Interview - Dave Johns is 'I, Daniel Blake'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
I, Daniel Blake won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Festival and it’s one of the year’s most powerful films. I had the chance to speak to star Dave Johns about his unusual background, the film’s content, and the approach of director Ken Loach…
Matt: You’re a name that many won’t be familiar with here in Australia. Tell us a little about yourself.
Dave: I’ve been a stand-up comedian for 27 years. I’ve been to Australia and done the Melbourne Comedy Festival a few times as well as the Adelaide Fringe and a couple of gigs in Perth. I’ve been working all my life doing stand-up in the UK and around the world and that’s pretty much my background.
Matt: So is this your first leading role in a movie? How did Ken Loach find you?
Dave: Yeah. I did a play up in Edinburgh a few years ago with a load of comedians who wanted to do a serious play. We got together and did Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men. We performed it at the Edinburgh Festival and it was a massive hit. We came back the next year and did One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then a few other ensemble plays.
The producer got in touch with me last summer to let me know Ken Loach was making a new film and he was looking for a guy my age from the North East of England. He felt I was perfect so I got in touch with the casting people and was invited in to meet Ken Loach. He got me talking about football for 10 minutes to kind of feel me out. I was invited back for 3 castings with different actresses and he then offered me the part. It knocked me for six.
Matt: Tell us about Ken Loach. He’s 80 years of age and has been making films for 50 years. What’s it like to work with an icon of British cinema who has so much experience?
Dave: I adore the man. He’s got a great sense of humour. He’s very gentle but he has a steely determination to get across his message which is fantastic. The way he works is so different. Ken shoots chronologically and you don’t get the script at the start. You get a couple of pages of script each day and so it’s like you’re living the life of the character as you go along. He has a crew around him who have been working together for years who are sworn to secrecy so they never tell you what’s going on.
Matt: Was there no script at all at the start when you signed on for this?
Dave: No. All I knew on day 1 was that my name was Daniel Blake, I had a wife who had passed away, I’d recently had a heart attack, and I’d been knocked back for sickness benefits from the welfare office. I was going to meet this young mum with two kids and we’d have a plutonic friendship together. That’s all I knew. I’d get new pages of script each day and I’d have to learn them overnight. Ken wanted it to be spontaneous and fresh and for the emotions to be real.
He doesn’t have closed sets either. There’s a scene where Hayley is in a grocery shop and it was just an ordinary shop with real people coming in and out. Ken would say “when the guy at the counter has finished paying his gas bill, we’ll start another take.” This is how the film has a real, gritty feel about it.
Matt: I know there are some people who are going to look at this film and go “this is over-exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with the welfare system.” The screenplay from Paul Laverty – is it based on actual events?
Dave: Oh yeah. Ken and Paul could have made it a lot worse than what it’s portrayed in the film. They did extensive research, they spoke to people to worked in the job centres, and they spoke to people who had left work and become sick themselves. All the things that happen to Daniel and Katie in the film are taken from real life situations that people spoke about.
Ken actually used ex-job centre staff in the film for some of the scenes. There’s also information that came from the foodbanks that shaped one scene in particular involving Katie. They’d found a young mother in that same situation.
Matt: An important part of the film is that it’s not demonising the staff at the welfare office. Yes, the system is flawed but as we see, there are some well-intentioned people there that are sympathetic to Daniel’s cause. Have you had welfare officers speak to you as well?
Dave: I think a lot of the people who are working in job centres and implementing this system are victims as well. The government has lost sight of why social security in this country was set up. They’ve even changed the name to “benefits” to give the connotation of a hand out. It always used to be “social security” which provided security for every person in the country if you came across hard times so that you wouldn’t become destitute.
I’ve been to film festivals all through Europe and people have come up to me to say it’s happening in their country as well. This push for austerity and trying to save money has led to a level of bureaucracy that has lost sight of the person. I never knew about this before the movie. I’ve been self-employed and I haven’t been on the dole since the 1980s. Hearing about sanctions and people having to fill out 52 page forms came as a shock.
