Dominic Savage in conversation
Interviewed by Cath Le Couteur
SHOOTERS SALON - MAY 3rd 2006
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After three major award-winning BBC dramas - Nice Girls (2000), When I Was 12 (2001) and Out Of Control (2002) - Dominic Savage has made his cinematic debut with Love & Hate. Filmed in Blackburn, the movie stars newcomer Samina Awan as a British Muslim falling for a fellow worker (Tom Hudson). He's battling more than just teenage hormones, though, and the couple's love story plays out against a backdrop of racism, cultural misunderstandings, and Snow Patrol.
Dominic came and spoke exclusively to Shooters about how his non-traditional approach to filmmaking.
[CATH] The first question Dominic is to get a sense of why this film? Tell us a bit about where the idea came from?
[Dominic] I suppose that in all the films you make there is something that is in you, and something that has been in you for quite some time and that is very much the case with this. I think I always wanted to make a love story that felt it was worth telling. You can trace things back right to your childhood probably in the end. I suppose it was because ultimately it is that difficulty of who you are with and who your parents are, and what they think of who you are with. It is something I experienced early on in life and had difficulty with and I suppose I wanted to tell that story but in the most extreme way perhaps, or in the most contemporary and relevant way. I think that certainly setting it in this particular place between these two communities felt like it was talking about something that is vitally important in society today.
And are these communities that you represent in the film, communities you have been touched by personally? Or did you do a lot of research?
Certainly if I look back on it, people I met when I researched the story and the film, those people still remain with me and I can think about people I met in my life who inspired me even more to make this. There was this guy in Bolton who was in love with this white girl and yet he couldn’t show it, or display it in any way. He was in quite a sad way because of it. When they went out she had to hide in his car, she had to duck down when they went through the town centre, and she didn’t exist really. And yet she did in his heart. She meant a lot to him but he couldn’t do what she wanted, he couldn’t be the boyfriend that she wanted him to be, so it is that sort of thing that makes you say this kind of drama is important in telling, because of the difficulties people are going through all the time with it.
There are lots of people here who are eager to understand better your process, because a lot of it is very unique. I wanted to start with an odd question, which may have no relevance at all - but for those of you who don’t know - Dominic was in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’. In fact you acted in a lot of things as a child?
So did that have an influence on you in terms of your subsequent directing?
Definitely, and I think that is why I am doing what I do really. I had that experience at the time, and I think in the way that Kubrick directed me above all, I thought he had a real way with him. He understood quite quickly about you as a person, he was very curious about people generally, but he had a great way of getting the right thing from you, encouraging you. I had done films before as a child actor and the directors were spectacularly good at destroying that thing in you and I thought ‘what good is it if they do that, if they discourage the very quality that they are after?’, but Stanley wasn’t, he was a great inspiration and I got into his films after having acted in ‘Barry Lyndon’ and he is still really my idol. He is the originator. It did feel that what he did was original and that is always what we want to do isn’t it, we want to be original.
And in terms of background, you had these child actor experiences and then you went to the NFTS.
Did you study documentary?
I did, I didn’t apply to study documentary but I made a film that was a strange musical, it was a girl that was acting herself, but she was also acting something else and I didn’t see it as a documentary but they saw the fact that she was a real person, and it was about her, and she was re-enacting things. I think they saw my documentary abilities coming through. And I studied more of it.
In my experience there are a lot of documentary film makers that want to make documentary, and then a lot of fiction directors who are quite interested in making documentary. But you don’t often get documentary film makers who want to make fiction. What made you move over into fiction?
It felt absolutely right because I had always wanted the freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell and sometimes it is frustrating with documentaries because you are not fully in control, because you are going along with real people’s lives and stories, which are great and interesting, but sometimes you want to take it somewhere else and sometimes they don’t want to go there, and that is fine. I really enjoyed the films I made actually, and I don’t think I would say no to making a documentary again, there is something very invigorating about it when you are dealing with real lives and what happens in them. I made a film that crossed over in a way, which confused people. It was a Cutting Edge for Channel 4 called ‘Rogue Males; and there were reconstructions in it that weren’t sign posted and at the time there was a fuss and furore about the fact that it was seen as cheating, and this was really interesting because it expressed the frustrations of not being able to tell the story I wanted to. Actually those characters in the film were really with it but of course it was just the whole signposting thing that became difficult, and I became frustrated. I felt limited and then in a way, that led to me to making my first drama and it felt very liberating and I love the fact now that I can combine the skills of a documentary maker with that of a dramatist.
