James Callis, star of Battlestar Galactica and the Bridget Jones series, talks to us about his experience making feature film Beginner's Luck back in 2001, lessons in directing learned since across his extensive acting career, and his new short film All Cock and No Bull!.
He smarmed and charmed his way into the hearts of Battlestar Galactica viewers all over the world. His portrayal of the brilliant but flawed Dr. Gaius Baltar, effortlessly dancing between loathsome and lovable, despairing and droll, is an iconic one rarely ever matched. As such, it's exciting that James Callis has turned his attentions to writing and directing with new short comedy All Cock and No Bull!.
"It came about five or six years ago. I was in Los Angeles with Tahmoh Penikett and Michael Trucco, and we were talking about short films and wanting to do one. At the same time, I was looking at a weird article I'd read about some guy who'd gone to make coffee for himself in the morning, but he wasn't dressed. He was standing at his window and the next-door neighbour saw him, thought that he was exposing himself and the police came in. I don't know if he was arrested but he might have been charged with indecent exposure, and I just thought that that was a funny idea [laughs]. I wrote something based along those lines. I finished the script very quickly, but it took five years from then to us all being available to make it. We're all working actors, so I was busy, they were busy. Finally, there was this time about two years ago where we were all in the same place at the same time and able to shoot it.”
In true low-budget, independent fashion, the film came together as a collaboration between Callis, his cast and a crew he was already familiar with as friends or through work. It was his involvement on feature film House by the Lake, on which he was also a producer, that would be most useful when putting his short film together.
"'House by the Lake' was a feature film that I was a part of, and I was very impressed with the way that we could do things on a low budget. I asked Mike De Trana, who was producing that film, to help produce 'All Cock and No Ball' and he agreed because he liked the script. Essentially it was a pooling of resources. Dennys Ilic is a photographer and friend who I’ve worked with. Craig Anderl was somebody I'd known in Vancouver from when we were shooting Battlestar, who was originally assistant to Michael Rymer and is now a cameraman and a DOP in his own right. I wanted do something which was everybody coming together to make something and having some fun. I was excited if people wanted to do it with us. I didn't need to audition as I knew most of the cast. I knew that I wanted Michael Trucco and Tahmoh Penikett to be the lead roles. Through Dennys we met Jacinta Stapleton, who was perfect for the role of Michael's wife. Through Mike De Trana, I worked with Mark Berry in the 'House by the Lake', in which he plays the character of a rather stern homicide detective. He plays somebody totally different in my film. So, it was wanting to do a project with all the people you know, and then as others are suggested it becomes quite a unit.”
After assembling his team and waiting 5 years to start production, albeit it while rather preoccupied with a hugely successful and busy acting career, it must have been great to finally get the camera rolling. Not having seen the film, but knowing what it's about, I wonder which of the two leads (if not both) were perhaps required to perform a nude coffee run.
"Actually, another reason why it took a long time is because nudity was going to be a subject matter within the film. Initially, Michael and Tahmoh were like, "Hey, we should all do our short film together, wouldn't it be fun?". Then, I wrote the script. It took some convincing to get them to do the film! Filming was really quite smooth though. It was two and a half days and we shot over a weekend. One particular memory was us all in the bedroom and there's a little bit of improvisation. We're filming this scene, and there's people in the bedroom, the filming crew and however many of us there as well. All of us trying to keep a straight face and trying to keep the camera still just proved too much for this one eventual take. It was just explosive laughter, it was just so funny. It was so silly. The film is a comedy, which is lucky. Yes, we had a laugh. I think when people see the film though, they'll see that."
Sadly he confirms this one take wasn't in-keeping with the rest of the film, so it was lost to the cutting room floor. On the subject of cutting, we turn talk to Beginner's Luck, a feature film Callis co-wrote and co-directed with Nick Cohen back in 2001, which had an awful lot of material to wade through.
"'Beginner's Luck' was like a massive, exponential learning curve in almost every single way. It was almost kind of… dare I say it… Orson Wellian, in some fashion [laughs]. I wrote and directed film with my best friend Nick Cohen. Nick and I had met during a production of The Winter's Tale that we had taken around Europe. The play was a disaster in almost every single way. We decided that we wanted to chronicle these young people getting together touring a Shakespeare show that was just not very good. Awful. Working titles were 'The Moronathon' and 'The Shodyssey'. It was a group of people with no idea trying to mount this production.
