Jamie Adams has returned to the director's chair this weekend with his new film Black Mountain Poets. This is the third feature film of his career and comes after the success of Benny & Jolene and A Wonderful Christmas Time.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the new movie, working with Alice Lowe, Dolly Wells, and Tom Cullen and what lies ahead.
- You are about to return to the director's chair with Black Mountain Poets, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Black Mountain Poets follows sisters Claire and Lisa, who are at a point in their lives where they have been stealing JCBs for a while and carrying on the family business; their father, who is now deceased and has been for a while, that is what he used to do. They are getting a bit complacent and when we stumble across their story, it is as they have been found out and caught for the first time. They make an escape and they don't really know where they are going.
These sisters are slightly neurotic, are not really sure how to deal with the common sense aspect of life and have convinced themselves that the police are going to be chasing them and they are being hunted. They just keep going until they run out of petrol and they find themselves in the Black Mountains of Wales, where they pretend to be internationally renowned poets the Wilding Sisters at a poetry retreat. During this weekend, they are able to... by pretending to be these sisters, they are actually able to become more themselves, be more their own person and discover what that actually means to both of them.
They think it means to become more individual and to be less in each other's pockets, but they discover that it is not about that and they are close for a reason. It is about knowing that they are individuals and they just need to deal with the passing of their father a bit more and not be so jealous of each other. They learn to not be afraid of losing the other.
- As well as being in the director's chair, you have also penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you and what inspired the story?
I plan the story first and then I get the cast involved and get them talking about what they would bring to the character. We talked about losing a parent - I lost a parent when I was eighteen and I have a younger brother who is very close to me; I am thirty-five and he is thirty-two. We seem to live in each other's pockets. For Alice and Dolly, that was something... they both have siblings that are close and they have both lost a relative quite young. So we all had that in common. I then go and write what I call a scriptment, which is thirty pages of scene by scene; so we know what the scenes are. When we get on set, we create the scenes as we shoot them - there is no rehearsal we just rehearse on camera and keep going until we feel that we have got what we need.
Plot wise, the story was inspired by an uncle of mine - Uncle Derek - who I never really saw that much but he would pop in and out of our lives. He used to steal JCBs and he got caught. But the person who would buy the JCBs off him paid for him to run away to South Africa for a couple of years. When he came back, my dad was like 'you have got to go to a police station,' which he did. It does come from a family story but I did make changes to that story where no one comes to the rescue and they have to sort it out themselves.
The movie is also inspired by Some Like It Hot (laughs). I wanted the leads to be women and I rang Tom Cullen and was like 'I want you to be a Marilyn Monroe type character.' And he was like, 'that sounds good to me.' Dolly and Alice were just pleased that it was two women in their thirties that were going to be the leads. That is where it all came from I guess.
- Black Mountain Poets is an improvised piece that was shot in just five days, how much do you enjoy working this way?
I come from a point of view that if you are a filmmaker - especially an independent filmmaker - you have some kind of disease because you have to make films. It is impossible to make films as there is no money anywhere for independent film, especially in Britain; we are testament of that as these films are made for next to nothing. The budget for this came to £24,000, which is a lot of money for where I am from but, in film terms, that is very small.
We shot this film in five days, which is ridiculous. I said after doing it once that I was never going to do that again and here I am having done it three times now. And it is all because I have to tell these stories and I get so excited about the stories. I love actors; especially when we get them in front of the camera and they are working. They are quite complicated characters as people (laughs) but get them in front of the camera and in the scenes, that is when they are at their best. Especially these kinds of actors because they are just willing to give themselves over to the process, to trust me and to... it also helps that we have done three of them now, so they do know that they are going to work, there is going to be a film at the end of it and I will be able to guide them through.
Working with actors is great. That is when the casting becomes so incredibly important because if you get the casting wrong on something like this, then it is not going to work. Everybody has to pull together, in the pouring rain, on a mountain, in the dark, in Wales, where there is no signal and I might keep them acting and not say cut for an hour. Tom Cullen came to shoot this having made another film in the desert and he had a massive cold. The first night we had to go up onto the mountain in the rain (laughs). He never came out of character and was shivering and when I said 'cut' he came over and was like, 'can you try and make that a bit shorter because I am going to get pneumonia' (laughs). And I was like 'yeah, fair enough.' I loved working with these guys.
- Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells takes on the role of sisters Lisa and Claire. What were you looking for when you were casting these roles and what did you see in Alice and Dolly?
I wanted two very funny women and incredibly comic performers. I had worked with Dolly before and she is just fantastic; you only have to look at her work in Doll & Em. She can do natural and relationship kind of comedy and then she can do surreal comedy like in Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy.
She is incredibly intuitive as a comic actress and she brings the heart and the cathartic nature that you want from an actor. She is able to be in the moment and make you believe that she is experiencing these things. She is so selfless. It was a no-brainer - it just had to be Dolly.
Alice Lowe had been really encouraging and positive about my... the first work that I put out there was a web series about five years ago and she was one of the first industry type people to send me a Facebook message. She told me to carry on making this kind of stuff and hoped that we would work together one day. I always had her in mind. After I saw her in Sightseers I thought that there was no chance that I was going to get her until I had a bigger budget. The fact is, Alice and Dolly had worked together years before on Star Stories, they already had a bit of a shorthand and they wanted to work together.
