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Harry Brown - Daniel Barber interview

Daniel Barber directs Harry Brown

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DANIEL Barber talks about his debut film, Harry Brown, and why he hopes it will kick-start an important cultural debate about violence in Britain, having spoken to many disaffected youths during his research for the movie.

He also discusses the pleasure of working with screen icon Sir Michael Caine and delivers some lovely anecdotes about the British screen legend…

Q. What is your hope for the film in Britain?
Daniel Barber: I think it does make important social comment and I hope that it inspires some sort of a conversation – amongst audiences initially and then leads to a proper conversation in our society about what we’re going to do with what is probably going to become a lost generation if we’re not careful. That’s not a Daily Mail headline or any of that crap… it’s a reality. Having spent quite a bit of time meeting a lot of kids on estates during my research for the film it’s a sorry situation and we’re not doing anything about it. The film speaks about that. Now, you can say that it’s entertainment, which it is. But it does dramatise a serious reality in our country at the moment. Hopefully, because it’s a dramatisation and an entertainment it will attract more people to see it. Nobody would watch a documentary on the subject apart from some middle-class people from Hampstead, which is great for the Guardian readers, but you need to get out there and speak to normal people.

Q. What do you think has created this lost generation and, by extension, what do they think has?
Daniel Barber: My personal view on it is that there are different factors. One is the ease with which young people can connect with each other now, and can get information from the Internet, from television and so on. It’s so very quick. They can see horrendous things happening. People put something on the Internet which is really nasty… maybe they’ll beat somebody up and film it on their phone and put it on the Internet – there’s a community of people who like to look at things like that. But that leads to people wanting to beat up someone nastier and better because that means you’re taken more seriously in your gang or your area. Education is not regarded as a very high priority at the moment because people don’t think it’s that important.

The idea that you should have an education to better yourself, and to get a job, is not seen as the most serious route-way. It’s about living your life, being seen to be a serious person by your peers, which might be in a very violent way. You might have to earn your stripes, as it were, by knifing someone or beating someone up. That’s a reality. It sounds like a fantasy but it’s not. Going to school is seen as not a great thing to do. It’s too old fashioned, or it’s for tossers. You just hang out, do drugs and not do a great deal.

So you’ve got information, the kind of stuff they can put about that inspires them to do stuff; you’ve then got a lack of education, and then – what I saw – a shit home life… a mother or father who’s an alcoholic or a drug addict. Again, that sounds like something you could write in a magazine but it’s actually the truth. Or there’s people who live on benefit and themselves, as parents, are uninspired to get their kids to do anything – they don’t want to take responsibility for their kids or have anything to do with them.

They’re not like you or I… I have a son and all I care about is him, whether it’s how he’s doing at school or what he’s going to do when he’s older. I’m very lucky, I had nice parents and a good education. But that’s not what the situation is now. These kids don’t want to learn a trade, they probably do commit crime, they end up going to prison, which is a great school for learning how to be a criminal. That’s not a good idea. But there’s a whole swathe of society that just wants to put them in prison where they really learn how to be bad.

Q. So, what’s the answer?
Daniel Barber: It’s got to be us encouraging them and trying to get them into some sort of education to help them understand what they can do with it and how they can better themselves. That also means that people in successful companies need to take the lead and going: “Right, I’m going to help a group of kids and do something about this. I’m going to show them what they can achieve.” I don’t know what else to suggest. I’m sure if you go and ask a politician they’ll come up with some clever answer that doesn’t mean anything and is more about them not wanting to commit to anything because they just want to get themselves elected.

Q. It’s obviously an issue you’re very close to…
Daniel Barber: I get quite emotional about this. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I got to meet a lot of these kids and it’s a terrible, terrible situation. It’s too easy for us to drive by and ignore them when there’s a lot of suffering that’s gone on – a lot of mental suffering. They’ve had such crap upbringings. I went to places and spoke to people that lived in some really awful places that you’d just never want to live. Those estates encourage a lawlessness and degredation. But that’s what they’re into… yet we’re surprised that they steal cars, do drugs and beat people up? I’m not.

Q. By extension of that, there’s also no discipline now and a lack of respect. Your film touches on this and shows how powerless the police are…
Daniel Barber: The film is not about making the police out to be idiots at all. I haven’t done that and it’s not the case anyway. The police, for the most part, are trying to do something but there’s so much red tape. And in any case, they’re not social workers. They can go out and stop someone beating someone up and they try to follow up. But it’s miserable, thankless work. Everyone knows the system… the kids know how to work it and the film shows that as well. We had some really serious high-ranking police advisors on this film because I was keen to be as realistic as possible, not just from a procedural point of view but from a day-to-day reality. But they said: “This is absolutely what goes on, yes that’s how they speak to us, they know the system and there’s nothing we can do…” Some of the stories they told me are so horrendous that I didn’t believe it at first.

