Paul Andrew Williams, London To Brighton
A rare handful of people are born to make movies, and new British writer-director Paul Andrew Williams is undoubtedly one of those few. Born in 1973 in the Southern coastal town of Portsmouth, Williams initially studied as an actor at LAMDA and spent the latter part of the 1990s playing smaller roles in UK TV shows like Casualty, Eastenders and Soldier, Soldier. In 2000, however, he set up So Loose Films and began making a string of short films. The second of these, Sugar (2000), was picked up by Atom Films, and his next few got him into Fox Searchlight’s Director’s Lab, during which he made the Sundance-premiering It’s Okay to Drink Whiskey (2003). Subsequently, he spent two years fruitlessly trying to set up the comedy horror The Cottage as his first film, before giving up and making London to Brighton, which was inspired by an earlier short, Royalty (2001).
Williams made London to Brighton on a shoestring (£60,000), yet the film’s low-budget restraints only help highlight his distinctive cinematic voice. Told partly through flashback, it follows prostitute Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) and 11-year-old runaway Joanne (Georgia Groome) as they go on the run after the pair accidentally kill the pedophile father of London crime boss Stuart Allen (Sam Spruell). With Allen and Kelly’s pimp Derek (Johnny Harris) wanting answers and retribution, the two flee to the relative safety of the nearby seaside town of Brighton. Though on paper it sounds like a harsh gangster movie, London to Brighton is in fact a naturalistic, deeply human drama in which criminal events are the movie’s backdrop rather than its narrative core. Williams’ characters are beautifully written — as well as brilliantly portrayed by leads Stanley and Groome — and he captures their downs (and occasional ups) with documentary-like care and intensity. Highly praised in its native UK, London to Brighton is arguably the best British debut film since Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Last Resort, another great humanist drama about people at the fringes of society. Williams’ The Cottage, now finally made, opens in the UK next month.
Filmmaker spoke to Williams about his instinctive approach to directing, British gangster films, and his decision to quit as director of Wild Things 3.
Filmmaker: I believe this movie was inspired by a short film you made called Royalty.
Williams: Basically I made Royalty — a long time ago… — because I’d just had an idea that I wanted to do this short film. I thought about it walking home, and when I got home I just typed it up in 15 minutes. I didn’t really think much of it, to be honest, but it was my idea to work on just characters and not concentrate on the story. It was five years ago, but it was only when I was struggling to get [The Cottage] made that I thought, “God, I’ve got to do something…” A week before, I’d pictured one of the scenes from [London to Brighton], and I thought, “Actually, you could just put Kelly there and you could base it in and around her world,” and that’s how it came about.
Filmmaker: And before that you had been acting mainly?
Williams: I’d been an actor and had no formal training in film [directing]. I just had this idea for a short film in my head, and told my mate and he said, “Let’s do it.” Six months later, we’d raised a bit of money and did that short film. And then did another one, and just carried on doing that, not really having any money but continuing to film stuff. Eventually I got a deal in America with Fox Searchlight (which, like anybody else who got a deal with Fox Searchlight, was absolutely worthless), and met some people in L.A. but then came back [to the U.K.] and had some people interested scripts. But I was so broke, I lived with my parents. I was absolutely penniless for six, seven years. Until midway through last year. That’s what you have to sacrifice.
Filmmaker: Did you have an ultimate goal that you were making these sacrifices for?
Williams: To be honest, my goal was always just to make stuff. At the time, it was really like I wanted a crack at making short films, music videos, and being proactive and creating stuff and being constantly busy doing things. It was only the fact that one of my films [The Cottage] was getting close to being made — I was going, “Oh my God, it’s going to happen,” and it just kept getting pushed back and back — that was what made me go, “Right, I’ve got to make this feature film.”
Filmmaker: Did you teach yourself the basic points of directing?
Williams: I’ve never had any formal training. I would say it started off being an instinctive thing and still is that, although I have learnt a lot of lessons. It was an instinctive thing of wanting to create and collaborate with actors and come up with these characters and these crazy situations, and then to explain to the D.P., “This is the shot I imagine” and then show him my storyboards. As you do more stuff, you start to think about how you can do more things and all the other aspects of music and sound, as well as the characters, which for me are the most important thing.
Filmmaker: The logline of London to Brighton would probably lead someone to expect a very different film from the one you made.
Williams: I completely agree.
Filmmaker: So how did you overcome that problem when you were pitching the film and trying to get funding?
Williams: Well, the people who backed it never read it. Because it was only £60,000, it was totally through private funding and they just believed the talk I gave them, which is why they put money into it. But for me, I was never making a gangster film. I tend not to think about a film in a genre because that’s really putting something in a certain bracket when realistically, for me, a film is a story. The story is what’s most important and I wouldn’t want to place that somewhere, because I think you alienate people. The only reason there are loglines and genres, I think, are for people who are selling movies. They need a label — it needs to be that easy-to-swallow, instant idea of what this film might be.
Filmmaker: I’ve seen a lot of really dreadful British gangster films over the past decade, but this was an incredibly different experience.
