Desire, a film by Gareth Jones, and playing the Exeter Phoenix on Wednesday, April 13, has been winning plaudits around the film world. Here’s a Q&A with Gareth to find the allure of Desire.
Q: You chose to work with a largely unknown cast, how was that?
A: I’d say unknown is a slightly contentious term! Oscar (Pearce) already has a pretty heavyweight theatre career and was recently working on a film with Nicolas Roeg, so I never had any doubts that he could hold down the lead in Desire. He walked into the audition just blazing with ideas and passion about the character, you can’t really argue with that energy, it has its way with you.And Tella? (Kpomahou) Again, she has a very particular combination of passion and energy, an absence of fear, total commitment to the role, to the psychology of the character and where it leads. In fact that’s true of all the cast, Daisy (Smith) and Adam (Slynn) were the same, it was a very tight cast in terms of mutual understanding and chemistry.
Q: And who is Tella Kpomahou, how did you find her?
A: Well she’s a rising star in France and West Africa right now. I met her by accident at the African Festival of Cinema in Tarifa last April and I knew instantly that she had some very special quality, a real presence, a screen charisma that I wanted to work with.We talked a lot about stories and projects. The film grew around her and acquired its own life, but the kernel of the film was to explore this noble beauty uprooted and dumped in a strange culture, and was about how that history, that secret tragedy, that otherness works on a British family and transforms it. Tella came over and rehearsed at the end of the year and we developed the part some more. What comes over is this incredible combination of dignity, seductiveness and vitality.
Q: Tella speaks mainly French, was that a challenge?
A: Yes and no. I mean it was part of the story that NÃ©nÃ© arrives to learn English, and it felt authentic that Tella actually had to struggle to communicate, that was an advantage. For the crew it was an interesting challenge, but they rose to it brilliantly! By the end of day two everyone was pretty much working bilingually without even thinking much about it. That was lovely, knowing that when I yelled ‘On tourne’ after the first walkthrough Jason, the Focus Puller could make a joke about not needing rehearsals anyway.
Q: And you speak fluent French so I guess that helped a bit?
A: I love languages, that’s my thing, so I was in my element I guess.
Q: What about the location? You shot the whole film in one house, how did that come about?
A: I suppose we made a story virtue out of what essentially was a self-imposed constraint. We wanted to shoot a film that was contained, for budgetary and logistical reasons. It obviously had to be a house with a certain personality, and it ended by becoming a character in the film, the entity that possesses this writer rather than a prison. At least I hope it doesn’t feel like a prison. It is a house with a fantastic number of nooks and crannies, which was just as well because we really needed that visual variety. We still ended up shooting every room from every possible angle with every conceivable lens to make sure we ended up with a movie rather than just a chamber piece. But Alex (Ryle, DOP) really responded to that challenge with incredible energy and inventiveness -I think it was a brilliant decision to shoot in ‘scope. And Fiona (Howe, Designer) whirled around with huge quantities of props creating this epic space out of what was essentially still a London semi.
Q: Did you have hassles with the location owners?
A: No. We had a pretty free hand to make it into Ralph’s domain. A lot of the books were in situ, which was great, but it’s still a lot of work to make a location into a set. The Hindu images were mine, Oscar grew up in Zimbabwe so there are pieces of his Zulu art which he lent the production, up in Ralph’s study. We decided to go for warm colours, ochres, golds, reds, browns, to try and bring Africa in through the door a bit, and also to give the house a womb-like feeling. So it’s a place that’s seductive and hard to leave after a while. Ralph can’t leave. We never know if NÃ©nÃ© manages to leave at the end. And you feel the wrench each time Phoebe closes the front door on it all.
Q: Weren’t you all falling over each other?
A: A bit! It’s true that a film crew is the size it is, and in a single location, every space counts. Every room in the house was completely colonised, make-up and costume in one room, lighting store in another, catering in the dining room, bodies jostling for space, everywhere you turn there’s a lamp waiting to trip you up. There was one room where the entire camera team had to spend the whole day in the wardrobe and I was glued to the monitor in the adjoining bathroom -they got very hot and grumpy by the end of it! But there were advantages: a crew loves to be indoors in January, and it was that freezing spell just after Christmas. Parking was free and easy so they could all drive if they wanted. It was certainly cosy, but we were all still friends by the end of it. Mainly because the crew were such fantastic people.
Q: Talking of crew, what about your producer -she also designed and composed the music, is she a control freak or what?
A: Totally! No seriously, Fi is a very creative producer and taking on these additional roles it was a natural extension of that. We get pretty embroiled in creative discussions right from the conceptual stage of a piece and the adoption of certain key roles came about in a completely organic way because of our own particular strengths, although there were some points at which we were both somewhat overstretched, both physically and emotionally! I’ve mentioned the design element, but in terms of the soundtrack, being so close to the film at every stage meant a kind of symbiotic relationship between composer and film evolved which was fascinating. The piano track is actually rather sparse and contemplative, deliberately so, because we wanted to let the pictures speak for themselves, to create an interior space to offset the narrative, and one that would compliment Oumou Sangare’s incredibly vibrant music. So the music overall functions at an almost subliminal level rather than seeking to push the audience into feeling particular emotions at any given moment.
Q: How did you find working with the RED camera?
A: Very exciting and very liberating. Alex lit as if he was shooting 35mm, so I’m thrilled with the look of the piece. There were some interesting lighting challenges -absence of daylight hours in January, a lot of the scenes taking place at night, and it was a very subtle job to get Tella’s skintones just right, especially in low light levels, which the RED doesn’t always like. It wasn’t plain sailing getting there in terms of the post-production workflow, but I guess that would apply with any evolving technology.
We had two wonderful editors, Tony and Rich, we’ve all been on a bit of a learning curve together, but the results speak for themselves I’m also glad we decided to have a data wrangler working alongside an on-set second camera assistant who functioned as a traditional clapper-loader, and kept those as pretty much separate functions. I know some teams try and combine those roles, but certainly in our case it would have been a false economy. It is absolutely great to wrap shooting at the end of the day and be able to view your rushes instantly as Quicktime proxy files. Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely!
Q: ‘Desire’ has been called a British art film, would you agree with that definition?
A: Not really, I see that as a term of marginalisation.A good film is made with artistry, that doesn’t necessarily make it an art film. ‘Desire’ is certainly a film about and containing ideas. It’s certainly an authored film.Of course we thought a lot about the metaphorical level of the film, the stylistic relationship between Ralph’s interior and exterior worlds, the underlying image system. But it’s also a narrative film telling a very accessible story about human instincts and emotions we all share. In terms of its target audience I would go as far as to say it’s a mainstream love story.
Watch the full trailer of Desire:
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