Interview: I, Anna director Barnaby Southcombe Ian White February 21, 2013 Features, Interviews, Latest News and Videos 10839 Barnaby Southcombe is an English film and television director, whose mother Charlotte Rampling remains one of Europe’s most celebrated actresses. She is also the star of Barnaby’s impressive debut feature ‘I, Anna’. Movie Ramblings chatted with Barnaby about ‘I, Anna’ and ended up hijacking a lot more of his time than he suspected, but who can blame us? He had some fascinating stories to share and was the kind of charming, interesting guest we enjoy hanging out with. MR: ‘I, Anna’ is a wonderful movie. I was kind of in hibernation when it opened at the end of last year but it looks so good on a small screen that I wish I’d seen it in the cinema. It’s a phenomenal looking piece of film. BARNABY: Thank you. I’m pleased with the way it looks. The whole finishing of the film, how it was graded etc., was done very much for the release prints and for me it’s so important that I got it right for theatrical. It’s a shame that not many people have had a chance to see it on a big screen because I think that’s where it truly shone. I’m pleased with the look of it on DVD and it is very similar to what was projected but it really isn’t the same. A lot of my time and effort was spent getting it right for projection. MR: There’s almost a sense of alternative reality going on. That feeling of space, and the angles you’re using, the lighting. It took me immediately into Anna’s head right from the very beginning of the story. BARNABY: Great! That was what I was attempting to do so it’s wonderful to hear. MR: How have you found audience reaction to it? BARNABY: I’ve been touring with it because it is a very small release. You need a lot of money to make a film but you need a lot more money to actually release a film and with this type of more intimate drama a distributor can’t justify spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in advertising. What Artificial Eye are good at doing is they keep the film going to theatres for as long as possible so it’s allowed me to travel around the UK with it and do Q&As. In a lot of the regions I’ve been going to, people are not used to directors coming to talk about their film so some of the people who might not necessarily have gone to see the film on screen come along because the director’s coming along. What’s been really interesting for me is watching a slightly conservative audience see the film, an audience that feels they’re being force-fed a lot of formulaic cinema but by the same token they’re not going to see the art-house films either. In our case the art-house centres have been a lot more aggressive in how they’ve tried to promote us. The word’s got around, still very small scale, but what it’s meant is that the kind of people I would have liked to see the film are, in their very small numbers, actually seeing it. They’re reacting very well to it. They’re surprised by it. Some of the criticism of the film has been from people who watch a huge amount of film and feel that some of the elements in ‘I, Anna’ they could see coming, but a lot of people who aren’t so familiar with cinema are watching the film and seeing things unfold to a surprising effect and the reveal at the end is a pleasant surprise rather than something that was signposted a long the way. So it’s been really rewarding. My starting point, I guess, was European cinema and a level of aesthetic that you have in European films by virtue of the fact they have a bit more money to make them. You can impose a visual style. I wanted a very formal approach, one where I could control the environment and the lights because the visual landscape is very much reflective of what’s going on in Anna’s mind. I wanted it to not necessarily be communicated through her dialogue and actions but also in the world that she navigates around. It’s a very European film in that sense and it’s nice to be able to see something with some kind of production value, which we fought very hard to preserve. People go to festivals with a very unique perspective on the films they choose and I’m happy for any interpretation they might have about ‘I, Anna’ when they watch it. MR: Although I can understand why some critics might say they could see the ending coming, I really didn’t see it because the performances, and the way the film looks and the unfolding of the story, was so hypnotic. I’ve seen a lot of films but the ending still crept up on me and it worked. What drew you to choose Elsa Lewin’s story for your debut feature? How much did it change in translation, when you adapted it to screenplay? BARNABY: The character of Anna drew me to it. With my producing partner Felix Vossen, we were trying to get a completely different film off the ground and we hit an impasse with that script and he remembered a novel he’d read as a teenager which left a very big impression on him and had created a bit of a stir in Germany. It wasn’t a novel that was particularly successful in the UK but it did okay in France. So he sent me the book to read. And it really spoke to me. There was something very haunting and haunted about this woman and it was a very fragile time in her life, both from a relationships point of view but also from a psychological point of view. I thought it was a very potent mix, and also interesting in that it put a female murder suspect who is traditionally the objectified woman seen from afar, from the perspective of the male protagonist – the investigator – who, in this story, was squarely in the foreground and forefront of everything. She’s also a woman who’s not your thirty-something bombshell femme fatale. What subsequently arose was that, although the woman was very powerful to me the novel was told in internal monologue which is not very filmic! And not having adapted stuff before, I realised how big a challenge that was. I didn’t want to use voice-over. I didn’t want the Philip Marlowe hardboiled male protagonist voice to guide me through. And I didn’t want everything explained from her point of view so I had reams of internal monologue which I had to communicate by replacing it with action. How do I evoke those feelings without words? So I had to use physical devices. She goes out, she uses the phone box. In the novel she tapes herself and I thought it was more evocative to try that another way. There are a lot of physical elements that I brought to the plot which were not really featured in the novel. We ended up shooting two endings although we knew in our hearts which one we were going to do. And in the novel, because it’s a New York-based story, the cops are armed. MR: There’s something about films that feature London and the Police. It’s not very romantic. It’s not the same as watching how the Police operate in American movies, or even French movies. There’s something slightly ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ about it. And, for me, you completely avoided that. BARNABY: I’m delighted. MR: Let’s talk about Charlotte Rampling! I read somewhere that you originally wrote a treatment for the film and your mother handed it back to you and said ‘That’s a nice try but no thanks’? BARNABY: That’s absolutely true. Because I’d had this flash, this very chemical reaction to the material, I assumed that everyone else in the world would share it too including my mother, but that wasn’t the case! I quickly wrote a treatment of where this story would go and gave it to her so she would thank me for the thought and we would run off and make a lovely film together, but she actually saw it quite differently. She found it quite violent and quite upsetting. She didn’t feel this was something or somebody that she felt close to, that she would really want to explore. So it took me having to write full screenplay before she understood what it was that I wanted to do. It was also a great opportunity for me. You don’t always have such direct access to actors. But the flipside of that is there’s also great room for embarrassment or ridicule. In a way you almost want to be more careful with the kind of project you embark on when it’s your family. So she had to feel surer that the material was right for her before she’d commit. MR: It’s probably rude to reference another film while we’re talking about yours, but yesterday I was watching ‘The Look’ – the biopic ‘with quotation marks’ about your mother – and I loved the segment between you and her, at the Royal Court, when you were improvising one of the scenes from your movie together. Is that an approach you use as a director? Not that you particularly go off-script but that your actors don’t have to stick rigidly to what’s on the page? BARNABY: That was a really fun experience for us to play around and get a sense of whether this thing was going to work. So there was possibly more exploration in that moment than there was filming ‘I, Anna’ when you don’t actually have much time to play. But if it’s not working, if what’s coming out of the actor’s mouth isn’t right, you have to change it and you have to change it fast. I had written the detective part for Gabriel Byrne with his voice in my head but when he read it aloud he’d sometimes say “I can’t say this!” and I’d realise yes, that’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it? MR: So you’d have to cut it or let him say it the way he wants to say it? BARNABY: Absolutely! MR: What about the music? It sometimes seemed to me that where you didn’t have that interior monologue for the characters, there were songs that seemed to let us know what was happening inside their heads? Particularly for Gabriel Byrne’s character. BARNABY: Music was a struggle. Because some of my influences were French I thought I’d use music in a way you often find in French films, wonderful repetitive themes that are very piano based and orchestral. So we explored that for a long time. And it just kept grating. It didn’t work with the energy of the film at all. So ultimately we had to abandon that entirely and we happened upon these guys who did an electronics score for the first reel of the film and I suddenly just breathed a sigh of relief because I knew we’d found the voice of the city, her environment, very cold and hard and forbidding. But what was missing was the voice of the relationship. The heart. That within the cold hard city was emerging a very tentative love, very chaste and very modest. And we realised that very late in the day. I happened to be listening to something on shuffle and I heard the first track we ended up using in the film and it was this voice that seemed to be floating and drifting across the city. It had so much longing and melancholy and it was so romantic and intensely sad at the same time. It did this beautiful job of speaking for them, for Bernie (Gabriel Byrne’s character) and for the relationship with Anna. So it was very much a mixture of this very sparse, very cold electronic music and this wonderful heart. So the music took a long time. It wasn’t something I knew I was going to do from the outset, I had very different expectations. It took a long time to realise what was needed. MR: Do you ever feel, if you had the chance to go back to the film, there are still little tweaks you’d like to do? Or can you put the characters to bed and tell another story without looking back? BARNABY: I had a very specific design for this film in the way I wanted to tell it and the way I wanted it to look and to do that we required a little bit more money than a first film usually gets and we worked in a different kind of way. The producers were very kind and allowed me the time to explore everything the material could give. I’m so used to rushing through television, where there are such formidable deadlines to meet, and on this film I was allowed to take my time. We went as far as getting a very good slot at the Toronto Film Festival and ultimately I turned it down with nothing else to go to because I was still wrestling with the music and felt that I still needed to change it and if I got judged, if I got hammered at Toronto as you do because it’s your first stepping out, it wasn’t like I had the clout to go back and change things afterwards. Tarantino with ‘Inglourious Basterds’ got absolutely murdered but then he went back and re-cut it and made a great film out of it but I just knew that what I would present would stick and so it was with trepidation that I decided to turn Toronto down, with the support of the Producers who were amazing. Our Sales Agent thought we were completely mental! But it was so I could do as much as I could do. So no, I’ve taken it as far as I can and I don’t want to tinker. At this time in my life it was the story I wanted to tell in the best way I possibly could. MR: Now you’ve told me there were two endings I’m very glad you chose the one you did. BARNABY: So am I. Gabriel Byrne was very influential in that and he really questioned me and kept pushing what I was trying to say with this film. And ultimately we all agreed that the ending we decided upon was very necessary. MR: Finally, what’s happening with you at the moment? Have you got another film you’re working on right now? BARNABY: I’m developing a few, with other writers. And we’re getting somewhere! We don’t have a shooting script yet, unfortunately, but we’re getting there. I’m not quite sure which one will be realised first but I’ve certainly got some projects I’m working on. MR: We’ll see you in the cinemas again soon, I hope. BARNABY: Or on DVD! MR: Thank you for your time, Barnaby. And good luck with everything you do in the future. And there it is, with the exception of a few spoilers we’ve taken out so as not to ruin the surprises of ‘I, Anna’. We’d like to send very big thank-you’s to Barnaby for his patience and generosity and to Chris at Artificial Eye for making it all happen. Remember – see ‘I, Anna’ at a cinema if you can or on DVD / blu-ray if you can’t, but make sure you see it. It’s a fabulous film and a remarkable debut.