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Dangerous Parking - Peter Howitt interview

Peter Howitt in Dangerous Parking

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PETER Howitt talks about directing, producing and starring in Dangerous Parking, the unflinching story of a hedonistic filmmaker and alcoholic who endured rehab, found love and then had to battle bladder cancer. The film was adapted by Howitt from the acclaimed autobiographical novel by Stuart Browne.

He also discusses the difficulty of getting films made in the UK, why he won’t be too bothered if he never gets to make a movie again and the latest progress with his planned adaptation of David Copperfield, which is due to star Colin Firth and Simon Pegg.

Q. Your performance in Dangerous Parking epitomises the term “warts and all”…
Peter Howitt: [Laughs] Yes it is, it really is warts and all and any other blemish you can find on your skin, inside your skin, inside your brain… So, it is warts and all and purposefully so because Stuart Browne’s book [of the same name] is so visceral, raw, honest, real and unapologetic that the only way to do it justice is to hopefully make the film be exactly that. Otherwise, there’s no point in making a film of this book because you’re not doing him the service that he deserves. So, I’m proud because I think I’ve done that. And I wouldn’t normally say this. But I actually do think it’s as honest, real and evocative as I could have hoped in truth.

Q. It’s definitely one of the bravest all-round performances I’ve seen, both in terms of the work that went into it from behind the camera and what you put yourself through in front of it…
Peter Howitt: Well, thanks for saying that. It is brave but actually the honesty thing is the most important thing. It’s not about being brave, but being real and honest and not being frightened of going to wherever it is you need to go to. I just didn’t question it. When it turned out that I was going to play the part because of necessity I was very nervous at first and thought I didn’t really want to do it. But now that I have, and being surrounded by these other fantastic actors who did their bit brilliantly, I’m very proud of how it turned out.

Q. How much did it take out of you?
Peter Howitt: A lot. It did exactly what I wanted it to do. When I decided to make it, or try and make it, I knew that I wanted to test myself and put myself on the line. I’d had a bit of a lucky ride of things after Sliding Doors. I made some films that I was very lucky to get the chance to make and got paid very well too. But something happened inside and I thought: “OK, you’ve had a really lucky run of things here but you haven’t really made a film yet that actually you could say, ‘that’s me’.” Now, this isn’t really me, it’s Stuart Browne. So, it’s not really my story and I’m not stealing it from him because it’s his and it’s still his, including the film, but it just so happened that it hit a nerve with me and I thought this kind of material is so much closer to the kind of film that I’d want to make and want to go and see… I’d go and see this. I don’t know that I’d go and see every one of the other films I’ve made, which doesn’t matter. You don’t have to always make films that you’d want to go and see yourself. But I’d go and see this and I think I’d get out of it what I know people are getting out of it already, because I’ve seen it happen. You get a few people who are resisting it, because you have to go to some pretty dark places…

Q. It does kind of test the human ability to forgive people their faults…
Peter Howitt: Yeah, it does – but if you don’t forgive him that’s up to you. It’s not a requirement. He’s not asking you to forgive him. And it was very important to me that we didn’t send him on some kind of arc; some dramatic arc where you don’t like him at the beginning because he’s a bit of a maniac, but by the end he’s redeemed himself and they all live happily ever after. That would be untruthful to the book and condescending and disrespectful to the audience because watching a film like this is a unique experience that has to be accepted in whatever way it is by each individual. I’d hate to think I’d tried to manipulate anybody to have any particular thought or feeling towards him.

I want everyone to have their own reaction to it. If they resist it, or embrace it, if they like him at the beginning and hate him at the end, or they don’t care, or they cry and/or laugh, it’s all good. People have phoned me in the middle of the night to say they just can’t sleep because they couldn’t bear what happened to Noah or believe that by the end they were rooting for him to get it together. They’ve said they’ve had their life changed by this film, which is great. But equally, there will be people who say: “You know what? I don’t want to go to those places, thank you very much.” Or they’ll get all critical about it and tell me where I went wrong, which critics love to do… I love it when critics tell you what it is you tried to achieve and why you didn’t manage it even though they weren’t around when you made it. They seem to know what it is you were setting out to do… they must have some kind of sixth sense. But you have to let films go at some point and it’s not mine anymore and now it belongs to the world.

Q. Did you need a stiff drink before the full-frontal naked scene?
Peter Howitt: I don’t drink! I haven’t had a drink for 10 years. In fact, on the first day I did think that maybe I should… I remember someone got me a tequila. I wouldn’t drink it but I swilled it around in my mouth to get the taste of it and thought it was just horrible and hated it. So, I pretended. I stopped drinking years ago, just because I did, and I didn’t feel the need to go method.

Q. How did you tackle the naked scene, though. Did you put it at the beginning of the shoot to get it over with?
Peter Howitt: I can’t remember when we did it, to be honest. But I wasn’t worried about it even though it was the scene that the original actor who was going to play the part dropped out over, because he was worried about showing his willy. But to me, you’re exposed totally when you’re doing a film like this; so to be exposed physically was neither here nor there to me. I don’t have an actor’s vanity. If you’re going to be in this, it’s warts and all, nob and all, bum and all, sick, blood and everything. There were harder scenes to do than that… it’s the emotional stuff that’s difficult.

