RSC Caught up with Jeremy Wooding, the director of Burning Men to chat about his new release, the future of filmmaking and his biggest film influences.
Check out our review of Burning Men by clicking on these words.
Congratulations on the film. It’s out now I believe?
It’s out in selected cinemas and then on Digital from the 18th. [March]
That’s got to feel exciting?
It is, mostly exciting because you don’t often get a cinema release with micro-budget movies and it’s great that Munro Films, the distributor, saw potential in it and have been able to place it so far in about 10 cinemas, which could expand. Although it is a low budget movie, it works really well on a big screen. Yeah, and it’s quite immersive and mounted music and the sound design, everything that’s in that film really comes and surrounds you. As you see it in a cinema auditorium. So, I’m pleased that people will be able to experience it in a larger surrounding. Having said that, I just recently, last week, watched the whole film on my iPhone 5S. And, and it works surprisingly well, just on a handheld device.
I must confess I saw it on my iPad this week…
I think it works better on a handheld device than it does on a laptop, to be honest, and I don’t know why other than everything does get quite compressed sound and picture wise.
I watched it on an iPad in the dark, and I had a decent pair of headphones on as well. And I think that made a big difference. For me, the sound is a big, big part of the film and what makes it work, so that enhanced the experience quite a lot.
So, did you like the film?
I did, yeah. I did very much actually. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I didn’t know much about it before I watched the film, but I liked it a lot. In fact, my review is actually up on the website so you can find out exactly what I thought of the film if you wanted to have a look. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before.
Well, you are exactly right, it is out there on its own and it’s the only one multi-POV movie as far as I know ever made. Obviously, you know, I did that in the first series of Peep Show as well, so the actual technique had been, you know, tried and tested with Peep Show. I did two 15-minute pilots over a year before that as well to convince Channel 4 that we could make this work. So, there was a lot of worried people about thinking, you know, the writers that have come up with this crazy idea of seeing everything through characters’ eyes, and hearing their thoughts, particularly Peep Show. How does that work? And so, it was down to me to make it work. And then from that, I learned a lot about just using different film language first, and then went back into film history, looked at the very first uses of a POV shot back to 1901,1903 and the initial use of it was seeing what people saw through a telescope or through a keyhole. So, they always had a vision yes around it to make sure that the audience wasn’t confused about, you know, the shot not being a point of view shot.
The more I reflected on it [the film] I could unpick a few more of the references and it felt like there’s a bit of French New Wave cinema in there, a bit of a Truffaut. I imagine that’s quite a challenging production schedule to manage because it’s so different, particularly on a low budget, how do you manage that? Or is it kind of easier because of the way it’s constructed?
You have to be quite well prepared and this script was written always as a low budget affair. And so, we really tailor-made it to be shot on the hoof, guerrilla-style, and anything that would have cost too much, you know, too big a crowd scene or whatever, didn’t find its way into the script. So, all the time, you know, particularly me with my producer’s hat was like, “okay. Are we going too far off the roots? Because that’s another night in that place, whereas if we stay around the corner that makes into an afternoon there” so it was always the schedule, the scheduling and the practicalities of how we’re going to make this was always in the forefront of my mind. I always thought I would shoot handheld, and you’re quite right with a French New Wave, direct cinema, kind of way.
You know, I’m a big fan of DIY cinema where you just pick up the camera and go for it. And particularly low budget stuff so it was not going to be camera cranes and dollies and tracks and things, it was always going to be lean and mean. And then, a couple of people who read the script said, “well, there’s something missing in the nature of the film” and one of them said, “it doesn’t seem to be you. I mean as a filmmaker, because you’re known for, you know…”. I’m known for cross-genre stuff and sort of pushing the envelope in filmmaking, and these particular guys just thought it was a little bit too pedestrian and that sort of sat with me, and I thought well if I was going to make it more unique and much more my thing what would I do? And I thought, “well, I’ve always wanted to do a road movie and I’ve always wanted to do something with the POV handheld style so maybe this is the chance.” And that’s what I did. That was the sort of deciding moment was like, “Okay, well, better or for worse. Let’s just do this because nobody else will if I don’t.”
I was fascinated watching it, because of the POV style, I’d never seen it before deployed in this way. I’m a big fan of Peep Show, I was at university when the first series aired, and I remember catching it kind of by accident very late one night on Channel Four. So, when I sat down to watch the film I was aware, that you were the director and I was aware that you worked on Peep Show. When using the POV style how does that change how you work with the actors because it must quite different for them too?
