INTERVIEW: The Twentysomething Blows; Jamie Thraves Gets "The Low Down"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 04.19.01) -- If you see one movie this weekend, make it Jamie Thraves' "The Low Down." The small British indie faces some serious competition among specialty releases opening this Friday, but "The Low Down" doesn't have the marketing muscle of a Miramax ("With a Friend like Harry") or Artisan ("Center of the World"), the indie star power of "The Luzhin Defense" (Emily Watson, John Turturro) or "The Visit" (Billy Dee Williams, Hill Harper). What "The Low Down" does have, however, is a subtlety, freshness, and pureness of spirit that inspires comparison to such greats as Cassavetes and Truffaut. It's probably the best of the lot, with The Shooting Gallery Film Series deserving some credit, once again, for rescuing such a worthy film from obscurity.
Direct from the insecurities of its 32-year-old maker, "The Low Down" -- in contrast to what you might expect from its "cool" sounding title -- is a humble, pensive film about Frank (Aidan Gillen), a prop maker for TV sitcoms who's not sure what else he wants from life. There's a love interest Ruby (Kate Ashfield), a couple of friends with their own hang-ups, and a female drug addict calling from outside his window at all hours of the night: "Pawl!" Silence. "Pawl!" Silence. "Pawl!" go the cries of longing and desperation.
Thraves is best known for his "Just" video for Radiohead -- an enigmatic tale of a businessman laying down on a sidewalk that won him an MVPA Video of the Year award and an MTV Breakthrough Video nomination in 1997. But Thraves swears his stock and trade isn't pop music (despite further work with Neneh Cherry, Blur, The Verve, etc.), but short films. Indeed, works such as "Scratch," "The Take Out," "The Hackney Downs," and "I Just Want to Kiss You," show the promise of a young visionary interested in character, space and story more than just a beat.
As Thraves makes the leap to feature filmmaking, indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman caught up with the writer-director on his honeymoon in New York to chat about confidence, the 1960s, AVID editing, 16 mm film, and his fellow British independents.
indieWIRE: So you've been working on this film quite a while. The script dates back to 1998?
Jamie Thraves: Doesn't look like it was worked on for that long, does it? I spent a long time building up the confidence to write a script. The thing that drove me to do it was certain scenes, certain ideas, and traits of people. These were the things that I was holding on to for dear life in terms of trying to structure something around. So I spent a long time trying to work out a world to stick it all on to. It took me a long time to find something, and I was looking for a career for my character. Then I had a friend who was a prop maker, and I decided that was the job. And once that happened, everything came quicker.
iW: Were there other specifics that helped you get a foothold in your story?
Thraves: Early conversations, between Frank and Ruby on the bed.
iW: I would have expected more visual cues.
Thraves: No, I have more trouble visualizing than I do writing dialogue. I enjoy it, and like coming up with visual stuff. But it all came from the dialogue and the scenes that I generated the material from.
iW: I think that would surprise people who know you from your music videos.
Thraves: Maybe, to people who know me from music videos, but I'm nervous of that attachment, because I come from short films, really. I did pop videos as a sideline. But it was the Radiohead video that got me the attention to make the film.
iW: There seems to be more of a '60s aesthetic going on in your film than some flashy new millennial aesthetic, would you agree?
Thraves: There was a '60s influence there, I suppose, only in the sense that I look at films that ought to be modern films now and they actually look more old-fashioned than the films that were made in the '60s. And I look at films from the '60s and think they feel very contemporary and exciting. The grammar was so thrown up in the air; those films still look relevant.
I made a short film called "I Just Want to Kiss You" before this feature, and I wanted to shoot it in black and white, and shoot with a zoom lens, and crash in, shoot like a documentary but with a bit of flair, and really pick up the energy of it. And that was brilliant. So I wasn't trying to do the New Wave, like study the films, but be what it was like to be a filmmaker in that period. I felt very liberated and it was the first time I made something that was really loose; the acting was much more naturalistic than anything I'd done before. So I felt like I learned how to direct actors in a much simpler way and get nice performances, so I felt like I had to look to the past in order to know how to do it properly. And I certainly wanted it to feel contemporary.
iW: When I watched the film, I felt like you, as a filmmaker, had a very tangible relationship with the film; like you were making those freeze frames and stuff with your hands. . .
Thraves: I wish I were. I cut on AVID and I hate it. I like sniffing celluloid. For budgetary reasons, and a time thing, I would have cut on film. And I'd like to do that next time. On AVID, you can try so many things and then you try everything. There's something about cutting on film, because it's so laborious, you give yourself a break about some of the edits you made, and you live with things. And suddenly you think, that's really good and more often than not, you come back to the first thing you did after you've already done 3,000 different variations. If I ever cut on AVID again, I've said that I have to have film stock near by me, so I can sniff it and feel it. I prefer the Lightworks system to AVID, because they based the design on the Steenbeck. It doesn't have the whir sound, but if they built that in, that would be quite good.
iW: You shot on Super 16 mm and a lot of people now are shooting on DV for that sort of on-the-fly style. Did you put any thought into that?
Thraves: Before we went into shooting, "Festen" had been out in cinemas. Film Four would have been quite happy for us to shoot on DV if we wanted to. I wouldn't object to it, if I felt it was appropriate it.
iW: But isn't this appropriate; an intimate film with lots of close ups. I think it looks great in film, but I do think this would be a perfect candidate.
Thraves: I would have preferred to shoot in 35, actually. The film is very scruffy and it does work because of that. We shot it with real speed; we lit it very quickly, we moved very fast from location to location and that was the idea. But sometimes, I think we shot it a little too roughly, where it's so scruffy, it appears ill-considered. And I think you can still create naturalism and looseness, but still be considered. But I don't regret the decisions and choices I made on this, but I think the next thing I do will be more considered and trying to use the camera in different ways.
iW: Are you frustrated that British audiences don't support smaller British films?
Thraves: I wanted to make a film that really had a broad appeal. I don't know if I made that necessarily. It's very hard what this film's appeal is. I've always shared that philosophy: you make it for yourself, and you hope other people will like it. That's all you can do. But I'm not completely happy with the film. I feel like I could do a lot better. I'm still holding out for a British audience for the next one.
iW: What would you change?
Thraves: The problem with the character in the film is you want to shake him. And I think some people hate that. It's the kind of film that some people despise. A majority of people went along with it, but some people switched off because they didn't understand what was going on with the guy. So maybe there's a better way. Maybe, five, ten years time, I'll look back and think it was put down in a really pure way. But at the moment, I can try and get across the same thing, but do it better, so it hits more. I want to make the most intelligent, moving subversive movie I can make -- subversive in the way a straight story is told, told interestingly.
I look at "The Low Down" and think I needed to get myself off the ground. I was humming and hawing whether I thought I was good enough to make a feature film. I think I was so nervous; I wanted to make such a quiet film, and that's what it felt like and in the end, that's what I bloody made. It's come out in such a quiet little way. Some filmmakers' debuts are shouting so loudly, and now I'm going to do that with the next one.
iW: What's the next one?
Thraves: I finished writing a script; it's a different type of film. It's going to have loose acting, performances like "The Low Down," but it's a lot more structured piece.
iW: I feel like there's been a lot of good up-and-coming British directors, Shane Meadows, Jonathon Glazer, and Pawel Pawlikowsky.
Thraves: That's really exciting for me. As much as I'm jealous as Hell of them, I'm excited; they're inspiring. It's nice to be making films when these other filmmakers are working in the country. It's all good for the industry and makes it easier for all of us to get our films made, but at the same time, it's great to see good films, regardless of whether they're from your own home turf or not.