Adrian Lester OBE, award-winning Actor and Director best known on screen for Primary Colors (1998), Doomsday (2008), Case 39 (2009) and BBC's Hustle and Undercover, talks to Exit 6 director Mark Brennan about the making of his short film directorial debut Of Mary.
It's not every day you get the chance to chat with an Olivier Award-winning Actor, not just lauded for his performances on both stage and screen, but also awarded an OBE for his services to drama. I recently had the opportunity to do just that with Adrian Lester, who aside from his aforementioned achievements for acting, is also a Director who made his debut with 2011 short drama Of Mary.
Of Mary is the story of Jason (Tom Brooke) returning home to his estranged wife and son. His wife, Mary (Kehinde Fadipe), cannot see them being together again but their 6 year old son Freddie (Ben Mushumani) wants his dad at home.
After Googling how to properly address someone with an OBE after their name, I asked Adrian (ever so close to being called Lord Commander), where Of Mary came from, and why was this was a film he had to make?
"The idea came from a director friend of mine, James Strong, known for doing lots of stuff, Broadchurch, Doctor Who. A few years ago we were talking about working together on things and he told me the story of a soldier coming back from active duty and the strain it had on his family. He said it was from an idea a friend of his had had. I said, "Well it's a great story, great idea, let me have it." James said "Go for it." I wrote the script flipped it around, restructured it and called it Of Mary. The reason why I thought it would make a great first short film for me, is that I knew I didn't want to do something that I felt was an exercise or a funny little story. I wanted to do something that was more like a piece of cinema. High aspirations but this was because I've been on film sets before. I'm not straight out of film school and creating my own content in order to get the hang of what a film set is like. I've done a lot of stuff both in this country and abroad. I thought one of the hardest things to put across to an audience, to make an audience feel, is not laughter or for them to cover their eyes because they think something's going to jump scare them.... I felt that one of the most difficult things to create is a proper empathy for characters that can move an audience properly. If I wanted to practice being a director I would have to find a way of making my first film speak so that it's more than the sum of its scenes, more than the sum of its parts. I thought if I could move an audience in the 15 or 20 minutes I had, then I really would have achieved something that matched the amount of experience I had over most young filmmakers doing their first short. I wanted to construct something that the audience would just get pulled in by and hopefully moved by at the end. That's where I started with the first frame and the disjointed way that the characters speak at the beginning in the park. Looking back I know there's lots of things I would do differently if I had to do it again, but that's all part of learning really."
As mentioned, Adrian's path to his short film debut was very different to that of most short filmmakers. With vast experience as an actor on a wide range of productions, how did that help when working behind the camera for the first time?
"The best thing about being an actor and directing is that I've worked with more directors than other directors have, but I kind of have to be careful because actors are used to speaking from their own voice, how to play something or what triggers their imagination when they look at a role. Then you'll get actors on board who are triggered by all sorts of different things and you have to contain that, get performances out of them. A lot of directors can speak with many different voices. Their skill allows them to present their work in many different styles from many different starting points. An actor has only one instrument to express their work. Because I wrote the script for Of Mary I knew what was behind every single line, I could tell the actors where they were coming from and where they were going, why they say this or that. It was a great help. I knew exactly what I wanted to see and what I wanted to paint. Some things I wish I'd done a bit less subtly. I really wish I'd been less subtle with certain moments and other moments I wish I'd been more subtle and composed a better picture with the camera. As I say, you're learning as you go along."
It's clear that knowing the mindset of an actor was a great benefit to working with his cast, but despite his own profile as an actor and network of industry professionals, Adrian still suffered some of the same struggles most filmmakers face when trying to get their short off the ground - especially when it came to funding.
"I was getting quite frustrated thinking where do I go to? Who do I talk to? I was thinking do I write a letter to somebody? Do I say I'm going to apply for this funding? How do I do that? In the end my wife (Lolita Chakrabarti) just went, "Oh God, I know how to do this." She suddenly showed another skill, she set up a company called Lesata. She went, "Right we'll just do it like this." She suggested a friend of ours, Rosa Maggiora, who had worked at 3 Mills Studios, who knew how to raise money for things. We then realised we have to get a First AD on board. We asked a friend and she structured out how we would shoot it. Rosa costed it all and then we met a guy called Derek Mills who read the script and said, "I love it. I'll give you all the money you need." He was on set at times just watching how we did it all and we went ahead and shot it, getting the locations, getting the actors booked. RADA gave us a room so we could have auditions in the centre of town, otherwise it would be my house in South East London! Right next to the bedroom is a little room we've got, "Don't worry just come on in [laughter]." It was better to do it at RADA. That's also when the DOP, Luke Redgrave, started coming up with pictures and images from other films and we slowly put the whole thing together. What we wanted the audience to see and how we wanted them to see it."
We both take the time to further praise Derek and all the other angels out there that help see short films funded. With little to no return on short films any financial contribution is always based on pure love and passion for the project, making every penny of support all the more meaningful. With the means to make the film now secured and auditions started, how was the casting process for the film?
"We auditioned for the Freddie role, but then ended up giving it to a kid I had worked with before on stage in the West End. One of the actors [Tom Brooke] I knew but hadn't worked with. Then all I did was meet him somewhere. We chatted. I tried to show him that I was sane while making sure he wasn't an idiot [laughs] and we got on. Robert Glenister, I'd worked with on Hustle. Kehinde Fadipe who played Mary, I had seen perform at the Almeida. I just I saw her on stage and thought 'she's perfect'. When she was in the bar afterwards on this opening night I spoke to her for a few minutes and I just thought, "Yes, you're her," straight away. I just thought she can do it and so I just offered it to her and said, "Would you mind?" and everyone was gladly free and up for being part of the project."
