Iain Softley is a filmmaker who’s hard to categorise. His career is pretty fascinating, because it’s almost impossible to predict what kind of film he’ll make next. His first film was a drama about the early career of the Beatles, which he followed with an unconventional action movie about computer hackers. Then he made a period drama. Then a weird sci-fi movie set in a mental hospital. Then a spooky horror film, and followed it up with a fantasy movie for kids. How many directors can you name who’ve made a series of films that diverse?
His new film, Trap For Cinderella, is yet another different kind of movie, and maybe one of the most difficult to categorise in itself: it’s a kind of psychological mystery thriller about an orphan struggling to piece together her identity after escaping a fire that killed her best friend. Like his previous films, it’s thoughtful and impeccably stylish, making the most of its cool young cast and even cooler locations. We got hold of Iain for a chat about it before, inevitably, steering the conversation towards Hackers…
Your new film, Trap For Cinderella, is based on a novel. What was it that appealed to you about the story?
I was gripped by it when I read it. I didn’t know where it was going. In the novel, you’re inside Micky’s head first of all, as a narrator, and then inside Do’s head, so I knew it was going to be a real challenge to make it into a film; it’s almost like two diary accounts. But I really didn’t know where it was going. The amnesia is a great set-up, and then you go back with the flashbacks to find out what’s going to unfold, what the relationships are, who’s doing what…
I was just intrigued and fascinated by Micky. She’s kind of like a sister character to Kate in Wings Of The Dove: dark, seductive, troubled, irresistible, but maybe a bit of a destructive character. I think that’s what got under my skin. I knew I could make a film that’s like the films that inspired me; that dealt with identity, and doubles, and a two-sided personality that’s psychologically complex, that could try and play with the idea of situations and memories where you don’t know what’s real or imagined.
All of that seems like rich territory for cinema, and an opportunity to create a seductive and fascinating world. That’s what I try to do with films: create worlds that are seductive and intriguing, and the characters that operate within them.
The novel was written in the early 60s, and there was a film of it made in the 60s, but your film is set now. Why did you decide to bring it up to date?
Yeah, it’s very contemporary. I contemplated making it as a 60s film, which would have been interesting and fun in a different way, like The Talented Mr Ripley, but I was very interested in making a contemporary film in London. It struck me that I’d never done one; I’d made contemporary films in America, but not a contemporary film in London.
And I always knew that because it didn’t really fit into any genre, it was going to be a challenge to get it financed. Making it contemporary as opposed to period, the assumption was that it would be less expensive.
I looked at making it in Paris at first, because I lived in France for a year before going to university, and it had all these exotic associations, and I was aware there was an opportunity to make this like a New Wave film. But then I realised it would be even more exciting to make it as a contemporary film in London, because in many ways, London now has a lot of the energy and excitement that Paris would have done in the ‘60s.
And I hadn’t seen a film that had put the Bohemian indie music side of Hoxton or Shoreditch – or Hackney and Dalston, we filmed in all those places – on the screen. It was a sort of counterpoint to the East End gangster film, in a way.
I knew, also, it would allow me to shoot a very contemporary film, making it feel very current, by being able to use some of the techniques of New Wave films, such as shooting on Super 16, being super light and super quick, and being able to go on the streets and shoot scenes where we put actors in environments with real people. So that was really exciting, I thought.
Speaking of locations, one of the things that’s really striking about your films is that sense of a place; for example, in The Skeleton Key, you make New Orleans and Louisiana seem like the ideal, super cool version of that place. I’ve never been there, but that’s what it’s like in my head, it’s what I want it to be like.
And I think you do the same thing with London in Trap For Cinderella, and with New York and cyberspace in Hackers, and even with Hamburg in Backbeat… So is the location really important to you, when you’re making a film?
It is, and I think in these stories and these characters, where they are in their lives, a lot of what they’re trying to do is impose their personalities and seek out the sort of worlds they want to be in.
Actually, when I was in New Orleans I was really surprised that it had this – partly it’s a rose-tinted aspect of it, because you’re there with a film crew so you have an in-built social life, and you also get a fast track under the skin of the city, because you get introduced to people very very quickly who know the best music hangouts, who know the cool night places, and they give you access to places that as a tourist you wouldn’t necessarily get access to. So you’re kind of getting that view that’s kind of rose-tinted – but for me it’s very appropriate for the worlds that I want to create.
