With a series of major Hollywood productions to his name, starring some of the biggest names in the industry such as Angelina Jolie and Kevin Spacey, director Iain Softley has returned to his roots somewhat with his latest picture Trap for Cinderella, and we were fortunate enough to speak to the filmmaker ahead of the films July 12 release.
The man behind the likes of K-PAX, Inkheart and Hackers returns to his hometown of London, directing his first contemporary picture in the capital. He discusses the joys of working on a more modest sized production, and how important it is for a director to get casting right – having taken a risk with relative newcomers Tuppence Middleton and Alexandra taking on the lead roles. He also tells us of the importance is going in to Trap for Cinderella with as little knowledge as possible, while likening the role of film director to that of a lower league football manager…
When you first read the novel that this film is based on, was there an instant feeling as soon as you’d finished it that you wanted to make this into a movie one day?
Yeah completely, I don’t get many things like this come across my desk, which is sad because a lot of the films that inspired me to be a filmmaker were the sort of films that I hope Trap for Cinderella is. Films that are passionate, that involve some sort of personal quest, some mystery in terms of identity – like many French New Wave films. Even a lot of Kubrick films as well. Those are the sort of films that inspired me and what they all have in them, is that they are often about women, and there is a sexiness about them. They are also intriguing, psychological mysteries and because of that there is usually a sense of altered consciousness which allows one to play with reality, which is a very cinematic thing to try and create – you can use the visual language, sound and music to really create an atmosphere that draws the audience in and become lost in that world for the time spent in the cinema.
Do you feel quite cautious in how much you can give away about this film? It must be quite a careful procedure in making sure the flashbacks are giving enough to the audience, but not too much…
Exactly, and what’s more important, is not to give too much away in trailers or interviews. I think that one can slip up like that. I often read things on other films and think, wow, I don’t think they realise how much they are giving away. If you know too much you can dilute the experience and that’s a big part of it, to try and make sure people see it in the cinema not knowing key elements of the plot. In the film itself the storytelling made for a constant discussion, both internally with me writing, and also with people reading it and financing it and discussing with producers and script editors – but from a creative point of view it’s quite clear that we had to make the audience work and it was more on the side of of, is this too complicated and confusing to an audience? That was more of a commercial consideration. But at times I wish I had gone maybe a little bit further, but just hearing the responses I get from people it seems that for most of them, if they genuinely went into the cinema haven’t not read much about it beforehand, I don’t think they’re too far ahead of the curve, and that’s the important thing, for the audience not to be ahead of the actors too much.
It must be quite fun as a director to know you’re making a film that will have people guessing right up until the bitter end?
Yeah it is, and when you see it in the cinema and people say “I didn’t see that coming” that is obviously very satisfying. I mean, some people just don’t like it and think it’s too confusing, and you can go too far and exclude the audience – but I don’t think at all that was my intention, I always wanted this to be an accessible and entertaining film, but to treat the audience as intelligent and to make them work.
The film hinges on the character of Micky, which is a really complex role to take on – how did you go about casting Tuppence Middleton for the character? It couldn’t have been an easy one.
No, there was an element of it where I really had to stick my head out, because people weren’t sure. I was lucky in a sense that the financiers, Lionsgate and BFI in particular, trusted me and they pointed to a couple of other films I’ve done where I identified actors before anybody else, like Angelina Jolie, as I gave her the first proper film role. We were aware that it was a risk, and obviously not choosing a big movie star does limit the commercial life of the film, but it does mean you can make a film for much less money and at the same gives me creative freedom, so I was aware that something I was going to gain. Also I was excited by the freshness of having somebody who the audience don’t already know, and that’s part of the excitement, introducing new actors. I feel a little bit like a manager of a football team in the lower divisions who has discovered an amazing player who somebody else buys and puts in a Premier League team. I know what this film has done for Tuppence and for Alex, it has brought them to a lot of peoples attention as leading actresses, which was not the profile they had at all when I cast them.
It must be quite inspiring to be in a position of power whereby you can provide these young talents with these opportunities and be able to be the one who presents them to the world? Angelina’s subsequent success must have made you feel quite proud?
