Matthew Chapman talks returning to directing
It’s been an entire 23 years since Matthew Chapman last dipped his toes into directing, but the British filmmaker is back with his latest picture The Ledge – out on DVD next Monday 16 April.
Speaking exclusively to The Fan Carpet‘s Stefan Pape, Chapman discusses his latest feature, where we follow the story of Gavin Nichols (Charlie Hunnam), a man on the brink of suicide, contemplating his existence as he stands alone on the ledge of a high rise building. Yet not all is as it seems, as Gavin isn’t on the ledge of his own accord, but doing so to save the life of his lover Shana (Liv Tyler) whose own life is being threatened by her actively religious husband Joe (Patrick Wilson).
It’s a suspenseful thriller, rich in religious and political undercurrents – and Chapman tells us of the difficulties in approaching such strong themes, whilst admitting to basing much of his film on his own life in America – where he has lived for the past thirty years.
Due to not coming out in the cinema’s – it’s DVD release is the first chance the public will have had to see The Ledge, so to those unaware of the film, tell us more about it and how it came to be.
As well as being a filmmaker, I am also a journalist and author and I’ve written two books about the conflict between faith and science in America. Although I live in New York and before that I lived in Los Angeles, I’ve spent a lot of time in the middle of the country and in the south, and I was kind of amazed as an Englishmen, at how incredibly religious it is and how old testament the tone of the religious dialogue is. Very disapproving, very harsh towards gay people, women or people who stray in any way. So I wanted to take these too attitudes – my attitude, which is that of a reasonable atheist, and the attitude of the religious fundamentalist of America.
Religion is a very key theme within the film, and is a a quite difficult subject to approach, were you at all wary of taking on such a strong subject?
Yes, I was. But I had written a lot of films before and this was a bit of a vocation for me. I thought, I just want to say exactly what I want to say and it will probably never get made, and if it does get made it will probably be so low-budget that it won’t really matter and to my surprise having done that, I found a couple of producers who really liked it. I got the exact actors I wanted to be in it and then I showed it to Sundance and they selected it – one of 12 out of around 2000, to be in competition at Sundance, so it has actually been surprisingly successful. It’s a thriller.
Because of the subject matter, have you had any backlash from anyone?
Oh yeah, very much so. At screening I have had people stand up and condemn me and the head of the Catholic league wrote a piece about it saying it was despicable and so on and so forth. The film has had a very big life online and I get a lot of comments about it. I am available on the internet so people write to me and they say quite unpleasant things sometimes.
Do you think that perhaps the reason behind the film’s quite small release is down to the religious aspects within the film?
Yeah I am sure it’s to do with that, well, at least half of it. The other half is the smaller independent film getting squeezed out of the theatres and into the TV or online experience and I have mixed feelings about it. In other films I have made which have come out in the theatre, it’s great to be able to go there and enjoy the shared experience. But on the other hand it’s great to be able to go into peoples living rooms.
How much research did you have to do? Were there any of your own personal experiences that you delved into?
The character Joe (Patrick Wilson) was actually based on a person I knew in Tennessee who I had got on with quite well, and I had lunch with him. But every time we ate, both him and his wife would grab my hands and pray for my struggle. I mean he was a nice guy, really nice, but then he was on the those people who would say to you, “Matthew, you do realise you are going to burn in hell,” and then he would say, “Would you like some more coffee?” It’s a weird disconnect between this image of billions of people burning in hell, and the daily business of life, like more coffee, or rides to the station. It’s such a weird disconnect to me, and so violent and disgusting – and that’s the essence of the character. He’s a character I know very well and not at all rare. In America he is a very common character.
Talking of Patrick – he stars alongside Liv Tyler and Terrence Howard, in what is a real all-star cast. Can you tell us about bringing such names together?
Well I got Charlie Hunnam first, an English actor who used to be in Queer as Folk, and is now in a big TV programme over here called Sons of Anarchy. I met him and I really liked him – he had a quality of being a little bit aggressive but quite sweet at the same time. You couldn’t really dislike him, which was also a danger of that character, which was based on me, of being unlike-able. Then I met Liv very early on but she was going through a divorce so couldn’t do it. Then a year went by and I got Terrence and Patrick, and Patrick I had wanted from the very beginning, he was the first person I sent the script to. Then at the end of it all Liv managed to have some time free and she jumped in around a week before production, so I had the crowd that I wanted, I was very happy with them.
It’s been twenty years since you last directed a film, despite writing a lot in the meantime. What was it about The Ledge that made you think – right, I’m going to direct this one?
It wasn’t so much The Ledge, but I had stopped directing when my daughter was born because I didn’t want to miss any of her growing up, because when you direct you are very emotionally and often physically disengaged from your family for about a year and I thought, god, if I miss a year from her childhood it will be terrible and I’ll never get that back, but I didn’t intend to be away as long as I had been. I got into screen-writing and then I wanted to write my first book and then my second book, and suddenly twenty years had gone by. I also got very involved in a political movement that I’m the head of and I just sort of got sidetracked.
As you mentioned, you have been writing books continuously over the past 20 years, do you think as a screenwriter you have improved due to writing novels?
Oh yes, definitely. I’ve lived a fairly interesting, varied life. I left school very young to go and work and I was a builder, bricklayer, driver, I worked in nightclubs, I had quite a few jobs before getting into the film business. That to me is the best thing I did, and the best training I could have had as a writer. Then I went to Hollywood and lived a Hollywood-ish sort of life, and going back to journalism and going back on the road and meeting people and writing these books was a fantastic reinvigoration of that connection with real people doing real things with real opinions on critical matters. So that’s really where the improvement came in, within that immersion into American society which made it easier to write about American subjects.
As a journalist living in New York during the tragic occurrences of 9/11 – did those experiences play any part in the making of The Ledge, with a couple of quite similar themes explored?
You know, I had actually started to write it beforehand, and I had dropped it about 15 pages in before 9/11. But then I didn’t want to pick it up because it felt too close and perhaps exploitive and I didn’t want to do that. But then enough time passed and I thought actually it’s kind of a good connection to make, maybe subconsciously people will make the connection between that kind of religious violence and the kind of microcosmic religious violence of this little story set in America.
The film begins as it ends, told mostly in flashbacks, in a quite traditional film-noir type style. Did you look to any influences from such a genre?
My first influence was Hitchcock, I went to see a Hitchcock festival at the National Film Theatre when I was I like 18 or something and they just had every single Hitchcock film he had ever made and I went back there every night and watched everything he ever did. I think that’s printed in me a love of suspense and I think that everything I do, even if it appears to be a comedy or drama, there is always some way I inject some suspense into it, which was particularly useful in this film as there is a lot of dialogue and the relationships are quite complex.
Finally, what’s coming up next for you? Will we have to wait another 20 or so years for your next film?
[laughs] I hope not! There is a film that I want to shoot in 15th century Florence, which is set against a religious war that was happening at the time. It was at a time when books and paintings were being burned by the church and I am setting a teen romance against that background, which is about love being connected to political commitment and seeing women as more than just romantic figures but people of substance.
The Ledge is released on Blu-ray and DVD 16 April from Universal Pictures UK