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A Conversation with Jeremy Swift

30 May 2014

Gordon (Richard Lumsden – Sightseers, TV’s The Catherine Tate Show) is determined that he and best friend Keith (Karl Theobald – TV’s 2012, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) will conquer Wainright’s Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.

He also believes that having his film student son document the adventure is the perfect way to commemorate their achievement, but when a stray conversation determines that old school friends Steve (Jeremy Swift – Jupiter Ascending, TV’s Downton Abbey) and Julian (Ned Dennehy – Tyrannosaur, TV’s Luther) join them on the trip, best laid plans lead straight to multiple mid-life crises.

Combining keenly observed situational comedy; some of Britain’s finest comedy talent and a breathtaking journey through some of the best of British countryside, DOWNHILL is a comedy of errors, a testament to the tragically incompatible and a blow-by-blow account of the highs and lows of decades-long friendships.

Britain’s version of the road movie Downhill walks its way into UK cinemas today. The Fan Carpet‘s Paul Risker recently took a stroll with one quarter of the film’s adventurous ensemble; Jeremy Swift, to discuss his recent filmic adventure, whilst taking an occasional detour to discuss his career and thoughts on film and television in the modern age.


Why a career in acting?

Was there that one inspirational moment???It probably had something to do with not wanting to do any more homework or take any more exams. I would easily lose concentration or become tired, but when it came to acting I never did. Whatever the reason is, acting excites me, and I can go at it all day because I have ideas and I want to keep working at it. That’s not the answer you want but that’s what I have come to realise drew me to it when I was younger.??Was it storytelling that appealed to you or the performance aspect???It is the expression of performance; sometimes the bursting out of an English placidity, and the chance to find yourself in scenarios that you would never find yourself in in real life. But I always loved comedy, being on stage and making people laugh. It just seemed positive, and its ego fulfilling and all that kind of thing.

Film is a completely different technique to theatre because it’s about getting the best concentrated take in the can. But Downhill because of its long edgy takes and the documentary style approach is in a way similar to theatre. When shooting Downhill we had to keep it loose, and there were also technical things for us to consider such as to not extend it too much, and to stay in frame because there were four of us to fit into shot at any one time. ??When discussing the theatre with actors, they often say that it is the best training an actor can receive. Would you agree???It certainly gives you ideas. A lot of film and television directors reap or harvest the experience that you have gained from your time in the theatre.

If you had a good experience of developing characters old and new in the theatre, of listening properly, then it can pay dividends because you can just cut to the chase with film and television. But at the same time there are other techniques that are involved visually with film – a stillness of the face. If you have had a spell of doing theatre you might find yourself getting a lot of bring it down notes. But also in film you can speak very quietly and it will still be picked up. ??I made one film when I was twenty three.

During my twenties and into my mid-thirties I mostly did theatre and adverts. I did more than eighty adverts in fact, but it taught me about technique – how they would cover it, and acting in a certain size frame. It also taught me patience.


In your time as an actor in both film and television, how has the relationship between the two mediums or formats changed?

In the last five or six years they are either swapping clothes or television is becoming more like film. I was reading Difficult Men, which is all about television production.

The Director of Photography for Breaking Bad went into a television shop that had all these television sets on display. He was furious at them for having the wrong colour and contrast settings because he’d spent hours perfecting the light quality. This is the rhetoric, and I have just worked with him on a film, and a lot of things are like that. But if they are not because TV doesn’t always have the money for crane shots etc, then it’s using the low cost quality of indie film’s – handheld and bleached out colours. So unless you are talking about a sitcom then TV is becoming more filmic, but even then someone will have a visual idea, because people are always trying to change the game.

What was it about the project and the character that first piqued your interest?

First of all as an actor it was the concept. It was a good script and it was one we could improvise around it, which is what I often like to do with a script. So that was the main pull for me. But I thought the character had lots of potential because his relationship with each of the three guys varied. He didn’t override anybody and the characters were complex.

