by Ross Taylor
The world of cinema & film is ever expanding, with new territories and countries around the world putting their thumb print on the industry. So it’s always enjoyable, and perhaps necessary, when we get to focus on our home grown talents.
One such individual is British director Reg Traviss, who began his directorial career with Joy Division, and most recently the crime-thriller Anti-Social.
We recently reviewed his latest efforts, and we also had the chance to speak with Traviss about his work, his inspirations, and how Brexit will affect the future of film-making in the UK.
Your filmography so far shows that you’re quite versatile. You’ve released a horror film, some biographical pictures. So, are you wanting to try out all film genres? What’s next after the crime-thriller?
I hadn’t really thought about that until I made Screwed. I then realised that I’d worked within several different genres which is a bit unusual. It was never a plan of mine to try out different genres, it’s always been the story which has taken my interest. In hindsight I do think the fact of having worked in different kinds of films does sort of reflect me and my interests. As somebody who enjoys watching films, I couldn’t say which ‘genre’ is my favourite to watch and I read a lot of differing kinds of subject matters. By their definition, all of my four feature films should be quite different from each other, and they are. But I do hope there’s a common style somewhere within them. I do enjoy working within essentially different genres but I would like to return to the ‘war’ theme as I think it’s the one which I am closest to, or rather the one which feels most significant to work on. Right now I’m working on what might be considered ‘science-paranormal.’ It’s contracted so I can’t go into details about it at the moment, but whilst it’s principally a drama-episodic it does also constitute another genre.
As a fan of UK grime, I have to ask; how was working with Skepta on this movie?
It was actually similar to working with a seasoned actor. It wasn’t like working with someone in their debut film role, which of course was great for me. I guess it had something to do with the fact that he’s made a lot of music videos and is a solo stage-performer, so he’s used to being in front of a camera and having the focus on himself without any room for error. But he’s also an extremely confident person who clearly knows himself, and he’s definitely a perfectionist, so I think all of that combined meant that he wasn’t fazed at all on set and he fully understood what he was stepping up to do. I remember that he knew his lines really well and just wanted to know from me exactly what I wanted him to do each in scene. After that he would require very little direction for the rest of the day. I felt he was spot-on in every scene, and if there was ever a take which didn’t work for some reason he knew instinctively and we’d just go again without any to-do. Like I say, very much like working with a seasoned actor.
Your previous movies have had somewhat restricted settings. Prisons, rural England. Did you find the transition to the hustle-and-bustle of London difficult? What challenges did you face that you hadn’t encountered before?
Well I’ve shot in central London before and on Joy Division did so quite extensively, though I’ve never shot an entire feature in London. Shooting in London on Anti-Social was difficult, but mostly because of the various motorbike scenes we were filming. We had permits of course, but not the expensive variety which mean you can ‘lock-off’ the roads, so the toughest challenges we had was shooting our set-ups, some of which were intricate, around real moving traffic. I wouldn’t fancy doing it again. Those scenes were a week of filming like a ‘stunt-unit’ which was gruelling and a bit nerve shattering too. Some of the more complex street set-ups were shot in another city where we could afford to block-off the roads, otherwise we couldn’t have done them. We did encounter a variety of other problems shooting around the City of London, which you could attribute to the hustle and bustle, and some days it was bit of nightmare. One location in the City for example – towards the end of the shoot –refused us to set up when we arrived. There had been an apparent mix-up and they said no film crews were allowed to shoot there. I couldn’t detach myself from the location as it really did have a great London feel to it. So we returned the following week but this time as a ‘television commercial from France’ and there were no problems. Bizarre, but I can’t explain it any more that.
We’ve seen a wide range of London crime thrillers over the years, perhaps most noticeably from Guy Ritchie. So where did your main inspirations come from for Anti-Social?
Well, upfront it was the epidemic of motorbike enabled smash-and-grab robberies which had been going on around London that really took my imagination, and the fact that the heists were unlike anything that had come before. The gangs were seemingly quite young, really daredevil and were getting away with millions. I think they captured the public imagination a lot at the time, and I sort of felt that they had bit of a‘renegade outlaw’ spirit to them. I was also inspired by the illegal street-artist sub-culture, which had caught my imagination around the same time, and which I felt had a kind of ‘anarchic outlaw’ spirit to it. So they were the two elements, but above them I was mostly inspired by the idea of making a crime film which was on one-hand authentic and not simply non-comedic, but which depicted actual crimes that have happened. Criminal gangs as close to real life gangs as possible. And on the other-hand, one which was not simply a ‘gangster’ film. In terms of ‘authenticity,’ for example, every single crime depicted in the story is based on an actual crime which has taken place in London, and even things like the number of individuals firing guns outside the nightclub in the ‘gang shoot-out scene’ was accurate to the real life event, and other things – such as the clothes the two jewel thieves wear in the ‘Bond Street robbery scene’ – were exact to those which the real life thieves wore.
Of course all of that is detail but borne from my overriding inspiration which was to make a crime film that was realistic and not one which rested on ‘invented’ crimes and underworld personas. I’m not saying of course that Anti-Social represents all criminality and types of criminals in London, because it certainly doesn’t at all. But it does give a truthful representation of some of the criminals and crimes committed in London. The second thing was that I wanted to try and make a film which had an underworld or gangland backdrop, but which was not entirely a ‘gangster film.’ Basically, one which depicts the many faces of London life, albeit yoked by a crime-story. So there are criminals in the film who mix it up with straight people, who in turn mix it up with sophisticated types, which in many ways is how London is. A place with lots of different sub-cultures and communities all co-existing side-by-side and sometimes naturally crossing-over and blurring the lines. Hope that makes sense, but that was my overall inspiration. Of course there are fictional aspects to the story too, which I should be clear about, but I suppose that’s obvious for any dramatisation.
