Closed Circuit - John Crowley interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JOHN Crowley talks about directing the conspiracy thriller Closed Circuit, its connection to the events of 7/7 and terrorism related themes and the challenge of striking a balance between the complicated legal material and keeping it entertaining.
He also talks about working with actors like Eric Bana and Kenneth Cranham and reflects on some of his earlier experiences, including teaming up with Andrew Garfield on the critically-acclaimed Boy A.
Q. I gather one of the initial appeals of doing Closed Circuit was the opportunity to direct a thriller, as you’re a fan of them?
John Crowley: Yes. An adult thriller as it were… a smart thriller. I guess it’s a certain kind of film that I grew up watching on TV as a youth and it felt like I would love to make a film that attempted to look at the world, but not compromise on it being an entertainment, as it were. So, when Working Title mentioned the script to me it felt like a great project to get involved with.
Q. How big a challenge was finding the balance between the legal complexity of what’s at stake with delivering the entertainment aspect you’ve already mentioned?
John Crowley: Massive. Therein lies seven or eight months of mind-bending, hard craft is the answer [laughs]! And you don’t know if you’ve got it right because one person’s clarity is another person’s fog so it’s very hard to know. It’s really difficult and that is, of course, the edge that a lot of thrillers stand up or fall down on, the complexity. If it’s too simple you lose an audience because they’re way ahead of you, but if it’s too complex, you know… so, throw into that this rather subtle, very complicated aspect of the English legal system about Special Advocates and closed court hearings, and trying to explain what that is while getting a conspiracy thriller up in the air was very difficult, no question. Of course, in legal films I think we’re used to there being a prosecution and a defence but the idea that our sparring partners are on the same team, but then they’re not allowed to speak to each other after a certain point, that’s a complicated one for people to get their heads around.
So, it took a fair amount of work in the edit to try and lay the pieces out. We lost scenes from the film which were very, very good scenes on their own, where you saw each of our two main characters in action in court at the start doing cases as a form of introducing them to the day job, which is a classic sort of thing, before you get introduced to the brief. But it wouldn’t work and I think that was partly because of the opening event, which is the Borough Bomb, which is not an event which then you can settle… it felt like that was the event that had to set the film in motion and we had to move from that point. So, it was a fascinating journey editing this film and completely different from anything I’ve done before.
Q. That opening scene is incredible. How was putting it together using all the CCTV footage?
John Crowley: Well, it was fascinating. I bashed my head off with it for a long time again before we got near to shooting it because I was always worried about the idea of just opening with a big bang. I was adamant the film wouldn’t feel like a glitzy American thriller. I didn’t want it to have a big special effects opening. The notion of seeing the thing from 12 points of view simultaneously because it felt fragmented and it also felt and it also felt that there was an appropriate tone to the scale of the event on the screen and it would feel a bit fresh and you would immediately put a viewer in mid of who is behind the camera thematically, which felt appropriate to where we were off to after that point. As a challenge, because it was so technically difficult, the first person who had his brain bent out of shape, was the storyboard artist who had to try and imagine these events from 12 points of view. So, it took us a long time to basically piece together how to explain to the world that this is what we wanted to do because people would go: “What?” So, we built a model of the Borough Market and where all the cameras were going to be and what they were going to see. So, it was a bit like doing 12 mini plays and all that stuff is fine, because I come from a theatre background so you get used to all of that, but in a weird way by the time we got to shoot it, it was lucidly clear and it was fine… we knew what we were doing and we put the cameras up and we shot and we moved. We didn’t shoot all 12 simultaneously, obviously, but it was complex and actually one of the most enjoyable challenges of the film and one of the most satisfying results in it. I’m really proud of it.
Q. Obviously, this is set in London, which must have been another appeal. There are a lot of films and TV programmes that confront the war on terror and the aftermath of 9/11 from an American perspective. This is one of the few that does so from a British perspective, with 7/7 firmly in mind. Why do you think that is?
John Crowley: I don’t know. It’s a very good question. It’s very hard to say. It touches on one of the other aspects [of the film], which is the rise of the security state, in a sense, and security cameras. London has… however many there are, and there are no official figures for however many CCTV cameras in the wake of the war on terror, but one thing that’s for sure is there’s been an exponential rise in the presence of security cameras in London – and that’s been uncommented on too. And whether that’s because people either haven’t noticed, which maybe is possible because with the exception of a couple of notable journalists, people don’t tend to write about it in the papers, or whether it’s because people don’t mind, that it makes them feel a little bit safer in light of the war on terror, is an interesting question. And I don’t know what the answer to that is myself. I’m not entirely sure why… I think in terms of mainstream films it’s like Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror… people are scared, and financiers are scared, because they think it’s not good business.
But equally whether audiences want to see something reflected that nakedly on the screen, I don’t know… Time will tell whether you need a bit more distance and whether you need people to find stories with a metaphorical spin rather than trying to report something as it happened, or whether fiction can do that – which is what we’re trying to do, which is to create a fictional event which sits alongside 7/7 and follows on from it, but has its distance from it and isn’t trying to borrow from it, in a sense. I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. But I think those are the questions that grown up, adult films should be asking and I think it [films like this] should be led by ideas rather than business – from the director’s point of view, not from the financiers. We each worry about different things.