I don’t know how many people are aware that quite a lot has been written about the fact that Dominic doesn’t actually work with a script, or with a script as we know it with dialogue… So I want to unpack that a bit. So Dominic, what does a Dominic Savage script look like? A blank page?
That is quite a good myth to keep up isn’t it, I should do that sometimes! That is the thing about working with people that is difficult, (because I have been working with a theatre writer actually on another film), and his thing is that it is all about dialogue. It is all about understanding character and situation and atmosphere and everything through the dialogue, he doesn’t describe anything else and I work in the absolute opposite way in that nothing is through dialogue and everything is through description, and as much embellishment of character and story and feel and everything in prose if you like, and of course Simon didn’t understand that although he appreciates me doing this, and so it is a completely different way of working.
So what do you have? Do you work from a bible of character description? Story outline? What do you work from?
Part of it is, but there is part of you that also doesn’t want to put too much down, but then again it changes as we go along anyway. But it is good to put it down in detail that includes an outline so that everyone knows your intention and particularly I think the people that are backing your film – they need to know what you are going to do.
It sounds like a very unconventional approach – does that make it harder to raise money on?
It has been fine because of the development of my dramas and the people who have backed me along the way. I started with a film that was made for BBC2 which was done in this way and it was about the same time that Pawel Pawelsolski made ‘Last Resort’. We were making the same kind of strand and Pawel’s then became released and mine went to television. It was a kind of experiment at that time of combining a documentary with drama and it was co-funded by documentary and drama and it was to experiment I suppose, and so that was the brief. So there was an understanding of people trying different ways and approaches and the fact that that film worked and was deemed to work kind of gave me credibility. So then you are empowered by the work that you do and if you then build a track record it’s easier. I suppose there is a bit of luck as well because if I had not made that film at that time I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. But it is because it was pretty low budget, they took a chance on it, those people that were backing it, and that is kind of what you need sometimes, is to be given a chance.
So how long was the process of writing the ‘bible’, for want of another word? How long were you in development?
On all of them or any one in particular.
On ‘Love and Hate’.
The process is quite quick, compared to conventional things because in a way it is having that faith in you as much as the script, so it is in fact from going along and saying ‘this is what I want to do’, rather than from a treatment.
How long from you having the idea of wanting to make this film to being pretty happy with the documents that you are handing over to people to get them interested?
Probably about 5 or 6 months. So it is quite rapid in normal terms isn’t it? But part of that journey is the trust that those backers have in you as a film maker and I think that is vitally important and that is what is good about having made television films, to lead up to that, you develop that reputation through television which can allow more experimentation I think, at its best. Not often, but at its best it can.
Lets move on to your casting. Film making anyway is stressful and risky and worrisome and all of those things, so how do you work with not just improvisation, but some actors that have never acted before? How, why, and did it work out fine?
Well, I think it is all about trust and faith isn’t it, faith in the people that you are working with and that is the process of when you make a film, and what you are looking for in particular during casting. Casting is vital because you have to have an instinct with the people that you are working with at that stage although I am quite rigorous I suppose, when I am casting people that have not acted before. Samina who plays Naseema had never done anything before, so yes, it is a leap of faith but I go through a process which allows me to believe that they have a special quality.
Can you tell us more about that process?
It is interesting I find because I always like at that stage to screen test myself and shoot it myself, and that gives me a unique feeling because I think there is a relationship that you have when you are in there with your actors. I like it to remain quite intimate and I think you can sense something that is going on or not, just by being kind of there.
What would you shoot for example?
I just create various scenarios for them to work with and sometimes it doesn’t allow for much preparation but what it does is it brings out truths within them and I think, if I feel that, and I sense it then I know I can work with them. I think there is always that sense in you that yes, you may be sure of someone, but when it comes to the actual day, the first day you shoot with them for instance, you never know until you are actually doing it, it is a different experience because obviously with casting, it is just me in a room with them but then when you are shooting it is quite a different environment - so you never quite know.
So you never know whether that is going to be fabulous or whether it may actually turn out to be quite difficult.
No, you don’t and I think that you have a faith from the casting that just sustains that belief through the film and I think you just keep going and sometimes you can start badly but then you can get through that. But yes, it is tough, it is a tough process, because you are dealing with so many more other factors that don’t allow for guarantees and I suppose that is almost the beauty of it as well and that is why people will sign up to it in terms of finances because of what they don’t know as well, and they can’t deal with what they don’t know so that helps the whole process too.
