Screenwriter Luke Davies on Beautiful Boy, masculinity, and ‘manipulative’ filmmaking

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Well, all film, including good film, is manipulative. The word has negative connotations when what it means, I think, is that ‘manipulation’ has an agenda that is deceptive and buried. Ultimately, I can support and I live with this film because the agenda is not deceptive. The books are incredibly moving and I can vouch for the fact, as an ex-addict myself, I vouch for their authenticity and their power. And as an ex-addict, or let’s say an addict who is 29 years clean and sober, I believe in the message of the film, which is not even hitting you on the head with a hammer, but which to me says there are no clearcut, black and white answers, but that love is at the centre of the answer and that there’s no guarantee that your loved one will survive the traumatic chaos of addiction.

We can’t hold your hand, but we can show [a story with] the kind of message that is you keep showing up no matter what. As filmmakers, what we tried to do was to not be morally judgmental, to not make one of those movies that is hitting you on the head with a hammer. Ultimately, yes, all films are manipulative, but I prefer the gentle flow of Beautiful Boy, which tells the story, much of which is very distressing, and gets to a point of ambiguous resolution with father and son scene at the end.

First interview I’ve done in quite some time, this! I didn’t realise it’d been so long, actually – about six months since I spoke to Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn about A Quiet Place – but it’s a good one to come back with, I think. I’m really pleased with this piece; it goes a lot deeper, I think, than a lot of previous interviews I’ve done, and hopefully sets a new standard to try and reach in future.

In theory, I’ll have a review of Beautiful Boy up on the site in a few days time – I, admittedly, wasn’t a massive fan of the film. (That said, though, it’ll be interesting to watch the film again with this interview in mind – I wonder how much it’ll influence my opinion?)

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Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

brexit uncivil war benedict cumberbatch dominic cummings james graham toby haynes channel 4 hbo vote leave take back control film review

Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Brexit: The Uncivil War is a film caught between two contrary instincts, unable to quite work out what it wants to be or what it wants to do.

On one level, Brexit is trying to be a character study, an attempt to shine a light on Dominic Cummings – a man most of the film’s audience is unlikely to be aware of. At the same time, though, the film also wants to be a process story ahead of anything else, delving into the idiosyncrasies of a political campaign of near unprecedented significance. It wouldn’t be impossible to be both, of course, but ultimately Brexit is neither – there’s a certain tension borne of this, as the film struggles to find an identity, leaving a rapidly forming sense that none of the major figures involved were quite on the same page throughout.

Screenwriter James Graham, clearly, is most interested in Dominic Cummings – not a huge surprise, given Cummings is apparently the sort of brash genius that so often fascinates writers. Whether Cummings genuinely falls prey to every cliché-ridden convention of the brusque political operative, speaking only in self-consciously lofty references and aphorisms is another question: it’s difficult to tell whether this an accurate account of Cummings’ real-life eccentricities or an artifice on Graham’s part. If the latter, it’s worthy of quite the eye-roll; if the former, then it’s easier to understand why Graham was quite so fascinated by Cummings, but does rather leave the impression that Graham bought into Cummings’ own hype, which is… another problem, to say the least.

That said, though, Graham isn’t helped by Cumberbatch’s visible lack of interest in Cummings. If 2018 held the best performance of Cumberbatch’s career in Patrick Melrose, then Brexit: The Uncivil War is unfortunately a sure example of one of his weakest. In Patrick Melrose, Cumberbatch carved out a space within his established milieu of isolated eccentrics, injecting it with a bracing vulnerability that elevated the performance far above the rest of his filmography. In Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cumberbatch does almost entirely the opposite – he’s sleepwalking through the film, coasting on a reputation for playing irreverent geniuses earned on Sherlock. (There’s reasonable critique to make, on that grounds, that Cumberbatch brings too much baggage to the role – simply by putting him on screen in this role, there’s an implicit suggestion that Cummings is a Sherlock-esque figure.) Cummings, here, is a caricature of ‘a Benedict Cumberbatch role’ – so of course the character study fails. It doesn’t matter what Graham was trying to achieve if Cumberbatch doesn’t show up.

Absent its star, Brexit renders Cummings a cipher around which the Leave campaign as a whole can be – not ‘interrogated’, that suggests a far robust and uncompromising look at events than the film offered – viewed. In that sense, Brexit does reasonably well, finding flair in the mundanities of the campaign trail from focus groups to slogans. It isn’t quite as good as, say, the average episode of The West Wing, but it works – an extended look at the subtleties that set “take control” apart from “take back control” makes for one of the film’s better sequences, for example. Similarly effective is Brexit: The Uncivil War’s look at how the Leave campaign relied on developing social media targeting – which is to say, it works, but it’s nowhere near as good an articulation of the concept as when it formed the fourth act plot twist of an episode of The Good Fight.

brexit uncivil war benedict cumberbatch dominic cummings boris johnson richard goulding michael gove oliver maltman nhs bus 350 million take back control james graham toby haynes channel 4 hbo

Again, though, it doesn’t quite land – a result, most likely, of the fact that the process story was never meant to be the main focus of the script, merely inadvertently accentuated by the vagaries of Cumberbatch’s performance. In turn, it leaves Brexit: The Uncivil War as a drama divided, a film at war with itself – it’s no surprise that film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve. (Director Toby Haynes, who might have been able to stitch the two instincts together, instead offers a third – the equivalent of “well, let’s just be a bit like Norway”. Haynes tries to emphasise the absurdity of it all, presumably angling to satirise right-wing pomposity – but instead directs with a certain baroque pretension, another element that fails to cohere.)

