Interview: Jon Amiel

I sat down with director, Jon Amiel, to discuss the making of his first film, "Queen of Hearts." Jon has also directed such films as "Copycat," "Entrapment," "Sommersby," "The Man Who Knew Too Little" and "Creation," which opened the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. And he also gave me my first job as a P.A.!

Jocelyn: Could you set the stage for us, where you were in your career when you first got presented with the opportunity to direct your first feature, “Queen of Hearts.”

Jon: I never wanted to be a director of any kind, let alone a film director. I blundered into it, after desperately trying to do every other job in theatre. I got involved in theater in university because I wrote music. So I started writing music for plays and when I finished school I found a wonderful job with one of my dearest friends, John Madden, we ran a theatre company, taking productions of Shakespeare on these six-week tours of the states. It was divine. It was the most incredible job between university and real life. I got a job as the literary manager at a wonderful small fringe theatre with original works by new writers. I always believed that directors were some kind of visionaries, that they had some God-given quality that I knew I didn’t have. They had visions, I couldn’t be a movie director any more than I could be Van Gogh or Nijinsky. I would work very closely with these writers and then hand them over to these so-called directors and watch them fuck them up. I thought well I could fuck that script up just about as well as that guy just did. That’s what started me. I wish I could say it was a burning desire to be a director, but it wasn’t. My first production was a modest success, I discovered that directing is a kind of crack addiction, the high is so intense, you’re hooked almost instantly, and however low you get thereafter you still find yourself pursuing the memory of that elusive high. My second production was a catastrophe, awful, almost had a nervous breakdown. I finally made it to the giddy heights of the Royal Shakespeare Company where I directed my first Shakespeare production withIan McKellan.

Jocelyn: Wait, if your previous productions were so-called catastrophes, how did you land into such good company?

Jon: I have the resume of an ambitious person, but the fact is I never really considered myself that ambitious. The only habit I have, and maybe my shrink can understand this a lot better than I do, is that given two choices, I have always chosen to do the thing that scared me more. So, I’ve almost consistently been the coward hanging out in the front line. When I got hired by the RSC, I guess they mistook my complete fatalistic belief that there was no way they were going to ever give me this job as a kind of cool and they offered it to me. I was an assistant director for a year and a half. The first production I directed there was “Twelfth Night” and ten days before it opened I got fired.

J: Ten days before!

Jon: Yeah, it was very common at the RSC that one of the senior directors would take over a production, but it was devastating to me. I’d always felt like I wasn’t really a director, I was just pretending to be one. I felt like a kid wearing my Dad’s jacket. I felt exposed and humiliated, swearing I’d never direct again.

J: How did you pick yourself up and move on?

Jon: I decided I’d produce in television instead. I thought any idiot can produce. And that was a sharp learning curve because I went to the head of BBC drama, said I wanted to produce and he said, all right, terrific, and what product do you have? And I thought, product??? I didn’t realize producers had to have product, I thought it was just a job you did. I found a project and got myself attached to produce it, but again something oddly intervened. I had applied to do a director’s course at the BBC. It was an eight week course for people who knew actors, knew script, knew directing, the idea was to teach them how to use cameras and bring them into the great BBC drama-making machine. I had applied for that while still at the RSC. I got a job as a story editor at the BBC, it was a comedown from being a director, but I had a quite a lot of power with no responsibility. I got to work with writers on their scripts and I got to watch first time filmmakers shooting their scripts and generally fucking them up. I almost turned down the director’s course, I had a good job as story editor, and I think my indifference got misinterpreted by the interviewer as cool and sang froid and I was offered a place in the course. It was one of the most interestingly accelerated things I’ve ever done. It was like learning how to sail on an ocean liner. It was the most quietly competitive environment I’ve ever been in, with nine other young theatre directors, even though it was quite amicable. We came out of that with a fifteen-minute multi-camera studio drama and a five minute piece of film, which we then toted around the fifth floor of the BBC, where are all the drama producers were. I was very lucky because I’d already made a lot of relationships and I got offered work right away. I very quickly acquired the habit of saying no to things, which did not always make me friends. You were expected to take everything you were offered and I wouldn’t. I discovered that unemployment is painful, but there is nothing more painful than false employment. It’s horrible to impersonate enthusiasm for the project you’re doing. I learned to be very prepared. To this day I can’t walk on to a set without knowing that I have a plan. That was very important for me. Working at the BBC you had the privilege of learning to fail in obscurity and that’s something that is denied to most kids now, starting out. It’s hard to make a film and fail in obscurity as well as television. In those days you could.

