A 1930s murderous caper all in rhyme by gangster puppets sounds like a flight of dark imagination. Well, yes. But The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is also based on a true story. When writer-director James Wilsher found out about it, he knew exactly how he wanted to play it.
“I heard the story on a podcast and liked the idea,” says James, who had hot-footed it onto Zoom from location scouting for another of his films.
Dark and funny
“It was quite dark and quite funny, and I thought how can I make it even more unusual. So I pitched it to my production team, told them the idea and said I want to do it with puppets.”
There was a moment of surprise for the team, but James had always wanted to make something with puppets.
” I thought it was the right story for it,” he says. “It balanced the darkness and the comedy and was a fresh challenge for me.”
He used a team of professional puppeteers and found himself talking to the puppets rather than the operators.
Come to life
“It was amazing to see them bring life to these puppets – when they’re not doing anything they are like toys, and then suddenly, in the right hands, they come to life,” he says. “It was a nice moment when they started working.”
The technical issue of the puppeteers being below the puppets was helped with the pub location that was used for the shoot, where raising items for the set was relatively easy. And the bar, which features in the film, was high already. That aided the smooth production. So will James be working with puppets again?
“It started off as a feature idea, where one of the main characters could potentially be a puppet, so this was like a little experiment to see if I could do it,” he says.
As well as taking on puppets, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is in verse.
“I’m a poet,” says James. “I do spoken word poetry. That’s how I started off getting into the creative world.” Once he had a good story, the rest just flowed.
The 3 Ps
“It’s the three Ps – puppets, period-piece and poetry,” he says. “Those things worked together quite nicely. Puppets, because it’s that almost childish feel to it. That allowed me to do something that stands out and it all seemed to work for the story I was telling.”
In terms of his writing James says he’s more interested in writing ‘humour’ than comedy
“I did a film a couple years ago, which I thought was a comedy until I showed it to people – they said it was actually quite a drama,” he says.
“I’ve always done things that have a slightly darker tinge to it and to get away with being dark you have to add a few jokes.”
But it’s character that is central. It’s how a character starts and ends that interests him.
“The arc of a character and the journey they go on, that’s my main thing,” he says, whether it’s normalcy to chaos, or vice a versa. Whenever James starts writing something he says he starts with the character first and foremost then focuses on the story, and then draws in themes.
The Man Who Wouldn’t Die had its world premiere at the Southend Film Festival along with a baker’s dozen of other films, and got a very good reception, he says. “Which as a relief – you try something like this it can easily fall flat on its face.
“We tried to make a film that will stand out. I’ve been to a lot of film festivals and the ones that stand out are the ones that are a little bit different.”
Despite being based on a true story, there’s a fable like quality to the film and you can’t help but want to pick up some sort of moral from it… other than don’t go around trying to murder people.
“It depends on who’s story you think it is,” says James with a hint of mystery. “Is it the victim or is it people around him? There’s is certainly a moral at the end of the story. It’s simple to say just be a good person – don’t murder people. But maybe plan things better?”
In terms of planning, James seems to be a bit of an expert. He’s made three feature and approaching 10 shorts in a six-year period while having a full-time job.
“I’ve always wanted to tell stories, even when I was a teenager I was writing short stories. The more I’ve got into films and filmmaking the more I’ve enjoyed that.
“I want to tell interesting stories about interesting characters, everything I do comes from that starting point, really.”
The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is at the English Riviera Film Festival
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