LEXI ALEXANDER - Up Green Street with the pack
"I think every time, to me, not to talk bad about filmmakers who do these male films, but usually when a man does a fight film or a violent film, there’s no vulnerability in the character, it’s very macho-macho. I think that’s part of the guy thinking, ‘That’s how I want to portray myself. That’s how I want to portray the guys’ whereas I say, ‘No, no, let’s open the curtains. This is what’s really going on because this guy actually has a heart. He’s actually afraid and he has worries.’ I think that’s what being a female filmmaker making these kinds of films makes it unique, because I don’t have to stand up for machoism. I don’t have to defend the hood."
You grew up in Germany. Where is home now?
“I live in Los Angeles, Hollywood Hills.”
What’s the attraction of London?
“I think in my heart of hearts I’m still European. So, when Americans get on my nerves, and I need, actually, conversation with substance, some newspapers in the morning, and some good news on TV that’s honest – I like being back here. I never really liked Germany too much, for some reason. London has both, you know? There are people who are artsy and they’re film people but it’s less pretentious and still kind of real. So it’s a good mix. It’s a good mix for a European filmmaker to be in London.”
How is it being a German in America given that Germany was one of the countries that opposed the war in Iraq?
“You know, I don’t ever consider myself a German. I didn’t know what they were doing and what they were saying. I have been living in LA for so long that I really consider myself an American. But all my American friends, everybody around me did not support the war, you know? I think everybody in the cosmopolitan cities, in New York, LA and Chicago, did not support the war. I guess the bigger part of the country did support this war but the Americans around me didn’t. We were the first ones on the street and the first ones saying it’s ridiculous.”
To be honest I haven’t met any Americans who did support the war.
“That’s probably because the Americans who do support the war don’t really travel. It’s a big Red state/Blue state thing. What can you do?”
I don’t know whether this was intentional, or it’s me imposing something on it , but, subtextually, Green Street seems to be about the so-called special relationship between America and the UK.
“Yeah, you know, a bunch of people said that at the Tribeca Film Festival and I’m really amazed that that came out because that’s part of me, that’s part of my personal story, you know? There are certain comments that we came up with on set that were very topical. Like when Pete Dunham [played by Charlie Hunnam] said, ‘First you start a war and then we come and save your ass.’ So yeah, there certainly is that kind of attitude. And then you saw in Elijah Wood’s character that the young people are kind of like, ‘I know, you’re right. We are assholes. I know how the world looks at us.’ I think all the young people, certainly where I come from in America, are kind of embarrassed about meeting anybody from Europe. They’re like, ‘I know. . . I’m so embarrassed by my country.’ That was great. And then in terms of the subject matter, and people at Tribeca really caught onto this, this film is set in the world of football violence but in the end it’s about why do people tend to turn to violence? What’s the attraction to it? You know, a bunch of young men getting involved in a gang and football violence can equally be compared to a bunch of guys in Ohio signing up for a war they know nothing about being all [punches the air] ‘Yo, Marines! We’re better than the Army. We’re better than the Navy.’ And then altogether they go into Iraq and then we’re better than the Hajees [slang term used by US forces in Iraq to refer to local Iraqi population]. It’s the same attitude. It doesn’t matter where we are in the world.”
I did notice what appear to be parallels you’re drawing in Green Street between the football firm and the US military. At one point Pete Dunham tells Matt, the character played by Elijah Wood, something like, ‘We don’t leave our mates behind’, apparently echoing the US Marines’ boast that they never leave one of their own behind.
“Exactly! I’m so glad you caught on to that because that’s something I keep saying. People keep asking, ‘Did we really need a film about football hooliganism?’ No, we didn’t. But I wanted to tell a story about young men and their need to do that male bonding thing, and their need to stick together, and what a tribal thing does to you. And it’s exactly that. I have friends that are Marines, and when they talk about the war and why they joined the Marines, you could literally put them next to the guys in my film and it will be the same thing. It’s the same thing!”
And then, of course, the former head of the Green Street firm is nicknamed The Major.
Looking at your previous work, which includes an Oscar-nominated short film about a boxer called Johnny Flynton, masculinity seems to be a subject which you keep returning to. Why is that?
“I think by pure coincidence, or fate, because of my older brother, I kind of grew up in a very male world. And yet I was very much a woman. It’s funny when people ask me what the films are I grew up watching. I didn’t really go and see Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. I got to know these films later and admired Scorsese as a filmmaker. But you know what I saw? Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman. That’s the kind of films I went to see. So you have a very female perspective and female point of view on this world. But what I did learn through the process of hanging out with a bunch of guys, either through my sport or through football or through my brothers’ friends, is I think by getting to know them, you gain a lot of knowledge. It’s almost as if I was a researcher and saying, ‘Oh, that’s why they do that.’ When I date somebody it absolutely drives them insane because I’m always like thinking, ‘Are you doing this because of that and you just thought this?’ [laughs] Guys go, ‘It sucks that you know so much about men.’ So I think as a filmmaker that’s what makes me unique, bringing a female point of view, but portraying the male world very accurately.”
You show men’s vulnerability and the link between it, masculinity and machismo. The need to appear macho actually seems to stem from vulnerability.
“I think every time, to me, not to talk bad about filmmakers who do these male films, but usually when a man does a fight film or a violent film, there’s no vulnerability in the character, it’s very macho-macho. I think that’s part of the guy thinking, ‘That’s how I want to portray myself. That’s how I want to portray the guys’ whereas I say, ‘No, no, let’s open the curtains. This is what’s really going on because this guy actually has a heart. He’s actually afraid and he has worries.’ I think that’s what being a female filmmaker making these kinds of films makes it unique, because I don’t have to stand up for machoism. I don’t have to defend the hood.”
So you’re saying that other way of portraying men simply as macho is a kind of a male fantasy?
