Simon Rumley blew my mind in 2006 with his debut genre feature The Living and the Dead, which swept up awards all over the festival circuit and established him as a major international talent. Despite the fact that he already had a healthy back-catalogue of indie films prior to The Living and the Dead, the response it received assured that he's been at home in genre films ever since. He's just finishing post on a new anthology film made with fellow British renegades Sean Hogan (Lie Still - released in the US as The Haunting of #24) and Andrew Parkinson (Venus Drowning) called Little Deaths, and he's here in town at Fantasia to present the Canadian Premiere of his latest genre-bender, Red White and Blue.
The film - in which three emotionally disfigured people find themselves at the centre of a multi-tiered revenge triangle - stars Amanda Fuller (Buffy the Vampire Slayer - playing distinctly against type), Marc Sentner (The Lost) and the amazing Noah Taylor (The Proposition, The Life Aquatic, contender for Nick Cave bio-pic - I'm just sayin') and was co-produced by Tim League of Austin, Texas' famed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Simon and Tim were kind enough to answer some questions about Red White and Blue's conception, moral trajectory and its promising future on the fest circuit.
The Living and the Dead is such a British film, completely set in this insular decaying aristocratic world, so Red White and Blue is an obvious departure from that. What was the appeal of turning to the southern states for this story? Other than the obvious reference to the American flag, what is the significance of the title?
Simon Rumley: Well, there are many different reasons for shooting in Austin, Texas, but the main ones are:
1) In my opinion, making films in the UK is more or less a waste of time and energy, since they are rarely supported by domestic audiences and consequently are rarely promoted abroad. I've always wanted to make a feature in the US, since the US is cinema's cultural king, and I think there's more of a chance of a filmmaker's film being seen and promoted if it is an American tale rather than an English one.
2) I had friends in Austin (read: Tim and Karrie League), who I asked if they were interested in being involved in this film, and they said yes. I knew I could trust and rely on them, so I had a film idea that I thought could work in the Austin landscape and started to focus on/explore this idea.
3) The idea itself is based on a vigorous yet relatively intimate culture of going out to clubs and bars, and somehow it not being beyond the realms of possibility that you would bump into the same person twice in a different club or bar. Whilst somewhere like New York, London or LA have this culture, it's a lot less believable that you would ever bump into the same people than it is in Austin, and this is an important part of telling the story.
The relevance of the title, beyond that of representing the American flag, is what each colour represents in colloquial language: blood, anger, death, fear, pornography, and more death!
Tim - how did you come on board as an executive producer? Was your role strictly financial or were you involved in other ways?
Tim League: I met Simon at Fantastic Fest 2006 where The Living and the Dead took down just about every award we had to offer. He and I continued to meet up over the years at various film festivals and continued our friendship. He liked Austin so much during his visit to Fantastic Fest that he ended up writing a script set in Austin. I loved the script and agreed to come onboard as executive producer. I'm not exactly looking to do more producing, but I will consider it when the director happens to be a close friend like Simon.
My role as EP was to help Simon navigate Austin. I arranged for
catering, transportation of cast and crew, hooked him up with local
talent (extras, crew, etc) and also arranged for locations. Really
anything they needed in Austin, I helped to arrange through either the
Alamo Drafthouse directly, our promotional outreach or our network of
friends and associates. I also housed the cast and crew for
pre-production and production, about 12 weeks or so. It was a lot of
fun, actually, but again, I'm not looking to quit the day job.
What appealed to you about the project that made you decide to make it the first film you've backed?
TL: I am a fan of Simon's films and I liked the script. For me, it always starts with the script. You can have all the production values in the world, but without a good script, your movie will be almost certainly be crap.
There is so much moral ambiguity in the film. People do despicable things but it doesn't seem that there are any villains. How would you describe your characters?
SR: That is exactly right. This also very similar to my last film The Living and the Dead. As human's we're all flawed in so many ways, and I think the conceit off good and evil being so delineated only really exists in an artistic culture. In my mind there isn't so much black and white but actually a lot of grey.
The characters are generally good people who have somehow strayed from the path of goodness either by their own volition or the intervention of another. They all do bad things but are, arguably, unjustifiably punished for these deeds, which makes the inevitable events of the film tragic and unnecessary.
Although there is violence in the film, it is a film which, I'd like
to think, highlights the futility of violence - because in the end, no
one comes out a winner.
