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indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Tom Vaughan, Director of “Starter for 10”

indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Tom Vaughan, Director of "Starter for 10"

British director Tom Vaughan‘s “Starter for 10” centers on Bristol University student Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) during his first year at school. His friends at home worry he’ll change into a “poncey wanker,” though his preoccupation is making the team for the long-running British television quiz show, “University Challenge.” Amid the typical antics of a university student, Brian is also drawn to two co-ed students. One is a blonde bombshell, while the other is more cerebral and politically conscious. This is the first feature for Vaughan who has directed for British television. “Starter for 10” won the audience award at the 2006 Austin Film Festival and received a nomination at the British Independent Film Awards. Picturehouse opened the film Friday in New York, Los Angeles and Austin with more cities to follow March 9.

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Tom Vaughan. I live in London and “Starter For 10” is my first movie.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking?

Seeing the original “Star Wars” movie when I was a kid and realising that someone had directed it got me thinking about being a filmmaker. I can remember being eight or nine and shooting photos of my action man (GI Joe) as if they were in a movie. Later I got hold of a video camera and didn’t look
back. Every spare moment was spent shooting movies with my friends in the woods behind the town I lived in (Helensburgh, Scotland). We’d make comedies, horror and war movies and when we learned to drive we added car chases to the mix. After school I went to Bristol University (where “Starter for 10” is set) and studied drama (theatre, film and TV).

I then went to London and made lots of short films which eventually led to me getting an agent and being repped by a commercials production company. I directed some episodes of the British TV show “Cold Feet” which led to other TV movies and mini-series winding up with the four part BBC costume drama “He Knew He Was Right.” I’m as excited now about making films as I was when I was a kid and I’m still drawn to the same subject matters–scripts that make me laugh with great characters.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

Being a director means I am very involved with so many aspects of the filmmaking process that I don’t feel I want to do anything else. I can imagine writing if it was a particular project. (I’m currently co-writing an adapted screenplay.)

Please talk about how the initial idea for “Starter for 10” came about…

“Starter For 10” is based on David Nicholls‘ novel of the same name. David adapted the novel for Playtone (Tom Hanks‘ production company). He’s pulled off the rare feat of successfully adapting his own book. The idea for the movie came about partly when David was watching his favourite TV Quiz show “University Challenge” (which created the catchphrase ‘Starter For 10’) and saw that one of the teams featured three nerdy looking male students and one very attractive blonde woman (who didn’t answer any questions) and it gave him part of the idea for “Starter For 10” the novel. The coming of age aspect of the movie is, I think, semi-autobiographical. David and I were at Britsol University at the same time, and so lots of the characters and settings were instantly recogniseable to me. This made visualising the film very easy.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project.

I chose a style for the movie that was understated in terms of camera shots and movement. I didn’t want to remind the audience they were watching a movie or to think about the director. Instead I want audiences to be drawn into the world of the characters so the style was all about keeping things simple. The only time I used heightened shooting was during the quiz sequences where we went for fast camera moves and quick editing to pace up the scenes. The quiz sections are the ‘sports movie’ element and could take a more dynamic approach.

I didn’t want to make a ‘knowing’ ’80s movie where the costumes and hair styles overwhelmed the characters so in those terms we made it more true to life, closer to how real students dressed in 1985. Same goes for set dressing and locations. We stripped away everything that was post-1985 (cars, street furniture, shop fronts etc) and what we were left with looked as it did in 1985, which is to say it had layers of every year that came before 1985. It is a textured look. Very little of 1985 looked like 1985.

’80s music–especially British bands of the era–were always going to play a big part in supporting the setting and tone of “Starter for 10.” I always wanted a lot of The Cure on the soundtrack as I feel their songs have the right mix of melody and heart for the story. “Boys Don’t Cry” seemed right for Brian Jackson.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

Raising funding for a small British movie with no stars was never going to be easy. The book is a best seller in the UK but that only goes so far in getting it set up as a movie.

How did the financing and casting for the film come together?

The financing came from HBO Films and some private equity and a little bit from BBC Films. It wasn’t dependent on casting as there aren’t really any bankable British movie stars who would be right for these parts so we started with a blank piece of paper when casting. It allowed me to cast exactly who I wanted–the best actors for the parts–which sounds obvious but it doesn’t always work that way.

What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

In terms of “Starter For 10,” I looked at Bill Forsyth‘s “Gregory’s Girl” and John Hughes movies from the mid-’80s, which I watched as a teenager and went back to before shooting. There’s a little bit of “Withnail and I” in there as well.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

I’m drawn to anything with great characters so no particular genre but I do love comedies. However some of my favourite movies are thrillers or horror films.

What is your next project?

I’m co-adapting a book called “Chemistry For Beginners.” It’s a smart R-rated comedy about a scientist who is testing a form of ‘female viagra’ and who falls for his test subject. I’m also attached to a great script written by Steve Knight called “Woman Walks Ahead,” which is a drama set in the American West in the 1870s. My choices are really all about the script to start with.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

Independent films are those in which the director has final cut, gets control over all areas of production such as casting and script, and is generally allowed to make his or her movie without lots of interference.

What are some of your all-time favorite films?

In no particular order…

“Don’t Look Now” because it never loses its unique power. I don’t know of another movie quite like it. It is one of the few ‘horror’ movies or thrillers that continues to disturb me. “Vertigo” because it is pure cinema. “Notorious” because it is so romantic. Watching Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together feels heady and dangerous.

“Spinal Tap” because it is just as funny now as when I first saw it (if not funnier) and seems to be the father of so much recent filmed comedy. “Kes” because it is beautiful, human and truthful. “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgoisie” because it is wonderfully playful, inventive and savage. and many, many more….

What are some of your recent favorite films?

“The Return” (dir Andrey Zvyagintsev) “Together” (Dir Lucas Moodyson) “Funny Games” (Dir Michale Haneke) “Being John Malkovich” (Dir Spike Jones) “Magnolia” (Dir PT Anderson) “Sideways” (Dir Alexander Payne) “The Consequences of Love” (Dir Paolo Sorrentino).

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Make films/videos whenever you can on any format available. Follow your instincts. Learn as much as you can about making films but work out how to do it yourself, your way. You really only learn by doing. Theory is fine, but practice is what it is all about. Never give up. Have wealthy parents who like you. Follow your passions. Commit to your ideas. Learn from life. Take time to observe the world. Study human behaviour. Have patience with actors. Don’t over complicate things. Don’t be a show off. Love the reality of filmmaking or find something else to do with your life. There are many better ways to become rich or famous.

Will you please share with an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?

I’m proud that audiences enjoy “Starter For 10” as much as they do.

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