Brighton Rock - Rowan Joffe interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ROWAN Joffe talks about why he decided to remake iconic British movie Brighton Rock and update it to a ‘60s setting with Mods and Rockers.
He also talks about the pleasure of working with Helen Mirren, the critical reaction the film has received and what’s next for him.
Q. Remaking Brighton Rock is an ambitious undertaking for a first feature film. What made you think you could do it whereas many other directors before you have tried and failed?
Rowan Joffe: A kind of addictive love of the novel. And if I’m totally honest, although I profoundly revere the 1947 film and I think Richard Attenborough’s performance is extraordinary and a landmark, really, because most filmmaking at that time was quite fluffy, it wasn’t my vision of the book. I mean, apart from anything else the book is shot through with colour and is a vivid experience. It’s noir, so to that extent it’s perfect that it [the original] should be in black and white, but that wasn’t my experience of the book because what Graham Greene does is take a noir genre, a true crime genre and he gives it a spin and brings it to life.
I felt that the Rose in the novel is a far more powerful character than the one brought to life by Carol Marsh, who in fairness to her was doing so in a far more misogynist climate than ours. I suppose at the end of the day, I just kept telling myself that Greene loved cinema, although he was sceptical and contemptuous of a lot of adaptations of his own work, I felt that as long as he honoured his characters with all of my heart and soul that he would at least be tempted to see Helen Mirren bring someone like Ida Arnold to life.
Q. Do you think he’d approve of your remake?
Rowan Joffe: [Smiles] Well, I can’t say that but I think he’d be curious.
Q. What was it like working with someone like Helen Mirren?
Rowan Joffe: Fantastic! I mean without Helen I wouldn’t have gotten the movie green-lit. So, to that extent she was crucial. Helen had some very smart and innovative ideas about how to bring Ida to life. I’d initially said: “Look, let’s go the route that we think Greene was inspired by – ie, Mae West.” That is to say, blonde and buxom. Helen is buxom… is that fair? She’s certainly very sensual and attractive and sexy. But she went red-head. That was her decision and I think a very good one because it gives Ida a kind of sensual power. In fact, the character is a Greek fury and in Greene’s work is actually the villain of the piece, so I think a red-head is perfect.
It made me think of Cruella de Vil a little bit. As I was sitting in her hallway one afternoon as she was having various costume fittings, and she would come out in the hallway and ask me what I thought, her husband – Taylor Hackford – came back from work and said to me: “Is she a red-head in this movie?” I said ‘yes’. And he replied: “Oh, you’ve been suckered! She’s wanted to be a red-head for 25 years!” But if I was suckered I think it’s an example of a really good actor being a great idea to the screen.
Q. How was Sam Riley about taking on such an iconic role as Pinkie? Or did he like the fact that your version of the character was even nastier?
Rowan Joffe: If he was cautious he never shared that caution with me. But I have read somewhere that, like any intelligent person, you think Brighton Rock and re-inventing it and say perhaps: “Hmmm, guilty until proven innocent.” I think he liked the script and I think the ‘60s setting ultimately worked for him. And I think the chance to play such a diabolical anti-hero was irresistible.
Q. What made you choose the ‘60s to set it in?
Rowan Joffe: I wanted a contemporary audience to be able to identify with Rose and Pinkie without having to look through the lens of history and there’s nothing in the novel that ties it to 1939 – that’s one of the most remarkable things about it. Europe is about to be plunged into World War Two and there is not a single reference to that in the whole book, apart from one to Pinkie as ‘the little dictator’. So, if it’s not tied to that era and if, even more than that, it’s prescient because it’s about a teenage gangster taking on tradition and age in a rather venomous, hateful and thuggish way then what better setting, given that it’s Brighton, than the Mods and Rockers riots, which was youth turning on the society that had mothered and fathered it and saying: “We’re going to do things differently. We’re going to take control and from now on you’re going to listen to me.” And we’ve been listening to them ever since.
Q. How much fun was it to recreate that look, especially the Vespa sequence?
Rowan Joffe: It was great. My first AD [assistant director] on the schedule called the Vespa invasion ‘Freaky Friday’. We shot that on a Friday and the riot scene on a Sunday and it was the part of the shoot that we all dreaded. I had a floor-plan that I’d done myself that nobody understood but me. I would show it to our director of photography or first AD and they’d just look confused, but we got it and we got something that feels epic. It’s shot by the guy who shot Gladiator and it feels like a big movie.
And it’s important for Britain to make big movies. It’s what we used to do… movies that feel like they deserve a big screen. So, when you go to the cinema it’s not just to see a film that’s a film because it’s got some stars in it, or because it’s got lots of CGI in it, or because you’re told it’s a film, you’re going to see a film because it’s essentially cinematic and it’s larger than life. We take you to the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover, we plunge you into Mods and Rockers riots and we give you a sense of Brighton suspended somewhere between heaven and hell.
Q. How hard is that to do in England? A lot of British filmmakers tend to go to America… I’m thinking of people like Christopher Nolan…
Rowan Joffe: It’s not easy but then BBC Films, Optimum Releasing and Studio Canal… Optimum are now the only British company that can kind of fully bankroll a British film. But that’s important because although it’s fantastically fruitful and necessary to export British product to America, one doesn’t want to have to make creative decisions based on whether someone in Kansas is going to ‘get it’ because that’s stifling. So, it’s difficult but it’s do-able and moving on from here my next one will also be for Optimum and I hope it works.
Q. How much do you feel you’ve learned from this experience as a director? I mean, you’ve not only had to tackle the scepticism surrounding your decision to remake an iconic movie but also lost your original leading lady [Carey Mulligan] to Oliver Stone [and Wall Street 2]…
Rowan Joffe: I think I’ve got a thicker skin. I went into this knowing that no matter how good the movie was, or even how good a given critic thought it was, he was going to spend the first few hundred words of his copy explaining that it was a foolhardy undertaking and that everything would be compared to the original and who did I think I was. I have had quite a bit of that and it’s made me thicker skinned and that’s probably a useful thing for a director. I think you have to do what you believe in and not make movies for critics or award ceremonies because then it’s not coming from a particularly creative place.
Q. So, what is the most satisfying reaction you’ve had to the film?
Rowan Joffe: The most satisfying? It’s got to be the Guardian calling it ‘a masterpiece’. That was a brave critic and obviously an extremely enlightened gentleman [laughs]!
Q. And what’s next for you?
Rowan Joffe: Next is a movie with the working title Before I Go To Sleep, which is executive produced by Sir Ridley Scott, who is a big fan of Brighton Rock thankfully. It’s based on a brilliant debut thriller by a young writer called SJ Watson, which is going to be published this year. I will start shooting it hopefully this year too.