Vicky Jewson is set to return to the director's chair at the beginning of May with her second feature film Born of War. Jewson make her directorial debut with Lady Godiva back in 2008, and now she is back at the helm of her first action film.
As well as being in the director's chair, Jewson has also penned the screenplay as she turns her hand to a genre that she has loved since she was a child. We caught up with the director to chat about the film, bring a female action protagonist to the big screen, and what lies ahead.
- Born of War is set to hit the big screen at the beginning of May, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Born of War is an action thriller. It is a girl with a gun movie because I have always wanted to see action films with a female protagonist who are realistic and the girl next door - not like a superhero in full on PVC leather. I wanted to see what would happen if you took a normal girl and put her in extraordinary circumstances and see if the fight or flight instinct would kick in.
The movie follows a young girl whose parents are murdered, but learns that they were not her real parents and her father is in fact a warlord and wants her back. She goes on a quest to find him and to learn about herself and who she really is. It asks that question about whether or not we all have an inherent violent streak n us genetically if we have a relation who has been in that environment.
- You have slightly touched on my next question. So often, these action war movies do not boast a female protagonist and yet Born of War is seen completely through the eyes of Mina. How early did you settle on a female central character? And how important was that when you were penning the script?
I settled on it right from the very beginning and it was something that was very crucial to me. Being a woman myself, it is easier to imagine the story coming out from your own perspective and to imagine myself going through the various parts of the story that she goes through. A lot of it is because I feel that female protagonists are really interesting and there are just not enough of them. They are definitely becoming more popular now with The Hunger Games and the Divergent series but, in terms of grounding them in real life, it is still quite a rarity and I am very passionate about that as a topic.
- You are in the director's chair as well as having penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you and what inspired the story?
I think the initial idea harks back to my younger days - I was a real tomboy when I was a kid and use to embarrass my family by renaming myself William - and I always loved action film and the James Bond movies; I would make James Bond movies with my dad's video camera. I was in a flight to Scotland, I was in really bad turbulence, and the only way that I could get through it was to imagine that I was going into mission on a government quest.
I just pretended that I was on this mission and it got me thinking about spies and that sort of story thread. Action films and stories of that genre really are my passion, so that is how it started. We travelled quite a lot to the Middle East for various different film projects and it is such an interesting culture and vibrant place that it gave me the backdrop for the rest of the story.
- Can you talk a little bit about your writing style - do you start with the story first? Or do you develop the characters first and then build the story around them?
It is definitely about characters. Making genre movies is about focusing on character and let them lead the story so they are not just big set pieces with no soul and that is something that is very important to me. It is very important that the characters drive the action and so I tend to start on the characters and work out who they are, what their history is, why they are in this particular situation and then I go from there. To be honest, the most effective tool I find is to sum up the story in two sentences and then to stick that one top of every page and make what you are writing is pertaining to that. We then post-it-note the whole film out on the wall and then start writing.
That is something that I have learnt over the years and I use to just plough right in with the writing. It took a lot longer because you would get half way through, get stuck, and then have to back and unpick everything. Having met with and spoke to a number of screenwriters - some of whom have won Oscars - and listened to their methods, I guess I have learnt the most useful methods for writing as I have gone along. The post-it planning session make the process of writing the screenplay so much easier. Also, because I edited Born of War, actually seeing a story through from start to finish, makes you understand what is so important when you are sat there watching the end product.
- Can you talk a bit about the character of Mina and how we are going to see her develop throughout the film?
Mina is a normal girl who comes from quite a hard up background - her parents run a farm and she always has to help out. Her dream is to go to Oxford University because she is quite bright. She knows that her dad is not her real dad, but she knows nothing about how her mum and her dad got together; she just knows that had mum had a mad hippie phase back in the seventies.
She has a normal, everyday teenage existence until her life is turned upside down, and she has to rely on her own inner determination and grit. It is really her passion for her family and keeping her sister alive - as she loses her parents - that motivates her to get through these difficult circumstances. Born of War is about family and about finding out who you are and that is what her character is motivated by.
- Sofia Black-D'Elia has slowly been making a name for herself in TV and film recently. How did you get her on board? And what did you see in her that you thought was perfect for Mina?
We did a lot of research on who would be the perfect person, as we needed someone who had that vulnerability but still have that edge where you believe that they could be a bit kick ass. We were researching our audience demographic - which is my demographic as well - and we found that they were watching Skins and Gossip Girl and I saw her trailer on YouTube for MTV Skins and it was so edgy and she was so dynamic that I knew she as the girl I wanted.
