Much like the transition from music videos to feature films in the 90s, it would seem that the world of advertisement is the new breeding ground for talented first-time directors. Trend or not, Malcolm Venville has waited a long time to make the transition to feature films and landed a winning hand with a script from the writers of Sexy Beast, and a cast full of British legends.
On the surface, 44 Inch Chest seems like a typical British gangster flick but underneath the profanity and bravado lies a simple story of a man dealing with the ultimate betrayal and deciding between revenge or acceptance. He took a break from pre-production on his next project to chat to LWLies about going from photographer to filmmaker and working with the crème of British talent.
LWLies: How did you go from photography to this project?
Venville: What happened was, I started directing commercials in the 90s and I started to get clients from agents in America and Los Angeles. I did so many commercials it turned out to be the best film school imaginable and I started to become interested in features and as I got deep into commercials I inevitably hooked up with producers and writers and agents and managers and started seeking out the right project. I waited a long time for it; for 44 Inch Chest.
There seems to be a lot of new directors that come from the advert industry, do you think that there is a benefit to coming from that experience?
Yeah, what’s so great about it is that you’re shooting these tiny little stories that involve actors and editing and lenses and photography and performance, you’re continually rehearsing it, so you’re sort of match fit. Music videos have kind of died away now so commercials are really the only breeding ground apart from theatre and a few other areas.
Did you know exactly how you were going to get the look even though it’s all set in an abandoned warehouse. How did you get the look you wanted as it was so insular?
I’m very inspired by painters, Michelangelo and Kara Raggio, those kind of history painters from Italy and some photography as well. I love English movies by people like Powell and Pressburger and Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a great director of cinematic movies in small places, movies like Rear Window, which really all took place in one room, was a great inspiration for this.
As far as the actors are concerned did you always have an idea who you wanted?
Ray Winstone had read “44” many years ago and he expressed his wish to play this part, so Ray was attached already. Ray and McShane were both attached to this project so once the film got kind of serious it just snowballed and the actors, the availability of actors was a great gift for me. John Hurt appeared, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane and it was just great to work with a bunch of great, seasoned, experienced actors on my first movie.
So many people are talking about how sweary the script is, but it’s a lot deeper than that, much like Sexy Beast. Are you a fan of that film and is that how you knew the writers?
Absolutely, I love the writers. They’re incredibly atmospheric and lyrical, they’re not your average everyday kitchen sink writers, they write seriously intense feelings in a poetic style. I was just thrilled and gripped to work with that kind of dialogue. Yeah those guys, they’re one of a kind guys, they have loads of scripts and some of them are just mind blowing.
What do you think the film says about masculinity?
It’s about fragility and the danger of being in a relationship and Ray Winstone is a big man, but a big man brought to his knees by a woman. It’s generally a film about love and the dangers of love, the honesty that he has to that terrible feeling, that crushing, gargantuan pain and suffering. For me it was this great combination of the giant physicality of Ray, the great danger of him and the fragility of his emotions.
It seems if you stripped away their suits and hard drinking and the swearing, the characters could so easily be changed to females. Do you see some kind of misogyny in it, or the fact that he assaults his wife when she tells him she’s leaving him?
Gosh, that’s such a huge question. I always felt that it was gonna be an issue for women, it’s very difficult as a man to answer that question. The fact is when he hits his wife, he crosses that line and hitting his wife ends it, it destroys their marriage and just destroys his family life and everything is broken, it’s his remorse for that crime that the film is really about. It’s pathetic, it’s about a pathetic act and it’s the punishment of that act that the film is really investigating.
Looking ahead to your future work, is looking at dark realism where you want to go as a filmmaker or are you just gonna play it by ear?
I’m more interested in feelings between people than I am in special effects situations. I think more than anything I’m interested in one particular idea, if I can find a really good idea to investigate in a movie then that’s what drives me forward. I’m definitely, really more interested in a crisis between people or a comedy between people rather than investigating some place in the solar system.
So have you replaced you photography with filmmaking entirely?
I’ve got one more book in the pipeline that I’ve managed to develop and I’ve already published two books. Photography is a great, amazing thing but it’s very lonesome, you’re on your own taking photographs, whereas on movies you’re usually around a hundred people, most of whom are complaining. I’ll always take photographs; it’s getting easier now in the digital age, it’s easier to shoot, it’s easier to make an image so I’m gonna get to grips with this and have fun and find time to do that.
There are a lot of photographers who turn to filmmaking, what would you say the benefits with that are?
The benefits of photography is the lens, how to use a lens and how to approach and choreograph a scene visually, that’s where the benefits are, no doubt about it. I encourage my friends who are directing to study photography because you’ll learn how to comprehend the world visually and film is primarily or at least 50% of it is visual. So, it’s amazing for that, photography, it’s great. Take Jean-Pierre Jeunet, his films have a certain kind of emotion whereas David Fincher uses a longer lens and his films are more detached, more thoughtful so you can learn how to use lenses to express emotion.
Yeah, I think many photographers, hmm, let me think, think of a good downfall. They can be too pushy or I think they can be too insistent, they have to learn, they walk into a situation and want everything.
Now you’re going on to working with American actors, do you have any assumptions about how they’ll work? I assume you’ve met them already.
Yeah, you know I miss working with English actors already, but you know, I think a good actor is a good actor no matter where you find them in the world.