EXCLUSIVE: Achieving Authenticity: A Conversation with Filmmaker Zackary Adler
2016 was a solid year for acclaimed film director, Zackary Adler, who has amassed a fervent cult following in British film’s gritty underbelly of crime drama through the record-breaking success of recently released films Rise of the Krays as well as its sequel The Fall of the Krays – both broke sales records across UK and US distribution platforms with Rise Of The Krays smashing all records to become the highest selling UK DVD in the last five years. Adler’s raw and authentic style within the British gangster film genre has earned him a laudable reputation with audiences around the world. Having just finished directing the third instalment and prequel to the smash-hit franchise, Rise of the Footsoldier: The Beginning, which will be released by Signature Entertainment in Q4 2017, Adler now has his sights set on The Krays and the Mafia, which he is confirmed to direct in Q1 of this year.
Rise of the Footsoldier: The Beginning is based on the real-life story of the Rettendon Triple Murders, a.k.a. the “Range Rover murders,” when Tate, Tucker and Rolfe were shot to death in a Range Rover on a farm track in Essex. The much anticipated prequel will tell the story of Tate’s rise to notoriety through the ranks of the Essex gangland. The Krays and the Mafia charts the story of the legendary East End twins’ hunt for vengeance after their thriving business empire is rocked when a brutal murder leads them to suspect notorious rival gang, The Richardson’s.
American and British in nationality, Adler was born in New York but moved to London four years ago where he now lives with his wife, Mary Kerr. He firmly believes the gangster genre is best served British and is vehemently flying the flag for independent British filmmaking “I love crime drama and am passionate about subverting genre expectations to memorable effect – using stylised drama often alongside visceral violence to create a nuanced depiction of these true life stories and characters.”
In June 2016 Lionsgate released Adler’s Casual Encounters which was also released by Signature Entertainment in the UK: An irreverently funny, independent comedy about online dating starring Taran Killam, Brooklyn Decker and David Arquette. This was followed swiftly by Gravitas Ventures’ multiplatform October release of his thriller about a series of horrifying murders American Romance, starring John Savage, Daveigh Chase and Nolan Ferard Funk. A UK release is expected later this year. Both more than live up to Adler’s early promise and signal him as a talent to watch.
Adler caught the industry’s eye from an early age. Interning and working in production companies from the age of 15, his early influences were David Fincher, Charlie Chaplin and Francis Ford Coppola. After graduating from Bard College and moving to New York where he began directing music videos, he secured employment at Akiva Goldsman’s Warner Bros based production company Weed Road Pictures where he wrote and directed his first short film The Cookie Story. It premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and won Best Comedic Short Award at Film Fest New Haven where it was also picked up for distribution and broadcast on HBO.
Adler went on to write and direct another short film, Something In Between, starring Keram Malicki-Sanchez, April Grace and Brittany Murphy which screened in competition as an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival.
His debut feature film, I’m Reed Fish, starring Jay Baruchel, Alexis Bledel, Schuyler Fisk and an extraordinary ensemble cast was picked up by ContentFilm International during its opening night at Tribeca Film Festival. It was released in the US by Red Envelope and Screen Media theatrically. His second feature film Familiar Strangers, a bright and laugh out loud comedy about life and family, stars Shawn Hatosy, DJ Qualls, Nikki Reed and a stellar ensemble cast. Shot on location in Virginia the film is being distributed by Phase 4 Films and can be seen on Showtime, Netflix, iTunes and other mainstream distribution platforms.
2017 will see Adler Executive Producing football thriller, Final Score, starring Pierce Brosnan and Dave Bautista, Alexandra Dinu and Julian Cheung.
Adler is managed by Bettina Sophia Viviano at Accelerate Entertainment and represented by Roeg Sutherland at CAA.
In our exclusive interview, The Fan Carpet’s Camila Sayer in association wit Popcorn spoke in-depth with Zachary Adler about his influences, advice he lives by and revisiting The Kray twins in the coming months…
It must be fantastic to get the reaction and recognition for all the hard work through these films. So I wanted to ask you, first and foremost, what drew to this part of London history really?
Well, it was actually a little bit of happenstance how I ended up directing Rise of the Krays. I had made a comedy, an independent film in LA called Casual Encounters with David Arquette and really funny people and Carnaby Films had acquired the worldwide distribution rights, so I was actually in London, I had just moved to London.
So I popped in to see the trailer they’d cut and that’s how I started to talk the producers about their Krays project, you know for me, I love gangster films I love crime films and it’s just a fascinating time period and fascinating characters.