“I guess so. I think if I made a film about women, everything I wouldn’t like about women I probably wouldn’t portray. You know what I’m saying? The kind of crazy things that women do, that we’re known for, I wouldn’t put in my film. Whereas I think guys do that thing of: ‘I don’t cry so nobody in my film is crying. . .’ When you watch films about violence, hooligans fighting, the Fight Clubs of the world, when a guy does it there’s a certain taste to it whereas when a woman does it, there’s a certain other side to it.”
Do you think men are easier to read than women?
“Yeah, they’re less manipulative, which is nice. Especially I would say with European guys, it’s kind of like, I wouldn’t say they’re too stupid to hide things but it’s almost like they’re too lazy. You know? There’s no kind of how can I cover up? American guys, especially in the big cities, especially in LA, they become a little bit more how can I cover up who I really am and it’s a manipulative and theatrical thing, whereas you usually meet an English lad and he is who he is. I don’t know if he doesn’t have the smarts to cover things up or he’s just too lazy to do it, but it is what it is.”
I think you do kind of think to yourself why bother?
[laughs] “You know what film I thought portrayed that brilliantly? Shaun of the Dead. There’s this whole scenario of going to the pub. Even if she asked him he wouldn’t go somewhere else. I thought, ‘You see, that’s an English guy.’ It was a comedy but it was so true, you know? He wasn’t even trying to hide it.”
Did you divide yourself up between the characters of Matt (Wood) and Pete (Hunnam)? As an American Wood is an outsider in the firm, as you must have been as a woman, when you got involved with the Mannheim City Boys firm in Germany; also, Pete is a PE teacher and you taught karate classes.
“I think every time as a filmmaker, especially when you write and develop an idea, each of these characters has something of me in them or something that I know in somebody else. I’m doing this interesting thing, and you will be the first one who gets this answer, because I never told anybody this. I’m doing this thing that I’ve learned from a film school teacher, and nobody in my class paid attention to this, but I thought it was the most brilliant idea. He said that as a writer and as a filmmaker, you should carry something that is what he calls a ‘character diary’. So every time you meet somebody in your life that has an effect on you, good or bad, you should write down who this person is, how did he or she make you feel, how do you interpret his or her actions? So actually in my Blackberry and on my computer, you’ll see these initials – I don’t put the full name in because I’m mortified somebody will find it – but you will see these initials and I have this whole catalogue of characters that have affected me. Some of them I hate and despise, and some of them I love, and some of them I was in love with, and some of them I’m infatuated with, and some of them I admire. So as I write scripts I take them and apply some of their character traits to my heroes or to my principal cast, which is a really great tool.”
So the characters are based on people you have met and aren’t necessarily parts of you?
“They’re not necessarily part of me; they’re people that I’ve met. So what it does is as you do that it becomes amazing because you start going through life really paying attention to who somebody is. The minute somebody has an effect on me it becomes really great. I’m like oh my God, I must figure out why this person has such an effect on my. What do I not like about this person? What do I love about this person? And then I’ll start writing it down and when you write a script or ever re-write a script and think about the vision, you can take these traits you might have overlooked, you might have forgotten about them. Sometimes I read through my diary of characters and I have to laugh because, you know, it’s somebody from my past or somebody who’s still in my life, and I say, ‘That’s what I want. I want this guy, this character, of Pete Dunham, to have that trait of that guy.’ I told one of my actors I do this and he said, ‘You know, ever since you told me this I am obsessed with looking at your friends and figuring out who is who,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not telling.’”
Have any of your friends discovered this? Do they know that you’re observing them in this way or have they recognised themselves in your work?
“I think they do, you know? They tend not to ask me about it but I’m sure they suspect that some of the flaws are also based on them and they don’t want to know. Actually, one of my friends once said, ‘I know somewhere there will be a flaw of mine in one of your fucking films and I just don’t want to know.’”
Is this one of the reasons why you made Matt a journalism student because he would be someone with that kind of curiosity about people?
“Yeah, that’s it. With Matt I needed to have a point of view. That character was written and developed because we, the outside world, and everybody that doesn’t know about this world, needed to get a point of view. He needed to be our eyes and ears. But there was also something about the whole journalist thing that firms really dislike. They trusted them before, actually quite liked them in the beginning, because it is in the end all about getting a little bit of fame. But they were promised, often, that somebody would write a story and wouldn’t use their name, and that person would, like, exploit them. So it then developed into this thing where if somebody hears somebody’s a journalist it’s over.”
Did Donal McIntyre’s name ever come up? He did an undercover programme for television where he infiltrated the Chelsea Headhunters firm.
“Yeah, yeah, I actually saw that. They showed me tapes of that, yeah.”
Was that useful? Some of Green Street reminded me of the documentary.
“It was, yeah. All the documentaries were really useful. I actually liked [McIntyre’s] a lot. I’m so glad that people do that. And people should still be doing it. The one thing I don’t understand is how people think this doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, you know, Thatcher said at one point we don’t give them any press, or we shouldn’t be writing about them, you know? Part of that probably was smart but just because we’re wiping it under the carpet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”
By using real firm members as extras in the film, was there a danger of them thinking you were condoning their behaviour or in some way validating the fantasy they have of themselves?
“Um, you know I’m sure it did because there was a certain bit of: ‘I’m helping you to be authentic in a film about my life’. So yeah, I’m sure there was some of that. But I also noticed, as we were going through the film, and I showed the consequences of this world, there were a lot of guys on set who you think wouldn’t say anything like this to you but he said, ‘I’m really glad you made this film because, man, you look at that scene where Pete Dunham is dying and you’re kind of like, “Oh fuck, I’ve heard about this and I’ve seen something like this, and it makes no sense whatsoever.”’ I wanted to have that effect. I also made it clear to all of them that I think it should stop. And, interestingly enough, a lot of the guys who are famous hooligans, really famous guys that everybody knows about, are actually working with organisations to stop racism or hooliganism. They’ve all kind of turned a corner. So we’ll see. I hope when people look at the film they say it looks like fun for about two acts but then in the third act, everything goes to shit.”
