Warren, thanks for taking the time to share some insights about your charming new movie, “Across the River,” with the readers at The Critical Movie Critics.
“Across the River” focuses on two characters as they’re forced to walk through the streets of London together, rekindling a shared past. The movie’s greatest strength is in the realistic connection between your two leads, who are also credited as co-writers. What was your writing process and how were the two actors involved?
I’d given myself a deadline to finish the principal photography of my first feature before the birth of my first child (October 2011) as I wanted to be around as much as possible to help out while she was young. My story idea was designed to work as an improvised piece, something we could largely shoot in sequence, only two main characters, locations we could get back to if necessary and very few complex logistical constraints.
The story was inspired by some autobiographical elements. I developed the “first loves reunited” basic premise alone and then with some writer friends over about 6 months or so until I got the story into a 5 or 6 page outline with very rough descriptions of scenes. I was confident I could make a good film based on that so started to cast in early spring 2011. I found Elizabeth Healey (Emma) almost instantly so was very excited and was looking forward to developing the script with her and her co-star. Unfortunately I didn’t find Keir Charles (Ryan) until a month or so before the shoot. And we couldn’t squeeze as much time in together as I’d hoped to work on writing/improvising in advance. We did manage to lock down the characters pretty solidly with me guiding the process and we did rehearse most of the really important moments. By the time we started shooting the outline/script document had been expanded to around 12-14 pages and more detail was added during the shoot. The outline included some dialogue but not much at all.
The leads are credited as co-writers because they improvised the details of each scene live on location while we shot. Almost all of the dialogue is lines the actors came up with on set. We would go over beforehand the emotional start and end points of scenes and what kind of information we wanted to reveal and then repeat and hone the process until I thought we’d got what we needed. Other members of the crew (like Stella Evelyn) also received writing credits for their contributions on set and in pre-production.
The final part of the writing process was done after we’d got a rough cut ready and could see where we had plot holes or areas of imbalance in pace. We then did some reshoots (some of which happened a few years after the original shoot) to get us to the film you see now.
I think the obvious comparison audiences will make with the movie is Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and its sequels, in the walking and talking aesthetic, as well as in the rigorous focus on just two characters. How much were these films on your mind and/or what were your other influences?
I do love “Before Sunrise” and almost all of Linklater’s work so I’m happy with that comparison though I don’t think I was consciously influenced too much by it. It’s more that there are similarities in form justified by some similarities in content. “Brief Encounter” was a more conscious influence, and “Casablanca.” Trying to find a way to make a satisfying romance where the leads don’t end up together.
I’d also been watching all the American “mumblecore” films so wasn’t afraid to be a bit less precise with the dialogue than is typical.
Most of the movie is shot in true cinema-verite style. What was your shooting process like, and how much control did you have over the locations you were shooting in? Did you shoot with multiple cameras?
We did use multiple cameras. On some days we had 6 camera (DSLR) bodies on set though for most dialogue scenes we used 3. Lots of non-dialogue scenes were single camera and reshoot dialogue was mostly 2 cameras. We had very little control over locations. We would try to be relatively inconspicuous so as not to excite much interest from the public. London crowds are generally not that excited by camera crews unless they recognize some of the talent involved but we did have to try to avoid having passers by in focus and we did have to lose shots because of people in the background looking at the actors or the camera. We had crew members play members of the public surrounding the actors in some cases to get the public out of shot. We got releases sometimes from people if they did end up being recognizable. We basically worked around what was there; chose to shoot at times when the crowds, or lack of, were appropriate to the scene. The cameras were all handheld for the whole film (except a handmade body-rig for a few cycling shots and a swing shot), which was both an aesthetic and practical decision. For the outside locations we couldn’t really put a tripod down without creating an “obstruction” and being handheld gave the operators the opportunity to follow the actors’ inspirations. The gimbals now available might have given us an alternative aesthetic choice if we’d shot a few years later but I’m happy with most of the movement in most cases. There’s only a few instances when I think the jerkiness becomes distracting rather than invigorating.
The actual shooting process was usually that I’d have scouted the locations in advance and got some very rough ideas of where the actors and cameras might be. Then on the day I’d discuss the light and angles with the DOP and do a rough walk-through with the actors. We’d then refine things until both the actors and the camera team felt ready for a take.
What were the greatest challenges you had shooting this movie?
The main practical problem I had day to day was that I’d managed to find good people for all the creative members of the team but hadn’t been able to find as experienced people to help with Production Management or Assistant Directing. If there had been a final script and shot list then preplanning could have got around this but because we were constantly on our toes reacting to what was happening and making it up as we went along it was mostly down to me to keep the practical stuff going (like getting everyone moving and feeding them) as well as fulfilling all my creative responsibilities.
If we’d been single camera that might have been less onerous but multiple cameras meant much more equipment, and many more people. It was such a relief when we were doing reshoots and pick-ups with 3, 4 or 5 people or even just me or me and an actor instead of the 20-40 people we had on set most days of the main shoot!
