Out this week is A Fantastic Fear Of Everything, a new British flick starring Simon Pegg as a writer beset by his own overactive imagination. Behind the camera are two debut feature filmmakers, Crispian Mills and Chris Hopewell, but they’re hardly unfamiliar faces. Hopewell has enjoyed success for years as a director of visually inspired music videos such as Radiohead’s There There, whereas Crispian Mills, the son of director-producer Roy Boulting and actress Hayley Mills, is the former frontman of 90s Brit-rock hippies Kula Shaker.
Ahead of the film’s release, we had the chance to chat with the two directors about Fantastic Fear Of Everything’s long gestation, the difficulty of describing the film’s mix of visually-vivid live-action comedy, nostalgic animation and macabre eccentricity, and the helpful presence of leading man Simon Pegg.
Also, keep reading for one of the most unique personal phobias we’ve ever heard, courtesy of Mr Mills himself…
You’re co-directors on this film. How did that break down, in terms of division of labour?
Crispian Mills: It was pretty simple.
Chris Hopewell: He did it all! I just sat around and drank tea.
Mills: Because we had 28 days to shoot it, we planned as much as we could. We had a good understand of what we were after, and then because we had two of us, we were able to get the film looking really good, rather than have it compromised by the fact that we were shooting so quickly. So Chris would stay behind the camera, and ensure that it was all looking good, and I was able to be giving the actors loads of attention. If you work that quickly, it’s very, very easy for stuff to fall through the cracks. And it did, there was loads of things that went wrong. But we were able to minimise it.
Hopewell: And it’s great to have two minds on it, really. The fact that we had worked on it, before we started shooting, for three years before. So we talked and talked and talked, so when you actually get onto the actual floor, you’re ready and buzzing…
Mills: “What did we say again?”
Hopewell: “What did we agree for this bit? I can’t remember! Just do that!” But we kind of had a really unified idea of what we needed to do, so it was a little bit symbiotic.
Mills: There’s a lot of nods.
Hopewell: Sign language.
You say you’ve been working on the film for three years, what was the genus of the project?
Mills: There was a short story by Bruce Robinson [Paranoia In The Launderette], and then there was a script for a short film, and then that got developed to a TV hour thing, but then Simon Pegg read it about three years ago. He said, “Hm, this is a really good character, I think it’s really funny. You should turn it into a feature.”
So I said, “Okay, well, you play the part and we’ll do it!” I mean, he claims I told him to play the part, but I seem to remember him saying “Yeah, I’d love to do it”. I don’t remember how it happened, it was just very natural. We all understood each other, and we were all into it for the right reasons. We just wanted to make the film.
Hopewell: It just seemed like a crazy, odd idea, as well. It’s one of those films where you think “God, if this gets made we’d be so lucky”.
Mills: It’s unconventional.
Hopewell: And it’s very sort of British, and very… The words that have been used to describe it: odd, eccentric, offbeat. The oddest words, what do they mean?
Mills: Nothing! Ideally, you wanna make a film that can be only be communicated by some kind of psychic thought transmission. I mean, the thing I hate about the film business, is having to pitch your idea. I love those amazing stories. Ridley Scott went into a meeting about Alien, and he just said, “Jaws in space”, and then left the room, and let the guys write the cheques. To be able to do that for this film is impossible. People now, even when we’re doing promotion, ask “What’s the film about?” This is a dreaded question.
Hopewell: And “What’s the tagline?” But that’s the reason there’s no tagline on the poster, because we couldn’t think of one! For three years, we were like, “What the hell would you write underneath this that isn’t going to make it seem puerile?”
Mills: Well, he wears a duffle coat for a lot of the movie, and the tagline that we liked was “Kerfuffle in a duffle”. But he’s not wearing a duffle in the picture.
Hopewell: My favourite was “A series of rants, in a pair of old pants”. I just thought that one up, actually!
How did that pitching process go, then? Did doors just open once Simon got involved?
