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Transitioning from Music Videos to Feature Film: A Conversation with Olivier Nias for The Return


The Return

A small time criminal unravels a catastrophic secret as he goes head-to-head with one of London’s most notorious gangsters.

When Jack returns to London after three years in exile he immediately goes in search of his next job. On discovering that his old connections have gone cold he sets about making his own luck and decides to target rich business people in the city. This is where he meets Laura who introduces him to the ideal mark – a rich gangster called Duke.

Using inside knowledge from his new partner Laura, Jack executes the heist – but something goes wrong and the job is a failure. Jack, though, is not one to miss an opportunity for serious money. So when a campaign of brutality and intimidation comes knocking on Jack’s door he decides to confront Duke and meet him head on.

The violence escalates as Laura is caught in the cross fire and Jack is dragged out to a quarry and left for dead. He must fight for his life against an enemy who is far more powerful and devious than he could ever have imagined, sending him on a collision course with a catastrophic secret.

The Fan Carpet’s Jay Thomas in association with Acting Hour spoke to Writer/ Director Oliver Nias about his Directorial Debut The Return, which Premieres at 23rd Raindance Film Festival…

 

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I have to say, that I really, really enjoyed the film last night. I thought it was something truly original in the realm of UK cinema.

Thank you very much.

 

No, it’s no problem. To start, could you tell us maybe a little bit about yourself and, obviously without spoilers, ‘The Return’?

Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I suppose the first things that might be important to know is that I’ve never studied film or anything like that. I was at University of London, doing English Literature, and I started making music videos there and just continued on, actually, as I left. I worked in that arena for quite a few years, but have been looking to make a low-budget high-concept movie for a while. That was when ‘The Return’ came about. It’s a film about a small-time criminal who screws up a heist and has deal with the consequence. Beyond that, however, it’s an investigation into what it’s like to be caught on the wrong side of a lie.

You mentioned that you primarily worked on music videos up until now. What was that transition like from music videos to feature films? Was it difficult or was it extremely rewarding?

I wouldn’t say I primarily worked on them. It’s just where I started, and it was a natural fit initially. I didn’t really find any tension or transition there at all. One thing that I found that music videos did was sharpen my sense of sequence and rhythm when it came to editing. But, apart from that, I have to say that I find them very distinct as art-forms.

 

Going back to ‘The Return’, and speaking of style, what opted you to explore the more noir style? Especially given that London isn’t generally considered a “noir city”.

Actually, Jay, I’m glad you brought that up, because that is something I really want to kind of update. I know that L.A is the original noir city, but, as far as I’m concerned, I think London is the ultimate noir city. I am a Londoner myself, you know, and I find that the streets and the crouching dark city that London is makes it ideal for noir. Plus, the story really begged for it. It was about a fish-out-of-water, even though he doesn’t always know it.

Yeah.

With a low-budget as well, which is how a lot of the noirs were made, it gave us a road-map in terms of style. Which lead to black and white and then lead to 35mm.

Yeah, I enjoyed the black and white style.

I’m glad.

 

So going to 35mm was a merely a style choice, or was it something unavoidable due to constraints?

I always think that low-budget films have one thing on their side, and that is atmosphere. I wanted to compound that, by shooting on film. Initially it was 16mm, but then when myself and Carl Burke (Director of Photography) kind of ran some figures, we kind of realised that actually, if we shot it as we originally intended – which was a very tight, very lean manner – it wasn’t going to cost much more. Plus, it would allow us to attract the kind of talent – crew and cast – that would not only elevate the movie, but also give someone an excuse to sit in a big dark room and watching on a big bright screen… which is the whole point of making any movie. That is something that digital wouldn’t have been able to have given us.

 

Okay, that makes sense. Speaking of the cast, take us through the casting process. Given that the characters of ‘The Return’ are very multi-faceted, having many layers, was it difficult finding the right actors to portray that?

It was… Through my time in London, I got to know a few stage actors, and they became friends. As I was writing the script, I knew Sam Donnelly (Jack) and Amie Burns Walker (Laura), the two leads, and it suddenly occurred to me that Sam would make a decent anti-hero. It excited me, as well, that it would be his debut feature, just like it would be mine. I thought that there was something in that. You know, that if we worked on the same project, we would be able to kind of redouble the energy. That was the leads there, I just happened to know them and thought they had that sparkle. In terms of the rest of the cast, I had a fantastic casting director called Emily Tilelli, of ET Casting. We worked together a few years back, and she said that if I ever needed any help to let her know. So she put together a one-day casting session for the rest of the cast, and we cast it in that one day.

 

Oh, wow! Well, you definitely have an incredible cast. The leads were especially well portrayed, with Jack definitely being one of the great anti-heroes of the modern era.

Thank you.

 

Another thing I wanted to talk about was London itself, which could almost be considered a character unto itself. As a Londoner yourself, was it important to you to offer a more authentic view of London than is usually portrayed in the various comedies and urban dramas that comes out of the UK?

Absolutely. I mean, I very much wanted ‘The Return’ to be London at street-level. Now, that might seem a bit oxymoronic, but a lot of times when people are shooting London, they get their cameras out around Tower Bridge, or around Westminster, or capture the Notting Hill side of things. I wanted to include the kind of things that we’ve all seen but don’t necessarily know where: Brickwork, loading bays, canals, back-street snooker halls, corridors, and parks even, London being a very green city. Even though I see it as a noir film, there’s actually quite a lot of sunshine in the film, which I thought was a nice thing to bring to London. But, yeah, it was vital for us to be on street-level there.

