Born in Portsmouth on England’s southern coast, 34-year-old Paul Andrew Williams began his career as a TV actor (appearing in such British series as “No Bananas” and the long-running soap “Eastenders”) before trying his hand at writing and directing in 2000. Short films, viral ads and music videos followed, but it’s Williams’s BAFTA-nominated feature debut that might finally raise his profile stateside. Set in a social circle of cockney criminals, “London to Brighton” might appear at first glance like it belongs in Guy Ritchie’s oeuvre, but if anything, it shares more in common with the kitchen sink dramas of Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. Unfolding largely in flashbacks, the gritty tale follows a badly beaten prostitute named Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) and 11-year-old runaway Joanne (Georgia Groome) from a bathroom in London to you-know-where, all the while pursued by their pissed-off pimp Derek (Johnny Harris) and a vengeful gangster who wants to know why his father has been found bleeding to death in his mansion. I chatted with Williams about British cinema today and the responsibilities of filming violence. [WARNING: Minor spoilers follow.]
Instead of developing all-new characters, what made you decide to revisit Kelly and Derek from your 2001 short, “Royalty”?
It wasn’t anything in particular, to be honest. I had the idea just walking down the road. I pictured these two girls walking into the house, into a really grand room, and that piece of music [Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”]. It was only a few days later that I actually knew those girls, what they would be doing, and maybe one of them could be Kelly. The story of the feature has nothing to do with the short; it just features two of the characters. I always wanted to work with [Lorraine Stanley] again.
Making short films on the side is one thing, but how does one take the plunge from full-time actor to career filmmaker?
It wasn’t anything sort of pre-planned. I’ve always had ideas, and one day I was out with a friend, we were in the lounge, and I said, “I’ve got this idea for this short film.” He said, “Sure, let’s make it then.” And that was that. We raised a bit of money, made it on film, and set up the production company. I was still acting, and then we made another one, I was still acting, and then afterwards I was like, “Actually, I’d like to be a director.” The thing is, when you’re an actor, there’s only so much you can do. It’s much easier to create something as a director because you can start with nothing. It’s in your control, whereas as an actor, you’re so much more reliant on outside influences to work and create.
It seems like the bulk of British dramas that make their way across the pond are of the crowd-pleasing variety: “The Full Monty,” “Billy Elliott,” “Kinky Boots,” et al. As someone closer to the scene, what do you think about the state of British cinema today?
Well, it’s not as big as America. In order for a British film to travel, especially to the States, you have to be a little easy to get. Anything too challenging might be difficult. And I don’t mean that American audiences are stupid, but our sort of independent and low class life is much different than the States. So any independent film that focuses on that I don’t know, it’s not something that’s already at the attention of an American audience. Does that make sense?
I suppose, but I’m not even talking about what gets widely distributed by the mini-majors. I feel like I don’t see the British represented very often at film festivals and on the arthouse circuit.
For an independent film, it’s still really difficult. In America, it’s not looked at with a stigma. The independent side of making films is much more open, and people, especially nowadays, are more interested in seeing it. It has a much bigger following. Over here, so few British independent films ever see the light of day. Without a big distributor’s push, it’s hard to get into festivals around the world. I would also say a fair selection of British independent films aren’t very good. In America, there could be ten times as many independent films being made, so you have ten times more films coming out. Whereas in England, it’s probably the same kind of ratio of what makes it to what doesn’t, only we don’t have as big of an industry.
I’ll buy the smaller industry argument, but you mentioned a “stigma” and that some British indies may just be lackluster. You think both of those come directly from a lack of industry resources?
There are definitely less facilities to call on. In L.A. especially, you know, it’s a way of life rather than an industry, from [what I’ve witnessed] there. In England, I think most people would have to be proved wrong that British independent film is any good. For films of all genres, there will always be a preconception, but especially in Britain. We don’t call them independent films so much over here, but low-budget films. The stigma is that it’s going to be [amateurish]. Maybe that’s changing because of “Once” and maybe “London to Brighton” as well. Sometimes they classify films like “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland” as independent films, and those are like $15 million.
With underage prostitutes comes a much harsher word: pedophilia. Were you ever worried that a drama with the “p-word” might be difficult to sell to both distributors and audiences?
Yeah, there were those concerns, but the fact is we made this film for about $150,000. We didn’t show it to any funding body or anything like that. We purely raised the money privately, and made the film without any preconceptions of what would happen to it. I mean, it was the best reviewed British film in 2006. Five stars pretty much across the board, it was crazy. We had no idea this was going to happen. We were just a group of people who wanted to make a movie, and that’s what happened. I knew some would be offended, but those people may well have been offended by however I would’ve tackled the subject. The idea was always to make something not gratuitous, and I stand by that; there are no gratuitous scenes in there. You don’t really see that much violence, a lot of it is suggested. I mean, look at “Saw IV” and shit like that, which is made to shock and disturb. Our film is not that.
However, there is one particularly distressing knifing. We see tons of blood, the image is repeated in more than one flashback segment, but I didn’t feel the morality of the act is addressed. Do you feel you have a responsibility to make violence matter, not just to the characters but to the audience?
We shot the whole scene of that, and nobody had a problem with it you know, distributors and funding bodies when we were showing the film council and other people. Although you have a young girl stabbing someone, there’s no naked flesh. I mean, there’s legs, but only what you would wear on a beach. [Georgia Groome] was one of the most mature people on the whole set. She just finished a film for Paramount, she’s just remarkable. And her mum was just five feet away during the whole filming. The idea of seeing the blood was just to show that that was an injury that could kill him. It wasn’t necessarily, “Look at all this blood.” It was to say that if you get stabbed in this area, this is what happens. There was no rape, no molestation, none of that. It was purely the violence of trying to escape, not violence for violence’s sake. She was trying to save Kelly’s life, that’s why the young girl did it.
You mentioned how kind most of the UK press has been, and I agree, having The Guardian call your debut “the best British film of the year” must feel amazing. But then I stumbled upon two negative reviews, both American. Do you think there’s anything in the film that might not translate culturally?
I don’t know, and in a sense, when you make a little film for that sort of money, the last thing you think about is wherever it’s going to travel and get a release in the States. It’s a story, that’s all it is. It’s make-believe. I would say I attempted to do something that felt real, but that’s going to be up to an audience to agree with. You know, they call it… is it “middle America” where they’re very conservative? What can I do about that, man? It’s a big country. But the fact is, 99-point-whatever percent of Americans are not going to see this film. I think it’s the sort of film you would have to want to go see rather than, you know, go with your girlfriend on a date and say, “Actually, let’s go see this tiny little British film about pedophilia and gangsters and killing.” I don’t know if it’s going to be that sort of movie, so I imagine that most people going into the film will be prepared for what might be in it.
“London to Brighton” opens in limited release February 8th.
[Photos: “London to Brighton,” Outsider Pictures, 2007]