Nigel Cole talks about the benefits of Twitter
This coming Friday – May 11 – marks the release of All in Good Time, a comedy-drama set amongst an Indian culture in the North West of England. The Fan Carpet’s Stefan Pape caught up with the director Nigel Cole, to discuss his latest project as well as the benefits to being on Twitter.
Having made films such as Calendar Girls and Made in Dagenham, All in Good Time is somewhat of a different path for the British filmmaker, taking on a script by the esteemed writer of East is East Ayub Khan-Din – who also the play of which the film is based upon.
Cole discusses working alongside Khan-Din, as well as telling us of his upcoming project The Wedding Video, whilst also deliberating over the lack of “cool” celebrities with the name Nigel…
I think it was Andy Harries that brought you the script, what was your first reaction?
Andy I’ve known for years, and Suzanne Mackie who produced Calendar Girls, and we were very close and Suzanne and I had been finding something to do together and she rang up one day and said “I’m very excited I’ve got something I think you’ll love and it’s by Ayub Khan-Din” and immediately I thought “okay, I’m going to like that”. He’s that rare animal, he’s a real writer, a proper writer, who does joined up writing. I read it and I didn’t know about the play at the National, I’ve not really been aware of that. It vaguely rang a bell and I worked out that I remembered seeing the original film The Family Way. Do you know the whole history of it?
Just that it was a play in the 1960’s…
Well originally it was a TV play that went out live one night and then got lost in the ether and then it became a big West End hit called All in Good Time which got turned into a film called The Family Way by the Boulting brothers, with John Mills and Hayley Mills. Then years later, around 40 years later, the National Theatre have this idea to get Ayub to re-write it and set it within an Indian family in Bolton. So I wasn’t aware of all that but I did remember the story-line which rang a bell and I traced it back to The Family Way. I’m always looking for things that have this mixture, this balance of comedy and drama because I kind of like to do both and people seem to have got this now, I love to do comedy and make people laugh but I love to twist it and make people cry too, and add a little meat to the bone so I rarely do straight comedy, and they’re quite hard to find where that balance works where there is a kind of interesting mixture and this seems, very clearly, to be a great example of that.
Do you find it difficult to create a film that is equally as funny as it is tragic or do you find that they compliment each other quite well?
It is hard, I mean it’s not easy. When you get it wrong it’s painful, you know there is nothing worse than a bit of comedy that isn’t funny, it’s the most awful thing. So it’s tough and it’s a very delicate balancing act, and without wanting to resort to a cliché, it’s all got to come from the truth of the characters and situations and you’ve just got to keep going back to that and what you can’t do in a comedy drama which you could in Anchorman or Aeroplane, which are just pure comedy, you can’t deviate from the truth of who these people are and what they’re going through and it has to feel part of that story and part of that drama, and the comedy has to be equally as poignant and appropriate. But what’s frustrating about that is that very often you’re coming up with funny ideas, jokes or beats or moments you know are really funny but are just going to destabilise the whole thing because they’re wrong. You’re often standing there and the actor has done something so funny its made the crew laugh, because crews often laugh, and you’re thinking, “that’s really, really funny but I’m going to stop you doing that because it just throws the characters off”.
How involved was Ayub in production and can you tell us what changes were made from the script play?
The first thing I read was his first go at turning it from a stage play to a screenplay, and I thought he had done a lot of good work but we then spent another year or so, maybe longer, re-writing it several times, trying to get the balance right. The hard thing is, what everyone says to you when you do a film of a play is, “you’re going to have to open it out”, there is some sense that films take place in big locations and plays take place in rooms, how are you going to make this a movie, there are no car chases and one understands why people think that. The problem with that, in this case, is the claustrophobia of them is stuck in this tiny house is part of the story, the house is a big character in the film so I wanted the audience to feel like they are stuck in that house, eager to get out. That worked for me I felt because you can kind of get into those rooms and those dark bedrooms and dark living rooms and you feel claustrophobic and that’s something I knew I had to pull off, so it was actually the expectation. The play has an entirely different structure, the wedding night in the first half and the second half is six weeks later and you cut to where the Patel’s are coming round to talk to the family, and I knew that you couldn’t make a film in two halves whereas you can a play because there is an interval, and I felt like we had to tell this story. So we worked quite a lot about how to spread the story over a few weeks and kind of build it, but mostly it was trying to capture what the play did so brilliantly, which was to lure you in with this great comedy and make you howl with laughter and when you are least expecting it kind of turned it and got much darker and more interesting and I knew the play did that brilliantly and I was very concerned that I pulled that off in the film.
Having been a play, not once but twice, does that add more pressure to you as a director that it has more heritage behind it?
