There aren't many individual mavericks these days in the film world, though the ones that exist are all on the outside of the mainstream, ploughing their own way through the indie scene. Simon Rumley, born in London in 1968, is definitely one of these rare filmmakers, a man doing things his own way, building his own cinematic universe, whether he consciously knows so or not. He is, in short, an example to all indie filmmakers.
Though he's been making films since the early 2000s, it seems lately he is really building up some serious steam as a force to be reckoned with. His brand of "extreme drama" (as he calls it himself) is very much his own style, and no matter the genre or area his film is centred on, he gives it that hard edge always evident in his very human, painfully raw films.
His first feature was 2000's Strong Language, while other notables include The Living and the Dead (2006). It was with Red White and Blue though, his 2010 thriller, that he entered a whole new realm. His debt to the genius director Nicolas Roeg was evident, and indeed it has become clearer in more recent films. He never shies away from the harsh truths of our human frailties and the complexities of the brittle mind; in fact, he charges at them, wrestles with them, redefines them. Lately he's been making disturbing little masterpieces, including his adaptation of the Donald Crowhurst story, and the startlingly powerful Fashionista. Here he answers some questions about his movies and building his own universe off to the side of the mainstream film world.
When did you come up with the idea to get the Crowhurst story on film in your own way?
Well it was one of those where the producer and financier came to me. And in all honesty, I hadn’t heard of Donald Crowhurst at that point but I read the script, watched the excellent documentary Deep Water and I was hooked. We met up about the film in 2014 and for various reasons it didn’t work out at the time and everything fell apart so I was kicking myself when I read about the Colin Firth starring film about the same subject matter which was announced in early 2015. Luckily, by February, Crowhurst was back on and we started shooting in April that year…
As ever with your films, you've created a complex psychological study. Was it a hard shoot to get this to come to life in the way you wanted and get it just right?
Thanks! Well the great thing about working with Mike Riley is he’s a producer with a great understanding of cinema and technique. So when he brought me on board, he did so because he wanted something more interesting than an average biopic. And certainly, with the Mercy as competition, there was no way that if we’d kept ours straightforward, it would have had better production value etc.
The toughest thing about this shoot was all the exterior shots we did on water - in the Bristol Channel in fact. I was partly attracted to this film due to the elite list of directors who have shot on water - Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski etc - but any time you read anything about shooting on water, it sounds like a nightmare. I wouldn’t go that far with us, but it was very difficult so as well as trying to shoot the script, we literally shot as much as we could so that we’d have more in the edit suite to play with so that was an interesting experience and certainly gave an extra intensity to the film. In terms of directing it’s the place I’ve had to think most on my feet, constantly changing and re-inventing things…
I knew that as Donald Crowhurst went progressively, mentally downhill, I wanted to match that with film-making techniques, some of which I’d planned from the offset, some which came to us in the edit suite. All the sound design and the score and the grading helps make this process more notable and the fact that I’d worked with a lot of people like Milton Kam (DP), Richard Chester (composer), Vince Watts (sound designer) certainly made things easier to get what I wanted…
With Nic Roeg being the producer, is this something of a dream to be collaborating with one of your heroes? What's Nic like? He seems to me to be so direct and nice.
Yes, absolutely and to be honest it’s been something of a career high and I’m guessing always will be. I’ve always loved his films to the point that he’s my favourite director who mixes sex, drugs, rock n roll, psychology into such elegant and challenging, but ultimately satisfying and jaw-droppingly beautiful films.
Having him on board was a blessing because Mike Riley kept asking me or indeed telling me to ‘do what Nic would do!’ So that was completely music to my ears. It’s happened a few times before that I’ve had producers bring me on board because they want me to ‘elevate’ their script but when I actually do this, they don’t like it because they don’t have any real knowledge of film history or how film can be worked as a medium, so they’ll ask it to be changed into something less interesting or good, which is always sad.
So we went around to Nic’s house a few times and discussed the script and his films and the really interesting thing is that he tried to do a Crowhurst film just after The Man Who Fell to Earth and, like many of these things, it unfortunately fell through. But to be able to spend some time in his study, surrounded by memorabilia from his films and discuss both our script and his thoughts was absolutely amazing. He also came to see a test screening of the film and had some really useful and insightful comments about that too, which we took on board and really helped with the end cut.
He’s an absolutely lovely man and incredibly modest and yes, it was an honour to have shared an onscreen credit with him as my producer!
You're on a roll lately with your feature films. How is it to see so many films coming to fruition?
It’s been amazing but not without its trials and traumas. I’m not sure if it’s just my films or if it is film-making generally but none of the films have been very smooth behind the scenes. And as the years have progressed, it’s really getting harder and harder to sell any films, let alone low budget ones without A-list talent attached. Less and less DVDs are being bought and, irrespective of what anyone says, streaming hasn’t replaced this market so it’s very tough in reality. That said, I’ve shot one film in Louisiana, one in Austin, Texas, one in Bristol and one in London, so I’m very grateful I’ve been able to work so much.
I have to say Fashionista is one of the best films I have seen in years. It's very powerful, daring and original. How did the idea come about?
Ah, thanks very much! Well, it’s a long story but basically I wrote a script about consumerism which no-one really reacted to very strongly - people didn’t hate it or love it, they just thought it was OK. So in the end, I felt this wasn’t good enough so I scrapped that idea and thought about what I was really trying to achieve. And at this stage, I’d just worked with Nic Roeg and had always wanted to try to do a film structured in the kind of way he structures films. I knew I wanted to shoot the film in Austin because I’d shot Red White & Blue there and had a great bunch of people I wanted to work with again and then I thought about writing something for Amanda Fuller who was also in RWB, so I phoned her to see if she’d be up for me writing something for her, which of course she was and it all went from there... As well as being about consumerism and clothing and identity and self-perception, it’s also about gentrification and how I’d notice Austin change over the years since I first started going there in 2006…
I was interested in how you get those performances on the screen, especially from Amanda Fuller, who is staggering in the film. Did you tell her to let loose and go free, or was there a precise area you wanted her to stay within? It never goes over the edge, always skirting on the edge, until the very end.
