SUMMER SCARS: INTERVIEW WITH JULIAN RICHARDS

Summer Scars

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 June 2009

Venues: ICA (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Jinga Films

Director: Julian Richards

Writers: Julian Richards and Al Wilson

Cast: Kevin Howarth, Ciaran Joyce, Amy Harvey, Jonathan Jones, Darren Evans, Christopher Conway, Ryan Conway

UK 2007

73 mins

British director Julian Richards has a number of successful micro-budget horror features under his belt, including 1996’s Darklands and 2003’s The Last Horror Movie. His latest, the adolescent thriller Summer Scars, has enjoyed a successful festival run internationally and now returns here for a screening as part of the New British Cinema strand at the ICA, to be followed by a DVD release from Soda Pictures. The film follows six Welsh teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks as they encounter a much older stranger while up to no good in the woods. What starts as a marginally uncomfortable situation soon escalates into a fight for survival.

James Merchant caught up with the director to discuss the benefits of filming in the woods, working with 14-year-olds, and his unconventional approach to selling the film.

James Merchant: Summer Scars clearly pays great attention to the representation of its teen characters. Did you draw on your own youth when making the film?

Julian Richards: The whole thing started off with a few childhood experiences rolled into one; the most notable being an event where myself and a friend were held hostage in the woods by a guy with an air rifle. Unsurprisingly, the experience stuck with me, and as I developed as a storyteller and a filmmaker I always wanted to find a way to turn that into a film. I had been approached by a writer in 1998. He was from Barrie in South Wales, a roofer who had jacked in his job and pursued a dream as a screenwriter. He had written a full-length script that I was impressed with. I thought he had a good eye for observing people and their behaviour, particularly the way they speak. So I approached him with my ideas for Summer Scars and he wrote it as a short 30-minute script to begin with. We put in an application to the Welsh Film Council to get Lottery finance, but we weren’t successful. At the same time, I was offered Silent Cry to direct, and soon after that did The Last Horror Movie. It took around five or six years for me to get back to the project, but when I phoned the writer back he had already rewritten it as a feature script. We put in another application with the Film Agency for Wales and this time we were successful.

JM: Did you find that by setting the film primarily in the woods you escaped some of the constraints of micro-budget filmmaking? The location also seemed to work well, considering the type of narrative you were working with, in that the woods provide an escape into a make-believe world.

JR: Very much so, plus the fact that it’s all set during the day and focuses on six characters held hostage in one single location. Even though the tradition says you should never work with kids, it was very manageable and achievable. I didn’t feel that my resources were being stretched at any point on set. You’re also right about the escapist qualities, as the run-down urban environment the kids live in, as seen in the opening few minutes of the film, is a stark contrast to the woods. The woods for me evoke memories of childhood, playing war games and such as kids, something innocent but with the potential to turn dangerous.

JM: The film is really built on the performances of the youths. Did the cast members have much acting experience prior to working on the film?

JR: I knew that the biggest obstacle was going to be getting the casting right, especially when you’re dealing with six 14-year-olds who are acting with each other rather than acting with adults, so I spent a lot of time casting. The first place I went to was an agent and actor’s workshop for children in Cardiff. They meet every Thursday to train in acting. A lot of these kids are from underprivileged backgrounds, the scheme set up in part to give them something constructive to work on. This was perfect for us as we’d found that many actors of that age are more stage school types who find it difficult to play the working-class kids the film depicts. I didn’t want acting, I wanted the real thing. I found all six of my actors from that one school, so they all knew each other outside of the film. This obviously had its benefits as much of the on-screen chemistry was genuine.

JM: How do you feel the film differentiates itself from the similarly themed Eden Lake, which was made after your film but got a theatrical release prior to Summer Scars? You are careful to avoid holding any moral judgment on these children in spite of their anti-social behaviour, whereas Eden Lake seems to place much of its focus on the stereotyped attributes of the working-class youth.

JR: I have discussed the film very thoroughly with (Eden Lake director) James Watkins. Even though there are a lot of similarities in the film they are very different. Eden Lake is essentially a classic backwoods story that we commonly see in the US, a type of urban myth story that demonises a certain class. It just happened to tap into the fears of youth crime of the zeitgeist. In Summer Scars, the writer and myself were out to portray the sort of childhood we had. You don’t often see those types of characters as most films are made by filmmakers from a certain background. I suppose there’s a Famous Five element to the film, though crucially they’re a gang of hoodies rather than well-spoken middle-class kids, so it was always a challenge to make these characters sympathetic. One of the arcs of the story is that you are presented with characters who aren’t likeable, but when they’re put in this situation, seeing how they react to it, you see they are vulnerable like the rest of us.