In this day and age of commissioning, and this is especially true of TV, people are often thinking of things for a female audience. I know that sounds a sexist thing to say, but there are a lot of the things are female orientated because that’s where people think the audience for film and TV is now. I don’t believe there are many stories about older blokes, and so I thought it was good a rite of passage story for guys in their late forties or early fifties.


Why do you think stories about middle age or old age continue to interest audiences?

What is it that these stories in particular offer???Well the world changes, and there are different pressures. Gordon for example has a younger kid, and his work is fading away. This is a story you maybe wouldn’t have told twenty years ago, and so there are elements that keep changing, which is the nature of this kind sort of story.



With the nature of the production and story which is an assemble piece, do you look back on Downhill as a particularly collaborative experience?

Oh absolutely. We spent a week doing improvisations before we even filmed. We were given scenarios by James and Benji [Howell] that were off script to anchor it if we would happen to go off course whilst improvising on the Yorkshire moors. We all contributed, but we couldn’t have done it without a great script to start with. The blueprint for all the characters came from Torben [Betts] and us actors just fleshed it out a bit.

As an actor would you agree that it starts with the script, which is the seed for potentially a new story or character, and the role of the actor is to then evolve it?

On most long running series if the writers and producers are willing to put their faith in the actors, and allow them to work on the scripts then it will ultimately feed their own imaginations. It becomes reciprocal  – a creative boomerang. Once they have put the words into the actor’s mouth and the actors add thoughts that were perhaps not there, then it gives an indication of another strand of the character that the writers can play with. If you get the right team it can be fruitful.

The auteur theory states that the director is author, although film is a collaborative art form that brings together people with different personal experiences to work towards one vision. Is that the essential ingredient to create something that will endure?

I think so because otherwise you can end up with an old school system where you have a Director of Photography or a camera operator asking you to step two inches from the left, and to tilt your head. At that point it just becomes an exercise in being filmed, which is not necessarily creative.

Working on Downhill I thought to myself that this is how things should be. It’s fast and creative, and there is plenty for the actors to do. When you are framing stuff all of the time so meticulously then it makes everything else seem a bit archaic. I don’t think people are particularly interested in that kind of thing, and I know I’m not. If it’s an art house or period film or even if it’s an action film then you obviously need some degree of precision. But I think the way we worked on Downhill is the best way to work.


You have worked with directors such as Roman Polanski and Robert Altman. How do you compare those experiences with Downhill and collaborating with James who is making his directorial feature deut?

Well there is a part of you that observes how some of the decisions are made, and whether they are based on experience or gut instinct? James has done a number of ads and some of them that he has done for the internet are more like short films and run for twenty to thirty minutes. So I had to take that into account, but having said that he seemed to feel more comfortable as we went along. He was scrupulous and he was always looking to do lots of takes. You could see him thinking between each take – his brain was constantly going over the whole thing. There was a lot to take in on Downhill, and we ended up shooting an awful lot of footage because sometimes we were working fourteen hour days, and there was a lot of improvisation that he needed to cover. But whenever we were not on set he seemed to spend the whole time processing, and he gave us some experienced notes.

At the end of the day there are some directors who can work for decades and still give the same notes as they were giving actors when they first started out. It depends on your mind and personality, but James has a good mind, and he improved as we moved along. The one thing I’d say is that he had a great feel from the off.

What experience do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

The answer to this might have a gender divide. I hope that women of a certain age realise that when men are together it is not all bad behaviour. Men can struggle with one another, but there is a friendship there, and they can win through those struggles. I hope that the men feel a sense of well-being and camaraderie with their fellow men. But I also hope that people recognise a bit of modern life in the film that they haven’t seen before. Robert Altman used to say, “I just want to see something I haven’t seen before.” I think this is where Downhill succeeds. Whilst there are class and intellect struggles, it is a refreshing film with a modern feel to it.



Downhill Film Page