Greg Hall talks to us about writing and directing short film Smack Edd with star and co-writer George Russo, the two of them teaming up again to write feature British crime drama Villian starring Craig Fairbrass, his belief in a new wave of British cinema and teaching the visual language of film to young filmmakers.
Hello Greg, thanks for talking to us. You recently released your short film Smack Edd online which screened at Exit 6 Film Festival last year. Can you tell us what the film is about and how it came together?
Smack Edd is about Edd, a father in the grips of heroin addiction, who unexpectedly turns up to his son Patrick’s eighth birthday party. Mum Fran and her new partner Mark must do everything to make sure he doesn’t ruin the celebration. It’s a punchy haiku of a film that makes the audience experience the awkwardness of the situation, a social realist slice-of-life that looks at the consequences of addiction through the relationships of a dysfunctional family.
It's the first collaboration between myself and co-writer/actor George Russo, we had previously worked together in our Director and Actor roles on a low budget crime feature, off the back of that experience we began writing together and established Medium Kool Films as a home for our own work. Smack Edd marks the first production under the Medium Kool banner and sums up the companies ethos - hard hitting, experimental and powerful cinema.
My previous work has been predominantly in directing six low-to-no-budget feature films, with a sliding scale of success, some have done incredibly well while others less so but they’ve all been worthwhile learning experiences in honing my storytelling voice. The last couple of feature projects I’ve directed were fun but stressful due to the usual budget and scheduling issues, so they left me fairly frustrated creatively as I was just shooting coverage and managing problems. Therefore Smack Edd marked a developmental moment where I’ve tried to explore my vision and hone my directing voice, it often feels to me like an experiment I’ve shared from my artistic sketchbook.
The film has a lot of texture and authenticity, complimented by the fluid shooting style which almost lends it documentary. Is the subject matter something you researched a lot?
The subject matter on addiction is drawn from very real experiences, lead actor and co-writer George Russo has been in recovery for 10 years, his father was a heroin dealer and lifelong heroin addict plus many of his family have dealt with narcotic dependency. George also works with many addicts so it’s drawn from real-life experiences with an honest understanding of how it impacts families and relationships.
Authenticity is a huge obsession of both mine as a director and George as an actor, it’s what we also strive for as writers. The consequences of drugs and the fringes of society has been a motif across all of my films since my debut feature The Plague, and it’s the same with George’s own work since his writing debut that he starred in with Turnout.
Realism has underpinned all of my directing work, I am forever in pursuit of trying to achieve a sense of reality through manipulation and construction. Each film I make feels like a deeper exploration in trying to capture honesty, realism and authenticity. With the short I worked closely with cinematographer Nicholas Nazari in finding the film language of the story, we spent a lot of time on the location working out the practical logistics and used the camera placement and movements to align the audiences sympathies. We used the ideas of neo-realism to make the camera feel like it is a persons perspective to convey to the audience the sense that they are an actual part of the story.
The central performance from George Russo is as gripping as it is tragic. What were the benefits/challenges for you as director having a co-writer in the lead role?
I don’t really see the challenges because I’m so used to collaborating with performers when creating my work, I only see the benefits that you have the freedom to build upon the script.
I never started as a writer, but from a directing discipline where I’ve worked very closely with actors using improvisation and devising across my entire career. I cut my teeth as a director in my early twenties devising 90 minute no-budget feature films from an outline of a couple of pages with a company of actors. So I learnt to write coming from a world of improvisation with strong director-actor relationships, likewise George comes from an improvisational background also. Therefore I don’t really see any challenges with this process I only ever see the benefits.
Even though I’ve developed over the years as a writer and perfected my screenwriting skills, I still always come back to the belief that the script is merely a blueprint. The process of creating the film is built upon this and comes from key collaborations both with the technical team and with the actors. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form so for me it’s a major benefit to be able to rely on the script but not be enslaved to it, it’s just as important to give those you collaborate with the space to bring their ideas, thoughts and feelings to the film. In my opinion you end up with a stronger, more well rounded piece and I think the performances in Smack Edd are testament to that fact.
Villain is the first script to come out from under Medium Kool. When we set up the company we had two main strategies, firstly to produce our own work to satisfy our directing and acting desires such as Smack Edd. But secondly we have a script slate of genre films, predominantly crime and horror, which we write together as we have a deep passion for screenwriting. We use these to develop our own writing and storytelling skills with the ambition of getting them out to other production companies, in the hope of paying the bills and building a bigger network of collaboration.
