Noel Clarke interview:, filming sex scenes, Kevin Smith and film students

Noel Clarke talks to us about his new film,, with a dose of Michael Bay, sex scenes, character questionnaires and Mr Kevin Smith…

For his second directorial effort, Noel Clarke has left the world of Kidulthood and Adulthood behind for a distinctly more commercial project. As readies itself to roar into UK cinemas, he kindly spared some time for a chat about the film…

I noticed the big football flag in the background of the film, and the football-related messages scrolling on the news screens in the movie. Are you an Arsenal fan, perchance?

No, I’m not at all! 

I saw the big Arsenal flag, and the news story about Chelsea going bankrupt. That wasn’t you?!

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The reason that’s in the film is that what we do, I made the girls answer a character questionnaire. And in Tamsin (Egerton’s) character questionnaire, she said that Cassandra would be an Arsenal fan.

When do they do that? Straight after they get the first script?

Yes. After they’ve read the script, they do a character questionnaire and talk about favourite colour, most embarrassing experience, all in character. How did they meet the other girls, blah blah blah. All that kind of stuff. We get really in-depth. What did your mum do? What does your dad do?

Do you go back and rework anything off the back of their answers?

Yeah, because sometimes they’ll say something and it doesn’t quite work, as in ‘I met the girls here’, and the other one is ‘No, I met the girls here.’ So we sit them all together and choose which story works. But generally we talk about how they want their room, if they’re a football fan, an Arsenal fan. It’s all down to them.

How long before the shoot do you do that?

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From the moment they’re cast they get sent the questionnaire.

Is that something you’d carry across to everything you direct, be it a play or a film?

Not everything. The films, yeah. Only the main cast. I don’t have everyone do it. Only the cast that have through-threads we make them do that kind of stuff. But I think it’s really important and we make them get the vibe of them. Actors like it too, because you create the character with them, rather than saying she likes this, she likes that.

That’s quite a theatre workshop approach, rather than a traditional movie way of doing things?

Yeah. I think a few people do that, but I kind of like it. It really helps you develop character. What happens is, as well, is that you have lines, and Tamsin or whoever can say, “I’m not sure she’d say stuff like this.” And I’d say, “How would you say it?”  She’d say, “think she’d say it this way,” and I’d be like,”Fine, let’s do that”. You should know your character by now.

You don’t take the Michael Bay approach then?

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There seems to be some quite intense storyboarding work you’ve done on, which goes against the perception of how the film comes across, the lively, fast, momentum of it. You don’t necessarily sit there and think of how quickly you’ve turned a scene round. How deeply did you do the storyboarding work?

Very deeply. Stuff like any big scene. Café. Bar. Michelle fighting. Any scene of that sort of size. Sex scene. Any of that sort of stuff there was storyboarded 100%, completely meticulously, so we just knew what we were going to shoot.

Other stuff was like two people in a room, we’d just do that, we’ll have that, we’ll have that, we’ll have that. They were still planned out, they weren’t storyboarded so meticulously.

But the main scenes we’d tick off shots, say we’ve got that, we’ve got that, that needs to change a little bit.

You’ll be surprised to hear that I’ve not filmed a sex scene personally. I can understand why you’d storyboard an action sequence in such detail, but for a sex scene do you storyboard it as much to keep an actor confident?

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Yes. Because we showed the girls what we were planning to do. We explained to them at the beginning in the auditions and explained what we were going to do. No actress who came to the audition for that part didn’t know what they were getting into, so there was no changing your mind at the last minute.

You storyboard it to show exactly what you were planning. Obviously, the two actors were very naked on that day, but we say to them, ‘Look, this is how we’re going to shoot, nothing you don’t want to be seen will be seen. And if you look at that scene, you don’t see much.’

It’s not leering.

You see her bottom. But everyone sees bums. We promised her that none of her goodies would be seen at all. And they’re not. And that’s part of storyboarding.

Once you start it, it gets melded into the club scene, so you get into a kissing motion and boom, you’re in the club. Then you’re in the bar, and it goes from there. It’s one steady montage.