The actors were free but they would soon be freezing on a 5-day London shoot in January, with the opening scenes all filmed outside. What were the main challenges during production and biggest lessons learned?
"The cold. Putting my actors, who were not getting paid but were getting expenses, through some of that cold was tough. One scene was filmed at dawn. Tom had to sit on a bench. There was ice on it. It was really cold. Another challenge, of course, was time. Ben could only work for certain hours a day so it was five shooting days of reduced light hours because it was winter, then Ben had reduced hours on top of that. It was a challenge, but we planned it to the hilt, every angle and every shot that worked. I’m really happy about that. The thing I learned, I suppose, was that it was a triumph [making the film] of a thing that frightened me when I started doing it. By the time we were about to start shooting I realised that all these people have put themselves and, in some cases, their money on the line because they trust your imagination. So for me, while feeling that pressure, I learned that I can actually do it. Once I had been trusted to be put in that position, I then had to trust my team. It is very important who you have around you. Who you allow to influence you in those moments. Get good people, trust them and they just bring it, they really do. I have seen shots where I’ve gone 'that looks great' and the DOP is running in, he's done something with the light and then suddenly it's beautiful. Other moments where I've gone, "Let's roll," and he's gone, "No, no, no wait," and so we wait and then suddenly, bang the light hits an actor’s face and it's golden and he goes, "Okay now." Just trust them, it was really, really good."
Since directing Of Mary, Adrian has gone on to direct many episodes of television, including Hustle and new Sky Atlantic series Riviera which arrives later this year. Did the experience of shooting Of Mary provide the stepping stone for this new career path?
"Yes, yes it did. I was testing myself and, at the same time, Lesata was testing itself to try and find out if we had what it took to make a nice narrative. Afterwards, I directed an episode of Hustle, but I was acting in it while I was directing it. Then since doing that I've just finished a two-part block on a ten-part series from Sky Atlantic as director, and I was in that as well. I look at [Of Mary] very fondly as being the first step I took to see, "Can I actually do this?" It's worked, so I've carried on intermittently in between my other acting projects.
What's it like directing himself?
"I always listen to my own notes and never argue [laughs]. Also, I completely agree with myself about how my character should play the scene. Seriously though, I think that, again, you have to know exactly what you want to see and what's going to help the story, so that when you have the material you know exactly what's not going to work. I'll have it in my head, step in and do the acting, then I'll look back at the performance I've given and know straight away if I was terrible. [laughs]. I can look at myself and go 'I’m not thinking about the right thing, it's boring, that doesn’t work, that movement’s too big' and so I just go back and do it again. I've already given myself my own notes as soon as I watch. It's harder for the other actors because they're acting opposite someone who's watching their performance, not just playing the scene with them. It’s easier when the camera's on you as director, you don't worry about them you just make sure that your performance is making the right connection points. It’s when you are acting with them while the camera is pointing at them that it's hard for them.”
We then joke about having to try not to shake your head, sigh or swear while watching the other actor perform their scene while acting opposite them, but it's obvious he never would. Going back to Of Mary, I ask what his experience of showing the finished film for the first time was like - a big moment for any filmmaker.
"That was - you either get proven right or you get proven wrong. If you think what you've put together is a piece of shit and then everyone goes, "Oh my God that was brilliant," you've been proven wrong. That's a nice way of being proven wrong. The biggest thing that happens when you screen your film is that, you get to see what your choices mean. One of the things that may not have helped my short film is that I didn't direct it for a laptop or a small TV or a phone. Unless you've got the incredible concentration and the eyesight of a hawk you're not really going to get the film I intended. Of Mary was absolutely designed to be seen on a cinema screen. Once I knew that's what I was going for, I just had to be true to it because, as I said, I wasn’t committing a moment or a single beat 4 minute thing, I was aiming to do something that needed to be really looked at. Something that people would enjoy watching again. When our first proper screening finished, no one moved. Then, when the credits had finished playing, I could hear people blowing their noses and when the lights came up for a Q&A people were upset and... y’know, that is one of the best feelings in the world because we could then see that the whole thing worked from top to bottom and it was a pleasure, a real pleasure to see that. After all that work it was a real buzz, people were just... Kehinde came up to me afterwards and she had tears in her eyes and she was saying, "I know what happens in that scene and it still upset me [laughs]!"
There's a lot to be said about the impact a viewing platform can have on the experience of watching a short film and being mindful of that when making one. What's taken from it, and potentially what's missed. With that in mind, what other advice would Adrian offer filmmakers looking to make their first short film?
"First you're going to have to believe in the story you want to tell, not just believe in it... because I suppose that’s obvious, but I think, invite questions, get trusted people along to read your script or listen to your idea. I don't mean pitch it to them, I mean tell them what the idea is and invite them to rigorously question you, because it's only when you can stand scrutiny and understand all those questions that your project will actually be strong enough to raise money for and try and commit to the screen. Otherwise what's a great spark for you might not work for the people you want to show it to. If you can make people around a table go, "Oh that sounds fantastic,” at the idea, then you have something you should push ahead with. After that, plan, plan every angle, every moment, plan it out, work out exactly what you want and exactly why you want it and then good luck to you and off you go."
You can follow Adrian on Twitter: @AdrianLester
For more information about Lesata Productions please visit their website.