Saturday, 22 February 2014

interview: Steve Lawson (2007)

Between January 1999 and February 2002 I worked for the East Midlands Arts Boards and at some point during those three years a young man named Steve Lawson joined the organisation. Steve, it turned out, made action films. In fact, Steve had sent me one of his very early zero-budget movies, Thunderstrike, a few years earlier when I was writing the 'Independents Day' column for Total Film. It's a small world. Steve's first proper feature was Insiders in 2002 and he followed that four years later with The Silencer. After I had seen and reviewed the film, Steve and I sat down for an interview. (NB. This is not the same Steve Lawson who directed Dead Cert and Just for the Record.) I interviewed Steve again eight years later.

What are the main influences on The Silencer?
"I wanted to make a movie that harked back to the kind of action movies that were coming out when I was a kid growing up. In those day, on the video shop shelves you had stuff like The Exterminator, Terminator, Cobra, RoboCop. Those kind of adult-orientated action movies, all 18 certificate and I was never allowed to see them but I would look at the cover images. So this movie was very much inspired by 1980s video cover images, specifically The Wraith and The Exterminator."

Did you start this after you finished Insiders or was it long in gestation?
"Basically we had done Insiders and myself and Simon Wyndham wanted to make another feature. We had two ideas that I was cooking up. One was a script called Retrograde, which would have required a very clean-cut, young hero, the other was The Silencer which required a very rugged, moody-looking hero. We happened to meet Glenn Salvage during a shoot for Left for Dead down in Brighton and clicked with Glenn straightaway. We got on very well with him and decided that was the project to go for and Glenn was going to be the lead. That was the process and how it was started."

How do you and Simon Wyndham share out the work?
"I do all the work and Simon complains! Just coming up with the concept, that’s generally me because I have a very active imagination. I come up with this stuff all the time, then we argue it out about what shape it’s going to take. During the actual production, shooting, Simon is the director of photography. He controls all the visual aspects and sound; he’s very skilful at that sort of thing. He’s studied an awful lot - more than I have a notion to do - in terms of lighting and camerawork and stuff. He really knows what he’s doing. He’s BBC trained. So on the set he’ll be determining the visual aspects and I’ll generally be casting the actors, working with the actors and keeping an eye on the storytelling."

So why is Simon co-credited as director?
"Because obviously he has an input in directing as well, and also in post-production. Because on a low-budget movie like this, it’s not like a normal film where you shoot it then you send it off to your hundred post-production staff who edit it and put it together. Both of us edit it and mix the sound and do all the rest of the process. This is completely a joint process all the way through between the two of us. He absolutely is a co-director because of creating the movie that you finally see."

Is The Silencer completely self-funded?
"Yes. I don’t actually know what the budget is. I’ve got a big box full of receipts and I haven’t dared look at it and count them up because I’m going to be horrified when I see how much I’ve spent on the movie."

Have you looked into getting outside funding for your films?
"Yes, I went to a funding body, a film development agency..."

I think I know who you mean!
"I described the movie and they said it couldn’t be done."

It couldn’t be done for the budget you were talking about?
"Yes. They showed no interest whatsoever and ended up laughing me out of the door. And they told me to go and make a short film."

Which you’d done. You’ve made plenty of short films.
"Yes, I had already made short films. In fact I took them a VHS of my short films and they hadn’t watched it."

What were the limitations of time, material and so on that you had to work within? In other words, did you set a level of budget or just try to do everything as cheaply as possible?
"Basically we knew that we weren’t going to be able to afford to pay people more than their expenses. We paid everybody’s travel expenses and as best as we could we fed and clothed them within the budget. Beyond that, we basically just paid for things as and when we needed them. It took about a year to shoot the thing. I had a job and I had income and we just funded it bit by bit as we went along. Most of the costumes were from secondhand places, car boot sales, that sort of thing, to try and get everything as cheap as possible. I generally paid for coach travel for the cast rather than train travel because it was always about ten per cent of the cost of a train ticket."

When you’re shooting over a year, how does that affect trying to get your cast together for relevant scenes?
"We were lucky. We shot everything involving actors in the first ten days. We had a ten-day shoot booked when we did all the interiors and most of the dialogue was done then, because it is difficult getting people back months later. Then it was just sheer prevarication and circumstances that made it drag out for another year, getting people back and shooting all the bits and pieces that we hadn’t managed to get down during the initial main shoot. Luckily most of the cast had finished their parts and it was just a case of getting Glenn back for action scenes and stuff."

How did you assemble your cast and crew?
"Obviously we’d met Glenn and he was definitely the one for that. I found Maye Choo on a casting website while the script was in development and I knew I wanted her in the movie so I wrote the female lead with her in mind and very luckily she was interested in it and did it. All the other actors, apart from one or two who are new, we found through Shooting People."