Q. Do you have any examples?
Daniel Barber: There was a really nice woman, actually, who is a detective inspector. Emily [Mortimer] spent two or three weeks shadowing her and watching what she did, and learning how she went about things and dealt with situations. But this woman came to the set one day and didn’t look really happy. I asked her if everything was alright and she said: “I just had a really bad morning.” So, I asked what she’d been doing and she replied: “I’ve been dealing with this case that’s really upset me. A boy bought some drugs off a gang and he owed them £15 for a bag of weed or something. But he hadn’t paid them back, they wanted their money, so anyway they basically went to the house where he lived and burned it down. He wasn’t there, the boy, but his mother and sister were and they died in the fire.” It’s really upsetting.

And yet the police have to deal with that all the time. But they are human beings and the way they get treated and dealt with is disgusting. It’s a very cheap, cheap shot indeed if people look at this film and dismiss it as a cheap entertainment and therefore not born of reality. It really, really, really is and people would be really stupid to do that.

Michael Caine in Harry Brown

Q. So how do you feel when you read reviews that compare it to Death Wish or write it off as Michael Caine doing a British version of Gran Torino?
Daniel Barber: Well, Gran Torino is very successful. That’s about a man who is a racist and all of his problems are born of that. I’ve never actually seen Death Wish, so can’t comment, but I hear it’s garbage. But there was a case recently where a man in Norfolk saw a couple of people being beaten up at a bus stop and he tried to intervene, only to be killed by the boys who were beating up the couple. So, that’s a man who tried to do something and lost his life for it. There are cases all the time in the newspapers of normal people in England stopping someone robbing a shop, or not allowing themselves to be beaten up. You can read that every day.

There was a case the other day of the mother and daughter who killed themselves because they were fed up with being bullied. There was the case of the old lady who got fined and prosecuted because she prodded one of these kids in the chest – even though for six months the kid had been throwing things at her house. So, it’s a cheap shot to say that it’s just like this or just like that because I’ve made this film, seriously, to reflect what’s going on in our times. People make those comparisons because they’re lazy. It’s dull. Why don’t they look at the film and what it’s really about? What it’s trying to do and what it says of our times and comment on that? It would be more interesting and reality.

The reality of the film is this: the audiences we’ve played it to love it. We got a standing ovation in Toronto, which was wonderful, and the audience we did a test screening at in Finchley loved it and clapped afterwards. Audiences like it. But I think there will be a few middle-class people from Hampstead or Notting Hill who won’t think it’s a part of their world and will just write it off as this, that or the other. But they’re out of touch and they can write what they like. More interesting, I think, is to consider why the film is about what it’s about rather than comparing it to some cheap exploitation film from the early ’70s.

Q. How easy was it to persuade Michael Caine to come out of “retirement”? Because he keeps insisting he’s retired…
Daniel Barber: Really easy… but he loved the part. I think he’s at that age where he doesn’t need to work anymore and he picks and chooses very carefully what he does. But I think he wants to put something back. He is a Briton, and he’s one of our great Britons, and everybody loves him because he’s a real man of the people. He came from a very poor background and has never said how clever he was. He’s just worked, worked, worked… but now he’s upset. He comes from Elephant & Castle, which is where we filmed Harry Brown, and he sees the way his area is now and the way the gangs roam around and is worried. It’s not going to affect him because he lives in a very beautiful place, but it doesn’t mean he’s lost touch and I think he’d like there to be a conversation about what’s going on something can happen. He certainly didn’t make this for the money.

Q. How was it working with him?
Daniel Barber: It was very nice for me because as a first-time feature director to get to work with someone as good as that was fantastic. From the very, very outset he was very kind to me. I had a fantastic thing where I met him at an amazing restaurant in Mayfair and was really nervous. My sister called me while I was on the way and said: “Are you OK? You sound odd?” So I told her I was going to see Michael Caine for lunch and was cacking myself. But she said: “Don’t be like that, it’ll be fine – it’ll be like going for lunch with grandpa.” It was fine after that. But he was very sweet. He said to me immediately: “I’ve seen the short film you did, The Tonto Woman, and I really like it. That’s why I’m here now because I want to work with you.” I said: “Really?” And he replied: “Really. And I want to work with you because I really like this script. I can see why you would be good to do this.” He was then terrifically supportive throughout.

Q. Did he deliver any anecdotes or knowledge that you can now take forward as a director?
Daniel Barber: Yeah, I’ve always believed that anyone can add anything to the process, whichever department they work in. I work with a really good team of people. I have a grip that I use all the time and a cameraman, a gaffer and sound people. All of them can come up to me and query things. But he’s very much like that as well. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from… He said to me: “I’ll come up with a lot of ideas, most of which are shit, but you’ll have to pick out the occasional diamond that will be in there. But at the end of the day, you’re the boss and I’ll do what you’ll tell me to do.”

There are loads of anecdotes. We’d stop the filming process so often because he’d go off on a tangent and tell us a story. At one point, he turned round to someone and said: “Yeah, and not a lot of people know that…” He then walked off but we were all like [motions stunned look]: “He actually said it!” But he’s really wonderful like that. My boy came to the set one day and he loves The Italian Job, so he actually told Michael this and he replied: “Oh, you like the bit where I go, ‘I only told you to blow the bloody doors off’!” Everyone was buzzing afterwards that he actually said it for us because we’re all movie fans and we’re all in awe of him. He is such an amazing actor.

Read our review of Harry Brown