We went right for her. However, we did have to audition other people because we couldn't let her agent she was the only one I wanted as you lose the negotiating power. I just knew from this tiny clip that she would be great. She then sent in a reading and she just had it, I just knew it and it was a hair on the back of your neck moment.
- Can you talk a bit about the casting process as you have James Frain, Lydia Leonard, and Philip Arditti involved as well?
They are very prestigious actors. James Frain in particular is a very successful Hollywood based actor and it was fantastic to work with him because he can bring so much to the character. The casting process itself is a combination of going to London and actually auditioning people and then, obviously with someone like James, you don't audition you just meet.
We had a coffee at Soho House, it was more about him liking us than us liking him, and you have to put on a bit of charm and hope that you will connect. My one concern with him was that he was too good looking and I wanted the mercenary to be a little bit rough around the edges and not your usual action hero. I only told him that recently and he was like 'you have never told me that before, I wish I had known.' (laughs).
- How did you find working with them? And how collaborative a process was it between yourself and the actors?
The actors are very important to me and so I like to collaborate with them. We didn't have much rehearsal time because it was such a low budget film, but we would work on the readings together and I was very open to their suggestions. I always try to make time for them in amongst the action because when you are shooting action it can become very much about the technical process of making sure you are getting the shot.
Philip Arditti said a nice thing to me at a screening recently… we had this clapped out 1970s Mercedes we bought in Jordan because we had to blow it up, it wouldn't really start and so we had to push start this car from him to do this scene - it was chaos. I was sat in the back seat with the camera and we were trying to get the shot of Mina shooting an AK47 out of the roof. He said he has worked on chaotic sets before but he said I was one of the only directors who had given him character notes in the moment, rather than just being waylaid by everything else that was going on. To me, they are central because the actors are the one who carry your story and bring it to the big screen.
- Born of War is only your second feature film in the director's chair. What did you take or learn from your debut Lady Godiva that you were able to implement this time around?
The biggest thing that I learnt was not to compromise on set. My stuntman had a great saying which was 'a moment on set and a life' and when you are making an independent film, on a tiny budget, and everything is going wrong on the day, it is very tempting to start shooting so that you are filming and getting stuff in the can. Every day costs money and you have huge pressure on you as a director to be making those decisions and to keep the movie moving. I learnt not to start rolling until it was right. That's not to say we didn't quickly - we shot about seven minutes a day - we I just made sure that the details were there and there was nothing that I would look back on and regret really.
- How do you feel that you have developed as a filmmaker between Lady Godiva and Born of War?
Massively (laughs). It has been a trial by fire I would say. I was eighteen when I made my first film and it really was a dream come true and I really was learning on the job. With Born of War, I have had a lot more time to develop as a director, research my materials, find my influences, and really be able to plan my vision, which I didn't necessarily have on my first film.
This time around, I also had another writer working with me and so I was able to get someone who had that professionalism and could make sure the story was really tight at the beginning. I have learnt so much and I can see it between the two films. I can't wait to go again because I have learnt even more and can now make an even better film. The joy of it is you are always improving and honing your craft.
- We are hearing about how there are few chances for female directors and fewer great roles for actresses - is this something that you are finding as you are kicking off your career?
I think I have been lucky because I have worked in the independent film sector and have created all of my own projects. If I want to do something, I get to do it because I go out and make it happen. We have just started going out to Hollywood and have signed with an agency out there for my next project. And while that is really exciting, you do start to see in the bigger institutions… I don't know if the chances are different and perhaps being a woman doing action does give me a USP, but I would say that the approach by the studio type people is slightly sexist.
I said that my ultimate ambition would be to direct a Bond movie and be the first woman to do that, and the answer was 'I suppose you could do that because the Bond character is not a proper male formed character and is more of cartoon so you could understand him.' That was quite shocking as women can tell men's stories. A woman can tell an action story from a male and female perspective - you only have to look at Kathryn Bigelow to see that it can work.
It is just about changing that perception. It should probably be that the female leads sell movies as well as the male leads, but the list is definitely shorter when you sit down with a sales agent and discuss who is selling movies at the moment - the names are normally men. I am that will keep changing but I am defiantly going to be challenging it and pushing it to change.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the rest of 2015? The move to America sound exciting.
We are going out there regularly. I am working on my next project… my husband Rupert doesn't get much credit for all that goes on - he co-writes everything with me and helps plan the out the film. Talking about being sexist, he sits in the background while I take all of the glory (laughs). We have signed with the Gotham Group and we are working on our next screenplay with them and regularly going out to Hollywood to try to get it made in a big way - possibly with a studio or with some A-list talent. The movie is going to be another action project with a female protagonist.