After the film came out, my ex-wife phoned and told me about her 42-year-old sister who has Down syndrome. She was called in and interviewed. She shouldn’t have been on her own but because she wants to show everyone how capable she is, she exaggerated some of her abilities. The welfare office deemed that she was able to work and she lost her benefits. The case is now being appealed but the original interview should have been terminated straight away when they released she was on her own.
Matt: I’d like to hope that cinema does have the power to instigate change. Do you know if anyone within the British government has had a chance to see the film and offer their thoughts?
Dave: Damian Green is the Work and Pensions Secretary and he said he hasn’t seen the film but that he’d seen a trailer and it was a gross exaggeration of the situation. Jeremy Corbyn raised it in question time in Parliament and asked Prime Minister Theresa May to go and see it. He even offered to buy a ticket for her.
There has been a lot in the press about the film. People who have seen it are angry with where the system has got to. It’s portraying two ordinary people that people relate to. Katie could be your sister or your daughter. Daniel could be your grandfather, uncle or dad. People who are unemployed have been branded as “scroungers” and it’s their fault that they’re poor as opposed to the system. If we’re a decent society, she should be able to help people who are less fortunate.
Matt: Tell us a little about Hayley Squires – she gives a terrific, heartfelt performance.
Dave: Hayley is an amazing actress. Ken said to me on the first day that he needed Hayley and I to listen to each other in each of the scenes. If you do that, you’ll find the truth and you’ll find the honesty that will show on screen. If you’re working alongside an actor who is always giving 100%, it makes your life a lot easier. Ken saw that in the early auditions that Hayley and I had a connection together. He’s brilliant when it comes to casting.
Matt: You had the chance to attend the Cannes Film Festival this year where the film won the top prize, the Palm D’or. What was that whole experience like?
Dave: It was insane. I was in a lift with Woody Allen, just the two of us, and the funny thing is we never spoke to each other. It was so surreal. Cannes was insane with the red carpet and thousands of photographers. Since winning the Palm D’or, this film has taken on a life of its own. I’ve heard I’ve been nominated for best actor at the European Film Awards and I’ve been nominated at the British Independent Film Awards. In Variety magazine, they had me ranked as #20 in the list of actors who might be nominated for an Oscar this year. I’m in between Jake Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell which is insane. There are times when I think “have I just banged my head and am in a coma somewhere?” I’m so proud that the film is having an impact around the world.
Matt: What’s the plan going forward? Would you like to continue making feature films or do you have other things in mind?
Dave: I would love to keep making movies and I’ve got some offers coming in at the moment. I want to find the right project. If I never made another film ever, I can always say that I was the lead in a Ken Loach film that won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. I could definitely accept that. I’ve still got the day job and I’m still doing stand-up. I’m off to Paris tomorrow to do two shows and then I’m off to Slovenia. So yeah, I’d love to do more films but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
Interview - Writer-Director Ed Zwick Brings Us 'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back reunites director Ed Zwick with star Tom Cruise. They worked together in 2003 on The Last Samurai. I recently spoke over the phone with Ed to ask him about his latest movie…
Matt: How’s it going?
Ed: Very well thanks. We’re in Beijing right now.
Matt: The Chinese market is so huge and has a big impact on a film’s international box-office…
Ed: It is. Tom and I have both found great success here in China and so we said we definitely wanted to visit as part of the promotion for the film.
Matt: I realise that you’ve worked with Tom Cruise before on The Last Samurai back in 2003. How did you get involved in this project? Did Tom help get you in?
Ed: That’s right. The phone rang and I saw it was Tom and said to myself “I’ll take that call.” (laughs) I had never done this kind of movie before but he knew I liked this genre and he asked if I would be keen to jump in. I read the book and realised there was a lot that could be fun to do. We got together and talked about what we could accomplish and then went from there.
Matt: The previous film was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie and I notice he’s one of the producers here. Did he provide a lot of input or were you left to your own devices here?
Ed: I’ve known Chris for a long time and he’s actually worked for me before. There were a couple of moments where I talked things out with him and he was very helpful. He also understands that a writer-director wants to make his own movie and he was respectful of that.
Matt: You’ve made some great films in your career like Glory, Legends of the Fall, and Blood Diamond, but I notice this is the first time you’ve come on board for a sequel. Is that right?
