Across The River premiered at the Manchester Film Festival 2017, and shared with us its unique style of improvised charm.
The strangeness of coincidence is often unscripted, as was much of this film. This film’s level of professional improvisation brings us as close to two ex-lovers on-screen as you can probably get without being them yourselves.
We were lucky enough to speak with director Warren B. Malone and actress Elizabeth Healey about how their film, Across The River, was put together, and what it was like to create one of the most frank, warm, and lively films about modern relationships in recent years.
Thank you a great deal for taking the time to tell us more about your film. How was the reception at the Manchester Film Festival?
Warren: The audience enjoyed it. I did a couple of interviews before the screening which went well and a Q&A after, which was great. They were recorded so I’m looking forward to seeing them and sharing them. There were a lot of fellow filmmakers at the festival and they all said they liked it. It was great to meet so many talented and friendly people.
Reading the credits shows us exactly how much of a collaborative effort this was. Warren, do you mind if I ask you where the concept for this film first began?
Warren: To generate ideas I was looking back at what felt like important moments and key relationships in my life. Like in the film there was a messy breakup with a first love, though in reality it wasn’t that long until we saw each other again, so unlike in the film, the tension didn’t build up so much but was released in shorter bursts over a few years.
I’d been considering writing Emma and Ryan’s childhood romance story, but as a ‘no budget’ project that wasn’t practical. But one day I had the realisation that I could explore the same characters and also add some production value for free if we used the streets around the Thames to show the aftermath of the break-up many years later.
With the characters closer to my own age I could also explore some conflicts more relevant to my life at the time I was making the film. I guess I’m fortunate to be able to use stuff like this as a kind of therapy. Difficulty committing to a particular relationship, or to a job or to a project; and the conflict between more material responsibilities and desires and more artistic, personal or emotional ones.
Once I’d got a rough outline and an idea of the characters I developed it with some of the credited writers. Then, once I’d cast the leads, we all added more detail. Then, during shooting, the actors were improvising the dialogue and details live, based on the outline of the scene and our discussions before each take.
Elizabeth, in terms of playing ‘Emma’, may I ask what you thought when first working with the script?
Elizabeth: The film script was was completely improvised. Although we discussed with Warren what we needed to reveal within a scene in terms of plot etc., how the characters arrived there was totally up to Keir Charles who played Ryan, and I. So we effectively created the script in the moment, which is why it feels so real and fresh I think. It was a totally collaborative process from beginning to end and was a brilliantly creative film to be involved in.
And what was it like to be involved with this creative team, compared to your previous works?
Elizabeth: On a film like Doctor Strange for example, everything is so carefully considered, beautifully crafted and meticulously executed – the production values are second to none.
In terms of what I do as an actor working on a big-budget movie like Doctor Strange and a small-budget film like Across The River are pretty similar – I always try to be truthful to the character I’m playing whatever project I am working on. The hugely collaborative and creative nature of Across The River makes it stand alone, and I think it is a true one-off and I loved the whole process – being at the creative centre of a film like this comes along so rarely, so when it does you grab it with both hands. But of course it is fantastic to be involved in a huge studio movie too – one of many memorable moments from Doctor Strange was when I asked for a lemon and ginger tea, and a real lemon and ginger tea was brought to me, so a bigger budget does have its benefits!
You’re obviously both multi-talented, but what particular skill do you like to use the most? Or, what skill normally comes first in your creative process?
Warren: If you’re talking about film-making in particular then I guess on this I probably ended up splitting my time about 20% writing, 45% producing, 10% directing, 5% camera, and 20% editing and mostly in that order temporally. Some people might count the writing, camera and editing bits as “directing” too, I guess.
But the bits I love the most are:
Once the cameras are running and I can start to see what everyone has spent so much effort on creating. The skill then is about seeing the details and making the small but important changes. It’s about knowing what you want and then getting it. Seeing the actors bring to life your ideas (and in this case improve upon them or add to them) and the DOP [Director of Photography] adding their input is very rewarding.
Another wonderful moment is sitting editing and seeing a scene or sequence start to work, appreciating all the small differences in performance from different takes.
There were also some wonderful moments when Andy Hopkins [music] and I were working on music tracks or when Nick Adams [sound designer] was mixing sound in front of me when I felt good, both because I was seeing and hearing the film get better, but also because I was experiencing first hand the skills of masters.
In Across The River –filmed in a densely populated and often unpredictable city– how do you handle the ‘interested/curious/disruptive onlooker’ who wants to get involved?
Warren: It’s not just any densely populated city; it’s London, where people are very used to seeing film crews. Mostly they’re pretty well behaved! We tried to be quite inconspicuous – our cameras were smaller than typical film cameras – but there were still plenty of issues to deal with. A shallow depth of field sometimes meant onlookers weren’t in focus enough to show.
The cameras were handheld so we’d frame out inappropriate behaviour sometimes. We’d be polite and friendly, answering onlookers questions while making it seem as unexciting as possible so they became uninterested a.s.ap.
We’d say we were a student film and that usually lost their interest.
We sometimes got bossy and asked people, with presumed authority, to wait for a few minutes or move a bit or avoid an area but that authority didn’t always hold. We had a really annoying paparazzi photographer during one scene who seemed to think our actress might be someone famous. He kept getting in the shot again and again but eventually we managed to get him to leave us alone.
What was the first creative thing that you ever did or can remember?
Warren: I remember quite early in primary school writing a story where I was imagining winning a motorcycle race; it got a very positive response from my teacher and I was really proud of it. Looking back now I don’t think that it was anything very special!
I also remember about the same time, 7 maybe, being very happy drawing pictures of fantasy motorbikes and cars and having the other children in class ask me to draw versions for each of them.
Elizabeth: I used to love making things from bits and bobs – I think the best thing I ever made is a full sized coffee table made out of paper mâché and with a crazy psychedelic design – it is still standing!
If Ryan and Emma saw each other, say, on some random work do out in London, and you were one of their close friends, what would you advise them?
Warren: You mean after the events of the film?
Warren: I love that agony aunt stuff! Though I’m usually way too confident in my recommendations.
I think it’s pretty clear that Emma is with the right guy already and that although Ryan and her had worked pretty well in the past (and at the time of the film her less complicated former life with him seems very attractive), she doesn’t have much to gain by chucking her loving husband away for flaky Ryan. All relationships are to some degree opaque to outside observers so I’d check how she thinks her and her husband are, but I think it’s quite a big deal cheating on your husband and the father of your children, so rarely worth it!
To Ryan I’d ask: “Is Emma really the love of your life; are you really going to be able to make her as happy as her husband?” I’d also try to work out why he doesn’t want to commit to Tara, and if that’s more about him than her.
I’d hope Emma and Ryan could maybe be friends instead of lovers?
And finally, may I ask what’re you’re working on now?
Warren: I’m developing a few projects myself and always looking for good writers to work with. I’m working on something about fatherhood; as that’s been my major practical concern for the last five years.
Elizabeth: I’ve got a couple of films out – Mum’s List, with Rafe Spall and Emilia Fox is just out on DVD, as is BBC’s One of Us. Caleb is a lovely film that is gathering lots of recognition on the festival circuit and I am popping up on Doctors at the end of March, plus there is a super project that I can’t talk about yet but hopefully will be able to soon. I wrote and directed my first film recently called The Angel of Hull, so I am busy with post-production on that too.
Take a look at the official website here, for information on where you can check out the film.