I think for audience members more and more, this sort of first world, or contemporary world we live, in for some reason, that crime genre/gangster film is more and more appealing to audience members. Do you have an opinion as a director why audiences are so drawn to stories such as these?
I think that, you know I’m really drawn to stories like these as well, and I think it’s probably a mixture of things, there’s probably some catharsis in seeing films of that nature, I think there’s a sort of paradigm to crime films, generally there’s an underdog who fights against the system, and acts out in a way that we might. So I think in a way though, at its best it’s a sort of cry out against some of the unfairness of the world and then these guys, generally guys or girls, characters, take that step we might be tempted to take and we get to live vicariously through them and then ultimately I think we as an audience see the consequences, we need to see the comeuppance, so that the fabric of society because we know it’s not ok to sort of break those laws, real laws and sort of undefined laws.
During your research or preparation for these projects, did you come across anything about the Kray twins or their escapades at the time that surprised you or intrigued you that you were able to put in the film?
Yeah I think a lot surprised me and intrigued me; I think the Kray twins and the people, you know the other villains they worked with, they had their own rules that for them where extremely important, they’re almost like manners and things that you would or wouldn’t do. So, that was fascinating to see that, there was this criminal code and honour among thieves, you sort of heard of that, but to actually see it in practice to sometimes deadly effect it’s really fascinating.
That is really interesting, and I think when you watch documentaries you know about criminals and that sort of thing that is the point that comes up, like you said that kind of draws you in more to the story and why these characters carry out the things they do, and so in a way I think that directing and writing characters like that must be very appealing as well, because there’s a certain complexity there that you can use. Would you say that’s the case with you?
I think that too, and I think another reason I love the genre is that people are not one way or the other exclusively, I think that things are not so black or white, I think we exist in a lot of greys. I think that a character that could easily be written off as someone who is bad or horrible, if you can take the time or you have the ability to portray other sides of the character it’s interesting because that’s what people are, we’re all the heroes of our own story.
Yeah absolutely, and obviously from how the films you have directed, you know The Rise of the Krays, The Fall of the Krays, it probably became quite apparent to you, all that they lived out and there story as such wouldn’t fit into one film. Was that something that came about naturally, or was it always the plan from the first one to delve into a second one, because there has to be that story…
It wasn’t always the plan and there’s so many, they lived such, they’re such fascinating characters and even in The Rise of the Krays and The Fall of the Krays there’s a lot things that we hadn’t been able to explore.
What’s so interesting about the Kray twins and a lot of real life stories is that sense of how people remember things, so even though there was an actual sort of real incident, an actual murder where there’s an account, different people who were in the room have significantly different stories of what happened that night. So it’s interesting to see how the filmmakers try to be authentic and try to tell the story, you have to decide and chose a version that seems to be most likely the one that happened.
It’s just funny, we filmed in East London, on location a lot, and everyone we ran into, they’re such folklore that most people have a story or some relative or some story about the Krays.
Well that’s fascinating to know that you where able to film on location and probably in or around the set, there were probably people who where there at the time as well, so that’s really fascinating to hear and probably as a director it probably gave you a real sense of authenticity and walking the streets that they had walked and so that’s really cool to hear…
Yeah I actually got to meet some people who knew them and those stories, it was really cool.
Awesome that’s really interesting to hear. So obviously the style of these films is quite gritty, realistic, would you say the style is a blue print of you as a director, or does your style vary from project to project?
I think that there was an approach to the Kray films which is very akin to my style, to the style of films that I like. I think what we tried to do with the Kray films is to make it authentic and also with this genre there is naturally a certain amount of violence and action and drama. So for me, what I find interesting is to try to find that balance of graphic realism so it’s something where you’re telling the truth, but you’re trying to tell the truth in a way that’s interesting and compelling to an audience without crossing the line and lying if that makes sense.
Also a sort of running theme maybe of your most recent projects has been to; obviously the stories are based in real life stories. Is that something that just happened because these are the stories that came to you, do you have a particular interest in stories or characters that are grounded in real life and the research and preparation and that sort of thing that goes into it?
I think a bit of both and I am drawn to stories that happened in real life and there’s something. I find the world really fascinating and often truth’s stranger than fiction.
So I think sometimes that if you can base on a true story there’s a certain sort of downsides to that, there are challenges to that, there are responsibilities to that. But I think that often with a true story you’re coming from a place where you are back up by facts and circumstance which is pretty compelling.
Absolutely. And on the other side of that, do you find or have you found that in this project any of these challenges with dealing with real life characters or themes or things that have actually happened. Things that come up for example, the things that the Kray twins they are very interesting, they did these terrible things and obviously portraying that as a director, would you say that there are elements of challenges in dealing with these real life stories?
