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Beyond The Pole - David L Williams interview

David L Williams

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director David L Williams talks about some of the many challenges of making mockumetary Beyond The Pole, including overcoming the elements and getting the right mix between the humour and the darker elements.

The film, which is released on DVD on July 5, 2010, follows two clueless adventurers (played by Stephen Mangan and Rhys Thomas) who bid to become the first carbon neutral, vegetarian and organic expedition ever to attempt the North Pole.

Q. Congratulations on getting Beyond The Pole made! I enjoyed it very much. But I gather it was almost as difficult to get made, and as touch and go, as the expedition it depicts itself? A triumph of the underdog spirit?
David L Williams: Thank you very much! Well, it took some time that’s for sure. This business is not an easy one to succeed in and I think if you really want to get in the first thing you have make sure of is that the film is the best it can possibly be and then it’s really up to you to kick the door in, chop it up, and burn it! I’d say we are in an interesting time. Thanks to the Internet, and the ability of people and fans to connect with each other now, there is a revolution going on. The business is being democratised undoubtedly, but no one’s going to give you a free ride. You have to grab it and take it. The tools are there but it’s true, a pugnacious spirit is probably what is going to get you there. That and some good old fashioned luck!

Q. What were some of the logistical problems of shooting in Greenland? I gather it was very cold… did that affect the cameras or equipment in any way?
David L Williams: The cold was something that was there all the time, of course, and could be very dangerous as once a core temperature drops it’s very difficult to get it back up and we were 800 miles from the next nearest settlement. We moved around on dog sledges over constantly moving sea ice in polar bear country so there were plenty of things to keep your eye on but we had a great Icelandic safety team in Arctic First, who ensured we were protected by Innuit hunters, and who were experts in where was safe to walk, where wasn’t etc.

Equipment-wise, we had to keep everything outside through the duration of our stay or else condensation would just kill you and the same went for pointing the camera anywhere near the sun. A real no no and luckily we fell foul of this on the reccie and a couple of hours spent blow drying the camera was a real lesson to not do it again!

Q. How aware were you, when filming, of the effects of global warming?
David L Williams: Well, it’s difficult to know because so much of what we saw was new to us. However, the locals were very clear in their stories of how there was much less ice now than 10 years ago. Certainly, there were photos that were quite telling too. What did ram home, however, was how incredibly beautiful the top of the world is and how massive forces are in play all the time – almost unimaginable in scale. For example, the first day we arrived on our reccie our guide took us to where he had promised there would be fields of boulder ice, icebergs, basically a stunning backdrop for our film.

Well, we got there after travelling for hours on dog sledges and there was nothing. Just ocean as far as the eye could see. Two days before the shoot was due to begin I was less than impressed but Kristjan (our guide) told me not to worry and we went back to base to discuss back-up plans and look at maps (and to be introduced to the local vodka!). The following day we passed by exactly the same spot and to my amazement (and Kristjan’s I think!) there were all the icebergs and pack ice that he had promised. Overnight, 80 miles of ice had drifted in and packed hard.

It was an incredible sight to see and one that will stay with me always. We spent the next 11 days filming like crazy, very conscious that our location might very easily disappear again. It did not but it did move all the time.

Q. What do you think Stephen Mangan and Rhys Thomas brought to their roles? And how improvisational did you allow them to be?
David L Williams: I cannot tell you how impressive and generous these two actors were. They worked with the script endlessly, trying out new things, throwing in unexpected little ideas that would kick off something new. It was a wonderful experience to watch and to work with. I think what happened on set was there was a confidence in the script, and a belief in what we were doing which just transcended any daily challenges (of which there were many). As the director/producer (and a co-writer) I was also much more free than if I was just a director for hire. I could make changes to the script as we went. This was a luxury that definitely reaped dividends as we could afford to be much more imaginative and opportunistic on set than we otherwise might have been.

Q. You invest the latter part of the film with quite a dark heart… why did you decide to do that? And how did you go about balancing the tone between some of the more slapstick moments and those darker ones?
David L Williams: This was the hardest thing, and something that Neil (the writer) , Helen (Executive Producer), Rob (Editor) and I all spent a lot of time on in script and edit. It was a thin line and inevitably there were times where we disagreed but, ultimately, I think we tempered each other’s worst instincts and also threw in great ideas along the way. A real team effort and one I was very proud to be a part of. I think if you ask any of the team they will describe the edit as a really enjoyable part of the process.

