Film Interview: Richard and Tony Bracewell

14 Jun

In February 2009 I reviewed the DVD release of 2006 British film, The Gigolos, for this site, writing how I enjoyed the film for the way it told a story about relationships in modern society in a unique way.

Soon after I received an email from the film’s producer, Tony Bracewell, who thankfully liked what I’d written. This led to correspondence about various topics, including his upcoming picture, Cuckoo, once again directed by his brother, Richard.

The following interview was carried out via email with both Tony and Richard in June 2009.

Jonathan Melville: Can you tell me a bit about both your backgrounds?

Richard: I was the tedious kid at school who wrote sketches for assemblies, volunteered to do speeches, that sort of thing. And I loved movies. Back then, the closest thing to a DVD box set was an all-day screening of Rocky I, II & III back-to-back at Aylesbury Odeon.

But I didn’t put the writing and the movies together until I was in my mid-20s, when I realised that directing didn’t necessarily have to be something which other people did.

I worked for one day as a runner – painting floors white on a Julio Iglesias video – before promoting myself to director (on my own shorts). I reckoned the only way to learn directing was by directing. I taught myself technical elements from old BBC training manuals.

Tony: I ran PR agencies for 10 years. 10 years of failing to persuade people to be interested in uninteresting things (aka ‘PR’) was more than enough. Richard decided to make his first feature film at just the right time. How could I turn that down? Although some friends still think I do PR – for gigolos. (I don’t by the way, unless the price is right.)

Where did the inspiration for The Gigolos come from?

Richard: Louis Prima singing Just a Gigolo. I heard it playing through an open window. I thought the word ‘gigolo’ was a perfect premise for a movie. Try saying ‘gigolo’ without rolling your eyes and stretching you lips.

One word. Not much basis for a movie. The rest was Sacha (Tarter) and Trevor (Sather).

Sacha was on holiday with his mother and some of her companions, older women hungry for the company of a younger man. We never found out what happened next, but Sacha worked through it by writing The Gigolos, rather than paying for therapy.

Trevor added the substance. On a posting to Tokyo, he was intrigued by the emerging Japanese craze for host bars, where young men attend to successful businesswomen, rather than the usual vice being versa. Again, we never found out the full extent of Trevor’s ‘research’, but you can read all about it in the police file.

How long did the script take to write?

Richard: It’s still being written! Because the script was improvised, it was never really finished – we were still uncovering many of its details in the edit.

The shooting script was an 80-page scene-by-scene breakdown of the film. This described each scene in terms of the basic action, any plot details, and most importantly the emotion of the characters. It was like a road map: where has each character come from at the start of the scene, and where do they end up? We never deviated from that script during the shoot; the only improvised element was the dialogue.

The script as I’ve described it came together in about two months. We spent most time in the cutting room. It took us well over 10 months to edit the film, because in effect we were finishing the dialogue.

Tony, as producer, what were your main tasks during the production?

Tony: We produced together. Richard put the film on screen, delivered to schedule and budget. I ran the business end. After we finished filming, the real work started – promoting, selling, releasing the film. We’re still doing it!

Richard: As DOP, camera operator, co-producer and director, my main task during production was to take care of Trevor’s hair. We were a crack unit, a finely-honed filming machine. The only unpredictable element was the hair.

We had no hairdresser on set, so it fell to me to style Trevor each morning. It’s the unpredictable elements which eat up the time. Plus the fact that my not-so-secret ambition is to become a hairdresser, if the filmmaking doesn’t pan out.

Did the improvised nature of the script cause problems with the funders? How easy was it to get funding for the film?

Tony: It was all about the story. Investors loved the original, engaging story. We’d made The Big Idea (an improvised comedy doc, an extra on The Gigolos DVD), so investors knew we could deliver an improv film.

Funding was surprisingly straightforward – this was in an age we were blissfully unaware of ‘credit crunches’ or ‘sub prime’. (It feels now like it was long, long ago, in an economy far, far away). It was still hard, though, as public funders didn’t understand what we were trying to do. Improvisation bothered them about as much as it didn’t bother private investors.

Richard, as well as being your friends and co-writing the script, Trevor and Sacha are the stars of the film. Was it ever difficult to turn hard-nosed director when it was required?

Richard: A close friendship – this is exactly what I wanted to capture on screen, which meant nurturing and cajoling the actors, rather than coming over all Sam Peckinpah.

I’m ashamed to say that I resorted to more devious methods to get what I wanted – blaming the lights or the sound for why another take was required – and knowing that an improvised film would be directed for a second time in the edit, where there were no co-writers.

The film has a very naturalistic feel to it. How important was this to you?

