Sometimes, the most enjoyable film experiences are the surprises. Downhill is a small, independent UK comedy movie that follows a group of four middle-aged men as they try to replicate a hike across the UK that they made in their youth. As the tagline eloquently puts it, it's a a road movie, without the road. Director James Rouse was kind enough to have a chat with Screenjabber's Peter deGraft-Johnson about the making of the film, and the life-saving qualities of ham sandwiches.
James, here's your starter for 10 – how did the idea for Downhill come about?
Well, I'm in my mid-40s, so the idea felt very personal to me. It's a rich emotional area to delve into, and the way the characters act is familiar to me, I've got friends who act in similar ways and I thought that it would make for a great film. We chose the coast to coast walk because it can bring out the best and worst in people, it's a very intense physical environment and you're very close to one another, tensions can run high quickly.
Which of the characters do you feel closest to? They all have their pros and cons…
I can definitely relate to Gordon's anxiety about providing for his family. I can empathise with him, he's struggling to fulfil that role of alpha male, breadwinner and putting food on the table. Maybe that idea's outdated now, but it's still a very powerful idea, it's rich emotional area to delve into.
Was making the film a “fun” experience? Did you actually embark on the same hike that our team of intrepid explorers do in the film?
Yes, we did a couple of legs of the walk, and subsequently nearly died! We had a very small budget, so we practically survived just eating ham sandwiches. It was pretty funny actually, ham sandwiches saved us! We were even more poorly-equipped than Julien, the barely functioning alcoholic. Hiking around with all of our equipment probably wasn't too smart, but it was a great experience. I had so much fun making Downhill because it's a character driven piece about nothing really, it's just some guys going on a walk, but it's about what happens to the characters over the hour and a half of screen time.
As much as the performances in Downhill are to be admired (and they really are to be admired), you've also got some breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. Did you seek those out specifically, or was it a happy accident?
We were keen to follow the real coast to coast route across the Lake District, and all of the shots are from the route. I guess it was a happy accident, but it was a conscious decision to make sure we shot some beautiful scenes. Alex Melman, our cinematographer, did a great job on a shoestring budget.
Was it shot digitally, or on film? Also, where did the idea of having Gordon's son, Luke, act as the team's personal cameraman come from?
It was all shot digitally, but the Gordon's son idea came about basically through practicality. We had a very low budget and needed to a film technique that wasn't going to compromise the film, and we would have had much more control with digital than film. It was a creative solution to a practical problem, and in a lot of cases, restrictions can help creation.
Another thing the film manages to do so well is keep the laughs coming, it's got a great sense of juvenile humour right alongside the very adult troubles of the characters. How did that balance come about?
Adults do keep that side of themselves, but I think they bury it and try to forget about it. What better way to bring that back out again than with a hike with your old school friends, with added alcohol? When you've got a grown man throwing a full on, 6-year old's tantrum, you can't help but laugh, it is very funny.
Lastly, the closer. What's next for you?
I'm shooting a film called Monumental, set in Serbia, where there are towns that have erected statues to unconventional characters, role models instead of corrupt politicians or military figures. It's a comedy with heart, based on a true story, but it does deal with the war. It serves as a backdrop to the drama that happens in the film.
Can you tell us who they have statues of? Are they general celebrities, or footballers, or actors…?
Off the top of my head, I know there's Bob Marley, Rocky, Tarzan, Bruce Lee and Johnny Depp. There's loads more, it's a bizarre phenomenon, but it's really interesting.
Downhill is out now on DVD and on-demand