INTERVIEW: Shooting the "Beast"; Jonathan Glazer Tames the Gangster Genre
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 06.12.01) — “If you just do film all the way through your life, you learn the craft without the art,” says Jonathan Glazer, director of the subversive UK thriller “Sexy Beast.” “I wanted to come at it from a different perspective.” And the 35-year-old visionary has done just that. Having studied fine arts and theater design, Glazer brings a radical approach to everything he tackles, from award-winning Guinness commercials to a collection of intoxicating music videos, including UNKLE‘s nightmarish “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” Radiohead‘s lyrical “Street Spirit,” and Jamiroquai‘s playful “Virtual Insanity.”
Now Glazer brings this same innovative perspective to his film debut, the ironically titled “Sexy Beast,” a British gangster film that resists the tired conventions of the genre. The movie pits portly ex-criminal Gal (Ray Winstone) against his former associate, a bald-headed throbbing menace named Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) who is out to recruit Gal for one last job. But don’t expect lock, stock and smoking barrels (well, maybe one); the film is more about guilt than gunfire. Speaking quickly between puffs of a cigarette from his London flat, Glazer spoke to indieWIRE about making the leap to a feature, Ben Kingsley’s head, and the anti-heist movie.
indieWIRE: So how much time do you spend going back and forth between these two careers of videos and now movies?
Jonathan Glazer: I wanted to get into films for a three or four years, but I wanted to get to a point of control where I was in a position where I could get the most out of the material I was making, rather than do a studio project just for the sake of it. Because I’m definitely developing this work myself, which is taking up most of my time right now. Feature films I definitely want to concentrate on, because it’s what I enjoy the most, but there’s a lot of interesting experimentation that you can have with commercials and music videos, so even someone like Ridley Scott would go back and do a commercial from time to time, so there is merit beyond the obvious financial benefit.
iW: What’s your reaction to being categorized as a commercial-turned-video director?
Glazer: I think it’s inevitable. If someone calls me that, I won’t take offense to it. I’ve tried to use the film and video mediums to my own advantage, and to my own learning. I’ve actually done them to push the limits each time. I think the actual leap from commercials and music videos to film — even though it’s a massive learning curve and the tasks are magnified a million times — is not that big; there is a connection.
iW: With the music videos that you’ve done, you were doing something different. Were you aware that you were breaking the mold?
Glazer: I wasn’t aware that I was breaking the mold, but I knew that I was doing work that would allow me to do something different and working with artists who would allow me to what I wanted to do. I’ve never been happy doing stock work; I’ve never been happy thinking that I haven’t changed something. I want to change things with everything I do, not for the sake of changing things, but for the sake of taking greater and greater risks, or how minimalist I might be able to be, or how I can involve elements or ingredients in music videos that are not musical, for instance. So they’ve all been exercises for me, and most of them, it’s been very pleasurable.
iW: What did you learn from “Street Spirit”?
Glazer: That was definitely a turning point in my own work. I knew when I finished that, because they found their own voices as an artist, at that point, I felt like I got close to whatever mine was, and I felt confident that I could do things that emoted, that had some kind of poetic as well as prosaic value. That for me was a key moment.
iW: What about with “Karma Police”?
Glazer: I regard “Karma Police” as a complete failure, because I decided to do a very minimalist, subjective use of camera, and tried to do something hypnotic and dramatic from one perspective, and it was very hard to achieve and I feel that I didn’t achieve it. But I did feel like I achieved what I wanted to do in the “Karma Police” video when I did UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” video. It’s definitely a partner to the Karma Police video, a couplet for me. I did the UNKLE video because I felt I had missed emotionally and dramatically from a simple craft point of view.
iW: “Rabbit in Your Headlights” does actually culminate in a moving way. I also happen to like the actor you chose, Denis Lavant. He’s got a real power.
Glazer: Denis Lavant has an incredible pathos to him. But he’s also a funny man. He flips between comedy and pathos. In a funny way, in a more physical way, Kingsley is not unlike him. Directing Kingsley’s performance, for me, was like Denis Lavant. They’re completely different actors, but they share a seriousness which comedy comes from. There’s something so dramatically pathos-based about what they exude. There is a great comedy to it.
iW: Kingsley is funny and frightening at the same time. How did you develop this character; his whole head was like a weapon?
