The director of Boxing day discusses his love of Ken Russell, adapting Tolstoy and the hazards of filming at high altitude.
So Boxing Day is out in the cinemas and you're currently editing another film at the moment?
I actually have two films in post production at the moment. One is The Devil's Violinist which I'm editing. It's a film about Paganini and his relationship with the devil. He was the first guy to sell his soul to the devil. People thought that his playing was supernatural. That you couldn't play the violin like than unless the devil guided your bones. When he died, the Pope refused to allow him to be buried on consecrated ground because he was thought to have communed with demons.
Why devils and not angels?
Well that's interesting. If you look at traditional images of the devil, he's often playing a fiddle. It's the same thing with rock musicians being devil worshipers. It's actually a long tradition and it started with Paganini. He had long hair and he threw it around. He was the Ozzy Osbourne of his day. So the film is about that. In the film, he does sell his soul to the devil.
Have you filmed this on handheld digital video, or is this a different type of film to something like Boxing Day?
It's not cheap. It's a €10 million movie. It's a period film and it has its own locations, in London mostly. It has extra and carriages so it has a bigger feel to it. The stuff that I've learned doing these little movies has infiltrated the bigger ones. It works both ways.
On this bigger movie, were the performances more rigid and defined than the smaller movies?
No, I allow improvisation. I want to keep it fresh. The film's star is actually a real life violinist called David Garrett. You can't have someone pretending to be Paganini. You have to have someone who's doing it for real. He's a virtuoso violinist, and the film was designed for him. It's basically my homage to Ken Russell, who died about a year ago.
Do you play with time and context in the same way that Russell did in his classical music films?
It's surreal in some sense in that it's about a man's relationship with the devil, so it's not strictly naturalistic. There's some suspense and horror. It's not a straightforward biography. One of the things that's wonderful about Ken Russell is that if you look at a film like Lisztomania, everything in that film is historically accurate. It's just that he presents it in a kind of Brechtian burlesque way. It actually makes it more entertaining. Ken was incredibly knowledgable about classical music, and he really cared about it. People were horrified when The Music Lovers came out because he said that Tchaikovsky was gay. But Tchaikovsky was gay.
Did you know Ken?
Yes, he was in Mr Nice. I met him towards the end of his life and really liked him a lot. He was such a funny man. It was really sad when he died because he was still really sharp. He hadn't diminished in any way. He was a really clever man, and incredibly misunderstood. There was this thing about him that he was vulgar and outrageous, but he was as much a part of Pop Art in the '60s as Andy Warhol. You look at his films now and they stand up so well. The Music Lovers is a brilliant movie. So is The Devils and Savage Messiah and Mahler. They're unimpeachably great. And there are the ones that are still really entertaining and great like Tommy and Crimes Of Passion.
The other film I'm doing, by the way, is called Sxtape, which is a little horror film I shot last year.
Is that due for a festival screening soon?
I don't know what's going to happen to it. It's a strange little horror film. I did it for some American producers who I think were expecting Paranormal Activity 5. They're a little taken aback by it. It's very experimental. And pretty scary, I think.
Moving on to Boxing Day, what's your relationship with Tolstoy, as you seem to return to him again and again?
I first came across Tolstoy when I was researching my film Immortal Beloved. I was trying to read as wide a range of things about Beethoven as possible, and Tolstoy has The Kreutzer Sonata which is the title of a Beethoven piece of music. There was a passage in there where he talks about the impact of listening to The Kreutzer Sonata and how the music works on this subconscious level. I stole that passage and gave it to Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. After that, I read Anna Karenina and thought it was an amazing book. I shot a film of that in Russia and when I was there I visited Tolstoy's farm. He asked the big questions, the kind of questions Ingmar Bergman would ask. And he really tries to answer them.
When did you decide to start making these non-literal adaptations of Tolstoy, films like IvansXTC and The Kreutzer Sonata?
The thing about Tolstoy is that he didn't ever really spend much time describing the world he was living in. He just writes about people and their emotional states, because that's what interests him. The other thing that's unique and amazing about Tolstoy is his lack of a filter and his intense emotional honesty. He cannot lie. Even if he feels something is against his principles, he'll write it. He was a conflicted person. And that's very modern. And if you take those people out of nineteenth-century Russia and place them in modern day Los Angeles, you don't have to change any of the behaviour or the attitudes. It's just the methods of communication and transportation. That's it.
Do you think Tolstoy would approve of your films?
No, because Tolstoy approved of very little. If you read his book on art, he slags off Beethoven and Shakespeare. He writes pages about how cheap Shakespeare's plots were. He wasn't generous to other artists, that's for sure.
With this new movie, how did you set it up? I looks and feels spontaneous like it's filmed as it happened.
What Danny Huston and Matthew Jacobs say in the do in the film is very close to the book, so I obviously got them both to read the book. And there was a script that was pretty detailed in term of the scene orders. But beyond that, I had a stack of listings of re-possessed homes in and around Denver and we literally did what they do in the film and just drove around to them. There were a few key lines in each scene, but mostly we'd just do it. The way I shoot is that I don't do a scene from a number of angles. I'm just in the car with them and I shoot what they're doing. If someone's off screen, it doesn't matter.
Were you directing them?
Never. Sometimes we'd talk about things, but almost never because they were both in their characters. One of the things I like about this story is the roles people give themselves. These men are both broke, but one is the master and the other the servant. Danny is a Huston and a hugely entitled person and he embodies that. Matthew has a chip on his shoulder. One change between the book and the film is that Tolstoy slightly romanticises the peasant, and I really like the fact that Matthew is a bit obnoxious.
They bring the worst out of each other.
Yes, but in a funny way.
A lot of the humour in the film arose from the way it was edited.
It took a long time to edit, as it was this big mess of people running around in a car.
The film is about the financial meltdown and the culture of greed. It's very prescient.
In the book he's trying to buy a wood and he wants to cheat the guy out of it. He still steals the money off the church to buy it. Never mind the mortgages crisis of the credit crunch or whatever, there are always abandoned homes and there are always people who buy them in bulk. What he's doing is not a new thing. It's what property speculators do.
Why did you chose Denver?
Denver is very high altitude, and then when you go into the mountains it's 10,000 feet. It's the topographical thing. I wanted to get them lost in the mountains. And it's incredibly cold out there at night and the air is very thin. The scene where Danny is running out in the snow was genuinely gruelling. The film is about the landscape as much as it is about anything. They're in a hostile environment. It's the landscape that's going to kill them in the end.