Now that nearly every edge-of-town shopping centre comes with its own 17-screen megaplex tacked onto its side, you’d think there would be plenty of scope for cinemas to program a diverse range of interesting movies. But instead of being able to catch that cult British indie or French underground masterpiece, you are far more likely to be offered the latest installment of the Potter franchise starting at 15-minute intervals across half of the screens. And with the news this week that Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema faces immediate closure due in part, to the landlord doubling the rent, the outlook is grim for anyone wanting to seek out alternative films.
But imagine actually risking everything to make your own film. For that film to have audiences bent over with laughter. For it to gain excellent critical reviews and even go on to win top prizes at prestigious film festivals. Only to find that nobody is willing to join you in your risk to bring that film to the mainstream cinema going public.
Jamie Thraves is one such artist. You may not know his films, but you will certainly know his work. He is the man responsible for the video to Radiohead’s ‘Just’ – yes that’s right, the one with the guy mysteriously lying down on the pavement. State met up with Thraves at the recent Dingle Film Festival and despite him finding his latest film Treacle Jr. in distribution limbo, he was very open and willing to talk candidly about the state of the British Film Industry, as well as his new found love of the Irish culinary institution that is the humble Chipstix.
Treacle Jr. is financed completely independently, why did you choose to work this way?
This is my third feature film. My first film [The Lowdown] I did with Film 4 back in 1999. Film 4 didn’t really get behind it, even though it had really good reviews. Then it took me about 5 years to make the next one [The Cry Of The Owl with Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles] and that was too long. It was a catastrophe as I had massive battles with the BBC and I never really got to deliver the film that I wanted. That film didn’t do very well, it didn’t get into any film festivals and just went under people’s radars. As a result of that I was very disillusioned and almost felt like it was the end of my career.
However at the same time your music video career was taking off?
It wasn’t really taking off. I felt like I had had my heyday. I did a lot of Britpop bands back in the late nineties/early 2000s, The Verve, Blur, Radiohead and I did Coldplay [the VMA award winning video for ‘The Scientist‘] towards the end. It was actually doing ‘The Scientist’ for Coldplay that got me the gig for doing the BBC film. And the Radiohead one got me the gig for doing The Lowdown. But I feared my career as a feature film director could’ve been over.
Because your films weren’t been huge hits?
There is so much pressure as a director for your debut film to be this huge emphatic hit. It has to win at Sundance or the like, and if it doesn’t you are just set adrift. I’m not sure how true this is but there is a horrible statistic that the amount of directors in the UK that make a first film that get to go on to make a second, is something like 2%! And that is the route of the problem with the film industry. The Government has this naive attitude that the British Film Industry is doing really well only because we have one hit every now and again like The King’s Speech. They think the British Film Industry is buoyant – is it fuck! The amount of people working at grass roots level trying to get their films made is a nightmare. There is no backing for filmmakers to develop as directors or writers. There is no sense of nurturing talent in the UK.
My early short films were shit. I didn’t know the craft and I learnt my craft by working hands on and then eventually I made the Radiohead video. Features are the same. I never planned to be a writer/director. In fact if anyone out there has a script they can bloody well send it to me. I’d rather direct someone else’s script than write my own – but I have learnt how to write a screenplay and I’m getting more confident at it. And the same goes for directing; I’m learning the animal.
So when was the moment you chose to make this film completely out of the studio system?
When Cry Of The Owl died a death I went white as a sheet. The fear hit me. It was around this time that my sister and her husband suddenly took over his father’s business and became quite wealthy. My mum said to me why don’t you ask your sister if they’d like to invest. And she said that she would.
So I started talking to a producer friend of mine Rob [Small] about how cheaply we could make a film. He gave us a rough budget of about 30 grand, with a camera that we were loaning out from friends. My sister said she would give me all that money but her husband felt that he had taken a massive risk for his company by putting their house on the line and he felt that we should take that risk too. That’s when I realised; of course I had to do that. So I asked my wife and she said yes. This was at a time when most were re-mortaging to do up their lofts. So it was either loft conversion or make a feature film – it was a no brainer!
Did the banks know you were re-mortgaging to make a film?
No we didn’t tell them. I don’t think they would’ve agreed to it. In fact we no longer live in that house, as we couldn’t afford the repayments. Making this film put us into massive debt. It has been a massive strain on us.
So with this tight budget you managed to get the film shot. Then what happened to it?
Friends of ours who run a production company came on board as executive producers to steer us in terms of who we should approach. They suggested this British film market festival called The London Film Focus, who are fantastic. It’s only been going five years and is held at the South Bank at the BFI. They play about fifty British films and lots of distributors, sales agents and programmers attend. We had one packed screening and got a big clap afterwards – which the projectionist told me was a first.
But no buyers?
No. But from that we got invited to the London and the Dinard British Film Festivals on the spot. We won at Dinard [sharing the top prize with Made in Dagenham] and Shane Meadows saw it and said that he would help us get the film seen. The London screenings were all sold out and we got a fantastic review in Time Out. They said that it was a “Brit drama to shout about” and gave us 4 stars. We were on a great run.