Was that your experience?
You became part of the City Boys firm when you were 15, right?
How did you actually become a part of that world? I know that you were taken to your first football game by your brother when you were five.
“Right. Well I was a martial artist and I was teaching a martial arts class and a couple of guys showed up in my class. I looked and looked at their clothes, and they were talking about my team, Mannheim, and because of the way they were dressed and because they were talking about my team, I immediately knew they were hooligans, they were in a firm. Being 15 and having this whole urban myth about hooligans, I was like, ‘You got to take me to a game. I want to stand with you guys.’ They were like ‘No, no, no. No girls allowed.’ I said: ‘You have to take me because after all I’m teaching you martial arts here, so you can’t really convince me that I can’t take care of myself.’ So, in the end, to the guys and in general, I was like the little sister. One they could accept. I wasn’t necessarily a girl’s girl. So they took me and for two years it became somewhat of a family for me. Everything I portrayed in the film was really what I saw. Like I thought it was really cool and really fun. I thought it was their way of choosing an extreme sport, they were just adrenalin junkies, it was alright; they didn’t hurt anybody that wasn’t in the same game. They didn’t attack families. They basically were 30 guys running against 30 guys from another team who wanted to do the same thing. I thought, ‘What’s the big fuss? Why can’t they just let them do what they want to do? They’re just a bunch of boys wanting to get into fisticuffs.’ So at first you think it’s very cool and you see a certain attraction about it, and then you start noticing what happens when somebody does break the rule, you know? You notice that even though they have this unspoken law of don’t kick anybody when he’s down, there will always be somebody who breaks it. You just cannot rely on a bunch of guys all following these rules. Even in a boxing fight you have a referee because somebody will always go low. So this is what I have noticed. And I have really seen some bad things. So I basically took the same journey of thinking, ‘This is great, this is great, nobody is harmed’ and then ‘Oh my God, somebody’s harmed.’”
How involved in the violence were you?
“I wasn’t because it was one of those situations where even though I was running with them in situations, the guys from the opposition would just run right past me, because there was no gain in fighting a girl. None of the guys wanted to fight a girl. You can only lose when you fight a girl. If you beat her you’re a dick, and if you lose, potentially, you’re even worse of a guy. So I became an observer really quickly. I just wanted to know these guys and figure out how is this guy who is so kind to me, for example one of the guys was a social worker who got kids out of domestic violence homes and yet on Saturday he would beat the pulp out of somebody. How does this schizophrenic life exist? It was fascinating me. So already at age 15/16, I took pictures; they would get into some kind of fight and I would take pictures and document it. So I was already then starting to build this story and feel that I really need to tell a story about this.”
What do you think they were getting out of it and what were you, personally, getting out of it? What was the thing that initially made it so attractive?
“Right. There’s two things to it that I think are attractive. I came from a single-parent home, and I think that most of us in that firm, we didn’t come from lower-class, poor families, but we all had one thing in common: we all had single parent homes where the parent was working or we had unavailable parents, like the typical workaholic father portrayed in my film. So what happened is that when you joined this firm and you had these guys who one day a week are at the same pub at the same time, every single week, it was more of a constant than any of us had in our home lives. There was a certain loyalty, a family-away-from-family that I think we were longing for. That was one attraction to it.
“And as far as the violence, it really is like an extreme sport. It’s an adrenalin rush. I just read this great book about the modern pursuit of happiness, how Generation X and Y become more and more unsatisfied, and everyone is taking anti-depressants. Somebody in there said something really great: if we did more physical labour, nobody would have to take anti-depressants. Physical labour for almost all of us has disappeared. Now we’re trying o have a garden so that we can do something outside. But if I listen to my grandfather, who grew up on the farm and that’s what he had to do, I don’t think he had the energy to go out with a bunch of guys and fight. That’s not what he wanted to do on his weekend.
“Now you look at young men, and I’m noticing it more and more, and it is also why it was very important to make this film, you look at young boys, they watch TV, they watch movies, they play video games, nobody goes out in the forest and plays cops and robbers or whatever. They just don’t have anything physical. I think that especially young men really need that outlet. Where is it going? Where is it going?
“I’m always laughing when I see what the newest extreme sport is. I mean how much further can we go? I know guys back home in LA who go down, no pads, no nothing, who go on their mountain bikes down this 90-degree angle hill and they all fall and constantly have broken bones. I know this one kid, I guess he’s a BMX bicycle guy who does the ramps and everything, he’s had 25 broken bones and keeps going back. He’s literally, ‘I broke this one. I broke this one.’ Well, you know, he’s this adrenalin junkie, and I think it’s not having an outlet. He’s got too much excess energy. Boys will be boys, it doesn’t matter, 100 years ago or now; you can put them in front of a 1000 video games and they’ll still have that energy in them.”
Which parent did you live with?
What do you think you missed out on by not having a father at home?
“I actually said in this statement, I wrote this director’s statement, and I said if I can do one thing with this film it’s tell fathers, well, both fathers and mothers, but fathers especially, that you must be consistent in your kid’s life. Divorce is fine. I know a lot of divorced parents who manage. That is not an excuse not to be a consistent presence in your child’s life. Basically we’re talking about the male violence thing but it’s equally important for the daughter, I know that. But with the daughter it’s more like she’ll be living it out in terms of her relationships and really suffering from it from not having a father who was there and talks to her. In terms of sons I think that if a son doesn’t have, first of all, that male bond, and also I think that if every father would take their son to a game or to a sport, fishing, camping, I don’t know what, I don’t think that same boy, that same young man, would need to go into something like that. And I’m not only talking about football violence. I’m talking drugs, I’m talking everything that’s damaging; dropping out of school, everything. I think that’s really important, you know?”
