'I think I work best when I'm angry'
Robert Hull talks to New Town Killers director Richard Jobson about noir, nocturnal filming and saying “no” to 35mm …
Robert Hull: Visually it’s a very striking, atmospheric film. Did you have particular movies in mind when you came to shoot it?
Richard Jobson: Yes. First of all I decided to make a black-and-white film – in colour. So I dressed everyone in black and white, apart from Sean, who they are chasing, and who wears a red, hooded top, and so really you get this film-noirish feel. It was gently paying homage to a lot of noirs I liked, from The Third Man through to The Killers, but also to a lot of the films that have dealt with similar themes, such as Funny Games by Michael Haneke, American Psycho, or Rope by Alfred Hitchcock.
RH: It’s a very nocturnal film. Was there a lot of night-time shooting?
RJ: The majority of it was shot during the night and early morning, right up until the very end of the movie.
RH: Do you think this helped to give the film its own distinctive character?
RJ: I think so. Though I also decided to do a lot of backlighting and classic, expressionistic lighting. There are a lot of long shadows and we slightly titled the camera too. It’s a gothic story that tips its hat to classic Scottish traditions, such as Jekyll and Hyde, and even real characters like Burke and Hare [early 19th century Edinburgh duo who murdered victims in order to sell the bodies for dissection]. The world that my guys inhabit has already been prepared for me, in some ways.
RH: Is the city [Edinburgh] an important character in the film?
RJ: Yes, clearly, absolutely. I’ve used this city three times now, and each time I’ve tried to use it in a different way. In this one, although there are lots of rooftop elements, it almost feels like the city has been emptied of people and it’s just these three characters hurtling into the night.
RH: You’ve said you really love Sean as a lead character. Can you explain why that is?
RJ: The character is based on some kids I worked with in an area of Edinburgh – whose parents were alcoholics or heroin addicts – and these kids were full of their own integrity and their own ambitions. They’ve got the same aspirations that you have but for some reason the world has chosen to turn its back on them. And they are aware of that as well, and it made me very, very angry that this happens. That was the starting point for investigating a character like Sean. I’m from not such a dissimilar background to him, and dreams and aspirations and ideas – these things are free – we all have them. But the realising of them, that’s a different matter, and I feel with characters like Sean there’s a realisation that those things have been frozen because certain aspects of society have decided these people don’t exist.
I think I work best when I’m angry, and in some of my other films I’ve been exploring ideas rather than emotions, and I’ve sometimes got lost in the idea, rather than in the fabric of the characters, so it was good to return to something that felt like a stronger territory for me.
RH: There’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie, was that something that made it harder to write or easier?
RJ: Well, certainly harder to write because the easy thing to do when you’ve got two people in a scene is to just write dialogue. But I tried to be a little bit more inventive with this. When I had the guys in the car, I wanted them playing list games, so that it was almost like table tennis, you know, just using wordplay games. And dialogue to me is something people use in scripts to present so much information, and you think you know everything about the character. I think one of the tricks of this film is that you start to think you’re getting information about who Alistair (Dougray Scott) is, then you realise everything about him is fabricated, so you end up knowing nothing about this guy, other than he takes some pleasure in the sensation of pushing people to their limit. I prefer that. I hate being told everything about characters.
RH: According to Robert McKee’s screenwriting bible, Story, films shouldn’t have much dialogue at all.
RJ: If you examined all of my projects, you’d find there’s very little dialogue in any of them. 16 Years of Alcohol (2003) was narrated, and I did a cheesy Kung-Fu film called The Purifiers (2004) with very little dialogue in it. The dialogue is minimal in this film, and that’s how I like it. Interestingly enough, I did a class recently where I had 12 budding directors and I told them to write a scene between two people stuck in a lift but they couldn’t use dialogue. They couldn’t do it. They were stuck because immediately they wanted to rely on people saying something.
RH: Because you write and direct, do you ever feel that what ends up on screen is exactly how you imagined it, or do you like the fact that it can change?
RJ: I think 16 Years of Alcohol was pretty much how I imagined it. And New Town Killers, yes, I think it is how I imagined it. It is interesting how things can change and move along, but I do so much prep and so much storyboarding that I’m very much prepared before I shoot. When you’re working at the kind of low budgets I work with you’ve got to be very organised and know exactly what you’re doing – you can’t be making it up on the day.
RH: Do you think digital filmmaking has made a big difference to movies?
RJ: Yes. Digital cinema has always been my mainstay. I’ve not really made a piece of cinema that has been shot on film; they’ve all been shot on high-def. I think, for me, it’s the only way to do it. I don’t understand why you’d even think about shooting 35mm, it just seems to be something from the past.
• Read Screenjabber's review of New Town Killers