As Robot Overlords prepped for its world premiere at the London Film Festival last weekend we sat down with director/co-writer Jon Wright to talk about the film, and the state of the British Film Industry.
You can read our review of his brilliant new sci-fi adventure here.
You co-wrote Robot Overlords, which is the first time you've written for a feature of yours.
I wrote all my short films, but more out of necessity than having any burning ambition to write, I just didn't know anyone that was any good, and I was better than the people I knew, which says more about the people I knew than it does about my gifts as a writer. I thought my short films were well written, the later ones, but I came to directing knowing I don't want to write, I feel like writer-directors repeat themselves a lot. They tend to get into some kind of rut and endlessly circle the same themes. I wanted to do different things, but after two films I just felt I'm ready to go back to it again, as a co-writer. I think it's very important to mention Mark Stay who co-wrote this with me, because it's very much his film as well as mine. We shared everything 50-50. The time felt right and right now I could make it exactly how I want to make it so that it works, and I'll get it just so, I'll be certain I can deliver it, and I was. Into shooting it all the set-pieces felt 100%, and it also saves time, rather than having a lengthy debate you just do it. Often the description of the re-written scene is different to a re-written scene. You can't necessarily explain something in words but just by bashing it out it becomes self-evident, it's faster. But I really enjoyed it, and we've written a sequel which is called Robot Warlords, it's a slightly different tone to Grabbers because it's straighter, I suppose.
It's in the family strand at the London Film Festival, which is considerably different, there's no c-words.
Yeah. No there's not. Grabbers played well to young kids, oddly, people who probably weren't supposed to see it. The sweet spot for this film is a 10-year-old boy really, or 11, and their the ones, we've had test screenings, they come up to me afterwards, shake me warmly by the hand, they tell me I'm the best director in the world, it's very sweet. That's what I was trying to do, make a movie for the 10, 11, 12-year-old who lives on in me, the one who had an epiphany watching Raisers Of The Lost Ark and who loved Star Wars, really loved the films by the American Movie Brats.
Is this scope wider, a larger, grander story?
It's more epic, bigger, probably bigger in terms of the special effects. More ambitious. Quite a bit more ambitious. It's something we don't really do in England very much. There's not really any comparable movies, there's big studio films like Harry Potter but this is very much an Englishman's, well I'm Irish, and English-Irishman's version of Amblin. But made today, made in contemporary Britain and made on a very different scale. It doesn't come out like that. People come out and say it reminds them of things like Stand By Me and The Goonies which is fantastic for me because I love those films and I do feel like that kind of tone isn't struck in modern blockbusters, there's a different thing going on. I'm very happy to do that personally, but the difference is it's British, it's very English. It's a small seaside town, it's normally a drama, we don't normally have two-storey-high robots wandering about and everybody incarcerated. I think we can probably do with a few more films like that.
Was the high-concept element a good way of getting the cast, getting budget?
It was all fairly organic, I didn't sit down and think 'right, I've got to cook up a commercial movie idea' it was just born out of the excitement of the images. I live in a seaside town and I went on a recce to a very picturesque seaside town and I got very excited, as soon as I started imagining huge robots in the context of the piers, the boardwalks, I got very excited by that imagery. That gave birth to the movie. But I guess it helps, we're in the upper end of the indie budget, and it helps if you've got things that people think are commercial, robots and laser beams, but it wasn't ever born out of any cynical...
Toys will just happen to exist as well...
Well, we made the robots very consciously, my involvement in the design was very consciously about 'would these be good toys?' not because I was especially interested in the toys, because I'm not, personally. The production are extremely interested in, but only because I always thought the great robots and spaceships and monsters happen to make great toys. There's something innately tactile about a good toy, and something pleasing about the design, you want to move it, manhandle it, position it and walk it, fantasize about it.
Is that what you'd do as a child? Create scenes with toys?
Sure. To the point of having a little Instamatic camera and I'd build a kind-of a set with Airfix models and I'd set it all on fire, try and do my own Pinewood special effects. Some of my favourite things inspire me to play, you'd go out and play Star Wars with broom-handles or, I don't know if you remember Monkey, that TV show, Monkey's really good, it's like a dubbed, I think it's Japanese, TV show, based around ancient Buddhist myths and legends. Monkey is born out of stone, and they did all these kung-fu fights with sticks, so we'd get our broom-handles and we'd go out on the street and battle each-other, we'd argue about who was Monkey because he was cool, who was Pgisy because he was less cool. I very much wanted to make a film where the first thing you'll do after you see the movie, if you're the right age, is go out and start playing Sean Flynn, the hero, out on the streets, doing what he does, without going too deep into giving away what he does. It's very much tapping into fairly fundamental things, and this is all me coming at it as a lover of this stuff rather than self-consciously designed.
The man-child, that's big these days, the nostalgia. It used to be you'd wear a suit and tie to be a respectable director, now it's more open.
