Ben Hopkins: Drugs and surealism in the Nine Lives of Tomas Katz
Ben Hopkins is the sort of person you invite to your grande bouffe at News Years, when you've reserved places for one too many happy couples. Nic met him at some festival or other last year [that's 2000 now - Nic] and after hearing of his talent but having missed Simon Magus, he had a pop at interviewing him anyway. Months after transcribing that half hour of garbled crackling (and after evidence of an odd cult following) Ben sends us an email trying to drum up publicity for his latest film The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz without realising the connection. This is the film that people love or hate, the director that many have derided at cliquey parties whilst others claim he's the resurrection and the light. Netribution's vote?
Genius. We keep watching it and we've
both agreed that this film, an enormous exotic main course with
tiredness and drugs on the side and a huge mint julep, is the most
daring and successful British film for a quarter of a century. Bold
words huh? Well the trade reviews are listed after the interview - just
to show you what 'the experts' thought - but they could never come
close to persuading or dissuading potential viewers accurately. It's
just one of those films that demands exhibition and gets piss all. This
isn't Bridget Jones or even a Lean epic, this is The Wicker Man and 2001
on £400,000. Please go and see this film. Go and hate it, walk out and
blame me or chew sodden blotter with your popcorn and have your wits
walk out instead.
What were your influences for Tomas Katz?
Well I watch everything from the sloppiest Hollywood pic to Armenian Animation. I'm a real anorak for film, I will watch anything. When it comes to influences, it's very difficult to sort of unpick the film to answer that, obviously I've nicked a few things but that's not quite the same as influences. I've nicked stylistic things from the German Expressionists like Murnau and Lang. The film has a mixture of styles from silent film through to MTV.
talk about the silent stuff. Was there some hidden meaning to Katz
dancing around the playground and getting bullied almost apathetically?
I don't know, I think that stems from the time when Tom played a child in front of me.
It's about as unconventional as it gets in a feature.
With the silent movie, inter titles and everything? Well obviously there is the kind of old fashioned film style and a contradistinction to the style of the tamagotchi, so it's hilarious.
It's funny but I hope the sequence is vaguely haunting as well.
I like to have two things going on, two different moods at the same time where possible. Have chilling and funny at the same time - that's kind of the ideal.
suppose people try to associate you with Gilliam in that way. Although
the narrative exists, it's pretty fucking all over the place. How's
that comparison sit with you?
With this film is interesting because everyone has their own point of reference - that people can say "yes - this is reminding me of…" The thing is that there are so many points of reference. The film has reminded so many people of so many different things, it's quite clearly not derivative of any one thing. I challenge anyone to come up with a film that it is really like. There are moments when it's like other films but the overall thing is entirely unique.
This is your second feature isn't it?
Yes it is.
It was a great deal cheaper than the first.
A ninth of the price.
Was it a very personal project from the beginning?
Simon Magus is more conventional. I thought it might cross over art-house and mainstream film. But by the time it came out the trend had moved so far to the right they could only argue it was quite clearly an art house film. It's not conventional. Nothing I do is conventional.
You got an art school background?
Well I went to the Royal College of Art to do film.
your beef with London? You got the cabs but you didn't attack mobiles
when you obviously hate them?
Well I would like to have somehow put mobiles in the stocks and killed them off but I didn't get round to it in Tomas Katz. I don't know why actually, I should have done it.
What you working on now?
The distribution of Katz
You've got to do that yourself?
Was it the same with Magus?
No, Magus was released, albeit half-heartedly, by FilmFour. No, I mean it'll be a total one-man show. It'll be me putting out all the postcards in the bars and the cafes. I'd quite like to hire someone to do it but I've no idea how to, can't hire anyone to do it, I don't know anyone who would do it. It's such a boring job, I have to do it myself.
