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Trap For Cinderella - Iain Softley interview

Trap For Cinderella

Interview by Rob Carnevale

IAIN Softley talks about why he has wanted to make psychological thriller Trap For Cinderella for 12 years and what drew him to Sebastien Japrisot’s novel.

He also talks about his own identity as a filmmaker, why getting smaller films into cinemas and keeping them there is one of the biggest challenges of the moment and why he’d like to revisit Ivanhoe as one of his next projects.

Q. This has been a 12-year passion project. How come it took so long?
Iain Softley: Well, I always knew that I wanted to make this film but, early on, there were certain issues with the rights. Sebastien [Japrisot, the author] was still alive at the time that I first got an option on it with Film4 and then when the option expired I needed someone to buy it outright and found a company in America to do that. I think it really only took off when I finished Inkheart. I had two projects that I wanted to do that had always been on my list but had been on the back burner. So, after Inkheart, I decided that I wanted to make them – one was Trap For Cinderella and the other was Backbeat on stage at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. I made a conscious decision that I was not going to do any other project until I had made both of those two things. It looked as though Trap For Cinderella might go first, but then we got a slot in early 2010 at Glasgow Citizens Theatre, so from summer 2009 I was casting and preparing that and I came back to Trap for Cinderella in late 2010, which was when we finally moved into production. I guess it started to gain momentum, though, in 2008, when I wrote the script myself. By focusing on writing the script, I sort of for the first time realised what it [the film] was at its core.

Q. And what was that to you?
Iain Softley: I’ve always been attracted to the character of Micky and the contradictions within her… of somebody who is drawn to the dark side and why that is attractive and irresistible for everybody. I’m also fascinated with the themes of identity and obsession and I’ve always liked films that are set at the time the book was set, in the ‘60s… films such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Two friends of mine also died recently, both of whom had burnt themselves out, but they were the centres of desire for a group of people. I came to realise after their death, however, that they felt there was an empty centre to their lives and they were always searching for something, so the third act of this story is really about someone who is able to paradoxically use the accident they have, from which they suffer amnesia, to come through and be in a position to make choices from a clean slate. I thought there was an interesting fable there.

Q. You mention the theme of identity and people searching for the question of ‘who am I’? How does that apply to you as a filmmaker? Do you have a clear idea of who you are in that respect?
Iain Softley: Well, I think you’re always searching and sometimes you have to rediscover or make sure that your voice is not obscured or diverted by the process or the things that happen along the way. I think to a certain extent you have to find your own voice and speak about things that you have strong opinions and passions about and work in territory that is, in some way, familiar to you. Sometimes it’s disguised. When I’d done two or three films, people were commenting that they all seemed to be so different but in answering those questions I came to realise that they all had similar themes, even though they may not have been immediately apparent. They were all about a quest, usually through people meeting people from different cultures, to define themselves, or at least attempt to, which is a rite of passage theme.

But it doesn’t stop as you get older either. Most of the film directors I know, or from reading reports, interviews and biographies, all feel that in way it’s a continual process of learning and searching. I also think most directors feel they get better or become better directors with each film. Now whether or not the film is better is for other people to decide [laughs]… maybe they’re getting further away from everyone’s taste. But it’s a craft, so whether you’re a surgeon or a violin maker, knowledge and experience is accumulated over time and with practice. Maybe one loses some of the instinct and spontaneity that comes with youth but I don’t feel that. I remember reading Baz Luhrmann saying: “When I hit 50 I thought I was just getting going.”

Q. So, is it a relief to finally have these two passion projects under your belt? And did you enjoy doing them?
Iain Softley: I did. They were both more difficult than I thought in different ways to get going. It’s a case of be careful what you wish for in many ways [laughs]. With Trap For Cinderella, I was able to cast relatively unknown actors, which is exciting to be able to do… to give an opportunity to Alexandra Roach and Tuppence Middleton. This was by far the biggest roles they’d had and it was really exciting for them. It was also fabulous to be supported by my financiers, including Lionsgate and BFI. But of course we went in knowing we had to do it in five and a half weeks and on a low budget. It’s a film that’s right at the other end of the scale from the majority of other films in cinemas today, which have huge marketing behind them and big stars. So, on the one hand I had fantastic freedom, which means I’m pretty much solely to blame for the film [laughs], but on the other we also have all the struggles of every smaller film in fighting for attention and finding an audience and screens [that are willing to show it]. As with everything, it’s been a learning experience.

Trap For Cinderella

Q. You mention getting films into cinemas. A lot has been said recently about the diminishing opportunities for smaller films. Is that something you’ve found? Is risk-taking decreasing when it comes to making films and getting them distributed?
Iain Softley: Well, my impression is that there are aspects of the industry, if we’re talking about that side of it, that are very healthy. Certainly in London and a lot of places throughout the UK there are a lot of cinemas and people are going to them. It’s an increasingly patronised activity. Attendances are up. I go a lot and cinemas are full. It might be that a lot of the time it’s the bigger films but in those cinemas there are also smaller films being shown. And I think another important thing is that there are more and more independent cinemas. Obviously, they want to balance their repertoire with bigger blockbusters to fill the cinemas and make their economics work but a lot of these cinemas people will go and see whatever is on just to support them. With independents like Picturehouse and the Curzons, if you put a film on people will go and see it because they want that cinema experience.

