Hallam Foe - David Mackenzie interview
Interview by Jack Foley
DAVID Mackenzie talks about working with Jamie Bell on Hallam Foe and why the film represents a step in the right direction for him as a director.
He also talks about progressing as a filmmaker in England and some of his forthcoming film projects….
Q. How did you first hear about the Hallam Foe novel?
David Mackenzie: My friend, Peter Jinks, wrote it. I knew it was happening before it was even on paper and I knew there was a rooftop element to it. It was on the radar very early on, so as soon as it was published we read it and thought maybe we could do something with it.
Q. I gather you pitched it to Jamie Bell in a pretty strange environment?
David Mackenzie: It just happened to be this weird restaurant in Berlin. I was there for my last film and he was there for Dear Wendy and we engineered a meeting because I was keen on him already. It was bizarre, though, because we’d be talking and on the screen there’d be this very hardcore Japanese anime porn. It was my first experience of that, so our conversation would stop a lot of the time.
Q. You have a reputation for making darker films, such as The Last Great Wilderness and Young Adam, but this is lighter and more hopeful in places….
David Mackenzie: Yeah, it’s a step in the right direction! It’s definitely more positive than anything I’ve done before even though, thematically, it’s pretty dark, particularly when you’re dealing with a 17-year-old. But it affords you to have a lighter touch and opportunities for redemption and hope, which is great.
Q. Did you enjoy the process more?
David Mackenzie: Well, the whole process, apart from the struggles to raise the money which are usual, was pretty good for me. I really enjoyed it. The shoot was tough because it was only six weeks and we had a lot to fit in that time. But the actual experience of it was great because it was fantastic working with Jamie. It was very physical and emotional for him, because he’s in every scene, but he’s a real trooper: a great guy and a great actor. That was a joy. We’re friends off set and on and it wouldn’t have been possible if he wasn’t so brilliant.
Q. You put him though a lot, though. He has previously mentioned the Loch scene, in which the stuntwoman didn’t even want to enter the water…
David Mackenzie: [Laughs] It was bloody cold. The week before it was frozen over. He had a wet suit of some kind on but it was just a thin one because otherwise it would be visible. He was in the water a lot of times. But he did lots of physical things in the film that were tough for him. I don’t know because I’m not an actor but I’d imagine the emotional stuff is harder than the physical stuff.
Q. And yet he conquers it all…
David Mackenzie: Jamie Bell is Hallam Foe. He did a lot of research into the character and really embraced it. Without Jamie Bell, Hallam Foe would not exist as a film. Amazingly, the very first scene we shot was him on the train and when I first saw him in costume he looked so much like Pete, the writer. It was a really weird experience because Hallam Foe is at least slightly autobiographical. It wasn’t deliberate but I knew we were on the right track.
Q. There’s a lot of rooftop scenes in Hallam Foe. How easy was it to get access to them?
David Mackenzie: There was a great location we found early but had great difficulty actually securing it, where Kate’s flat is. There were some flat roofs there, it was quite accessible and it had the great views. But once we got it, there wasn’t much of a struggle. You obviously have the health and safety issues. It slows you down.
Q. I read that Sophia Myles wrote you a begging letter of sorts to secure the part. Do you get many of those from actresses of her calibre?
David Mackenzie: It wasn’t a begging letter! She just wrote me a letter saying she’d love to play the part. I’d already met her and was into her anyway. It wasn’t instrumental in getting her the job. The one thing I can say is that getting a letter from someone who’s prepared to make that personal touch, it does make you think they’ll be dedicated to the role. I’d encourage it a bit more often, I suppose. I think it’s been slightly mis-represented as a begging letter [laughs].
Q. She’s another very promising young actress, isn’t she?
David Mackenzie: It’s a very multi-faceted role. She’s got to be a hard professional, she’s got to be mumsy, girlfriend-y, sexy and a character who is almost as damaged as Hallam Foe is underneath it all. And the film doesn’t spend anywhere near as much time with her as it does with Hallam, so she’s got to capture that really quickly. But she does it really brilliantly. I’m really pleased with the romantic elements between her and Hallam – I think it works really well.
Q. How easy was it to make the scene where they exchange profanities appear as romantic as it should be – and is?
David Mackenzie: I had a lot of fun writing that for obvious reasons! I was kind of giggling while writing because I thought it was going to cause trouble. So yeah, it was a fun scene to do because they were probably quite embarrassed by it. It was always going to be a romantic scene; I knew the trajectory of it was always going to get to the point where they’re going to kiss. So, the idea was to make the rudest romantic scene that I could. But I decided not to use the C-word because it’s so obvious. There’s plenty of other uses of that word in the film that I just refrained from putting it in that scene.