Then we decided we'd need a main cast of nine and we were going to go around Europe. One filming location actually took us to Zanzibar. I think we shot for almost over two years and it really was guerrilla filmmaking. We would constantly be out of money, stop, wait another four months, do some PR, get some more money back, get the whole crew back, get everybody looking the same, and shoot again, and again. We had some just wonderful actors, everybody was an improviser, so we took the script as a springboard to just have some fun. What that meant was, in the editing suite, we were like, "Right, well, we've got a lot of stuff." Compiling that took a long, long time. We were lucky because we were under a special film project deal at The Luxe Cinema that gave us these incredible facilities to edit for a long time. Then, we finally made the film."
Some of the actors featured in Beginner's Luck include Julie Delpy, Steven Berkoff, Fenella Fielding and Christopher Cazenove. An impressive roster of talent to work with. So what did the aforementioned learning curve teach James by the time the film was finished?
"Pretty much everything. I think you should be learning all the time, every day. Sometimes you don't want to learn, but you should be, and you are. Maybe because you are, that makes you uncomfortable, but you're learning all the time. You pick up certain things that work particularly well. Like, being an actor, when directing I know to try to explain as simply as possible what is needed. You learn a lot through experience and I think doing something like 'Beginner's Luck' and then doing film and television afterward, what you learn is actually some patience. Sometimes for the process to work itself out, you don't need to step in. When all the right elements are swinging together, there is a certain fluency and it's a nice thing to achieve."
As an actor turned director, he had the opportunity to work alongside another veteran treading the same path, Edward James Olmos, who as well as playing Battlestar Galactica's fearsome Admiral Adama, also directed some of the show's episodes. I ask what it's like to have a long-time cast-mate on a relatively long-running television show suddenly take the helm.
"I'm not sure how it's for other people but for me, nine times out of 10, when a member of the cast is directing or is going to direct, it's because they know what they're doing. It's generally a lot of fun because they are actors as well. They have a shorthand with each other and being directed by Eddie was like... if you've seen Battlestar, Edward plays the admiral and Edward is the admiral. I think that what Eddy brought to the party, on top of and above everything else, was an incredible aesthetic. He painted beautiful pictures. I just remember him lighting up a lab in a way that it hadn't been lit before and all the light shining through this red blood sample, offset with other colours. Everything was picture-perfect. It was there because Eddie's an artist in every single way. The aesthetic was very important to the way that he told this particular story. The way that he told any story. Just on a personal level, I loved it and it took us all on a journey. I learned a lot, whilst also having an incredible time. I felt exactly the same way being directed by many directors on Battlestar, including Michael Rymer."
Last year, James had a reunion of sorts with many of his Battlestar cast-mates at the ATX Television Festival. He attended the event alongside Creator/Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore and stars Edward James Olmos, Katee Sackhoff, Mary McDonnell, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park and Michael Trucco. We hear about film festivals all the time, but not so much about television festivals, and James was impressed with the new creatives he saw there.
"It is quite different from a film festival. There's a level of understanding, inquiry and enthusiasm that the people have for particular shows or particular departments within the process of a show being produced. There's people giving seminars all of the time, casting directors from Hollywood or its people from the sets, the wardrobes, the PR department, the producers, how did this particular thing get made? How did the process work? How did you pitch it? I think that most of the people who attend that conference are going to wind up working in television. It seems to me that the young people who are there, this is what they are going to do in some fashion and they're getting a huge injection of learning and history through the ATX Festival."
After a brief interlude from James' dog going mad at the front door, potentially chasing off an intruder or just another dog walking by, we finish on what advice he would give filmmakers when making their short films.
"Edward James Olmos said once, 'if you want to be involved in making something, you just bank on investing five years of your life from the moment that you think about it, to the moment that it could be created'. He was really speaking about feature films but it applies to shorts. Speaking to lots of people about ideas and then getting it made, it does take a while to get your own project off the ground.
Also, Ben Wheatley's advice to the first time filmmaker is to do something that you can accomplish. I thought that that was really great advice. Shoot something that you can actually shoot. It’s not necessarily about reinventing the wheel but setting out to do what you can faithfully accomplish on a low budget. As much as possible adhere to the script, so you know what you're making.
One of the first auditions I went to in Hollywood, the lady looked at me and she said, "You know Kiss?" I thought that she was talking about the rock band, those guys with facial paint. I thought, "What on earth has that got to do with this guy who I'm about to play?" I must have looked confused and she went, "You know Kiss? Keep it simple, stupid". I was like, "Right, yes, okay." As in, don't over complicate it, which was good advice.
I think everybody comes from a very different energy when making a film. Some people have been through film school. I haven't. Somebody's advice might be if you want to make film, go to film school. I'm saying, if you have the idea and you want to make something, then make something that you can do, and you can do well. It'll be the first step towards the next thing that you do."
So say we all!
You can follow James on Twitter: @JamesCallis
All Cock and No Bull! will begin it's festival run later this year.