I do think we’re at a particular point in the cycle at the moment where the business plan of the Hollywood studios seems to be to make fewer films. And those that they do make are either comedies or action adventure, often with comic book characters, that have huge, huge budgets that require huge marketing campaigns. I’ve heard a number of Hollywood executives say they would prefer to spend huge on fewer blockbusters because the upside is enormous as opposed to making four times as many lower budget films. I think that’s what’s gone – the middle market. So, the films I’ve always made, which are sometimes disparagingly called ‘dramas’… the type of films that were the reason why I became inspired to make films, such as The Shining or 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange or Performance or Don’t Look Now. Even Mean Streets and Apocalypse Now – I think those films would maybe struggle to get made today.

But I do think there’s a huge audience for them and there’s a huge audience that doesn’t necessarily want to see a film in the first week. Take The King’s Speech as a for instance – the success of that seems to be giving a lot of evidence to the alternative argument… that there are people over 25 that go to the cinema. People who go in the first week are people that maybe don’t have kids, that don’t have to look after their parents, or who are maybe not away on business, or having to go to an activity at school or something. But the challenge is keeping a film in the cinema so that word of mouth can work. That’s a big big challenge for independent films.

A past challenge when it came to making English films was that you always needed a shortlist of movie stars to finance a film. But a high proportion of movie stars nowadays are British, so the struggle is not to find them anymore but to get them to stay in the UK and not go to Hollywood in search of blockbusters. What I’m hoping is that there are a number of distribution companies that are making allowance to make international films, outside of Hollywood, that work in European territories or elsewhere. I’m talking about StudioCanal or Fox International, Universal International or E1. My first film [Backbeat] was financed by Polygram and that was a fantastic European experiment that worked really well for me. And there is evidence that this is happening – that these companies are looking to finance a broader base of independent films. So, the next challenge is getting the screens. If you had released the new Superman film [Man of Steel] a few years ago in a six-screen cinema, it would have been shown on two screens. Now, it’s on four or five. And that is a little bit off because the success of some independent films gives evidence that people have a taste for a broad range of films and yet it seems that the programming doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.

Q. Getting back to Trap For Cinderella and your two leading ladies. Did getting to work with relatively unknown actresses give you more time to enable them to bond? I gather they hung out a lot prior to filming, recording each other’s voices and even doing yoga together to get into similar body shape?
Iain Softley: That was something I encouraged them to do from the moment they were cast. I thought they would benefit from it. I always like to do two or three weeks rehearsal anyway. I felt where they were in their careers, this would obviously be a big adventure for them – the whole experience and going to France and everything. So, I did numerous auditions and call-backs and put them in different combinations with people because I wanted to see the chemistry and the dynamic between them and how they came across individually the more time I spent with them. Often in auditions, you only get 15 or 20 minutes with someone, but when you’re watching the film the audience has to be in their company for 100 minutes or more. So, I wanted the process to be as much about that… to get a sense of what it was like to be in their presence for a sustained period in character. Again, the bigger the actor, it’s often not possible to ensure that kind of time. With unknown actors, or lesser known actors, people often comment on how good the performances are because you can do reading and auditions.

When I started making films I had no name or profile but I was able to get high profile actors to read for me. You can’t do that anymore. There’s an assumption that it’s in some way offensive or not respectful but that’s a shame because it’s a good opportunity for actors to get to know the director and to make sure that they’re doing a project that works for them too. I think that preparation period is really important, especially on Trap For Cinderella, so that when we got to the first day of shooting, we weren’t like strangers with one another.

Trap For Cinderella

Q. You almost cast Aneurin Barnard in your stage version of Backbeat. What do you like about him?
Iain Softley: You’re right. He was one of the people we looked at for Backbeat because I’d seen him in Spring Awakening and was impressed. So, I was familiar with Aneurin and it was great to be able to have the opportunity to work with somebody who I knew was a talented actor. When somebody’s role on the page is supposed to be ‘attractive’, it can often be the kiss of death. It’s a terrible burden for someone to ‘portray’, particular in audition. Strangely, it’s things like humility and openness that you look for. He was a delight to work with. He has a great presence on screen and a great instinct for acting. There’s a scene in Trap For Cinderella with Micky and Do in the red wigs where he feels he’s being excluded. I think he does that brilliantly with so few words. He communicates that frustration and hurt he must be feeling so well.

Q. What’s next for you?
Iain Softley: Well, I’m always slightly wary about answering those questions because it always seems to jinx things [laughs]. But I have a couple of bigger projects that I’m working on right now. One is a new cinema version of Ivanhoe, which I think has a lot of relevance today with religious wars. It’s kind of a medieval Homeland, in the way that it concentrates on a central character who has come to feel at odds with the religious war he is fighting. The other is an amazing project, which is being developed from scratch by myself with my production company. It’s about Mike Foale, who had joint American nationality. He was really the first British astronaut and he had huge amounts of experience in space on the Mir Space Station… he made an enormous contribution to saving the Mir Space Station when it suffered a potentially fatal collision with a supply vessel. He also had an incredible life overcoming tragedy.

Read our interview with Aneurin Barnard

Trap For Cinderella is released in UK cinemas on Friday, July 12, 2013.