Was sport the thing before the firm that gave you an outlet?
“Well I think if I hadn’t had my sport it would have been just a complete mess. I definitely would have gone down the wrong path. That was the one thing that kept me straight and wanting to be somebody better, somebody disciplined, somebody ambitious. So that was a great thing for me. So yeah, that was one thing. But even like in terms of divorced parents, my father wasn’t around at all. Even, like, you know, having a father every two weeks, it doesn’t matter how often you’re there when you’re in a divorced situation but consistency, don’t break promises, that kind of thing. I don’t think there’s an excuse for parents to break promises. Personally, I’m not planning on having kids in the near future, because I think my job will always lend itself to breaking promises to somebody.”
I wondered whether being the child of divorced parents tweaks your attitude to relationships and parenthood?
“Definitely. It’s so interesting because nowadays I don’t really blame people for getting divorced because we are such a different society. Now we are supposed to be married and in love whereas that never used to be the case. Marriage was like an institution. He was the provider and the mother ran the house and you wouldn’t think of how much am I in love. I like the fact that we’re becoming the kind of people where we ask, am I in love with this person? Can I live with this person? So that’s great. We’re also much older now than we used to be, our life length is much longer, so meeting somebody in your 20s and getting married and expecting to be on the same wavelength 40 years later, I think that only happens for a few people. But even in the process of all these divorced parents, and we have, I think, one in three, we can still be great parents. It’s not the kids’ fault. Even people like, a famous example, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore have somehow managed to be really good, consistent parents. I really like that being friends and saying that at this point in my life, I’m going to be a constant in my child’s life.”
Did you talk about the film in this way with Elijah Wood, because he also comes from a broken home?
“Yes. Actually it was interesting because there were four of us sitting round a table – Charlie Hunnam, Elijah Wood, Leo Gregory, and myself – and all of us had the same father story. It was so interesting because all of a sudden it opened this thing up about what it did to us. Again, I’m much more open to talking about it, whereas the guys are kind of like, ‘Yeah, whatever. I can figure it out.’ Then you kind of tap in and you notice that it affects us, especially because I think all of our parents kind of like messed up in a way. So it does affect us.”
When you were in the City Boys, was there a specific incident that changed your mind about what was happening? Made you think that perhaps it was time to get out?
“Yeah, there was. In the second year it started becoming more, ‘oh my God!’ But I so loved going to the game, that it became a thing where I couldn’t just leave them there and go back to where I used to sit, you know? But then I witnessed something where 30 or 40 guys from my firm saw two guys from another firm just walking, and it was unlucky for them. But I didn’t think that they would go to fight; I thought they would just scare them and make them run away. But they actually went for them and I watched it and I thought that was really unfair and it was unjust, and it was too violent and too cruel. As I was bringing it up to them, the same guys that I admired and had a certain respect for, and I thought they were these honourable cowboys, the same guys I admired for so long turned round and said, ‘Don’t be such a girl. They deserved what they got.’ So that was kind of like the turning point for me to say, ‘Alright, now I’ve got it.’ Also, you know, one has to remember that it’s always fuelled a little bit by alcohol, because there’s always drinking involved. And none of these guys is going to admit in front of each other that they might have had a conscious problem with that, you know?”
It’s interesting the way you integrated these two sides of your life because that kind of violence is undisciplined, it’s to do with anger . . .
. . . whereas martial arts is about control. I believe that anger is the enemy to some extent. If you become angry, you can lose.
“Oh yeah. Absolutely.”
It’s interesting then that your life was made up of these two sides.
“I’d never thought about it that way but you’re right. They were completely different. If I’d be at a tournament, the guys that were on my team and I had to travel with were the complete opposite of the guys in the firm. With those guys, it really was the romance of the Wild, Wild West, and these cowboys, and I thought they were all these honourable guys.”
Was it a different buzz that you were getting when you were competing compared to when you were running with the City Boys?
“The tournament was very disciplined and it was all about being the best. It really was a sport. There wasn’t like a martial arts spiritual kind of thing, it was very contemporary. We were competing. Who’s the best, who’s got the greatest kick, the greatest technique, the greatest endurance -- it was very much a sport. I guess I would say the way I now am with films and interviews, interviews for projects, I say, ‘Who else is up for this film? How can I beat them?’ It’s a different buzz. Whereas when I was with those guys, it really did become more like, and again going back to being fatherless, it was like, ‘Wow, I have 50 guys who are protecting me.’ It just became this thing where somebody would look at me the wrong way or where there was any kind of issue going on, if there was something, there’s 50 guys going, ‘You’re right, Lexi. You’re right.’ It would always make me feel so good and I’m sure that was to do with the fact that I didn’t have a father.”
To get where you did in sport you must have had a killer instinct.
Does that help you now in your film career?
“Absolutely. It’s very hard for women filmmakers but to be honest, I have this attitude of I don’t give a fuck. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about being a woman. I can do it equally as well as the guys, if not better. And that really comes from a fighting, competitive spirit. I don’t even think about anything being an obstacle. I’ll just go in and I will do my absolute best. I’m relentless. When I work I’m such a perfectionist about everything. And it’s the same way I used to work out, you know? So I’m sure that helps. Because if I would be in any way easygoing about the films I do, I’d never have a career, because it is more difficult. Guys get a lot more slack as directors. And how many female directors do you know?”
Presumably the subject matter also made this quite a difficult film to fund?
