Saturday, 18 January 2014

interview: Peter Hewitt

I met director Peter Hewitt in 1997 on the set of the big-budget feature film version of The Borrowers.

What first attracted you to the project, because it's a bit of a change from Wild Palms?
"Yes. What was it? I was familiar with the books, so it just has a familiarity and childhood remembrance, resonant of blah blah blah and all that. But centrally I suppose it was the challenge of doing a little people movie; doing the definitive little people movie which I don't think has been done. They tried with Indian in the Cupboard [Starring Hal Scardino - MJS], and the effects in that were flawless, but it was such a slow dull film that they failed. So that, essentially. I suppose everyone's looking for something that hasn't been done before. Of course, this has been done, but it hasn't been done in quite this way. To do it, and also to do it such that their littleness almost was inadvertant, their littleness wasn't the most important thing."

Has it needed the technology that's only available now to do justice to this?
"Yes. Part of what I did to paper the cracks between the real world and the oversize world, which we're doing either with effects or with huge sets, was to make the whole world in which this takes place a bit odd. So that even if something doesn't quite work, you're that much more forgiving. So in that respect, you could always have done this. If you apply those techniques, we have a weird environment that could be somewhere in the 1950s but isn't. It's an alternative present. The only cars that exist are Morris Minors. People have mobile phones and televisions but dress in '50s clothes; a very well-defined colour palette. This weird red-brick utopia. So that look could have been done fifty years ago."

But in terms of motion control blue-screen work...
"But in terms of keeping the camera moving in long scenes where human are just having long conversations with Borrowers , that's only possible now. Some of the effects shots we're doing, I'm confident have never been done before. Or the special effects elements we're bringing together are for the first time."

Producer Tim Bevan said some very nice things about you. He said you brought a vision to the film. What is your vision?
"I'm glad he said that, but a lot of this film's riding on his enthusiasm and tireless charging forward. So that I get my nice bit to say about him. So what was my vision? I suppose essentially that the script I first got had the Borrowers doing fantastic things, things that were too fantastic. Like they got stuck on a train. Well, not too fantastic, but they get stuck on a big train. They're being hurtled out of town. The family move house from one town to another. What I was interested in was the fact that for a little person, a life-or-death situation could take place in the corner of a room. You can have an action-adventure sequence in the fireplace. That's what really interested me. That something humans would do without even thinking could easily kill Borrowers.

"So every situation they fall into, every set piece, comes about through tiny occurences. Like when the family move, Dad is a bit heavy with the brake on the removal truck, and it has big consequences for the Borrowers who are hiding in the back; they fall out onto the road. So some tiny event is troublesome for them. I didn't want the family moving from one town to another town. I thought: let's have them move two streets away, just to a slightly different part of town, which to the Borrowers would be the other side of the world. But for us, we could walk there in two minutes. Similarly, in the house one adventure takes place in the kitchen, one adventure takes place just outside in the hall. Five feet away for us, but another neighbourhood for Borrowers.

"I also wanted to create, as I say, this slightly weird world in which the whole story is taking place. partly to soften the edges between the effects stuff which we were going to have to do, and the real world. And partly just because I like doing that. That kind of environment is fun and interesting. Like Wild Palms; that was 2007 so that was specualting as to what Los Angeles might be like in 2007, but not really being remotely realistic about it - using it as an excuse to have fun and twist things around a bit."

The oversize props gave us a big thrill. Are you getting that?
"It's an enormous thrill. One thing I was very sure of and very interested in was building big props. And whereas, I suppose Indian in the Cupboard used science as their yardstick; they wanted to be incredibly optically accurate. I believe an audience gets a real kick out of seeing big sets and knowing that they're big sets. Just looking at it and going, 'Wow, they built that.' I think there is a way of getting that thrill without being taken out of the movie. But the more we work on these sets, they are so good. I think they may even just hold up so that you won't be able to tell what are the trick shots and what are big sets. But even if you do, I think it's going to work because they are so fun to look at and they are so fun to be on. That's something an audience will go for."