What about the sets and locations? Is that your house again? Funny how all your characters live in the same nice middle class suburban house!
"It’s quite bizarre, yes. My character lived in my house, but the mouldy green bedsit was also my house. We ripped out all the living room, put in a false wall and built the flat over two walls and a doorway. Then if you turned around 180 degrees you would see the doctor’s office which was the other half of the room. We put blinds in the window and a desk and painted the wall blue. So that was also my living room. Basically we turned my living room into a set for two weeks. I told my wife that the only way it was getting decorated was if I ripped it all out and turned it into a set. I was forced to redecorate it properly to get rid of the green slime and other stuff."

How do you go about directing the action sequences? Is it all in the editing?
"The editing was a bit of a hodgepodge. The bulk of the action choreography was down to Simon; it’s one of his specialities. He’s a very experienced martial artist. Glenn was able to do his own fight scenes - that’s one of the reasons we cast him, obviously. And we had a stunt team from Brighton called Independent Stunts who were very good and a stunt co-ordinator from there. The end fight, the scrap yard fight where Glenn’s fighting the terrorist gang, we had in mind a very specific theme. There’s a fight scene in a movie called Armour of God, a Jackie Chan film, where he fights a bunch of monks in a cave. Basically, this was what Jackie Chan was always great at: him versus a crowd of not very skilled fighters. He would be spinning round, despatching them left and right, and the bad guys would go flying through the air. That’s what we wanted to do. So that’s how we created this set-up where there was just a bunch of bruisers with bats, not really martial artists, coming at him. Glenn was able to knock them back with kicks and punches left and right and they’d go flying through windows and all this stuff that you see.

"So we based it on that idea. Simon did the choreography but it’s kind of a collaborative effort. If someone comes forward and says, ‘I can do a back-flip’, we think right - we’ll put that in. Someone else says, ‘I know how to go through a window’ - okay, we’ll put that in. And I had a few ideas where I wanted a guy to come rolling down a car and those sorts of things, so it was very collaborative. Then you put it together in the edit. But we didn’t shoot any masters, in terms of getting people to run through the whole fight with the camera locked off, way back. It’s all done in individual segments. You just kind of make it up as you go along and put it all together afterwards!

"One thing is: when you’re shooting fight scenes, you always run out of time. It happens so often on our films: you’re trying to build up to a great fight scene and then someone says, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go home now’ so it becomes: ‘Let’s just kill them, let’s just bang them with a hammer and they’re dead’. So what we did with the end fight, we shot the finale of the fight first so we knew we’d have something really good at the end, even if we were running out of time. That’s one tip I can give you."

How do you cope with directing the scenes where you’re acting as well? Is it more difficult?
"It would be if Simon wasn’t there. But obviously because he’s co-directing, he’s there behind the camera, checking everything, so he can comment on things. If I’m in a scene, obviously it’s difficult for me to judge if I’m acting very well but he can comment and everyone else comments as well. Again, that’s the beauty of co-directing."

Were you always going to play the role of Richard?
"Yes. I knew I didn’t want to play the lead in the film because we needed somebody a bit more charismatic, a bit more exciting to look at than me. But it’s handy to put myself in the movie, not for egotistical reasons, but it saves hassle on getting another actor and it means for things like reshoots and inserts and pick-ups, me and Simon can go out on our own virtually and shoot little bits and pieces, which we did a few times. So it’s very handy."

From your point of view, as writer/producer/director/actor, how is this an advance on Insiders?
"It’s a huge advance. I’ve joked about this but this is true: we spent more money on costumes for this film than we spent on the entire of Insiders. Also, when we made Insiders we didn’t know anybody. We didn’t know any actors or anybody. That’s why I played the lead and it basically had three people in it, all of whom were friends of mine. Whereas on this, we’d got a few people who had seen Insiders - Glenn had seen it - and we knew from that, that we were capable of making a halfway decent feature. Since Insiders, Simon had been working full-time as a cameraman, I’d been working full time as a video producer, so we were both a lot more experienced and a lot more confident. We also had the backing of a guy called Mike Leeder in Hong Kong who was very supportive of us and we knew that he would help us with publicity and this kind of things."

What did you learn from making Insiders that you have been able to apply to The Silencer?
"I learned not to star in the movie! I learned not to do any fight scenes myself. It wasn’t just Insiders, it was a gradual process of having made short films, then Insiders, then working more professionally in the industry, meeting more and different people. So it was gradual. We didn’t just make a film and learn from that, we’ve matured over the years."

What are the current release plans for The Silencer?
"The Silencer is due out on DVD in the UK from Blackhorse Entertainment on December 10th 2007. The international rights are being handled by Rising Sun Productions in Los Angeles."

interview originally posted 22nd October 2007

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