In the end, this adaptation prompts much the same question as the real-life source material: why bother?

Not even three years on from the vote, accusations that Brexit: The Uncivil War has come too soon hold an obvious weight. 2019 is too early for Brexit to have been historicised; indeed, it’s still a palpable part of the present, if the events of this week are any indicator. In the time between Brexit’s Channel 4 debut and this review being written, Theresa May’s prospective deal suffered an unprecedented defeat in parliament; what will happen in the time between writing and publishing the review remains to be seen, let alone in the time between publishing the review and Brexit’s nominal 29th March scheduling.

That isn’t to say, though, that Brexit shouldn’t have bothered because they don’t know how it’ll end. Rather, while the broader ramifications of the event are still ongoing – and while the campaign at the heart of the film is still subject to ongoing criminal investigation – there’s argument to be made that a fictionalised narrative is irresponsible filmmaking. By virtue of being the first major attempt to tackle Brexit on film, Brexit: The Uncivil War is also going to be – for a time, at least – the definitive account of that campaign. What James Graham and company emphasise – and, more crucially, what they omit – is going to have a greater hand in shaping public understanding of the Brexit campaign than any news report or documentary. Looking beyond their depiction of Cummings, there’s little sense that there was any awareness of this responsibility behind the scenes. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage are blustering and foolish, not insidious and dangerous; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are trepidant and cautious, not self-serving and morally negligent; the Leave campaign’s illegal overspending is little more than a footnote. Maybe waiting a few more years would’ve stopped them getting it wrong, maybe it wouldn’t, but the mistakes would likely have mattered a little bit less.

Ultimately, if Brexit: The Uncivil War was meant to hold a mirror up to society, it is instead a far better reflection of James Graham’s interest – and Benedict Cumberbatch’s apparent disinterest – in one man, rather than offering any meaningful commentary on the state of a nation.

5/10

Related:

Who is America? Who cares?

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Erik Aadahl & Ethan Van der Ryn on the sound design of A Quiet Place, how they hope it influences other filmmakers, and more

Erik Aadahl Ethan Van der Ryn a quiet place sound designers interview jon krasinski emily blunt noah jupe millicent simmonds silent sonic envelope perspective

I think that the biggest takeaway is that sometimes it can be more powerful and more engaging to play less sound, and have the sound be more focused, than to play a lot of music, a lot of sound effects, a lot of dialogue. Sometimes doing the opposite can actually create a more engaging and powerful experience.

With a lot of blockbusters, there’s been this kind of race to the edge of the cliff sonically with ‘how much louder can everyone get?’ and going bigger and bigger and louder. What happens is there’s kind of this numbing effect to that much volume and I think audiences kind of start to tune out from it – so using negative space in A Quiet Place actually made people tune in. I’ll be excited to see how other filmmakers kind of see that and say “hey, you can have a blockbuster that does something totally different with sound”.

One of the things I did with this one, which is something I always enjoy reading in interviews myself, is ask Erik and Ethan what they thought of some other recent films, specifically which ones they felt had impressive sound design themselves.

It’s not something you always get an opportunity to do – understandably, since, you know, the point of these interviews is to talk about whatever they’re promoting – but it’s often the question that yields the most interesting answer, because it you get to hear what these professionals think of the work of other artists, and how they engage with that work.

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Film Review | Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (2017)

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What’s notable about Crooked House amongst Christie’s oeuvre, however, is that the story has never been adapted for the screen – until now. This means that all the hallmarks and idiosyncrasies that define Christie’s work, the ones that we’ve become so familiar with, here feel slightly different. The stately home, the eccentric family, the mystery and intrigue – it all feels slightly subverted here, in fresh and unexpected ways. Indeed, the way the case unfolds is difficult to anticipate, keeping the audience in suspense to the last possible moment.

Here is a film review. A film review written by me, no less! Admittedly that’s probably exactly what you’ve come to expect on this here website of mine, but hey, sometimes it’s good to be specific.

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Director Robin Swicord on her new movie Wakefield, her writing process, and more

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I definitely felt an initial repulsion about this man who would just walk out on his family – and then my next question was why would he do that? Why would he walk out? Once I started to understand why he would do such a thing, I was aligned with him. I was that way all the way through shooting, all the way through editing. In movies, that’s what I want – that’s the experience I was after.

I recently spoke to Robin Swicord about her new movie Wakefield, which stars Bryan Cranston.

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Why Rogue One: A Star Wars Story wasn’t as good as everyone thought it was

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Star Wars: Rogue One is finally released on DVD today, having already been available on digital download since last week.