J: What happened next?

Jon: I was shown the script for “The Singing Detective.” The script was a masterpiece. More often when you get a script, you think, how can I elevate this material? It was the first time I’d ever read a script where I thought, how can I ever live up to this writing? I eventually got the job because five better-known directors turned it down. So I blundered into it. That really changed the game for me. To my enormous surprise and endless gratitude I got calls from Hollywood. This was astonishing to me because in England every laborious step I’d taken from fringe theatre to the RSC to the BBC was always met by the cheek-sucking British skeptism of “well, um, he can do this, but he can’t do that…” Whereas, Hollywood was offering me jobs as a filmmaker. That bond of gratitude has never been severed by all of its subsequent abuses and neglects.

That is when I was given “Queen of Hearts.” It arrived at just the right moment for me.

J: When you first read the script what appealed to you about the project and what state was the script in?

Jon: I immediately responded to the interface between fact and fiction, dreams and reality, and I could see the possibility of a lot of playfulness, it was something I had explored in “The Singing Detective”. I saw the chance to do that in a story about Italian immigrants, but told by a ten-year old boy. It was a beautiful mixture of fable and social naturalism. I saw parallels between the story of these Italian immigrants in London and my own Jewish upbringing and my own immigrant experience, my grandfather was from Poland and spent his life wrestling with the English language. It was very easy to take my own personal anecdotes with family and identity and I found them enormously interchangeable. Tony Grisoni, a wonderful writer, was my brother in all of this. We worked in such a loving way, he allowed me to bring an enormous amount of my own material to the movie. We made the script a lot more ambitious, the emotional reach of it widened, it moved from wild, fanciful comedy to quite dark. We expanded the visual range of it. The opening should be utterly operatic because you want to imagine it the way a child imagines it. I had a huge fight with the financiers because they want wanted to shoot the opening sequence in a studio and I had to persuade them that this little movie needed to be given a special kind of treatment. In that sense I was very ambitious. That was how the project began for me.

J: It’s operatic not only in the way that you shot it, but just in the time it takes to unfold because it rocks the viewer off their balance. I was sitting there saying, “Wait, what’s going on?”

Jon: Yeah, I love it when movies pull the rug out from under you. The first ten minutes of this movie are a glorious misdirect, which I find irresistible; they seduce you and take you into a world where you accept that the rules are going to be different. If you get it right, the audience will say okay, take me, I’m in for the ride. If you can do that in the first ten minutes of your film, you’ve done a vast amount. Give an audience a good first ten minutes and a cracking last five minutes and it’s amazing what you can get away with the other hour and thirty!

I don’t want this film to be lit, I want it to be illuminated.

J: Can you talk about finding your cinematographer and the prep you did together.

Jon: I knew I wanted this lush vivid look and I turned to someone I had worked with before, Mike Southon. I said to him, “I don’t want this film to be lit, I want it to be illuminated.” I want a feeling that these characters faces are glowing as though there’s some inner light to them. So with Mike and my beautiful production designer, Jim Clay, that I’d done “The Singing Detective” with, we set about creating this luminous feeling to the world, a world that was both tangible and real, but also that wasn’t quite of now. It was a remembered world and something that you discover at the very end of the film with the voiceover from the adult boy, that the whole story is circumscribed by memory so belongs in a world that may or may not have been entirely real because it’s passed through the prism of memory. So we set about creating this heightened magical world that was both contemporary but also period. It was a lovely line to walk in terms of both design and lighting. I tend very much to favor dark backgrounds because what I find with them is that the faces of the actors seem to float and be luminous, you get tremendous separation between the face in the foreground and the background falls away. The face has this wonderful Rembrandt-ish quality to it. Something I took even further in “Sommersby”.