Oh fuck no! (laughter) What I need is a fourteen year old nephew or someone like that but I don't have one.
one section that particularly got to me was the way the record stops in
the emergency broadcast. It's something I've always quite wanted to
see, it was like Romero in one of the Zombie flicks - that was equally
absurd, betrayed the hopelessness of the situation and invoked fear in
I know the movie you are talking about. I think that was quite probably a starting point towards… that's a good point, I think it was the Romero film that engendered that kind of emergency broadcast. The other one was of course the Moral Maze which was a Radio 4 programme
Oh I didn't know that.
It's a load of pompous twats pontificating but the characters who speak about the Abdominal Gaze were based on the people who did the Moral Maze.
The time when it gets stuck: There are several Avant Garde films where people have experimented with the same but a lot of Tomas Katz is experimental and/or Avant Garde but most Avant Garde films are really boring. You see someone waving their camera around their garden. This is an experimental film, which intends to entertain and amuse.
It does run a course, and I didn't think it would at one point.
It does have a narrative but it's a narrative that has hundreds of digressions, It wonders off in one direction and comes back again. It's in no way a traditional narrative in the way that a person in this industry would recognise it
it really, really does suit drugs more seeing it sober, I have to say.
I think it probably is a good drugs film.
That's not such a bad label is it?
It's a perfect way to begin a drugs evening or it's er…..well why not?
Who do you think your audience is?
Well the film has done very well in Germany where it's played to generally a young, art schooly, druggie, clubby style public. Which is probably the second most sought after public after teenagers. I've been really pleased with the success in Germany in a market place that people making shit gangster films are trying to conquer. Despite the fact that it's done in black and white I think it's really got quite a wide appeal but that's 'cause it's funny basically. And people can excuse things when they're laughing. They can excuse my indulgences in German Romanticism. It's a very indulgent film, the thing is that when you indulge yourself and take yourself too seriously then it's rather painful to watch. I'm indulging myself quite a bit, yeah sure, whilst having a laugh, which is far more watchable.
Have you got plans for another feature?
I was planning to shoot one this summer but it fell through - it was a horror film. It was quite comical but it was too ungeneric and it didn't sufficiently resemble a horror film for the financiers. At the end of the day they wanted it to be a teenage horror film.
Can I ask you about how you met Robert Jones?
He's a great guy. How did I meet him? He read the treatment and rang me up.
I would much rather Robert was working as producer because I think he's a very good producer and we don't have enough of them. But given the choice of people who could be running the Premier Fund I'm glad it's him because he's got his head and his heart in kind of the right place - and it could be in a lot worse hands than Robert's. But it's a shame, every single producer that I've worked with so far has had to take an office job in order to survive. It's kind of untenable to be a producer in this country without having to give in and go and sit behind a desk after a little while, which is kind of depressing.
would you say to young filmmakers who want to go out and shoot their
own feature and they really wanted to do it their own way. Would you
advise it or not - after your experiences?
Well yeah. I mean the worst you can do is fail and end up making bollocks but you can equally spend three years planning it, raise five million and end up with a pile of bollocks as well. Simon Magus was £3m and was very carefully planned, very particular and very ornate. Tomas Katz was very cheap - shot in three weeks on a small budget - really knocked together. I kind of prefer the Tomas Katz way of making films because it's much more exciting.
I think you can but fail. You can make a masterpiece on a DV camera with a couple of unknown actors in a room and you can make a total piece of shit with $120m and all the help in the world. There's a magic thing in filmmaking, a sort of alchemical process where something is either working or it's not and it's very difficult to get into that realm - there's no formula to that. It either works or it doesn't.
(the phone rings, an ansaphone clicks on but Ben turns the volume down)
Are you going to make another London movie?
I'd love to do more about London. I think London is an amazing city. I think there's room to do more stuff like Tomas Katz about London i.e. turning London into a mystic place.
And tearing it all down in the end?
wanted you to stay with the pirate who comes out of the sewer in the
beginning….I found him darker, I found him more powerful than his other
You call him a pirate, that's interesting, I've never heard him called before. That's fine, that's cool. There's a line where he did explain who he was but it was cut.