Yeah, I mean it’s satisfying that one can pick winners, as it were. It’s a big part of what people want from directors, it’s a huge part of my job so it’s something that I should be able to do. Plus I think it’s important to be able to say with confidence, which I was in this case, that you’ve got to trust me on this, this is the right person for the part. People like to hear that from directors, they look for directors who are confident because that’s what you are supposed to be saying. With any specialist craft, you want somebody to say to you, look, believe me, you might not think so now, but these are the best shrubs to put your in garden, in a years time you’re going to like them. You’re hired because you’re expected to have expertise so that is something that I take very seriously and I put a lot of thought and concentration in to, as I know I have to get it right. You live with the consequences of those decisions, they’re huge. The film, particularly in this case, will sink or swim depending on how good these actors are.
To change the subject slightly, as a Londoner it must have been nice to shoot a movie here in the city?
It was a complete thrill. I couldn’t believe when I thought about it that it’s the only contemporary film I have made in London. I was at one stage going to make the film in Paris, and at one point there was a discussion in making this as a 60s film as the book is, and I was really thrilled to make it in contemporary East London. I haven’t really seen that much of the bohemian, indie music/fashion student world on screen, it’s more the gangster East End that we see, so that was exciting. Again it was like a very contemporary equivalent of the French New Wave, who shot films outside their window in Paris and the South of France and I wanted to have that same attitude, in making it as undiluted as possible. We shot on the streets with real people and often chose busy nights, when normally with films you try and avoid the times when the streets are busy, but we wanted people filling the frame. I’d like to do more contemporary films, I tend to get offered stuff in America all the time, but I’ve made two contemporary films in New York and one in New Orleans, whereas all the British films I have made are set in the past, apart from this one.
Having dipped your toes in the big budget Hollywood flicks, was it reinvigorating to work on a smaller budget and scale on this one?
It was, it was complete reinvigorating. It was like an antidote. I mean I have had a great time and been very lucky with the films that I’ve done, but I was able to put a few more of my own experiences into the script. There were things in there that have happened to me or I know had happened to other people, and it was great to do something in a world and culture that I know so well – whether that be France, where I lived for a year, or in London, in the student arts world which I have dabbled in all my life, so that was really exciting and I’d like to do more of that. You’re right about the scale of it being very liberating too, we sailed slightly too close to the wind given how tight our resources were, but we just about got away with it. We had an amazing crew and the actors were so amenable, and I told them all up front that we were going to have to be fast and quick and not do too many takes, but that created a momentum as we were moving along really quickly and doing scenes almost as if they were live.
Your first film Backbeat has since become a successful stage play – so I was wondering, which of your other films would you must like to see adapted into a theatre production?
I had two ambitions when I finished Inkheart, and one was to get Backbeat on stage and the other was Trap for Cinderella, and I thought I wouldn’t do anything else until I had sorted out these two projects. At one stage it looked like Trap for Cinderella was going to be before Backbeat, but I had the chance to direct it on stage so I did that in 2010 and put Trap for Cinderella on ice, before I came back later that year and picked it up again and started the casting process. As far as other films on stage… Well, there was just something about Backbeat that I knew would work because when we were rehearsing it, it was just five guys and a band and the energy of being in the same room as them with the music, it just worked as a piece of theatre. Backbeat mostly takes places in claustrophobic rooms. The other films I have made rely more on a sense of place and are more reliant on the atmosphere created by music and photography, so I’m not sure they would work. I mean K-PAX, because of those two great actors and the many scenes between psychiatrist and patient, you could imagine elements of that working on stage, but I don’t know how the other elements of it would be conveyed, because of the visual world outside of the hospital, which is really important.
So finally, the compulsory what’s next question… Have you got anything lined up?
[Laughs] It’s always a difficult question to answer, particularly when one isn’t in pre-production and things shift and change so much. I have a number of projects I am working on, such as an Ivanhoe one I’ve been working on for some time, which would be interesting given how relevant it is at the moment – like a contemporary Homeland. Then I have a really interesting project about an astronaut, a true story, which I’m developing at the moment, and there is a great script for that. That’s another very personal project which I’m working on with a first time writer from scratch, so those are two things. But whether they will be the next is slightly out of my hands, there are so many moving parts in putting a film together that you just have to see how the dice falls.