Richard: Essential. It was born out of the story, which was about a close friendship between two guys, and not really about gigolos at all. I wanted to capture what male friendship is all about – a close, non-sexual relationship between men is not something you see often on screen.

It was all about the minutiae of life, the petty bickering, rather than the grand themes of loyalty, love, betrayal and so on. I felt the best way to get those subtle details on screen was through an understated, observational shooting style, echoed by the performances.

Because Sacha and Trevor were relatively unknown as lead actors in a movie, we deliberately cultivated a sense that perhaps they really were a gigolo and his valet, that we were simply observing their life together.

You worked with some fantastic actresses, including the stunning Susannah York (Superman’s mum!) and Siân Phillips. How did they get involved?

Richard: By mistake. I pestered Siân Phillips’ agent for weeks, until finally they agreed to set up a meeting, thinking I was someone else. We met Siân and talked about the character she was to play. We had half a character, we invited Siân to flesh it out from her own memories, experiences, encounters.

Devising the characters together, I think this is what hooked them. Then it was the Bob Geldof Live Aid blag: telling each of the actresses that the others were doing it. There was a competitive rivalry between them. No one wanted to miss out on the challenge.

Susannah York put it more succinctly at our UK premiere at the Cambridge Film Festival, when asked why she got involved, “actors like to work”.

Richard, due to the sheer speed you were working, do you watch the film now and cringe at anything you wish you’d done differently? Conversely, what are you most proud of in the film?

Richard: The second part is easy to answer: the scene in the antiques market where Sacha and Trevor fight over the attentions of a client. (London Lite described it as “a priceless tug-of-love over a granny in a china shop”.) I’m proud of that scene because it’s pure cinema, all pictures and no dialogue.

We had the location for less than one hour, and in that time we lit, scripted and shot an entire scene of the movie. It was like the perfect snooker break, the magic 147.

Is there anything to cringe at? Not a lot, because we cut it all out. (That’s why there are no deleted scenes on the BFI DVD release – the deleted scenes were deleted for good reason.)

Looking back, I’m most critical of the cinematography. (I shot and lit The Gigolos myself on 16mm, having only had previous experience of digital cameras.) There are certain shots where the exposure was too generous or the lighting didn’t make a strong enough statement. Usually this was where I opted to play it safe, rather than take the risks I did with the rest of the film.

There are plenty of necessary risks you have to take in making a film – I think filmmakers should strive to take unnecessary risks.

Tony: But for someone who’d never lit a feature film before, the cinematography is pretty impressive. Nothing compared to our new feature, Cuckoo, where we could afford a professional!

How much of a guarantee did you have when making the film that it would get a cinema or DVD release?

Tony: None. Nada. http://www.fuck-all.com! Some distributors and sales agents even dismissed us without watching the film. We just believed in the story, and didn’t give into the status quo. We knew audiences and critics liked the film. If you’ve got that, who needs distributors and sales agents?

How easy was it to secure the subsequent release in cinema and on DVD?

Tony: It should have been tough to get a release, but people liked the film. That set off a chain of events. The film played well on world premiere at AFI FEST in Hollywood. Positive reviews followed in Hollywood Reporter and LA Times. Hollywood studios and agents read these, and started calling us.

We made a Hollywood ‘audio diary’ for Radio 4’s Film Programme, and blogged our LA adventures for The Guardian (scroll down for lead gigolo Sacha with Andy Garcia!). Odeon Cinemas and Tony Jones (Director of the Cambridge Film Festival and co-founder of Picturehouse Cinemas) enjoyed these and supported the film.

At Tony’s suggestion, we released the film ourselves. 28 UK cinemas screened the film with over 400 screenings. Critics backed us, with a raft of 3 and 4 star press reviews. The BBC bought it for TV premiere this summer, and the BFI released it on DVD.

Great reasons for DIY film releasing – and it all came from audiences and critics enjoying the film. Not from some big strategy, but because people liked it and we wanted more people to see it.

What to you means that The Gigolos is a success? If it makes money, gets a good review in The Guardian or something else?

Tony: Great question. It’s about reception – people enjoying the film for what it is, rather than criticising or judging it for what it’s not.

The Gigolos was a success for us when we premiered it to 500 people who loved it in Hollywood, then read positive reviews in the LA press the day after by a hotel swimming pool on Sunset Boulevard! We knew the film ‘worked’. From there, positive reaction led to critical and commercial success.

Although, I should add that the only place was failed was The Guardian, which gave us a 2-star review featuring the word “crepuscular” (I still don’t know what it means!). I was a bit pissed off having been a loyal Guardian reader since 18!

Do you think anyone can do what you’ve done? Is there a certain “something” you need (apart from a decent script)? What tips would you give aspiring directors and producers?

