BEHIND THE SCENES
MISTER FOE* is based on the novel "Hallam Foe" by Peter Jinks, an old friend of director David Mackenzie and producer Gillian Berrie. Mackenzie and Berrie, partners in Sigma Films for 10 years, were around at the genesis of the novel and were immediately excited by its cinematic possibilities before it was even written. "The beginning was a night out with a crowd of people in Edinburgh and we ended back in Pete’s top floor flat," explains Berrie. "He was telling us about an idea for this story set on the rooftops of Edinburgh, and we were looking out of the window and imagining it, our brains already whirring about the potential film."
"When I read the finished book I was impressed by how it takes you into the head of this troubled teenager," says Mackenzie. "It was kind of like a fucked up ‘Catcher In the Rye’ that seemed to say something about our image hungry 21st century times, where kids almost need to be skewed in order to survive the idol factory rubbish that pervades their world and sadly teaches them how to behave.
"That’s what I immediately liked about Hallam. He’s an original. He’s taken it all a bit further. He doesn’t watch voyeur vision on TV; he gets his observations of human behavior firsthand. He’s had to retreat so far into himself that he’s become almost feral. He’s like part a teen Rambo–from the 1st movie that is, not the pumped up sequels and part a realist Edward Scissorhands with a bit of Harold (from Harold and Maude) thrown in. He’s a weirdo and I think the future belongs to the weird.
"Hallam’s true individuality really appealed to me because I’ve rarely seen films that truly reflect the energy of the confusing forces running through the body and soul of a teenager. Plenty of filmmakers make films about childhood, but few are able to escape a hazy nostalgia–and most of those that do end up in the oft trod territories of drugs, violence and, nowadays, hip hoppery."
It was also the age of the central character that appealed to Mackenzie: "I’ve never had the opportunity to work with a teenage character, and that interested me. Essentially Hallam is a kid trying to come to terms with a few difficult issues. The biggest struggle is his relationship with his stepmother and with his dead mother, which throws his world into confusion. But by the end of the story he almost gets to the other side–not completely but enough for us to know he’s going to survive. The whole growing up thing interests me because even at my age I still don’t really know how to do it. I certainly wasn’t interested in making a cute teen movie, because I think most adolescents are busy self-harming or snorting glue. To my mind the adolescent journey is fuelled by major confusions and darkness.
"But despite being a rather oddball character, he’s a character that I hope most of us can identify with in some way. We all go though some turbulence when we’re growing up. And I’m hoping that the audience will recognize that. I’ve made a few films about troubled characters; it seems to be something that links all the things that I’ve done. I like the idea of characters being displaced, or not being comfortable with the world around them. But this film is quite a lot lighter, certainly than the last two films I’ve done. Dare I say it, it’s more romantic."
"I know David’s interest in outsider characters," says Gillian Berrie. "Young Adam was about a character that’s an outcast and never manages to integrate himself back into society, and in a different way so is Asylum. What I liked about Hallam is that, although he too is essentially an outcast, he’s at an age where he is saveable–and that gives his journey some hope."
Next came the job of finding the right person to bring Hallam to life. "That was easy," says Berrie. "We knew Jamie Bell because of our involvement with Dear Wendy. Sometime in the middle of the writing process we were on a plane to London and I saw a picture of him in a magazine. I held it up in front of David and we both immediately thought ‘that’s our man.’ But we knew we had to get the script right first, so it took a few months before we approached him.
"I first met Jamie in Berlin at the festival two years ago in this Japanese restaurant which had screens at the end of each table playing very explicit anime porn so I think both of us were only half listening to each other while we were sneaking glances at the screens. One of the reasons Jamie and I are so delighted the film is premiering in Berlin is that it gives the whole relationship some kind of symmetry. We will definitely be going back to that restaurant to drink a few sakes! Anyway we seemed to get on ok and I told him I was working on a script that he might be interested in etc and he said ‘Cool send it to my manager, etc.’ But despite all that film star swagger that he likes to throw around (only joking Jamie!) I had a good idea he liked the very inarticulate pitch I stammered at him between the distractions of gushing female orgasms on the screen. So from then on in I was writing the script with Jamie in mind. And a few months later he got to read it and was on.
"MISTER FOE would be nothing without Jamie," continues Berrie. "He is a true young movie star and a beautiful guy. Hallam in his hands has an exuberance, energy and charm way beyond the script. I can’t imagine the film without him, he became Hallam–you should see his Hallam diaries they’re perfect. (These will be available on the blog sometime soon.) He just threw himself at the part and his instincts were always right. He’s a naturally gifted actor with a huge amount of experience for his age and I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to work with him. Is that enough superlatives?"
For Jamie the experience was equally rewarding: "David was someone I really admired, especially from Young Adam which is a beautiful film and I thought Ewan McGregor’s performance was really fantastic. So I was a big fan of his. We both had the same ideas about this character and what the film is about. David allowed a lot of creativity and I came up with different ideas and would do something completely random on the set and he loved it. It was important to make the character real and not be too sentimental, because you really have to like this kid."
The role was physically very demanding as Mackenzie explains: "We had Jamie in a freezing cold loch. We had him jumping about rooftops. We had him standing in the pouring rain in the middle of the night for hours on end. We had him cleaning kitchens tops for take after take. We had him covered in rats. In the end I ran out of ways to torture him!"
