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Heartless - Philip Ridley interview

Heartless

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director Philip Ridley talks about some of the inspirations behind his urban fairy tale/horror movie Heartless, and the importance of Jim Sturgess in getting the film made.

He also talks about his love for London’s East End and why the film does contain echoes of movies such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Donnie Darko

Q. What inspired you to write Heartless?
Philip Ridley: I think getting an idea for a project is a multi-strand thing. It’s very rarely one thing. I always describe it as a film of an explosion in reverse. It begins with all this scattered shrapnel and then gradually it comes together to form a house or a car, so to speak. So, getting a project together is a bit like that… I have all these various, disparate ideas, or shrapnel, and sometimes they come together and sometimes they don’t. There were various elements that went into making Heartless. I had been taking photos of the East End of London for the past 10 years and creating this look that I’d been getting excited about. I finally bought a decent camera, which really made me excited… I went digital having been a stickler for the old film versions. Of course, like everyone who finally makes that leap, I became something of an evangelist [laughs]. But I started to create photos of East London that had an interesting cinematic look. So, that began to excite me.

Q. What else?
Philip Ridley: Well, then the character of Jamie Morgan began to take shape in my mind… the idea of this disturbed young man who couldn’t make sense of the world around him. That comes from a lot of the work I’ve being doing with young people – I’ve done a series of plays with them, and have been writing the Storyteller series, but working with kids and teenagers who suffer from bi-polar depression and things like that. It’s amazing how so many of them come out with the same things and have the same concept of the world – that it makes no sense to them and that they can’t get a grip of their story in it. Whenever they open their door, the whole world seems to change. So, I found that an interesting zeitgeist character. So many people don’t understand today’s politics, or religions, or their family because it’s all changing too quickly. So, I thought it would be interesting to mix all that into the screenplay.

Q. Given your background in East London, how important was it for you to be able to film there?
Philip Ridley: Oh, fantastic. A lot of the locations, even if they were just side streets, were places that I’ve wanted to film for years, they’re places I’ve grown up with. The scene with Papa B on the roof, for instance, is my roof. It’s the roof of the block of flats where I live. I had wanted to shoot in places for so long because I’ve always thought how absolutely cinematic the East End is. I could never understand it when people shot there and turned it into grey, boring council estate kind of places. I wanted to create something that was completely the opposite: vibrant, cinematic, colourful and intense. It took me a long while to convince people that’s what I was going to do [with Heartless]. And in a way, that’s where the photos I’d been taking really helped. I did a presentation display of about 500 photos that kind of storyboarded the film, and I think that helped the financers. They could finally begin to see what I was aiming to achieve [in terms of the look of the film].

Q. I gather Jim Sturgess was also instrumental in helping to get the funding?
Philip Ridley: Jim Sturgess was crucial on every level you care to name. He is the film. If you haven’t got the right Jamie, then you may as well not film it in the first place. I remember Stephen Daldry saying the same thing when it came to casting Billy Elliot… and they were very late in the day before they found the right Billy. I felt the same going into Heartless and I always wanted Jim to play Jamie from the outset because he has a combination of the two best things you could hope to find in an actor.

Jim Sturgess in Heartless

Q. Which are?
Philip Ridley: There are some actors that are great stars and storytellers, but not necessarily good actors. I’m talking about some – not all – of the people you see in action flms or blockbusters. They’re film stars, though not necessarily great actors. And there are those who are great actors, but not necessarily big film stars. Jim Sturgess is both. He’s quite obviously a star, the audience likes him, he’s a great storyteller and he turned out to be one of the greatest actors I’ve worked with as well. It was always very important to me that the person playing Jamie had these qualities because he’s the string that links this necklace of ideas together. He had to be able to express this broken… this mentally disturbed young man. But he also had to be likeable. And he had to allow me to try to experiment and play around with genres. This film is like a rollercoaster ride through different genres, so it was very important we had a powerful lead actor who was able to make the audience care for him and drive this narrative forward.

Q. Did Jim’s casting help to attract people like Eddie Marsan and Timothy Spall?
Philip Ridley: I feel like the luckiest director in the world, because I got my first choice with all of the cast that I offered the script to. With the character of AJ, for example, we needed someone that Jamie could meet on the stairs and immediately warm to… someone who is full of energy, who’s a bit cocky, but who has a great sense of humour. Noel Clarke was suggested to me, I approached him and he said “yes”. So, it was a great thrill for me to be able to get them all. A lot of them I got through the stage plays I’ve been doing as well, because I also write for the theatre.

A lot of the actors in Heartless are either people I’ve worked with on stage or had seen in plays. Luke Treadaway, who plays Lee, was actually on stage doing a play of mine – called Piranha Heights – at The Soho Theatre in London at the same time as filming Heartless. We had to get him in a taxi from the Heartless set to the theatre at 5pm each night, so he had a full couple of weeks! And Ruth Sheen, who plays Jim’s mother… I’d worked with her before, a couple of years earlier for a play called Leaves of Glass, which was also at the Soho Theatre. She’s terrific. And she’s just had a huge hit with the new Mike Leigh film [Another Year], so I’m thrilled for her.

Q. Finally, your producer – Richard Raymond – has described Heartless as Donnie Darko meets Pan’s Labyrinth in London’s East End. Do you agree?
Philip Ridley: [Laughs] Oh these hybrid comparisons! It does help people get into them but, really, I think there are echoes of both films in the sense that they’re both, to a certain extent, experimental films [like Heartless]. They also reveal their secrets gradually. I think watching a film is both an experience and a process. We watch a film for the first time as an experience and then process that experience for the rest of our lives if it has something to nourish us. So, both Donnie Darko and Pan’s Labyrinth are similar to Heartless in the sense that they do become different films each time you see them… you make more and more connections each time you seem them. So, it’s a fair comparison in that sense because Heartless is the same. I also adore both movies, so to be mentioned in comparison to both is fine by me!

Read our review of Heartless