The Disappearance of Alice Creed director J Blakeson discusses his innovative thriller, working with Gemma Arterton and more.
I know it's a cliche to say that movies are a team effort, with countless people required to bring a project to the silver screen. Many times, just the cast alone could populate a small town, with all of the extras and background actors. Even the most minimalist movies I've seen still feature a cast larger than the fantastic thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which has only three actors in the entire movie: Gemma Arterton, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston, all of whom deliver tremendous performances (look for my DVD review in the very near future). That's right, three people in the entire cast. No extras, no background, no voice-overs. While those three actors do an amazing job at holding the audiences attention for an entire feature, in many ways, the real star of the show is writer-director J Blakeson. After writing and directing short films, as well as the screenplay for The Descent: Part 2, J Blakeson makes his feature directorial debut with The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which will be available on Blu-ray and DVD November 23.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with this very talented director about his new thriller, and here's what he had to say:
The movie seemed to have perhaps some David Mamet influences, with these twists upon twists, only housed inside this genre setting. Would that be accurate? Or can you talk about some of your influences when you were first writing this?
J Blakeson: To be honest, I never really thought of it like that. I like the way that David Mamet uses dialogue like a weapon. With these kidnappers especially, the language is like the way Mamet characters uses language. That was a choice. I don't think there's any particular influence, outside of the film twists. I think it was more of a case of we've got three characters in one room and you've got a plot to work out. You're only spending time with three characters chatting in a room, so I had these limitations of three characters in a room and how could I really out-imagine myself, as well as the audience. As an audience member, I often watch the first 10 minutes of a film and you can kind of guess what's going to happen, at least with 70 percent of them. For this one, I really wanted that not to be the case. So I was trying to out-surprise myself, like what would the typical thing be and what could I do within that which was something else. I was constantly trying to surprise myself and do what I would not expect to happen. I was more influenced by that than any twisty movies in the past. I really love stuff like The Spanish Prisoner and he really use them like 'Gotcha,' especially towards the end. With mine, I think it's more of a reveal than anything. It's like you're watching a film about three people in a room and you realize they're in hell, but we haven't told you they're in hell. Everything is there, but I haven't revealed certain pieces of information. When it comes out organically, it seems like a big twist, because it's going against what you assumed.
It's really quite refreshing to see a movie like this, with literally only three actors. Even some of the smaller movies you'll see, they'll have supporting characters, extras, but there's nothing here and it's really cool to see the whole movie play out like that. Can you talk about the reasoning behind that and why you wanted to see a movie with just three people in the entire movie?
J Blakeson: When I was writing the film, no one really had any interest in letting me direct anything that I was writing. I had been writing for six or seven years and I had sold a bunch of scripts but no one would let me direct them. I wanted to write something that I was going to direct, so I wanted to write something that, if I really needed to, I could make in my own apartment with credit cards and friends. So, if I needed to make it very, very cheap, I needed to give myself very strict limitations. I didn't want to squeeze a big-budget film into a low-budget which would make it look like amateur dramatics. It was going to be very very tight so I wanted to spend my money on making it look good. So it was three characters, mainly one location, other exteriors, places where there were no extras. We can't show the family because we can't afford that. Then we covered the windows up, the kind of thing that Kevin Smith did in Clerks, so he could shoot at night time and pretend it's daytime. I always needed a narrative reason for them to do it, but it made sense in the plot and made it cheaper for me. Even the costumes, the sweatsuits and overalls, are very cheap and easy to replace. That was the starting point for me, that I was going to do something very, very contained and it was quite refreshing to have those limitations. When you're writing, you can imagine anything. You can imagine millions of extras and then when you come to make it you go, 'Oh God, where am I going to get all these extras?' (Laughs). The good thing about having nobody there is you can really push against the restraints and do the best version possible with what is there. To start, it was just a practical thing but it became almost a game I'd play with myself while I was writing it. It actually made it very fun to write.
I heard on the commentary of the extended scenes that the gun scene was what you used to audition for Alice and Danny's characters. What scene did you use for Vic's audition? Can you give us any insight into the overall casting experience in general also?
J Blakeson: The casting experience was quite stressful. The time from meeting the financiers who were going to make the movie to us actually shooting the movie was about two months. That can normally last up to a few years (Laughs). It was extremely fast and we had a definite start date for the budget to work, we needed to shoot at this exact time. If anyone wasn't available, if they were already working at that time, they came off our list, so our list started out with who's available. It was very stressful to find people who were available, and worked, and worked with each other, and also worked for the financiers, to have a big enough name for them for an audience. Luckily, the first person to come in and audition was Gemma Arterton. She was at the top of the casting director's list because she had worked with her before. I had only seen her in the Bond movie (Quantum of Solace) and St. Trinian's, so I didn't know much about her besides she wanted to be in the movie, so she came in and auditioned. She came in and she just blew us away, and that was great. Once we got Gemma, it got a bit easier. Eddie Marsan came on board not long after Gemma, but the hard one to cast was Danny. Finding the third person to sit in that triangle is very hard and we auditioned a lot of great actors who just weren't right. Then it was extremely late in the day when we got Martin Compston. It was like two weeks before shooting before we even met Martin. He flew in from Scotland one day, got the role the next day and the next day was rehearsing. It was very, very stressful and it was great that it all came together because casting is the most important thing for a director, hiring the right people for the movie. That's half of the director's job and we got the right three people and I was thrilled about that. Vic's audition scene was when he first goes in with a bottle of water and threatens her. I think that was the main one we auditioned with.