“Actually, once the script came out the Americans, not all the studios jumped all over it but three/four independent financiers bidding on it, wanting it. I decided on two women. Two women run the company [Odd Lot Entertainment] that produced this film and I thought that was unique. They were both in their 40s, they both have kids, so I thought that’s really the team. And they got it. They knew why I was making this film. They knew I wasn’t making Fight Club. They knew I wasn’t doing a violent film to say, ‘Hey, look at me. I can exploit violence and be so cruel.’ That was not it. I wanted to make a touching drama and they recognised that.”
One of your producers says it’s the duty of all filmmakers to bring controversial subject matter to the screen. Do you agree?
“Oh, yeah! Oh my God, if you would know, I’ve written another script that I consider to be my absolute baby more than Green Street. Probably it will be the most controversial film ever.”
What’s it about?
“It’s about religion. And it’s about religion in America. I might as well pack my bags now and find a different home.”
Why that subject matter? Do you have any kind of religious background?
“I’m just a real mix of religions. I have so many of them. My mother was one, my grandparents were another, my father was another. But, more than that, I’m really annoyed by the state of religion in general and how on earth we are moving backwards. Religion is all good but we are almost back to medieval times now where we are obsessed with going into religious wars, and, you know, electing our politicians based on their religious statements. It’s all becoming very scary to me. I think I have a responsibility as a filmmaker to bring not only controversial subject matter to the screen but also to inspire a thought process. You can be Michael Moore and make Fahrenheit 9/11 but that’s hitting people over the head, and a lot of Americans don’t like to be hit over the head. But I think I have a responsibility to tell a story and even without making a clear statement about what I believe, just kind of putting things into questions. You know, what film can I make that makes people walk out and say, ‘Wow, I really question if this is alright’.”
Will you be looking for funding in America?
“Yes, I will. We’re actually trying to set it up right now.”
It must be quite difficult because a lot of people don’t want to take those kinds of chances.
“Um, well, it helps to become a little bit more . . . I’m attached to a couple more projects and so it becomes . . . and I will probably do those first.”
One of those is a thriller for Disney.
Presumably you couldn’t do a film like the one you’re talking about before working for Disney?
“I could potentially if somebody comes up with the money. I also think we have a lot of responsible people in Hollywood in terms of politics and social awareness. I think that the film that I want to do will get equally as much support as it will lack support. I could actually go quite quickly. There’s quite a firm going on in Hollywood, too, which I enjoy. I always think of them as a firm when they get really pissed off, which they are about the war. You’ll see like Sean Penn going and really speaking out about it. A whole bunch of them have been really great about it. So, you know, I’m ready for that. I’m looking forward to it. There’s no harm in being controversial.”
Going back to Green Street, why did you choose a London setting rather than locating it in Germany, where you had your experience?
“I didn’t want to make a German-speaking film at all. I don’t ever want to do that. Frankly, I never could stand the language, I don’t know why. Also, I’m an LA filmmaker; I wanted to make it for the world. Subtitles always bother me, you know? And it really wasn’t about how authentic is this environment to my personal story; it was an environment that I wanted to set this story in. It was more about the story than anything else, the substance of the story. What I love about London is it’s the city with the most professional football clubs. It’s like the high stakes city of football. It has more than 22 professional football clubs. And it’s like the only subject that you can have four colleagues who are friendly with each other sitting around and in an instant it can turn into a heated discussion. All four of them, even though they live close by, all follow a different club. So it was a perfect city.”
The way you filmed London, thank you, it looks like London rather than the Richard Curtis fantasy.
“Yeah, I know. Interestingly enough, apart from an outsider point of view you tend to take it much more seriously to portray it. As an outsider, not being from the city, I probably see things that you don’t even see anymore. I’ve done that in my short film [Johnny Flynton], too. I went to Alabama, and I’d never been to the South, and people said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe how you portrayed the South. It’s so the South.’ Well, I guess there are certain things I see that you see every day and it doesn’t even register with you anymore. I see it and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is really neat.’ So, I portrayed it like, OK, this is me walking through the streets, and that’s what I wanted to portray. I would have not done the whole market in Notting Hill changing seasons and not one black person in the street. That’s not me.”
How much did you immerse yourself in that world? As we’ve said, there were people from the actual firms in the film. How did you get in contact with them and gain their trust? I mean they’re not in the phonebook as firm members.
“Well, through one of my associate producers I contacted the head of the ICF [West Ham’s notorious InterCity Firm], a guy named Cass Pennant, who’s written a lot of books on the subject, and he’s a great guy, a really smart, smart person. You know, he kind of just tested me and said what is it I wanted portray, what is it I wanted to say; he also tested me in terms of my knowledge of firms and hooligans and football. Once it was established that I did know what I was talking about, I gained their trust really quickly. And they were really helpful. But again it came back to like school and the little sister thing. They were very protective of me again. It’s really great, I’ve always had that. It’s a great thing. I’ll be honest and say my thing, and these guys have a certain pride in what I put out there, and if anybody had said something bad about me or done anything, they’re all standing there going, ‘Hey . . .’”
So they felt very much that you were on their side?
Were you hanging out in the pub culture that you portray in Green Street because those scenes in particular are very well observed and authentic?
“Oh my God, we did so much of that. My liver! We went to every game for weeks. We took the actors, we took Elijah, we took Charlie, we went to the pubs, we were in the pub every night, we watched football in the pub on Wednesday, then we went back to the games – it was non-stop. I could sing you any song that people sing when they’re drunk in England. It’s really amazing.”
Why West Ham?
“Well I’d always loved that club because it reminds me of my club back home. Although my club is doing really badly back home so they’re not even in the same league anymore. But that whole like mentality of really loyal fans, having been around forever, always like this slight touch of glory but then nothing, and always like reaching. So I really always loved West Ham. I have become a big West Ham fan. I watched the game where they got back to the Premiership. I watched it at six o’clock in the morning, in Los Angeles, in the only English pub that played it in Santa Monica. So on a Sunday morning, something like that, I drove to Santa Monica and was in the pub at six o’clock in the morning to watch West Ham get promoted to the Premiership.”
