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13 October 2009

Chris Smith is a British director who’s had successes with film such as the  claustrophobic London Underground thriller Creep and horror comedy Severance.  His new film, Triangle star Melissa George on board a ship where all may not be as it seems.  We spoke to him about his influences, and what most scares him and making the anti-Harry Potter. 


Triangle is in Cinemas OCTOBER 16TH

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Q:  Where did you get the idea for Triangle in the first place? 

Chris Smith: I don’t know where I got the idea.  I came up with the idea on a beach.  Just after I made Creep I wanted to do something where I wasn’t indoors so I thought, let’s do it on a beach, let’s have a film that starts Exterior Barbados Day.  It was a really shallow reason.  I just had this idea, what if when they’re arriving on the boat, they see someone and that’s one of the people from the boat and that’s the twist.  And I had this idea, which was almost like a Twilight Zone episode. 

When I started pitching the idea around Hollywood, I was just at a festival and I said I might do something like this and the guy said “That’s how the movie has to end!” and I said, no, no, no because that’s going to be 30 minutes in.  So it was my ambition to make the twist come, so you think you’re watching this movie about character and then you’re on a boat and then you’re like, whoa and suddenly it all changes and it’s turned on its head. 

I saw after I’d written the first draft, there’s an episode of The Twilight Zone called Judgment Day that has that kind of idea where a submarine commander shoots a ship to blow a ship up and he shoots the ship and goes to bed and when he wakes up, he’s on the ship as it’s being shot.  I tell you what it is; someone saw the film and said, “Have you studied psychology?  Are you aware that what your movie is about is about schizophrenia and people suffering from schizophrenia start to look at themselves in the third person and start to think that’s it’s not them?  And I hadn’t thought of it.  So the characters are all thinking that she’s nuts and you start to question it yourself and it very much deals with that. 

The house has the same design as the ship and the door number of the house is the same as the ship, so it hints at, did she even leave the house?   

Q: Yes, and there’s a band drum with the ship’s logo on it. 

CS:  Yes! So there’s all these little things where you go…well… 

But I don’t want there to be a twist where at the end you go, ugh.   I wanted it to be a riddle at the end so that if you spot that, great but if you don’t want to accept that and you want to think it’s a Bermuda Triangle movie, that’s fine. 

Q: Well at the end, you’re left thinking, “does she voluntarily go through all that again?” 

CS: Again in the writing, she says “yes, take me to the harbour”, so in that moment you’re thinking that she’s proactively going on.  But then if you think back to the beginning of the movie when she’s asleep, she’s got amnesia and she wakes up and says, “Is Greg okay?”, so she’s got this memory.  So there’s this idea that she has to be a blank canvas, she has to have lost her memory and I like the idea of two-hander at the end.  She’s either going in proactively and it’ll all change or she’s got no memory and it’s all starting again. 

Q:  Was the filming difficult when you’ve got scenes with two of the same person on screen at once and multiple angles of the same event? 

CS:  It’s not really.  We had this really cut and gorgeous little stand in.  It’s quite funny because Melissa has to choose her own stand in, so she clearly doesn’t choose the one with the big ass, she chooses the one that’s going to make her look hotter. 

It was hard for Melissa because she had to be level eight or level nine or level ten permanently.  If she’s in the third loop she has to be higher cranked than in the previous loops.  It wasn’t that hard for me  because I wrote so I always knew where I was.  I was very hard on Melissa to get a very strong performance out of her.  You know when someone’s acting and they’re doing a very good job of acting, but they’re acting and I wanted for her voice to crack.  So I was doing that…not quite the Shelly Duval model from The Shining but you start to see something in the face, some anger and that’s what she managed to do with the performance and it came from me just doing lost of takes and pushing and we’re both very proud of what we’ve done. 

Q: Speaking of The Shining, I thought the ship was quite reminiscent of the hotel.  Was that a conscious decision? 

CS:  Yes, 237 is the room number from The Shining.  And the writing on the mirror.  Very much, shamelessly. The reason I did the door, if someone sits there and goes, “oh it’s The Shining” in a derogatory way, I can say that I realised and it was intentional.  Ships look like hotels.  A lot of the ship is real ship, a lot of it’s build.  We could have used an old hotel; there are just loads of corridors.  I wanted to do that opening shot where they go in through the corridor and they go this way and the next minute, they’re going that way and it’s almost like Escher paintings; they’re just spiralling. 