Mills: Everyone will talk to you if Simon Pegg’s going to star in your film. Definitely. But when they realise what you want to talk about, they then get a bit worried, and start looking to the door. Because the sad thing is that, you know, everybody’s kind of freaking out about the recession, so there’s a culture of fear. And the way that the business is dealing with that, is that everything has to be a sure bet. A sure bet means it’s already been a best-selling novel, it’s already been a hit TV show, or people are familiar with the branding.
Hopewell: Or it’s already been a film!
Mills: I enjoy some of those films, but when it is the be-all-and-end-all for whether somebody will invest, it can be a bit of a drag. So because it was a bit of an individual, novel, film, it wasn’t easy.
But when you get a name behind it…
Mills: You can talk to people! But it always comes down to the same thing. Making films is too big an undertaking to be doing it on a whim, so you’re waiting all the time, until you finally meet the person who gets it.
Hopewell: We were lucky that, quite early on, we had someone who got us straight away, with Geraldine Patten and Johnny Fewings at Universal. They got it. And that’s nice, because it can be such an uphill struggle.
Mills: And it was still difficult!
And when you came to actually making the film, what were those difficulties?
Hopewell: There’s a lot of things, from doing music videos, that primed me. You learn a discipline of getting stuff done for not a lot of money, not a lot of resources, in a finite amount of time. With making these kind of features, that’s a really helpful thing to know how to do. Other than that, it’s a completely different world. It’s another planet, really. From a three and a half minute music video, to an hour and a half film, with lots of characters and narratives. It’s a bloody film! [laughs]
What were some of the things that were so different?
Mills: You wanna know what were the fuck-ups!
Hopewell: Fuck-ups, wow!
Mills: Let’s not talk about the, erm… [clears throat]
Hopewell: Once it all started moving, there weren’t any at all, really. Depending on what kind of person you are, you can view it as a fuck-up or you can view it as a necessary change along the way. And I always said that, like anything, it is like getting a really, massive, huge, old-fashioned, cast-iron locomotive train, loaded with everybody you care about, to the top of a hill, and just letting the brakes off. And you have no fucking way of stopping it until it either hits the buffers at the bottom, or you just cruise on. It’s that. You can’t stop it, once it gets going. You can just weather it, keep it on the tracks, and have a good time as you’re powering down the hill.
Mills: And try not to throw up!
Hopewell: The thing is, we all got on that at the top of the hill, knowing exactly where it was going. I don’t want to wear out the metaphor, but no one’s doing this because it’s an easy life.
They’ve reserved their seats?
Hopewell: And they’re also, if you’re lucky, they’re in the direction of travel.
This film is being distributed by Universal, but it is one of the first projects funded by Pinewood Films, the new production wing of the Pinewood Shepperton studio group. How did that come about?
Mills: It was just really lucky. Universal were interested to distribute fairly early on, and just when we were getting desperate, the Pinewood Fund opened its gates and we were able to talk to them, and they wanted to be involved in supporting British film. Really good timing. Pinewood, they’re like the brand, the old brand. They’ve been making films for a hundred years, almost. It was a wonderful experience, shooting at Shepperton, for me especially. My dad had made films there, and you get a sense of occasion and a sense of history and of the ghosts.
Hopewell: Absolutely. It’s amazing. I was just knocking around the sets, looking at what else was going on there. And that’s exciting. But then when you think back at what’s already been made there, it’s like, wow! It’s brilliant! It’s not comparable. And Pinewood, they championed this, and all power to them.
Mills: It’s lucky.
Hopewell: But they’ve got the vision to put the money behind it, as well. I think that was one of the things we’ve been saying. It’s hard enough to get the money for these things anyway, especially something which is novel, odd as this. But they had a lot of faith in the project, to have done it.
You say that there’s a British eccentricity to the humour, but the visual style – very saturated, colourful and a bit macabre – isn’t particularly in keeping with the British film industry’s tendency towards dour realism.
