The inner-city night bus tends to be a place where urban legends and personal horror stories are formed. For first-timers, the jarring contrast to the more restrained and polite environment of the daytime bus ride can be quite traumatic. Some passengers are drunk or off their heads, social barriers are broken down into hostilities, and the old guy who mumbles to himself and stinks of piss sits right next to you even though the bus is virtually empty.
Anyone who writes knows that bus journeys can be pretty inspiring. Simon Baker, directing and producing his first feature film Night Bus which premiered at The BFI London Film Festival on Sunday, has taken inspiration in spades, with the entire film based on the after-dark public transport experience. Bringing together an ensemble cast of unknowns, Baker has utilised their own personal stories and monologues, essentially allowing them to write the film themselves with improvised interactions captured by DOP Dominic Bartels, who has to be applauded for a tremendous achievement in making a film look this good on a budget so tiny (20-grand, self-funded by Baker, Kevin Smith-style with credit cards and an enormous pair of balls).
Shot over 7 nights on a bus in East London, the film offers an observation of inner-city life so captivating, you wonder how this hasn’t already been done in the form of a Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary (having already mined the chicken shops and nightclub toilets) The film on paper may sound dull to some, but over the course of the films neat 91-minute running time, I found myself never losing interest, thanks not only to some skilful editing by Russ Clapham, but by the sheer imagination and talent of the impressive cast who provide the filmmakers with a wealth of material – the stand-outs here being a slightly pissed lady (played to perfection by Keeley Jo-Jupp) who attempts to engage with a pair of adolescent nuisances blasting rap music on their phone, and a humorously jealous boyfriend played by Ruaraidh Murray.
Displaying the kind of wandering and ease-dropping feel of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and Richard Linklater’s early low-budget masterpiece Slacker, the film is not so much episodic but instead works as a fractured single piece: passengers get on, some get off, we hear part of one conversation and then move on to another before coming back. Some are aggrieved, some laugh, some engage, some ignore. This sense of disconnection and alienation hovers over the narrative and the often-bemoaned ‘mood over plot’ sensibility works well here, aided by a brilliantly cautious and mournful jazz score composed by Clive Raven, which complements dark shots of rain-sprayed windows, traffic lights and blue sirens.
Like a compact and micro-budget version of the 1999 shorts compilation Tube Tales, the film is not without it’s missteps (I was going to say ‘wrong turns’ but fuck off) – a ‘fair-dodgers’ montage early on (which resembles the ‘annoying customers’ montage in Clerks) feels at odds with the overall pace of the film but does at least build upon the character of the Bus Driver, played with grit and heart by Wayne Goddard.
I can’t think of a more fitting movie to see at the London Film Festival this year than Night Bus. With it’s minuscule budget, independent spirit and collaborative ambition, the film is an original effort that manages to create a curious and enjoyable observation of London nnight-life For the sake of the future of British independent film, I hope the film does well, and It’d be interesting to see what director Simon Baker (who here displays a keen eye for humour, bitterness and sorrow) can do with a larger budget and a wider setting.