You’ve said of your earlier work that 95-99% of what you write is what you film. That it’s not improvised, that you film the script. Was that the case here? The reason I ask is that you had four very lively and bright lead actresses, and I’d imagine that when you put them together, they’re going to come up with stuff.

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No, it’s scripted. I think particularly the girls there’s maybe two improvised lines between the girls, and that’s Emma’s stuff, letting her add one or two things here and there. But the others are all scripted.

Even Kevin Smith’s stuff, 80-85% of his stuff is scripted.

And then the rest of it came true afterwards! I’ll come to him in a minute!

I’m interesting in the co-directing mechanic, though. How does that work for you and Mark Davis?

It’s fine, because I’ve known Mark for a long time. Anyone who goes on IMDb and looks at my first job, he’s the editor. We did a short film called Plastic that I appear in. We did Licks together.

We plotted and planned this film so long ago, meticulously, and we were on the same page about what we wanted to do. We wanted to make a British Go. There was never any ‘Let’s do this, no, let’s do that.’ We got on, we get on, we just did it.

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You mentioned Go. I thought I saw a bit of Amores Perros in there too?

Yeah, completely. In the grade especially, the blown-out whites and how we wanted the film to look. The sign outside the Quick Mart that we built, there’s a lamppost there with a lost dog sign on it. And the dog is the one from Amores Perros

Do they know?

No! But it’s an homage. Because that’s one of the films – Amores Perros, Go, Pulp Fiction – that inspired this film. It’s one of the things that we wanted to do.

It struck me too that you have to sit through a lot of logos at the start. Firstly, it must be great to have made a movie with that Universal logo at the start…

Yeah! The Universal logo was awesome.

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But you’ve got six or seven more that followed. It was the one thing that struck me as very British about

Yeah, because it takes so many people to spend money together to make a film. That’s why we’ve got the logos.

Generally, the more companies involved in making a film, the more you can fly under their radars?

Yeah. But it wasn’t really a case of that. It was a case of we needed them all. Some of them, like Pinewood, they don’t get involved. They do things like saying, “Right, you can do that here for this, you can shoot internals.” They help the film, they get the logo. The Film Council, they help you, they get their logo. It’s a thing like that.

It’s the thing that annoyed me that we had so many logos. But you need that many people over here to make the film.

There was never any doubt that any one of them was going to come in and interfere with your cut, or anything like that?

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No. Obviously, Universal have final cut, but the people at Universal kind of get what I wanted to do. There will never be a director’s cut of this film, because what you see is what we wanted.

What also stuck out was that you went to New York for a part of the shoot. How did the practicalities of that pan out? Because you’re working with a different crew, presumably?

Yes, apart from the DoP. Mark and I and the DoP came out, and that’s what you need. We know what the film’s going to be and he knows the look of the film. We just go out to New York, meet the new crew, tell them what the deal is for two days, and then go and shoot.

You didn’t go to an anonymous bit of New York either! You went slap bang into the middle of Times Square. How does that alter the way you film? Presumably when you’re filming in Britain you get a few people looking by, but in Times Square?

It’s Times Square, people see cameras there all the time. I think they see people filming there once a week.

People look for Tom Cruise and then move on?

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Yeah, people look around. And there was a little bit of me getting recognised, which I was surprised by.

Is that for Doctor Who?

Yeah. It was probably more Doctor Who. “Hey, Mickey!” Some people were just calling me by my name. But it’s just the same, really. You have the police there to watch over you, and you go out and you film. It was good fun.

Just continuing the Doctor Who theme too, you’ve got Nick Briggs in the film!

Briggsy, yeah! He’s in Adulthood too. He’s the manager of the salon. I like him, we got on. When we did Doctor Who, we got on really well. We’re at the complete opposite ends of the scale. He’s late 40s, posh, and I’m West London, black boy, but we got on so well. We’ve been mates since.

I know Briggsy’s a good actor, and he wanted to act and does act, but doesn’t get as much as he should.

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Does this mean he’s your Bruce Campbell to Sam Raimi now?

