In Rupert Friend's short movie "Steve," the first-time director uses his sixteen minutes of film to put a tense twist on a slice-of-life portrait of neighbors interacting in a anonymous city. Although it was completed in 2010, "Steve" is one of the short films in the Stars in Shorts series premiering this Friday; our review of "Steve" and the other six short films here.
Known as an actor, Friend played Mr. Wickham in 2005's "Pride and Prejudice," Prince Albert in the 2009 film "The Young Victoria," and Lieutenant Kurt Kotler in 2008's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."
In Friend's directorial debut, Colin Firth plays a neighbor who asks for a cup of tea from the couple living upstairs, Keira Knightley and Tom Mison. Although Steve's requests appear to be pleasant and run-of-the-mill, Friend something is lurking in Steve's neediness. Through the course of the short film, notions of politesse, manners, and propriety are disturbed.
We talked to Friend about directing, his notions of social graces, his "anger about tea," and Hemingway's trick about only revealing the tip of iceberg.
TOH: What is the overall mood of "Steve"? How did you set the tone?
RF: There is something off-kilter we were striving for. As when a foreigner adopts a very familiar colloquialism and something doesn't ever quite land right when he uses it. It's something that you can't put your finger on, a feeling. That odd happenstance that inexplicably draws us to some people and away from others. I like that feeling, in the gut, it's going to mystify me for a long time.
TOH: What was the beginning of the idea of "Steve"?
RF: I had a lot of anger against the way things 'should be done' – conforming to social norms, ticking boxes to gain acceptance. Frustration at the pointlessness and predictability of smalltalk. Oh and a lot of anger about tea, which the British seem to use to avoid actually saying anything.
TOH: Have the social situations sparked by apartment living interested you?
RF: I really love living in cities where the people living above, below and next to you are from totally different worlds to you. The white-bread cookie-cutter alternative sounds pretty scary – I think Tim Burton nailed that in his suburban opening to "Edward Scissorhands." The image of all the cars leaving pastel-colored people at the same time has never really left me as an anti-ambition for life!
TOH: Firth's character, "Steve," becomes more mysterious and compelling. How did you do this?
RF: Everybody has many people inside of them, I think we tend to present the one we feel is most appropriate at first, in order to gain acceptance or achieve what we want. It gets really interesting when this technique fails, and other levels are revealed. I think Hemingway said you should only ever reveal the tip of the iceberg, but you should know that the whole thing is there under the water regardless. I was very interested in working with an actor as talented as Firth, who is known primarily for the reserve, grace and politesse that he brings to his roles, and seeing if he wouldn't enjoy exploring the somewhat murkier waters beneath, if you'll pardon the now slightly clumsy mixed metaphor.
TOH: Who would you say is the most central character of the short? How did you navigate between the three?
RF: I never thought of any of them as more central than the others. to me it was very much about the idea of three, which has always been a powerful number for me. Three acts, three characters, three wishes… They all support one another so well I couldn't imagine it working with anyone missing. There is a sense that Man is always absent just when Steve arrives, they have that dance around Woman, who isn't particularly interested in seeing either of them at the time.
TOH: You evoked a changing mood throughout the film as Firth's character becomes more insistent. What did you do to achieve this?
RF: I think the circumstances helped. That someone reappears three days in a row, without changing his clothes, shaving or seemingly sleeping, making the same request and having that request denied, is incredibly frustrating for all the characters. Steve knows the rules of etiquette, what is expected and how one is supposed to make friends. He is doing everything right, so can't understand why it is all going so wrong.
His tactics change too. Initially he is adopting a familiar role play that is almost impossible to refuse, and is awarded a decent amount of social interaction. His second attempt is mistimed, he hasn't realized that there is an 'appropriate' amount of time that should be left between visits (let alone the lack of genuine reason) and so is 'punished'. He finally resorts to physically forcing his way in, thereby breaking all the taboos of 'visiting'. He is also intent on getting to what he sees as the 'master seat' at the table, so moves from the bottom seat to the side to the head, where he feels he belongs, as the acts progress, in order to sit in command over the two at the end.
TOH: "Steve" is your directorial debut. What was your first directing experience like?
RF: I loved it more than anything. I feel so very lucky to have had the chance to work with so many incredible people on something I am very proud of.
TOH: Do you have any upcoming projects as a director planned?
RT: I recently completed work on a music video for MOBO winners Karios 4tet, with Omar, one of my favorite vocalists, guesting, which was a fantastic experience although pretty seat-of-pants fast as we only got two takes of the song to get what we needed! There is a short and a feature I would love to make that are awaiting finance, and I am writing another feature at the moment.
"Steve" premieres this Friday as part of the Stars in Shorts seires, presented by Shorts HD.