Q. Was the chemotherapy sequence among those?
Peter Howitt: That was quite hard. It’s actually harder to watch than it was to do but we did it on the last day because I had to have my hair shaved off. But it was harrowing. Although again, sometimes acting is harder to watch than it is to do. It was hard because thankfully I’ve never been in chemotherapy so I don’t know what it’s like. The reason why there’s so much pain there is because that’s how it was described in the book. If you read the novel, the way he describes it is actually more harrowing than when you watch the film. He describes it so brilliantly, honestly and evocatively that you go: “Oh my God, I can’t imagine…”

We actually had someone pass out at a screening when they watched that sequence. But that’s why I love this film… it just takes you to places that you might not want to go and I think it rewards you for going there. You cry, you laugh, you’re repulsed, you feel anger, you feel emotionally connected, you feel sorrow and you’re entertained. There are huge sections that are hugely entertaining, such as Sean Pertwee and his squid and getting stuck on the motorway. But it’s a roller-coaster ride and there aren’t too many films like that. A lot of commentators and critics are all saying: “No one’s making anything that’s worth anything or means anything anymore… It’s all easily accessible, durable romantic comedies and commercial nonsense.” Well, here’s one! So, if you don’t like it and it doesn’t do very well then don’t come asking me where all the proper films have gone because I’ve just made one. There’s your answer.

Q. Has Stuart Browne’s family seen the film?
Peter Howitt: I believe so. I haven’t heard anything back personally. But I believe that they screened it for some family and friends and apparently it was a very, very emotional experience.

Q. Did you have any contact with the family while making the film?
Peter Howitt: Not massively. I didn’t really want to take on board that because the only person I would have wanted to have any contact with is Stuart because it’s his story and his book. Obviously, I wasn’t able to do that [because Stuart died in November 1999, shortly before the publication of the novel]. Also, this is my interpretation of this book so I think it was important to keep a separation from that. But you don’t really normally speak to the author when you’re doing adaptations of books. I mean I’m doing David Copperfield next and I can’t have Charles Dickens on the phone because he’ll be busy [laughs].

Q. You mentioned that the film has changed some people’s lives once they’ve seen it. Did it also change yours, having been such an integral part of it?
Peter Howitt: It has – some in good ways and some in not so good ways. I’m very proud that I did it. But having done it now and put myself on the line – and I can’t think of anyone else that I know who makes films in England at the moment who would put themselves on the line quite as much as I have for this – I have decided that because it was so difficult and so hard to get made… getting people to embrace it, getting cinemas to embrace it and trying to get the money raised, it’s just too hard, frankly. I’m pleased we did it but I personally won’t ever go out on a limb again like this because it’s just too hard. It was worth it in this case but it was four years of my life and I need to earn some money now because I’m skint. And so, I’ve done what I set out to do; I did it with Sliding Doors, I’ve done it again now, I’ve answered a lot of the questions that I asked of myself about what was in me as a bloke and how far was I prepared to put myself on the line, but I’m not going to ask it of myself ever again. If I get to make another film, which I may or may not, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not integral that I should keep making films. But it won’t be like this. I won’t go on another four-year crusade to make a film.

Q. It hasn’t wet your appetite for being in front of the camera though?
Peter Howitt: No, not at all. I’m not an actor anymore. The fact that I’m in it is an accident. It’s a happy accident. But I won’t be calling anyone up to ask if I can more. I lost the acting bug years ago. I enjoyed being Noah Arkwright and I didn’t really feel as though I was acting but it hasn’t rekindled an acting bug. If someone came up with an interesting part I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, but I’m not seeking it out. But I’m not seeking anything out anymore because I think this has drawn a bit of a line under things. So, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll just become a postman or something like that [laughs].

Q. But you’re working on David Copperfield?
Peter Howitt: I am but I don’t know if that’ll get made because we’re trying to finalise the finances and it’s just as hard to make that as it is to make anything. It’s almost impossible to make films in the UK now, or indeed most other places in the world with the economic climate being the way it is. Also, the tax breaks [in the UK] are not structured now to help people invest; they’re there to help people bring films to the UK that are already financed. And that’s fine, it’s good for the infrastructure of the film service industry in the UK – the crews and technicians – but it doesn’t encourage people to invest in indigenous home-grown products. But I don’t want to go on a rant about that because that’s just the way it is. It means that it’s just too hard and that’s why I won’t go on that crusade again because there are too many brick walls. I’ve done it twice, I’ve shown that I’m prepared to do it but I’m not going to keep doing it over and over again because I can’t be f**king bothered.

Q. David Copperfield has some big names attached, including Simon Pegg and Colin Firth. Are they still attached?
Peter Howitt: Yeah, they’re attached but only attached. When you set out to finance a film you have to get some actors attached and they, in essence, want to be in it but you have to go back and check with them because they don’t know when you’ll make it, or if you’ll even be able to do a deal with them to make it. They just say: “Look, if all the planets align at the time you make it I’d like to play this part and you can tell people that to help raise the money…” But then you have to go back to them when you have the money and your dates and they’re either available or not. If not, you replace them. So we either will or won’t make that. And there’s a couple of other films I’ve been asked to look at. I don’t get films thrown at me, by the way. I’m not on a Hollywood list to make films… I’ve had that little red carpet ride but that’s over. And it’s fine. But I’m not seeking it out. I’ve lost some of the hunger and I don’t know that it’s necessarily important to keep making films. If this [Dangerous Parking] was to be the last film I ever made, I’d say it’s the one I’m the most proud of.

Read our review of Dangerous Parking