Jeff Smith 2 p.m., Dec. 18
Interview: John Crowley, director of Closed Circuit
An anti-Hollywood suspenser modeled after the work of Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All the President’s Men), Closed Circuit refuses to allow bullets, unsteady camerawork, and over the top effects tell its story. It’s a taut, intelligent, old school espionage thriller that was even better the second time through.
Many directors make the lucrative leap from art house to multiplex; few do so without a compromise of principles. Meet John Crowley.
Scott Marks: Thank you for interrupting your Sunday supper to speak with me.
John Crowley: Absolutely fine. It’s a pleasure.
SM: What the first film that you remember mum and dad taking little Johnnie to see?
JC: God...the first one...in a cinema...I’ve never been asked that before. It’s a memory that’s not immediately available.
SM: It’s usually a Disney.
JC: Not so much in Ireland. I can’t remember what it was called. My sister took me to see it. It was about a pit pony in the mines in Yorkshire. It was devastatingly sad and I can’t remember what it was called. That’s the earliest memory I have of being taken to the cinema.
I didn’t go to a huge number of films when I was growing up. It was a special treat; maybe three times a year. It didn’t develop as a compulsive watching habit or anything of the sort. I watched a lot of movies on television. Growing up in the that ‘70’s and into the ‘80’s there were a lot of really good mainstream films would turn up that I was allowed to watch, like grownup thrillers. Somewhere along the way when I was quite young, they felt to me what movies should be, which is intelligent and entertaining at the same time. In a weird way, [Closed Circuit] is one of the first opportunities I’ve had to address that kind of interest in the films I’ve made so far. I’m thinking about films like All the President’s Men or The French Connection. I wish I had a really cool answer, but there you go.
SM: In Boy A, you gave Andrew Garfield his first big break. Does Spider-Man still return your calls?
JC (Laughing): Yes he does. There isn’t anything I’m knocking on his door for. I’ll put it that way. He invited me along to the premier here [of Spider-Man] here. He’s a good guy. And he’s not so bad as an actor, is he? He’s promising.
SM: There’s hope for the lad. Alright. The reason I know that you are not a narcissist is simple. In an attempt to dust up some talk of “inner-dialog” among critics, the director of Boy A could just as easily have named his latest film Witness X.
JC (Laughing): Only you would draw that connection. We could work our way through the alphabet, couldn’t we?
SM: Closed Circuit is a film that I admire for what it doesn’t do almost as much for what it does. It’s a top flight espionage thriller without spies, gunplay, CGI wizardry, and the romantic leads don’t kiss let alone screw. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
JC: Yes to all of it. I did want to set out to make an adult entertainment, as it were. I wanted it to be accessible, not ‘art-housey’ in any way. There aren’t a huge number of interesting thrillers made since the ‘70’s. In the ‘80’s and ‘90’s they began to feel more bloated and bigger and more expensive. And less interesting. We wanted to take the kind of approach Alan J. Pakula or Sidney Lumet used and see if it could be done in an English context. There hasn’t really been anything of that sort here since Defense of the Realm, a really, really good film from the ‘80’s. It was one of Gabriel Byrne’s first big breaks.
In terms of the romantic relationship, there was a thread of that there in the very first draft. I liked it, but then in later drafts it went further and that just ripped something in the fabric of the film. What I liked about the challenge of the script as it was presented was that you look at these two people as sort of shards of a broken relationship. You meet them at their lowest ebb and gradually begin piecing it together. I’m much happier doing 1+1 and leaving it to the audience to fill in the 2. If there was an actual love-making scene thrown into the film, I thought that it would have violated something in the integrity of the trial. It would have felt gratuitous.
SM: I can’t stand unnecessary romance in a movie. People aren’t always falling in and out of love. Sometimes you have a task at hand and 90 minutes in which to pull it off and a romantic subplot is intrusive.
SM: The first shot in the film is of a bank of 15 surveillance monitors. Is it possible for one operator to pan and zoom all 15 cameras at once in order to follow the action or did you take a bit of artistic license?