There’s one shot where she runs down the corridor and she peers round and the other one’s there.  We had a split screen where it is two Melissas and sometimes it’s a double, but often not.  The hardest shot was where Melissa’s looking at herself in the mirror and we go through the mirror and then you go over, so at one point we have three Melissas in the shot.  That was a nightmare; 18 takes! 

Q:  Was Melissa your first choice to play Jess?  

CS:  Well I didn’t really have a choice because the way it works is you get a list.  When you have a certain budget level, you have to have someone off of a list.  So the list would range from like Julia Roberts and you’re like “What?!  Great, let’s get Julia Roberts!” .   It’s completely wrong and you wouldn’t get past her managers anyway.  So once we got past that silly process, I would say, guys can I just choose who I think would be right.  The reason you try for a bigger name and go for someone like that is that suddenly your budget will go from what we had which was $12 million to $30 million. 

Q:  I can’t even get my head around $12 million.  I’m sure it goes really quickly… 

CS:  It seems like a lot but it’s not.  We were wildly under budgeted.  You just build a set cost half a million pounds, the actors wages, not that they were high, but the whole crew and suddenly you’re down to real usable budget of about £2 million. 

Q:  So why in the end did you choose Melissa? 

CS:  I chose Melissa because I wanted someone who didn’t do what a huge name would do.  I’d seen her in the TV show, In Treatment, which is coming out soon and she’s absolutely brilliant in that.  She plays this really kooky, fractured nutcase character and I just said that’s what she has to be like; you have to like her but not trust her.  Weirdly, I think she’s got that Hitchcock blonde quality to her, in that she’s innocent but there’s something going on, she’s got this femme fatale thing.   She was in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., she would in film noirs if film noirs were still being made, she would be that girl.  

Q:  Having been a horror director for most of your career, what do you think makes a good horror movie? 

CS:  The stuff that scares me, and everyone has their own thing, I’m scared by guys that want to kill you.  I’m scared by…Wolf Creek…that genuinely disturbed me.  Switchblade Romance.  And I also like religious movies, I like Omen and The Exorcist.  I’ve just made this film with Sean Bean called Black Death which is set in 1348 and they’re all mad because they believe there’s witches, so they burn innocent girls and in that period, they had that belief which is a fundamentalist beliefs.  It’s fact, it’s not our belief, it’s fact.  So that interested me.    

When I was a kid there was a point when I said to my mum, “Mum, I’m not going to church anymore”.  I’m bored, I don’t like it, I’m not going!  But because I grew up with that, I do find movies that deal with demons, scary.  So I find The Exorcist scary.  The best horror movie for me is The Exorcist, I’m right with Mark Kermode on that one, it’s a masterpiece. 

Q:  I’ve heard you’re working on CHERUB.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?  How does a horror director go about filming essentially a children’s movie 

CS:  I’m either going to lose all my street cred or…  Weirdly, the reason I was approached by the makers is because if you take the violence out of Severance, it’s actually a kids’ film.  It’s silly, it’s got a kids’ quality to it even though it’s sick.   It’s got that kind of vibe.  The books are quite edgy, there’s 12 books and they’re really cool books.  And they’re like what would a council estate kid do if he worked for the government.  Obviously he wouldn’t be jumping out of helicopters like Stormbreaker or in Spykids, he’d probably be trying to infiltrate drug gangs and it’s very realistic.  It could happen.   You look at the kids in the street and you think; he’s a hoodie but he could be a spy and it’s fun.  

It’s going to have that Shane Meadows kind of vibe to it but it’s a kid’s flick. So we’re going to go and meet loads of little kids, not like your Harry Potters but your proper little wretches and I’m going to try and make this movie.   

Q: The anti-Harry Potter? 

CS: Yeah, an anti-Harry Potter!  Not that there’s anything wrong with Harry Potter, but this is going to be like an alternative version where the kids are allowed to do deviant, naughty stuff.  You know those chutes that you have on the edge of buildings, those yellow chutes?  Well they can jump down those because you’ve always thought if that could be done.  The kids are taught how to shoplift, they’re taught how to steal, how to street fight.  I think kids will love it.  But having me do it, I think the idea was that, yeah it’s made by this horror director, so there’s this association that kids will like. 

Q: Speaking of horrible council kids, have you seen Harry Brown? 

CS: Not yet, but Sean’s in it, Sean Harris who played Creep is in it.  He’s the really nasty scraggy guy.  Sean is an amazing actor and an intense guy, a lovely guy.  I’d like to say that he’s a soft centre but somewhere in there…there’s something dark.  If I was to remake Creep, I’d use Sean with no make and just make him a night watchman for this mad bastard look. 

Interviewed by Jez Sands.