The Hunky Dory director reveals what inspired him to make a Welsh glam rock musical.
Marc Evans grew up in south Wales in the 1970s, so he didn’t have to look far for inspiration for Hunky Dory, his coming-of-age film that aims to do for the area what American Graffiti did for Modesto, or Dazed and Confused did for Austin.
His previous films have included horror thrillers with big-name stars, a documentary about a Black Panther activist on death row, and dramas set in his homeland. This is his first foray into musicals, and he learned a thing or two along the way, as LWLies found out recently when we sat down with the director.
LWLies: How was it shooting on location in Wales?
Evans: I looked forward to doing it so much; it was such a passion project, and it was actually slightly hellish. We didn’t have enough time, and we didn’t have enough money. It’s a constant gripe of British filmmakers. Then there’s the whole weather thing. We just kept chasing the weather around south Wales, trying to reschedule around the weather. The core of the film is the music; that was the bit you had to get right. So that was kind of okay; we didn’t have quite enough time to shoot it. That was in the school hall. But it was kind of a tough shoot actually. The thing that made it fun is Minnie and the kids, because the kids had a ball. It was definitely a parallel experience: they were living the life of that film, which is exactly what they should do, and we were fretting about how we were going to get it shot, and the fact that it was raining for a third day in succession.
Setting it during a heatwave must have been tricky.
It was a nightmare! We should have known better. We should have had more time. It’s not a whinge but it’s the plight of the British film, you just have to go for it. It’s always a bit too ambitious. So you have this terrible days when you just – like the day at the lido – when you’re just shooting half a day, because half the day’s in cloud, and we said we don’t want to shoot in cloud, because you’ve already given up on the film if you do that. I loved the kids and I loved working with Minnie and I loved the music, so there was plenty to enjoy. But there was a lot of pressure we put on ourselves.
Does it mean a lot to you, working locally?
It does. I love working in Wales. It’s that thing about becoming older and hoping that you can start talking about your own experiences and bringing work to where you’re from. I always admired directors like Neil Jordan who seemed to find their stories from their background and from Irish texture, and there’s not many films coming out of Wales, so there’s a part of me that would really like to do that. But there’s also a part of you as a filmmaker that wants to take you into areas that you don’t know about, so the next film we’re trying to do is about the Wigan Casino, you know, Northern Soul, which is not part of my particular locality or background, so there’s two sides of your brain, really. One is wanting to come home, as a filmmaker and one is still really wanting to explore the things you don’t know about.
Why a Welsh glam rock musical?
It started off as a conversation between Jon Finn and I, who made My Little Eye together, which was a very dark horror film. We were talking about what to do next, and music has been such a part of my life. Loads of people in this country feel that, whatever generation they are, music has accompanied them through their teenage years and that’s part of growing up, and I wanted to do something about that originally. That was the core idea, was about the tribalism of music and how big music is and the experience of music. And then we’d heard this thing called the Langley Schools Project, which is this little CD that came out. This teacher in Langley Canada, in order to get his kids interested in music he got them to record his favourite pop songs and it became a little cult CD that people got interested in. There’s something really strange about songs that you know being sung in an unfamiliar way. Or something upsetting, depending how wedded you are to the original! So it was that idea of hearing songs in a different way that were from your youth, and it grew from there. [Setting the film in the year] '76 was a response to my youth, but also an idea about heat and everybody’s last summer [at school] is a gilded summer, is a sunny summer. And then you look at '76 and realise that it is an interesting year, or – put it like this – '77 seems to be a year that is the beginning of something else, so in my head anyway that added to the sense of nostalgia and end of an era and melancholy. It’s that thing about everybody has a last summer, but it seemed a very extreme version of that last summer in '76.
Will you send a copy of the film to David Bowie?
I’d love him to see it. I don’t know what he’d think. When the Langley Schools Project did a version of his song, Space Oddity, he said that no amount of mind-expanding drugs could have made him come up with a version that languid and strange and odd. I’m not sure what he’d feel about this, because they’re very nicely orchestrated and quite posh versions of his songs really. That’s part of the tension of the piece for me. You strive to make them good, but if they become too good do you lose the thing that you set out to do, which is to see the rawness of kids doing it? So the way we tried to do that was by making it as live as possible. Everybody who plays in the film plays for real.
Aneurin Barnard is a great fit for the main role. How did you find him?
He was. We found him in a college in Cardiff when he was in his second year there. By the time we made the film, Glee and High School Musical had come out, and Aneurin had won an Olivier for Spring Awakening, which is the West End musical that he was in, and now he’s got a career. How I dealt with that in my own head was by thinking this is the film that he still owed himself as the kid that he first discovered in Cardiff, so in a way he – possibly for the last time – allowed himself to be that kid again. The last thing that you really want to do at that age is go back into school uniform, so he revisited that for us, and he has got the most effortlessly lovely voice, and he sings falsetto which makes it even more endearing. We were looking for something a little bit fragile. It’s not like a Commitments moment, is it? It’s a much more fragile thing that he does. He was a perfect fit and really even now it would be too late for him to do that part again, it’s almost like we just caught him before it was too late for him to do that part.
Well, we thought about it before them, and then you just have to take that on the chin and say, well that’s the nature of British filmmaking. It takes you so long to make it.
Do people now think that you were influenced by those shows?
They do, and I don’t really care about that as long as it works to our benefit, but as soon as they go, "it’s like Glee lite," that riles me up a bit, because we’re trying to do something different. Glee’s all about the performance. It’s very proscenium; it’s very slick, and we’re all about the rehearsal and the process. Those kinds of musicals can sit next to each other, and not rub off on each other, because it’s a slightly different view of that world. And the aesthetic, both musically and physically in the film, is different. It feels like a more ragged, scruffy version. Like a council estate version of Glee.