J: Did you have a shot list?

Jon: I believe that any young director, who walks on the set with a shot list for scenes that essentially involve two people in a room, should themselves be shot.

J: Because?

Jon: You know shot lists essentially exist to make producers and first a.d.’s happy, but what they do is cripple the creativity of all the other people you have around you when they use them the wrong way. I think I should backtrack a little bit and talk about casting and rehearsal because those two things are crucial and more often than not, I find that first time directors have no idea how to bring that world to life with actors. That tends to be the biggest problem that first time directors have to deal with. Their tendency is to over prepare and in so doing squish the life out of their actors. I would love to talk about the auditioning process and then about rehearsal process.

J: Let’s do it!

Jon: I have, I admit, an extremely eccentric auditioning process. I have come to believe that asking an actor to read was no way to find out if they could act. You find out whether an actor can read well or not. More often than not, great actors are horrible readers. And great readers are frequently not great actors. They’re good performers, but you know reading in an audition is performing, it’s not acting. So frequently I discovered that this actor that was giving you this great reading was giving you everything they had, there was no journey, there was no discovery. I decided I would not attempt to find out whether an actor could act in my auditions. I would attempt to find out who I was talking to and whether or not the prospect of working with that actor on that role interested me. It needs to feel like it’s going to be fun and exciting. I would trust that feeling. You have 15-20 minutes to get to know a person in the audition room and how do you do that when each person walks in armored? They’re armored because they’re afraid, because they’re angry, they’re angry because they’ve spent the last three days agonizing about what they’re going to wear, how should they prep, and they’re going to walk into a room where yet another asshole is going to say to them, “Tell me what you’ve been doing lately,” when they should have read your fucking resume. Of course they’re armored. They’re armored because they’re going to be humiliated and rejected and how do you protect yourself against that? So I accept that I’ve got the first five minutes to reassure the actor that I’m not that kind of asshole. I’m very careful about how I set up an audition room. I make sure that seating is non-hierarchical, there’s no director’s chair, there’s no casting couch, there’s no desk, there’s just a group of chairs in the round. I try not to have a camera on a tripod because immediately the actor goes, “Oh, where do I sit?” I have the casting director hand hold a camera and move around. It makes for very shaky things and producers always bitch and moan about it, but I don’t care. I put out snacks, it’s all about subverting expectation and catching people unawares in a benign way because that’s essentially what I’m trying to do. I’m really not interested in the person they’ve chosen to come and present to me, they may have got that completely wrong and I don’t want to judge them on the basis of the person they thought I wanted. So I spend the first five minutes letting them know that this will be different, I’m not that kind of asshole. I’ll then see whether they’re willing to come and play with me. Shakespeare called us players and I think that’s our job, to play. I’ll do almost anything to get through an actor’s defenses to get to something that is real and pertinent about them. I’ll talk to them about their childhoods, their parents, their families, their relationships. And somehow, actors know instinctively why and they’re willing to go there because they understand that they’re being asked to engage emotionally. I’ve had people sobbing and saying, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, I haven’t even told my therapist this shit.” And it’s okay because I asked and I’m listening. Sometimes I’ll talk a lot because I want to see how an actor listens. Listening is one of the most difficult parts of acting. I’ll sometimes ask an actor whether they want to read or improvise. If they say read, I’ll very often go, “Okay, let’s read, here’s a newspaper. Read it to me. Now read it to me as though you were a doctor telling me I have two months to live. Now read it to me like you’re my best friend and we’ve had two cosmos in a bar and you’re telling me about this guy that hit on you last night.” I don’t want to have actors come in and read the roles they’re coming in for. It’s so boring, by the time I’ve heard twenty actors reading the same scene, I want to scream, I never want to direct that scene ever again. Or I’ll improv. And if I’m asking an actor to make an ass of themselves I think it’s only fair that I do too. That’s fair.

