Jon Wright interview: Grabbers, Christmas movies, body parts

With Irish alien invasion movie Grabbers out next week, Sarah spoke to director Jon Wright about its making, and what he's up to next...

Grabbers is the kind of film you want to tell people about. It’s an alien invasion movie with a twist: the aliens are deathly allergic to alcohol, so when they attempt to invade a small Irish island, the locals realise the only way to survive is to get wasted. It’s a fun movie with a surprisingly large heart, by turns scary, funny, gory, and adorable, and as soon as you’ve seen it you’ll want to make sure all your friends have, too.

We caught up with director Jon Wright ahead of the film’s UK release. And given the film’s subject matter, we decided the best place to conduct our interview was in a pub, over a couple of beers…

What was it that initially appealed to you about the Grabbers script?

I thought it was escapist fun – in a good way! Too many films don’t allow you to escape, and it’s something I think filmmakers should be proud of, rather than ashamed of.

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And that aside, I’m Irish by birth. So I don’t sound Irish, but I’ve got Irish family, I was born in Ireland, I travel a lot in Ireland, and I lived in Dublin for a few years, and I recognised the characters as being authentically Irish. It’s about characters that every Irish person would know, without veering into the stereotypes that tend to characterise Hollywood movies.

There are a lot of movies made in Ireland that are very inauthentic and it’s embarrassing for somebody who knows anything about the country, or who’s lived there. Equally there’s a lot of films where they populate the movie with actors from other countries, and everybody’s quite happy with the accents that they’re doing, but if you know the accent you find it cringeworthy. It knocks you out of the reality of the movie and you can’t enjoy it because there’s someone speaking with a strange accent in the middle of it.

So that was something that I was thinking about, when we went into making the film; I wanted to cast as many Irish actors as possible, and to have any actors who weren’t Irish who were playing Irish – there’s only one, Richard Coyle – to have as good an Irish accent as they could possibly manage. Which in Richard’s case was very good. 

He must have put a lot of work into that?

Yeah. Somebody tweeted at Richard that there should be a new category in the IFTAS, the Irish Film and Television Awards, for Best Irish Accent by a Non-Irish National, and I thought, yeah, fair enough, he should be up for that. A lot of Irish people say “I didn’t realise he was Irish, I thought he was from Wales” and he’s actually from Sheffield, but he does a Welsh accent in Coupling. I think that’s the highest praise you can get. Some of the Irish crew on the movie even thought he was Irish! So I think that’s good enough. It’s not going to distract you from the movie.

Had you worked with any of the cast and crew before Grabbers?

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Yeah, I’d worked with a lot of the crew before. I brought on people that I loved. We recced in a force nine gale, and we were standing in the location where we eventually shot the exteriors with the wind howling, and it was quite frightening. It felt like we’d gone to the Arctic: it was so dark, it was like – you couldn’t make a movie there, like we’d gone to the wrong place. And I remember looking around at the people I knew, that I’d worked with before, and I could see in their eyes that I could rely on them, they’d get me through this.

I hate that metaphor that directors always use, which is that making a movie is like war – you always hear that, they say it’s like going into battle and you’re the general and all that, and I think, there’s one small difference between going to war and making a movie, which is that you don’t intentionally kill anyone when you’re making a movie. But I know what they mean in the sense that you’re bonded together by the difficulties and pressures that are on you. 

Speaking of the bad weather, a lot of the film is set in the rain. Was that difficult to film? It seems like maybe setting scenes in the rain is a bad idea…

It was a terrible idea! I mean, rain is a real technical nightmare but it looks fantastic. Raindrops have to be a lot bigger for film than they do in real life so if it rains in real life, quite often it doesn’t show up on camera. You see people gradually getting wetter or you might see ripples in puddles, but you don’t have any sense of actual rain. So in order to get rain on camera, it has to be massively heavy, like stair rods. It comes out of a machine which is attached to a tank and you have to run that every time you want rain and everyone gets soaked to the skin and it’s very uncomfortable and the cameras, which are electrical, have to be bagged up and water-proofed, and sometimes the water gets into the cameras… I wouldn’t revisit it lightly. It looks really cool though, I can understand why people do it; it’s very atmospheric.

It does look great. Actually, I think the whole film looks great; it’s almost old-fashioned, because it doesn’t have that super-grainy teal and orange look so many modern films go for…

One of the main things for me as a director is how the film looks.

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You’d hope so, really, wouldn’t you?

It isn’t for some directors, though, is it? There are a lot of directors who are most interested in the acting, or the storytelling. Some of the directors who inspired Grabbers, like Ridley Scott, he’s a director who cares about how a film looks and very little else. We tried to invoke the spirit of a lot of old movies, like Jaws and Tremors and Alien and Gremlins.

We used lenses that are quite old in conjunction with a new camera. A lot of people nowadays use new lenses with a new camera so they get a very crisp, precise look, and we were trying to get something quite soft and organic, that had a kind of gentle, warm quality to it, which is reflected in the story. 

