James and Paul verses Godzilla: A Conversation with James Rouse
Britain’s version of the road movie Downhill walks its way into UK homes today, and The Fan Carpet‘s Paul Risker recently took a stroll with the film’s director James Rouse to discuss the adventure that was his feature debut.
Being a long road movie on foot we also found time to touch upon the subject of film budgets, the grueling yet equally rewarding nature of filmmaking and a few other things including an encounter with Godzilla!
James and Paul verses Godzilla is set to walk, run or roar into theatres worldwide 2015!
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Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Well I started off my career in commercials, which I still do even though I’ve directed Downhill. They are great fun because you get to work on a huge variety of projects over a shorter period of time. What that does is it teaches you the discipline of telling a story in a very short space of time – thirty seconds or even a minute.
One of my favourite parts of directing is the opportunity to work with characters and actors. The desire to tell a story, and to have some characters that I could really get my teeth into over the space of one and a half hours spurred me on to take that leap into making a movie. But Downhill is a very pure character driven piece, in which there are no aliens or explosions. It’s just about four characters in an environment that pushes them to their limits.
Described as a road movie on foot, what was the genesis of Downhill?
Well we wanted to make a road movie, but of course in England you can’t do that because you’d get there too quickly. So our answer was to do our version of a road movie via a walk, which is the same principle. We knew the nature of the coast to coast walk was gruelling because we actually did a section of it. It was designed to put the characters into a pressure cooker environment where they are uncomfortable, tired, and have spent too long in each other’s company. So it’s a physical pressure along with being in very close quarters with one another that brings out the most interesting aspects of their personalities.
How did you approach the challenge of shooting on a low budget?
One of our desires was to find a means of shooting a film where the low budget didn’t compromise the style or quality of the execution. It wasn’t that we were trying to do a period drama with a limited amount of money, and we found an executional style wherein one of the characters in the film is actually the person who is shooting the movie. It’s Gordon’s son who is filming his father’s holiday as an end of year project for his media studies course. So the film that you see is actually the work of Gordon’s nineteen year old son Luke, in which each and every single shot is justified.
In modern cinema, especially within the found footage sub-genre there seems to have been an approach undertaken whereby the crew are merged with the characters to make the filmmaking process more transparent.
There is a lot of found footage stuff out there. I would say there is a difference in that this is not coincidental. This is shot by someone who has set out to make a movie, and there is no shot including the title sequence that hasn’t been filmed by Luke. Even when it opens it says, ‘A film by Luke Young.’ So everything including the title sequence is his work. It’s not footage that has happened by accident, it is all footage that has been captured on purpose in a similar way to the film crew. Of course in reality it was done on purpose by a film crew, but I know what you mean, and you’re right. The desire with Downhill was to move that genre on a step.
Does low budget filmmaking help to create a higher level of creativity?
I think that’s absolutely true. The necessity to rely on story is effectively what drives our film – the stories and the characters. That is what you are watching. You are not watching fancy special effects or costumes, nor were we relying on a star to carry the film to make it a success. We were relying purely on the story, great performances and characters.
We had a great writer [Torben Betts], some fantastic actors and the performances are incredibly natural. So it means on set there is nothing to hide behind. It’s all down to you, and everyone’s skills, which is the art of storytelling.
Do you think budgets should be lowered?
It would be counter intuitive to think that your film will be better by taking away its budget. Obviously there is a point at which a lack of budget will have a negative effect because arguably you’ll have a lack of talented people working on it.
It is a difficult question to answer, but should budgets be lowered to make a film better – no. Every project will have its own ideal budget to make the best version of the film. There are some films that will need a large budget, and there are others that will need a smaller one. As you quite rightly point out, if you have a lower budget, then with the right group of people who are properly motivated, they’ll make that pot of money work just as we were forced to on Downhill.
But if you have a script with a fixed idea and that idea requires a big budget, then it would be compromised if there isn’t enough money to execute what is fundamentally a big budget idea.
It is important to preserve the finances available in an industry in which it is difficult to turn a profit and to even know if you can turn a profit. Films like Godzilla will always be green lit, but reckless spending can impact negatively on low budget films that offer opportunities to young filmmakers. It is those filmmakers and projects that are at risk.