Q. Some of the news footage you use immediately after the opening scene seems to be taken from 7/7. Is that correct?
John Crowley: Some is and some isn’t. Some is just news footage of events around London.
Q. Did you ever think twice about using that in case there wasn’t enough distance for people more closely affected by those events?
John Crowley: A little bit, yes. But equally…. yes, is the answer I did think very carefully about it. But equally I felt that if we were going to try and do an event like that justice, what felt important was to try and contextualise it within London and explain what might happen in the city, in the events that we were trying to describe, and why the security services would be under such pressure and might, while setting out to do the right thing, might wind up doing the exact opposite, which is one of the intriguing things about security services that they seem to regularly do, which is sort of violate the rights of the citizens in order to protect the rights of the citizens [laughs]. And I think it’s a conundrum which is as old as democracy itself, that question – which is to what extent are people willing to have their liberty curtailed for security and who decides that should be the case? Tony Blair came down on one side of that debate very clearly and famously said: “Make no mistake about it the rules of the game have changed.” But there are lots of other very smart thinkers who would come down on the other side.
Q. You’ve assembled a great cast. A previous director told me that Eric Bana comes in with a very meticulous set if questions before committing to a role. Was that the case with you?
John Crowley: Yes, actually, now that you mention it [smiles]. I didn’t know that he’d done that with other directors but there you go… yeah. And we first met for breakfast in America because we were both in LA at the time. He listened a lot at that point and he asked a couple of key questions and when he got the next draft of the script, before he signed on for the film, we booked a phone call and he was in Melbourne, where he lives at 9am my time in London, and the conversation lasted about an hour and a half and I could feel him working through meticulously a set of questions that he probably had in front of him. But he’s a very careful thinker and he said to me: “The only thing I don’t like to do is improvise on the set, as in let’s rip it all up and do whatever…” He can improvise if you give him very clear guidelines, but I tend not to improvise with dialogue and go after something very specific. So, I rehearse beforehand so we have the parameters of the scene. But he’s an incredibly thoughtful man and actor.
Q. Conversely, how was reuniting with Jim Broadbent?
John Crowley: Well, he’s always great. He’s fantastic and he makes what he does look effortless, so I loved re-connecting with him. He does make it look easy but actually there’s a ferocious seriousness to him… on the inside, not on the outside, about how seriously he takes the work. Getting it right is incredibly important to him and he’s a perfectionist. He just doesn’t burden other people with it. He’s the lightest presence o set. He’s funny and he’s light but he’s a great actor, a great actor. And he loved the opportunity of doing something completely different here and playing a dodgy, posh politician.
Q. It must be nice to be in a position as a director where you can get to work with people you’ve had your eye on for some time, such as Kenneth Cranham in this?
John Crowley: I love Ken Cranham. I’ve seen him on stage, many years ago, in An Inspector Calls, which is one of the key experiences that I had in the theatre when I was a younger director just starting out; So, I’ve always wanted to work with him. So, we offered him the part of the judge and he came in and said: “I only play gangsters, what are you talking about?” But I was adamant that it wouldn’t a crusty old English doddery chap and Kenneth has the most beautiful voice. He has authority. I think he’s like the voice of God, if God has a voice… I’d expect him to sound like Ken Cranham [laughs]. And he’s just a great actor and has a sort of trust-worthy benign, paternal quality to him that I felt you needed to have in the piece… a sort of ultimate authority you could appeal to that would blow the whistle in order for the worst thing of all to happen, which is actually for them to clear the page past him.
Q. How gratifying is it for you to be able to go after – and get – the people you really want to work with, yet at the same time be able to look back and say you helped launch the career of someone like Andrew Garfield [in Boy A]?
John Crowley: Well, it’s very flattering to say that I launched him. I didn’t intentionally do that. I went after the appropriate actor for the right job again. We saw Andrew’s audition and Andrew wasn’t Andrew Garfield at the time. He had done a lot of theatre, which I’d seen and really liked, and he was shooting Lions For Lambs in LA. Channel 4 didn’t know who he was. Everybody would have much rather had a bit of a name to lean on. But when myself and the casting director saw the audition, that was it, there was no question, so you go after the tight person for the job and that’s it. There was no notion that we had to launch this guy’s career. If you get it right, then other things happen and that’s one of the other things that happened, and I’m delighted to have worked with him because, my God, he gave a performance that was just thrilling! But he tried to back out of that after saying ‘yes’ for a while and I wouldn’t let him back out of it. I think he got scared that it was going to be TV, that he wouldn’t have had enough takes, that he’d had a very bad experience in TV… he was a young actor and he’d never played a leading role yet. And I think he was nervous about the weight of that role on his shoulders and consequently when he actually did turn up on-set, he was sort of quivering with this nervous intensity that communicated itself into the performance and he was just magnificent.
But to answer your question, it’s incredibly gratifying… one of the great pleasures of my working life is working with actors that I love, some of whom I’ve seen and some of whom are actors that you just met on this job and they come on-set and surprise you and are endlessly inventive and can turn on a ha’penny…. within five minutes of having to leave because of fading light they’ll turn out something emotionally spellbinding or funny or whatever is demanding. So, it’s a great pleasure.
Closed Circuit is released in UK cinemas on Friday, October 25, 2013