It does a bit in a sense that you can’t blame the script. I mean if you do Hamlet you can’t say “Well it’s a shit play”, because actually we all know it’s kinda good really. So there is that pressure. I knew audiences had loved the play at the National and it was obviously important to me that they loved the film just as much, if not more, so that’s a pressure. It’s always new, you know, I could make the film again tomorrow with a different cast and it would feel completely different and completely new, my whole job is trying to make these scenes feel like they’ve never been spoken out loud before and make it feel like it’s real and happening in front of you, it’s just all part of that really – making sure it feels fresh.
The film is depicting a whole different culture to your own – did you have to do much research into the British-Asian culture in the North of England?
I did and I tried and I gradually realised that it wasn’t really about a different culture. It some senses I was disappointed. I went to Bolton a lot and I hung out with my Indian researcher and assistant and we went out with loads of Indian families living in Bolton and I met with young couples getting married and I hung out drinking tea in kitchens and I watched the family dynamics, and I thought I’d have to learn really fast and learn a lot about the ways families work in a Hindu culture and I discovered very quickly that they were exactly the same as mine as my family. What was going on underneath the surface and on the surface was identical to my own family and I talked and thought a lot about my relationship with my own father and I did a lot of thinking about me now as a dad. I have a daughter and I recognised myself is Eeshwar – Harish’s (Patel) character, and I recognised myself in Reece’s (Ritchie) character. Actually at the end of the day I soon forgot it was Indian and stopped worrying. I actually felt more in tune and better connected to the material as though it was more a part of me than I did with Calendar Girls, which is a white middle-class film, because I am a dad and I’ve been a son but I have never been a member of the WI and I’ve never stripped for a calendar…
No, not yet. So it felt more personal. You know I’ve never grown marijuana in Cornwall like in Saving Grace, so I felt like I knew this story quite well and I knew what it was like to live in a house and have an awkward relationship with one of your parents and struggle with knowing how to deal with that, and I was married very young which was a disaster obviously so I knew what that felt like, it was actually surprisingly personal.
You’ve got this wonderfully established cast, but what were you looking for in your two young leads?
It was tough because Reece and Amara (Karan) play a very ordinary couple in Bolton and I met lots of them and yet they were the romantic leads in a movie so I couldn’t help, as a director, feel that I needed actors with movie star charisma, but they had to feel authentically ordinary Indian couple from Bolton so finding that balance seemed to be what it was all about, and it was interesting to me that I saw forty of fifty young Asian actors for Reece’s part, and twenty odd actresses and I ended up picking the two that had movie experience without realising I had done that, I found these two actors that had that kind of movie charisma and it just turned out that other people had seen it too. But I hadn’t paid much attention to what else they had done so I remember thinking “oh God, Reece has been in three big films already” and here’s me thinking I discovered him.
As you were saying before, you felt you could connect to this more so than you could with Calendar Girls – do you think that’s the appeal to the film is that it explores very universal themes?
I think so. I think that’s why its been remade a couple of times and why audiences seem to connect with it so strongly. You know it’s my sixth film now and I’m finishing my seventh – Wedding Video – and there’s something about All in Good Time that provides a very rich experience for the audience. They’re getting a lot, and they’re laughing a lot and crying a lot and being surprised, there are twists and turns. It’s a very generous film in that way and that’s the way audiences seem to be taking it.
What’s the tone of The Wedding Video?
It’s a post-modernist twist. I hate that phrase but I just used it. Anyway, it’s a classic British wedding comedy. It’s got Rufus Hound in it, a stand-up comedian, who plays a guy who is coming home to be the best man at his brothers wedding, played by Robert Webb from Peep Show, and he decides that as a present he is going to make a wedding video and he is going to film everything that happens in the build-up to the wedding and what you’re watching is that video. So the lead character in the film is actually making the film you’re watching. He is often behind the camera and holding the camera, so it is like Blair Witch Project: The Wedding Comedy, in a sort of cross between Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Blair Witch Project which I think is very interesting and I’m very pleased that it’s kind of different – you know it’s much more of a straight comedy than this.
You said you like to balance comedy and drama, do you ever think that you’ve got a gritty, British drama in you?
I’d like to think so. I mean, every director wants to look cool, that’s the job really. I sometimes feel like I should do films that are more straight-forward and in a traditional way cooler, because it’s very difficult to be cool when you’re Nigel “Calendar Girls” Cole. Particularly when you are called Nigel. I mean you’re buggered before you start. I don’t think there has ever been a cool Nigel, there just isn’t one.
Nigel Mansell maybe?
He was the least glamorous racing driver there ever was. Nigel Short the chess player. Nigel Kennedy the violinist possibly? Anyway, erm, what I do know is that what I like to do is build actors and characters and make them funny and make them moving and touching and that’s really all I’m interested in and shooting car chases and gun battles is very dull. I’ve seen it done and I know people who do it – Paul Greengrass is one of my best friends and is a master at it, and I don’t want to be directing cars, it’s boring.