He was a dream surgeon. He does actually say what he does. He cuts people open. He's meant to be a strange Russian mystic who somehow ended up in a war or something like that. It doesn't really matter what he is anyway. If we stayed as 'the pirate' - we wouldn't have had much of a film. We'd call it the One Life Tomas Katz.
about the Happy Eater scene? That was pretty intense and yet I nearly
wet myself when throughout.
The Happy Eater is of course a terrifying symbol of consumption. It's very 80's and it is is total naked consumption. All it is is just a mouth with the fingers pointing into the mouth. There's something scary about it. It's like, every now and again you see something on an advert on TV, like the butter man in the "Lurpak' advert, and you think to yourself - 'if I saw one of those fuckers on my table, I would tie myself up and asked to be sectioned instantly. How scary is that?
The whole piece is pretty apocalyptic. Is that something you particularly enjoy. Definitely the sort of imminent doom you'd associate with George Romero or John Carpenter.
It's about the end of the world. The world is full of stuff. And most of the stuff that the world is full of is bollocks and Tomas Katz obviously removes all the stuff and makes it into a pure state - which is nothing. It's quite a beautiful thing that he's doing. The apocalypse is rendered here as an act of just closing down and making things more simple.
A good and evil thing?
No, not at all. It's a nothingness of being…Most apocalypses are rendered as a fight between good and evil and the end is regarded as something terrifying but this is more, the end is something, an act of peace. Removing the world of mobile phones, removing the world of stupid restaurants, removing the world of all this…all this idiocy that goes on, people talking shit on television, all being closed down and shut up, being made into a beautiful black screen.
(the phone rings again, Ben gets up to screen the call - doesn't take it)
did you pick the CCTV security guard to carry out your purification?
Well it's obviously fun but the role of God was traditionally to watch over us and the idea of His surveillance has now been replaced by CCTV. God may still be watching over us but certainly we are being watched every day by a bunch of security guards.
Does it bother you?
No, it doesn't bother me at all actually. It's that metaphor of God as the security guard that I found entertaining and I've come to a conclusion God is now a stupid, chewing gum chewing, junk food eating twat from Walthamstow who stares at CCTV screens. Quite scary I think.
I'm interested in where you can go from here?
Well I'd love to do Tomas Katz part two. I've got an idea of what happens but the film hasn't even been spawned. Katz has done quite well in Germany but it has to turn a profit which it's not done yet for the producers who want to finance another one. I've got plenty of projects but it’s just that most of them don't fit in with what people want to finance these days, especially in Britain, so you move elsewhere.
Would you go to Hollywood?
Personally I don't think I'd have much of a future in Hollywood. No, I signed up with the German producers and I shall be doing work for Germany.
you going where the money is or where you have an audience?
comes across as a strong festival film, where has it been?
Everywhere really, all around world. But unfortunately it's only been released in Britain and Germany so far. The Sales Agents were United Artists and just as the film started gaining momentum, United Artists were closed down by MGM who own them. So for a while it didn't have a home. That kind of killed the film, it's all kind of unfortunate for us.
You've just got to push on, I suppose.
Yes. It's now a bit too old to sell it anywhere. People will be suspicious about buying it because it's been around since 1999.
have you been doing since, apart from trying to drum up publicity for
I've been doing the usual thing, I've been signing on every now and again, working on and writing scripts. Yeah, just trying to get a project made in this God forsaken country. I had a project which nearly went ahead and was cancelled at the last minute and at that point I decided 'fuck it' I'm going to sign up with the Germans and go and work over there.
(the phone rings once more.)
This is what it's like trying to publicise your own film.
(Ben gets up to screen yet another call - only to be met with 20 seconds of silence on the end of the line)
Well speak then!
You are really thick aren't you? Come on, fucking speak!
If we listen hard enough maybe they will?
(finally a foreign voice mumbles something before hanging up. Ben sighs…)
My number is almost the same as a Greek solicitor's so I get a lot of odd calls. The best was a guy calling from Athens airport saying (mimics Zorba)
"I am at the airport, my wife has not sent my daughter to meet me - I WANT YOU TO SEND HER TO FUCKING HELL!"
obviously played a key role in the film, it was pretty experimental,
have you thought of working in commercials or music video to subsidise
your work as a film director?