And so how does it work on set when you are with the actors and you are about to shoot a scen. You are quite clear in your head about what the scene is and what you want from it?
I do have firm ideas but then also so do they by what they know I want from the script and by what we have discussed and so we know what we want to achieve together. But then we don’t quite know how we are going to get there but that is the excitement because what unfolds is often surprising and I like that.
Can you talk us through how you might approach one of the scenes in Love and Hate for example? So if you are in the factory for example you would know what characters are there…
If I think back a bit, there were times when I suggested more to them then I may have done before. So I did suggest things that they might go into and what happens is that then through that suggestion, they obviously have their own thoughts about it. So it is a kind of writing in a way, (for instance working on a scene with two actors), so in a sense we are writing it together at that moment collaboratively, and it comes out as something that none of us could ever have expected, because none of us really know what it is going to be. I don’t want to sound mystical about it, but there is a sense of that as well.
And are you on set live? Is this happening in rehearsals, do you do any rehearsals at all?
I don’t like to. I did do rehearsals on my first film, I got into that a bit because I thought it was worth knowing a bit more about it, but then I soon stopped because I thought we are doing stuff here that really should be shot rather than rehearsed. So it didn’t make a bunch of sense and I hate the idea of something being done and then being lost. I hate the idea of never getting that again. It is just nice to catch it really.
When you are improvising the scenes, doesn’t your DOP go nuts because he doesn’t know where anyone is going to be or what is going to happen. Does he ever get to prep the shot or is he just reacting each time? How do you work with your DOP?
My feeling is that it works in different ways. It works sometimes because we are in a space where we can move and capture wherever the actor goes within that space, or we are in a space, where it is quite limiting where the actor can go and so the DOP sets the limit. There are very many examples in this film for instance of improvisations that are completely set because a lot of people do just talk to each other when they are sitting together or something like that so it is quite contained. So a lot of the time there isn’t a need for movement and I think as you are aware there are a lot of shots that just play with ‘two’ shots. They don’t necessarily go between the actors.
Were you ever shooting two camera?
No, single. But it is really horses for courses, with each situation. Sometimes there will be a need to keep things very free and loose and we will just prepare the entire space for that and know we can go anywhere and other times it is just very set so we know exactly where the frame is going to be and the actors can improvise within that.
(Questions from the audience…)
What happens if the expectations of the cast improvisations go against the expectation of you as a director?
Obviously, I’m really open to that and they can often be better ideas than I thought, and that’s kind of the beauty of it really and I’m totally open to encouraging that. But sometimes…well I can remember once on a previous film called Out of Control, there was a situation where one of the actors was coming up with ideas that really wasn’t helpful at all. The whole thing was getting a bit messy and it was quite difficult. He wasn’t quite getting it and he was making more suggestions and the more I rejected those suggestions he was making more other suggestions and so I abandoned the scene. I thought that was the best way to do it really. I think sometimes that is a good thing. I think the beauty of having this amount of freedom and control when you write and direct is you can actually say this is not working at this time in this space; I will do it another time or not do it. I don’t need it. I have done that somewhere else and that is often what happens is that you have covered something that you thought you were going to cover in another scene in that scene and you just don’t need to and a lot of it is chopping, changing and adding, taking away as we go along. So it’s a very fluid, organic process.
It is quite an interesting question too, in relation to the casting, you have a reasonably strong idea perhaps about the characters that you want and you have done descriptions for these characters and then you go through the casting process. Do your ideas about character ever change?
Yes definitely, always. Someone brings something. With ‘Love and Hate’. All the actors brought something else; they brought their life to it. They brought a lot of feeling, a lot of their own personal anxieties to it and it needed that. It absolutely had to have that and that is why the casting was lengthy and rigorous.
How long was the casting?
About 5 months in the end. In particular Naseema was hard to find, because of young Muslim girls not being encouraged at all to do this kind of thing and to pick this character. Some would come in who were really interesting but said they wouldn’t, that they couldn’t possibly kiss a white boy on screen or touch a white boy so it was things like that really that were tough. But luckily Samina came from a more open family.
How did you find her?
Through notices in colleges. She was at Eccles College and she saw it and she came along on a whim. I remember doing this interview with her, we did these scenes with her, interviewed her on camera and talked about her, her life and she just came out with so many interesting things and I knew she was going to give so much to the film.
Was it shot in sequence so the actors could follow the story through?
It wasn’t. That is the ideal, if you can do that, that is fantastic but it is difficult doing that. I tried to as much as possible. There is this demand with location where you have to schedule sometimes around location and sometimes around availabilities.