Someone said this to me recently, 'you'd do a lot better in Hollywood if you started wearing a suit, like Sam Raimi' I said 'over my dead body' I'm not going to compromise. But I totally agree, my dad told me to stop reading comics and I used to have a 2000AD collection, he said 'this is kids stuff', and we pay tribute to 2000AD in Robot Overlords as you'll see. He'd say 'this is kids stuff, you're grown up now' and I think that attitude has definitely changed. Quite legitimate people are into kids stuff in their early 30s and 40s in a way that it definitely wasn't in my father's generation. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The psychology of it is interesting.
The film being in the Family strand of the LFF, your first non-15-rated film.
If an 8-year-old's got a strong stomach and they don't scare easy, they'll be OK. We did have a test screening where we had little girls, three little girls, getting up and stumbling blindly towards the exit, their arms out-stretched, to the point where they had to get out of the cinema. That was about 20 minutes in. A lot of kids can handle it, I asked some afterwards what their favourite films were and they said Frozen, My Little Pony, very gentle little girls, it wasn't for them.
Back in the 80s, the early 90s, back then kids in films swore a lot, had attitudes, these days, Bad News Bears remake, people were up in arms about its vulgarities, that it wasn't a kids film.
That's it, I went back and looked at The Goonies and Stand By Me, all these films I remembered, and they do swear, and what really struck me beyond that, beyond the superficial side of things, they spoke to each-other in a way I remember kids speaking to each-other. They were quite, as much as they were nice, they were abusive, we really have tried to re-capture that spirit where kids are a bit rough around the edges and swearier, more playgroundish. Again, I felt that you have a lot of films have idealised interests, even when you've shot though the mature themes, the darker stuff, they still feel idealised, I tried not to idealise our heroes.
How many times have you gone through the test-screening process for Robot Overlords?
I find it really useful to watch it with an audience, it's one of the most useful things you can do. You build up a lot of preconceptions as a filmmaker and as soon as you sit in a room with people, you speak to them afterwards, you do questionnaires sometimes, you do all sorts, but for me the most interesting thing is to sit in a room and feel how it's playing. It's an intuitive sense, I think, when an audience might think 'what's happening on screen' and when they're a little bit bored, they're intrigued but confused. It really helps as a filmmaker to decide what you want to do. Certainly, it's not an esoteric movie, I don't know how useful that process would be for Jodorowsky or David Lynch, perhaps that isn't how they can improve those films. You have to go away from your audiences, but this kind of film, one thing I really wanted from it was for the audience to be able to understand it but for the mysterious things to be mysterious. I didn't want things that were meant to be clear to be mysterious, if that makes any sense, which is the way these genre films work. One way to know that is to watch that with an audience. When you're in your early 40s it's a long time since you were 10 and there's nothing to remind you more vividly what it's like to be 10 again than to sit and watch the film with a load of 10-year-olds, or 11-year-olds or 12-year-olds. It really brings it back. I chat with them afterwards, we had decent discussions, we did it quite a few times, maybe six times, and it's quite difficult because there's a lot of special effects, particularly towards the end, so the film is quite hard to understand. What was interesting was the younger kids in particular seemed to be able to imagine what they couldn't see, they had very little problems with seeing what wasn't there. I personally had huge problems with it.
Are you working hard on Robot Warlords now?
The first draft is done, it will continue to be revised. I don't know what the plan is.
Any other projects?
Yeah, but I can't really talk about them. And I'm accepting, with a heavy heart, that my future probably lies in America. It's tough, you try to operate , but we are dominated by the American film industry. Like it or loathe it, and there's a certain budget point. When they're done well I like the big budget films, those are probably the films that made me want to become a filmmaker, but the more arthouse stuff, the award winners, are really where my passion lies,t he energy that you need to make a movie, it lies with those, and the genre blockbusters. I'd love to make a good one, I think it's a trick, it's one of the hardest things to do. If you want to do that, there's a very limited opportunity here in the UK. The films we think for as British, whether it's Harry Potter or James Bond, are not. British crews, and a lot of people I worked with were from the schools of Harry Potter, but still. They're American movies, every cent of profit goes back to the States. I look at what Gareth Edwards has done and what Duncan Jones has done, if I'm being honest, with mixed feelings, I'm less excited by them getting into big franchises than I would be by them making their own original projects. Particularly in Gareth's case, I know he had really exciting things he was trying to get off the ground before Godzilla, I envy him for going onto Star Wars.
Now it's that age where you do the film for $5m and suddenly you're doing the $200m one.
It's very unusual and there's theories about what the studios doing, pushing around.
Being open to their input because you're happy to be there.
It probably isn't true but at the same time, the flipside of that has people who weren't ready for that kind of pressure, not ready for that canvass, and I think the machinery in the film is so massive, to be prepared to ride that monster, you need a couple of films under your belt. After Tormented I didn't feel ready to do a big budget show, it's only really after this that I think 'ok, I can handle it' I can enjoy it. I really loved making this film, and in an ideal world I'd love making every film, that would be a life worth living. It's tough.
Robot Overlords is expected to be released early 2015.