Brett Harvey interview: Weekend Retreat and indie filmmaking

Interview Sarah Dobbs 21 Nov 2012 - 07:04

Shot in 12 days, Weekend Retreat is a Cornwall-set comedy thriller. Sarah spoke to writer and director Brett Harvey about its making...

Weekend Retreat is a Cornish comedy thriller about what happens when a troubled couple try to get away from it all for the weekend – only to find themselves stuck in the middle of a robbery in progress. We caught up with writer and director Brett Harvey to talk about the film…

Where did the idea for Weekend Retreat come from?

It came from two different places. I’d made a lot of short films with low to no budgets, so I had a lot of experience of making something out of nothing, and I sort of knew that the first feature I’d make, I wouldn’t be able to raise that much money to make it. I sat down and tried to write a few things but they turned out too big, so I wrote a set of rules for myself, to limit the number of locations, limit the number of actors, generally try to keep it all contained. And then from that list of rules I came up with, the idea for Weekend Retreat appeared.

I’d also made a short film about a married couple and their relationship being on the rocks which was kind of a black comedy, and I loved the idea of two characters that are stuck, either tied together or gaffer taped together, and the only way they can escape is if they can put their differences aside. And I loved the idea that they can’t do that, they can’t be mature and adult for more than about 30 seconds.

I really like single-location movies that are set over one day, or one night; obviously, there’s a budget reason for doing that, but also you often get the most interesting stories that way…

Yeah, definitely. Even if something’s set over just one day or one night, depending on the story, you can go on such an emotional rollercoaster anyway. I found it really handy when I was writing to keep it contained to one day and one night. I imagine if we were lazy Hollywood executives you’d have a film where you kept cutting from the house to the hard-bitten policeman, you know; you could cut away and then come back and the characters would have developed or worked out how to get out of the room, but this way forces you to think through all the logic. Internal story logic is the bane of my life! But what’s good is that when I watch films at the cinema, I am the kind of person who goes ‘wait, that didn’t make sense!’ because I spent so long trying to work out the logic of this film. 

It’s interesting you say that, because the movie starts off with one narrative, showing the couple arriving at the house, and then it kind of goes back and replays those scenes showing the brothers; why did you structure it that way?

It was one of those weird things where at the time, it seemed perfectly natural. It wasn’t until we were filming that Dominic [Coleman], who plays Duncan, said he’d never read a script where that happens. But again it was about containing the story, keeping it over a very short period of time, and that almost actually nearly killed us. It nearly killed us several times: it nearly killed me writing it, having to go back and check the continuity; it nearly killed our friend Hana [Backland], who was on continuity, because she constantly had to work out which doors were open and which doors were shut; and then we spent a long time editing the film, and at one stage someone suggested that we edit the first act so that it’s in order. What you find, though, is that when you’ve written it in this way, if you then edit it in order, it becomes the lamest film in the world; there’s no tension because everything is shot specifically to work in that order.

How did the cast and crew come together? There are some great performances in there; Dudley Sutton in particular is awesome…

I was gonna say, how many films have just turned up with Dudley Sutton in there? Man likes to work. With Dudley, I was talking with [producers] Si [Harvey] and Denzil [Monk] and we were discussing who we should get. Dudley was the first person we thought of, because he’s such a  great character actor, and it came up that Dudley used to live in Cornwall, so he had some sort of tenuous links to the area. And it was one of those things: we were having the meeting at the office of a theatre company that had worked with Dudley in the past, so we asked for his contact details and we left him a message there and then.

Esther Hall – who plays  Karen, who’s the anchor of the film, who knows what the film would be like without her? – was a friend of a friend. It’s that stupid and lucky. It was one of those situations like ‘do you think she’d read it?’ ‘yeah I’m sure she’d have a look’ and then she read it and she really liked it. And then I met her, and I distinctly remember meeting her: she was walking down the corridor towards me and I thought ‘it can’t be her, she’s so beautiful and glamorous it’s ridiculous, she can’t play this character.’ And then we got talking and within 30 seconds I realised the character was hers already, it wasn’t mine anymore; she’d taken it and had all these ideas and was brilliant.

Simon, who’s the producer and plays Kevin, is my brother – we’d actually cast someone else in that role but they had to drop out three days before we started filming. 

Yikes, that must have sucked.

That was a horrible moment, because everything was ready and we were like ‘yes, we’re gonna make it, finally, after all these years!’ and then that happened. But everything happens for a reason. I really love Si in that role, and I think that he and Dean have a fantastic chemistry. Dean Nolan, who plays Gary, I’d never met before – he’s an actor who lives in Cornwall, and we were writing the script and went to see a play, Si and I, and he walked out and we were like ‘oh my God, it’s Gary.’ We met him, and Dean is so the opposite of that character – he’s really smart, talks really fast, big bundle of energy, has loads of ideas, really charismatic – but he was just so right for the part.