Jamie, who features in nearly every scene of the film, adds: "This was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever worked on in my life, partly because of the demands of the schedule, but also for the physical side, the accent issues and the nudity that’s involved and some of the sequences at the end were a bit traumatic. It’s an emotionally heavy film, but mainly it was all the running around, climbing and jumping that I had to do, it was an incredibly physical role as well as being challenging emotionally."
With the casting of the rest of the film, it was important to create a family dynamic that was convincing, Ciarán Hinds and Claire Forlani play Hallam’s father and stepmother.
"Claire Forlani was just outstanding," says Berrie. "It was amazing, she was Verity. She got the balance perfectly right–is she this awful wicked stepmother or is it Hallam who’s imagining this? She was wonderful. Ciarán Hinds balanced her really nicely as Julius, the father weighed down by guilt and grief, but desperately searching for a fresh start with his new wife. Ciarán is a wonderful actor and a great guy. And then as Kate, the damaged young woman who into Hallam’s life, Sophia Myles brought a different dimension. She’s perfect, both hard and soft, professional and vulnerable and in her and Jamie’s hands the magic of these parts of the film just flows," says Berrie.
All the cast were very impressed by Jamie Bell. "Jamie’s got such a magical quality about him and you want to watch him and be around him. He’s got a great energy, there’s just something about him," says Myles. "Because he was Billy Elliot he’s a national treasure! In the scene where Kate gets rip-roaringly drunk with Hallam, I had to dance on my own in front of Billy Elliot which was pretty terrifying I have to say."
When Sophia first read the script she was so impressed she wrote to Mackenzie: "When I read it I was ‘yes please I want to do this’ and I wrote a letter to David, which I’ve never ever done before–I’ve never begged anyone for a job, but I was so passionate about it I really wanted to be part of it. Through the course of making this film I realized how personal it is for David. I think there is probably a lot of Hallam in him actually: I suspect that he might have been quite similar when he was younger; they’ve both got a kind of intensity. And I know that Jamie has copied a few of David’s mannerisms to work into his character!"
Claire Forlani was equally keen to be part of the project: "I read the script and thought ‘this is good!’ It broke my heart on every page, it was such a beautiful piece. It was the quickest and easiest decision I think I’ve ever made. The script was very refined and detailed, deep and complex."
She was also very impressed with her young costar: "Jamie is probably one of the most magnificent people I’ve ever worked with. I mean I cannot believe that he’s 20 and this relaxed and easy and loose and sweet and yet he’s so committed, focused and prepared, he’s just got talent oozing out of every pore in his body. He’s really just inherently talented, but he’s also completely dedicated. But you know I think we are going to see endless amounts of incredible work from Mr. Jamie Bell, I really do!"
Forlani particularly enjoyed working with Mackenzie: "David was very specific and very clear. And he’s been beautiful to watch actually, because I felt like I had almost stepped back into a time warp on this film. I hadn’t been on a set in many, many years where the director is there relishing the process. It was almost a poetic, old school way of making a movie."
Edinburgh is a vital element of the film in itself and it was therefore important to Mackenzie to have distinct visual styles for each element of the story: "I think that Edinburgh to some extent is a character in the film and has a very strong presence in there. But particularly as the story starts off in the country, there’s a major transition when Hallam arrives in the city. We concentrate on the old town of Edinburgh and on some of the roofs. I think it is a city with quite a lot of charm and a slightly gothic character, and I’m hoping that there’s a small celebration of that. There’s an obvious visual texture which is the colors of the country versus those of the city.
The film starts in the country scenes with slightly more elegant camera movements, and then becomes a bit more jagged using a handheld camera for the city scenes in an attempt to capture the urban energy. But the crossover’s not particularly obvious because there are bits of one in one section and bits of the other in the other section. The last two films I’ve done have both been quite stately period movies and I’ve not had the freedom to swing the camera around in quite as many ways as you can in a contemporary movie. Giles Nuttgens, the Director of Photography, and I have worked on three films together and we wanted to try something different. We shot a lot of handheld to reinforce energy of the character and we shot with a lot of foreground blocking to bring out the sense of Hallam watching. There are several different worlds within the city, a street and roof world, but there’s also the hotel element which is a different texture as well because a lot of it is subterranean and fluorescent. There’s a strange visual quality in this film. You move between these different worlds which have a very different visual flavor, but they remain unified."
For Gillian Berrie, the target audience for the film is Jamie Bell: "Jamie Bell met us in New York one afternoon. When Jamie walked into the room, I thought there’s our target audience coming right now. The film is for his age group and he was very keen that he was going to make something that was cool, that would impress his contemporaries. We wanted to do that too, and that was reflected in the choice of music on the soundtrack. But also I wanted a film that would appeal to more than teenagers and could operate on more than one level, and I think it does that. I think the emotional content will give the film a broader appeal."
David concludes: "I really hope this is a film which has exuberance, life, humor, some originality, some dark bits, some romantic bits, a big, happy, crazy journey that appeals to a wide range of people. I’d love to make a film that does have a reasonably wide appeal without particularly selling out to the lowest common denominator idea. I’m hoping that this combination, this character and the energy with which we made the film will add up to something which people will want to see. Most of this is in the hands of other people now. But for my part I am very proud and happy to have made MISTER FOE.
The future belongs to the weird!"
* The British title for the movie "Mister Foe" is "Hallam Foe."