Yeah, I felt that it was extremely good. It had a sort of a familiar feel but also an otherworldly quality, which I think is a good blend for a noir film.

Yeah, I think that’s perfect.

Yeah.

Actually, one of the things in our armoury as a low budget was that, actually, we had access to something familiar, but if we just give it a little tweak – and the black and white was a part of that – then we could just bring it into that other space. Which, again, we were striving, striving, striving all the time to make a movie that would warrant a cinema-going experience, so I’m glad you said that.

 

My pleasure. It was indeed a very pleasant experience, and hopefully people will catch onto it. Speaking of obstacles, was the budget the biggest one, or was it working within such a tight schedule?

Yeah, as I ‘ve said before, whether you’ve got twenty-million pounds and one-hundred days, or a tenth of that like we did, there are always going to be tight corners on a production. We didn’t have trailer vans of food or thousands of runners to serve us coffee and tea all day long, but we had before time worked out a model that we thought could work on a streamlined crew. On a twenty-day shoot, we didn’t shoot a single pick-up day. It was all done on time.

That’s very impressive.

I think the biggest challenge was self-induced. By choosing to shoot in 35mm, there was a risk in that, because if we got it wrong we would run out of stock. But, I have to say, we didn’t go into it lightly and casually. We did our homework. Yes, it was tight, but I think that every film is tight, and we felt confident that we were going to get it done.

 

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Yeah, it definitely shows. I think it definitely shows in the finished result how much time and effort and dedication went into this project.

Ah, good!

 

You’ve mentioned before that the final frame is the one you want to be most impactful…

Yes.

 

What feelings, then, are you hoping to send audiences away with?

Well, I hope really that it’s a cascade. You see what happens in that third act, or, let’s say, the last twenty minutes, we flit around to the points of view of the other characters and we see the other side of things. Typically with noir, what happens is that the main guy gets screwed over and that’s that. That’s usually the damning thing. But, I just wanted to give it that slight kicker at the end, where it becomes apparent that all this violence and all this brooding that has been occurring may actually be continuing and sparking yet another round of violence. Really, I don’t know if you noticed, but as the credits roll, that is a narrative beat for me.

Myself and Richard Canavan, who wrote the score, talked about the book-ends. The opening of the movie has this big score, and we never come back to it until the final credits. So, really, when the credits roll, I wanted there to be an entire other movie taking place in the minds of the viewer almost immediately.

Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that you achieved that. Without being too spoilery, obviously, I definitely came away with my mind running back over everything and finding a new light cast over all previous scenes. It gave me a lot to think about in retrospect.

Yeah! There is a line in the film that says, “Things aren’t always clear the first time around” and hopefully that will drop into the audience’s mind.

 

Definitely! I think it paid off very well. Were there any other scenes that you were particularly proud of?

I think, bringing a team together who were on the same page. What you are seeing on screen there, Jay, are mostly first takes.

Oh, wow!

Yeah. Apart from a few technical movement stuff and the rest of it, the majority are first takes and we are very proud of that as a production. Narratively, I’m pleased that—you mentioned it earlier, that there are some familiar tropes there. There are little touches of gangster, little touches of noir, but we feel that through the structural renovation of the narrative, and some subtle character traits, that we’ve updated the genre just a little bit. We’ve contributed a bit to the wider genre, so I’m very proud of that.

As you should be. That is a very impressive feat in this day and age.

Thank you.

 

So, what’s next for you, in terms of goals and future projects?

Well, I have a feature script about a brand-new type of criminal. It centres on a rivalry and a dangerous new technology. I’ll say no more, but it’s a feature script and I’m ready to shoot.

 

Wow. Sounds very interesting. I look forward to seeing that one. Going back for a moment, you mentioned the music. That was something I found especially powerful and complementary to the film. How difficult was that to arrange?

Richard Canavan and I had been working together for some years. When I was shooting film, I sent him a version of the script and he worked some stuff up. Then we worked closely together for a few months and teased it out. As you know, the film is a retrospective essentially, and we had our work cut out trying to offer a little bit of signposting but really nothing blatant. We wanted to make sure we teased the audience into that kind of retrospective, so sometimes the scenes are, in a moment of time, where the music is working from a forward point of view. We found it a really fun process, but we wanted to keep it subtle and keep the audience suspended.

It definitely achieved that.

I’m glad.

 

Before we wrap up, what’s next for ‘The Return’, where will people be able to check it out and enjoy this experience?

Well, the next time is the World Premiere this coming Sunday, the 27th, at the Raindance Film Festival. Then there will be a second screening, on Saturday 3rd of October at 2:10pm. Again, it will be a part of Raindance, at the Vue Piccadilly. Beyond that, we are hoping for some more festival. Then, finally, to secure distribution and get it out there online.

 

Well, that is amazing. I really wish you all the best success with Raindance. Especially as ‘The Return’ is nominated for Best UK Film, I believe?

That’s right, we are. Yeah. Which is a bit of a privilege and an anomaly for a movie of our size, but we are pleased to be involved.

 

Well, I for one can see how it managed to be nominated, being a film that managed to transcend budget, obstacles, and traditional expectations. I wish you all the best at Raindance and the future beyond.

Jay, many thanks. That means a lot. I appreciate that.

 

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The Return Film Page | Website

THE RETURN PREMIERES AT THE 23RD RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL ON SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 27 AND CATCH IT AGAIN ON OCTOBER 3

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