Well I think so in the sense that especially as it was happening in the 60s, some of the people who were implicated in crimes surrounding the Kray twins are still alive, so you know I think that you have to be responsible and should not flirt too much with rumour and innuendo and if you’re going to portray a character who really exists doing something criminal, you have to be sure, and I don’t mean literally think so, I mean conviction in court and legal precedent and you do your best and you try to frame people in a way in which, in the truth to which they lived there lives. Again I think there’s a responsibility in taking on a true story.
Yeah I just thought it would be interesting to see your insight, as well as the Kray twins, you’ve also done The Rise of the Footsoldier, based on real life stories as well as on crimes, so just based on your experiences I thought it would be interesting…
When we shot The Fall of the Krays there was a character who, I show a scene of a character who is executing another person in the back of a truck and we had to rework the scene because we inadvertently implicated somebody and you know we did it, we managed it and we worked some things around and the scene was actually better for it so you have to treat kind of carefully.
Well there you go, really interesting stuff when dealing with those real life stories. So, moreover as a director when you receive a script or when you’re accepting a project or joining a project, what is it that get’s you interested, that hooks you as a director?
I think it can be a mixture of things, sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the team of people, sometimes it’s the type of story and then I think probably for most directors it’s that sort of exciting and sometimes desperate attempt to take the film that you have in your head and try to put it on the screen, and that’s the, again it’s the most brutal and exciting part of the process.
Wow, but as part of the process as a director you’re also a writer and you have written many of your projects. So when you’re in your mind, brainstorming or coming up with a new story to get down on paper, what would you say or who would you say inspires you when you’re coming up with these storylines or characters to write and put into a film of yours?
I think that other filmmakers inspire me and always have and I think that, you know, for me I think inspiration comes from art, from music, from someone I met, it’s actually, you know I think it’s almost beyond one’s control why one’s compelled to try to tell a certain kind of story. Francis Ford Coppola recently said that every time he made a movie it was to learn something more about himself and to ask a question, and I’m sort of touched by that, I think that that’s part of it too, sometimes filmmakers will, certainly I’ll be drawn to something because it’s just something that I, at this time in my life, find really compelling.
Yeah absolutely, and I think that all sort of creative’s across the board can relate to that, you know a writer, a director, an actor. It’s sometimes; well it can just be as simple as, like you said something that comes up and you think “I need to explore that”, sometimes you can even tell why, so it’s really fascinating stuff.
I know that Francis Ford Coppola, who you just quoted, is one of your early influences, who would you say are your mentors or influences in the industry or when you where starting out that till today you admire and you always remember their lessons or their inspirations really?
I think that, you know I grew up watching Coppola and Scorsese, I also sort of fell in love with Kurosawa’s work like Rashomon in that sense of weirdly sort of influencing The Krays in terms of how people understand memory, and you know Gangster No.1 and there’s so many British gangster films from Layer Cake, Get Carter that I’m always spellbound with. You know over the years, my godfather Akiva Goldsman he’s a writer and producer who I’ve worked for he was really influential to me and taught me a lot about the craft of filmmaking and I have a tremendous admiration for him, and Michael Mann is a director who I really admire and he gave me one of the best bits of advice a directors ever given me, I was lucky enough to meet him at a party, he said that “every once in a while a director has to instigate chaos” and (laughs) I’ve kept that with me, (laughs) every once in a while instigate chaos and I really liked that bit of advice.
Would you have an example when you have instigated chaos? (laughs)
I think that part of being a director on set is that you have to keep the ship running and you’re putting out fires, and that’s what’s so fun that collaboration, getting everyone together. You have to be one of the sort of grownups, but I think every once in a while, yeah, I think you have to (laughs) sort of create chaos and keep it fun. You know I remember we were doing a scene in The Krays and I just sent in an extra in the middle of the scene without telling anybody, which is a disaster for everybody (laughs), but you know you have to kind of break up the routine and I think that sometimes that breaking up of the routine, although usually disastrous, is brilliant because you do something that’s a little bit different or allow someone (can’t make out word) something different.
Well yeah that sounds awesome. Also as a director you talked about this whole thing of “running the ship” and making sure it’s fun and that sort of thing, when you’re working with actors or with the crew for example, do you have particular traits that you look forward to, when working with actors let’s say for example, that you’re able to communicate better with, or do you think that’s something that varies from project to project and it depends on the role and the script?