Why do you think football attracted you the way it did when you were taken to watch it, aged five, by your brother?
“I literally think a lot of girls and women, or in general kind of yuppies or private school kids or whatever, people who are not supposed to go to football or who are not in the environment, they kind of keep thinking that it wouldn’t interest them. Whereas when you actually take them, they end up loving it as much as anybody else. That kind of feeling that you get from being in that kind of crowd, and that kind of passion, it doesn’t go by anybody. It doesn’t matter who it is. You saw it with Elijah. He’s an American and he never watches football, I pretty much can tell you he didn’t know the rules of it, and the minute we took him it was ‘Yaaay! Yaaay!’ He got caught up in it. I think it’s becoming more of a family thing now, but I think once you are taken and you have one good game or two good games, you always go back.”
How did you convince West Ham to give you access to Upton Park? I believe they were a little surprised, to put it mildly, when they discovered that the film was about hooliganism.
[Smiles mischievously] “Well they knew the kind of film I was making. I also made it very clear to them that in the end the message would be very anti football violence. What happened is I was pitching them the story, telling them what I was about to do and they were generous enough . . . and by the way, they’re not the only club. There were two others I was approaching. So, basically, three of them, and all three of them would have let us film. I decided of the three of them to do it with West Ham. They got the advantage out of it that Elijah Wood was in their jersey, in their kit, doing PR for them, and basically their colours and their name was all over my film. You know that. Which was great for them, I think. There was a turning point and it really was a worry that needed to be clarified. During the process of us shooting this film, the paparazzi took a lot of pictures and the only pictures that were interesting to them was Elijah bloody, Elijah getting the shit kicked out of him. So as we followed those paparazzi pictures, you thought that I was making the most violent, bloody film in history. Now when you just follow it through the newspapers without seeing the film, you could think, ‘Wow, they fooled us. This is all going to be just beating and no message and no moral to the story.’ But once the West Ham officials saw the film, they supported us. They’re supporting us now. They’re supporting us and they’re proud of it and they think it’s a great thing. They saw it from beginning to end and they know that the message is a good one.”
So their concerns were before they saw the finished film?
But films like this and The Football Factory raise the spectre of hooliganism which is something that the football industry, which is basically what it is now, has been trying to distance itself from. Do you think they have legitimate worries when films like this come out?
“I’m sure they do. I’m sure they do. Look, everybody wants the subject to be not discussed, and I understand that. We have that in America all the time. Everybody wants certain things not to be discussed. [Police sirens can be heard outside] That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss them or it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t portray them. I don’t think they have to worry too much because I think only a really stupid person would walk out of this film and say, ‘Hey, I’m starting my own firm.’ I think guys are smarter than that.”
What responsibility do you think a filmmaker has when portraying violence in terms of its effect on audiences?
“Well I don’t like it when it’s just for the sake of being violent and being exploitive. There’s certain films I don’t even watch because I’m just like, OK, why watch just so I can see more people blown up or a bloodier way to break someone’s nose? That’s not my thing. I really don’t want to compare myself to a war film because that’s going to be interpreted wrong. But as an example of being responsible, Steven Spielberg did the bloodiest, most violent 20 minutes in film history. Why did he do it? Not to do something new. Not to do something that would get him press, because the man does not need to do anything to get press, he has enough. He did it to get his characters and his film and his story on a journey, on an arc. You have to show one thing if you’re trying to make a point out of it. What I tried to do in Hooligans [one of the original titles] is show it the way it really is and in the end come to a point where we see that it’s bad. If I’d held back it would have been like an after school programme. It wouldn’t have had that arc. I had to get the audience to go [makes sound of someone wincing]. I wanted that. That was very conscious.”
It’s interesting that you mention Spielberg because the staccato way that the first fight Elijah gets into is shot reminded me of the Normandy landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, and here, too, it’s the character’s initiation into violence. Was that a conscious reference?
“I didn’t think of Saving Private Ryan there in terms if making it look like that. Certainly I didn’t want to make a war film. But in terms of the emotional fact it’s something called an Image Shaker and he definitely did use the same thing. Sometimes you use a shutter angle, sometimes you use an Image Shaker, and it intensifies the action and the violence, it makes it a bit more uncomfortable, and I did want it to be like, ‘Holy shit, what’s going on?’ I’m glad you know what I’m talking about in terms of how we portrayed those first 12 minutes. I think it was really important. Nobody cares if you don’t portray it right.”
Can you talk about what you wanted to say with the different ways you shot the violence and how it reflects Matt’s journey? Because whereas the first fight is shot using the Image Shaker, the final showdown is mostly shot in slow motion and feels kind of elegiac, with these tragic overtones. It feels like he’s come to the end of an era.
“That’s good because that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted each of the first fights and throughout the film, I wanted them to be quite adrenalin-driven and letting us, the audience, know that these guys are enjoying it. It’s dangerous but they’re enjoying it. That’s what they do. This is what it is about. Even though we’re going like this [covers her face], they’re going, ‘Yeah!’ At the very end I want to make it very clear that none of them wanted to be there. None of them wanted them to be there. This is not what they signed up for. They realised the consequences. For the first time they’re seeing what they’re doing with their own eyes. There were close up shots of people turning and looking around as if it was a war field, of looking around going, ‘Nobody told me this is what it’s about. I don’t want to be here.’ And I wanted to show the violence in a way that wasn’t adrenalin driven. That’s why I went with a little bit of a melodramatic song and slow motion. I don’t care what people say about the slow motion or the song, because I always hear that; I needed to make sure that nobody feels anything good about this scene. When people say to me, ‘I hated that last song,’ I go ‘Good, I want you to hate it.’ I did not want anything that makes this scene feel good in any way.”