Football commercials. Maybe MTV? No one I've bumped into seems to want to work with me on commercials or pop promos. I've been with the same company for years. - maybe it's me, maybe it's the company but I think it's mainly me. Our producer does sense that people are somewhat, sounds really wanky, but people seem to find my reputation somewhat…formidable I think is the word. I think they put me above doing a soap commercial but I'm not. I live in the gutter daily and I’m happy to do a soap powder commercial if they pay me. I need money like anyone else.
you have any regrets from making such a thoroughly uncommercial film?
I don't have any regrets. It's one of the most frustrating, fucking irritating and problematic jobs around - especially working in Britain at this time. And one is constantly dispirited and crushed by the system in trying to get your film forward and struggling for the available funds. But there's always that possibility you will actually get to make your film. And once you're actually there standing in a field and the cameras turning over and the actors are just doing what they're doing, there's nothing more exciting in the world and then it's all worth it. It's both the best job in the world and the worst. We're all in the same boat. There's plenty of people you can moan with, producers, directors and writers.
I don't know how you do it anymore because things have changed. If you want to do romantic comedies or you want to do the kind of very limited, mainstream kind of stuff, then you might get your first film, but it's got to change, it can't remain like this forever. It's the worst it's been for, I don't know, fifteen years or whatever. It seems to be going in a cycle but at the moment the British film financing market is incredibly conservative, that's why I'm leaving.
Yeah, why not? Will you be making English language films?
I speak German. They could be English, they could be German, they could be whatever. I've got a project in Bengali, I've got a project in Turkish, you know whatever.
Where did the original idea come from?
The idea was developed with the actor from a series of improvisations. The original idea was simply, I want to do a film with Tom called The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz in which he plays nine different characters and we had no idea what the characters were.
You had no idea about shooting in London or…
No, absolutely no idea. For a couple of years we didn't really know what to do with it even though we knew what some of the characters were. Eventually, it took it present shape.
It's quite unique to develop a film around an actor.
The Usual Suspects was based on a poster idea. It shows you can start with anything really. What certainly doesn't work I think - and you see this too often - is where someone's had a really good idea for a film, and if they've had a really good idea it normally means it was a boring idea for a film. It's a love triangle - but hey! The three of them are transsexuals, or something. If you know and if you can write down what you're film is about and what it means on a sheet of A4 then you're fucked because when people leave the cinema at the end of your film, then that's all they've got - they've got a sheet of A4. In a film like Tomas Katz or "Simon Magus there's plenty to think about. There's lots of complexity and lots of interest, you can watch this film many times and find new things and that's the way it should be.
Check out www.tomas-katz.com , and encourage others to do so. Many thanks, reviews follow...
thrilling piece of absurdity... Hopkins' film is a great mad adventure
in the tradition of the Pythons, Fritz Lang, MTV, Euripides and German
Expressionism. It's a genuine curio... I've never seen anything like it.
James Christopher, The Times
this hilarious mutant brainchild of writer-director Ben Hopkins... a
monochrome surrealist farce that has "cult" written all over it.
Unhinged, unrepentant, and stark, raving mad.
Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph
diverting surrealism. Hopkins' film is an essay on the occult
ethnography of London... Nothing so obvious as a plot is allowed to
cramp this movie's style as it swoops weirdly across the dream
landscape of London like a demented, dishevelled bird.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
freewheeling and frankly bizarre... TOMAS KATZ is a band apart from the
current crop of British films...
Dave Calhoun, Dazed and Confused
....a creative, idiosyncratic talent. It's a wacky, fun, febrile concoction, full of verbal and visual styles, jibes, jokes and puns, po-faced prognostications and gnomic utterances, with wildly eclectic scoring,
surreal asides and occasional sublime cinematic coups...
Wally Hammond, Time Out
wellspring of innovation... heading for enduring cult status.
Mark Johnson, Screen International