In the wake of Brexit, how do you think UK based stories and films will develop?
I don’t think much will change in reality, though I do think it would be great if they were to develop an actual British Film Industry with a ‘studio system’ the like of which exists in America and which we haven’t had in this country since the late 1960s. That would be fantastic. Alongside a properly functioning tax re-investment initiative for financing films. In theory all of that could be possible now, but I’ve no idea if anyone in the industry, banking world or government is thinking about that yet. In terms of storylines and films, it’s easy to imagine filmmakers drawing upon everything which has been going on this past year, socially and politically, and producing dramas based on and around it all. But I think for any serious pieces the filmmakers in question would need to wait a while to see how things pan-out. I don’t expect ‘Nigel Farage: The Movie’ any time soon basically, because nobody knows whether the third-act has happened yet.
Joy Division was made with funding from European producers. Do you think Brexit will leave filmmakers in the UK in a worse position?
I don’t think so. I can only refer to my own experience in the industry having made three films which have been either co-productions with European companies or financed by European partners, and having worked on several others. The truth is that, when British films receive finance from European countries, they do so, in the vast majority of instances, via one or a combination of several forms, none of which are affected by being in the EU. These ‘forms’ of finance are distribution advances, Tax-Credit rebate, regional state funding, and private investment from investors in the territory. As I say, none of this is dependent on the filmmakers being from the EU. Of course, to access regional state funding, say in Bavaria, then naturally some of the film would need to be made in Bavaria, but nevertheless, British filmmakers will still be allowed to shoot in the EU and to form co-productions with local producers. Co-productions are either mutual agreements between two parties, or, agreements under whichever relevant Official Co-Production Treaty. Mutual agreements can be formed by anybody regardless of which country they are from, and the official co-production treaties are global and not restricted to EU members. This is how the vast majority of British films and TV dramas which access money from Europe go about it. Aside from these forms of finance, there are several EU film funds which only filmmakers from EU member states are eligible to apply for.
However, it is virtually impossible for any filmmaker to receive funding from these bodies. If a film is successful in its application, the finance takes a long time to come and has a lot of difficult clauses attached. Issues which can cause other financial elements to drop out along the way, and the finance from these funds is never enough to cover a whole budget, which means other parties are needed in any case. These funds are also notoriously bureaucratic and in 16 years I have not known a single British producer who has made a successful application. Of course many British films and TV get shot on the continent, namely in central and eastern Europe, for economic reasons, so if the British economy were to dive in the wake of leaving the EU, then it may be that it is no longer economically viable for British productions to be shot or made there –but that would not mean that production companies and distributors in EU member states would stop investing in British films (as their investments are based on business and not EU membership), soit would simply mean that more British productions would be shot in the UK.
How much of your movie was influenced by the rise and prominence of artists such as Banksy?
Well a large part of half of the story is inspired by the sub-culture of artists who are themselves either inspired by the type of art which Banksy is known for, or, who are contemporaries of ‘Banksy’. Half of the film is about a street-artist who creates stencil art which has a similar look to Banksy’s work and which also carries socio-political messages. He is a youth who, in the backstory, had been a tagger and was later inspired by stencil-art, which motivated him to go onto become a guerrilla stencil-artist. He never mentions Banksy in the film but I think it’s understood that that’s where his inspiration has come from. He leads an ad-hoc cash-in-hand lifestyle during the day and at night goes and does his work, either hours on end in his room which is a kind of illegal graffiti artist’s HQ, or out daubing public property. And then later in the story he gets noticed by some trendy art-dealers and moves into the legal exhibition scene. In a nutshell, that whole thread of the film is influenced by the journeys of various real-life stencil/street artists. I think without the rise and prominence of artists such as Banksy, then that thread of the film wouldn’t have existed. Their prominence brought that kind of lifestyle and sub-culture to my attention as a writer, and where I fused it with the criminal thread of the story is that I based the stencil-artist character on a couple of real-life individuals who, like in the story, came from criminal backgrounds, but moved on into ‘artistic’ professions.
You are also known for your relationship with Amy Winehouse, and it has been reported that you were working on a movie about her life. Is there anything more you can tell us about that?
From time to time I hear the same thing, but I’ve never said, or announced, anything like that. I’m not sure of the origin of these rumours. I have been asked several times over the years to direct a movie based on Amy but have always politely turned them down. It’s not anything I would do and I’ve always been very straight-forward about that. I have though tried to oblige various filmmakers in their research on Amy’s life for their own films when I’ve been asked, in order to help them avoid misrepresenting her. But I can’t see the logic, drawn by other people that, because I’m a filmmaker that I’d now make a film about Amy. To me that’s really peculiar especially given that Amy was exploited in all forms of media so much in her years and that she and I did our very best to lead a private life together away from all of that.
As for other filmmakers, I’ll continue to assist them or authors at my own expense, if they ask me, when they are working on projects about her, purely as I’d rather give them an insight in the hope that they at least represent her faithfully as opposed to in accordance with the tabloid-inspired depiction which is easy for them to draw upon. The way I see it is that people will make films about Amy regardless, but if they do ask me for my thoughts then I cannot refuse them as to refuse could be like assisting a potential misrepresentation, as there have been so many.