Ed: Yeah. It’s also my first franchise too. I was wary but the fact that Tom and I had worked together before was a help. We also knew we were trying to do something a little bit different from the first movie. If I felt I was doing a mere repeat of the original then I think I would have shied away. I think this movie is more a reflection of what interests me as opposed to what interests Chris.
Matt: Over your career, you’ve had the chance to direct some of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Morgan Freeman. Is there something special about them that justifies the price tag? Or are they just like working with any other actor?
Ed: It’s funny. I like to think that they’ve made their money on the back of being a great actor. Obviously they have something unique that captures an audience’s imagination but I have always thought about casting movie stars as actors and treating them as actors. The best ones want to be treated as actors and I would definitely include Tom in that list. He’s known from a young age what a director can do to bring out a great performance and it’s why he’s worked with so many great directors.
I can think of a couple of people I wouldn’t work with again because they didn’t have a humility, joy and gratitude that you want as part of a team. Those names that you mentioned are all a privilege to work with. They have an understanding of not just what they can do but also what a movie is. Tom’s career has been about more than a great smile and physicality.
Matt: Do you stay in touch with all these actors you’ve worked with multiple times? Are you always looking for opportunities to work together again?
Ed: We actually all live very different lives. I happened to see Denzel two weeks ago because I was at Paramount and he was in the cutting room working on Fences. I knocked on the door, chatted for an hour and then had lunch together. I don’t think I’d seen him for at least a year. The fondness and the experiences from working on a movie are often quite intense and profound. You don’t forget them.
Matt: Well tell me a little about Cobie Smulders. I was reading she broke her leg before the shoot. Is that right?
Ed: The first time we met, she came into my office with a cane and her leg in a brace. I said “what the fuck is this?” and she said she’d just broken it and that it was going to be fine. I was a bit sceptical because this was to be a very physical movie. She told me that she’d been an athlete in college and that she wouldn’t put herself in a situation unless she thought she could handle it. The doctors then looked her over, agreed with that assessment, an she ended up doing an extraordinary job.
Matt: People will be familiar with Tom Cruise and to a lesser extent Cobie Smulders because of her roles in the Marvel films but aside from those two, most of the cast will be relatively unknown to filmgoers. Was it a deliberate decision to go with some lesser known actors?
Ed: One of the great pleasures of having a big name movie star already on the film is that you don’t have to fill the remaining roles with names to satisfy a foreign investor who believes it will add value. It’s just about casting great actors. The kid who plays Prudhomme, Austin Hébert, just graduated from Southern Methodist University and is a really great actor. I saw Aldis Hodge in Straight Outta Compton and it was fun to work with him too.
Matt: How did you approach the action scenes? Given that action movies are a staple of the Hollywood diet, is there something you’re trying to do to make these particular scenes stand out?
Ed: I believe that they’re most interesting if they can advance the story and the relationships between the characters. If they’re just there for the sake of action then I don’t think they add much. I can point to a couple of scenes in this movie that I think help us follow the story and it feels more organic to the piece itself.
Matt: Do you have precise angles in mind when you’re shooting the action scenes or have you got a hundred cameras going at once and you leave it up to the editor to piece it together?
Ed: An editor can show you things you never imagined but no, I’m pretty specific with how I shoot these scenes. As we choreographed these scenes and worked with the stunt people and actors, I’m often shooting the scenes on tape to get a sense of what’s going to be the best angle. You have to be pretty specific as these scenes are dangerous, you don’t want anyone to get hurt, and you don’t want to have to shoot them too many times because that adds to the risk.
Matt: I have to finish up by asking a couple of non-Jack Reacher questions. I’m a big Oscars buff and you won an Academy Award for producing Shakespeare in Love which was one of the big upsets in Oscars history. Did you see it that way? Was it a huge shock to you when they opened the envelope?
Ed: You never really think about it in terms of a bet. I’ll tell you that the following year, we were convinced that we were going to win for Traffic and the found it was Gladiator who took the top prize. It’s weird that you’ve made a movie that you think is the best thing you’ve ever done… and then you go along to an awards show and suddenly think of yourself as a loser. It’s really screwed up and typical of Hollywood to make you feel bad about something that you should feel good about.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What projects will see from your next?