The fact that we shot it all in one town made that more possible but it is difficult to that. I think you try and prioritise. Where you can’t do that you try and prioritise trying to keep as much as possible to an ark with it. But no, I can’t say I did. In an ideal world you would do all these things. You would have lots and lots more time; you would have more shooting time. You would have everything in sequence. Everything shot chronologically. It just doesn’t exist really.
Presumably you do quite a few takes. So would the script ever settle into specific dialogue, or would every take would be different?
Every take is different but also there is a similarity. Once there is an arc to the scene that feels right it stays with that but with variations on that. I think that because there is a natural arc that the actors find anyway with it, that they stick to, something to hold on to as well but then there is variations and obviously within those variations I help it in different ways along. It usually happens fairly quickly; usually in 3 takes we’ve done it. But that might change on the next one. It could be like 20.
Can I just ask about the development of the visual grammar of the film and how much that is influenced by the acting process?
It is a fusion really, it really is, it is finding I always think, that a visual style finds itself slightly. I have never come to something saying I want it to be like this. It needs to have this flavour. It happens as the process starts really and I like to be open about that. As open as I am to changes in the nature of the scenes and the tones of the characters. What happens on that journey in a visual sense as well? Again it is sticking to that whole kind of idea of allowing the film to tell you things as well, to speak to you about what it is. I do not understand how people storyboard stuff.
So you never do storyboards?
No. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
It is interesting in relation in your comments about Kubrik because he feels like an incredibly controlling director. Everything is incredibly structured.
Interestingly not. I think he is, but I think I am too. I think he was, his philosophy was in terms of finding something about the scene that was interesting. He always changed things, he changed things all the time and often scenes that were written in the script that you had learned, you would get sent a re-write of that scene a week later which you would then learn again which had a very different feel to it, and then on the day often you would be presented with something else and then after that you would improvise it and then you would re-write it again so it was constantly changing and often he would be looking for. I can remember times where we had set some amazing scene up in a great setting and one particular scene I remember this huge room that was lit with probably about 2000 candles. Chandelier after chandelier of candles that had to be completely lit before you got the feel for it and then he got us to go through the scene and decided it wasn’t right. And we did that about four times with that same scene in different places. People can argue with him that he could afford to do that. He was a law unto himself in that his budgets allowed him to do those kind of experiments but I suppose in some ways I kind of understand it to. And try and do that but obviously in a more practical way.
So when you are doing various different takes, have you actually set the camera by that stage or are you being incredibly lose with it? It is more kind of observational?
It is just there are a couple of people here who I am going to be making my next film with.
Oh, no secrets!
I just think in some ways, what is interesting about this is that there is a kind of scrutiny of a process and if you like the process for me, I think it is weird even thinking about it and analysing it and it is something that kind of happens. I know that sounds a bit strange but I don’t have techniques in that way. I have not worked out a technique because I think once you start trying to work it out too much you have lost it.
And are you led very much by the cinematographer or are you fairly clear about what you want?
It has a very distinctive ambience ‘Love and Hate’. It does feel like it is very distinctive visual.
I think what happens actually is there is an entirely right place for the camera to be and it feels like there are so many places it can go really. There are so many ways you can shoot something but for me there always feel the right place for it and again it is quite instinctive in that respect and it just so happens that the cameraman I worked with felt that too, so I think that is kind of how it works at its best. The right place for both of you and you almost don’t need to discuss it. It is a feeling that you get and you do it. And that sounds again quite mystical but maybe it is.
Question about the cinematography, the depth of focus, the depth of field is fantastic. How do you achieve that?
Well, you need a very good focus puller. There was a deliberate attempt to do low light and always keep that, always throw things quite a lot.
Yes, it is quite tricky and we are very aware of this, about doing this weren’t working sometimes and having to do it again because of a technical thing. But that is why, when it is not set in, obviously a lot of those night time things are quite set and when they are not, it is an incredibly careful set up in terms of pulling focus.
Technically what were you using, were you using any adaptations?
On some of the scenes we did experiment with these swing and shift lenses which was interesting. We were interested in focussing in on these characters. What is going on inside them and so there was a real attempt to get inside the intensity of these relationships and feelings and all that stuff and attempt to throw the context, the world out slightly so that was the idea of working with those lenses. It worked at sometimes and didn’t work at other times. It certainly doesn’t work when you try and plan and all that stuff. Again it is trying things and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
With those lenses in particular it is quite difficult to see how it works, particularly working with quite a crude monitor but again it is a feeling you get, whether something is working or not. For me it is whether it is working within those actors. If you sense that something is there, or not always there. I think there has been scenes that I have done where it felt at the time really empty somehow, felt like nothing was really happening and actually the truth is I don’t think anything was happening but in the context of cutting into the film something did happen so it is interesting how that can work as well. It doesn’t always need to happen at the time.
