Barnaby Southcombe visited Sydney to promote his film I, Anna, starring Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne, at the Sydney Film Festival.
Known for his extensive British television work, including Footballers Wives: Extra Time and more recently Holby Blue and Harley Street, Southcombe is part of a entertainment dynasty that includes his mother Rampling and father Jean Michel Jarre, who was in turn the son of composer Maurice Jarre. His adaptation of Elsa Lewin’s novel of the same name marks his debut feature film.
In our 20 minute chat, we discussed the development, casting and influences on the film, along with the death of digital and his future projects.
We need to thank the Sydney Film Festival for accommodating our interview at the Hilton in Sydney, and of course, Barnaby Southcombe for his generous answers and time.
RG: I was reading your blog from Berlin, and you were talking about the process of talking with the press for a first time film. Has it gotten any easier?
BS: Well, I haven’t done any since then! This will be the first festival since Berlin. I’ve got a few starting up now. We’re in official competition in Shanghai next week or the week after, and we’ve got a gala screening in Moscow. Then after that we go to Sarajevo, and to Pula, which is in Croatia, which I wasn’t familiar with, and Lorcarno… So there’s been a kind of lull between the first, which I guess is nice. A bit of break. It’s full on. Berlin is – I pitched the film in Berlin, in fact, and we started raising finance in Berlin, and two years later we came back to present it. So it was really a nice little cyclical thing there. It was a little bit coming home, but obviously when you’re out there, and your scrabbling around trying to get some money together, obviously you’re pretty much ignored. Then coming back presenting a film officially there, it’s very different. So intense and full-on, and just days of meetings. It was great, meeting people, press from all around the world. It’s such a big festival, you’ve got press coming in from everywhere: Korea, and China and Russia. It’s great, and the comedown after, because you’re in this bubble being chauffeured around, and after it’s just move on. There’s the next film! And you’re just like “Oh!”. You’re on this cloud, and the comedown is quite brutal after.
Congratulations on the film as well, I managed to catch it last week…
Have you seen it?
Yeah, they gave me a screener.
Oh brilliant! So the festival gave you a screener? Did you like it?
I loved it. I always like to try and see the film before interviews.
That’s great. I was about to ask that. Am I meeting people who are just randomly coming up? I’m pleased that you’ve seen it!
First of all, it’s based on a novel: what attracted to you to that material?
“It was a very interesting flip… subverting the whole femme fatale genre”It’s a very familiar premise, in that you have a cop transgressing, but it was very different from the start. It starts with the internal monologue of a woman, and the woman of a certain age who is dealing with very real, a very fragile time in her life. It was a very interesting flip, I guess, subverting the whole femme fatale genre and putting it as an older woman, which I thought was quite intertesting. Also, telling it from the point of view of this woman, which I thought was quite interesting. There’s the traditionally objectified woman viewed from afar, through the prism of the male gaze, this was somebody who -it was kind of told from her point of view, and I thought that was a really interestign tiwst on it. I hadn’t seen that before. I guess finding love at a later stage in life, it’s a very scary prospect. Those kind of things, those risks I find that very beautiful. The character is what interested me, and the story to a certain extent. I added elements to it, because it was quite basic. They pass the scene of a crime, and he gets this umbrella and that’s very much it. So there were added elements of psychology and psychosis which I added. What was very interesting for her is that it was all internal monologue, which obviously reads great, but for an adaptation is a fucking nightmare , and I didn’t want to use voice-over. I think the starting point is don’t start with voice-over, because it always feels like patch-up work, so you want to try and avoid using it at first. It was an interesting adaptation process, because there was so much internal monologue, how to represent that visually.
And reading that book, and I’m going to avoid the obvious question about working with your mother [Charlotte Rampling], but did you have people in mind from the start?
There was only one, yeah. It was Chris [Simon], who you met, was one of the producers, we started a company together. So with my other producer Felix [Vossen], who is German – the book had done very well in Germany, and he’d read it in the late 80s when it had come out. It had always kind of stuck in his mind anyway, so he then remembered when we were looking for something. We’d been developing a project together, and a screenplay that wasn’t really going anywhere, or we were struggling with this, so we were looking for other kind of things as well. And he passed me this book, and just plonked it down and said ‘Have a read of this, I think you might be interested’. And I was like, really – what it is?…Of course he knew exactly what he was doing, being a producer! And I read it, and I was like ‘Oh, my god – ok. There’s only one person who can do this’.
“I had completely and utterly forgotten…that I had actually sent her something and she had turned it down!”Interestingly, talking about it, there are themes of memory and forgetting. Something quite funny happen actually in Berlin, while we were doing the press together with my mother. I had completely and utterly forgotten, or just denied the fact, that I had actually sent her something and she had turned it down. I had completed denied this. I was like ‘Yeah, I sent her the script and she really likes it, and we went off and did the movie’. And she was ‘No, I thought it was terrible’. So it is interesting how the mind works, because it was just so clear to me. She had to do it. There were other things we were doing, and that’s one if we can get the money together. So that was a bit of a surprise and shock to remember that. But it was a treatment, and to be honest it’s not great for anyone to read treatments. So I went away and wrote the screenplay, and when I finished the screenplay I sent it to her, and it went down a bit better.
Watching it, it’s impossible to imagine anybody else now.
Yeah, it’s good. I couldn’t imagine anybody else. I agree.
And the rest of the cast, did they come naturally from that?
The two for me was Gabriel [Byrne] and Charlotte [Rampling]. Casting is everything, in your decision as a filmmaker it’s the most important. The people who are your heads of department and your cast are the most important, and those are the two people I wouldn’t have made the film without. I wrote with both in mind when I was writing. The others, not so much, I was more flexible with, I’d written with some people in mind and others not. But those are the two I…basically wouldn’t have done the film had they not committed to it.
