come from?
I just had this idea about a camcorder that passed between friends. One of the scenes was a wedding where one of the them, either the bride or the groom, can't remember which, walked out; nothing original. Another idea was a couple filming a water burst; various thoughts and ideas that I worked into a script. Everyone who read it said We did a lot of casting, a lot of casting. Everybody will tell you casting is so important. The agents in town were all very supportive, particularly since there is not much out there for young actors. There are TV soaps and other drama series or a bit of fringe theatre – even that is very competitive – so if you approach with a film and their actors like the script, often they will be very helpful. Agents take on a lot of actors straight out of drama school and most actors find it very, very tough to get work, especially in those first three or four years. So I saw a lot of actors and they all seemed to like the project and then also, I had Andy Serkis on board from very early on in the lead role. Of course all the actors had heard of him and respected him, so it wasn't so much for me that they wanted to do it, it was for a chance to act with him [smiles].it was rubbish, apart from the last story, which was about a stag weekend, where the lads who go away fall out, so I just thought I would develop that. Then it struck me that for the cost of shooting this as a short, say fifteen grand, I could produce something sixty or seventy minutes long. It came from there really.
For those who haven't seen it, can you give us a flavour of the film – how would you describe it?
It's the story of a group of drinking pals really, the lads you see in pubs with sweat shirts of all the places they've been, thinking they are hilarious and really just irritating everybody else. The Jolly Boys as they call themselves have been knocking around together since school and the leader of the gang decides he's had enough and wants to get married. So his second-in-command offers to make a wedding video and that is the film which you see, but he has a secret agenda, to try and expose his best friend's real motivations for getting married. He thinks his best friend is making a very bad mistake, so that rather than cosy interviews, you get some very different stuff coming on tape.
What was the timescale from having that first idea to starting to shoot.?
About a year all told, including a few re-writes. I saw a play called Art by Yasmina Reza which really helped, because that is about three friends who start attacking each other over a principle. That helped me work out that I could have a lot of fun watching my characters fall out and I also turned to agents to suggest actors whom they had just recently taken on, so I had a script and we just improvised around the script. Some things look good on paper – straightforward dramatic sequences for instance – but there were other things I felt insecure about and wanted to see happen in front of me, so I would know that they would be funny and that the characters could come alive. This is what really sharpened the script I suppose.
For purposes of creating comedy do you feel you have to create some things off the cuff?
Well it's often about looks and gestures which you simply don't read on the page.
Did casting the actors help you firm up the characters?
The characters became a lot more three-dimensional once I had found the actors. Actors are very good at making things credible. There's a technical problem when you are writing a film that has a lot of characters, in that after a while, all the characters start sounding the same because the writer has a single voice. If you cast early on in that process, an actor will provide a voice for that character.So it becomes so much easier to distinguish between your characters and it was a lot more fun.
If the characters were not yet formed, how did you manage - so early on - to select the right cast?
We did a lot of casting, a lot of casting. Everybody will tell you casting is so important. The agents in town were all very supportive, particularly since there is not much out there for young actors. There are TV soaps and other drama series or a bit of fringe theatre – even that is very competitive – so if you approach with a film and their actors like the script, often they will be very helpful. Agents take on a lot of actors straight out of drama school and most actors find it very, very tough to get work, especially in those first three or four years. So I saw a lot of actors and they all seemed to like the project and then also, I had Andy Serkis on board from very early on in the lead role. Of course all the actors had heard of him and respected him, so it wasn't so much for me that they wanted to do it, it was for a chance to act with him [smiles].
Of Course! Did you know Andy Serkis yourself?
No, I saw him in a play and sent him a script and he really liked it; he liked the humour. The character he played is very similar to his brother, he told me. He thought he could do something with it.
Andy told me that himself, as well, when I interviewed him last week. [jokingly] Maybe he and his brother have got issues or something?
[smiling] Yea, could be, but when you meet him, his brother's a really nice guy. I also knew Sacha Baron Cohen, who was living in London then. When I was casting he was a tremendous help because he is an incredible, incredible, improviser. He is so quick. So the actors who came in had to really know their stuff and have to be really on it just to be able to be heard in the sort of situations we would set up. Most found it quite tough, but the ones who didn't... well, it just became obvious who could and who could not do that kind of thing. I mean, actors don't have to improvise in most jobs and most actors are good at just reading off the page, but we happened to be looking for actors who could also improvise should the need arise, even though when we shot the film, we had a script to work from.
You made a choice to shoot this film on video – was that risky at all?
We shot on digibeta and of course when you blow that up to the cinema-size screen it looks like DV. We actually thought of going the DV route but in those days DV sound was a bit hit and miss. So we went for the best sound. You know, cinema audiences will put up with a grainy picture James, but they won't put up with bad sound. I think that would be my tip to anyone contemplating this.
You intended just to plough on, as it were, so how much budget did you have to raise in order to shoot the film?
Well, we wrote off to lots of people, basically just asking for pennies and people came back with really just two comments: one, you can't make films on video and two; your leading character is off camera half the time. The first I thought I could understand and the second, well I had seen films by the documentary maker Nick Broomfield and you really feel his personality even though he's off screen the whole time, because he is asking questions – but it didn't seem to cut any ice. The whole budget came to £7,000. My old producer Tom McCabe put money in, which was very good of him really.
So it was financed on spare savings really?