They’re just machines aren’t they? I want proper actors and proper drama and people that are finding things out about themselves and revealing things about life. I don’t write the films I make, I’m not a writer-director so I’m reliant on finding scripts that I feel have some character content to them and are ambitious in the way they want to make the audience feel something and you know I’m not the kind of guy who wants to make bleak, miserable stories about the meaningless of existence, I’m a positive person and I like laughter and joy and you realise you aren’t that person and you just have to find the script that will get you there and I do resist it as much as I can. Everybody wanted me to do The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and I kept being trying to be persuaded to do that, but I felt like I made that film. You know, a sweet, loveable comedy about old people finding themselves, I felt like nobody would be surprised that I was doing that. So I do try not to plough the same furrow too diligently, but at the end of the day I am reliant on finding the scripts that will make me laugh and cry, it has to have both. I have to feel there is real meat on the bones and that it’s fun.
I’m not often one to compare films to other films, but considering the setting and the themes and obviously being the same writer, East is East is a film you can compare this to, yet that is set forty years ago and this is set now – so did you use that as a base, almost as if this is East is East forty years on? Did you look to it for inspiration at all?
No because you don’t really need inspiration. You’ve got this 110 page script and there is more than enough in there to inspire you and put the fear into you that you’re not going to pull it off and get it right and you spend the whole time digging and digging and digging in the script and trying to find out what makes it work and what’s going on inside it. Going looking at other peoples films or stories isn’t that helpful really. I made some decisions early on, because people kept asking me, that I wasn’t going to do a Brit-Asian Bollywood pastiche thing, everyone said, “Are you going to put a Bollywood dance sequence in?” and I thought, no I don’t do Bollywood dancing scenes, why would I do that? It’s not a Bollywood film. To me it all kept coming back to the sense that there was just this little house and I went to them and they’re tiny and there is like twenty on one side and twenty on the other side and forty opposite you, and you can hear people cough in the room upstairs, and to me everything kept coming back to this character of this house, so I found this very helpful, it was always like, how can I create this sense of claustrophobia? How can I make the audience feel like they need to get out of this house? If I had gone and watched other films I might have watched films about claustrophobia, I dunno maybe, a Chilean miners story.
But it never worries me if things are like other things because they won’t be by the time I’ve finished with them. Unusually, I’ve never had this before and I’ll probably never have this again, but four members of my cast had been pre-directed by Nick Hytner at the National Theatre, you know, they had done the play. That was a worry to me because I thought, well if I say something they might say, “Well Nick Hytner said the opposite and he’s probably smarter than you so fuck you”, but that never happened once interestingly, every day felt like no-one had said these words before or done this before and that was pleasing that we got to that place quite quickly because it did feel fresh and different. But the revelation and my memory of the whole thing will always be Harish Patel who, at times when making this film we were all in awe of him. None of us, even the more seasoned actors like Meera could quite believe it, he is remarkable, a natural. He had this extraordinary physicality and he is physicality quite striking anyway, you know, he is a big man, but he just has this wonderful kind of lightness and incredible delicacy about him that is just so great to watch. There were times when we would all be around watching, thinking “Wow, look at that…” and then thinking, “Oh, shit, we’re shooting this scene”, he’s remarkable and he made it so easy for me, because a) he was just so genius and b) so incredibly respectful and professional.
You’re a presence on Twitter – how do you find that as a filmmaker?
It’s not me at all, I think I am on Facebook but I never use it, and I find emails incredibly annoying and imposing, and I was chatting to two writers recently who are big tweeters, and they made me try it out and I got hooked straight away, I just think it’s absolutely brilliant. I think it’s very exciting, particularly for a man with something to sell like myself. You know, if I can get some followers I can speak directly to an audience and everyone else can, it’s remarkable how brilliantly it works and people who aren’t on Twitter just completely misunderstand it.
What people don’t get is this sense of you following and unfollowing people and making choices about who you want to listen to. It’s not just this irritating, deafening noise at all, you can actually be quite precise about it, you can think “I’m bored of you now, bye”, if only life was like that, if you could unfollow people you found a bit boring in life, it would be so much more fun. I think it’s brilliant and we’re all just getting to grips with how to market films are get our work across in this brave new world with all of this access. It’s not easy because you can sometimes realise you’re tweeting away to nobody. Just because you’re shouting is not to say anyone is actually listening, I think it’s brilliant. Also I’ve been working with Rufus Hound and Robert Webb and Matt Berry who are all in my new film and they’re all prestigious tweeters and between the three of them for Wedding Video they have over a million followers, so that’s quite a good opening weekend already!
ALL IN GOOD TIME IS OUT FRIDAY MAY 11