An odd and frightening apparition, with the body of a football fan and the face of a gorilla, steps out of the shadows and into a young boy’s waking nightmare. The beast then starts to dance. Frenetically jerking from sharp elbows into monkey looseness and aggression, it’s a jumble of hooligan poses and simian swings. Partly comic, technically brilliant and distinctly creepy, Tom Browne’s short film Aston Gorilla may resolve in a place of sanctuary, where men can protect their children from the world, but the aftertaste is still discomfiting.
The film has already found acclaim at the 2010 edition of moves, a Liverpool-based film festival that fuses dance film with experimental moving image, screening as part of their Alternative Routes tour. But while the skillful choreography could see the film win fans on the screen dance circuit, the fictional elements and flashes of horror are also akin to the likes of filmmaker Robert Morgan and should find an audience at short film festivals interested in a more experimental approach to storytelling. It’s certainly unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.
Filmmaker Tom Browne has mined dark territory before. His previous short Spunkbubble featured a grotesque mélange of violence and sexual brutality. Starring Aiden Gillen as a man whose encounter with hotel pornography is cruelly interrupted, it features a vengeful duo searching for La Freaque, a supernatural figure whose sexual magnetism leads men to lose their minds. A deeply uncomfortable watch, it marked Browne as a bold voice, with clear stylistic confidence, a strong crew of collaborators and a penchant for extremity.
In person he is disarmingly unguarded and frank about his ideas and increasing personal focus on filmmaking. The first striking thing about the process of production for Aston Gorilla is the velocity of its inception. It seems that a common thread in Browne’s films is the speed at which they are thrown together. ‘I hadn’t really imagined anything beyond making it,’ Browne starts. ‘The way it came about was very quick. The camera man from Spunkbubble called me up at short notice to say that he had the use of a Canon 5D for a weekend, and did I want to shoot something? I said yes without thinking what it might be. That night I went to see a dance performance from the Hofesh Shechter Company in Brighton. As I was coming back on the train I had the idea for Aston Gorilla. I literally thought you could do it like that. It would be very easy to make. I got hold of a hall very quickly, and we just shot it in a day.’
As to inspiration, the jumble of elements seems to be another hallmark. Browne explains, ‘I think you always know you’re on to a good thing when lots of disparate things in your head come together. That was one of my son George’s favourite jokes: “What team does King Kong support?” “Aston Gorilla”. And my brother-in-law supports Aston Villa so we had a team top. Then in the programme from that evening of dance was a picture of Hofesh in a gorilla mask. Further feeding into the mix, George was having terrible nightmares at that stage. So I was thinking about his nightmares and about how you see your father sometimes, as very strong but also very weak. All those things together in one. That was its genesis.’
The father/son dynamic is amplified by the fact that George stars as the son in the film. It’s a trick Browne’s repeating with his youngest, in a new film shot in Kew Gardens that has a similar punchline-driven narrative, regarding a slug that gets mugged by some snails. ‘Shooting People just held this competition where, if your treatment was selected, you got to shoot in Kew Gardens, which is a wonderful botanical garden. I had this joke in my head that I always thought would be good for a father to tell a son. It’s a sort of shaggy dog story, but the punchline is his mum saying, “Oh my darling, did you see what any of them looked like?” And he says, “No, it all happened so fast”.’
As well as making films Browne earns a living as an actor under the name Thomas Fisher, and has appeared in films such as The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing and Shanghai Knights. He has also collaborated in more experimental territory with director Ben Hopkins, notably on The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, which he both acted in and co-wrote. It was an experience that involved some deep research for a character who was addicted to alcopops.
They seem to have completely gone from life now, Browne muses. ‘I found our tasting notes the other day. There was one called Strobe, which was really ferocious. It had a skull and crossbones on it and I think it was just sugar and caffeine and alcohol. You could get white, red and blue, but I can’t remember what they called the flavours. Then there was one called Barking Frog, and that was also extreme. They’re basically like Special Brew with caffeine, and even stronger alcohol. After a night of that you were completely in a terrible sugar-rush headache. You felt awful.’
This seems to illustrate Browne’s organic approach to collaboration and the drawing together of haphazard influences. ‘We didn’t watch a lot of films,’ Browne explains. ‘Ben’s seen more films than anyone I know. But we didn’t sit around watching films saying, “it should be like this, or it should be like this”. We did a lot of other stuff, which was only vaguely related to what might happen. I’m very bad at drawing things together in my head without the need to. So I don’t quite know what my inspirations are until they suddenly appear.’
For his next film, Browne is aiming at something technically complex: ‘It will be six minutes long and the camera will travel 360 degrees in 360 seconds.’ Meanwhile, Fisher can be seen in Jamie Thraves’s new feature Treacle Jr, which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October.
Watch Aston Gorilla: