|Interview: Johnny Daukes (Acts of Godfrey)|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Monday, 10 October 2011 07:47|
Acts of Godfrey is one of the most memorable films from this year's Raindance Film Festival. Maybe it's the fact that Simon Callow's in it. Maybe it's because it's written entirely in rhyming couplets. Or maybe it's because its director, Johnny Daukes, is just really talented.
Writing and directing the low-budget black comedy, Daukes got everyone talking in verse for 16 days, and then wrote the soundtrack to go with the film. When I phone him for a chat about his directorial debut, he's busy writing the press notes for the movie.
“It’s like, you know when your nan’s been round, and you finally get rid of her and then she turns up again?” says Daukes about re-reading the screenplay to pick out good quotes to go in the synopsis.
I comment that he obviously means that in a good way. Doesn't he? “Erm, not entirely!”
We go on to chat about Acts of Godfrey and what he's got planned next. Here's what he had to say about filming in a working hotel, chance and fate, and chucking buckets of water over a naked man in a car park.
Acts of Godfrey started out as a poem. Is that right?
It did. I was up in Glasgow seeing a girl who was in a Racine play called Britannicus. And I didn’t understand a bloody word of it! But I’d always liked writing in verse as a songwriter, but a lot of people have said to me that verse is trite or soppy, with no profundity or emotion. And I think that’s absolute nonsense – there are amazing songs that use the couplet structure to tell stories. It just sort of developed and I thought there was something there.
How long did it take to write?
A period of probably a couple of weeks where I picked it up and put it down, but then I got sidelined by a series on BBC3, which took over for a few years. For political reasons, that was a bit of a disaster and it got dumped by the BBC. I ended up digging Godfrey out of a drawer and I constructed it into a screenplay. The first 20 pages were written off the top of my head, introducing the course and the characters, and loads of stuff that still exist in the script were hacked out in one hit. Then I got fixations with trying to fit in certain words, but that’s probably not the way you’re meant to write…
Had you always planned such a high level of inter-connection between the characters?
I think there’s an evolution that happens. The film I’ve just finished, the people on Godfrey said that even though it has no relation - it’s a psychological thriller - it actually shares this idea of inter-connection and it’s quite fiendishly complex. I love being able to do that, to draw storylines together. It ratchets up the tension as you go thorugh, because all of a sudden every character’s actions have more of a consequence. And that’s hopefully where Godfrey, towards the end, creates some real dramatic tension, rather than a bunch of people telling unrelated stories.
And, of course, that ties into the film's discussion of fate and free will...
Yeah. Are we all just independently wobbling around or are we in a constellation exerting a pull on each other? Like Mfanwy Waring’s character, Mary, says when the drugs kick in, what if we’re more like balls in a pinball machine? I dunno, I really like constructing things like that.
Was the character of Godfrey always in the script?
Yes, it always started with "Hello, how’s your day? Swings and roundabouts? Light and shade?” writing in the person of this puppet master. But I don’t believe in a higher power, so I think I was always going to undermine that character. For me, he’s actually like a figment of Vic’s imagination. Simon (Callow), when he came on board, made the point that human beings sometimes create crises for themselves so they can do things they wouldn’t otherwise manage to do and in a way, that’s what Godfrey is.
How early did Simon come on board?
Well, I did a lot of pre-casting, because I found a lot of people couldn’t get the script. I showed it to a lot of TV people and they all said it was a play – but it’s not, it’s a filmic structure with filmic devices, and it would be very complex to stage in a theatre. But they see verse and think “play”, so I did pre-casting to get round that, and made some sample videos. Then we got money and we went through the usual list of people for Godfrey. Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Ian McKellen, John Hurt… I went round all the houses, you know, would he be female? Or black? And I thought it was complex enough without adding more messages. Weird on top of weird is just too much!
How much did Simon shape Godfrey's role in the film?
Well, the first person we asked to be Godfrey was Simon and he said yes straight away. You could have had 10 persons playing Godfrey, but whenever you make something – this is my first film, but I’ve made a lot of music – you can only make one version of it. If you think there's only one perfect way of doing something, you're creating a rod for your back. Simon had his way of doing things - Michael Gambon, say, would probably have been more acerbic - and he has that playfulness when he’s being bombastic. You know, Brad the salesman comes up and says “Haven’t you got better things to do?” and Simon just does that naughty boy thing. And that’s what he brings to it. You’re also putting verse into the mouth of the world’s leading expert on Shakespeare, so it was an interesting time on set!
How many of your cast were found in pre-casting?
Probably about 50/50. There were some in from the beginning who made it into the film. But there were a couple who I had pre-cast but Tony Schlesinger (producer) said he wasn’t sure about them – and you can’t stamp your feet over these things. You’ve got to go: “OK, let's look at other people." At one point, Tony’s wife suggested an American to play Brad and I hadn’t thought of that. As a director, it’s your job to listen to other people’s ideas and say: “It’s not what I was thinking – is it better?”