Q. Do you think it contributed to the 18 certificate?
David Mackenzie: I’m sure it did, which is a shame because it’s a teen movie. It’s my take on a teen movie and I wouldn’t mind if 15-year-olds could go and see it. I don’t mind the 18 certificate so much in the UK because it’s a grown up film for grown-ups, which is fine. But in America the NC-17 that we got for Young Adam not only killed the film but it has a sort stigma attached to it. Journalists wouldn’t interview us because we had the NC-17. I wouldn’t want to go there with this. I don’t think it will be. But it’s a shame if you’re making a film about 17-year-olds that they can’t see it.
Q. Especially when there’s such a lot to connect with. Musically, as well, it will capture a lot of people’s imaginations. Are you a music buff?
David Mackenzie: I’m a big fan of music, yeah. I sort of stopped collecting. I have too many shelves of the stuff. But I was a huge fan of Domino Records anyway before I approached them to help me with the soundtrack. Most of the bands on the soundtrack are bands that I already know.
Q. It’s a good mix as well because it perfectly captures the shifting tone of the movie…
David Mackenzie: Well, the challenge was to try and get all the emotional areas that the film wanted to capture with a catalogue of music that already existed – apart from the Franz Ferdinand song, which was composed for it. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find that, particularly during some of the sad bits. But I think it’s pretty successful in terms of capturing that.
Q. How was working with Claire Forlani?
David Mackenzie: She was great fun and really captured the wicked stepmother kind of thing. She was hard but it was also important to me that her character was still a human being – she wasn’t all bad. You could understand why she wanted to clean up all this grief and start again.
Q. Do you find that it’s getting easier for you as your reputation builds as a filmmaker?
David Mackenzie: Yeah. I suppose it is. People start realising that I’m a responsible filmmaker and I’m not going to run away with the budget or do anything stupid. I think it probably depends on the subject matter and it depends on who’s producing and all those things. My hope is that I’ll be allowed to carry on making films.
Q. What are your views on the current state of the British film industry? Do you think it’s in a strong position bearing in mind the quality of some of the films we’ve seen this year?
David Mackenzie: Well, I think there are some good films. But always the problem with the British film industry is that it’s really the American film industry, or a small branch of in lots of ways because of the common language. But it’s great to see some individual voices still there. I think I probably gravitate towards a slightly more European, auteur model rather than the studio thing. I think it would be great if British films were a little bit more auteur driven. But apart from that, Film4 seems to be going from strength to strength and they’ve been great to work with. We could do with more films being made, though. That said, I don’t think it’s in a bad state. I remember wanting to be a filmmaker way back in the ’80s when it was really f****g shit! It’s definitely got better.
Q. Would you like to work in Hollywood if the opportunity arose?
David Mackenzie: If the project was right. I find most American films annoy me because their third act tends to be tying up loose ends and returning to moral values and killing the monster. I think most of the scripts I read to tend to go in that direction and I find that very, very unsatisfying. I want the stories to have loose ends and to pose some questions – or even say things that aren’t too comfortable. But the problem is that because you’re making films with huge amounts of money you need to hit the lowest common denominator in order to make it back and so therefore you’re not allowed to play with moral ambiguities or ask questions. So, that would be my problem with American cinema. There are plenty of exceptions to that rule and if the right script came along and they wanted me to do it, I’d be more than happy to do so.
Q. What’s next for you?
David Mackenzie: I’m writing a Western for Film4. I’m trying to get a crazy war journalism story off the ground based on a book. We sort of see it as a Withnail and I in the war zone – the beautiful people partying while all this shit is going on and, of course, the shit kind of comes in on them.
Q. Which war zone?
David Mackenzie: Somalia, which is very f****d up. I want something kind of trippy and very extreme in places – but also filled with gallows humour and levity. I don’t want to make fun out of people dying but there are ways that people deal with that kind of horror. So it’ll be pretty brutal but it will also be funny and sexy.
Q. Have you been to Somalia?
David Mackenzie: No. My friend, who’s a writer, is going there in a week or two’s time but the last time he went there was only a year and a half ago and he was the only white person there. He’s not even white, but he was the only non-Somalian and it’s f****g scary. It’s totally out of control – and that was even when the guys were beginning to pull the country up again. But now it’s gone back to tribal mayhem again and it’s a scary place.
Q. Africa seems to be a popular place for filmmakers at the moment?
David Mackenzie: It does actually. I do understand why, because it’s all about Africa now really. It’s the centre of the world really and it’s all kicking off. But a lot of people do seem to be making films there.
Q. And finally, is the Western going to be contemporary or a classic?
David Mackenzie: 1870, Arizona. But I’m also trying to do a film about Nico, which I’ve been trying to get off the ground for a long time – Nico the singer. That actually is the closest to being ready to shoot.