Although he’d been working for some years in low-budget cinema, it was the release of the brutal, tragic, and frankly astonishing Red White & Blue in 2010 that really brought British writer and director Simon Rumley the attention he deserved, marking him out as a real talent. Now he is in the position of having two pictures released almost simultaneously. With Fashionista he collaborates again with Red, White & Blue actress Amanda Fuller on a strange and visually brilliant examination of deep obsession, which is inspired by Rumley’s love of one of his directorial heroes. And with Crowhurst (a film shamefully ignored by the distributor following the release of the identical big-budget, Colin Firth starring biopic, The Mercy), he again studies obsession, with a true-life story of the mental breakdown of a character lost at sea. Exquisite Terror joined Rumley to discuss film, distribution, Netflix, gangsters, and the continuing struggle of the working artist.
Simon, thanks for taking the time out to talk with me. I just got through watching Fashionista yesterday, and my initial thought was that I only wished I could have seen it for the first time on a cinema screen, because what a fine looking film.
Ah, that’s good to hear, thank you.
And an unusual and very different film as well, as I knew it would be from yourself. Where did the genesis for this idea begin? It’s unlike anything that I’ve seen before.
Well, it’s a reasonably long answer so please bear with me, but I’d just done a film in England which Nicolas Roeg has been the executive producer on, called Crowhurst. After that one of my producers had some money and wanted to do a low-budget film, and I was keen to do something completely different. I basically decided to do a straight drama about a guy giving up his possessions, and it would be set in Austin, Texas. I wrote the script, and pretty much everyone who read it said it was okay, and no one really loved it and no one really hated it. Usually for me I either get “That’s amazing!” or “What the fuck?” reactions, but here I was just getting C-grade, shrug kinda reactions, and I thought, do I really want to do a film — especially a low-budget film which is always really hard work — for people who don’t really seem bothered about it? So I went back to the drawing board, and took some scenes and ideas from my original script regarding anti-consumerism, and then I thought about Austin, and what the city has to offer. I decided I wanted to do something that shows consumerism as an addiction, which I really think it can be, and maybe I’ll do an addiction movie — really a drug movie with no drugs. In Austin there used to be a big vintage clothing store scene, and I thought that made sense to the idea, so why not set the story in the world of vintage clothing. And it’s about a woman who is addicted to it but doesn’t realise it. Then I started to think about casting, and it’s always difficult to cast a film correctly when you haven’t got much money, and I thought about Amanda Fuller who I worked with on Red White & Blue, who I have remained friends with. So I emailed her and told her my idea, and [asked her] would she be up for it if I wrote the script for her.
So you wrote the film with Amanda in mind then?
Yeah, absolutely, one hundred per cent. If she had said no I don’t honestly know if I’d have carried on or not, but she was completely up for it.
I loved her in Red White & Blue; she totally held that film together. And with Fashionista, she really is the whole film. I assume it must have been important for you to have an actress that you can trust, and in turn she can trust you also. This doesn’t strike me as an easy role to play.
That’s exactly right. I knew it was going to be difficult and there were going to be some sex scenes — not necessarily a lot of sex like there had been in Red White & Blue — but I knew she would be prepared to do it if we both felt it was required, both physically and emotionally. So it was great to have her in mind, because I knew there was nothing that I was debating if I should or shouldn’t include. So it went from there really. And with the whole Nicolas Roeg connection, which I mention in the credits at the end, I had always been a huge fan of his, so I had it in my mind that one day I was going to emulate a Nic Roeg film, and that added to the structure and stuff. Having spent a bit of time with him I thought that after Crowhurst if I was ever going to do my Nic Roeg style film then I should do it now, and in a non-linear fashion. So with all those thoughts I came up with Fashionista.
I think the non-linear basis of it is very Nicolas Roeg, and what a director to be inspired by. Amanda actually reminds me of how Roeg worked with Theresa Russell, particularly on films such as Bad Timing. Russell always gave very raw performances for Roeg, and I think that’s what Amanda does for you.
Well that’s great to hear, and in fact Bad Timing, more than any other film, was really the template for Fashionista. In terms of Roeg’s work I think it’s the film that he goes to the extremes in, in terms of the fragmented structure and the psychology and the darkness. At one point I gave both Ethan Embry and Amanda Bad Timing and told them that they really had to watch it if they hadn’t already. They may not be able to quite grasp my script in its entirety, and what it’s going to look like, but this gives a rough clue.
Those two are great together, Amanda and Ethan Embry. Embry is I think one of the best actors working in independent movies. I like the relationship they have in this film, especially enhanced with the voyeuristic camerawork. In the intimate scenes, such as their apartment, it gives an almost documentary feel to it.
Well, Ethan was amazing to work with, and he came on board wholeheartedly. He’d worked with Amanda before; they’d been in Cheap Thrills together, although I don’t think they shared any scenes, but they knew each other from that production. He’s a real stalwart indie actor, and often does really interesting films. When I was in Austin doing pre-production I actually went to LA to see them both separately, but eventually we all ended up at Amanda’s house, and we went through the script together. They’re both lovely people, been doing it a long time and are both real professionals, and in the end it felt like they both had a lot of fun doing it. Certainly they were both very relaxed in each other’s company, and when you’re doing any film you hope for that kind of chemistry.
