“I love watching old movies…” Stephen Woolley Interview, ‘Their Finest’ (THN)

Their Finest is out to buy this week. Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, it tells the story of British propaganda during the Second World War and the strong bond developed between people from all walks of life in the face of conflict.

This warm-hearted and intelligent film is co-produced by the legendary Stephen Woolley (A Company Of Wolves and The Crying Game amongst others), who with Amanda Posey and Elizabeth Karlsen delved into the archives and uncovered the fascinating truth behind the celluloid war effort. We caught up with Stephen for an in-depth chat about the production…

THN: How did the project come to your attention?

Stephen Woolley: I was given the book (Their Finest Hour And A Half by Lissa Evans) and I loved it. The humour of it was exactly on my level. People were saying “You’d love it because it’s about old movies”, which is true. The BBC came on board, we’d produced Made In Dagenham and Great Expectations with them, and it really just blossomed from there.

We took a long time trying to get to the heart of the script because it was the story of a few characters, like a tapestry. It was a question of trying to find the right scenes for them. And the important thing as well was a lot of research went into it. I started to get quite fascinated myself! I realized that despite my enthusiasm I hadn’t seen these many of the films. So I set off…there were around 250-300 made during this period and I tried to watch every one of them, going into the archives. A lot of them were taped off the TV in the Eighties and Nineties, they were really hard to find. I was having collectors send them in… comedies and action pictures. Material about the Home Guard. It was a great process – I had a brilliant time to be honest, I love watching old movies.

So this was a combination of theatrical movies made at the time and propaganda pieces?

Well everything made at that time had to go across the desk of the Ministry of Information, which had to be approved. And they set up this company of filmmakers and producers… for example they made a film in 1943 called The Demi-Paradise with Laurence Olivier as a lovely Russian! Because Russia had just joined the war and they needed some propaganda to endorse them, everything before had been very anti-Russian. It’s very funny. Actually one of my favourites is Millions Like Us (also 1943), which was made to encourage women to go and work in factories, that’s a fantastic film.

They made all these short films which were pure propaganda, informational films. And they didn’t work. People thought they were boring. They didn’t want to be told what to do by people who were stars or who talked in very posh accents. The filmmakers had to realign what they were doing, and all these people like Michael Powell and Anthony Asquith, Sidney Gilliat jumped on board to create these films that would entertain and at the same time put out a message.

It was so different from propaganda in that sense, as we know it now. In those days it wasn’t really a dirty word. It became a dirty word during and after the war because of the way Germans used propaganda, it used to be an honest word. In fact, regarding the use of Dunkirk in the film, Churchill actually didn’t want anything made about that at the time. They were worried it was viewed as a retreat. Our film took the premise that they did decide to make a film about Dunkirk.

Was Millions Like Us, with its pro-female message, an inspiration for your film?

There is a short film that inspired The Nancy Starling (the fictional movie within Their Finest), which is a short film about a woman played by Peggy Ashcroft, who goes to help rescue her husband from Dunkirk (Channel Incident, 1940). It was interesting when Christopher Nolan’s movie opened because there are strong similarities, not that… our beach is less ambitious than his beach! But the idea of how Dunkirk became propagandized, to say it was a victory.

In the publicity the film looks bright and breezy but I found it quite subtle and intelligent. Is that down to the director Lone Scherfig?

Yeah. Lone did an amazing job, I think the fact she’s from Denmark and not the UK meant she was trying to make it from her perspective and pay tribute to those old movies she loved. Our great inspiration, apart from the script, was the cinema of that time, and that idea that no matter how bad things got you had to dig yourself out. The final act of the film – which I won’t talk too much about! – of what Gemma (Arterton)’s character had to go through, captures what was happening to people at the time.

We were trying to make a film that audiences today would like, but also one that might have been made at that time as well. There’s a parallel thing going on, the film within the film, and then our film. We got away with a lot of humour with the character of Ambrose (Bill Nighy) in that situation. A lot of those scenes look like they were made in 1943…

The footage from The Nancy Starling looks very authentic. Did you have fun recreating that era of moviemaking and those methods of production?

I enjoyed it very much. I read a lot of books about filmmaking during that period. We embraced the closeness of strangers, a group of people making something while there was a bloody war going on. They were away from the conflict but there was a spirit of camaraderie that was going through the country at the time. What people maybe don’t understand is that the war was terrible but it brought together all classes, all sexes. Everyone was saying things like “I don’t care if you’re a woman and you drive a truck”.

The film is an ensemble but it has three big names at the top – Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy. How did you come to cast the lead characters?

Well I’d worked with Gemma before on Made In Dagenham The Musical and also Byzantium. I’ve always been a fan of hers. Lone had wanted to cast Gemma in a few movies but it had never worked out. I knew Bill a bit socially and I love Bill, I was desperate to work with him so he was my number one choice for Ambrose. I was thrilled he loved the script. And Sam… I really liked The Riot Club, the film Lone had made and I suggested him to her. She thought he was maybe too young but even though he’s a young guy Sam has one of those faces. He’s got this weight in his eyes… he’s a bit of a bloke. He’s not like Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s a different type of actor, more in that Forties mould. We lucked out, we got all the people we wanted. And of course we had a great supporting cast: Jeremy Irons, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Paul Ritter…

How has your view of the industry, particularly the UK film industry, changed over the decades…?

