Interview with director Barnaby Southcombe

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The Edge Film Editor Barnaby Walter talks to director of I, Anna (out on DVD from 15 April) Barnaby Southcombe about his first venture into feature-filmmaking and directing his mother in sex scenes. 

What was it about Elsa Lewin’s novel that made you want to adapt it into a film?

The character of Anna really spoke to me. She stood out as a very interesting, fragile, complicated, and I felt she would be a very cinematic character. What I liked was the element of intrigue, and naturalistic, characterbased investigation of loneliness and grief that came in a package of a murder and investigation. It was an interesting cocktail of emotions and situations.

Did you ever consider television?

No, because I’ve worked a lot in television and I’ve been looking for something to take to the big screen, and I wouldn’t have been given the freedom to tell it how I wanted to. The pace of the film, the look of the film – I just felt I wouldn’t have been able to tell it like that.

I, AnnaThe film has a very distinct look to it; how did you and your cinematographer Ben Smithard come up with that?

We took inspiration from a lot of similar films – a lot of Spanish films – and a smattering of American noir films – and some of the set designs. The visual aspect of the film is usually attributed to cinematographers but it’s very dependent of production designs, so with Tom Burson we found this slightly out-of-time context. In terms of colour, we wanted to make a film in perpetual twilight, as if we shot in magic-hour every day (of course we couldn’t afford to), but we wanted it to look like that; that moment when the suns sets but it’s still daylight. That was the basis of the colour element. Then, from a design point of view, I wanted it to be London but an unfamiliar London; an uncomfortable fit for the characters to operate in. We came up with this brutalist architecture; concret and large open space to get the feeling of loneliness.

This was a British German co-production. Do you think international co-production is important for British cinema?

It was very necessary for us, we wouldn’t have been able to make the film otherwise. They [European co-funders] were very instrumental in making the film possible. I had these visual and design ambitions which we couldn’t have realised if we’d made the film souly out of the UK so they were very supportive. In spirit I felt this was very much a European film rather than a British film, so I felt it worked well in that respect. I don’t imagine that Sightseers would benefit from a UK co-production but certain films can and do.

Charlotte RamplingI’m sure you get asked this all the time but was it odd directing your mother, particularly in the more intimate scenes?

We were more apprehensive going into it and it turned out the thing was much easier than we both anticipated. On the DVD there is an extra called ‘funding pitch promo’ which is something we shot about a year before we went into production and it was made as a sort of teaser promo for the film to show to financiers and get them on board with the theme and vibe of the film, and so people could get an idea with what I wanted to do with it. For us, it allowed us to work together and to get a sense of how our relationship was going to work out, and it became very quickly that we had a shorthand already and we were going to be able to do a lot more stuff. The relationship between and the director and actor is one of trust, and an actor is in a very vulnerable position with a director so can become very guarded, and it makes for slightly more conservative performances and I think that we had an advantage by knowing each other, so that was a great and very liberating thing to play with. It gave us and a lot of freedom to play with; one that maybe she would not have had otherwise.

Charlotte has great chemistry with Gabriel Byrne. What lead to his casting?

I dreamed them up together. They were both the one and only people I imagined for the film. They had never acted together and didn’t really know each other, and I felt this was a cinematic pairing that needed to take place. I felt their chemistry would really work and I finally got them together and I heard they would both be in New York at the same time, so I managed to pretend I had a meeting in New York and got them together and I could just see the chemistry was going to work.

You have some terrific female actors in the film, as well as your mother you have Johdi May, Hayley Atwell, Honor Blackman. Did you have them all in mind?

I didn’t, no. I had a very fixed idea on who I wanted for the two leads, and I made very clear I would not make this film if I didn’t have both of them. That was really something I would not compromise them. For the other parts I had other people in mind but wasn’t so fixed on it. It was a process of working with the casting director. I learned that good people just weren’t available very often and so you are a slave to fortune as to who is available and who is right for the role. Hayley [Atwell] was the last to come on. We shot the last section of filming in Hamburg and all her scenes took place in during that week, and three days before we still didn’t have a ??? so it was all very last minute, but they had worked together so I was confident there would be some chemistry between them. They are very different women but there was something about their familiarity and they started to take on a family resemblance.

When the film was released it got a very mixed response. Do get upset by reviews, or are you not bothered when it gets, for example, a 1 star rating in the Daily Mail?

No, it’s very upsetting. You spend a long time working on this and you try to do the best you possibly can. So when you offer it up for consumption and critique you are very happy to receive positive stuff but I don’t think you are ever prepared for a negative response. I had a laugh with the produces when I said I didn’t want make a film that people feel isn’t relevant; one that people don’t feel either way about. I wanted to have a devicive film in that way. What you don’t realise when you say that is that you are only expecting the good stuff and don’t prepare yourself for the very negative stuff. So you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. And people have felt that they did like the film, and others have felt that they disliked the film, so it takes a bit of getting used to, but you do pay attention to it.

What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects?

I do have a few things. There’s a couple of scripts I am developing with some writers. Nothing that’s production-ready, but yes absolutely, I definitely plan on making lots!

 I, Anna is released on DVD on 15 April by Artificial Eye, Certificate 15.

 

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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