It is a very warm film, on the whole.

Yeah, it has a fuzziness to it, which is partly because everyone’s drunk and partly because it’s a love story.

It’s being released on Boxing Day in the UK, and that kind of seems like the perfect time to release it, in some ways.

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Bizarrely, we always thought of it as a Christmas movie. My thing as a filmmaker, I’ve come to realise, is that I’m trying to recreate a sort of Christmas Day movie experience. And that falls into two categories: you’ve got the afternoon movie, which is probably a kids’ movie or a Bond film, that escapist PG kind of thing where you’re swept up in the film, it’s kind of like a waking dream; and then the late night version of that, which is maybe a Hitchcock movie followed by a John Carpenter movie.

We almost did set Grabbers at Christmas, but it felt like that was just one concept too many. You know, people drink a lot at Christmas, and there’s that drunken revelation you have between Christmas and New Year, and the film’s about drunken revelations, so it would have been fitting.

The grabbers themselves are really weird, totally alien-looking things. Who created them? How did you come up with that particular design?

There’s a concept artist called Paul Catling, who’s very brilliant, and we worked with him – he did these lovely illustrations of the grabbers. Paddy Eason, the visual effects supervisor, fed into the design quite a lot, and we were inspired by Kevin [Lehane]’s allegorical descriptions in the script, which were very evocative and suggestive but not very specific. It was a collaborative process.

I suppose what we did that was different from your typical film was that, because we knew that it was never going to get a PG certificate – it has a lot of people getting drunk, it has a lot of swearing – it was probably going to get one of the higher certificates, probably a 15. So we thought, well, why don’t we put all the stuff into the monster that you usually aren’t allowed to? Instead of saying “that looks a bit like a cock” or “that looks a bit like an arsehole, we should change it,” we were like “oh, good, that looks a bit like an arsehole.”

We made them really reminiscent of the unspeakable bits of the human body and made it a taboo-bashing thing, in a way. I enjoyed that, it made me laugh, and I think when you see them you think “oh, I wouldn’t want that anywhere near me!” and then of course we put it on people’s faces.

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In a similar vein, some of the homages we paid to films like E.T. and Aliens and that kind of thing, the way that we pay them is very wrong! The homages are sincerely meant to films we really love but they’re done in a really wrong way. So where Elliot sailed across this huge gibbous moon on his bicycle, we have a man with every bone in his body broken flopping across the moon, and where Ripley says “get away from her, you bitch!” we have our heroine using the c-word. Everything’s a bit wrong. It’s quite a gentle film, especially for a film with severed heads, but it’s kind of paradoxical in a way. 

You’ve called John Landis the patron saint of Grabbers. Why’s that?

Just because, looking back at the 80s, he’s amongst the filmmakers that I absolutely love! We went through a period of trying to get him on board as executive producer, which didn’t work out for one reason and another, but he read the script and he was very complimentary about it. He met with me, and chatted to me about it, and we basically ended up with him reminiscing about a lot of his experiences making films, and it was fascinating. Also, it’s the first time I can remember meeting a filmmaker that I thought had done it at the highest level, made classic movies that inspired me and made me want to be a filmmaker – I’d met a lot of other directors, but never directors who’d done that, so there was something really fulfilling about meeting him.

Do you see yourself as a genre filmmaker?

Absolutely. Without any hesitation. Those are the films that I love. I’ve just accepted that I’m quite a childish sort of person, and my output as a filmmaker is going to be related to the childish side of my personality. And the things that got me excited as a boy were sci-fi and horror and fantasy. When I was younger that was more of a stigma – it’s like what’s happened with computers. When I was a kid, being a computer geek was a badge of shame, there wasn’t any kudos or credibility, but now those guys have become some of the richest people in the world and there’s a certain cachet to it. There wasn’t when I was a kid, it just meant you got bullied.

So what’s your next movie going to be?

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It’s called Our Robot Overlords and it’s set three years after the robot invasion of Earth and everyone’s confined to their houses, and no one knows why. Everyone’s been given a little implant behind their ear which is a tracking device which prevents you from leaving your house, and it’s about a gang of teenagers who figure out how to disable their implants and go on a picaresque adventure from one side of their seaside town to another and discover what the robot empire is up to.

We did a workshop session with a  group of teenagers as part of the Edinburgh festival, and I asked them to describe the film to me in the shorthand way that the film industry is so fond of, and they said, “it’s like Stand By Me vs robots”, or “like Goonies vs robots”. And I thought, good, that’s what I want it to be. I co-wrote the script and it, bizarrely, came to me in a dream, which has never happened before and never happened since! I dreamt the first two minutes of the film and woke up and thought, “well, that’s good.” It’s another Christmas Day movie – it’s relentlessly, unashamedly escapist, a sci-fi adventure.

Finally, what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Snatch, I suppose.

Jon Wright, thank you very much!

Grabbers opens in selected UK cinemas on 26th December, and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from 31st December.

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