Hopewell: No it’s not, but it does relate back to the films which I love from years back, and also one of the references that we had was that whole Oliver Postgate, 1970s, nostalgic feel, for the animation especially. But, yeah, I think the colour palette and from the production design point of view, one of the things we were looking at was Jeunet’s Delicatessen and Amelie. Amelie’s one of my favourite films of all time, and just literally for the colours and the timelessness of it.
We all know it’s in Paris, we all know she’s knocking about on a moped, looking at photobooths. But it’s just the way that all the flats had this beautiful, eclectic feel. The reds and the greens and the yellows. That’s one of the thing we purposefully did with this, is that we said on set: no black and no white in anything. Be it clothing, be it curtains, be it placemats, whatever. Keep it very dark chocolate brown, or very light, mustard-y yellow.
Mills: Chris will get erotically charged by discussions of mossy greens.
Hopewell: Totally! But the thing is, it’s so important. Seeing a film at the cinema, or a DVD or whatever at home, your brain is really receptive to not only whether the script’s working, or if the actors are acting well, but also the colours. I think that with this, yeah, it does have a European feel to it, but the animation is very Bagpuss and The Clangers.
And this was a rather low-budget film, are you saying how much it came to?
Mills: It’s like two, two and a half [million]. It’s not made in someone’s back yard, but compared to even those Working Title productions… What we’ve done with our money, everybody did four or five jobs, and loved doing those jobs. So you’ve got much more of a personal vision, there’s a lot of care and a lot of love in the whole thing, and I don’t think it looks like a cheap movie at all. It looks like a proper fantasy!
Did you tailor the script for the budget? The first half is mostly just Pegg’s character in his flat.
Mills: Well, the first draft of the script was a short, and that was very much thinking, “How can I make a film and have control over it? Keep it cheap”. And then, as it expanded, it was just driven by the story.
Hopewell: It’s not one of the things that we talked about – “Could we afford that?”
Mills: But instinctively, you know what you can do.
Hopewell: Yeah, I know that, having run my own company for years. You self-edit anyway, when you’re thinking about stuff. No, there isn’t going to be a zeppelin shot in this. And there isn’t going to be an underground sewer cable-car ride. But at the same time, what was so exciting to me, when I first read Crispian’s script, was, wow, this is one guy in a flat. And I haven’t seen a film like that since the 50s or 60s, where you get almost like a stage play.
Then it relies completely on the acting and the photography. I thought that was a real challenge, and that was kind of where I was coming from with a lot of the music videos that we were making, which were out of necessity, because the money wasn’t so good. This was a real opportunity to do something really quite cool.
To finish, I think the film calls for the following question. What is your personal greatest fear?
Mills: I’m not afraid of anything other than spiritual annihilation. Where your soul is sucked into the void. Aldous Huxley had an acid trip, in which he was pondering the secrets of the universe with his wife taking notes, and he said that the types of spiritual liberation that are listed in books like the Tibetan Book of the Dead are about the worst thing that you can do. It’s like a trick, don’t go down there. It’s like a red herring. He said, don’t annihilate your soul, maintain your individuality, because if you maintain your individuality, then you can still have a relationship with someone. You can still have an exchange of love. Because if you just become one with the light, who the fuck are you gonna love? You’re just disappearing off into your own spiritual navel.
Hopewell: Mine’s very physical. Drowning, and being aware, even when you stop breathing, because your brain doesn’t shut off for a good three or four minutes…
Mills: Being alive to experience your own death!
Hopewell: Exactly! Imagine drowning above a Pacific trench, and you would just keep sinking and sinking. And you’d be aware of that, because your brain isn’t going to die until two or three minutes after you stop breathing. Imagine it getting darker and darker and colder and colder, and then the pressure builds up and actually crushes you before you died. It would be horrendous!
Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time!
A Fantastic Fear Of Everything is out on the 8th June in the UK.
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