Coming from a television background, apart from the luxury of time, how did you approach the film differently?
For me it’s just a different type of storytelling. Having done so much television, you work through – or certainly the television I worked on – you work through story through dialogue, and that’s the big difference. You work through story through action with film, and that was very much the process. The process of constantly pairing back, and saying how can I tell express this without dialogue? How can I tell this in pictures as opposed to telling me, or the characters telling me, that. That really was, just being able to – the pace. The pace of the storytelling is very different. You can’t ever take the time [on television] that I take. The main characters don’t even meet properly until 30 or 35 minutes into the film. So on TV that would have happened 10 or 20 minutes earlier [laughs]. It’s just that time spent, that real time spent, with characters that I find very affecting in the cinema. Just by being with them, you get to understand character, or make your own appreciation of character. That’s a luxury of film, I guess. It shouldn’t be a luxury, it’s its definition in a way. The rest is, the mechanics are, the same: working with crews setting up, tea breaks . You actually do less takes, we shot on 35 [mm] so it’s a slower process.
It’s interesting you should mention shooting on 35mm, because one of the things I saw you write in that Berlin blog was that it would be one of the last things you shoot on celluloid. Is there a particular reason for that?
“In five year’s time, there will be no film output…”It’s not that, I hope it’s not the last thing I shoot on celluloid, but it will be probably be the last ting we finalise on celluloid. The uptake, I don’t know what it’s like here, but the uptake in digital cinema is so strong and so fast, that I think it’s surprised everyone. Everyone was say ‘Oh, it’s going to be the revolution’ and everyone was ‘It’s all going to be digital’, but nobody quite believed it. The uptake was quite slow, it’s very expensive for cinemas to turn to digital projection. But in the last year, it’s just gone through the roof. It’s exponential. I rarely see 35 mm screenings in London, and certainly places like Norway, you cannot deliver a film on 35 mm anymore. They will only accept DCPs, which are basically hard drives. The quality is amazing, and they’re screening here on DCP. So the lab that I worked at in Germany, part of their deliverables is that you have to deliver a DCP master and also a 35 mm print master. The laboratory that does it, that used to employ a thousand of people, is shutting all the processing side of it down, and is keeping all of their digital grading, and digital mastering and their Arrilaser.
It’s a very nostalgic film, as you’ve probably seen, in its look and feel. So it certainly added to that feeling of being of another era, because they’ve basically shut down their operation now.
Will be interesting to see the longevity side as well.
Interestingly, the weird thing, the crazy thing, is that digital is terrible for storage. So they’re reverting to film to preserve stuff. So how’s it going to work? In five year’s time, there will be no film output, and yet that’s why they’re now putting things back onto film for archiving purposes it’s more durable. Mad.
You were speaking about that nostalgic look. Were there particular influence you went to?
Yeah, very much so. There’s a film called Max et les Ferrailleurs, which is a Claude Sautet film with Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider, which is very [of] that era of French cinema of kind of noir in a way. And [Jean Pierre] Melville as well. What’s really interesting is the pirating of influences, in that the French were all looking to America, those kind of great [films], and in so doing, doing their own kind of homages to American noir of The Maltese Falcon, and became their own breed of cinema, which came back and influenced the likes of [Quentin] Tarantino, [Martin] Scorsese. It’s all so referential. What I was interested in was to try and bring it across The Channel. The dialogue seems to go across the Atlantic a lot, and as much as the French are massively, fiercely protective of their cinema, and ‘Fuck off’ and protectionist and all this stuff. But, of course, you can’t not be effected by American cinema. The US is, as far as world cinema, is defining. So it’s interesting when a culture takes on a genre and works within it, and makes it something else. So I was hoping me having a look at French cinema and using that as a kind of inspiration for it, that something would happen. Something slightly hybridy would happen. It became this English, kind of, version of that. So yeah, I guess it was an experiment. See if it pays off.
Looking ahead at what you’re doing next, I see you’re listed as a producer for Miss You Already, with Jennifer Aniston and our own Toni Collette.
And your own Toni Collette. Absolutely.
We have to say that contractually. Or “Australia’s Toni Collette”.
[Laughs] Very good.
So how did you come to be involved in that?
Well, we set up a production company called Embargo Films, and there’s three of us, partners in the company. The idea was to have a home for me, really, and to get this first film off the ground, and to be in a situation where we can make the films that we want to make, and I want to make. It just seemed to have a company was the way to do it. It takes too long, we can’t just be a one-man band. If they had to wait for me to make a film every two years [laughs], they’d be out of business. So we started working with other directors, and the two producers. So we’ve been getting things off the ground. We’ve done four films already, and hopefully Miss You Already as well. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Paul Andrew Williams who did a film called London to Brighton, and Cherry Tree Lane, and he’s just done a film which is going to do really well called A Song for Marion, which has just been picked up by Weinstein and stuff. It’s just previewing through the roof in America at the moment. It’s with Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave. He’s really on the up at the moment, and I’m just helping to put that together really. I’m just execing on this, because it’s through the company. There’s very few of us, and we all have to help out at the moment, the company’s very small.
You’ve probably still got your head in this whirlwind tour, but are you looking ahead to your next project?
Ah, yes. There’s a few. BFI, which is our British Film Institute, have just agreed to develop a screenplay I’ve been working on. There’s a few I’m developing at the moment, but we’re not in prep on anything yet. I’ve got a few things I’m working on.
Once again, congratulations on the film and thank you so much for your time.
No, thank you.
Sohn filmt Charlotte Rampling
Short German interview with Charlotte Rampling and Barnaby Southcombe about the new film "I, Anna"