What attracts you to Austin? You’ve shot two of your films there.
Yeah, Red White & Blue and Fashionista were shot in Austin. I’ve been going there since my film The Living and the Dead played there in 2006, at Fantastic Fest, which was when I made friends with Tim and Carrie League, who had set up the festival. Because of them, I went back there to shoot Red White & Blue in 2009, and showed that at the South By Southwest festival in 2010, then went back there in 2011 with Little Deaths. So around those years I spent a reasonable amount of time in Austin, and it really is an absolutely amazing place; everyone is really friendly and the music is great, the food is great.
There’s a really strong arts scene out there, for sure.
There is, and one thing I like is that people are out there, doing their art, not to make Oscars or for profit, win Grammies or whatever, but they’re doing it because they are creative people and they enjoy doing it. So I felt that there was a real purity of creation there, and that along with the real Americana feel, bars and neon lights, people walking down the street in cowboy hats… it had a feel totally different to England. Exotic, but kind of in that Wim Wenders way. And of course, The Last Picture Show was set there. So I had an amazing time when I went. And then when I went back in 2014, when we did a test screening of Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, I was only there for a day and an evening. But I noticed how in three years Austin had changed, going through that gentrification process that places like New York had already been through. And in the end a part of Fashionista became about that as well. The Randall character, played by Eric Balfour, that character is very much a representation of that change. It felt like that sort of person had no place in Austin. So that’s also part of what the film is about.
You mentioned Tim League; he’s one of those guys who wants to do as much as he can for independent filmmakers and low-budget cinema. He’s one of the good guys.
Yes, very much so, and I can put my hand on my heart and say that if I hadn’t met him I genuinely don’t think I would have made Red White & Blue, or Fashionista, or got involved with The ABCs Of Death. In fact it was through him that I met the team I ended up doing Little Deaths with. You know, you go to film festivals and they are always great fun, you meet lots of really cool people, and sometimes you stay friends. More often than not, you don’t! But certainly going to Fantastic Fest at that time during that week pretty much changed the course of my life. So really he’s always been an amazing presence, and he’s a very generous guy.
Earlier you were saying about the reaction to the initial script, and you mentioned how hard it is for independent filmmakers. How do you feel the industry is now for a director like yourself? Is there more of an outlet for distribution now we have Netflix, video on demand, and Amazon?
I think it’s harder than it’s ever been. Although there are now many different distribution outlets, what people have to remember is that there are also many other outlets that have closed down, such as the DVD and video stores like Blockbuster, which existed in every single town. That was your equivalent of Netflix. And while digital is amazing, in some ways I think that it has created more problems than it has solved. Nowadays I believe it’s harder for lower budget films to create an awareness of themselves in the marketplace. And even if you’re at Sundance or Cannes it doesn’t mean to say that you are going to have an audience watch your work outside of those festivals. Sometimes it helps, but at somewhere like South By Southwest there are something like 300 features shown every year. And while it’s great to go and show your work there, many of those films don’t even get released. Same as when you go to FrightFest in London; once those films have been screened do they get released, and if they do, where do they get released? We all think that you have to have a theatrical release, but again in many respects that whole kind of model is so much different to how it used to be, because if you don’t have a decent budget to advertise your film no one is even going to know it exists. With Crowhurst, Studio Canal is releasing it, but they haven’t done any marketing, they haven’t done any posters — they even refused to do a trailer. So how is anyone going to know that the film exists?
Is that because The Mercy has just been released?
Well, they also released The Mercy, so they very much acquired my film to, as they described it, control it, and to try and take away from the fact that there were two films being made about the exact same subject matter. One of them being a twenty-million film, the other being a half-million. That in itself is quite a unique situation. But I think on the positive side it’s now easier to make films than ever, because really most cameras are very affordable, most people can work out how to edit on their computer if they need to, so in that respect it’s great. But it’s still harder than ever to get your film seen. I mean, money counts, but even if you have a big budget it doesn’t mean it’s going to be treated any better, or get more people to watch it.
Totally. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day after we’d both watched Alex Garland’s new film Annihilation, which was superb. I found it quite sad that it was just dropped onto Netflix, because for me that’s a movie that demands a big screen, and Garland himself has said how disappointed he was. My buddy was saying how great the Netflix release was, that we would never have seen it in the cinema, but my thinking is that if Netflix are buying up a hundred-million-dollar Universal picture, how can you hope that they will pick up the likes of Fashionista?
You’re exactly right. Increasingly Netflix and Amazon have the monopoly with online distribution. But even when you’re on Netflix there’s no guarantee. As you say someone like Alex Garland was disappointed that his film came on there initially, and quite rightly so, because he spent a lot of time doing a big-budget film designed for the big screen. But whoever made the decision decided that his film was too intelligent, or too left field or whatever, but these are still the same people who financed it in the first place. The industry has been in quite a pickle for a while, and I think will be for some time, and it’s only when it’s worked out properly how things can be seen that I think it will get better. But the other problem is, let’s say you’re a Nicolas Roeg fan, how do you actually see a Nicolas Roeg film online? Where do you see a Pasolini film online? Russ Meyer? It’s not like you can go to Netflix and find a list of these great classic directors, and discover a part of the film history that all these guys are. You couldn’t get much more different than those three, but they are guys whose films I have grown up watching and enjoying, but to a younger generation, when will they even hear of them? It’s kind of scary to be honest because I feel that all of these titans of cinema — Ken Russell being another one — how are people going to discover these guys? It certainly isn’t going to be Netflix or Amazon. And because they have the monopoly on streaming films… it’s kind of worrying.