Glazer: Interestingly enough, a lot of this stuff comes out of limitations. His size is part of his power in a Napoleonic way — his physical limitations, in terms of the fact that he’s not a man who could throw a punch. I was aware of that in the casting. I knew what I wasn’t getting. But what I was getting with Ben was more abstract and interesting. It was about containment. Rather than get Ben to compete with Ray Winstone — who is a big man — I wanted him to compete on a primal level, and be still and contained like a coiled spring. I was trying to get Ben to be as still as possible through the entire film. He’s got such an expressive face. You can’t take his eyes off his eyes. In that respect, my gains were far greater than my losses in casting him. I didn’t want Robert DeNiro.
iW: You’ve also got Ray Winstone, who’s also an interesting casting choice. He’s a plump amiable-looking guy, not much of a gangster.
Glazer: He looks like he did the gangster stuff before. In a way, it was trying to be a film that wasn’t about a gangster.
iW: And structurally the movie is very interesting because of that. The movie doesn’t want to be a gangster film.
Glazer: Exactly. When it finally goes to London, it doesn’t want to go to London. It doesn’t suddenly become “Rififi“; it doesn’t become a big heist movie. It’s trying to say: “Don’t worry, we’re taking an intermission in this trip to England, we’ll be back in Spain before you know it.” And that was key. It’s very hard to have a film about a heist and avoid making a heist movie.
iW: It takes, what, a full 45 minutes for him to go?
Glazer: Something like that, even longer. It’s really a duel between two men, which turns into a bigger duel. That’s the heart and soul of the film.
iW: You play with certain things, technically, as well. Were you conscious of trying to tell this different visually?
Glazer: The visuals have always been key to my work. I’ve always been better at informing the audience through images than through words, but I took on a script that was so dialogue intensive, that the words had to do all the informing. I felt like I was shackled, but I knew that going into it, that I had to be architectural about it, and keep the second act absolutely angular. The first act was supposed to be stupid. I tried to shoot it, as if Ray Winstone’s character had shot it, kind of like holiday snaps, just so simple; when his wife comes in, it’s supposedly to be curvaceous and fantastical. And when Kingsley shows up, it’s supposed to be architectural, abrasive and spare. In London, I felt I could actually move the camera and enjoy the paranoia of the camera a little bit more. I find redundant camera work really intrusive, so I was trying to allow the words to do all the dancing, and for me, just to witness them, rather than track around tables every five minutes, which is an easy temptation to fall into.
iW: You mentioned before that you had a lot of conflict on “Sexy Beast” — what sort of conflict? Was it all the personalities involved?
Glazer: There was a clash of personalities. I think what happens in England is that films are shot too quickly. One could argue the opposite in the States where films are overdeveloped. But in England, the cry is that the films are underdeveloped, because producers earn money largely when the film is made. So when the window is there, there’s a need to go and do it quickly. So you’re pushed into decisions and things aren’t developed, as they should be. And obviously, that’s going to come back and bite you. So it was partly to do with that and partly to do with the conflicting personalities. I also spent close to a year in post-production, because it was fraught with problems. I had an editor I wasn’t vibing with. Then I got the editor I wanted and we recut the film in 14 days, so it was an arduous editing process. Having said that, I’m going to do another movie with the writers, and they’re learning the way I am. We share our own sense of what fails in the film, but we also know that we want to work on and get better.
iW: What do you think fails in the film?
Glazer: I think there’s a lot of stuff that you’re told, rather than shown. That can be tedious. In order to make it not tedious, we needed to cut certain chunks out of scenes, in order to make the film move as it needed to do.
iW: So what did you learn in the process?
Glazer: God, where do you want me to start? As a leaning curve, it was the steepest, sharpest I could have. To be honest with you, with “Sexy Beast,” I feel the same way after I made my first music video, or made my first television commercial. I thought, okay, I can do this, but I need to step up to the mark. I need to know what the rules are, and in doing so, I can feel where I can improve.
iW: So what are you doing next?
Glazer: I have three new projects. “Alligator Blood,” a poker story that Fox Searchlight will finance; it’s an American film with the same writers as “Sexy Beast.” I’m such a Zeitgeist worrier that I’m going to leave it at that. I also have a story of mind called “Before Birth,” a story I wrote about a year ago, which Jean Claude Carrierre is writing (“The Tin Drum,” “Belle de Jour“). It’s an emotionally brutal piece of work and I’ve very excited about making it. Also in development with Industry and FilmFour is a sci-fi film called “Under the Skin.” It’s based on a great book, but a trashy book. But there’s an incredible gem at the heart of it.”