Mark Herman Sings Out on "Little Voice"
by Mark Rabinowitz
Mark Herman's Miramax release "Little Voice" is -- and I'm going to use
a buzz word here -- "magical." What does that mean? Well, it is imbued
with a certain sparkle. Things happen that you know aren't supposed to
happen in the "real world," but you don't care. Think the mermaid in
Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero." Yes, it's a little schmaltzy and it's not
particularly edgy. No one sleeps with their friend's wife, child or dog,
and no one is cut up into little bits. And even though I liked most of
this year's indie films with the aforementioned gruesome situations, two
of this year's most delightful films [Kirk Jones' "Waking Ned Devine" is
the other] actually make you feel good upon leaving the theater.
"Little Voice" stars Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor, Jim
Broadbent and Michael Caine. The cast is uniformly fine, with Caine
giving an Oscar-caliber performance redolent of "Alfie," 30 years later.
The film is based on Jim Cartwright's stage play, "The Rise and Fall of
Little Voice," about a virtually mute and catatonic young woman who only
comes alive as a human being when she is in her attic bedroom, listening
to the records that her father left her when he died. The records are by
Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe, among others, and when
Little Voice, or L.V., hears them, she glows, occasionally singing
along. The play was written by Cartwright for Horrocks because of her
amazing talent to mimic the likes of these legendary chanteuses. Her
pitch-perfect renditions of several songs (and a few choice bits of
dialog in the voices of the singers) will leave those in the audience
with mouths agape.
Herman is the writer-director responsible for the Disney bomb "Blame it
on the Bellboy" which came and went quickly. He followed up "Bellboy"
with the well-received and financially successful "Brassed Off," which
had its North American premiere at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.
"Brassed" tells the touching and uplifting story of a Yorkshire mining
town faced with mine pit closure, and the perseverance of the town's
brass band. "Little Voice" contains many of the same emotions and
portrayals found in those films from Scotland and Ireland: films like
Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero" and "Gregory's Girl," Peter Chelsom's "Hear
My Song," Mike Leigh's "Life is Sweet" (also starring Horrocks), and the
Barrytown Trilogy of "The Van," "The Snapper," and "The Commitments."
These films all have that peculiar mix of humor, sadness and
occasionally, tragedy, that makes for special trips to the movies.
indieWIRE: "Blame it on the Bellboy" was Disney, right?
Mark Herman: Yep.
iW: I would assume that you had the option to stay within American
studios and try to do more projects there....
Herman: Yes, but "Bellboy" didn't perform very well, so it was hard to
get the next one.
iW: Were you intent upon making the next one your own, apart from studio
Herman: Yeah, but that was sort of a happy accident. I found it very
hard to get the next one off the ground. I wrote a lot of stuff that I
thought was commercially viable and nobody else did. At the end of the
day, the advice to me from my agent was just to go and write something
from the heart. Something that you care about. That's how "Brassed Off"
happened. It was the one that I least expected to get made, [and it]
actually got made.
iW: If you write about something that you care about, people sort of get
that from the script. You must get more of a sense of accomplishment
when you make something that was wholly your own, even though it's more
Herman: "Bellboy" was my screenplay as well, but I think "Brassed Off"
was much more me, what I'm about, than "Bellboy" was. Bellboy was a very
mechanical attempt to make a commercial film. "Brassed Off" was actually
the opposite. I thought nobody was going to see this film. I thought it
was a bit of Yorkshire film for Yorkshire people, but in fact it did
really well around the world.
iW: With ["Little Voice"], it's such a. . . . "Magical" is such a buzz
word that critics use all the time, but the film really is magical. When
did you first have the idea that the script and the crew and the cast
had sort of gelled, and you were really working on something special?
Herman: There were moments in the shooting of the film when you felt
something special was happening. Especially when it comes to the show
when Jane does her live performance. We had 500 extras in there who
didn't know what to expect, and actually, even in Britain people don't
know Jane Horrocks as being able to do that. They know her as Bubble
[from "Absolutely Fabulous"] and from various film roles and television
shows. When she walked out and [sung], we hadn't really told the
audience what was going to happen. That day I thought we got something
And I think in the editing process...I usually test the cuts out at the
end of every week with people who are not in the film business. Friends
of mine...honest friends of mine who will tell me if I'm making a
mistake. And I think in that process we began to fell that we had
something special. And you know, the more you polish it up, the more you
add music or...it became something very magical.
iW: When I saw the film, I knew that Jane did her own singing in the
film, but the person I went to see the film with had no idea. I sort of
leaned over and mentioned it, and her eyes just. . .
iW: . . .widened up.
Herman: I mean that's something that's happened in the preview process
when we've been doing screenings at the moment where lots of the people
don't know. . . haven't seen the publicity. People find that hard to
believe, so we put that extra credit on the end. [Informing film goers
that all of Little Voice's singing in the film were done by Horrocks.]
Just to tell people, but I think you know by the time that the movie
comes out, [the public will know.] I think that's why we're here,
talking about this.
iW: There seems to be this great tradition of British and Irish and
Scottish films that have a mix of humor and sadness and tragedy and
pathos and sometimes a bit of otherworldly magic thrown in.
iW: Were you a big fan of films like "Hear My Song" and "Local Hero"....
Herman: Yes. Yes. It's an area....I love playing with laughter and tears
in the same film, if not in the same scene. There's a lot of that in
"Brassed Off," that mix of humor and tragedy, and the same here. Humor
and tragedy and music in "Brassed Off," you've got the same here, except
there is this fairy tale layer to ["Little Voice"] which I think is
special. . . more magical. . . . There's that word again!
iW: But it also seems like the setting is perfect for that kind of
Herman: Yeah. The original stage play was actually set in the industrial
north of England. When we looked around there, it felt like "Brassed
Off" again, or "Full Monty." I thought we should do something different,
so we chose this place called Scarborough, which is a seaside holiday
resort in the north of England. And it adds another character to the
iW: Was it shot off season?
iW: Resort towns off season definitely have that kind of feel to them.
Herman: I was brought up in a little town which is just south of where
we shot. I used to love the off season, when all the holiday makers go
home and you've just got a dead town.
iW: I guess I find that films set in northern England and Scotland often
have this kind of....you get a sense that the people are like that, they
have this healthy mix of tragedy and happiness.
Herman: Yeah. I think that really applied to "Brassed Off." Doing the
research on [that film], meeting a lot of those people. And it is where
I live now. That ability to sort of fend off tragedy by laughing is a
fantastic element to their lives.
iW: Was Michael Caine an early choice of yours for the role?
Herman: No, he came quite late on, actually. And I changed the. . . I
was in the middle of writing it, it was maybe the third draft of the
screenplay and it all came about at the same time. We chose the town and
that was because Michael Caine came aboard as well. This doesn't really
apply to America, but a British audience wouldn't believe Michael Caine
being in the industrial north, but they would believe him in a place
like Scarborough. They would believe a Londoner being washed up in a
seaside town like that. When he did come on board, I rewrote the
character of Ray Say a little bit just to tailor it towards Michael.
iW: Do you cast the film while you're writing it?
Herman: I do, yeah. Every time, while I'm writing, I have pictures of
actors up on the wall. They're actors that probably won't be in the film
at the end of the day, but it's a great tool for writing.
iW: It does help you, though?
Herman: Yeah. Absolutely. I find when I'm writing a movie, that I'm sort
of seeing it. . . watching the movie while I'm writing it, it's
important to have those images. I mean I do it when I'm reading, either
a novel or a screenplay, the first time a character is mentioned, I
always pick an actor. It helps me read.
iW: Playing Ewan McGregor against type really seemed to work out.
There's been some talk about how much against type he's playing. Well,
he's quiet, but he still has a. . . I think that on one side, in most of
his roles, he has a gentle presence.
iW: ...no matter how loudly he talks or how brash he is, he still had
that little undercurrent of vulnerability.
Herman: I mean that's what makes it amazing. You know you see the guy in
"Trainspotting" against this guy here or the guy in "Brassed Off," he's
so brilliant and so diverse in the work he does. The same applies to
Jane, you know. People who've seen Jane Horrocks. . . they don't know
that it's the same girl. Chameleons. It was good getting Ewan on this,
like you said it was casting against type, but he adds a real charm to
what was basically a fairly nerdy character. He's such a hip actor but
it's such an un-hip role.
iW: But it really was the character. You didn't get a sense that it was.
. . there's no stunt casting here.
Herman: There have been people in England who've seen this film --
obviously Ewan's very famous in England -- who have seen it without
really realizing that it was him. You just flatten his hair and he looks
iW: Was there much ad-libbing done?
Herman: No, not really. Jim Broadbent did a bit as Mr. Boo. Doing a lot
of his own jokes which actually got cut out.
iW: Why, were they too funny?
Herman: We had that situation when I was writing the screenplay, I'd
write jokes for Mr. Boo, and the script notes would come back from
Miramax saying, 'but this joke isn't funny. I said well exactly the
iW: The final song by Michael Caine is such a powerful scene. Was that
done as written?
Herman: Yeah. He was very nervous about singing in public...since "The
Muppet Movie"... ["The Muppet Christman Carol"-Ed.]
Herman: So there's always room for improvement. But he just went for it,
it was amazing. That was one of those days that was just electric. The
way we dealt with it was like one, maybe two takes and he really went
iW: Films that are in English but with very thick accents are only
recently gaining wide acceptance with American audiences. Is that a
worry for you?
Herman: Actually again, sorry to hark on back to the preview process,
but you do go through the process of testing the film out on American
audiences, and there was a problem certainly with Brenda [Blethyn's
accent]. So we brought Brenda back in and she re-voiced it, made it much
more clear what she was saying. Then we tested it again and her scores
went down. The more people understood her, the less they liked her. So
we put the original back in. It actually doesn't matter what she's
saying. She's not saying anything important, it's just the way that she
says it that's important. Oddly enough, it is a strange language that
Jim Cartwright had in the stage play. A lot of those words aren't
English, so even in England people will have problems grasping what
she's saying. She uses strange words like "electrickery," stuff like
that, which is not English, just a very theatrical language, and I
retained it in that one character.
iW: I think people will find that if they can get past. . .
Herman: The first ten minutes. . .
iW: . . . their ears adjust.
Herman: Yeah. We have to do it all the time listening to American
iW: And also just within England itself, there are so many accents
Herman: Certainly. I mean I have a big problem with Irish...broad
Irish or broad Scottish. I can't understand a word of it.
["Little Voice" continues to expand in theaters in December and January.]