That song is almost a fantasy of themselves as warriors fighting a last battle. Or I suppose one could read it that that fantasy is what has brought them to this point and what we’re seeing happening is the result of the sentiments portrayed in the song. It’s kind of a Dulce Et Dacorum Est thing. It’s ironic. Or at least the reality of what those sentiments lead to is blood and death.
“My whole point was that it was supposed to be dirty. The reason we slowed down there is that in their mind it slowed down for the first time. That 30-second rush, that adrenalin rush, wasn’t there. For the first time it actually became like painful and not a rush. Everybody probably would have rather liked to be with their wives and their families.”
This is another reason why the film made me think of the relationship between the US and England. The first fight is like ‘shock and awe’ and then the final one is what has happened to the guys who have been in Iraq for months. Reality has set in and they’re tired of the violence and bloodshed, they just want to go home.
“That’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what it is. That mentality is out there, I want to make a point of it, and I probably will at some point make it with a film about Iraq as well. We had it in Vietnam. How many films did we have? Signing on, ‘Hey, it’s great, I’m signing on.’ The next thing you know, they’re realising that it’s for shit, [there’s a bang outside] for no reason, the war was for nothing other than for me to lose my legs, for me to lose my friends [getting passionate] – it’s not as glamorous as Uncle Sam makes it sound [another dull thud outside]. Football violence, it can be quite fun and quite glamorous in the beginning, but then once you actually end up in the situation like that it’s the opposite.”
Do you think any of these overtones are why the American studios passed on distributing it in the States?
“Oh yeah, I think they were very scared of it. But there’s so many reasons to it. It’s a controversial film. First, the studios didn’t put any money in it because it was a private company that financed it. Now they have to pick up a film, market it, put P & A into it, and on top of it deal with all the PR that’s going to come with it, which is not going to be easy. Studios are not the most risky people. They don’t really want to have more work. They’re quite dull, actually, to be honest. Every time you hear of a story of like Memento or My Big Fat Greek Wedding it’s usually something that hadn’t been picked up forever. ‘How can I explain a film that goes backwards?’ they say. ‘Nobody will see it.’ Yeah, you asshole, it became the biggest hit. But nobody saw it. I mean seriously, you know?”
Are you surprised they didn’t pick it up as Elijah’s in it? Or do they think they’re protecting their property in a way, because he has a softer image?
“I don’t think it has anything to do with him. I think it has to do with the subject matter. Interestingly enough a lot of them said . . . well, first of all, we are distributing it now and I think it’s going to be even more successful. The financiers have decided to distribute it wide themselves, and put a lot of money into it. I think there will be quite a surprise how well it will do out there. Because it’s won all these audience awards and I think a lot of the studios will be, like, ‘Grrr’, which will be great. There was no concern about Elijah. We heard some really dumb things like, ‘Nobody in America’s interested in football’. Well it’s not a film about football. ‘Nobody will understand them speaking. Nobody understands Cockney.’ Well it won three audience awards and they had no problem understanding it. They just make their own mind up. That’s why we see the same shit on the screen all the time. Sometimes when you hear about meetings, like pitch meetings, Monday they have staff meetings, because I have a few friends that work at the studios, and you hear what’s discussed, it’s ‘What’s the remake we should do? How quickly can we get into production with Duke of Hazzard 2?’ It’s that kind of stuff. It’s just brainless. It’s unbelievable.”
You have that line where Elijah Wood comes up from the station and he asks if the damage done the night before by the gang was done by terrorists. These are the people who he will join. Are you being subversive here? He’s an American getting involved with the very people he has likened to terrorists.
“That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. I actually forgot that line was in there and we’ve just had the bombings in London. You know, I liked the journey he goes on and the decision he makes. I think it’s just a great character journey he goes on from being somebody who people walk all over and then to go to the opposite, and then somehow when he returns to America to land in the middle. You know, ‘I’m going to be a man and I’m going to stand up for what I believe in but I’m not going to hit people when it’s not necessary.’” [IMPORTANT MESSAGE: BEING A MAN DOES NOT MEAN HAVING TO KICK THE CRAP OUT OF SOMEBODY]
You talk about him being walked over. Elijah Wood is not a big lad. Did the guys in the firm have any doubts when they heard that he was the one who was playing this part? He is convincing but did anybody doubt whether he could carry of this transition?
“Oh yeah, yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure there were a lot of people. I at first had my doubts about how is this going to be. To me it was more important that he was a believable fish out of water, and a really good point of view for the audience. He is the most amazing actor to do that. It’s very hard to find an actor in their 20s . . . when you first read the script, okay, that character doesn’t have a lot of lines, really. His lines are usually, ‘What about Millwall? What about this about soccer?’ When there were script readings, a lot of these other young actors would say, ‘My part is not spicy enough and Charlie Hunnam’s part is bigger.’ So it needed to be a young actor who was well known, because we did have to somehow finance this film, but also had the confidence to know that sometimes it can be more in a look than a line. The script clearly had more of an exciting part for Charlie Hunnam’s character, and it was very hard to get an actor who was confident enough to say, ‘I’ll let this world shine. I’m confident enough in myself to be the quiet observer.’ Young actors don’t want to do that.”
Despite the success of Lord of the Rings and so forth, he doesn’t seem like someone who has much of an ego.