How much did the film cost and how long was the shoot?
I don’t know the final figure but it was something in the region of 1.6. And it was a 5 week shoot.
Can I ask you about your ending? Did you shoot other endings?
Endings are always tricky. Other films I have done where I have done different endings. Endings are very difficult in general. Also things change, things change in terms of what happens.
Shall I tell you the other endings?
The other ending is that she gets to the station and decides not to go with him, she goes home to her parents.
The third ending was that she meets him on the station but they stay in the town and there was a shot where they go back to the community and there is a sense that there is more to come basically because they are going to be together but within that town but in the end I felt that the only answer was to get away. It was too difficult to stay at that moment. I also did want some uplifting sense. A sense of that journey being worthwhile in some ways and who knows what is going to happen to them afterwards. Who knows whether that relationship will last. It is not absolute that ending. It offers a rebellion to what is going on.
Can I ask you about your experience of making a film up north and in general in terms of funding. I am from up north myself and I would like to make something up north but I have this split by having things like this in London and all the resources that are up north, like for example do the lottery encourage you to make films?
I don’t think the finance had an aspect to where I shot it really. I could have shot it anywhere. Things like location was fantastic because working in a place where people are more open to you doing things. I am about to make a film in London and it is so much harder just finding places. It is just harder generally getting around and moving. What I enjoyed about that was working in a fairly small town where the locations were quite close to each other and you could be more adaptable and you could change your mind about something and just nip down the road and do that other scene there and nip back up there and in terms of those actors, those new actors, maybe there was something about them that came with a kind of more freshness about them. I certainly enjoyed it. I enjoyed the experience. I thought it was very invigorating and it worked for me in that romance and ostensibly quite hard industrial place. There is a romance that comes through stylistically for me which I enjoyed.
Is it going to be for sale?
DVD coming later, it opens on Friday.
Throughout the UK on 44 screens.
You didn’t rehearse the actors but how did you forge relationships between them. Did you get them to hang out together or did you hang out with them?
I didn’t necessarily want them to have relationships to begin with. A lot of it was trying to keep them apart. They obviously didn’t know each other to begin with. Apart from the brother and sister, they did a bit. I was keen not to do too much of that at the beginning. Between Adam and Naseema and Michelle and Yousif? It was really important that they developed something. I wanted them to develop it on screen really. So I was worried about them hanging out.
For me I found it really gritty and authentic and I was wondering have you done any test screenings for the Asian community and what their response was? Because in essence the two main characters; you have the young shagger and the young girl potentially corrupted and going away with the “gorra” (white boy). I was wondering what Asians thought about it?
That is ostensibly the case, but of course there is much more to those characters than that and I think that is what is appreciated. Yusuf is seen as a complex, emotionally feeling person dealing with a dilemma, and is not a stereotypical Asian male. There are also the sensitivities and difficulties of being a young Muslim girl. Personally I think the Asian Muslims that have seen this film have really responded to it and I think they have appreciated something that has had an authentic and a feeling take of the problems of their community. It has had a good response actually, and also internationally because it has been to lots of film festivals around the world. It is interesting the amount of young Muslims that come.
I remember a screening in Montreal where a strong Asian audience came along and they were really pleased I had done it. In particular it speaks for strong young Muslim girls who want to decide their own way in life. It tells the details of that and the complexities of it and the feelings involved with it.
Are you are in pre-production on your next film?
Yes. It is a film that started as a kind of, not a follow up, but to mark the original ‘Cathy Come Home’ which was 40 years ago this year. So it started out as making a film that had a social impact in the same way but it is quite difficult to do that, so the one I have devised is a film about social inequality and homelessness and people living in different spheres and worlds within the same city, and it is about relationships and many things actually. It is going to be about what it is going to be about when you see it.
It is going to be improvised and very exciting and we are shooting in 4 weeks time.
You have a star cast?
We have some great people in it, yes!
Ok we will see J
Congratulations and thanks again for coming to speak to Shooters.
Many thanks to Dominic Savage, Julia Short and Verve Pictures, and all the staff at The Rex Cinema for making this event possible.