James Moran interview: Tower Block, British film, Cockneys Vs Zombies

Tower Block is a cracking British thriller. James Moran tells us about the film, and the challenges of getting it made and released...

For the second time in a month, we’ve been conversing with James Moran about a film of his that’s arriving in cinemas. A few weeks ago, Cockneys Vs Zombies had a limited release off the back of some strong reviews. Now comes his new project, Tower Block, which is getting a far wider release.

Here’s what he had to say about it all, with a bonus Liam Neeson top three at the end…

Tower Block very firmly works on logic, a logic that’s established firmly early on. Can you talk about how you hammered that down, and made sure there were no cheats for any of your characters?

A movie like this lives or dies on its internal logic. As an audience member, it drives me mental when a movie fudges the rules to get around a tricky plot device. No matter how heightened the scenario, if the characters don’t react in believable ways, it immediately takes me out of the story completely. I’ll end up sitting there, muttering, “Why don’t they just do this…?” or “They’re only doing that because the story demands it”.

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So it’s something I always work on – how would I react? How would I try to escape? If I was the villain, how would I stop them escaping? And especially in this movie, which has a very high concept, I was determined to play by the rules. Basically I put myself in the villain’s shoes and worked out how I’d cause the maximum amount of fear and pain, how I’d keep the victims in there and make sure nobody came to save them. And then I tried to get myself out of it!

You’re billed as co-producer on this film. So what did that entail? Did you have more control over this one?

I was originally in line to direct it, but then got offered a deal too good to refuse – full financing, shooting fairly soon, with the only condition being that Ronnie [Thompson] and James [Nunn] would direct. In these difficult economic times, particularly in the UK film industry, you’d have to be an idiot to turn that down!

I could have insisted on directing, and lost that deal, but you never know if anything will get made, so I thought it over and then grabbed it. But before I let it go, I made sure we were all on the same page, and was able to get joint approval over lots of the elements, which is basically what the co-producing was. Ronnie convinced me it would get made well, and soon, and he kept that promise. I was on set a lot, and stayed involved at every stage.

Can you tell us how the project came about? The thought came to you during Frightfest one year didn’t it?

It was the 2007 FrightFest, I was watching another horror movie – I won’t say which one so I don’t spoil the ending – and during the big climax, the survivors were just about to run out the front door. And suddenly, I thought, “Oh God, he’s going to be outside with a gun, he’ll pick them off one by one or just not let them leave”. But that didn’t happen, they ran out, and he killed them somewhere else.

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The thought stayed in my mind, and I realised it would be a good setup for a horror movie – what if someone was waiting outside your house with a sniper rifle, just waiting for you to look out a window or try to leave? And that was it, I started brainstorming it, trying to figure out why someone would do that, how the tenants would try to escape, and so on. I wrote the script that winter, and optioned it the following summer. It lay dormant for a bit, then suddenly sprang into life at the end of 2010, filmed in summer 2011, and here we are now. 

And on a related note, as a regular Frightfest goer, how did it feel to have the opening and closing night films?

It was amazing, I’ve been going for years and love it. My first ever movie, Severance, premiered at FrightFest in 2006, and I still remember that strange moment where I stepped out of the audience and onto the stage for the Q&A, it was a huge deal for me. And then I signed my first ever autograph, which was bizarre but cool. After being away from movies for a while – a few bad experiences soured me on the industry, then I was busy in TV for a while – it was great to come home to FrightFest with two at the same time. They’re my favourite audience in the world, and Tower Block had its best ever screening possible, because nobody knew anything about it, there hadn’t even been a trailer yet. Such a great feeling. 

You’ve expressed some frustration on Twitter that writers get short shrift from film festival publicity. Could you expand on that a little? 

It’s just something that happens all the time, and only now is it getting challenged in a serious way. Pretty much every film festival, when they list the films on their site, will only ever list the director and the main cast. Never the writer. It’s very frustrating, and insulting. Even when discussing the movies, it’s always “the new movie from Director X”, or “Director Y’s latest movie”.

Now, I’m not pushing for the writer to be mentioned instead, or to devalue what the director does, but I think both writer and director should be given equal weight. It’s a team effort, and it all starts with the script, so it’s only fair.

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Writers are rarely invited to festivals, either – FrightFest is an exception to that one, thankfully, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there! The more we complain about it, the more chance things will change. 