Ed: Not sure yet. There’s something we’re starting to write and I hope it turns out as I wish but you never know.
Interview - Speaking With The Cast Of 'Spin Out'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Spin Out is the latest Australian film to hit cinemas and I recently spoke to stars Xavier Samuel, Morgan Griffin, Travis Jeffrey and Lincoln Lewis to talk about the project…
Matt: I’ve spoken to other Australian filmmakers who have shot films in rural areas and they always tell me how excited the communities get that their town is going to be immortalised in a movie for all to see. Where precisely was Spin Out shot? How involved was the town in the production?
Travis: We shot in Shepparton and it was exactly like what you’ve heard. They got behind it and were loving it. Some people were volunteering as extras for 10 hours a day.
Morgan: They volunteered their time, brought along their utes, and were really lovely.
Xavier: They helped “make” the film by giving it an authentic atmosphere. The film is about community and we certainly felt that when working out there. Many of them were extras in the B&S ball scene and some of them steal the show.
Matt: Most films have a target audience and I see this having appeal in regional Australia because it taps into a part of their culture with B&S balls and ute musters. Have you had the chance to show the film to any regional audiences yet and what sort of response have you received? Is it different from screenings in capital cities?
Lincoln: The coolest thing is that it’s been received in a similar way in every location. It’s been surprising.
Xavier: We had a screening in Sydney and there was a great response that didn’t feel any different from the country. It was nice to see that the story transcends.
Travis: We even took it to Shepparton a couple of weeks ago. I was worried that they might think we’d made fun of them but that’s not what we wanted to do. Thankfully they loved it as well.
Matt: It was an eye-opener for me though. I know of B&S balls but a ute muster is a completely new term to me. Did you guys know about this side of Australia before making the film?
Morgan: I knew what they were but it was still foreign to me.
Xavier: It’s one thing to hear all the stories but it’s another to experience these things. We went to an actual ute muster and some of that footage appears at the end of the film in the closing credits. You have to experience it firsthand.
Matt: Xavier & Morgan, was it easy to make those driving scenes look convincing?
Morgan: There’s a definitely a technique you have to master to be able to drift and do continuous donuts but we had really good stunt coordinators to help us out. I’d never actually driven a manual car before so we spent a bit of time in pre-production getting used to that. We also went to a stunt driving school is Shepparton.
Xavier: It’s very full on. We rocked up on our first day and there was a 90-something-year-old guy burning around in a ute telling us he was going to teach us. It was intimidating at first but the more we did it, the more we enjoyed it.
Morgan: It was terrifying to do in front of the locals though as they regularly compete in ute musters. One of my stunt drivers gave me a funny backhanded compliment – “you could drive better than me… when I was 7 year’s old.”
Matt: Comedy is the hardest genre to perfect because there are so many different styles and everyone has a different sense of humour. As an example, this is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared to Love & Friendship which is the last film we saw you in Xavier. How were the jokes developed for this film? Was it all left in the hands of the writers (Edwina Exton and Tim Ferguson) or was there a lot of ad-libbing and experimentation on set?
Xavier: It’s interesting because both Love & Friendship and Spin Out celebrate language but in a different way. Whit Stillman, who directed Love & Friendship, is very dialogue driven. Tim Ferguson, who wrote and directed Spin Out, has created something different with “colourful” language where the jokes come thick and fast. You can’t sit back with this kind of material. You have to embrace it.
Morgan: We had room to try different things but the tone was always there and we always knew what type of comedy this was going to be. It was fun to delve into.
Matt: You are working here under the guidance of Tim Ferguson who has a long history in comedy and on television. This marks his directorial debut and I’m curious to know about his approach and what he was like to work with?
Travis: He’s a comedian behind the camera as well (laughs).
Xavier: His enthusiasm is contagious. He wasn’t precious about his screenplay and he did allow us to improvise a lot.
Lincoln: He’s very relatable as a director and easy to talk to. He was always clear with the messages he was trying to get across. For a simpleton such as myself, it was great (laughs).