I am very intrigued in the business side of our project, and right now I am yet to receive an income from the film. It would be nice to see if we could turn a profit on a film like this, but it is very difficult. There are so many hoops that you have to jump through in terms of how big your film needs to be, whether you can manage to convince distributors to distribute, and whether you manage to get a marketing budget. No matter how good your film is you’ve still got to tell people about it, and when you are up against Godzilla, which is a good example because it’s almost a metaphor for Hollywood, then no matter how good your film is, how do you compete with a multi-million blockbuster if nobody has heard about it. It is incredibly difficult, and there are so many challenges along the way that effectively drown you.
I’m immensely grateful to the people who have supported the project along the way, and who have allowed us to get to the point where we are now. Of course I have no idea whether it’s going to be a roaring success, but we have made that leap into cinemas which is very difficult. It’s going to be a fantastic journey from here.
Both Jeremy and Ned spoke about how you encouraged an openly collaborative environment where everyone was able to contribute to the development of their characters as well as the story. You’ve spent a lot of time in advertising and speaking with you it seems you enjoy the collaborating part of the process.
The reason I cast those actors was I believed they were going to bring a huge amount to the project. It wasn’t a dictatorial environment at all, although naturally as a director you need to have your vision, which you of course want to protect and guide. But equally you hire these people because they are incredibly talented, and because you want to involve them as much as possible.
A lot of the film was improvised. We had an excellent script, and Torben [Betts] and I went into the project with the mind-set that it was going to be the characters that would drive the piece. The actors did a fantastic job taking what was written on the page and evolving it, which is why whether you love it or not you cannot disagree with the fact that the characters and the dialogue feel natural. This is down to the fact that the actors literally stepped into their characters and just became them on set. There was the flexibility and freedom for them to do that, and I loved working in this way, even though it’s scary because you don’t know what’s going to happen. They are Torben’s characters that the actors have become, and it was lovely to see them evolve throughout the movie.
Hitchcock always looked at the script as a blue print for the movie, and one would imagine that each stage of the process from the writing, to the shoot and the edit changes the film and brings with it surprises.
It’s important to be creatively open-minded when you step into the editing room to see what the editor and the sound designer can bring to the project or how they can manipulate the story. It’s about being open to the changes that can come from having a different set of eyes on it, and which can end up with some fantastic results. The best way to work is to be open-minded throughout.
The film you start with is not necessarily the film you end up with. In the case of Downhill did the final film closely resemble the script?
It was very close in its essence and tone. If you read the shooting script you would still get the same basic narrative principle. It’s not like I just let them go, and then at the end of each day wondered what had happened. There was a backbone of an idea and a narrative thread. In terms of the he said, she said, fifty per cent of the script is there.
We would have meetings on the morning about certain scenes where we would discuss the possibility for the characters to explore subject matters in a different way, and so it was flexible. In some respects the completed film is tonally very similar, whilst in terms of the absolute specifics of the script there are numerous moments where it differs, and it’s a better film for those moments.
From before to after how has the experience of Downhill impacted you both as a storyteller and a filmmaker?
It was bloody hard work, and whilst it was rewarding it was relentlessly gruelling. It is still is and it hasn’t stopped. I got several years older in the process, and I looked several years older by the time I finished the three month shoot. But I look back on it with incredible fondness. It was rewarding but it was relentless hard work to get it to this point on every single level.
I remember when we set out I thought the job was to make the movie, but then I realised that’s only half of the job. The next bit of hard work was to get it into cinemas, and so it is incredibly exciting to have had my first feature film play on the big screen.
One of the most exciting moments in the process was when I received the little still of the certificate that appears at the beginning of the film from the BBFC. That was a big moment because I thought holy cow, we’ve got a movie. We’ve got that card with those little signatures – there you go.
I told my mum I had made a movie which according to the BBFC contains some sexually explicit content and strong language. I don’t know how she feels about that. I’m hoping she’s going to forgive me.
If you could take away one memory from the experience of Downhill what would it be?
Sandwiches! We had ham sandwiches for lunch three weeks on the trot because we were always out and about. I remember one of the cast members made up a song about sandwiches because they were so fed up with them – quite rightfully too. I completely respect their complaint [laughs]. Also I remember the rain – it rained relentlessly.
Let me give you a serious one – the love of character. I just love characters and that’s why I am so proud of what the actors brought out of Torben’s script – the strength of the four guys at the end of it all. People will be able to identify with these guys, and that’s what I always wanted to do. I am proud that it balances comedy and pathos, and within several scenes of the movie you’ll be laughing one minute, and you’ll be an emotional mess the next. I love playing with that because that is quite simply human emotion, and I enjoy having the opportunity to explore those subjects.
Downhill is available on DVD and Digital Platforms from June 16 2014