JM: Can you talk me through the character of the drifter, Peter, who is also a complex character and alternately elicits both empathy and hatred?

JR: From the beginning, we didn’t want to nail down that character’s backstory, as I often find in narratives that filmmakers try to justify why people are as they are. We looked at Peter and thought that he’s probably had some military background, but then realised that it would be better if he’s more of a fantasist in that he’d wanted to be a soldier and never followed through with it, but wears the uniform nonetheless. It was an element I had liked in films such as Taxi Driver and I found it worked well within this context. We also wanted to suggest that he was a product of a cycle of abuse. That said, he’s not the archetypal bad guy, and there are things about him that the audience can empathise with.

JM: You run your own sales agency (Jinga Films). How has this progressed since its inception?

JR: I founded Jinga Films through a frustration with the distribution of my first two films, where sales agents were effectively liquidating or were in the process of closing down. I decided that I would be better off selling the films myself, and my girlfriend and I set up the company to sell The Last Horror Movie, then began picking up third-party films. We’ve now been going three years and have built up a library of 28 films, all British, with a specialty in the horror genre, which is where my expertise lies.

JM: In recent years, we’re seeing more films being self-distributed theatrically, on the model used by Ed Blum with Scenes of a Sexual Nature, where everything up until the DVD release was handled in-house before selling the rights for the final home release. Do you find this model works for you?

JR: Yes, since we completed the film just over a year ago we’ve sold it to TLA in North America, and a few other territories like Germany, Spain, Yugoslavia and Thailand. We always find with UK films that the home territory is the hardest market to crack. About six months ago we closed the deal with Soda Pictures for a DVD release but felt that it needed a bit of theatrical exposure before this, so we’re screening at the ICA and we’re also booking it into 10 or 11 cinemas around the UK. We’re only just beginning to explore distribution. What we’ve found with a lot of the films we’re representing is that they’re lucky to go straight to DVD as there’s no theatrical window for them at all, so by doing this with Summer Scars we’re finding that there are possibilities to get the films out there.

Interview by James Merchant

Summer Scars will show at the ICA (London) from June 6 to 10. The screening on June 8 will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. The film is released on DVD on August 24.

Read about other films in the New British Cinema season at the ICA The Blue Tower and The Disappeared.

REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2008

My Winnipeg

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2008.

THE GOOD

Waltz With Bashir/Persepolis
It seems somehow unfair to try and choose between Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir in deciding the best film of the year. Both superbly animated, autobiographical features, they are totally unique, powerful and refreshing in their own ways. Persepolis uses stunning black and white animation to tell Satrapi’s often humorous story about growing up a rebel after the 1979 revolution in Iran, while Waltz with Bashir is a very personal and brave attempt by Folman to come to terms with his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Both are emotionally gripping, riveting films that are also terrifically stylish, making them an absolute pleasure to watch. SARAH CRONIN

My Winnipeg
Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is among his finest work to date, combining documentary footage, theories on psycho-geography and the director’s typical left-field sexual anecdotes to lurid and devastating effect. Maddin has conjured a Canadian Brigadoon that is both lost to the developer’s wreaking ball and to reminiscences of itinerant residents who have long since moved on. My Winnipeg is a beguiling and loving homage to both the news footage and the director’s own home movies of the town itself and an unmissable, metatextual fever dream about places we’ve all loved and lost. ALEX FITCH

Savage Grace
Fifteen years after his critically acclaimed debut feature Swoon, Tom Kalin’s follow-up is another stunning, audacious and dazzlingly well realised exploration of the relation between sex and power, based on a disturbing real-life crime. Shot in deep, lush colours, and with a wonderfully versatile Julianne Moore in the central role, Savage Grace recounts the glittering rise and tragic fall of the aspiring American socialite Barbara Daly. Kalin brings a coolly compassionate spirit to this haunting tale of love and madness while excellent performances throughout lend the film an extra edge of enigmatic power and unsettling perversity. Undeniably graceful, gorgeously photographed but also brutally sharp. PAMELA JAHN