And I think that a place isn’t a place without people and their perceptions of it. New Orleans is a mixture of the experiences that everyone has when they’re there. It’s partly to do with what you’re drawn to, and what you choose to seek out. It was interesting – a lot of people from New Orleans and Louisiana said that it was a really authentic portrayal. And to me, it’s somewhere that has music all the time, it’s hugely atmospheric, it has quite a sexy vibe, as well; there’s this decadence, slightly supernatural obsessions and almost Latin American sense of death, I suppose, the cemeteries and the belief that the spirits are always around you…
It wasn’t the kind of tourist, trad jazz Mardi Gras place I was expecting at all. The French Quarter wasn’t really where we filmed or hung out, it was more the Garden District, which is much more authentic but a much bigger area, that’s what surprised me. It’s this huge area that’s got a combination of students, and artists, and there’s poverty and crack houses next to old plantation families, and it’s a really intoxicating mix. To me, the challenge was to try and visualise that – and not only visualise it, but to use sound, in particular, to create this world and this atmosphere.
I tried to do the same in the south of France and in East London, really, in Trap For Cinderella. Because a lot of it is about a kind of dream of a life, or this Arcadian idyll; this urban chic idyll that Do thought she was excluded from but was going to be able to be part of with Micky, and that somehow that was going to make her happy.
One of the things that I discovered, as I was making the movie, was that it’s a companion piece to Wings Of The Dove. It’s about somebody who thinks that the solution to their unhappiness is to be able to live someone else’s life. That’s the root of the obsession really. But you see the story from both sides and it becomes clear that the other person’s life isn’t as seductive and as fun and as filled with love as it appeared to be from the outside.
Let’s talk about the cast. The main three young cast are all great, up-and-coming actors who’ve done interesting things already – Aneurin Barnard has done some very cheap horror movies that he’s great in, even if they’re not great; and Tuppence Middleton is in Skeletons, which is brilliant, and then Alexandra Roach is in Utopia, which is great… so how did you find them?
Their names came up from the casting director, Dixie Chassay. I saw loads and loads of people, and when I decided that, “Okay, now’s the time that we’re actually going to make this film,” when the money had come together, casting can really hold you up. You spend a lot of time trying to convince the financiers that these are the right people, and you often pick people who are just on the verge of breaking, and then by the time the money’s come in they have broken and they’re off doing a film that’s going to pay 20 times what we were able to pay.
So I said, “Let me find a couple of people who are less well-known.” I like the idea of working with people at an early stage in their career, I think there’s a sort of freshness, and I think it’s exciting for the audience to see new people as well. And as you’ve pointed out, they have careers that are accelerating very fast. Alexandra is in a film opposite James Cordon, and Tuppence is in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending…
But I just saw people, and taped them, and Alexandra and Tuppence just kept rising further and further to the top. I put them in different roles, I swapped the parts, I put them in combinations with other actresses, and they just emerged. I thought both of them were very complex; they revealed different parts of themselves more the more I got to know them, which I thought was going to be fascinating in the film.
And they were very excited about the roles: they got on with one another, they lived close, we called them back for costume rehearsals and hair and makeup but they also spent a lot of time hanging out with one another. And I encouraged that, because I wanted them to be aware of each other’s characteristics.
Talking about casting fresh new up and coming actors brings us to talking about Hackers. When you were making that, did you think it would become as beloved a cult film as it has done?
It’s funny, actually. I read a review about eight years ago that said “some people think this is a cult movie. It’s not a cult movie!” I know that the studio said people may look back on the cast and say it’s sort of like Ridgemont High, this academy of actors for whom this is going to be an important film. They have all done really well: Jesse Bradford and Matthew Lillard have gone on to do great work, and they will have great careers ahead of them, and Fisher Stevens is a director now, but of course it’s Jonny [Lee Miller] and Angelina [Jolie] who stand out. And that was a risk, it was a risk for the studio.
I was quite naïve about the whole business of film then, because it took me a long time to get Backbeat made but once it was made it seemed to get to the screen quite effortlessly. Very early on, it was selected to be the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival, and it happened really quickly. I was attracted to the Hackers script because it seemed to me that, in the sense that Backbeat is about people on the cusp of a particular pop culture revolution, Hackers was a revolution that was about to happen. I saw it as an equivalent of rock and roll.