Thanks. Well, I wrote the script specifically for Amanda and having worked with her on Red White & Blue, I knew exactly what she was capable of - which is pretty much anything. She’s an amazingly natural and intuitive actress with a very strong emotional core and a fearless attitude to boot. Again, having worked with her previously, there’s a big amount of trust there and we go through the script in detail before we get on set - she’ll have a few questions, we’ll have a few discussions and then once we’re filming, I pretty much let her get on with it with the occasional direction... As she starts to fall to pieces, the costume and make-up also get crazier and crazier and that’s something we all had fun with…
How long did it take to write Fashionista? And the edit, I imagine that was a long process too.
Well actually, the initial draft took only about 3 weeks and because I wrote it in the structure you see in the film, it was a weird process but ultimately quite liberating, withholding what I was showing the audience for as long as possible. The edit wasn’t much longer than about 9 weeks and although it’s all non-linear, we really followed the script pretty much scene for scene. I think there’s a 20 minute chunk in the film which took a long time for us to really make flow and we cut out a few scenes here and there, but it was relatively straight forward to be honest...
That non linear structure is what I found really fascinating, almost like a cubist approach to filmmaking, seeing events from different time points and views. You pulled that off amazingly I think. (Sorry to be gushing, I love the film.) Why is it that some people find this kind of thing so challenging, whereas I found it more enjoyable and relatable than the traditional Hollywood cliches... perhaps because events are not always recalled tidily and chronologically in our own minds.
Thanks and it’s interesting you mention the Cubist thing because I remember Danny Boyle saying he thought Nic Roeg was a ‘cubist’ director, the Picasso of the film world, so that makes sense. Yes, it is interesting to see how some love this film and others really don’t; it’s hard to understand but I guess some people don’t like to be challenged by what they see and don’t want to think too much about what they’re offered. I’m the opposite I suppose and if things are left deliberately unclear in films, I suppose some times it can be annoying but it also allows for peoples’ own interpretations which I like and think is fascinating. This film is also about an emotional and mental state of being which if you don’t accept or don’t want to accept, can make it hard to really get into the film. I’d actually be curious to see what a younger audience makes of Nic Roeg films, to be honest. I was at a great genre film festival in Vienna recently and was excited because that’s where Nic had shot Bad Timing but only a handful of audience members had heard of the film, let alone seen it, which was worrying given that it was a genre festival. But yes, this kind of structure and film-making definitely errs towards the less reliable narrator which is a fascinating concept to consider but I suppose infuriating if you don’t buy into it…
Amanda Fuller is turning into one of my favourite actresses. You also worked with her on the very raw Red White and Blue (2010). Was that a tough film to make, given the grittiness of the subject matter?
She's amazing and it’s been great to see her make some new fans with her new role in Orange Is the New Black. Red White & Blue was a very hard film to cast - especially Amanda’s role. We had a few semi-known actresses who were all interested but one didn’t want to do the sex, another didn’t want to do the violence and then a third had just done her first Hollywood film and wanted to wait and see how that turned out. In the end we held an open audition in LA and Amanda was one of the people who came along. It was pretty obvious from the get go that she really understood the character better than anyone else and had the emotional ability to give the film the tragic element that I wanted. So I cast her and it was the best decision I could have made. We’d discussed the sex and she was completely of the opinion that because it wasn’t gratuitous, it was necessary to tell the story so we closed all the sets and just got on with it. We did it with as few takes as possible and moved on. But her professionalism (and the guys involved) made it easier than it could have been. We shot the film in 3 weeks so it was meticulously planned and it was so intense that we just got on with the job in hand. As well as great actors, we had a great crew so, to be honest, although we were filming at times in 110 degrees, apart from the cameras stopping a few times, it was generally a fantastic and pretty straightforward shoot…
I'm looking forward to seeing Once Upon A Time in London. I might be reading too much into the title, but is this going to be a British gangster film done in the poetic Leone sense?
Well that’s the idea…Albeit on a lower budget…but we’ll see how it works out in the end!
Do you have more films in the pipe line?
I’m just finishing writing/developing 3 completely different projects which will hopefully all go out at the same time and am talking about directing a few projects from other writers so we’ll see where that all ends up…
What I love about your filmography is that you have made your own film world, a very dark one at times, but it's YOURS, and it's your style. Was that always a dream, to have this cinematic universe of your own, off to the side of the mainstream but often embraced into it, like Roeg in some ways?
Well to be honest, I never had a masterplan, as such. I always thought to stick out one should try to do things differently to the mainstream, especially with lower budget films. I guess because I’ve written the majority of my own scripts, even though they’re all completely different in terms of subject matter, there’s an emotion, rawness and honesty that I tried to imbue them all with, no matter what the subject matter. To be honest, it’s not something I’ve thought about much in the past but it’s great to hear you say this - long may it last!
What other directors have influenced you over time? Am I jumping the gun to think of Ken Russell (one of Roeg's favourites) in the editing, Lindsay Anderson even?
Ken Russell was always someone I’ve loved, of course; Gothic was a favourite. I always loved If but not so familiar with Anderson’s other films. Otherwise, Scorsese, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Park Chan Wook, Jodorowsky are a few more…