The Orphanage
Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage marks a powerful escape from the clutches of the ‘torture-porn’ franchises devouring the horror genre in recent years. The simplicity of a look, of the sound of footsteps, a long hallway disappearing into darkness, the sound of children whispering… suddenly the subconscious mind is given some credibility again. The Orphanage is almost entirely preoccupied with the topography of the mind and is extremely successful at evoking the (often frightening) symbolism of the past, of childhood, of memories best left undisturbed. There may have been better films in 2008, but The Orphanage got to me deepest. SIOUXZI MERNAGH

Man on Wire
James Marsh’s Man on Wire shocked and amazed me above anything else I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who with the help of a small and fearless team, broke into the World Trade Centre in 1974. Taking with him an arsenal of equipment, he staged a feat of iconic proportions by walking between the two towers. If the heist-like nature of the narrative isn’t compelling enough, the emotional bond between the key players seen through modern-day talking heads and archived footage secures the film’s place as one of the most engaging documentaries of recent years. JAMES MERCHANT

Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s haunting Lust, Caution examines the explicit affair between naí¯ve spy Tang Wei and government official Tony Leung against the backdrop of wartime China. Leung’s performance is a master-class in self-loathing, revealing a supposed embodiment of evil to be a world-weary company man who is aware of the shortcomings of the political power to which he has sold his soul. Lee presents a multi-layered recreation of 1940s Shanghai wherein even a mah-jong game is an exercise in alliance and betrayal. Skilfully adapted from an Eileen Chang short story, Lust, Caution is as suspenseful as it is emotionally complex. JOHN BERRA

Far North
With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic folk tale, set amid the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

THE BAD

Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth
When making a nostalgic film about lost possibilities and childhood heroes on a limited budget, you sometimes end up with a work of genius like My Winnipeg and sometimes you get ill-conceived and tedious claptrap like Captain Eager. Inspired by the classic British comic book character Dan Dare and 1930s adventure serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, this is a film that tries to be an innovative, funny and affectionate homage to the past but fails on almost every level, while criminally wasting two of this country’s finest comic talents – Mark Heap and Tasmin Grieg. ALEX FITCH

Awake
Awake is a ridiculous thriller that strives for novelty by exaggerating, or exploiting, a medical statistic concerning the number of people who wake up during open heart surgery. When a bland junior business tycoon, portrayed by jobbing Jedi Hayden Christiansen, becomes conscious during a life or death operation, he discovers that he is the victim of a conspiracy masterminded by his new wife and his surgeon. However, his physical paralysis means that Christiansen spends much of the film relaxing on his back while his voice-over attempts to take care of the acting. Not to be viewed without anaesthetic. JOHN BERRA

Angel
Franí§ois Ozon’s first English-language feature, a foolish adaptation of Elizabeth Taylor’s unduly neglected novel Angel (1957), may be his most love-it-or-hate-it film to date. It is a strained, disastrous mixture of camp spoof and lurid melodrama, a would-be satire of Hollywood dramas of the Douglas Sirk variety that completely misses the mark. PAMELA JAHN

My Blueberry Nights
While not necessarily the absolute worst film to come out this year, Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights was certainly the most disappointing. The director’s first foray into Hollywood resulted in a film inferior in every way to his Hong Kong-based work, while the most egregious offence was the misguided casting that saw the inexperienced singer Norah Jones and the mediocre Jude Law take on the two leads. The story itself is a mere confection, with Jones waitressing her way across America after she’s jilted by her boyfriend. Thankfully, Wong Kar Wai quickly restored his reputation by re-realising his 1994 film Ashes of Time, a beautiful, elegiac picture that helped dull the painful memory of My Blueberry Nights. SARAH CRONIN

THE UGLY

RocknRolla
Arch-chav Guy Ritchie’s pathetic films are littered with embarrassing caricatures: mockney wide boys, smart-arse gangsters, Fagin-esque thieves and air-head tarts. This ridiculously contrived, self-consciously ‘cool’ macho wankathon was utterly boring, adolescent and stupid. But what’s most reprehensible about it is its glamorisation of the most disgusting elements of male, thuggish society: greed, misogyny, egotism, immorality, narcissism and random violence. JAMES DC

27 Dresses

This film is a triumph of formula, a mastery of the Machine:

1. Distill the identity of the ‘modern woman’ into one crisp, shiny, easily opened package.

2. Extract money from the ‘modern woman’ by marketing a tried and tested ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride (unless you’re younger and blonder)’ movie to her.