They ridiculed us at the time, saying the internet was never going to be anything more than text on a screen. And I just had this idea to fetishise cyberspace and laptop computers in the way that guitars and amps and Radio Caroline and pirate stations and vinyl were, at the birth of musical scene in the 60s. It was about finding “what is the next thing?”
And I like the slightly hyper-real, stylised way the characters were dressing and living like their handles, like their internet alter egos were sort of put into the world. And again, you talked about location – I wanted the world inside the computer to be like a virtual version of Manhattan, to create a city of text, this imaginary city that they would navigate in order to get to certain locations in cyberspace. So I wanted hip sexy actors, and Jonny and Angie were the two who fitted that bill!
We sent the tapes to Hollywood, and they said, “yeah, they are, you’re right”. Which was fantastic. I didn’t quite understand how rare that is. It was John Calley, the legendary Hollywood executive who was involved in a lot of Kubrick films, he’d actually come back from retirement and I think Hackers was I think one of his very first commissions.
And we wanted the music to reflect that as well. We had a fantastic soundtrack, put together by Gala Wright and Bob Last. They just played me loads and loads of stuff, and we had Prodigy, Leftfield, Orbital, Massive Attack, Underworld, Radiohead, etc etc, and we couldn’t get a record deal. Everybody said “what’s this music?” they all wanted something like Backbeat, something grungy, but I said, “no, it’s techno, it’s like cyberspace”. Ironically, about three months after the film came out, when it was no use for marketing the film, we finally got our Hackers album. I think we had it for the UK release. And I think there’ve been three Hackers soundtracks now!
So I think part of the reason why it’s endured is – my niece was 14 or 15 at the time, and she said all of her school friends were crazy about it. It was slightly sniffily received by the mainstream media, they kind of didn’t really get it, with the notable exceptions of Mark Kermode and Nigel Floyd, who were huge champions of it. Mark Kermode is still a huge champion of it, I remember when he was on a panel at the London Film Festival that it was showing at, and he was saying fantastic things about it, and a lot of people on the panel were looking at him like he was crazy and there were people in the audience saying “I saw it, I loved it!”
What happened was that it really appealed to a much younger generation. There weren’t that many films for young people – although Trainspotting was made after Hackers, I think it might’ve just come out, but that was quite a dark film, and I’m not sure 14 and 15 year old related to it in the way that older people in their 20s did. It’s a darker, indier film, and a fabulous film for that. I think a lot of people who were 14 or 15 really got Hackers, and I think those people are of an age now where they are in mainstream media or whatever, so I think it’s been reassessed for that reason. People who grew up with it now have more of a voice.
Yeah, my boyfriend is super excited about me talking to you today, because he loves it so much, and he would’ve been about 15 when it came out. It’s his go-to cheer up movie, and he revisits it all the time. He can basically recite the whole script.
[laughs] It’s a real shame, actually, they made us cut out a line and I wish I hadn’t. It was one of the most – it’s like the line “universally stupid,” which people always quote back – it was “I’m going to source you some wetware from a remote node”, and it’s when they’re talking about what they’re going to do when they’re in the club, you know, Cyberdelia. We were told that it was too obscure.
And I think it’s one of the best meta-language lines… you know, we were sort of aware of The Warriors and Clockwork Orange, and it was tongue in cheek only that we didn’t want to set ourselves up as being in the same company as films that were, you know, such iconic films for me. It was almost like we were fans making this film, so we felt like outsiders, in a way, making this film and trying to be cheeky and fun with it the whole time.
It’s a really complicated film, actually. I’ve got a sense that people think of it as being slightly unsophisticated, but I think there’s some great things in the script, the relationships and everything. But just the technicality of making it, we had to shut down Third Avenue and we had a car crash with 18 cars, and a rollerblading chase that went all the way down Third Avenue and into Grand Central Station, and another hack that we did at the top of the Empire State Building…
That was actually quite a big deal, and I sometimes forget that because the film was really under the radar when it came out. It wasn’t a huge commercial success at all, and as I said, it was rather sniffily looked at by critics, but it’s fun that it’s still there.
Okay, to wrap up, I’m going to ask you the Den of Geek question we’ve been asking everybody, so prepare yourself… What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?
I think it has to be… was he in it? Was he in Snatch? I think it has to be that. Talking of Mark Kermode, I heard him being very fulsome in his praise of Jason Statham the other day, in Hummingbird.
We’re big fans. Iain Softley, thank you very much!
Trap For Cinderella is out now in UK cinemas.
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