Dubliner Damien O'Donnell's Unique Directions with "East is East"
by Aaron Krach
(indieWIRE/4.17.2000) — Damien O’Donnell is exhibit A in the case of the calling-card short leading to a full-length feature. His directorial debut “East is East” was a surprise hit in the UK; garnered six BAFTA nominations and won one (the Alexander Korda Award for outstanding British film); and is now being released in the States thanks to Miramax. O’Donnell was the director for hire on “East is East” completely due to the fact that the producer loved O’Donnell’s short film, “35 Aside,” about a young boy who is an outcast at his new school because he doesn’t like soccer. The short won a BBC competition and aired three times on the British network, where “East is East” producer Leslee Udwin saw it.
“East is East” is equal parts comedy and drama, about a mixed-race family (Pakistani father, Om Puri and a white mother, Linda Bassett) trying to find a multi-cultural middle ground for their five children in a London suburb, circa 1972. The film began its life as a successful play written by Ayub Khan-Din, (star of Stephen Frears‘ “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid“), who also wrote the screenplay.
Irish and living in Dublin, O’Donnell wasn’t the obvious choice to direct a film about South Asian immigrants. indieWIRE sat down with O’Donnell a week before the BAFTA Awards were given out to talk about the “East is East” phenomena.
indieWIRE: Did you ever wonder if you were the right person to direct this film?
Damien O’Donnell: Yes. At one stage I agreed to direct the film, but then started to worry. I worried about it being about an environment that was alien to me. I then became intimidated and had a confidence crisis. I wrote a letter declining, saying I didn’t think I was right for the job. I put the fax in the machine and went to the pub. I felt a great weight lifted off of me and started to think about the film in a different way. I even started to regret sending that fax. But when I went back to the office the next day, the fax was still sitting in the machine ’cause it hadn’t gone through. I decided to take that as a sign I should do the film.
“I worried about it being about an environment that was alien to me. I then became intimidated and had a confidence crisis.”
iW: Judging by the six BAFTA nods, the British Academy loved your film. What was the public’s reaction?
O’Donnell: It was no blockbuster, but it did very well. It opened on the same day as “The Sixth Sense.” I remember so clearly because we were looking for dates and the distributor said, “We’re going to open on November 5th because nothing is really opening that day, only some Bruce Willis action movie. Nobody is going to go see that.” And well, “Sixth Sense” has gone on to become a complete phenomenon. But “East is East” stayed in the charts for like 16 weeks.
iW: Do you think the popularity represents an opening in British audience’s minds to non-white films?
O’Donnell: Yeah. This would definitely be considered a crossover hit. Apart from “My Beautiful Laundrette,” a lot of films with Asian subjects were flops. Even a film like, “My Son The Fanatic,” which was a good film, flopped. We knew “East is East” would be a cross over because we actually did a test screening. The audience for which was about 15 percent Asian and the rest White. When we looked at the scorecards both groups liked it equally as much. They both ‘got it.’
iW: Why do you think it crossed over, because it was a period piece? Because of the music being so catchy?
O’Donnell: I don’t think it was the music, which I love. I think it was the humor. I think that is the real thing about it and that is also the trouble with this film. How do you market it? I hate the posters here [in the States] and I hated the posters in England. Here the poster is of one of the white girls blowing a bubble.
“I know that what they [Miramax] are trying to do is get the poster to appeal to a young, general audience. They want to dupe them into getting into the theater and hope they stay and like it.”
iW: Which white girl?
O’Donnell: Exactly. It’s one of the minor parts, a girlfriend of Tarik. So you wouldn’t know what this movie is about from the posters. But I know that what they [Miramax] are trying to do is get the poster to appeal to a young, general audience that might go see teenage movies. They want to dupe them into getting into the theater and hope they stay and like it.
iW: What was the poster in Britain?
O’Donnell: It was equally as bad. It was a picture of the little white dog copulating with the letter ‘E’ in “East is East.” A month later they came out with a picture of the kids standing in a Full Monty-like tableau. It’s not like I know so much about movie posters. But I do know that those posters don’t represent the film.
iW: When “East is East” received the BAFTA nominations, did that translate into increased box office like Oscar nominations do?
O’Donnell: It’s not important in that way. The film will probably close on its last screen on the day of the BAFTA awards. It opened on 270 screens and it’s down to about 30 now. It’s still making money but it’s coming to an end. The BAFTAs don’t have the same kudos as the Oscars. It’s nice to be acknowledged by the industry. It is satisfying because we had box office success and critical success.
iW: Since your first film was such a huge success, are you worried about what people are going to expect from your next film?
O’Donnell: Yeah. “East is East” was a gem of a script and I could wait around a couple of years until that comes along again, but I’d rather get back in the saddle. I’ve got a script called “30 Pretty Things.” Coincidentally, it’s about immigrants as well, but more serious. It’s about a Nigerian night porter in a hotel in London who discovers a murder and sets about solving it. It’ll be the first film, I hope, that won’t have any white English people in it. All the white people will be white South Africans or Russians and all the English people will be black or Asian. That will make it a bit of a novelty.
[Aaron Krach is a frequent contributor to indieWIRE.]