Monday 7 November 2016

Interview: Michael Caton-Jones

They say variety is the spice of life – an oft-repeated adage that Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones has found to be self-evident over a directorial career stretching nearly three decades.

Having worked with the likes of Bruce Willis, Michael J Fox, Robert De Niro and even a young Leonardo DiCaprio, Caton-Jones knows how to handle larger than life personalities on set, but his more recent work sees him finding pleasure in the finer details of indie filmmaking. 

His latest project is Urban Hymn, an uplifting story about a young offender who finds a way out of her less than privileged upbringing through song. With the help of a dedicated and inspirational social worker, it’s a stirring film that is contrasted against the bleak backdrop of the 2011 London riots.

Ahead of its Australian premiere at the BBC First British Film Festival this month, I got the chance to sit down and chat with Caton-Jones about the differences between the Hollywood high life and roughing it on the streets of London for his latest micro budget project.

RGD: How did you first become involved with Urban Hymn? What was it about Nick Moorcroft’s original screenplay that perked your interest?

MCJ: Over the years I’ve come to realise that it’s not subject matter, but specific elements of filmmaking that jump out at you when reading through a script. I’d been looking to shoot something low budget in Britain for a while, as well as something that had strong female characters at the forefront. I grew up in Scotland surrounded by strong female characters and I’ve always viewed women that way.

I was also interested in something that used a lot of music, which I felt presented this great technical challenge that ultimately was an opportunity to show the transcendental power of music. Essentially, you don’t have to be good at making music; it’s open to everyone. It has this universal power. If you have a favourite song or a song that reminds you of a time and a place, it’s has a kind of power. I was interested in making a film that explored that.

And, of course, the social side of it was important. We used to make social realist films in Britain all the time. It’s a style of film that I used to like watching and I see no reason why you can’t be entertained and take in a serious subject at the same time. It was a whole bunch of reasons that came together when I read the script, making it a fairly easy choice for me.

RGD: How does the filmmaking process on a smaller film like Urban Hymn compare with something on the other end of the spectrum, like The Jackal for example? 

MCJ: They’re just different beasts. It’s essentially the same job; you have a story and a camera and some actors. You put it down, point it at the actors, make sure you turn it on and then cut it together. The difference is the amount of money you have to achieve something. The more money you have, the more concern there is about the film being commercially acceptable. The film might be easy to sell but it might not be very good, if you know what I mean. 

When you’ve got no money, the pressures are different. They’re things like not getting the actor you want or the set how you’d like. It just means you have to think you’re way out of trouble rather than buy you’re way out of trouble. 

RGD: Do you have a preference? It sounds like one affords you a greater sense of freedom…

MCJ: Absolutely. As a director, I prefer having the freedom to discover what the film is rather than being concerned about how it’ll make the money back. You don’t get paid as much and you can’t do as much – but it’s more satisfying in many ways. You can either sprint it or go for the marathon - they’re just different. 

RGD: Urban Hymn uses the 2011 London riots as both a catalyst and a backdrop for its uplifting story – why do you think this is an event that is only now being tackled in TV and film?

MCJ: I suspect it takes time to process. To come to terms with what happened and what it means, like overcoming this sense of incredulity. This usually changes over time when people see the reasons why something happened the way it did.

Britain is still very classist. It’s a class-based society. The simple fact is that it’s much easier to find money to make something like Downton Abbey than it is to make something set on the street where everyone wears hoodies. Only one of those is an acceptable commercial reality to the rest of the world. Sorry for being so cynical! But there isn’t any money in riots. 

RGD: Integral to the success of the film is Letitia’s performance as Jaime - was the process of casting Jaime a challenge on Urban Hymn?

MCJ: Casting is 80% of the film. You have to work very hard if you get it wrong; you’re always papering over the cracks. 

In the case of Letitia, she originally read for the role of Leanne. I thought to myself at the time “Wow, you’re pretty good” and put her in my back pocket for later. We kept auditioning for Jaime until we met Isabella Laughland and felt she worked well as Leanne. So we flipped the two and it worked out. They got on extremely well. Letitia actually started staying with Isabella during the shoot so they were like best mates by the end, much like the film. 

Their dynamic really comes across in the movie. Casting the right people does half the work for you. There are a hundred different ways of standing opposite someone that you’re very friendly with that we, as human beings, can see but not necessarily articulate. It wouldn’t communicate as well had we gotten the casting wrong.

The role [of Jaime] wasn’t originally written for a black person; we set out envisioning a white person. The thing about Jaime is that she had to be this tough nut that was also believably soulful and gentle. We struggled finding someone who could play both sides. We would find someone who could only act hard or someone who could sing really well but couldn’t do tough. Letitia fitted both.

RGD: You’ve enjoyed a varied career covering comedy, period films and a red-blooded action film too. Was this decision to diversify a conscious one?

MCJ: No, it’s just evolved that way. The only conscious decision I made was to not do the exact same thing in the next film. If you’ve been on a studio set for 40 days, the next thing you want to do is to get out onto the street or the countryside. 

The discipline of comedy is quite hard; action is all about getting little bits of film. It’s not about the acting but the spectacle. I consider myself a professional director who can turn his hand to anything, that’s always the career that I wanted. It makes it difficult for critics who try to pigeonhole you! It would be much easier for them if they saw the same film again and again.

RGD: That wouldn’t be very exciting for you as a filmmaker though…

MCJ: No, I’d be bored shitless [laughs]. I just try to choose projects that I haven’t done before, which is getting harder and harder because I’ve done a little bit of everything at this point. 

RGD: How do you think the industry has changed since you first started out?

MCJ: To be honest, I think the filmmaking process has changed a lot in the past few years. The kind of stuff I used to make at the start of my career just doesn’t get made any more. Maybe on Netflix, or as a premium ten-part series, but not as a film. Nowadays you’re either making something low budget or a huge spandex superhero film. The middle has kind of fallen out. 

RGD: What does the future hold for you as a filmmaker - what can we expect coming over the horizon?

MCJ: I’m in New York at the moment. I’m just about to start on this low-budget thing that hasn’t been announced yet – so I can’t tell you very much about it! We’re still in the casting process.

Looking ahead, I’m just going to continue to look for projects that interest me. Something with character and emotion. If I can keep making things that are interesting, I’ll be happy.

Urban Hymn is playing at Palace Cinemas as part of the BBC First British Film Festival until November 16th.

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