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Toronto 2010: Rowan Joffe Amps Up “Brighton Rock”

Toronto 2010: Rowan Joffe Amps Up “Brighton Rock” (photo)

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It’s easier to think of “Brighton Rock” as a remix rather than a remake of the 1947 thriller that starred Richard Attenborough as an amoral gangster who must romance a witness to a murder he committed in order to keep her quiet. Based on the Graham Greene novel, it was ripe for the treatment since, in spite of a restoration that caught some headwind in recent years, “Brighton Rock” remained a crafty little noir that went criminally underseen outside of England where it is beloved, especially since it contains one of the most clever endings perhaps ever devised.

That the ending takes on a more somber tone in Rowan Joffe’s version is significant since “Brighton Rock” can no longer be as black and white as it once was, in a literal and figurative sense. Splashed with ruby reds and navy blues, the film has the vibrancy of the late ’50s England as well as nods to its repression, with the lush cinematography of John Mathieson crisply evoking the contrast. But the additional hues aren’t restricted to what the actors are wearing, but what they’re feeling as well. “Control” star Sam Riley’s ruthless thug has the baby face of his predecessor Attenborough and equally deviant, but benefits from a more thoroughly explored relationship with Rose (Andrea Riseborough), the witness who was once portrayed as angelic and uncomplicated in the original and appears here as naïve and hopelessly devoted.

Surrounding his young stars Riley and Riseborough with the veteran presence of Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis, Joffe’s debut is as accomplished as they come, reinventing Greene’s investigation of love and violence in a town known for their dynamite (hence the title). Following the film’s premiere in Toronto, Joffe sat down to discuss why he tackled a British classic for his first directorial outing, strengthening the film’s female lead and why he hopes his version of “Brighton Rock” isn’t the last.

Without spoiling it, the original film has such a wonderful ending and you were able to bring a more somber tone to that and to the film as a whole. Was that integral in updating the story for modern audiences?

Oh yes, well, I think it is going back to the source in one very specific way, which is that in the end of the book, Greene alludes to the sainthood of Rose. In other words, you have a Catholic writer who I interpret is alluding to ability to suffer or even die, or even suffer eternal damnation if you believe in that, for something she believes in, and the thing that she believes in is Pinkie’s love for her. Now, you have to take a view as an audience about whether or not that is a total delusion or whether or not there was at least a spark, the possibility of love in Pinkie and I happen to believe the latter. Partly because we know that Greene himself quoted the [Vivien Dayrell-] Browning poem as the perfect epitaph for his whole oeuvre and that poem contains a line referring to the tenderhearted murderer.

09162010_BrightonRock2.jpgI’m not saying I portrayed Pinkie as a tenderhearted murderer because he is a ruthless psychopath, but I am saying that the way we invested in Rose from the screenplay on was informed by the grandeur that that character has at the end of the book. And that is not a grandeur that was pursued by the filmmakers of the original Boulting Brothers’ movie, simply because if they evidently weren’t interested in pursuing that line. We are. We have and Andrea Riseborough has delivered a character of tragic stature and I think that’s probably what you’re getting from feeling like the movie might be perhaps more emotionally complex or richer than you were anticipating. Although some critics have said my movie is not as subtle as the original or not as subtle as the source material, which is fine because the movie is incredible and the book is also incredible, so if I’ve fallen short, there we are.

The screenplays that you’ve written so far are known for their subtlety and when you know you’re going to direct a film, does that change what you do as a screenwriter?

By trying not to let that influence the screenplay because I think a screenplay needs to stand absolutely and entirely on narrative merits and if you’re going to start putting stuff into the script that are really directorial decisions, that’s fine, but what you’re going to do is muddy the waters a little bit and you’re no longer going to be able to judge whether what you have is purely in terms of cinema narrative a successful entity, so I try and keep those separate.

The way they play into each other is in the reverse of what you’re suggesting, which is directing something you’ve written is very different from directing something you haven’t, simply because you know those characters and that world more intimately than anyone else on the set. Now, a director who hasn’t written his own script, if he’s a good director, would also know the world and the characters more intimately than anyone on the set. The way that it helped me specifically was as a first-time director knowing the characters and the script to the extent I did gave me confidence and also I think probably gave very experienced actors like Helen Mirren and John Hurt confidence because it meant they weren’t just entrusting themselves to a guy who may or may not be a good director. They were entrusting themselves to a guy who may or may not be a good director, but at least had written a good script.

It may be random, but why did you want to pursue “Brighton Rock” for your directorial debut?

Well, you’re right, to a certain extent, these things happen in an evolutionary way. Some things survive, some things don’t and it’s not necessarily part of an overarching strategy. But in this case, what happened was I was offered a chance by Studio Canal, who owned the property of “Brighton Rock,” to do a remake and I said I didn’t want to do a remake because A, I didn’t like remakes and B, I don’t want to commit dramatic suicide by trying to remake what many people believe is one of the best British movies ever made.

But I did pick a copy of the book “Brighton Rock” off the shelf and blew the dust off and started to read it and I fell in love. And when you fall in love with something or someone, you start to act irrationally and I ended up pursuing the insane course, but the passionate course of saying well, why don’t we adapt the book?

My justification was the book is a great work of literature, so like a Shakespeare play, it can sustain more than one adaptation. When you go and see one director’s version of an Arthur Miller play, you don’t call it a remake of the other director’s version. And I believe Greene’s book is so rich, so iconic, so complex that it could probably sustain another “Brighton Rock.” I’d love to have seen a Terrence Malick “Brighton Rock” or a Martin Scorsese “Brighton Rock” and I have no doubt they would’ve been better than mine.

But I suppose I was young enough and had very little to lose and was maybe stupid enough to tread on hallowed ground that those extraordinary directors have revered too much to tread on. Whether or not I get away with it, I don’t know. It may be the last feature I ever make. [laughs] But it’s certainly one I’ve loved making and I’m crazy about the story and if I hadn’t been able to make it, I would’ve had to have curled up and die. And that’s what gets you through two years of moviemaking.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.