3. Stew the ‘modern woman’ in saccharine juices until her brain is pink and pliable.

4. Await congratulations from film investors.

Unfortunately, 27 Dresses grossed $160 million worldwide, with around 75% of the audience being female (boxofficeguru.com). And this from a female director… SIOUXZI MERNAGH

PHILIP WINTER’S VERY OWN ROUND-UP OF 2008

Unlike most of the other pundits writing this end of year review, I haven’t been to the cinema. 2008 was a grand year for cinema-phobia as far as I’m concerned. Despite my love of the art form I have never been a regular cinema-goer. My preferred time to go to a screening is mid-week, mid-afternoon, with no companions apart from my fellow strangers. Sadly, work and life have thwarted my indulgence in that proclivity, as has the fact that there has been very little fodder on offer that I have wanted to squander my cash on. I haven’t even attended press screenings. Indeed, most of my cinematic consumption has come via conduits such as DVDs and the Web. However, (here’s the me, me, me bit) I have been proactive in producing cinematic events. All of them low-key, thoroughly amateur and jolly good fun in a kind of botched together from Sellotape and twigs way. In the summer, I started an occasional evening entitled Philip Winter’s Lucky Dip (this title permitted me to decide what I wanted to screen the night before). At these events, I screened an eclectic range of films – local history documentaries, British transport films, instructional videos, Super 8 non-sequitur, YouTube chaff. Experimentalists like William English, Oliver Mezger, Fari Bradley, David Leister and Toby Clarkson presented 16mm and video works live, and as master of ceremonies I talked nonsense in between. The screenings took place in a room above a pub adjacent to the pub’s Thai kitchen, which provided a constant background din. Audiences weren’t huge but we all had fun, albeit of the shoddy variety, and best of all, it was free. I am glad I haven’t visited a cinema in 12 months.

THE END OF THE PIER FESTIVAL

Tommy the Kid

Format: Cinema

Release date: April 25-May 3

Venue: Bognor Regis

More details on the website

A typical assumption about film festivals is that they all take place in major cities or picturesque European provinces, where yachts, schmoosing and canapés feature prominently. For some this may symbolise the end product of a year’s hard work and financial strife, an opportunity to get a foot on the career ladder, or just a place to boost your ego while sipping champagne with a budding French actress, who’s just been promised a role in the next Franí§ois Ozon picture. This world couldn’t be further from the seaside resort of Bognor Regis, which this April sees the start of the fifth annual End of the Pier Festival.

Headed by Bryan Gartside, who has resided in the town since 2001, the festival has seen a dramatic rise in popularity since its creation. Last year saw screenings of 170 shorts and 6 features from as far afield as New York. Gartside has been a film fanatic since his youth, when Saturday mornings were filled with the likes of The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon. He firmly believes that the coastal town has much to offer in the way of filmmaking. ‘You can definitely get more here than just great fish & chips’, he muses. ‘It might not be obvious but Bognor has a really interesting film history’. He may have a point. Not only was it the birthplace of cinematic pioneer Cecil Hepworth, the town was also the setting for the cult classic The Punch and Judy Man.

The key ethos of the End of the Pier Festival is to demystify the common assumption of what a film festival is, demonstrating to filmmakers that they don’t need to spend money they don’t have flocking to European festivals to get their work exhibited. ‘For most young filmmakers in the UK, the thought of getting over to Cannes or Berlin to promote their film is just a pipe dream’, Gartside explains. ‘It’s important that projects made in the area and the UK in general have a place to be seen’. He also talks of his excitement to exhibit films from all over the world: ‘There’s so much you can learn from a culture from viewing their films’.

The biggest problem facing the festival, it would seem, is getting local residents to the screenings. ‘The one unfortunate factor is that in Bognor the word ‘culture’ seems to be regarded as an expletive. We can attract international audiences but for some screenings there will only be a handful of locals. This is really disappointing’. Gartside aims to tackle the issue this year with special screenings of films set in Bognor Regis that reflect the local traditions, and by commissioning new films to be shot around the area. ‘It’s really a dream to bring the town together for events like this’.

I ask him where he sees the festival in another five years’ time and he has clear ideas about the direction to take: ‘Obviously we want to continue to grow and to screen more films, particularly those made by young filmmakers. I really want to enhance the End of the Pier as a brand in the hope that we can branch out and operate projects around the country. But most of all I really want to establish links with other international film festivals so we can share our discoveries with the rest of the world and learn from other institutions’.

James Merchant

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews