Ben Hopkins returns to the director's chair this week with his latest film Lost in Karastan, which is the first live-action feature since The Market: A Tale of Trade back in 2008.
Hopkins has teamed up with fellow filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski to pen the screenplay, while Matthew Macfadyen, MyAnna Buring and Noah Taylor make up a great cast list.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the new film, his collaboration Pawlikowski and bringing together a talented group of actors.
- Lost in Karastan is set to hit the big screen this week so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Lost in Karastan is the story of a director down on his luck, as so often happens in our line of work. He is someone who had a good start as a good director but has lost his way after a number of successful films. He is trying to motivate himself to write a new project or to have inspiration.
As sometimes happens, he gets an invitation to an obscure film festival and he is unemployed enough to want to go to see what this strange festival in the Republic of Karastan will be like. He goes to this festival; which turns out to be a disaster organisation wise. However, while at the festival, he does get an offer of work that changes his life.
- The movie sees you back in the director's chair and you have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? And what inspired the idea for the story?
I co-wrote the screenplay with Pawel Pawlikowski and it was his initial idea and story. He asked me to write it with him because... there are a lot of good British writers and filmmakers who mainly stay within the borders of the UK and work in the British film industry of television industry. Pawel and I are both a bit more adventurous or outward looking than that and we have both made films in countries like Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan and we have travelled to many festivals like the one in the film; which are in extraordinary obscure countries or cities, are incredibly poorly organised, and strangely pointless.
At these festivals, you often wonder what they are for as there are hardly any audiences or the audiences that are there have been paid to go or forced to go there. We collected all of our experiences from both making films in foreign countries and visiting film festivals in foreign countries and compiled them all together. The big joke about the film is that almost everything that happens in it is real and has happened to me, Pawel, or to someone that we know (laughs).
- I was going to ask you about Pawel Pawlikowski. How did you find that collaboration?
It was very good. He is a very demanding person to work with but he is very clear in his mind about what works and what doesn't. I suppose, I am similar. It was challenging and it was a long process to work out what the material should be. It was a rewarding one. We then wrote another script together; so we enjoyed the process enough to want to repeat it.
- Can you talk a little bit about your writing process; do you start with character first then build the story? Or do you start with the story and develop the character afterwards?
I suppose, you start with the main characters. Only by clearly knowing who they are, a story emerges from knowing what these characters would do and how they would react to each other. I think that you start with the characters really. The main character of Emil was easy for us because it was a version of ourselves. Chulpan, this mysterious film festival organiser who turns out to be more than that, is an amalgamation of different kinds of people that we have met.
You are often met at the airport by an attractive woman who gives you information packs about the festival and so on and tells you wonderful everything is going to be; that is the first moment that it is not going to be very wonderful and the whole thing is going to be a disaster (laughs). Some of these festivals have this terrible organisation and they give it over to a recent university graduate to pretend that everything is perfect and that is the kind of personal that she is initially in the film. However, she turns out to be more interesting than that.
- How much did the story change from the initial idea that you had to the film that we see on screen?
It didn't change that much. What kept on changing and what we could never quite settle on is the ending. The ending was the only thing that substantially changed as we kept on trying to find different ways on ending the film.
- The movie sees Matthew Macfadyen take on the central role of Emil Forester, so what were you looking for when you were casting this role? What did you see in Matthew that you thought would be perfect?
There are many films about artists, directors, poets, and writers and they tend to be quite tortured, twisted people who are self-obsessed, drink a lot, and have screaming fits. Normally, those people are annoying to watch and would be annoying in real life (laughs). We didn't want to focus on that kind of artist, we wanted to do someone who is a bit more down to earth, likeable, and slightly lost. Again, in the cinema, artists tend to have an incredible sense of purpose in knowing what they are doing but most of us are more human, lost, and are not quite sure what we are doing.
Matthew has an incredibly charming quality and he is as charismatic a person in real life as he is on screen. There is something instantly likeable about him, even when he is looking depressed; you just want to give him a cuddle when he looks sad (laughs). He is a very good comedian and he is trying to do more comedy in his career and a bit less serious costume drama. He immediately wanted to do it, which was great. It was just perfect for me.
- As well as Matthew Macfadyen, the film also stars MyAnna Buring, Noah Taylor, and Richard van Weyden - can you talk about bringing them on board?
I am very pleased with the cast. Casting is the most important thing that we do; the script has to be good but the cast is what makes or breaks a film I think. With Matthew, we had the perfect lead role. I saw MyAnna in a very different film called Kill List by Ben Wheatley, which was a horror film. It is rare in horror films to see a very complex human being - it is normally about action, histrionics, and high drama - but, in Kill List, MyAnna was a very believable and normal person with feelings.
I was very impressed by that and I noted her name as someone that I would like to work with. She is British, she is half Swedish, she grew up in Oman and is not your typical British drama school actress. She has the high cheekbones and interesting eyes that make it believable that she could come from somewhere like the Caucasus or far south-east Europe. Both physically and temperamentally, she seemed perfect to me for the part.
- How have you found working with such a talented bunch of actors? How collaborative a filmmaking process was it between you and them? Was there much improvisation?
It is always collaborative. I can't tell actors how to act, all you can do as a director is make sure that they understand the script in the same way that you do so that you are reading from the same hymn sheet. You need to make them feel confident and comfortable that they are going in the right direction.
Your main job as a director is to help explain the tone of the piece and what the characters are thinking and feeling in each scene; which you do by discussing that with them. You then just let them go and they do their wonderful work as actors. Together, it is about creating a world that you equally understand, that you look at in the same way so that everyone feels confident and knows what they are doing.
There wasn't too much improvisation. I ran rehearsals before shooting and in those rehearsals we tried out different versions of scenes; if what came out was better than what we had on the page, we changed it.
- During you career, we have seen you work in documentary film as well as live action. How does documentary work help your live action projects and vice versa?
I don't know really. They are both different processes. I think documentary is like a kind of holiday (laughs) because, instead of a crew of fifty people and thirty actors that you have to take care of and are responsible as the director, you only have a crew of five and no actors. It's more of a relaxed, open, and improvisational process and is like playing in a small jazz band after conducting a symphony orchestra. It feels like a way of letting off steam and being a bit more free.
Doing a feature film with a lot of actors and, in the case of this film, with explosions and horses, it is a bit like organising a military campaign or a huge public event. It is very draining and tiring and everything has to be organised very carefully. For money reasons, you have to shoot certain things on certain days and there is very little in terms of freedom. Yeah, feature film is like directing a symphony orchestra while making a documentary is more like a free form of jazz, where you can have a cocktail and play your clarinet (laughs).
- Finally, what's next for you as 2016 gets underway?
I am just coming towards the end of finishing my second novel, which has taken about five or six years now. I am looking to make a new film - not this year as I won't have time to do it this year. I have a horror film that I am trying to cast and finance this year.
Lost in Karastan is released 22nd January.