As much as she wanted to come in and find out what this improv five-day shoot was going to be like with me, she also wanted to be on screen with Dolly. They knew that they could work as sisters - and they really did. At the end of day one, it was like we had been in rehearsals for weeks. They immediately had a rapport and a way of knowing when was going to be the one with the punchline; it was very much like sisters in the way that they were giving and taking. That's why it had to be those two.
- I have been chatting to Alice and she thinks that this would not have worked as well if they hadn't known each other so well. Do you agree with that? They are terrific together in the film.
Thanks for that. It has a lot to do with it. We didn't have the luxury of being able to do rehearsals. What would have happened if the actresses didn't know each other, was by day three we would have been getting really good stuff. But the first couple of days may have been strange because they would have been finding each other and they would have been discovering each other on camera.
Alice and Dolly hit the ground running because they had this shorthand. I think they had conversations before they turned up as well and I know that they talked about the history of the sisters; they put the work in basically. It was incredibly important when you are shooting a film in five days for this kind of relationship to really come across and to feel real. For the actresses to already know each other and have the kind of bond was invaluable really.
- Tom Cullen also stars, so can you talk about bringing him on board?
I have known Tom since he graduated the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and he came and did a day on the web series that I talked about earlier. He actually played the long-lost Calzaghe twin - as in Joe Calzaghe the boxer. He played a character called Sergio Calzaghe and was a really silly and broad kind of comedy. It was a way in which I just started playing around with improv on camera as a way of forming the stories. Tom came to do that and really enjoyed it. Six months later he was doing Weekend, which was a big breakout movie for him, and then he goes and does big things like Downton Abbey. Again, I thought 'that's Tom gone.'
While my films Benny & Jolene and A Wonderful Christmas Time were not seen by millions, they did get to see them, they were impressed by the and the way in which the process was really starting to galvanise. He wanted to do something with me but Tom was never sure that he could do comedy. I said to him, 'number one, you are going to have Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells with you. And you are going to play the Marilyn Monroe character and so you are the straight good-looking one.' And he was like 'there's no pressure on me to be funny?. And I said 'no, exactly'. He was really interested in playing this love interest.
For that to be pitched to him rather than to an actress was something that he wanted to do as well. The actors want to feel that they can bring something to the role and, for him, he had not been asked to play a sensitive guy who is a bit downtrodden and lost. For Tom, it was interesting to try that out and it wasn't just him on screen but it was a character that he was exploring. I know that he enjoyed performing with Alice and Dolly.
- The movie has played well on the festival circuit, playing at South by Southwest and Edinburgh, so how have you been finding the response to the film?
It has just been overwhelming. When me and my editor Mike Hopkins... the edit is very much like a documentary edit because you just have so much footage. My assemble edit for each scene is about fifteen minutes long and we have to bring that down to about a minute to two minutes to each scene. You can do it a million different ways really. If I passed away and someone had to take it over, it would be a completely different film (laughs) because there are so many options and no single way to make it work. At the end of the edit, I am just happy that I am watching something that I am not embarrassed by; all I know about the film is that it is something that I can sit and watch with my wife and not cringe. My wife Zoe is usually the first audience and she was laughing all of the way through and she is never like that when she watches my films as she is normally a bit nervous as well.
Then Mark Adams, who was the head of the Edinburgh Film Festival at the time, saw it next and was like 'yeah, this is great and even better than A Wonderful Christmas Time. We want it in the festival.' That was the moment where I was like 'hold on, this one is pretty good' (laughs). Everything after that probably won't sink in until twenty year time when I can look back and say 'I did that and it did alright'. It is a beautiful thing.
There was a review that this eighteen-year-old girl from Luxembourg wrote and she is not an English speaker. She wrote this review in English and was saying how honest, sincere, beautiful, and funny the film was. That was the best moment for me because we had reached an eighteen-year-old girl in Luxembourg, which is fantastic. It is cool (laughs).
- Finally, what's next for you as we go through 2016?
I shot a film with Craig Roberts just before Christmas with Alex Karpovsky, who is Ray in Girls. Alex Karpovsky is amazing and a filmmaker in his own right and he wanted to come across to Wales and do this thing with me. It was my fourth five-day feature - even though I said I would never do it again. I hadn't seen Craig for ages; we had done Benny & Jolene but we knew that we could do better, especially as the process gets more refined. We have co-written this film together and that has been interesting as it is the first thing that I have co-written. Erin Richards, who is in Gotham at the moment, is in it as well. It is about a child actor who comes home for Christmas after twenty years of pretending that he has other work and he hasn't.
I am currently putting together another film with Dolly Wells, which the BFI are backing. It is incredible that the BFI have come on board and said they want to back me - it is such a bold move for them as I don't write scripts (laughs). That is really the biggest achievement for me so far as the BFI are now taking me seriously. Hopefully, that will shoot in August but we will see.
Black Mountain Poets is out now.