We always saw Medium Kool being bigger than just us as a director and actor, and in some respects even bigger than just us as writers, we’ve always believed it represents an attitude of independence and unique cinema. It sounds incredibly pretentious but we believe in a British New Wave and we hope to be part of pushing that forward. Villain is the first script from our writing slate that has been produced, shot and released.
All credit to the film goes to the production company Ascendant Films and producer Bart Ruspoli, he was looking for genre scripts and executive producer Sara Sehdev (owner of Core Management) put him onto Villain. Bart loved the script, he had just worked on director Phil Barantini’s BIFA Nominated short film Boiling Point and he also had the vision of Craig Fairbrass in the lead, so he pulled all the elements together and produced the project.
I really enjoyed sitting back as a writer and seeing another team deal with the stress of producing the film, it was liberating to some degree. As writers we are looking to work more with Ascendant and the Villain crew as well as building new relationships with other production teams.
Can you tell us about the writing process between you both and what you set out to achieve with the film?
Both George and I have had to survive on the underbelly of the independent British film industry, which in polite terms means we’ve had to work on ‘Gangster’ and ‘Hooligan’ films because that’s what gets privately financed due to it’s audience popularity and ultimately what pays the bills to stay alive. One thing we both noticed is a lot of these films are overly cliched and inauthentic. In fact the worse examples of these films are deeply misogynistic, subtly racist and treat working class people like they are idiots. But we also both have a love for the crime genre, whether it’s the Film Noir of the thirties and forties (e.g. Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal) or the modern international crime films (e.g. from Scorsese to Winding Refn).
Unfortunately for a number of reasons the British industry has produced a majority of poor substandard crime / gangster genre films despite some bigger budget stand out gems. Therefore we wanted to write a low budget crime thriller that challenged the norm, we wanted to write a genre film that ticks all of the boxes of the conventions and motifs but is a Trojan horse for a drama that shows working class characters in an authentic way and tackles issues of race, class and crime in a nuanced and believable fashion. This is the attitude we apply to writing all of our genre work, whether it’s crime or horror, to satisfy the genre expectations but also tell a story with authenticity and ingenuity.
It’s very difficult to define our actual writing process, it would be simplistic for me to say that one person does this and the other does that, as it’s truly a collaborative working relationship. I’m a big fan of structure and George is masterful with dialogue, but again every script we write together we have both had input on every part, you can’t tell who did what it’s just a Russo & Hall voice in the end. I don’t think there is anything amazingly unique, like all writers we start by beating out the idea and then move into the writing process, developing the story during the re-drafting stage. I guess our biggest strength as collaborators is our frame of cultural reference (in terms of film, music, art etc) and both our desires to move beyond cliche and stereotypes into authenticity and nuance.
For a film in a genre to which critics are not always their kindest, Villain has enjoyed a lot of critical success. What is it about the film that you think is making it stand out, and what are you most proud of about the film?
It’s that classic Hitchcock quote about the three things that make a great film - the script, the script and the script! It all comes down to the story as Robert McKee would say. The story is simply about a man trying to rectify his mistakes from the past and make a clean start, something that all of us can relate to. The overarching theme of the piece is about the fear of death, something main character Eddie (Fairbrass) is haunted by and must come to terms with. So the fundamental DNA of the story is far reaching and goes beyond the genre, it resonates with the viewer on a deeper level.
But also in the same breath it does tick all of those genre conventions which satisfies the audiences expectations, I believe it’s that combination of a relatable drama with a popular genre that has helped it towards success. And of course the producer Bart, the director Phil and cinematographer Matt Lewis have worked within this remit and built upon the idea of it being an artistic, dramatic approach to genre with great success, as proven by the strong critical reception.
I’m most proud that the intention we set out with was achieved - to write an intelligent, nuanced and realistic crime thriller - which has clearly been translated well by the production team and warmly received by the fan base.
What were the biggest lessons you took away from both Smack Edd and Villian, as a writer and a director?