Yes it was, but of course everyone was doing things for nothing as well, so our biggest expense really, was feeding everyone. Facilities companies lent us the cameras free, we got free sound and free post-production from companies that are credited on the film.
Now what really was your intention for this? Were you hoping for a nationwide cinema release?
Our intention for the end product was to show it to all our families and friends really. I thought I might be able to get it onto cable TV or something like that. And I thought I would go back to producing. When it got released, I immediately got work as a writer, so that paid for itself in a way. A lot of distributors initially showed interest and this was before Dogme don't forget, because we shot it in 1997, then it took a year to edit and then this business of screening for people and organising screenings takes a long time. That took about another six months – and they all said it is going to be too expensive to market. Geoff Andrew at Time Out then got this job with the National Film Theatre and he always liked it. He said “I'm doing this series of British films - but I can't put it on for another eight months.” So all that took two years really, from shooting it to getting it on in the cinema. We shot it in 1997 and it was pre-Dogme, pre-Blair Witch
Before everything, really – but is it nice to feel you are a bit of a ground-breaker?
[laughs] Not intentionally! There was no sort of ... vision. It was purely just a case of needs must. It was really a bit of an accident that it was one of the first, but of course people like Shane Meadows were making short films on video then And Edgar Rice who made Shaun of the Dead, he shot a lot of fun films on video then, with his school mates, so I wasn't the first to do it, other people were also doing that.
Wonderful performances of course, all the Jolly Boys were good, but a very nice performance from Rebecca Craig too. It must have been difficult for her with all that testosterone flying about!
The girls were unbelievable I think, really, because it's a very male thing. But we also said that what it is really about is that these blokes don't really have relationships. There are a lot of pub widows out there and yes, you are right James, Rebecca was terrific. What she managed to get across well, but what is really hard, is that she was really irritated with these people, but at the same time she loves Andy Serkis' character, Spider. There was something about Des that she could put up with.
I loved that picnic scene where Rebecca's bride-to-be and Des, the best man, are sorting out their differences. I mean it looked freezing cold, but they wee both being absolutely sincere for the camera, weren't they?
They are husband and wife, got married the summer before we made the film, though I didn't actually know that at the time. Yes, you are right, it was freezing cold! In fact all the way through the film everybody had thermals on, underneath. Yes, the thing that gets the biggest laugh in the picnic scene is always the crisp that flies away! [laughs]
We get the impression though – it comes over quite strongly - that this film must have been great fun to shoot. Was it a help or a hindrance to directing the film – did the fun get in the way?
Well, some directors do sometimes say “well it was a nightmare,” you know. And I find that so sad – it is – because filmaking should be great fun. That's the whole point. It has to be fun. I think if you are having a laugh, then you will be all the more willing to put up with cold and late hours and all that kind of stuff. We didn't do impossible hours. We had a long schedule, relatively speaking, because when you are shooting video you are turning over all the time and then it's cut and you start again. The other thing that really helps, I think, is that it is about a world everyone is familiar with. Everybody knows somebody who is in that kind of world, or they have been out with people who are like that.
Mine are all far too staid, I'm afraid...
Well exactly, James. It's not Chekhov. But that kind of thing allows people to bring things in, you know, a joke they heard, of a thing that happened to people they know. That kind of thing really does help, when those sort of things come.
The wedding celebrations were quite a high point, with the fireworks over Eros and the locations driving past as it were. Did you literally hire an open-topped bus, shove every one on board and keep the camera running?
Yes, literally, from the moment they came out from the registry office we just kept running until we got to Trafalgar Square and then we were backing up when all these fireworks went off so, er, we..
..went round and did it all again?
[smiles] ...yes, we just got the tail end of this firework display in Trafalgar Square, yes.
I thought maybe you had fixed it...
Exactly, yeah. It was very lucky. I think you make your own luck really.
Or your own special effects, as in that case! It's five years since the film was finished, what's happened in the interval; since?
It was picked up and given a limited release, but a guy called Richard Simons who runs Spirit Level Films who has had marvellous success - he believes in releasing titles he feels have been overlooked.
Yes, he released Rendezvous. One of the best-selling short films of all time.
Oh, It's terrific! There's a snatch of it on the front of your film's DVD package isn't there?
Yes. I could not believe it when I saw that film, could not believe it. Richard saw the film and said he would really like to have another go with it. He dug out all the original features and stuff, that were not on the original DVD. There were scenes between Des and his girl played by Yolande Davies, which was cut and he wanted those back in and I agreed with him in a way, so now the film is slightly longer than it was. He even put a fun trailer together, which we didn't have -and we also put in this voiceover, which I had forgotten I had done.
Any other ideas that are coming along for you?
Well since this film, I have been working on a couple of projects for BBC films. I'm working with Chris Collins at the moment, who made My Summer of Love. Like a lot of writers, I have slate of stuff and you wait for the next one to go really.
So for you will the future be writing, filmaking, what sort of direction will you take?
Well I'm writing for another director, Adrian Moat, who works for Ridley Scott Associates. It's another BBC project about some backpackers who get kidnapped in Columbia. It's a fiction project, but its about the relationship they form with these guerillas who march them through the South American jungle. And there's also a romantic comedy about a blind date party, which is much more in the Jolly Boys sense of humour.
Well we look forward to seeing more of those in due course. Best of luck with them and best of luck with the DVD release of the one that started it all for you, the jolly Boys Last Stand.