J: Let’s talk about your rehearsal process.

Jon: In “Queen of Hearts” I very quickly found that there were very few Italian British immigrant actors who were right for these roles. I found a wildly disparate bunch of actors that I had to cast to make up this family. Finding the kid was the hardest part. They are the best technical actors you will ever work with and I use that advisedly. They can do the most complex things over and over again for you as long as you know what are the right things to dial in with them. The kid who played Eddie, the little boy, had never acted before. He was so overwhelmingly shy, I thought he couldn’t survive the rough and tumble. But with kids I’m a great believer that you have to do callbacks. Bringing them back gives them a kind of confidence. The second time he walked into the room and said, “Hello, Jon!” I thought, hey, there’s something. There was already a little cockiness that he’d been chosen to come back. I brought him back a third time because I wasn’t sure if he could handle the complex, emotional stuff. I gave him an improv. I said, I want you to imagine that your mom’s been very sick and she’s been taken to the hospital. You go to see her and the moment you do, you know she’s going to die. And you feel sick, and you feel like screaming. And she says, “Please tell you sister that I’m sorry, but I’m just too tired.” So you go out and see your little sister and she looks so little and so scared that you know you’ve got to lie. You have to tell her that mom can’t see her right now, but everything’s going to be fine. And I was going to play his little sister. The first time he did it, I said, I know you’re lying, you’re playing the lie, I need you to be better at lying, but at the same time I really want to know that you feel like your heart’s just going to explode. The next time he did it, he had me and the casting director crying, he was lying so bravely to his little sister and at the same time his eyes were so full of pain. He was wonderful.

The rehearsal room was really where I brought the family together. I went to Italy to cast three roles. The task was to create a world. I hate movies where it’s really obvious from the moment that you starting watching that these actors just met each other on the set. Intimacy is not about what’s said, it’s about what’s unsaid. I love watching movies sets, when you’re all on location and sooner or later somebody starts fucking somebody else and they’re both desperately trying to keep it a secret. You look for these little signs, like, he reaches across her, takes one of her cigarettes, takes her lighter, lights it- they’re fucking. He doesn’t ask for anything, he just takes it, doesn’t say thanks, it’s like that, they’re fucking. You know a dinner table when a family’s eating, it’s not like anyone says, “Oh, sorry, could you pass me the salt, please?” It’s all of that stuff. We rehearsed for two weeks. All of the guys, when they weren’t rehearsing, were playing cards together in character. I never rehearsed the dinner scene that we shot, but I rehearsed a dozen different dinner scenes.

I’m a great believer in rehearsal, a lot of actors working in film are terrified of it, they feel you’re going to steal their magic, their spontaneity is going to be lost. I’m at pains to reassure actors that rehearsal is not about achieving the scene or the moment, it’s about achieving consensus on what we want to achieve in the scene.