Williams: If you’ve got someone carrying a gun in a film and someone doing shady deals or breaking the law — especially if they’ve got a London accent — then it’s automatically classed as gangster film, whereas I never looked at it as a gangster film at all. Unfortunately with most films there are certain plot devices that you do need, but I hopefully made it as natural as possible. But for me it’s not a gangster movie. People are like, “It’s a gangster, so it’s a cockney gangster who’s going to speak like this, “Fuckin’ ‘ere, cor blimey!” and who’s gonna be this Jack the lad.” I’m like, “Bollocks, man, these guys are pimps, they’re looking after whores who wear fuckin’ tracksuit bottoms and trainers. These pimps eat fucking cereal and live in shitty flats.” Basically, the gangster films you might have seen which have been very poor are all [based on] what an audience thinks a gangster is, “So let’s give them that, because an audience wants to see these gangsters all fuckin’ happy.” Whereas the real people who commit crimes aren’t like that.
Filmmaker: It must have been very difficult to make London to Brighton for just £60,000.
Williams: To be honest, it was less problematic than making [The Cottage] for £2.5m. When you’re making something for very little money, you can change plans and it doesn’t make any difference to the budget. If I wanted a different car on London to Brighton, we’d just get it; they’d both cost no money, so it would be fine. Whereas on The Cottage, everyone’s getting paid and everyone wants this and if you go over then everyone wants their money, and if you want to change that camera shot then you can’t get [something else]. There are people who go, “This is costing money, and you are answerable.”
Filmmaker: There are plot elements that are very sensitive, such as the film’s pedophilic encounter, so how challenging was that given that you were working with such a young actress?
Williams: What was good was that she was very mature. The script was sent to her mom before and we talked about it well before she did it, and [her mother] was on set every day and if there was any problem at all we would discuss it. It was harder for the people watching it because they were completely aware of the underlying theme of how bad that situation is, whereas Georgia — although she understood it wasn’t right — didn’t understand just how awful the reality of this would be to somebody else. But you get around that by saying, “This is when she would be incredibly ready to cry, and if you can imagine something else [really bad] then this is akin to this moment.” But she was really fucking clever, man, she was really good.
Filmmaker: Your next two projects, the road movie Wisdom’s Last Legs and a coming-of-age drama S.H.S. (Self Harm Society), seem completely different from both The Cottage and London to Brighton in tone and genre. How keen are you to establish yourself as someone who can make all styles of movie and won’t be pigeonholed?
Williams: Very keen, I guess, but because I want to do that and not as a statement. I’m not doing it to say, “You’ll never guess what I’m doing, so I’ll fucking keep you on your toes,” it’s purely because I like to do different stories, and it’s the story that makes me interested. It’s all about characters and story and I think that that’s what’s important, and where that story’s set is secondary. I’ve just made The Cottage, which is a comedy horror, and you can tell people are already going, “He made London to Brighton — what’s he doing?! Why’s he doing this?” Once you’ve made a film that’s so well-received you’re in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. I could just make a film similar to that, or I could do something I want to do that’s different and I’m sure I would have got doubters either way. People unfortunately always go into a cinema with some preconception of what they’re going to see and the idea is hopefully to break that within a few minutes.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Williams: I have to say it’s not very often. However much I may moan, I’m extremely lucky to be in this position and very fortunate that I get to do what I do, because I find it extremely hard. I’m one of those people’s who very rarely satisfied with what I do, so I’m basically living in a permanent state of trying to achieve the unachievable. If I could do a job in a fuckin’ supermarket and be happy and satisfied with that, then maybe I’d do that. But luckily, right at this present moment I’m not as broke as I’ve ever been and also people seem to be interested in what I’m doing (some for the right reasons, some for the wrong…), so that’s pretty lucky, man. I’ve worked my arse off to get here, though.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you ever made?
Williams: It was to quit a film I was doing in America. I was hired by Columbia to do Wild Things 3. At this point, I’d never done a film and I was like, “Yeah, cool. I’ve got a film, I’ve got some money, it’ll be great,” but after a week I was like, “These guys are total fucking wankers! And they don’t give a shit about the film or me or anything, so what am I doing…?” The people who were making it were awful. This was a line from one of the guys at the studio: “It’s only Wild Things 3, it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Filmmaker: Did you see the movie?
Williams: Yes. It’s absolutely dreadful. It was awful and it was always going to be awful, but when I first read the script it was like, “If I can do this my way then [it could be good].” If I would have done that, I would never have worked again, because either the film would have been so bad that everyone would have hated me, or I would not have wanted to be part of that industry anymore. But it totally changed my life: it really made me realize what I wanted to do and make decisions based on that rather than anything else.
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Williams: Fuck no! Before films are made, the emphasis is very rarely on the creative worth of a project. It is all about the things that aren’t necessarily related to the project itself or the initial script: who’s doing it, who’s in it, how can we sell it, how can we market it, what’s the title. “That title? We can market that title regardless of what the film is.” Releasing The Omen on the 6th of the 6th ’06, and making that film purely because that was the date – that’s fuckin’ terrible! They should be ashamed of themselves wasting money on things like that when people are dying. It’s all about money, man. The studios are being run by people who don’t have an interest in movies. I’m not saying I wouldn’t come to Hollywood, but I would certainly be very careful of what I would do. I’m the kind of person who’d say, “I’ll do this project if it’s done in this way but if it deviates, I’ll just walk off it.”
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Williams: Never stop. Never, ever give in. The only filmmakers who won’t make a film are those who give up.