We’re still making films, which is good news! People are still going to the cinema. But television is being watched more than ever, it’s come of age. Many movie directors are now working for Netflix, Amazon… there’s not the same delineation that there was. I think a lot of the films that I’ve made, like A Company Of Wolves and The Crying Game, would probably be made for TV now. In those days you had the ‘X’ certificate. Imagine A Company Of Wolves now… you could show it to a twelve year-old, without them even blinking! So there’s been a big sea change and we’ve got to fight really hard to really preserve cinematic drama, like with The Limehouse Golem, which I’ve got coming up with Bill Nighy again. You have to remember that you’re making cinema and not television. You need money for period film and to make it work in the cinema. I’m always conscious of that medium. You’ve got to make your mark. There’s still a big audience for it.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

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“I dream in Technicolor…” Tyler Shields Interview For ‘Final Girl’ (The Hollywood News)

TSNotorious snapper Tyler Shields has made his directorial debut with horror film Final Girl. It’s safe to say when Shields puts his name to something it isn’t going to be run of the mill, and that’s certainly the case here.

A tense, atmospheric and above all strange tale of revenge, it stars Abigail Breslin as a young assassin charged with wiping out a group of teen psychopaths and Wes Bentley as her grizzled mentor. I got on the Fifties-style phone for a look past the movie’s Americana exterior and into the bloody, beating heart beneath…

The film is arguably quite unusual. What drew you to this story?

Oh Steve, I wouldn’t say it’s arguably unusual, I’d say it’s very unusual! (Laughs) I don’t think anything necessarily drew me to the story. I came up with this world, and the movie came to be very different. Part of my idea is I don’t want to make the same old movie that we’ve seen a bunch of times, nobody wants to do that, nobody wants to be in it. Let me make something unique, let me make something people will say is unusual, and let me do it with no CGI. Let me have this whole world, and create something different and they said ‘Okay’!

FG AB WBThe central relationship is between Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley. How did you end up casting them and what work did you do together on their characters? They’re supposed to have a twelve year association…

Abigail was the first choice for the movie and once she signed on her and I had a conversation about it, and we both had Wes Bentley as our idea. She was a big fan of his and he’s someone who I wanted to work with, and so we reached out to Wes and he said ‘I’d love to do it. I love the idea, love doing something different…’ So he signed on. He was doing another movie at the time… I want to say he was coming from that Terrence Malick movie, the name escapes me (Knight Of Cups)… he finished that movie two or three days before, then came straight to this, so we had to get them together quickly. The first thing we shot with them was her shaving his head… in real life. So that was their first bonding experience!

What led to you taking the very stylized, almost theatrical approach to the material? I’m thinking particularly in terms of the lighting…

The lighting is something that is translated from my photography, and the idea with that was I wanted to use it as almost a character. The lighting creates this tone for you, so a certain character is onscreen, they’re lit a certain way, and it gives you a certain feeling and I wanted to try to carry that for the whole film.

FGAnd what was your thinking behind the more distinctive imagery? The powder scene for example (Breslin’s character dreams that she and Bentley are hit with a red dust)…

These are all… a lot of this movie is about how your mind works. What you’re afraid of, what you might dream, what might happen if you’re tapped into your deep subconscious. That to me is an interesting dream, a lot of people dream in only black and white but I dream in Technicolor. So I would have these vivid dreams where there would be these colour explosions, and that’s part of your mind opening in a different way. I wanted to include that in the film, so when she’s having this really intense moment within her own mind, this explosion hits. That’s why we put that in there.

You mentioned Wes Bentley’s head actually being shaved, which was quite spontaneous I imagine! Did much improvisation happen during the shoot?

Oh yes! Every day we did at least one hour of improv’ing. I would encourage the boys and Wes and Abigail to create little things here and there for their characters. We would just add things as we went, and that was part of the fun.

How did you assemble that cast of young men? Did you audition them together, was it a gradual process, or…?

Logan Huffman I had worked with a bunch. Alexander Ludwig I had shot when he was sixteen, so I knew I wanted those two. Then I had two of my other friends who were supposed to do the movie, but they were both on TV shows and the shows wouldn’t let them out. So we had to recast their parts a week before shooting.

You wouldn’t know it was a last minute thing, as they all complement each other quite well…

Yeah, and one of the things is, as soon as we cast Cameron Bright and Reece Thompson, and we got all the boys together, they took their wardrobe – they stole their wardrobe! – from set and started going out in character, in costume on the streets of Vancouver. What was really great was that by the time we were done shooting the movie, if somebody was done shooting and it was their day off they would still come to set. Logan had wrapped but everyone just loved having him on set, so he kept coming. And then the same thing with Reese and the same thing with Cameron. Everyone wanted to be there, it was this great environment.

LH FGDid any other movies inspire you when you were putting the project together?

You know, there isn’t a movie where I was like ‘Let’s make it look like this movie’, but there’s certain movies throughout history where you look at them and they have such a distinct visual style. Tony Scott… you can watch a Tony Scott movie and you think ‘Oh this is Tony Scott!’ That was kind of the idea for this. Not to copy these things, but to basically make a colour version of a Thirties or Forties noir movie.

It’s your first film. What would you say you learned from the experience?

Obviously you learn a lot. You learn when you do anything. I think one of the things for me was the improv stuff that we did worked really well. I would continue that, because we used a lot of it in the movie. One of the most important things is creating that environment on set, because people were really happy and really comfortable, and they all wanted to be there. If we didn’t do that I think it would have been a big failure.

This interview appeared on The Hollywood News. Final Girl is out now on DVD.