Are you finding that you can keep in mind that these are still rubber and not actual items?
"No, it's easy to detach yourself. That opens up a whole film prop question. Film props are film props; they're meant to last a day. Which is why restaurants like Planet Hollywood are so bad. There are these things put in glass cases high up on the wall, and they look crap. Because they're not on a film set. Because they're supposed to look glorious for the 15 seconds they're in front of the camera, when somebody's just polished it, just put a lick of paint on it, lit it in the most wonderful way. Take it away from that environment and it just looks like a piece of plastic."

Are you coping with keeping continuity between the already-filmed real-size sequences and the oversize sequences?
"It has been very precisely worked out. I often say, 'Bugger! What are going to do?' but it's never for those reasons. It's because we've got a lot of work to do in a little time. It is very, very complicated stuff. One interesting thing is, when you're on these big sets, to stop yourself from doing really fancy things. To try and remember you're just looking at a little guy running across a shelf, and for a human being to be really shooting a little guy, you'd do it very simply. But when you get there, because you have these cranes and all this great suff, you want to swing in with the crane and do all these great moves. Or do something funky that you would never actually do because you would be moving, like, seven inches. You'd never do a tiny little move and spin round here.

"But I digress, I think. One thing that has been difficult to do, like when we did the scene with John Goodman and Mark Williams ripping up the house looking for the Borrowers, it was difficult to remember to keep in focus that this wasn't a scene with two people in it. It was actually a scene with four people in it; two of them are behind the wall cavity. So consequently we're getting twice as much coverage, because you're having to cut away into the wall cavity, and then we come back to re-establish where the humans are. So I think the crew were getting frustrated there; they perceived it as being overkill. We were overkilling this scene, but that was because we were only shooting half the film. The human half for the first six weeks, and all the blue-screen and the Borrowers side of it afterwards."

Does it make you nervous that you'll only know if that's really worked when you edit them together?
"No, it's all working out really well so far. There have been a couple of times when we were rehearsing a shot and it just is awful, and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, it's never going to work.' We had John Goodman up to his waist in liquid cheese. He was supposed to ram against the end of this cheese slide, covered in slime, and then have this row of bottles clinking on his head. We rehearsed and it was just awful. It was the end of the day and he was freezing cold and miserable. We had a guy pulling this line of bottles and it was just rubbish. Then we just turned the camera on the first time and it all worked. I have no idea how it all worked. But we got it, and spent another five takes trying to get it again and didn't. That was just complete luck.

"But in terms of the overall look of the thing, that was very well crafted and well thought out. The whole film was thoroughly storyboarded. One thing that I supose always is a concern is you have all these great plans and thoughts, but at the end of the day you have to relie on a little special effects guy sitting in a basement somewhere, painting it all together frame by frame. So we've tested as many things as we can without actually going ahead and doing them. And the ones that we tested have come out really really well. They've come out well enough so you can feel confident that yes, this is going to work. Interestingly enough, what we did learn from Indian in the Cupboard was that being incredibly scientific and accurate about all this stuff is not the way to go.

"The way to go is just to say, 'There's a little guy in the shot. He's jumping on your nose now' and let the actors do that. Just say, 'There he is, he's swinging from a rope and landing on the fridge' and keep it free. Just do what feels right. At times I'm really butting heads with the special effects guys because they're saying, 'If we do this job, we haven't got a stage big enough to accommodate the blue-screen element. Because the little guy's five feet away from him here and the soundstage we've got is only 70 feet, so it ought to be blah blah blah. So I'm saying 'Well, just cheat. We'll cheat and make it up and fudge it. If we can get away with a 50 foot fridge, we can get away with cheating 70 foot for 60 feet or something like that. So our basic philosophy is that: if it looks good and feels good, then it's right.

"I've seen a load of it put together. We're cutting it as we go along. Where we haven't done stuff we're slugging in storyboards. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn't. It's a kind of organic thing that grows and changes, but for the most part it's looking really good. We've got a really good cast, who can really do this stuff, especially Flora, who is completely new to this. Her first test shot she was doing this immense blue screen set-up, in a goldfish bowl with moving cameras. she was basically standing in the middle of an enormous soundstage, surrounded by blue, acting to blue dots. It doesn't get much harder than that - she was just brilliant."

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