The Comedian is on of the British movies not to miss this summer Tom Shkolnik makes his feature film directorial debut. Ed Hogg, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Elisa Lasowski take on the three central roles in the movie that was completely improvised.
We caught up with Tom, Ed, Nathan and Elisa to chat about the film, the improvised nature of the project and what lies ahead.
- The Comedian is hitting the big screen this week so what can we expect from the movie?
Tom Shkolnik: The Comedian is hopefully a truthful portrait of London in a certain moment in it’s history.
This is a story about a group of people who are trying to find their way through in life in that moment; hopefully with a level of empathy and passion to it.
- Tom you are in the director’s chair as well as penning the screenplay so where did this project start for you? And what inspired the story?
Penned is a big word as I very rarely use a pen. The story started when I was finishing a short film a few years back and I was going though a particular moment in my life; I was quite down at the time.
I would meet a very very good friend of mine for lunch everyday in Soho Square and talk about experiences that we had had living in London. We would make each other laugh, we would moan and we would drink coffee.
A few months later I just started thinking that that would be a good world for a film because it was something that was very real to me, my friends and people that I knew. Yet I had never seen a film about it; certainly not in a London context - perhaps we had seen it played out in New York.
I just thought it would be interesting to observe the world that was truly around me rather than trying to mould my film to an acceptable form that I was seeing a lot in the cinema.
- My next question is to the actors as I was wondering what it was about the script and the idea of the film that drew you to the project?
Tom Shkolnik: There was no script for the actors as I wanted to improvise the whole thing. There were elements in place but there was no actual script.
Ed Hogg: I think that that is what drew me to the project actually. It was the fact that it was going to be character based and you were going to build a character emotionally.
I also liked the freedom as we weren’t going to have to play within the constraints of words that are written down on a page and we could go in any direction. I think that is what was exciting as I don’t think any of us had worked that way before.
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett: The process for me was definitely an exciting point. I just felt that I might never have the opportunity to do this again and yet I was scared and excited by that. I just thought that it was going to be a wonderful experience as well as a great challenge.
Elisa Lasowski: For me, much like the others have said, it just seemed like a very exciting way of working. It just felt like there was something new in what Tom was doing in British film - I am not British but I have trained here and worked here for six or seven years.
I felt that he was doing a scene that broke categorisation - that is something that you don’t often see in British film or TV - and it felt like it resonated in something real in my life or the experiences that I have had in London.
It was quite refreshing for a filmmaker to come and say ‘let’s portray a slice of life and real people and yet it is not about putting them in a box’. That was something that I found very exciting and I felt that right away when I met Tom and talked for a couple of hours about the film.
Even with the creative stuff that we do in the film there is comedy and music and art but that is not what the movie is about either; it just so happens to be part of their lives. I found that really attractive.
Ed: We got to the point where we approached the character and the story without judgement and so it wasn’t glossy and it wasn’t about showing off London and how British we are.
All these people that we see every single day we wanted to portray then on screen with a sense of truth and yet without judgement. I think that that was a very important part of the piece.
- How familiar were you with improvisation, had you done much in the past? And how did you find that way of acting?
Ed: I found it really liberating. As an actor you often have a script and you try to stick to that and not move too far away from it as you want to respect the writing and the piece as a whole.
Not that I disrespected this at all but I just felt that I could bring so much more of myself and my instincts towards the character and towards the piece because I was improvising.
- I was reading that there was a large amount of rehearsal time - which is quite unusual for a feature film - so did you find that period? And how important was that period as you were developing characters and relationships?
Ed: It was essential on this project because we didn’t have any written dialogue and so the creation of the characters was everything. So to have all of that time - even just basic things like feeling comfortable with each other and interacting with each other was key.
Some of the scenes that we shot in the film are very intimate and without those ten weeks of rehearsal there is not way they would have worked out the way that they have done.
Nathan: It was just such a luxury. Because we did do all of that rehearsal nothing felt forced - sometimes when you are working you are thinking about the end point and that you have to tick all of these boxes to get there and it can feel forced because of it.
If Tom ever felt that were forced or they were being a little bit pushed he would always bring us back to a point of truth and honesty. I think that luxury of rehearsal time was a necessity for this type of film.
Elisa: It is unusual to have this amount of rehearsal on a film. At the same time this is part of how Tom works and so I don’t see who we could have created that intimacy and that seamless acting - almost like documentary feel - if we hadn’t had the time to get to know each other and create some bonds.
- Because there wasn’t a script structure in place how much of the character is a version of yourself? And comfortable were you with that as there is a very raw and real feel to these three central characters?
Tom: I am not sure that that was an important factor for me because I think every performance that an actor gives that is truthful and meaningful comes from something that is deep inside of them.
Usually you just work the other way around; so someone writes words on a paper and one is asked to play that role and you have to find those places within you. With this we just turned the process on its head as we found certain elements in each other until the words came about from that. But it is really no different to any other performance it is just in reverse.
Sorry to disagree with everyone else but I don’t find ten weeks of rehearsal luxurious. The reality of filming is often so brutal I actually think there is something inhumane about this thing where someone is expected, at ten o’clock in the morning, to go somewhere they might need to encounter death or be intimate with someone.
There are a whole bunch of strangers, you are a stranger to them and there is a machine starring at you - to me that seems inhumane and a bit weird. I actually think taking the time to get to know each other - and there are ways of doing that - is important.
Maybe what we did on this isn’t that weird it is just a different way of doing something. But when you look at the standard way of doing things and really unpick it that can be pretty weird in itself and pretty unpleasant.
- Ed there is some stand-up comedy in this movie from you so what sort of preparation did you do in the lead up to this role? Did you do some gigs?
Ed: Yeah I did a few gigs. Tom and I went on a four weekend comedy course in London, which was great and we had a really good time.
There was a group of about twenty of us and basically the four weeks culminates in a gig where everyone has to produce five minutes of their own material and perform it to the rest of the group.
So by the end of those four weekends I was able to do to five minutes of stand up - it didn’t matter how good or how bad it was - I was able to stand up in front of people and deliver five minutes of my own material.
From there the production company very kindly booked me some gigs around London - I found my own gigs as well - and some of the gigs went well while others went not so well.
You learn very quickly how hard it is as it is a game of experience and if you don’t have that experience when you go onto the bigger gigs then you flounder. It was very frightening, wonderful at times, but most frightening.
- Tom I was reading that you had a set of rules on this film such as only shoot one take per scene with a maximum of two cameras and the live performances were to an audience that were not involved in the movie so why did you decide to film like this? And what benefits did that bring?
I decided to film like that because when the process is so loose you do need something to guide you through; you do have to have some rules.
Because we were trying to achieve something that was very spontaneous and exposed the rules were about keeping us on it so we would be forced to reduce and reduce all of the different elements of the filmmaking process; so the actors had to reduce their performances, the story had to be reduced to the bare essentials, the camera crew had to be reduced etc.
It was almost like standing naked in front of the city, this feeling that you are utterly exposed in the face of this enormous metropolis; that is what I wanted the film to feel like. The rules were about being able to reach that place.
- The Comedian marks your feature film debut so how have you found the whole experience?
Tom: It was an interesting experience. The difference between making shorts and making a feature is the different between sprinting and running a marathon; you are using your legs in both instances and you are moving faster than walking but is nothing like the same thing.
In a short you have a burst of energy and you need to capture something and you go all out 120% all of the time. When you make a feature film you have to pace yourself and you have to think about a strategy; you need to think about when you need to run forward and when it is you need to slow down.
When you are a filmmaker you also have to be in touch with other people’s rhythms. It was a very interesting learning curve because at the beginning of the film I just wanted to go all out and after about four days I felt as if I was going to have a heart attack. I thought that it might not go so well if I died while we were filming.
- The movie has been playing on the festival circuit so how have you all personally found the response to the film so far?
Ed: It has been really positive. It would be very rude if someone really really hated it and walked up to you after seeing it and said ‘I didn’t like it’. My experience has been incredibly positive.
I just feel that people haven’t seen anything like this before and that really is what is being relayed. People haven’t seen us do that sort of work before and they are interested n how we got to that end point.
So yeah it was really good. Someone actually came up to me and said that it would be the best work that I would ever do and while that is really nice I am also quite young (laughs).
Elisa: We have had some great responses. Ed, Tom and I went to a festival in the mountains in France just before Christmas and we had amazing responses there.
So it was nice to have audiences outside of the UK responding to it as well. London Film Festival was good and Tom was nominated for a couple of things.
Tom: I didn’t win either of them though.
Elisa: But you were still nominated, come on. We have taken this movie to lots of places and it has been great.
- Finally what is next for all of you?
Ed: I am filming with Andy and Lana Wachowski on Jupiter Ascending at the moment and that finishes in a couple of weeks. Then I am unemployed again and looking for my next project. I am auditioning around at the moment and seeing what is happening.
Nathan: I am about to do a second series of the Channel 4 series Utopia, I will be starting that in a couple of months.
Elisa: I have a couple of things coming up and I have just shot the last series of Skins. I am auditioning as well at the moment and seeing what is going to come up.
Tom: I don’t have any plans at the moment so I don’t know what I am doing. A friend of mine joked last week that I had actually become the character in the film.
People always think that the film is autobiographical and it is not in the slightest but I have actually started living my life according to the character (laughs). Watch out for me sitting in a cab somewhere talking to a cab driver about my life (laughs).
The Comedian is released 31st May.