Tony: The right script and a ‘never say die’ attitude. Do it yourself, don’t trust anyone to do it for you. Film in the UK can be a hostile, unforgiving business – it’s packed with prejudice masquerading as commercial judgement. You receive daily, pathetic rejections. Thicken your skin, laugh it off, do it your way. Believe in the story.

Richard: If you’re a producer or director, then surround yourself with talent – not just a writer, but also the actors, designer, editor, composer etc. Making your first film can be a soul-destroying experience if you’re working alone.

The support of a creative team will pull you through. I’m not saying make your film by committee, but you’ll find the process a lot easier if everyone around you has the same ambition, something to gain from the film getting made.

Who are your cinematic inspirations?

Richard: Early-1980s BBC2. In the days when it was only three channels, you could watch all manner of weird and wonderful world cinema after-hours on BBC2, usually by accident. The Embassy World Snooker Final would be followed seamlessly by Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, and no one explained or even apologised for it.

This didn’t inspire me to make Jean Cocteau films, but it told me that movies didn’t all have to look and sound the same. A similar inspiration was Coppola’s nine-hour television compilation of The Godfather. The sets, the costumes, the sound design – it all hinted at a sensual world waiting to be created.

I endlessly watch Hitchcock movies as a masterclass in how to write visually. Favourite contemporary British cinema is Stephen Frears, and the acting in any Stephen Frears film.

Tony: John Ford. The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Genius. The man who once reduced John Wayne to tears. The only director to win four Best Director Oscars. Present at The Battle of Midway, and filmed on Omaha Beach on D-Day (the footage was lost).

As Howard Hawks said, “If you want to know how to make movies, all you need to do is watch the movies of John Ford.”

Once, a producer turned up on location and moaned to John Ford that he was two weeks behind schedule. Ford picked up the script, ripped out 20 pages, and said, “Now we’re two weeks ahead of schedule.”

Your next project is another low budget production, Cuckoo. What can you tell us about it?

Tony: For us, it’s big budget! Cuckoo is four times the size of The Gigolos. It’s still a small budget in terms of the industry, but has high production values and a terrific cast. Cuckoo is a thriller about sound starring Laura Fraser and Richard E. Grant. We plan to release in the UK later this year.

Have you noticed changes in the film industry in the way small films are made or supported (by grants, lottery funding, etc) in the years between completing your first film in 2006 and working on this one?

Tony: Not really – it’s as competitive as ever. If you’ve got a good project and business case, the funding will be there, somewhere – Screen East has supported both The Gigolos and Cuckoo, while the UK Film Council backed the UK cinema release of The Gigolos through its ‘Fast Track P&A Fund’, a great innovation which supports digital cinema releases for smaller films.

Finally, you’re very kindly sparing your time to give this interview to a humble blogger at a time when many in the film industry are deeply suspicious of the internet, particularly with the issue of illegal downloading so prominent. What are your views and experiences on the world of internet movie reviews and all that surrounds them? Can they ever replace that much vaunted 5 star Peter Bradshaw review?

Tony: Do you remember the internet hype for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? E-mailing the trailer to friends was more exciting than the film!

That was 10 years’ ago! Now, crashing PCs on dial-up with a 2MB file seems as distant as Space Invaders, Betamax, or my 1977 Star Wars limited edition bedspread!

The internet’s been around a long time, it’s too late to be suspicious. While the movie business has been panicking for 10 years, we’ve seen the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen using MySpace, and the success of iPlayer and Amazon.

The internet is vital for the future of film. It’s made the good (viral marketing, global reach) and the bad (illegal downloads, endless hype for bad studio movies) more efficient. Its impact is too great to be either just good or bad.

Illegal downloading of course worries any copyright holder, but it’s the internet equivalent of ‘dodgy DVDs’ or ‘fare dodging’ – it’s nothing different, just a new way of cheating the system. Ultimately, you have to trust the audience. People generally don’t like ripping off others.

But the same internet brings us Amazon’s CreateSpace service where filmmakers can sell their DVDs direct to the public – how good is that?

Turning to internet reviews and blogs, they’re great because their impact is so wide and instant, spreading the word. PR for films used to be just about print reviews and the occasional TV spot. Now, it’s about getting your film reviewed online, in the newspapers, on multiple TV and radio channels. More people read about it. That can only ever be good.

Richard: Did we get a 5 star review from Peter Bradshaw? I must have missed that one.

Thanks to both Tony and Richard for taking time out from post-production on their new film to answer my questions!

If you haven’t seen The Gigolos then I recommend you head over to the official Gigolos website to find out more.

The website for Cuckoo is now live and I hope to bring you more on the film in the coming months – please sign up to the email or follow me on Twitter to keep up-to-date on my coverage.

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