It’s an interesting process, there are pluses and minuses to it. The pluses are that you can move really fast and you can do retakes quite quickly. Minuses are that the continuity and the songs have to be very well choreographed because you can’t do too many things different. Otherwise, they just won’t work on screen. By that, I mean the choreography between the camera and the actor, because the actors are always acting to the camera lens. So, there’s this dance that has to happen. As the characters are moving around and throwing lines to the camera lens, is the other person in the scene? All of that has to has to work as if the camera wasn’t there and it was another person instead of the camera. It’s something which I think the younger actors took to much more readily than the older actors, because the older actors’ instinct is to look beyond the camera to the person reading the lines, behind the camera. They quickly got with it though. The initial thing. I mean, pretty much every time, the first take with all the older actors their eyes went past the lens and they wouldn’t realize they were doing it. They thought they were looking straight down the camera. Denise Welch was very good by the way, and I complimented her, and she said, “it’s because I do a lot of TV presenting and I’m always looking into the camera.” So, yeah, you have to choreograph the scene to block out the scene with the actors first of all, without the camera there, so that then they can see they are all working in a real, on location sense. and then you inject the cameras in there and the camera replaces those other people, and they just have to follow through the vibe of the scene and what we’ve just rehearsed.
It’s fascinating to hear that. That it’s something that comes a bit easier to the younger, less experienced actors, that’s really interesting.
That’s interesting you’re saying about growing up with Peep Show. And this is something which I kind of started to sense when, when I was in the edit suite and started to show it to people. It’s starting to split up between an older and younger generation. The older generation is having a little bit of a problem with getting their head settled into the style of it, because it was so alien, and the younger generation is not having any problem with it. Because, you know, a selfie on a phone or FaceTime or Peep Show. This has all been going on for years, and they’ve grown up with it. And so, it doesn’t seem so alien to them as it was to an older generation. So yeah, it is intriguing, and we had even younger, teenagers watch it. You know, 17/18-year olds and, and they totally get it. A young guy came up to me at screening came up to me afterward and said “it was like being in a video game; the sights and sounds of it, just totally absorbed me. And it was quite an unusual experience because it was so immersive.” Yeah. So, and this sort of plays into another thing which I’m pursuing and interested in; that’s virtual reality filmmaking, VR stuff, and it connects up with a lot with 360-degree POV filmmaking. All the experiences you can have shooting, practically this sort of stuff, feeds back into pushing the envelope further on other projects.
It kind of sounds that you’re quite excited by different ways of presenting material and different ways of putting things on-screen. Is that your big driver or is that something you’re constantly looking for? What’s on the horizon? What’s next? What’s the future in terms of filmmaking and how we can tell different stories?
The technical approach, the visual approach is always important. But I think, first of all, I suppose I’m very genre led, because I suppose I’m a bit like Michael Winterbottom in that respect. You know, working with different genres inspires me and gets me excited. You’re going to make a Sci-Fi film for example or going to do a horror film whatever, I love cinema with a big C, and I’ve always loved cinema. And so, dealing with cinematic genres, this is kind of my main driver, and then what story we’re telling within that genre. Yes, looking for things, looking to cross-genre and make things a bit different. Mash things up there, and just see how we could visually represent that genre a bit different. I’m a big fan of the movie Victoria, which was all shot in one take, and horror films have used a lot of POV stuff. So, I think, you know, representing your story in a different way that would draw the audience in. In this day and age, where video games, where virtual reality are all becoming bigger players. I think that’s where cinema and other media interactions are going and it really inspires me.
It’s a really interesting point of view, how do you think the film industry is positioned to take advantage of that?
I think they are quite scared of it. Yeah. I’m not sure that enough filmmakers want to grasp that metal, particularly the more established ones. Obviously, you have people, filmmakers like Mike Figgis or Steven Soderbergh. You know that they’ll go out there and do something really interesting, either with an iPhone or with a, you know, split screen presentational technique in Mike Figgis’ case. Yeah, I think the iPhone, iPhone filmmaking is only just in its birth, I think it’s going to become bigger and bigger.
I reviewed High Flying Bird on release, it wasn’t until about a week later that I realized that it got shot on iPhone at all! It completely passed me by…
Haha, what the iPhone does, is enable you to inject yourself into an environment which has less of a footprint than a huge surplus of vehicles and cast and crew. Tangerine showed that, I thought that movie was great and used the filmmaking techniques to very clever effect, but didn’t lose sight of the characters or lose sight of the story and the two melded together; form and content work together and I think that’s important. For me is that it’s not just a gimmick, for example, using POV. There’s a reason for it, and I’m interested to see what that brings to the watching experience
What are the biggest influences on you? What are your favourite films? The ones that you think have had the biggest impact on your filmmaking?
Well, I think films, but also filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola, Billy Wilder, Tarkovsky, Francois Truffaut and the cinematic waves they were involved in; whether that’s French New Wave or the 70s indie cinema of the US. And also, Germany new wave filmmakers Fassbinder and Wim Wendors. Wendors was a big fan of road movies, obviously. So, yeah, I kind of split up into, you know as a fanboy being fans of different directors, different cinematic movements. As a filmmaker, we often get asked what are your favorite films.