All three of them give incredibly bold performances here, especially Gemma. She has all these projects now and she's become sort of this "it" girl. You wouldn't normally expect this to be a role that one of these "it" girls would take. Do you think she was trying to break out of that conception with a role and a movie like this? To maybe avoid being typecast before she is typecast?
J Blakeson: Maybe, but I don't think so. I don't think it was that conscious. I mean, she went to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), the best drama school in the U.K. and she was the stand-out in her year. Everyone knew she was going to do great things and actually she got cast in St. Trinian's while she was still at drama school. RADA is basically a school for theater acting and she expected to be in plays the rest of her life. For her, this is much more what she was intending to do with her life, rather than go out and make those big movies. I think she likes acting and the challenge of acting. On those massive movies, I think Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time had a six-month schedule. She was only doing like tiny bits of acting every day, where on this one, we were shooting five or six pages a day, all day, every day, six days a week. It was really hard acting and, I think after six months of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, with all the special effects and green screen, I think she wanted to do something that was the complete opposite of that, to refresh herself in acting. She really threw herself in it. Obviously, I've only worked with her on this, but I think her performance in this is the best performance she's given, because this is closer to the kinds of films that she loves and it's material that she can really get her teeth into, rather than playing the pretty girl, which she gets a lot, because she's so pretty. It's almost like if you're a pretty, you're not allowed to be a good actress. If you're a pretty girl that's what you get cast as and you can make a very good living that way, but she got into this because she loves the work, she loves acting. She absolutely committed to the role and it was fantastic.
I was kind of surprised to find a Gag Reel on the DVD, because it's such a tense and serious movie, but there's a really hilarious Gag Reel on here.
J Blakeson: Yeah! I didn't know that was going on the DVD. That was our wrap reel for our wrap party. I think when you're making a film that's so intense, you have to laugh between takes because you'd go insane if you didn't. Obviously we had a very small cast and a very small crew and we all knew each other really well. We were all staying at the same hotel and we were all eating our meals together, so it wasn't like they were off in trailers the whole time. If they weren't on camera, they were still on set, so that meant we had a real good camaraderie. Because of the tension and the stress is so high, we just had to let off steam. I don't think I've laughed so much in four weeks in my whole life. You're so relieved when you're done in some of these scenes. I mean, Gemma is all tied up and when it's done, the first person to crack up would be Gemma. It was really surprising because she's so terrified in the scene and they all had such a great sense of humor. The humor comes out really quickly and thank God it did because that just made it fun.
It was reported a few weeks ago that you were directing Hell and Gone with Jonathan Nolan scripting it. It sounds like quite an amazing movie with quite an epic scope. Is there anything you can say about that or when you might start shooting that?
J Blakeson: Well, at the moment, I'm talking about it. I want to do it and I've been to Warner Bros. a few times and I've talked to Jonathan a few times about the script. I think in technical terms, we're still in negotiations, but I see on IMDB it says 2012, so I imagine that's what it is (Laughs). Jonathan is working with J.J. Abrams on a prospective TV series and on the new Batman (The Dark Knight Rises) with his brother (Christopher Nolan), so he's a busy fellow. I definitely want Jonathan to do it and, if it does all come together and I sign on the dotted line, it will still be a little bit of work to be done before we start hiring people. I'm very excited about it. It's a great script.
Can you talk about the scope of it at all? Does it take place before, during and after the fire? Is it more linear like that or does it get broken up with flashbacks and things like that?
J Blakeson: I'm sworn to secrecy. I can't tell you anything about that other than it's about the (1871 Great Chicago) Fire and, because it's about the Fire, I'm sure it will be pretty big. The film I want to make is a big summer movie and they tend to be pretty big. And Jonathan writes pretty big movies.
Is there anything that you're currently writing right now that you can talk about?
J Blakeson: I'm writing one at the moment. Depending on a few things, it might be my next one. I don't have it set up anywhere. I wrote it on spec so, literally no one apart from three of my friends have read it. I'm not quite finished yet, so I don't want to say much about it yet, but it's in a similar world, a similar scene to Alice Creed. It's in a very different place and time and setting, but in a similar... eh, I guess you could call it a thriller but it's more a good guys/bad guys kind of movie. Hopefully it will be done soon and we'll announce it, so watch this space. There will be more coming soon.
J Blakeson: I'd say that most people really enjoyed it. I think it's kind of a ride movie, but it's a ride movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat. While you're watching it, you might be thrown left right up and down, but once you come off it, I think you'll be thinking about it for a couple of days after. I think it's got three of the best performances of the year in it, so, if for nothing else, go see it for that.
I have to say I'd agree. I really loved it.
J Blakeson: Oh, thank you.
Thanks so much for your time and best of luck on anything else you have coming up.
J Blakeson: Great. Thank you very much, Brian. It was good talking to you.