“He has no ego. No ego at all. Actually it’d drive me insane sometimes because he kind of thinks of himself as a normal guy who has no fame whatsoever, and he refuses to think about it. But it becomes really difficult when you’re walking over Tower Bridge where there are 1000 tourists and Elijah Wood doesn’t want to wear a hat or sunglasses, because he thinks he’s just a normal guy. I’m walking next to him and going, ‘Elijah, could you put your head down?’ and he’s like ‘It’s no problem. Nobody will know me.’ All of a sudden I hear [screams] and these 50 Japanese girls just come running. It’s a nightmare. He has no ego. He does not see himself as a celebrity, nor does he live like that. He cannot get himself to ask an assistant to bring him tea. That is not what he does. He brings his own tea, he does his own thing; he’s really one of the good guys.”
Where do you think that comes from?
“I don’t know if it comes from his childhood but I do know he has a really strong mother; a really strong, intelligent mother, who brought him up really well. Apparently, I think he told me or somebody else did, until the age of 13 he did not know he was actually making money on movies. His mother didn’t want him to know. She kind of said either he has fun with it or he doesn’t do it. She didn’t spend it, she put it in a savings account, it’s all his. But she said, ‘I don’t want him to know he’s making all this money. I just want to say, “Are you having fun doing this or are you not having fun doing this?”’ He’s a very together young man.”
He approached you about doing the film. Were you surprised? It’s quite a change of direction for him.
“A bit, I guess. But when the script got out to all the big agencies they kind of like came to us. I think a lot of young actors thought it would be great for them to do a part like that because it does involve fighting. The really famous ones that were on the level of Elijah Wood were the ones that said, ‘Pete Dunham is really stealing my show so can you make the part bigger.’ Elijah was the one who really said, ‘Yeah, I want to be part of this film and part of this world and I don’t mind being the observer. I understand that Charlie’s part is the more glamorous part.’”
Do you miss any aspects of the world that the film portrays, having been part of it for real?
“Sometimes I do. I think the camaraderie. I always miss any kind of constant, you know? Especially now that I’m a filmmaker who travels all the time, I always miss a constant in my life. I’m always tempted to go to Catholic churches, although I despise the religion. But you do want to go there just because it’s the one thing in your life that’s never changed. Living in hotels and being a gypsy can get very . . . so, you know, going to a pub, the same pub, going to a game. . . I’m going to all the West Ham games this season. That’ll be good.”
Do you think that looking for a constant stems from what we were talking about before about families?
“Yeah. I’m sure it is.”
Marc Warren’s character, a former member of the West Ham firm in Green Street, admits that he misses the life in the gang and fears that if he goes back into it he will kind of fall off the wagon. He’s like an addict who fears he will get hooked again.
“He does make a very strong choice in saying, ‘No, this is more important to me.’ But the addiction is still there. That was really neat that he was like, ‘I can feel it. I can feel the rush. But I’m not getting tempted.’”
Was part of the attraction of doing this story that you could revisit that world relatively safely? You could re-experience it vicariously?
“I guess so, yeah. You’re absolutely right. I used to stand on set and I’d say, ‘I can’t believe I’m making this film’, because it was so eerie how much it was like back then. And each of the characters I had written reminded me of who they were, so there were times when I wanted to pinch myself.”
If you use the drug addiction analogy, is this like methadone rather than the real thing?
“Yeah, that’s exactly it.” [Laughs]
Finally, can you tell me how you made the cross over into filmmaking? Is it true that Chuck Norris was somehow involved?
“Yeah. I was a martial artist and I was at a tournament that was at the world championship and I had gotten to know him. My martial arts friends always encouraged me to become like the next female Van Damme, you know? That was the idea. So anyway, he sponsored my Green Card and he sent me to a famous acting school. So I arrived there when I was 19, making money doing stunt work, and I was at acting school and there was an uneven number of acting students in my class, so one person had to direct the scene and it was me. The minute I did that I knew what I wanted to be. I never looked back. Never! I just knew that that was my thing.”
“It was the control. Great actors have this phenomenal talent for portraying somebody they’re not, and just really taking the challenge of taking a fictitious or a real character and putting something on the screen, and they’re satisfied with just perfecting that. I wasn’t really satisfied with that and I don’t think that was my greatest talent. My talent was knowing a story or coming up with a story and envisioning it, and having a vision, and basically dictating everybody around on how to bring this vision to the screen, and being a General, you know?”
Were you an imaginative child?
“Yeah, really. German was my favourite subject but mainly because we had to write essays. I could write essays forever. What did you do this summer? What do you want to do? I would just come up with stories, stories, stories, and I would get like the best grades for it.”
Where did the desire to act come from?
“I did a lot of theatre. My mother was more the artistic one and she wasn’t really keen that I was doing all that male stuff so she pulled me to do some national theatre. I did some little stints in soaps, I was in theatre in my school; I guess that what makes me this filmmaker is I had this one masculine world and then the artsy world.”
How did the life with the firm fit in with your life on the road with the German national martial arts team?
“Because martial arts is a sport where you don’t get paid a lot, there would be seasons where you were on the circuit where you would have to get on a bus and travel to a tournament, but it wasn’t like professional sports where you’re on the bus for like two years. And then there were tournaments that I have missed, literally, because there was a football game on. Which was a riot because they’d be like ‘What are you talking about? You have to make points on this to qualify for the European Championship’ and I’m like, ‘No, Mannheim is playing. I can’t go.’”
When you were a sensei at school with kids, was there any suspicion that you were involved with the City Boys?
“No. When I was teaching little kids martial arts I always tried to be very responsible. Also, it’s not something you promote. You don’t tell your parents and you don’t tell your other friends. It’s like a secret society. I was always afraid my teachers would find out.”
Were you ever concerned when you were running with them that even if you weren’t involved directly in the fighting, you could receive an injury that could put you out of martial arts, either temporarily or permanently?
“I did. There were times. Also at one point a bunch of the guys got arrested for some football violence incident and they had called me for the trial. Several times I had to show up and be a witness in trials and sit there and say, ‘I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see anything.’ That always bothered me because I always felt is that going to show up in my record or not.”