Possibly, yeah! But I’d love Briggsy to pop up in each thing. I loved him in Adulthood and this is a much bigger part.

Back to the film specifically, it was a brave move to start with Shannon’s story. I thought that was a bold move to kick off the film with the most melancholy story? What was your thinking, because presumably the easier choice would be to go with one of the more comedic, or faster-paced stories?

Emma had to be last for me. It ties stuff up, so it had to go at the end. I didn’t want New York to be first, because it really separates it from the others. It’d be New York, and then three London stories. So, I wanted it to be second.

So, then it was a case between Kerrys and Shannon. I think putting Shannon in the middle would slow the film down. It’s a really important story. It is melancholy, but it was always written this way. Shannon going third would slow things down. You start slow and you build up.

Also, because she’s the anchor of the film. The film is kind of Shannon’s story. She’s the face on the bridge you see first. It is the most melancholy, but it’s the most heart-rending story. She’s a put-upon girl, and she feels down. But a lot of people do. And you have to have that one first.

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Ordinarily, if you go by the rule book, hers is the story that should go third?

I don’t listen to rules, man! [Laughs]

You’ve talked about the Kevin Smith cameo before, and you got a lot of mileage out of it. Has he actually seen the film yet?

I don’t think he has, no. I don’t think he has seen it. But he was there, did it, knew what he was doing. He had a good time.

Would you be nervous about him watching it, given that you’ve cited him as such an influence on your work?

I don’t really get nervous, but I guess with him seeing it, he’s someone that I respect a lot. So with him, but he’s was like, “You’ve got too many of this, or not enough of that.” He’s definitely someone I’d listen to. But he’s great. He’s a great guy, great performance, and people really respond to it.

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I think his role also highlights that there’s a lot more comedy than people may expect from, some snappy one-liners too. Comedy is something you seem to have a flair for. Is that a direction you’re tempted to go in?

One of the films that we’re building up is a comedy. I don’t know if I’ve got a flair for it. I think I’m a mildly amusing fella, but you can never be sure. One person’s humour is another person’s poison! I just put things in that I thought were funny.

I read some of the stuff you put out after a BFI Q&A, where you were frustrated with how dry the audience you were talking to were. Is it symptomatic, do you think, of a generation of upcoming filmmakers who are just having it a lot easier, or was it just one bad audience? Because you then wrote a blog post following up on it where you said that you’re going directly into schools and suchlike instead?

Basically, what I’m going to do is I’m going to, not places like BAFTA, I’ll organise talks, and people who are actually bothered to want to listen can come to those. Because what happened on that particular day is that I went down there and they’re supposed to be film students. And I walked into the room and they were the most dead crowd I’d ever come across in my life.

And people have said to me since that you were out of order, they were just shy, you were wrong, you’d have done the same thing. And I’m like, “Listen, don’t fucking tell me what I would do. Because if I was a kid that age, and someone making films that I respected or was doing the thing that I was sitting there saying I want to do came into the room, I’d be like that [sticks hand up].”

And there was one kid who asked a few questions, the only one who seemed interested. So, I contacted him, invited him to screenings, I’ve given him advice and all that. The rest of them? I couldn’t give a fuck. They just wasted my time. People telling me what I would have done!

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I’d have been so inquisitive and asked so many questions that people would have said, “Can somebody else ask some questions now?” I just wanted to learn and know, and these people just sat there.

I saw you did the deal with Icon to keep the films coming. Last time we spoke, the next one was likely to be Olympics meets Rocky meets Any Given Sunday.

I don’t know if that’s the next one, but it’s definitely one of them. We’ve got sci-fis, comedies. There’s a few things that are bubbling, and I’m only going to direct one. But there are four things that are bubbling that could potentially go.

We’re just going to show people that – I say we, because it’s a company now – we can do different things. We’re not just about hoodie movies or young movies. is a definite direction we wanted to take, doing more commercial stuff. But they’re not all going to be like that. We’re going to do different things…

Noel Clarke, thank you very much! is released in the UK on Wednesday 2nd June.