And to be fair, as a film writer it drives me nuts…
Because it’s always in flux isn’t it? You know when I ask people they can get sort of a bit flummoxed, it’s a really hard question! And I say okay, so you’re sitting at home, and whatever season it is, whatever time of day, you want to watch a film; what have you got on your cloud, on your computer, or on the shelf that you will reach for because you know that you’re going to get infinite pleasure from it? Because that’s one of your favorite movies and that sort of goes back to that Robert McKee idea of infinite pleasure for Casablanca for him. And then you see people’s mind starting to focus on how they might watch a film. Is it, watching it makes me feel good? Or, watching it to wake me up and excite me? Do you know what I mean? So, for me, the ones that I always pull off the shelf would be in a very obvious way, Godfather 2, Casino [by] Scorsese, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Polanski’s Chinatown, Don’t Look Now by Nick Roeg, I’m a big fan of Nick Roeg. And then, you know, anything really from Francis Ford Coppola whether that’s Apocalypse Now, and I’m a big fan of One From the Heart, his musical. I think that’s a totally undervalued movie.
Yeah, well, good.
And Rumble Fish, what a great movie! I suppose as far as the influence has gone for this film, Jim Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise, definitely. I remember when I first saw that film, it had such an impact on me because it was shot so strangely in a square format where the actors just walked into the frame, did the scene and then walked out again. And it wasn’t conventional filmmaking or narrative editing. And I thought, well, what courage to do something like that, in black and white. And, yeah, they stayed with me all my life, you know. So yeah, Jim Jarmusch. Easy Rider is a big influence on this movie too
Yeah, I can see that.
Neil Spencer my co-scriptwriter is a big fan of Easy Rider and his favorite movie is probably Performance, I think. And I know when it came out pretty much everybody hated it! Again, a movie that is almost indefinable to begin with. What is this movie? Is it a gangster movie? No? Is it in our drugged-out trip movie? Well, yes but no. I mean the indefinable nature of a movie that keeps people guessing, and hopefully, the audience will pick up on that with Burning Men.
You’ve convinced me that I might need to go and watch Rumble Fish again this evening…
He has an out of body experience in that [Rumble Fish], which is a part of Burning Men, for Ray has a kind of out of body experience and he’s looking down on himself and going into people’s experience of the story and seeing things from the outside as well as from the inside. Again, a theme, which will stay with me all my life, out of body experience. See, you know what a movie?! And Tom Waites eh?! He’s so iconic in it. And that also, you know you see something like Rumble Fish, you can put, Dennis Hopper in there, you can put some Tom Waits in there. You could put acting mates into a film, and not have it feel just like a walk-on, name cameo. It feels much more organic, it feels like they’re a part of the whole gang and the whole attitude of the film. And I really like that, when filmmakers do that and use their favorite actors in that way.
Do you see yourself forming a sort of performing troupe from the cast of Burning Men?. Have you got any plans to work with any of them again?
Yeah, I’d love to work with them all again. It’s funny you should say that, it felt like that while we were on the road. There were 20 people, cast and crew, it was never bigger than that and about six to eight vehicles. So, it was a little traveling troupe. And, yeah, it felt very much like a nice kind of circus troupe. But we were filming it rather than putting on the show in different areas. And I have worked with people who are in our additional cast like Rapheallo Degruttola was in my werewolf Western, Joe Milson was in Magnificent 11. So, you do meet actors along the way who you think I’d like to do something else with them. Sometimes they are bigger roles, sometimes those smaller roles. I mean, I’d still love to work with James McAvoy again but, you know, actually finding some time in his diary in the next five years… Probably Ditto with Olivia Colman
You know, these things with different actors is so much an availability thing. And, you want to get the right stage of their career. Well, what you’re offering them script wise and what they connect to and can always be pretty good. So, I never get too focused on actors. I still want to work with Jude Law, as well, who used to come down on set with his kids when I made a short vampire film with Sadie Frost. And, you know whenever I bump into Jude he’s like ‘Vampire man. When we going to work together?’ it’s like, good question! All the cast in Burning Men all did sterling work and in quite difficult circumstances sometimes. So, you know, bless the troupe!
Well, thanks so much Jeremy for making time to chat with us. Before we wrap it up is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the film or anything else you’d like to cover?
I’m really intrigued to sit with different audiences around the country now on this little cinema tour and see what they make of it, you know. In Whitley Bay near Newcastle by the Sea the thing is pretty much sold out, doing Q and A’s and just seeing and getting feedback from people, because you learn so much as a filmmaker from sitting amongst an audience and feeling their vibrations, their reactions to the film and chat to them afterward. So, I’m really looking forward to that. And I hope there’s not going to be too many walkouts! We’ve had a couple of people come up to me afterward and said “I couldn’t handle it, it was too much for my head” and I said, “Well if you waited longer than just the first 10 minutes it begins to settle down. The reason why it’s so chaotic at the beginning, is because you are being thrown into these boys world, you know? You are being jangled around as much as they are and then, as they get further north, everything begins to settle down and their old life just begins to fall away. So, you know, I like it when people actually think there are actual reasons behind decisions you make as a filmmaker rather than, oh, you’ve got something wrong.
Burning Men is released in select cinemas on 1st March, with a regional tour across the country. For more information, please head to http://bit.ly/BurningMenTour
Andy joined the Ready Steady Cut team in October 2018. A Graduate of Exeter University, he writes mainly about films and TV.