Matt: If I took the average age of this huge cast, I think it’d have to be one of the youngest in an Australian film this year. How did the casting process work? Are all the people we see on screen professional actors? What was the vibe with such a young crowd?
Travis: It was so much fun. They put us all in the same complex and we were hanging out together off the set for 5 weeks. The film is about community and being in each other’s pockets all day, every day helps translate that onto the screen.
Morgan: We’d have a pub meal most nights and relax and play some pool. Everyone got along and it was what you’d hope an ideal film set would be like.
Lincoln: On the weekends we’d do BBQs and people would sit around on their guitars singing songs. It was wicked and had a real family vibe.
Matt: Trying to connect Australian audiences with Australian movies is always a challenge. In cinemas at the moment we have Bridget Jones’s Baby, Pete’s Dragon and Suicide Squad. I know a lot of work goes into making the film but how busy have you guys been over the past couple of weeks trying to promote this and get the message out there? What’s the hook? How can we get people to see this?
Travis: Just do it (laughs).
Lincoln: Without sounding too clichéd, this is a feel good movie. It doesn’t have one specific target audience. It’s an accessible romantic comedy.
Xavier: We’ve watched it a dozen times now and we just have fun watching it. It’s a big party.
Morgan: Even though it’s set in the country, it’s not just for country people. People are experiencing very real emotions in the film despite the frivolity that goes on around them.
Travis: The themes are universal like love, commitment, growing up and fear of change.
Matt: Have you been surprised by the way audiences have reacted to certain scenes? Are there moments where there big laughs when you didn’t quite expect it during the filming process?
Lincoln: There are some moments that get a huge laugh at every screening.
Travis: I’ve learned that the audience can help change the film.
Xavier: Yeah, sometimes you need someone in the audience like your mum to kick the laughter off (laughs).
Travis: That’s why we’re going to try to see every screening of the film now that it’s been released.
Lincoln: Having a big cast really helps with that (laughs).
Matt: And Lincoln, I run into you at film previews here in Brisbane every so often because you’re with Mitch who works for Nova. He’s family but he’s also a film critic. Has he given you his honest appraisal of the film yet?
Lincoln: He has actually. We were having a chat last night and he said that what he loved most about the film was the language. It’s not trying to cater to an international audience and say “hey, we’re Australian!” It’s just the way we talk to each other and insult each other here in this country. Mitch was stoked with how that came across.
Matt: What are you guys all working on at the moment? When are we going to see you on screen next?
Xavier: Morgan and I did a film a couple of months ago that’s going to be coming out sometime next year.
Travis: I did a bit in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie and that’s coming out mid next year also.
Lincoln: I’m heading back to the audition circuit and I’ll maybe head over to the U.S. for pilot season. In the meantime, our fingers are crossed and hopefully Spin Out does really well.
Interview - Jack Huston On A Reminagined 'Ben-Hur'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
It’s an interesting choice for a remake and I recently spoke to actor Jack Huston about his starring role in the new Ben-Hur…
Matt: The 1959 Ben-Hur was an epic in all sense of the word – in terms of its length, and box-office, and Oscars haul. We’ve even coined the phrase “bigger than Ben Hur”. A lot of people might be sceptical of a remake. What was your first reaction when you heard about another film being made of Lew Wallace's novel?
Jack: I’m a big lover of the 1959 version and I loved what Charlton Heston did with it but it was a very different time of making movies. Performances were very theatrical and operatic back then. I terms of this film, we were very conscious that we wanted this to be a very humanised story that people can relate to. It’s set 2000 years ago but we quickly realised it’s a current story in the sense that we still have wars that are driven by religion and politics. While the 1959 film was very much about revenge, this more about hope, forgiveness, redemption, kindness and love.
Matt: An interesting theme for me was the way in which the spectacle of competitive sport is a powerful tool for getting people to put aside differences and come together. Morgan Freeman’s character talks about the way you can dent a society’s pride by beating them in the sporting arena. Is that something you found interesting in the script?
