One thing British cinema has always had a fascination with is the crime/gangster genre – even stars like Jason Statham and Idris Elba dabbled in films in and around that genre early on in their careers. And in 2019, this fascination with the criminal world is still very much intact, as the independent film Villain starring Craig Fairbrass, Robert Glenister, and Izuka Hoyle looks to not only continue this love affair but also put a different spin on the crime/gangster genre. VultureHound’s Humza Hussain joined the team of Villain on the set in London, and despite filming a rather intense scene that day, the cast and crew were more than happy to share their thoughts on the upcoming British film.
At first glance, the title Villain may not fill moviegoers with a great deal of hope, as some may associate it with a lot of other throwaway low budget projects. And that thought was originally shared by some important members of the film’s team such as the director Philip Barantini.
“I know, I know, right,” Philip immediately responded when asked about the title. “I thought it was going to be another one of those gangster films, but after I read it, I felt different because it’s not.”
Producer Bart Ruspoli also recalled how the script came to him, and how similar to Philip, his thoughts changed after reading the script. “George Russo and Greg Hall wrote the script, and George’s agent sent me the script at the end of last year, knowing that I was after something within the crime genre, but I wanted something different,” he said. “I didn’t want the usual gangster fair. And I confess, I read it with extremely low expectations, but I was taken with it instantly. It felt a little French in its tone, much more of what I was after.”
There is a lot more meaning to the film’s title. Villain’s writer and actor George Russo told us the title came from his co-writer Greg Hall, who wanted to pay tribute to Richard Burton: “It was Greg Hall’s idea. It is an homage to the Richard Burton movie. It’s a great title, and it gets you right away.” Although some may have been sceptical, leading man Craig Fairbrass immediately associated Villain with Greg’s idea. “Loved the title,” Craig said. “It brings so many connotations when I hear it, and is so filmic. I remember being fascinated by the word when I saw the Richard Burton film.”
Villain’s story centres around Craig Fairbrass’ character Eddie Franks, who is looking turn his life around after coming out of prison, and this involves him mending fences with his estranged family. However, due to his younger brother Sean Franks’ (George Russo) unrealistic aspirations, he’s forced back into his old nefarious ways. The general overview already gives you a description of a story with a lot more heart and meaning, as opposed to another story focused on giving us countless scenes of violence. For George Russo, a dramatic, character-driven story is one that he favours but finds challenging to find funding for. “I tend to write drama, and unfortunately, a drama is hard to find funding for,” George told us. “It just so happened on the off chance, through my agent, I met Bart. I decided that I wanted to write a drama script, one that I could raise money for and get made. I knew the crime genre is a popular genre, and I’m familiar with that genre.” George also found that many writers who write similar scripts to Villain are unaware of what this type of world is actually like: “I’ve grown up in the east ends, and I’ve grown up around that stuff,” he said. “A lot of the scripts I get sent are written by people who have no idea of how that stuff works. It’s a fantasy of that world, and I just have a more grounded understanding of how that stuff works. So I knew I could write a decent British crime movie, but with a character driven element.”
The desire and love for a character-driven narrative were also shared by the director Philip: “I enjoy character-driven stories. When I read Villain, that’s how I saw it. It’s about this guy who is struggling with being back in the outside world after being in prison for ten years. It’s a really sad story of this guy who is just trying to better himself, and he is not able to. So that’s how I saw it.”
The depth and originality also struck a chord with Craig Fairbrass, who shared what sold him on this particular project. “It was a very engaging, original script- well written,” he explained. “But above all a cracking story with depth…not your usual script. It reminded me of A History of Violence, where a man fights hard not to return to his former way of life.”
Although many members of the film’s cast and crew emphasised the strength of the story and characters, sitting in a darkly lit pub, and looking on as Eddie Franks and his brother Sean prepare themselves for a potential threat, and seeing Villain’s fight coordinators prepping, reminded us that action still has an important part to play.
Producer Bart Ruspoli also did not shy away from stating that the action can pretty brutal. “There are some pretty brutal fight scenes in it; I’m not going to lie (laughs),” he said.” The one we’re shooting today is especially brutal. So it has got its action elements, and that’s why I think it will satisfy the audiences.”
The film’s visionary also shared the same thoughts as his producer but reiterated that the approach to violence is far different from the typical action flick. “There is a bit of blood and guts in it, but it’s not stylised,” Philip stated. “I don’t want to make those scenes stylised with fast, hard cuts like Hollywood. There’s one moment where we do the whole thing in one take, and it’s about a five-minute long take. Fight scenes are happening, and a lot of it takes place in a wide shot. It’s happening in real time, and the audience will hopefully turn away a little because it’s quite brutal.”
Despite every attempt to not rehash what has come before this film, this project is continuing British cinema’s longstanding fascination with gangsters and criminal activity, and explaining why this fascination still exists, George Russo said: “I think most people live kind of mundane lives. 9-5 lives. So they can live vicariously through these characters, and it’s great because you can enjoy violence and bad behaviour without engaging in it yourself. So you can still go home without destroying your karma in any way (laughs).”
While Craig Fairbrass acknowledges Britain’s fondness for crime-related stories, he brought up his own love affair with both US and UK crime films. “There has always been a fascination with crime films,” he explained. “I’ve grown up absolutely fascinated by the UK and US Films – from The Long Good Friday to Goodfellas… for me though it’s always about the storyline, and Villain has a beautiful story – George Russo and Greg Hall really nailed the authenticity.”
Whatever people think about the title, similarities it may or may not have with films of the same genre, Villain is undeniably an independent film that embraces that very fact. As Philip mentioned, the action is vastly different to mainstream cinema, and he even mentioned the colour scheme for the title is not the typical “red” one would associate with the word Villain. Philip also highlighted how the restrictions of a smaller budget bring out the best in him. “I think, ultimately, having those restrictions gives you a lot more creativity,” he said. “You’re thinking on your feet all the time. It would be interesting to see if I do something with a bigger budget and see how different it will feel.”
He and Bart also discussed how the landscape of the industry is much different, and that platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime mean there is more room for ‘indie’ projects to be seen by a much larger audience. “There’s a lot more opportunity for indie films to be recognised and appeal to a wider audience,” Philip said. “And I think that’s the way people are watching films nowadays, on digital platforms. You can’t beat going to the cinema to watch a film, but there are lots of options now, and people have become lazy nowadays as well. Lots of people watch things on their phones now. I think it’s a great time to be a filmmaker.”
Bart agreed that digital platforms increase the amount of eyeballs films, especially of this scale, can get. “Absolutely. Digital platforms have infinite space,” he said. “TV channels are bound by there being twenty-four hours in a day. There’s only so much they can put out. Digital platforms have infinite space. Netflix is a testament to that. They have hundreds and hundreds of films. It does give us the ability to make these films and have a platform for them. It would be great if Netflix spread that money around a bit more, but it does give us the possibility.”
Ultimately, both the director and producer see this as a festival bound film, and what happens after that, we will have to wait and see. However, there is one fact and thought producer Bart Ruspoli would like audiences to keep with them when watching Villain: “What I like about it and what I encourage the audience to engage with is it’s the story of redemption or failed redemption, depending on your point of view. It has an open ending, which is one of the things that drew me to the script. Has he achieved his redemption, or has he not? It’s a great central question to the story.”
Look out for Villain when it’s released in 2020.