I have to say, Noah Taylor is incredible in the film. I still remember him as the little kid in The Year my Voice Broke. What was the process of getting him involved and what kind of instruction did you give him to get such an amazing, heartbreaking performance?
Once again, you're absolutely right! Noah is stunning and I've grown up watching him act. Same as you, I first saw him in The Year My Voice Broke back in the 80s, and then Flirting, both of which I loved. I've been watching him ever since, and I think he's one of those people who's an absolute natural, and he has a gift that can't be taught and can't be learnt. Thinking about it, everyone I've spoken to about this film is a big fan, not only of his performance here, but in general.
Three things about Noah:
1. He's won the equivalent of the Australian BAFTAs four times (I
2. He's Russell Crowe's favourite actor (apparently)
3. My favourite review of Red White and Blue has someone who said the only performance they could think of that described Noah's transition in this film from what he's more known for was watching Ben Kingsley go from Ghandi to Sexy Beast.
In terms of getting Noah on board, we sent his agent the script, he was available, he read it, he liked it, but wanted to be reassured it wasn't going to turn into Hostel. I said it wasn't, he thought about it for the weekend and decided he wanted to do it. It was actually very straightforward and, as I got to know him better, it turned out that he has always wanted to play a killer and that this was one of the best scripts (in his opinion) that he'd ever read.
In terms of 'getting his performance', honestly speaking, like working with Leo Bill in The Living and the Dead, I'd like to claim I did a lot to influence this, but really, when he came to set, he was the character. Sometimes I said "do it bigger, do it smaller", but really that was it. Noah did a lot of research and background work, I saw the results of this and said, that's excellent, keep it up!
Like the Living and the Dead, there is a character with a terminally ill mother whose health is threatened by his actions. Can you talk about this recurring theme?
Yes, it's kinda weird - none of my next films have terminally ill
mothers! My mother died of cancer back in 2002, having been diagnosed
with it 3 months earlier. This was the starting point for The Living
and the Dead, and I guess it crept into Red White and Blue.
It was a supremely unnerving and unpleasant experience (to say the
least) and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but sadly this death is very
much a part of our life. But yeah, not planning on revisiting it again.
Can you talk about the relationship between revenge and forgiveness? There are some pretty extreme examples of both in the film.
I think the characters that are more aggressive are intent on revenge and the more benign on forgiveness, but inevitably aggression usually wins out in the same way that the people who shout the loudest usually get heard the most. As I mentioned, the film is very much about the futility of violence and how two wrongs don't make a right - but the flipside of this, of course, is whether pacifity and forgiveness really make people feel better in the way that the bible sometimes argues that it does. And I think it's very easy to argue that this isn't the case. Between revenge and forgiveness there are really no rights and wrongs, just individual actions...
You've succeeded in making me cry with both of your genre films. This makes me wonder about the connection between horror and emotional devastation. Do you think a film that cripples you emotionally can be considered a horror film?
Ah, thanks for the compliment! I like to think my films subvert the horror genre rather than actually being a part of the horror genre, but then again, that's probably exactly the same thing! In an ideal world horror films should extract an emotion form their audience, and whether the emotion is one of being disturbed or being scared or being upset, then if it's so strong as to be crippling, then this has to be a good thing.
People's reactions to my films are funny because, contradicting what I just said, I try to make films that are disturbing in the extreme (or at least with the last two films that's been my goal), and for me, if I'm watching a horror film, I want to be pushed and disturbed beyond my comfortable limits. People who watch my films, however, love the horror genre but often say 'your film is too disturbing for me to recommend, and I never want to watch it again'! But that's like saying 'this comedy is too funny, I laughed too much and I never want to see it again'! Scary doesn't really work for me that much in horror films because that's easy; disturbing is a whole different ballgame, and that's what I look for in a horror film; something that disturbs me and/or moves me on an emotional level, and ideally does both - which is what I hope my films do!
Tim - Where do you think this film fits genre-wise? Has it been a difficult film to market?
TL: It is difficult, but that's Simon. Ultimately it is a character drama, but the genre elements are so strong in the 3rd act that you have to be a genre fan to be able to watch it. That's the type of film I like though and is something that we try to champion at Fantastic Fest: great stories first that just so happen to have a bit of the ol' blood and guts.
- Kier-La Janisse