And while you’ve got the specialist Blu-ray companies like Criterion and Arrow releasing classic genre cinema, which guys of our generation will buy because we already know how great the film is, I don’t think the younger generation will. My kid is 19 and likes cinema, but he’s not going to buy The Lair of the White Worm on Blu-ray. If he saw it on Netflix he might give it a shot, but where can he take that chance on it?
And even if it was on Netflix, the reality is how is he going to find it, because there’s probably something like 5,000 films on there, and while I suppose he could stumble across it… In the days of the video store you would just wander around and look at the artwork and the titles. Of course you can do that online, but trawling through Netflix just increasingly seems like a chore, and I think you just look at the same things time and time again.
I have to ask how you got involved with Crowhurst, because it’s kind of obvious from everything that you’ve done that you are attracted to mental illness and damaged characters. Is that what drew you to Crowhurst?
When I was approached I’d never heard of him, and I read the script, watched a documentary and did some online research, and I discovered that this was a crazy real-life story. And I don’t know what the tagline on our poster is — because again that’s something we have been fighting with the distributors about — but I always thought that a great tagline for him would be ‘cheating comes last’, which I feel is such a British thing to do. When you cheat, you cheat to win, and doing it and coming last is just so rubbish. And I’ve always loved the ocean, and as a kid I did do some sailing, but ultimately it was the whole tragedy that drew me to the story. The Living and the Dead is a tragedy, as is Red White & Blue, and all these films are similar to each other in as much as you’ve got good people doing things with good intentions, which ultimately go very bad. So I felt it was fascinating to see what happened to this man, who really has a mental breakdown on a boat, which eventually is just heartbreaking and tragic. I’ve always liked tragedy in what I do because it brings out emotion, which is what I think most films are lacking. I like to try and get a reaction out of the audience, and if the audience is empathising with a character then hopefully they will feel the film better.
So, last question and I’ll let you go: you’re currently making Once Upon a Time in London, which unless you tell me differently seems like a straight-up gangster biopic. What’s the decision for that, just to try something new, or are you mellowing out in your middle age?
[Laughs] My middle-age crisis! Well, my early films are inspired by Richard Linklater, and now Fashionista and Crowhurst by Nic Roeg, bits of Darren Aronofsky over the years, so this to me is… I grew up watching American gangster films over the years; Goodfellas to Once Upon a Time in America, which I saw in Paris when I was 16, Carlito’s Way, Scarface. To me these are all just classic, brilliant films. In the past people have asked me if the films I do are horror, or what are they? And I always say that they are not traditional horror — although you can find horror within them — but I’ve started to call them extreme dramas, and I think the best gangster films are also extreme dramas. You’ve really got all the themes of life: friendship; love; betrayal; loss; greed; ambitions. So to me a gangster film is almost like the logical canvas of what I’ve already been doing, because it’s exploring all the facets of the human psyche. And maybe not so much British gangster films, but certainly with the American films, The Godfather and the ones I’ve just said, there is such an epicness to them that I really love. Such elegance to them, a confidence to them.
I suppose people think that you’ve been a little pigeonholed into one genre, but in actual fact there’s a lot you want to do, and there are themes you can take from your past work that you can put into something different.
Yeah, precisely. Once Upon a Time in London starts in 1936 and ends around 1954, and it’s about two gangsters, one called Billy Hill and the other Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, and it’s basically about the start of organised crime in the United Kingdom, so it fills that hole between Peaky Blinders and The Krays. Jack becomes the king of the underworld, and literally for 10 years he maintained that crown. Billy Hill was more of an opportunist and a career thief that was prolific in his workmanship, and he went to prison for a couple of short stretches, and during his second term he wrote to Jack saying that he would like to work with him. Jack brought him on and bit by bit Billy just infiltrated his way into his life, and ended up taking over. So again it’s that story of loyalty and friendship gone awry. We’ve done it in a linear way and tried to make it very elegant, and it’s two-plus hours and spans three decades, so it really is an epic. It’s everything that I could have hoped for, and I’m really excited for it.
And when’s that due for release? You’re in post-production at the moment I assume?
Yeah, we’re very close to finishing it, and we’ve done a teaser for distributors. Already had a couple of offers which is good, and now we’re just waiting to finish it, show it to people and hopefully get something pretty good out of it. But so far the reaction to it has been very strong.
Sound great Simon, I’m excited for that. Listen, best of luck with the releases this week.
Thanks mate, it’s good to talk to someone who appreciates and likes the work. Let’s talk again when the next one comes out.
Fashionista is on VOD now and Crowhurst is in select cinemas