And Dominic Coleman was another case where we had another actor drop out, and his agent said ‘do you like anyone else on our books?’ I saw the picture of Dominic and thought ‘I recognise him, he might be good’ and it turns out Dominic has written and produced his own low budget film so he knows the deal. He liked the script and wanted to do it, and he’s a fanatical surfer, and we were filming in Cornwall, so he was like ‘as long as I leave set at the time I say I’m going to leave set and I can go surfing…’ and then, get this, he actually went to university with Esther and they lived together for a while, so they’re old friends. So, blind luck!

This was your first feature after making lots of shorts, so was that intimidating or were you just raring to go?

It’s like a combination of both. I was going ‘yeah, this will be brilliant, I can’t wait to get filming’ and then the night before the shoot I had this terrifying moment like ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, everybody is going to know I don’t know what I’m doing!’

The first thing we were filming was with Dudley Sutton, as well, who’s worked with all these amazing people, I thought ‘he’s gonna think I’m an idiot, why’s he going to listen to me?’ But it wasn’t like that, we just started filming. And because it’s low budget, the schedule is so ridiculous, you just haven’t got time to worry about it. So yeah, I was incredibly intimidated but very, very excited to be doing it. I think I got away with it. 

How long was the shoot?

It was 12 days.

How did you get funding to make the film?

We got funding off an organisation called Feast, which was Art Council money in Cornwall and the idea was to make community art projects happen. They have a pot of money for rural touring, which is predominantly for theatre companies, so you apply to make a show and then tour it to rural venues. I looked at that pot of money and said, ‘what if I took the money, made a film, and then toured different edits to village halls and then people’s feedback might shape how the film turned out?’ And they went for it, so that’s how we funded it, mostly.

There’s also a bit from University College Falmouth, they funded us a little bit and in return we gave work placements to graduating students to work on set. We did some crowd-funding, as well, for post-production. Basically, like every low budget film, we funded it by any means necessary!

What kind of feedback did you get from those village hall screenings?

We did question-and-answer sessions and I’d just basically have to stand there and get it in the neck. They’d talk about the first 20 minutes, and the other thing was that bit at the beginning with the sleazy mechanic – there’s that weird Edgar Wright sequence where he drives off. And the reason that’s so over the top is that that scene didn’t exist before, and every time we screened it you’d get someone at the end going ‘Oh, the thing is, he doesn’t actually lower the car onto the drive when he drives off in the van, and then the car is there at the end, can you explain that?’ and then someone else would go ‘well, you wouldn’t leave the car there if the cam belt had gone, you’d take it to the garage.’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t care what’s wrong with their car! That’s not the point!’ It’s so weird. I implore all filmmakers to test screen early cuts of their films. You get fantastic feedback and brilliant stuff that really helps you and then you also get these wonderful moments where people pick on the strangest things in the film.

The film does have a lot of comedy, and some horror elements, but it’s really touching as well, and you really feel for the characters by the end, so how did you balance all those things?

I’ll always lean towards comedy whenever I’m writing stuff. The more dramatic stuff came out of a brilliant conversation I had with Si and Denzil again – they developed so much of the film with me –where basically Si or Denzil or both would say ‘we’re gonna be working on this film for years, so we need to invest in the characters because we’re going to live with them for so long.’ It’s such a good wake up call for a writer, like, ‘yeah, I am going to live with these characters, so I need to believe in them a little bit more.’

In terms of balance, I have no idea! You just do what you feel is right at the time. It was always about trying to ground all the performances, and make it as real as possible. Which is kind of why the violence is, hopefully, quite real; it’s not slapstick. 

There’s not a huge amount of gore, but what there is – you really feel it. I think a lot of that’s down to the sound effects...

Yeah, the sound design is brilliant. A guy called David Smithers did that, and it was just fantastic. But again, because of the strange way we funded the film, we had to screen it in village halls around Cornwall and your typical village hall audiences are slightly older. It’s very nerve-wracking putting on an early cut of Weekend Retreat, knowing how much violence and swearing there is in it, sitting next to a 74-year-old woman – who then really loves it! I think that was the reassuring thing; whenever slightly older people were in the audience they’d say ‘it’s not the kind of thing I’d usually watch, but I really enjoyed it.’

What’s happening with the film now? Will readers be able to see it anywhere?

We’ve been to a few festivals with it and won a few awards, which is amazing. We've been to a few festivals with it, and won a few awards, which is amazing. And we've just updated our website, so the DVD can be pre-ordered now! 

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