Jack: It’s very interesting. There’s a scene late in the film after the race and looks around and starts to worry if he’s done the wrong thing. Judah is seeking revenge and when he gets it, he realises that he’s never felt lower. There’s a moment where my character drops a rock and symbolises the release of the anger and hated that’s built up inside of him. When you look at politics today, it’s how the world is controlled – by instilling a sense of fear in everybody.
Matt: Given Charlton Heston’s Oscar-winning performance is so iconic, how did you go about reinvigorating the character for this new version? I’m guess there’s a lot of pressure from particularly the older generation that will be comparing you to Heston?
Jack: They might but it’s funny because when I read the script, I realised this wasn’t a remake of the 1959 version. It’s a completely reimagined story of Lew Wallace’s novel that was written 130 years ago. It’s been adapted quite a few times for the stage, cinema and television. The reason is because it’s a great story. Film is an interpretive art form.
When I read the script, I saw my Judah Ben-Hur as very different to what Charlton Heston did and it was a big reason why I wanted to do the role. Heston was very much a “man’s man” but my character is more of a “lost child” who has a deep love for his brother and struggling to find his own way. He’s at a crossroads and is struggling to make a decision. By staying neutral, he’s not committing to anything and it’s through the betrayal that he goes on this journey or redemption.
Matt: You get the chance here to work alongside the great Morgan Freeman who must have cinema’s most iconic voices. What was it like? You’ve been in the business a little while now but is there a lot you can learn from someone with his vast experience?
Jack: Every day I learned from him. He’s a humble man with an amazing presence. He’s funny as hell though. He instantly puts you at ease and he’s wonderful to work with.
Matt: It’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate these days between what’s real and what’s visual effects. Can you tell me how Timur Bek-mam-be-tov was able bring those to life? Are you actually riding a chariot?
Jack: Every time you see us on a horse with the chariots, that’s actually us doing it. We trained tirelessly for months. We didn’t use any CGI except for when we had an accident such as a horse being injured. When you see me standing on a chariot and smashing into things, all of that was real.
Matt: All actors love to do their own stunts but do you actually fear for your life when you’re dong that stuff? It looks so intense on screen.
Jack: This is about as dangerous as it gets. Everyone was very open about that. For modern audiences to experience this and believe in the story, we knew we had to be on those chariots. Timur put GoPro cameras all over the place and we shot 6 weeks on the first unit and 5 weeks on the second unit just for the chariot race sequence.
Matt: Are there actually scenes shot on a GoPro camera that ended up in the finished product?
Jack: Absolutely. We wanted the audience to feel like they were on those chariots. It’s utterly immersive.
Matt: Was the chariot ring a giant set?
Jack: They actually built the circus to scale. There were times when we had 32 horses going around that arena at one time.
Matt: I’m guessing you’re a fit guy anyway but was there a lot of additional preparation required to get into shape for this character?
Jack: I actually had to lose 30 pounds before shooting because Judah spends 5 years working in the galley of a slave ship and if you wouldn’t exactly be ripping with muscle. I was incredibly strong because I was in the gym but I had a very specific diet to keep my weight down. It was tough trying to do.
Matt: When you have a film that’s set 2,000 years ago, there’s really nothing to refer back to in terms of the way people spoke back then. How do you therefore settle on an accent, a way of speaking for your character?
Jack: The movie has a very diverse cast which I think Timur was smart about. He wanted it to be a multicultural film. We spoke in a way that would make the film accessible to audiences. Times change but human interaction doesn’t. We love, we hate, we fear.
Matt: Hollywood feels like it’s becoming more and more risk averse with its reliance on comic book movies and animated sequels. What’s the hook with this remake? What type of audience are you trying to attract and what are you hoping they’ll take away from it?
Jack: I think we might be getting a bit of superhero fatigue. People might want to call this a remake but it’s not in any way. This is a completely reimagined version of a beautiful story. It’s the reason we make cinema. You have to experience this on the big screen and as a movie lover, I feel honoured because this is part of the reason I got into movies and now I’m a part of them.
Matt: I’ll finish up by asking what you’re working on at the moment. What are we going to see you in next?
Jack: I’ve got a movie called The Yellow Birds, Their Finest and Above Suspicion all coming out soon. I’m just trying to keep it all going by playing some fun, diverse roles.