I think it does vary; but it’s really a director’s job figure out a way to work with the actors and sort of bring out their best performances. I think, in my opinion, a director has to really try to be malleable and if I can quickly determine how I’m going to use an actor then I’m probably winning, the performance will be winning. In terms of working the crew and stuff, I’ve been lucky to start work with the same people, I have the same AD (Assistant Director) for the past four films and the same cinematographers for the past three films and there’s that lovely shorthand, you know you get when you really start to know someone and know how they work, that I actually love.
Fantastic. So let’s say, I know that you have been working at this for years, from the age of 15 in the industry and working towards your dream which I think you now have achieved. But, if you where to give a piece of advice or give a lesson or something that you have actually used practically in your career to people starting out, you know, upcoming or aspiring writers or directors, what is something you wish you would have heard, you would have been told at a young age that has helped you?
I think I wish someone had told me to focus on telling a story and whether it’s a short film or a music video or commercial, whatever your medium happens to be as a filmmaker, TV, feature films, documentary, if you focus on telling a story and if you do what feels right and what’s interesting to you I wish I had done that. I think I spent wasted time early on trying to impress people and do things that I thought they would respond, that’s never worked for me, I think that yeah that would be my advice, is to just focus telling a story and do it the way that interests you and that would be that (laughs) I wish someone had told me that earlier.
Yeah and that’s in a way also saying, in a less obvious way, use your individual voice I suppose as a creative and put that stamp on your work, yeah that sounds good I like that (laughs), it’s like very simple but poignant. You talked about there different mediums that I know you have also done an array of mediums as a director would you say you have one that you prefer or not, are you happy and excited to work on all different forms like short films, documentaries, music videos, feature films?
I think that the things that have most grabbed my attention now are feature films and television, partially because so many people are I think, I mean have certainly have, been binge watching (laughs) and it’s a fairly new phenomenon in the way that I can watch Game of Thrones, some people watching this and that, it’s quite fascinating to be able to hook in and just follow a story. I got to do a little bit of that on The Krays because we knew we were doing a sequel, we shot them back to back, so it’s the most time I’ve had with any one characters which was really cool and that’s really compelling to have the sort of gratitude and time with a character and with a story to really sort of develop it I think is fascinating and really cool.
Out of curiosity because I heard from the beginning that you have now moved to the UK, or to London. Would you say you’ve observed in your craft or in the length of your career a major difference between the film industries in the US and here in the UK, or do you have any insight you find interesting across the board with those two film industries…
I think it’s fascinating and I think the relationship is fascinating, there’s a lot of things actually you know I’ve always been a fan of British films and having the opportunity to work here there’s a lot of talent, like there’s a lot of actors and directors and writers and there’s a lot of technicians who are for whatever reason just the top of their game right now.
So it’s exciting to work here and to even sort of, last year I did a film that was funded by a British company but was shot in America and casting even in America so many of the actors where British so really it’s been wild and there’s also sort of a crossover where there’s these sort of big budget Hollywood films that are shooting here and then there’s a sort of mixture of films and co-financing between America and Britain, so it seems like it’s a world that is constantly converging.
There are things that I love about Hollywood and about American films and American filmmaking and there’s things that I love about the British film scene, the only thing that I still find perplexing is actually there’s tea time on set which is a bad time of the day to stop (laughs) like at the last push of the day where you’re really trying to finish a scene.
Here in the UK?
Yeah in London.
Oh yeah there’s tea time at every point in every industry (laughs)
Yeah it’s going to happen so that’s one thing that I had to get used to, but it’s worth it.
Yeah it’s a stereotype that’s actually true like tea every ten minutes please thank you (laughs).
Yeah like it’s right before wrap and everyone has to have a sandwich or drink, but we’re going home in half an hour, I’m right in the middle of the scene (laughs) but no it’s tea time it’s going to happen (laughs).
(laughs) it’s the life saver yeah (laughs)
So finally, what upcoming projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
Well we’re finishing up Footsoldier: The Beginning and I’m editing that now which is really exciting then we’re going to do a third Krays film.
Oh fantastic, so it’ll be a really cool trilogy?
Yeah we’re looking to shoot that in April/May.
Oh fantastic, that’s really exciting.
It is exciting and a lot of it is the sort of things that we didn’t get to delve into in the first two, are really fascinating, are really fun, so I think it’ll probably be (can’t make out next few words) it could potentially be the best one, you know better than the first two.
Yeah absolutely you’ve got your work cut out for you; it’s something very exciting for you?
Yeah really exciting, really fun.
RISE OF THE KRAYS AND THE FALL OF THE KRAYS ARE OUT NOW AND RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER: THE BEGINNING IS SET FOR RELEASE LATER THIS YEAR