I wrote an article for Broadcast last year about BAFTA only having one TV category for writing, instead of splitting it into comedy and drama – the Writers Guild of Great Britain kept pushing the issue, working with them, and now the award has been split into two, for comedy and drama. We have to keep making progress like this, writers are seriously undervalued and ignored, and it’s unacceptable. So expect more Twitter rants…

Is Tower Block the closest the finished film has come to the words you wrote?

Both Tower Block and Cockneys Vs Zombies are pretty much exactly what’s on the page – obviously small things change here and there due to practicality, location, or the actors rewording a line, but both movies are the best representation of me on screen so far. They really feel like extensions of my brain, they’re exactly what I wanted on screen, I’m so happy with them. But then nearly every time, my favourite line ends up being something an actor has made up on the spot! How do they do that?!

How many drafts did it take for you to find the film, and polish it? What changed when the directors became attached?

It never changed very much from start to finish, the structure was always there right from the first outline. The biggest change just before filming was trimming out a few extra characters who got killed very early on – I wanted to fully set up lots of characters so you’d be really uncertain who would make it to the end. But obviously when you look at it and see that snipping a character doesn’t affect the story at all, then you really should cut them! They were just cannon fodder, really, and had to go.

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The other biggish change was the identity of a certain character. I can’t go into details without spoiling the film, but it was just about making sure a reveal was properly set up. 

Jack O’Connell is astounding in the film; how did you envisage the character of Kurtis on the page?

He’s mesmerising, he really is. I was very excited to hear we’d got him, Kurtis is a tricky part to play, and I knew he’d be fantastic. On the page, I really wanted him to be very dark and unpredictable, so that you genuinely didn’t know how he’d react from one minute to the next. He was also the sarcastic voice who undercuts the tension, and has his own complex backstory that is hinted at in the dialogue. Jack brought all of that out and more, and the film ended up with several more laughs than expected, because his reactions are so realistic and recognisable. All of the cast were amazing, I had no idea who would be cast, but they mostly all look exactly like the imaginary people I’d pictured in my head. Not sure how they managed that, probably some kind of dark magic.

Tower Block is getting a wider release than Cockneys Vs Zombies, which struggled to get big screen space in spite of good reviews. Is this the challenge now facing British cinema? 

It’s the hardest part these days, sadly. You make a good film, get good reviews, and then it’s still a struggle to get seen in an increasingly crowded marketplace. We had a two month DVD window too, which meant that the bigger chains wouldn’t show it, but even allowing for that, it’s less screens than expected – why take a chance on a small UK movie with a silly title, when The Dark Knight Rises takes over £750,000 in its seventh week? And you’re looking at four or five big movies coming out every week at busy times, too.

So the top ten the week we came out had three sequels, a remake, and a movie based on a TV show – it’s a bit depressing when you look at it that way. But having said that – we did really well considering the amount of screens, and we haven’t flopped, so the DVD should do really well. Obviously I’d love to have CvsZ on 300 screens, but sometimes you just don’t get to take that risk – it’s not my money, so I can’t complain… People are loving the movie, there’s loads of goodwill out there for it.

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Tower Block, though, is getting a bigger release, and I’m guessing that’s because it’s easier to convince people to see it – CvsZ was always going to be more of a risk, because there are lots of films in that same genre that didn’t do well, so we had to work harder to convince people (and once they saw it, they really responded well).

I think straight horrors and thrillers have a more proven track record, or at least the audience thinks they do, and sometimes it’s all about perception. Whatever the reason, I’m really glad it’s going to be easier to find it. I’ve got two movies out that aren’t remakes, sequels, or based on TV shows, so hopefully people will go and see them. In glorious, bright, full colour 2D! Bring the kids! If they’re 15 or over.

Are you allowed to talk about any of your top secret projects yet?

There’s a couple of things I can’t talk about yet, because there’s nothing to announce, and I’m terrified I’ll jinx them. Like I always say, I’m not superstitious, it’s just that if I don’t do certain things in a specific order, the WORLD WILL END. 

I have several other movies in the pipeline, if all goes well, some monster movies, a slasher, a comedy action thriller, a dark thriller, and a period drama adaptation of a Victorian novel. That last one was a joke. I fully intend to direct a couple of those as well, as well as a short film next month.

And you forgot to ask what my favourite Liam Neeson movies were, so I’ll tell you: The Grey, which is an amazing movie that wasn’t what I expected at all, in a good way, Taken, which was exactly what I expected and so is gloriously satisfying, and Darkman, which is madder than Liam Neeson if you kidnapped his face and attacked him with wolves.

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James Moran, thank you very much.

Tower Block is out in UK cinemas on Friday 21st September.

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