Matching the multiple cameras was always a pain as we couldn’t afford a way of me monitoring all of them.
The biggest challenge was probably to create dramatic scenes comparable to well scripted drama. It was harder to separate subtext from “text” — their actual lines — than if it had been written in advance. It was harder to have surprises and conflict in every other moment. Harder to have that one meaningful moment which clearly reveals a character. It means that there are differences in how the film works compared to a more conventional one. The tension between Emma and Ryan isn’t really something we just infer from a few well placed signals, it’s very subtly there in everything they do and it makes us as the audience share a very visceral feeling of discomfort and impatience. It’s more of a slow burn. It’s much less manipulative. some people might experience this lack of manipulation, plot propulsion and a slower than average pace as boredom but I think many people become more deeply involved and connected because of this subtlety.
Another interesting challenge was this:
As I said earlier I was trying to get this film shot before my first child was born. The shoot had a few days added on as we replaced days when actors had become unavailable or been sick. The final weekend shoot (Emma’s house) was eventually scheduled to be just a week before my partner was due to give birth. Zara had been warning me that her family had a history of arriving early but I was confidently and optimistically ignoring these warnings. So very early on the morning of what was supposed to be the first day of the last weekend of the main shoot, Zara started having contractions and the birth of my film had to be put on hold for the birth of my daughter Lula. There’s pictures of her sat in my lap as a tiny new born while I edit and log video and try to reschedule.
I imagine light was a constant concern — how did you deal with this throughout the shoot?
It was a similar situation with lighting to camera supports / movement . The office at the start and her house at the end were conventionally though sparsely lit, but the other interiors and all the exteriors were all just available light — choosing the right angles and NDs so we got consistent coverage and appropriate shots. This meant there was a “cinema-verite” style which did suit the film and we were able to move and work a bit more quickly than if we’d been adding or modelling light.
It did however mean that there were inconsistencies caused by weather / cloud / sun changes which caused problems in the grade. It also meant that sometimes we were waiting for some cloud cover or for the sun to start to set or come out from behind a cloud. We were incredibly lucky with the weather in general; it was mostly shot in September 2011 and we had lots of sun and very little rain.
Even more than a love story between two characters, “Across the River” feels like a love letter to London. How much did the geography of London play in shaping your story and style? What is your own relationship with London?
If I lived in another town then this film would probably be set there. It was filmed here because here is where I live and work and the place I know better than any other. It maybe helps that some of the locations have resonance with people who don’t live here and it might have made it easier to establish a sense of place because of how often the center of London is portrayed on screen. The characters are based on people who live and work in the places we see them living and working so it’s honest and truthful and accurate to set it in those places.
London does have a mythology that helps add more depth to the story and make it a bit more universal. I’ve always been drawn to the center of things, where the action is, even if sometimes it’s just to watch rather than get involved. I used to come visit relatives when I was young, then on shopping trips as an older child and as soon as I had the opportunity to leave home I chose to come to London to live and study and then to work or not work. It’s history is so multifaceted and pervasive but it’s still forward looking. It’s so outward looking and diverse. I’m happy to have a lovely house and a warm bed to go home to but I could spend an almost unlimited time in and around the locations in the film. They’re my streets, my parks, my benches, my views, my beaches.
What was it about this story that you wanted to tell? Why are you personally drawn to stories like “Across the River,” and to making movies in general?
It’s a personal story. It’s stuff I was thinking about and that I wanted to share. I make films partly as a form of therapy, a way to think through issues that are important or interesting to me. As a way to express myself. And it’s good to try to apologize (as Ryan does) for past misdemeanors. I was hoping I’d get some clarity on the issues around commitment and responsibility which they’re both struggling with. I want to connect with an audience honestly and truthfully. There’s a lot of people making movies solely as entertainment or escapism. I hope people are entertained by my films but it’s more important that they leave a little bit more likely to be patient and forgiving of their loved ones; a little more understanding of other people’s faults perhaps.
Finally, “Across the River” is radically different from most movies made these days, both in style and substance. How do you find an audience for a movie like “Across the River”?
That’s a tough question. I think it’s quite a good thing if, as you say, it’s “radically different from most movies made these days” but most distributors, sales agents and even many programmers don’t seem to be as happy about that. It’s often described by those rejecting it commercially as a “small film.” I don’t take that as an insult and many films I respect might be described in the same way.
However, it’s true that it’s quite difficult to market to a wide audience. There are many typical Rom-Com fans who would think it is too slow and sad and many Genre fans — Action, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror — who would just dismiss it as “Drama.” However, most people who have actually seen it have at least a minimal respect for it and in many cases a strong enthusiasm. Hopefully I’ll be able to build a great selection of reviews and a lot of word of mouth recommendations off the back of a successful festival run.
There are a lot of people who have had enough of manipulative “Hollywood blockbusters,” who have the patience to risk something a bit different and we just need to convince them that this is one that is worth them watching.