In the UK, it’s Hummingbird. In the US, it’s Redemption. And in France, it’s Crazy Joe.
Wherever, though, Steven Knight‘s new film, and the first he’s directed after writing Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, is definitely not your common or garden Jason Statham vehicle.
I spoke to Knight about the film, and some of his upcoming projects. Here’s some of what he had to tell me about making Statham into Robin Hood, subverting religious ideas and reflecting the world outside the window.
If you write a story that doesn’t involve people from different cultures that would be a specific choice, rather than just reflecting what’s really there. When I look out of this window now, in this London hotel room, I’m seeing a Chinese person, an African person. It’s not that one is saying “Okay I must deal with these different cultures” it’s just what’s there. If you don’t deal with it then you’re choosing not to deal with it.
But I think that people think in terms of genres, when they address the making of a film and rather than a hold up a mirror, where you’d just see everything, in order for to make a solid genre film, they will have to weave in and out of what’s really there and only join the dots that fit within the genre. With East London villains and all of that stuff, there’s a certain protocol, a certain routine about it. But I think it’s good to take true stories because true stories have always got an authority, and then realise them in a real way.
The thing I used to say about Dirty Pretty Things was, if you see a mini-cab in London, the story of the driver will be more dramatic and interesting than the story of the passenger. Almost always. But you don’t often get the story of the driver. I’ll tell the story of the driver, but not because I’m trying to make a point, because I’m trying to make the story more interesting.
But with Hummingbird, yes, it’s political. I thought that London needed a Robin Hood.
I try not to exclude things that don’t fit into the film’s genre. Life is not in one genre, one’s life can be a thriller one minute, a comedy the next, a tragedy the next. That’s why if you take a real person and follow them through their journey you will pick up lots of different genres. Well, that’s what I hope anyway. You have to be careful obviously – you can’t suddenly do slapstick and get away with it.
Normally when I write, it’s a very visual experience. I feel as if I can see the room and I can see the character and see what they’re doing. And I try when I’m writing script directions to be very precise about what’s there. That’s maybe the reason a lot of people said I should direct.
I thought I’d give it a go, so I wrote this knowing I was going to direct it. And that didn’t change the way I wrote. I wrote it exactly the same way because you still have to present it to producers and they have to be able to see it as well. But, when it comes to the reality, when you’re out there in the freezing cold and dark, things change. What you pictured isn’t always going to happen. And in my experience in writing for other directors, fifty percent of what comes out on set is worse than you imagined, fifty percent is better. And I just wanted try and increase the percentages a little bit if that was possible.
To put those odds in my favour? First of all I got Chris Menges [the cinematographer], which is always a good start because he is able to make things happen in the camera. If you say to him you want this scene to look, say, cold but beautiful, he is able to make the mood exactly right. And there’s something very subversive about the way he shoots things. Every time we were shooting something that was seedy and ugly, we tried to make it look beautiful and pastoral. And didn’t have the camera moving around, but nice and stable.
So it’s an alley in Soho, but it looks absolutely beautiful. It’s an alley where homeless people are sleeping, but the red lanterns of Chinese New Year are there, there’s blue light coming from the doorway, and if you take a still of that, it’s fantastically beautiful. Crossing the bridge, that great big bridge, the way that’s shot feels like a real journey to somewhere dangerous, and Menges created that just by the rhythm of the struts going by. He’s brilliant, he’s an absolute genius.
[Menges shot] Dirty Pretty Things, and at the end of that, he said to me that if I ever directed anything, he’d shoot it. Luckily, he read this script and he loved it.
With the new digital cameras, like the Alexa, you can shoot urban night-time and it looks fantastic. And Chris has fallen in love with this new technology as well, and we thought, seeing as this is a very night-time sort of film, we want it to look really beautiful, we want blue, we want orange.
There are many, many light sources, in London, any time you look out into the street you probably get about thirty different light sources, all different colours. We wanted to make the most of that and really enjoy that. I hope it gives dignity to the characters and the homeless, because they’re in is a beautiful setting.
Jason [Statham] and I went to see a lot of homeless people, to talk to them about their lives and how they survive. One of the people we got talking to quite a lot, we asked if he wanted to be an extra and he said yes, so a couple more homeless people arrived and became extras and at the end of one particular long and cold night, the homeless person was paid in cash and I said to him, “You should use this as a jumping off point, you could get your life together” and he said “Are you joking? I’d rather be homeless than be a film extra.” There’s also a character who says “Anybody lost or need direction?” and gives away maps and he’s a real person who does that. It’s difficult to get people to lie on the pavement for eight hours, but homeless people, they know what to do.
There are religious elements in the film that, hopefully, have been subverted a bit. The redemption that’s offered leads to him becoming a gangster, he doesn’t become good. It’s not so simple – you can’t just forget your past, you can’t just move on. You can’t be redeemed that easily. I did try to make it, mayb not allegorical, but a little bit symbolic. The red dress is a symbol of passion and sex all of that good stuff that Christina has been denying herself.
[My next film] Locke is done, and it’s having an incredible effect on anyone who’s seen it. It’s Tom Hardy being brilliant. It’s extraordinary really.We shot it, ten times for real, as though it was a play. And then we cut together the best bits of all of those ten performances. But it feels like real time. [Cinematographer] Harris Zambarloukos is brilliant, he’s done a fantastic job. It’s mesmerizing what he’s done. It was a very unusual editing job, it was Justine Wright and she’s fantastic.
I’ve learned that he most important thing is the performance. When you’re on set and you’re filming you start to think that all sorts of things are important, like a light, or the continuity. And they are important, they desperately are, but there’s nothing as important as the performance. That’s the only thing the audience cares about. All the people are looking at is the eyes of the actors.
Now I’m just going to write for a year or so, I’m not going to direct anything for a while. And I’m doing a lot of Hollywood stuff. John Wells is going to direct the Chef film in April of next year. And I’m working on a project with Graham King which is exciting and is coming up soon. He’s really interested in the British film industry.
Thanks again to Steven Knight for taking the time to talk to me.
Hummingbird is out in the UK tomorrow. Chris Menges cinematography really does make it worth seeing on the big screen.