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Spike Island - Mat Whitecross interview (exclusive)

Spike Island

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MAT Whitecross talks about his reasons for making Spike Island, which follows the fortunes of a rising indie band who travel to Spike Island, Cheshire, in May of 1990 to see The Stone Roses.

He also talks about a surprise visit from Mani that made everyone’s day at the end of rehearsals and how his young cast went about bonding and learning to play instruments almost from scratch.

Q. When this first became a project for you were you aware that The Stone Roses were reuniting?
Mat Whitecross: No, I didn’t have a clue. There had been rumours for 20 years, of course. But no, we didn’t know. We found out literally two days after we got the greenlight.

Q. Something was in the zeitgeist…
Mat Whitecross: Yeah, yeah. Somehow it worked out for us. We just got lucky.

Q. Were you a Stone Roses fan?*
Mat Whitecross: Yeah, a massive fan. But I missed out on them in their heyday. I was a little bit too young to appreciate them and see them live first time around. But if you’re into your music, or have any aspirations to be cool when you’re growing up, then you have to listen to The Stone Roses. Their debut is always right up there among the best albums of all time. So, I remember listening to it first time growing up and going: “I’ve got to see this band!” But then being told that they didn’t exist anymore, which was slightly gutting! I’ve since been to see them at Heaton Park and the V Festival, so I’ve finally got to re-live all those childhood dreams. So, I was a fan but Chris [Coghill], the [screen]writer, was there at the time and missed out on the gigs, so this film is kind of his experience of having missed that.

Q. Did you have much dealing with The Stone Roses themselves, particularly when it came to getting the rights to use their music in the film?
Mat Whitecross: Yeah, we got their music in the film. That was fine. They’ve been very supportive in the background. I mean, they’ve been off doing their own things. Mani turned up to… our actors weren’t musicians but they had to learn to play the guitar because they have their little indie band in the film. So, on the last day of rehearsals, Iain Cooke, who is the music supervisor, said he had a little surprise. I thought he was going to get them band T-shirts or something, but then Mani turned up. It was great. It was a really big moment for them. But they were off doing their own things, so it’s not like they come in and cameo in the film or anything.

Q. What draws you to music films such as this? Because you also did Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which was great…
Mat Whitecross: Thank you. It’s weird that this film and Sex & Drugs were kind of brought to me. I do music videos and I love music. But actually the films that I’ve started up haven’t tended to be about music and if I’d thought back a few years ago when I was desperate to be a director, I wouldn’t hvae necessarily thought I’d end up doing any music films. But Sex & Drugs was such a great story. For me, Sex & Drugs wasn’t really about the music in a way, it was a kind of family drama about a man who was a public figure but also had a private life and the clash between those two sides. For me, the music was the icing on the cake. And it’s the same with Spike Island. For me, this is a coming-of-age story about five kids who want to do something with their lives, but who are told they are never going to make anything of themselves. So, again, the music is there as their goal but actually it could have been five kids who wanted to become footballers or astronauts. In a weird way, the music is an amazing bonus. We just happen to have the most incredible score of all time! It’s great but it’s not what the film is really all about. Although when we finished Sex & Drugs they talked to me about doing this film and there was a film that I really wanted to make, a road movie called Ashes, which we did end up shooting with Ray Winstone and Jim Sturgess, and that was a very personal thing. So, having done that and got it out of my system, I felt like I could do another music film.

Q. How easy was it to find the five boys?
Mat Whitecross: It was tricky, to be honest, because the way Chris writes… he writes very meticulously and there’s some very funny banter, which is hard to get your tongue around. It’s almost like Kevin Smith dialogue… it’s back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, which you need someone who has experience and is a trained actor to do. On the other hand, I wanted this to feel real. I wanted it to feel like you were really there at the time, which normally means going for non-professionals. So, we kind of went for a mix. We had Elliott [Tittensor] and Nico [Mirallegro], the two main leads, who had more experience in TV. The other kids hadn’t been in anything before. So, it felt right. It meant everyone could take their lead from the two people who had more experience. Plus, we got the adult actors playing the parents and other supporting members of the cast.

Q. Was it helpful that they had to learn the instruments from scratch? Did they almost come together in the same way as the band does in the movie?
Mat Whitecross: Exactly. They didn’t have a clue. They hadn’t played anything before. And to be honest, when we… we had Tim Wheeler, from Ash, do the tunes and when we started off I was like: “Can you ask everyone in auditions whether they can play.” But they all said they could and then it came down to things like: “Well, I like listening to the guitar.” Or: “I’ve got a mate who owns a guitar.” So, actually none of them had any experience. We spent months… we cast them very early so they had time to catch up and start to become a gang. We sent them off to Amsterdam to hang out. Supposedly, they were reading the script but I’m not sure they did! But by the time they came back they really felt bonded. I think Elliott and Nico used to live together as well.

Spike Island is released in UK cinemas on Friday, June 21, 2013.