JC: We took artistic license in the sense that we could only shoot with a maximum of 3 camera simultaneously. We repeated action endlessly, but covering it from three angles at once before we built up the full montage of images. You can imagine from a continuity point-of-view it was very difficult to repeat all those takes with enough coverage in order for us to move around. All of those positions have to be incredibly specifically recorded up to exact angles. It was very complicated and took a lot of repetition.
SM: This is why I don’t want to know anything about a movie before going in. During the first shot of the film your eyes wander the various frames wondering which of these characters and we’re going to spend the rest of the film with and -- BANG -- in an instant there is an explosion and you never see any of them again.
Your play, "True Lines", won the Stewart Parker Award for Best New Play in 1995, yet to date, all of your films are written by others. Why is that?
JC: Yeah. It was a ‘devised play,’ which is a way of working...I guess the closest correlative in cinema would be Mike Leigh. It was based on a huge number of improvisations and a script was distilled down out of that with the 4 actors that I worked with. It was a particular way of working that I loved at the time. It allowed you to go from a verbal scene into an image and then you would cut to something else. It was quite a cinematic way of working. That said, we rehearsed for 7 weeks before coming near to the kind of script that we would then go ahead and put on a stage.
I haven’t yet -- which isn't to say that I won't one day -- found a way of structuring that kind of process in the film world which, as you know, tends to very much be about needing to see the script and knowing who is in it before anyone is going to give you $100 let alone the millions needed to make a movie. We put [True Lines] on in the back room of a pub. We were free to do what we wanted. It was the glory of being unemployed that allowed me to be that bold, in a way. The film world is very structured and Mike Leigh is the only one I know of who is able to use that kind of an approach regularly. He then goes away and writes down the screenplays. It’s not writing in the traditional way. The other thing that I have a great love for is really good screenwriting. That’s something that I just don’t have as a skill. You either have it or you don’t. To work with very good writers is also a great joy.
SM: All of your films are impeccably cast, even down to the smaller roles like Kenneth Cranham as the judge. I love this guy.
JC: Good! Great!, Me, too!
SM: He gave one of my favorite performances in a contemporary noir as the dignified heavy in Layer Cake.
JC: Wonderful picture.
SM: How much say do you have in casting?
JC: Oh, you know. Pretty much complete. Once your leads are attached, producers tend to leave me alone with it. They’ll watch one or two auditions and say whether or not they like an actor, but it’s pretty much my call. That’s the way we did it on Closed Circuit. This is the biggest film I worked on. With the smaller films certainly that was the case.
I work with a great casting director [Fiona Weir] who also happens to be the mother of my 2-year-old child. We are able to work together a lot. She will get what I am looking for from a part and bring back 3 or 4 actors even if it’s for a part that only has 2 or 3 lines. I really believe in taking a huge amount of care over all those small parts. The cumulative effect of every performance being enjoyable is wonderful for an audience. And I love it myself. When you see a gem of a character over in the corner and get a snapshot of a life you are not going to follow, but they’re there. And likewise, the opposite of it drives me up the wall. When it’s casually done -- and small parts aren’t taken care of - it can sink really good scenes.
SM: Closed Circuit is a very tightly constructed 96 minutes, but I get the feeling that there might have been a little that hit the cutting room floor. I’m speaking of the relationship between Martin (Eric Bana) and his son. I understand the need to include boy in order to balance the relationship between the terrorist and his son. Was there more between father and son and if so, why was it cut?
JC: There were two other scenes with them rowing. The truth is the scenes were shot under very difficult circumstances. The weather was absolutely horrible the days we were trying to film on the water. There was a particular set of circumstances where they wouldn't allow us on the Thames because there was a flood warning. It was already not a great way to go into the cutting room with these scenes. That said, what we really wanted the audience to know about them -- he had major guilt about his relationship with his son and that his ex-wife was happy -- was already covered. More than that, it felt like at the point in which these two scenes came, which was further into the body of the film, the drama had taken off a hell of a lot more. To cut away from when Martin is beginning to discover some rather worrying stuff...at that point to leave the story and have him go boating with his son let air into the drama.
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