J: And back to what you were saying about shot lists…

Jon: I’ve seen directors walk into rehearsal rooms with story boards and I really do want to slap them because I see the moment the actor spots the story boards, their heart sinks. I’ve done it, I used to do it and it’s just a horrendous mistake. You have to shoot certain scenes with story boards, visual effects, stunt scenes etc. But 90% of all film is people talking to each other in rooms. Somehow it’s still the most difficult scene to shoot: two people talking in a room. How do you avoid it without doing the boring television coverage, you know wide-shot master, over shoulder, over shoulder, close-up, close-up? I used to make the mistake of over-preparing. I’ve learned to relinquish control.  I’m a great believer in rehearsal, a lot of actors working in film are terrified of it, they feel you’re going to steal their magic, their spontaneity is going to be lost. I’m at pains to reassure actors that rehearsal is not about achieving the scene or the moment, it’s about achieving consensus on what we want to achieve in the scene. If we can walk on to the set with that we’re good. What I learned to do was—I never sit down during rehearsal, I’m always standing, I’m always on the move and sometimes I’m right up close to the actor and I’m just standing there right in their faces and should they feel intruded on, yes, they should, but they don’t because they feel instinctively that they’re in close-up. By moving around, as we go through the scene, we’re finding a rhythm, a movement, that’s truthful and honest for them, I’m actually discovering what my shots are going to be. By the time a scene has come true for the actors, I know what my shots are because I’ve been walking them. And I’ll ask them if they feel like we’ve got it and they’ll say, yeah, and then I’ll ask them to just walk through and mark it for me so I can figure out my shots. I’ll jot things down in my script, I often have a little floor plan of the set and I’ll mark where they stood and where I thought the cameras were going to be. Now when I walk on to a set, will I flash that to everybody? Absolutely not. Again shot lists- sure if you’ve got 300 extras etc. I tend to get on the set with the actors, everybody out except for an a.d., script supervisor, d.p. and let them find their space on the set. While they’re rehearsing the scene, I’m walking around as I usually do and the d.p. is watching me, so by the time we bring everybody in and show them, the d.p. knows what the shots are. I’ll ask if anybody’s got any good ideas. I always walk in with a plan, if I didn’t I’d feel like I was drowning and suffocating at the same time, I’d feel so scared, but I also secretly believe that my plan must be mediocre and there must be a better one and I always solicit the better idea from anybody who wants to offer one.

J: What’s the best advice you ever got from a mentor?

Jon: You know, I wish I’d had mentors, I spent a lot of time mentoring people, trying to de-mystify what exactly directors do and start to give possible frameworks in the eternally shifting business of making a movie. Nobody ever told me that stuff. The course at BBC was just technical. I learned a great deal from two directors, Mike Leigh and Les Blair, about using improv and how to create it and set it up. I don’t use improv to make my films, but I use it as a tool to unlock scenes, it’s priceless.

Directing is not for the faint of heart. It’s definitely not what you want to do if you want any sense of security. And as much as it seems like it’s the most powerful job in the business, it’s not. It’s essentially like you’re the dictator of some small Caribbean island. You are an absolute monarch of your little domain of 300 subjects, but if America decides it wants you out, then you’re gone!

The ability to lie with the camera while you’re actually illuminating a truth, endlessly fascinates me. And the way life shapes film, but films shapes life, that incredible symbiotic interchange that happens, interests me.

J: Do you feel there are themes that are a through-line in your films?

Jon: I’ve spent a career trying to elude categorization in terms of movies I’ve made the styles, and the content. You know, I’ve made a wildly divergent bunch of films. At the time I thought was doing a smart thing to elude categorization, but what I didn’t realize is that we’ve moved more and more into the age of specialization and these days that’s what it’s all about. I never wanted to repeat myself and always wanted to challenge myself. That choice slightly backfired. I love keeping myself scared, it keeps me honest. I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which art and fiction and dream interface with life and fact and reality. Film seems uniquely equipped to deal with that. The ability to lie with the camera while you’re actually illuminating a truth, endlessly fascinates me. And the way life shapes film, but films shapes life, that incredible symbiotic interchange that happens, interests me. All of my films are extremely humanist, even my serial killers and villains are real people with whom I can personally connect. Every movie I make I think of as time spent in a locked room with a very small group of people and those people are the characters in the film as well as the actors. And I insist that I know those people and care about them. I think a kind of affection for people and ultimately a kind of optimism about human beings characterizes the films I make. I’m a great believer in what love moving through pain towards understanding can achieve. I’m fascinated by the stories about bad people, who are somehow inadvertently suckered into doing good things and in the process discover worth in themselves. Sommersby is very much that story. That thematically, interests me, a film like “Salvador,” Oliver Stone’s film. Stories like that haunt me because they are ultimately redemptive.

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