There's a lot of chemistry between the cast, especially completing each other's rhymes. Presumably there wasn't much room for ad-libbing...
No, there really wasn’t! And that was a problem with some of the minor people. One of them kept saying they'd wing it, and I kept saying no, because there are words around everything that have to fit. There’s a rhyme, but it’s also got to scan for the rhythm. Even though we’re not playing it as strict rhythm, you have to stick to it or it all falls to pieces. I spoke to Simon a couple of times and he would point out something and I would show him where the words fit in, and he would say (adopts Simon Callow voice) “Oh, yes, what you’ve done is you’ve added a caesura…”
On a project like this, how hard is it to communicate your vision for how the script should be performed?
At one point early on I had to assert myself on set and Simon was brilliant. He just nodded, said it was a good point, and from that point on whenever he said something, I would rack my brains and try to consider it. It’s just getting comfortable with everyone and their way of working – different actors like to work in different ways. Jay (Simpson), who played Phil, the nasty little villain, he’s thinking all the time and coming up with suggestions. At first, I was unsure, but then you’d start loving it. Half the time, he’d be right and it was brilliant. It makes it enjoyable that sort of dialogue with actors.
Was there any time for rehearsal?
Virtually none! We did two read-throughs, then we had two days of hair and make-up where I could grab each actor for about 20 minutes, then we were shooting. But I cast rigorously – for some parts, I saw 25 to 30 people, which isn’t much for a big feature, but on our budget, it was exhaustive. We didn’t have money for other people, it was just me and a video camera! But that’s how to turn up brilliant people. You have to turn over every stone and believe that each person could be the one.
Mfanwy Waring (Mary) and Iain Robertson (Vic) are a brilliant couple.
Mfanwy was first on board with the pre-casting and was there for a year and half until we actually got to make the film! She came every single time I had a potential Vic, she came to my house and read with them. She was as adamant as I was that we had to get the right person. When you find the right person, it makes the four weeks go by so much easier, when you’re getting those magical scenes as opposed to having to make do.
There are some really interesting visual sequences in the film. When Godfrey appears and everything freezes - was that always the plan?
Yep, in the very first draft. At first, he was in colour and everyone else went black and white, but it was more interesting just being subtle. Thorsten (Ulbrich), a mate of mine who’s a graphic designer, who I worked with on the BBC series, talked about the freezes with me. Every time we stopped, I clapped my hands, and the script supervisor took stills of everyone from four sides. Then when we went to the shots for Godfrey, everyone got into those poses and stayed still for the shots - but people obviously move, so Thorsten then made these maps and went in frame by frame to fix everything. It was old-fashioned, but using modern technology.
And Malcolm's flashback, which looks like an 80s pop video?
I’d written that knowing we wouldn’t have the biudget to do a high street in the 80s, so we knew it would be created in a computer. It was Thorsten's idea again, though. I thought we’d get old 80s pictures to use, but his was a brilliant idea! We shot it all on green screen with the four walls in the hotel, and I wrote a Depeche Mode-style bit of music to go behind it. It’s very indulgent, but it’s a great device – and again, it’s the people involved in Godfrey that elevated it.
So was it chance or fate that made Acts of Godfrey turn out all right in the end?
It all depends on who you work with. You have to lead to get good people. Julie Clark, our line producer, corralled us into working like a proper unit. Thorsten, the quality he gave was just extraordinary working from Germany using a dropbox, and I knew him from the BBC series. And the guy who came in to mix the sound is an old friend of mine as well. You know, if I was never in a band, I never would’ve known my music editor. It’s the people you work with…
What's your next project?
It's called Ghost of a Chance – a film about a man, a musician Chaz Chance, and his capacity for forgiveness and redemption. So I'm writing the back catalogue of Chaz Chance, and that's going to be a lot of the soundtrack to the film.
Rhyming couplets, musical back catalogues - it's never simple with you, is it!
(Laughs) Well, if anything, it improves the marketability of the film! It's a conventional format, but it has that soundtrack. Whereas the film I'm writing at the moment is an opera - not just three minute bursts of songs with people saying how they're feeling, but more like an opera with leitmotifs and librettos. That sort of thing. I'm writing the music, so it's very Elliott Smith, Radiohead, Beck... but it's a film. It's called Goodbye Mother.
Has Acts of Godfrey already got distribution? What's Acts of Godfrey's release date?
Yes! The film has been picked up by Guerilla Films, and it's expected to be in cinemas around January and February next year. The biggest problem it's got is its preconception. Like you said, it'll either be horrifying or great. But rhyming couplets don't have to be twee - Bob Dylan used rhyming couplets. I think it's a nicer problem to have than people having high expectations and going in and saying "Well, that was shit!" This way round it can hopefully build up...
Acts of Godfrey had its world premiere last week at the Raindance Film Festival 2011. Head this way to read our Acts of Godfrey review (also written in rhyming couplets) or see the rest of our Raindance Film Festival coverage.
For more on the (really good) music from the scarily talented Johnny Daukes and his other future projects, visit his production company, Jupiter and Teardrop.