As you’re re-watching the latest Star Wars spin-off, though, you might be met with a worrying thought – that the film is actually not quite as good as you thought it was the first time round.

Yes, it’s true – Star Wars: Rogue One isn’t actually all that good.

From forgettable characters to continuity-overload, here are a few reason why you might not want to watch it a second time.

I wrote an article about Star Wars for Metro, specifically about Rogue One. I never really got around to reviewing the movie properly when it first came out, but this sums up most of my thoughts on it.

Mind you, in the time since, I have been thinking I should probably rewatch it – I am massively out of step with the general cultural consensus about this film, and I do wonder if there’s something I’m missing. It’s possible that, because I watched it after having been awake for around 24 hours, I was just in the wrong state of mind to appreciate it – but I doubt that had much of an effect. Perhaps I’ll write about it again come… ooh, December 2018?

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Johnathon Schaech on Southern Fury, working with Nic Cage, and finding the truth in his performances

The biggest part of me, for anything that’s any sort of military or police work, is I always just try not to forget that every time I look. You know, we’re making a movie, and unlike real life you just have to be more entertaining, and think then “you guys do really good jobs”. So, I was trying to tell the truth – I always try to find the truth. 

I studied with the marines, with friends of mine that were former military, I went to the veterans down in the Redwood area by Los Angeles, trying to get as much information as I possibly could, so that I would know my job. What he was going through, and why he was going through what he was going through, as much as I possibly could – because it is a great deal of responsibility.

My most recent interview, with Johnathon Schaech on his movie Southern Fury – which is also called Arsenal, for some reason I’m not quite sure of. I think it’s an America/International audiences thing.

Anyway, Johnathon was very talkative, and said lots of interesting things about the film, and his approach to the role. Which is always nice! This was quite an early interview for me, I think maybe the fifth or so, so it was nice that it went well.

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Screenwriter Allison Schroeder on Hidden Figures, #OscarsSoWhite, and more

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I felt this huge responsibility to these women, to get it right and to make something that they would be proud of. Katherine Johnson, who’s the only one still with us, her request was that it not be just about her – that we had some of these other women as well, because it was a team effort. That was something I took to heart, and it’s why you’ve got Mary Jackson  and Dorothy Vaughn as well, and we get to see all the other women they worked with in the computing pool. 

Did a great interview with Allison Schroeder around the time of Oscar season; this was a real blast, Allison was great to talk to. We spoke a lot about representation, and the sort of films that Allison wanted her daughter to be able to see while growing up.

Which, in hindsight, I did wonder about. Allison was the first woman I interviewed individually; since then I’ve tried, albeit not necessarily succeeded, to maintain a rough sort of parity between male and female interviewees – as well as interviewing people of colour, though that’s been less successful. Was asking about the sort of films her daughter would watch something I’d ask a male director or screenwriter? I think yes, and it made sense in context – Hidden Figures had been especially impactful with young girls, and Allison had only recently-ish given birth. But it’s something I try to bear in mind, anyway.

That said, the other thought I have after this interview is that I probably should have pushed a little more on the matter of historical accuracy and such; this was the fourth interview I did, and I was a little less confident about things like that, but I definitely think that nowadays I’d be more direct rather than talking around the issue as above.

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In its 70th year, BAFTA continues to celebrate the best of the arts, and why they matter

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Further, we saw a celebration of the power and the value of the arts – this was, if nothing else, the key theme of the evening. It was evident particularly through the speeches – as Noomi Rapace put it, now is a time when “our art is more important than ever”. Indeed, it was a common theme throughout the night, with Mark Rylance touching on the same idea; he noted that art is now “more needed and more important in society” than it has been before. Many of the speeches were based around this idea, repeatedly emphasising that “there is more tying us together than is tearing us apart” – and art is a key part of that.

Emma Stone put it best, though, when she commented on “the positive gift of creativity, and how it can help people feel a little less alone”. Because that is true – it’s the value of art. The ability to influence, and the ability to unite, and the ability to inspire emotion. And that’s the value of the BAFTAs, too – taking a moment to celebrate this art, and to remember why it’s so important.

A quick article I wrote last night on the BAFTA ceremony, and how it celebrated the power of the arts.

A few weeks later, Alexis pointed out , rightly, this was not especially good. Far be it from me to disagree with him, especially when he’s correct.

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Taylor Sheridan on his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Hell or High Water, his directorial debut Wind River, and more

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Sicario was a very complicated screenplay; you have these characters you know nothing about, and you don’t really know anything more about them personally at the end of the film than you did at the beginning. The one person you do learn about a bit of his past, Alejandro, does things in a way you would never expect. 

The structure of the screenplay itself, I wrote it like a Shakespearean tragedy – it’s on a five-act structure. So there was a lot of… it was a very intellectual venture for me, as opposed to Hell or High Water, which was more stream of consciousness writing. It took me a number of months to write Sicario; I wrote Hell or High Water in a couple weeks. 

This is one of my favourite interviews that I’ve ever done, actually (don’t tell the others!) – it’s also one of the best generally, though, in terms of the questions I asked and the responses I got. So I’m very proud of this one!

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