It’s difficult to say much more because I don’t want to spoil the film but I think the journey had to be real, the stakes had to be high, and ultimately this film is not Dumb and Dumber. It is about two men who get way out of their depth and put themselves through hell to achieve greatness. There will always be a price to be paid when you reach so high.

Q. The casting of Alex Skarsgard must have seemed like a coup? Or at least it turned out that way for the film in America! Had you seen True Blood or Generation Kill before you got him?
David L Williams: No and No! We actually cast Alexander on the back of an iceberg as we had already travelled out to Greenland when we discovered our original Norwegians had fallen through due to a clash of dates. I cast him because he had been voted Sweden’s sexiest man for five years in a row and because I vaguely remembered him being funny in Zoolander. But yes, undoubtedly a coup although when we got him onto the ice we discovered he had never been on skis before and he was playing an Olympic skier! In the hurly burly of production we had all just assumed as a Swedish man… so more improvising!

Q. But I gather now his fans really lobbied hard for the film to be seen… that must have been tremendously invigorating?
David L Williams: It was wonderful. 5,000 motivated fans just emailing and bullying cinemas into booking us and press into covering our little film. It was very good for the soul because in the darkest times, when we had no money, no distribution, they were there saying we love this movie, it’s getting into cinemas – keep the faith! I will never forget that, so thank you Skarsgirls – you know who you are!

Q. The film has a very British attitude towards its comedy… an American filmmaker may have sugar-coated certain aspects and made it more touchy-feely. How keen were you to give it a bittersweet finale? And did you have to fight to keep it?
David L Williams: We were told point blank not to do our finale (again it’s tricky not to give it away!). But the actors, Helen, the writer and myself just rallied round and held firm. Stephen particularly fought to keep it and I’m bloody glad we did. It makes sure the film has a journey and the characters really change from start to finish. I think the film has a wonderful quality where you can’t help but feel yourself in their shoes and go: “Oh my god what would I do now?!” And they decide to do something almost unimaginable, but somehow very true. These very ordinary, fallible men, become something else. I think that’s very exciting.

Q. How much did you learn from the experience of making Beyond The Pole as a director? Do you feel you learn more from triumphing against adversity?
David L Williams: Well, I think I learnt the value of believing in yourself and your judgement, to hold your ground and to follow your gut. Lots of people are involved in a film’s making and each will have their own opinions and input – some valuable, some less so. But it’s very difficult for them to appreciate the whole picture… where you need to get to. It’s a long journey, making a film, and although ultimately I don’t regret anything, going into another film I would make sure that any decision I took I was happy to live with, regardless of its consequences.

I think filmmaking is all about making decisions. You have to make them: good, bad or indifferent, because if you stop making them the whole thing grinds to a halt. And you have to live with the consequences of these decisions for a very long time! Basically, if you have doubts about something early on, steer clear, because to change those decisions later is either impossible or the price is just too high. And you don’t want to be kicking yourself. So, trust your gut!

Q. What’s been the most pleasing/surprising reaction you’ve had to the film?
David L Williams: Just the pleasure people have drawn from the film. I have been to screening after screening where people have just come out… lit up. It’s a very warm film ultimately. Maybe not perfect, but it has a real story, wonderful characters and something to say about the world we live in. It has heart, it looks and feels very different from most English films and tt moves people. I am very proud to have been part of it.

Q. How do you enjoy working with Helen? And are you always bouncing ideas off each other? How invaluable was she to have as a producer? As well as someone you could maybe go home with at night and blow off any steam that you needed to?
David L Williams: Helen is a joy as anyone who knows her will tell you. I find her very wise and it is incredibly valuable, creatively (and emotionally – because it is an emotional process) to have someone to turn to, whose judgement you trust, and who you can say: “I think this, am I totally wrong on this?” Her judgement is superb. That’s not to say we always agree. We don’t. But I value her judgement enormously and certainly our company, Shooting Pictures, and this film, would be the poorer without her.

Q. What’s next for you?
David L Williams: Well, apart from the DVD release, which is enormously important. It really matters how well it does to us because DVD is where it’s at so far as revenue is concerned. So, buy it – it’s funny and would make a great present! Sorry – can’t help myself. Apart from that, I am spending a lot of time SKYPING with writers and investors in LA and London at the moment and I am very excited about agents we now have in both cities too. Projects can appear and disappear like mirages, so I don’t want to say too much, but I am certainly looking forward to seeing what might catch light next.

Beyond The Pole is released on DVD on Monday, July 5, 2010.