As a director on Smack Edd I really learnt the importance of finding the language of the film, developing my understanding of visual storytelling in relation to the subtext and meaning of the story. Up until that point I had developed as a proficient director, in terms of keeping a team focused and getting the project over the line on time and on budget, but exploring my vision in more depth and finding my voice again was a key lesson. Likewise Villain gave me great confidence as a writer, I never started as a writer but it’s been a wonderful experience of developing those skills and gaining a stronger grasp on the fundamental principles of storytelling.
Both have had a positive impact on my filmmaking overall, but strangely though both feel like old pieces to me, Smack Edd was shot and cut mid-2018 and Villain was also written and sold in 2018. So the lessons I’ve learnt have already been applied to the scripts I’ve been writing and the projects I’ve been developing and putting together as a director. That’s one of the funny things of working on film, what everyone else sees and thinks I’m up to is me two years ago, so I guess learning to remain focused and pushing on with new projects while your recent ones take the limelight has also been a big lesson.
You’re very supportive of all indie filmmakers and even teach film at university too. How important do you think it is to invest time in your peers and to give back to the next crop of filmmakers?
I’ve always worked in education since my first ventures into filmmaking as I have never been interested in going down the corporate or advertising work avenues, and in the last few years I’ve moved into university lecturing but a lot of my work has been with at risk young people. I’ve used filmmaking as a tool to work with and empower young people in pupil referral units, in care or on court orders.
Fundamentally I believe cinema is a form of visual literacy and that everyday we are bombarded by media and meaning, so it’s important to use film as a tool of communication. It’s incredibly engaging and even if you don’t have a strong background in writing or maths (or the usual methods used in schools to measure success), it’s amazing how many young people are very visually literate. I often find working in this way really rewarding. Teaching at University degree and masters levels has their own pro’s and con’s but again I find it makes me re-learn the fundamentals of my craft. What I love about teaching is that I am always learning.
Also outside of educational institutes I’ve always tried my best to celebrate and champion others successes. It’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt from actors who have consistently worked over a long career, we will all have highs and lows but the most important thing is to remain positive and productive going forward. We live in a very atomised and competitive society where we are all trying to get on and achieve our own goals. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of watching what others do and compare ourselves to their successes, it’s a dangerous and ultimately self defeating outlook. Our industry is filled with rejection so it’s easy to get frustrated and bitter about who got accepted for public funding, who got the best agent, who got the best premiere etc etc.
For me I really believe if one of us wins then we all win, it may be naive but it keeps me sane. The reality is we have a very under nourished film industry so the opportunities are rare, it’s easy to become competitive with each other. But what helps us all is building a brimming British film culture, and that takes all of our collective successes, so we should celebrate each other as we are all pushing towards the same goals. And if we create a stronger industry and cinematic culture it will benefit all of us.
Plus over the years I’ve learnt we have far more in common, it’s silly for directors or writers to be competitive with each other because if truth be told we are probably all very similar creative creatures just trying our best to tell our story. I’ve come to learn that I am not competing with my peers, I’m merely competing with poverty trying to survive and get my own vision out there. Of course I still have my opinions on how I want to do things and what I like but I’ve also learnt not to be overly critical of others, nowadays I’m just impressed if you get a film made, I know that pain and have far more empathy than nit picking over your choice of shot composition for example. I just try to keep my energy focused on developing my own craft.
The pandemic has, of course, put many people’s upcoming projects on hiatus, but what projects are you hoping to get into production when the wheels start turning again?
I’m always super cautious about saying too much about what I’m working on, I’ve done it in the past and usually it’s a curse. I find that for every film I have made about ten ideas / projects didn’t get made, so it’s difficult to be too transparent with what I’m up.
Obviously I’m writing lots with George, we’ve got a couple of completed scripts that are bigger budget horror and crime genre stories and we’ve had interest and discussions over those. Likewise we’ve written a feature called The Damage Done that builds upon Smack Edd, for me to direct and George to act in which we’ve had initial development meetings on. We are working on a possible follow up to Villain, not a sequel but another intelligent crime thriller, again it’s early days and the pandemic has certainly thrown a few spanners in the work.
Also we have a pilot for a female led east London based crime series for television under our belt that we are sending out, though TV is a new venture for us and learning experience. I may possibly direct another couple of shorts too. Lots of potentials but it’s the usual merry-go-round of meetings and trying to secure finance. Without a doubt I will be directing and having some of my writing hit production once the wheels start turning, but until then you can enjoy Smack Edd and Villain.
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Check out the Medium Kool website here.