Noel Clarke interview: Centurion, 4.3.2.1, The UK Film Council and British sci-fi

We catch up with actor, writer and director Noel Clarke to chat about the DVD release of Centurion, and a whole lot more…

I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Noel Clarke a few times now for the site, and always seems to get to the end of interviews with him with lots of questions left over.

It was the same again as we met up to chat about Neil Marshall’s Centurion, about looking back on 4.3.2.1, and the projects he’s got coming up next. Nonetheless, we still managed to squeeze plenty of chatter in. And I’ve got questions ready for next time, too…

We’re not used to seeing you of late in an acting role, going to work for someone else. And you got the role in Centurion on the day you got your BAFTA, didn’t you?

Day before, yeah.

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What’s the appeal of Centurion for you, then?

The appeal is in Neil Marshall. And it’s a Roman soldier film.

When would I get the chance to be a Roman soldier? Most people didn’t even know there were black Roman soldiers, but there were. It’s just they gave me that chance, I read it, and I was like, “Yeah, I definitely want to do this.”

And Neil Marshall, man! The Descent, Dog Soldiers

You don’t have to sell Neil Marshall to us…!

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly…!

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So, how’s being a Roman soldier against the cast that Neil Marshall pulled together? He got a great cast together, especially for a British film.

Yeah, great. They were great guys. You’ve got big movie stars in there, you’ve got guys who have done massive stuff on TV, and guys that are doing their work like me. Being part of that was a great experience, and I was very grateful for it.

I’ve got this image of it being a nice low budget thing where you’re all living down in a camp in the hills somewhere?

[Laughs]

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It’s not like that at all, is it?

No, no, no! [Laughs]

I’ll go back to Neil Marshall instead, then!

There are obviously parallels with yourself there, in that he’s a British writer-director. From where you are in your career to where he is, what do you learn from watching him go about his work?

Everything. You just learn everything. You watch how he does it, how prepared he is. You watch how he and his DoP work as one. And from that you kind of take away the lessons that you can.

I learned a lot from Neil on set, and I still occasionally speak to him now. I was in L.A. recently, and he turned up and we ended up doing a Q&A together on Centurion. He’s a great guy.

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It’s the way he edits his film for me, too. He doesn’t leave gaps.

Yeah, yeah. Because he’s come from editing. He knows exactly what he’s doing, he knows immediately how he’s going to cut the scene, and he knows what he’s going to do. And I think that’s a great skill to have.

I think what comes across in his film, and it came across in your own 4.3.2.1 too, is that he’s not a guy who’s taking his film to the editing room and finding it there. It was in his head. But that’s the benefit of writing it too?

Yeah, that’s right. That’s the benefit of writing and directing it.

There are films that I’m writing now where I know exactly the shots I want to do, I know the sequences. I know all that kind of stuff. It’s just a case of making sure that when you get there on the day, you can translate what’s in your head to the DoP and to the rest of the crew and get it done.

You’re writing scripts you’re calling ‘The Triangle’ now?

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Yeah, it’s three separate stories. It’s not the one.

But you’ve given it a Twitter hashtag now. There’s no going back. You can’t count them as separate…!

It’s always been three separate, but it’s a triangle in terms of three scripts! And I’ve said that if people finish one screenplay before I’ve finished three, then our company will take a look at them.

Are they three entirely independent scripts, or do you get to the point where you’re looking to cross characters over?

No, there’s no crossed characters in it. They’re three completely separate scripts.

Which I’m guessing you’re not going to say a word about…!

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Yeah, I’m not going to say anything about them until they’re finished!

What interested me again about Centurion, then – and there’s another 4.3.2.1 parallel here – is that you’ve talked in the past about how you try not to play by the rules…

I try.

But there’s an industry around where everyone else seems to. Yet, we’ve got Centurion and 4.3.2.1, both of which came out this year, which aren’t the films Britain is used to. And in some ways I don’t think Britain was ready for them, even when they came out. There were sections of the audience who weren’t used to Britain making these films.

Yeah, that’s right.

How do you fight it?

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People like Danny Boyle help, by making stuff like 28 Days Later. That was a way forward. At the time, that was something people weren’t used to, and he did it, and he did it well. Stuff like that helps.

Stuff like Centurion and 4.3.2.1 get made because people have a vision about what they want to do. And the way you fight it is to keep making films. Not wasting money, because nobody wants to waste money.

It’s tough, but you find that those films will grow massively on DVD, and the audience will start wanting stuff like that. That’s the key, I think.

What strikes me about it is that these two films have proven that Britain can make films that compete. The one area where we seem to be falling short is in selling them.

Yeah.

You saw with 4.3.2.1 that it ended up scheduled against an insane amount of big movies when it came out.

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I know, and it still got to number four at the box office because people want to see something different. It made more money than the other film we’re talking about, which is surprising.

But I think people want to see different types of films. And so you can only be proud of how well it did, and hopefully the next one does even better than that.

The one thing you can be sure of with me is that with the next one, I’ll try and do something different again.

The tone of some of the things you’re putting on your blog and Twitter at the moment, though, it also feels like you’re fighting the infrastructure?

Yeah, sometimes, sometimes. There are times it gets frustrating. You just have to keep going, you have to refocus, which is what I’ve done, and just keep going.

I’ve got to ask you about your stunt double on Centurion, as I saw in the credits you had one.

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Yeah, he did the cliff jump.

You weren’t tempted to do it yourself?

We wanted to, but we weren’t allowed.

Insurance?

Yeah, we wanted to. Fassbender wanted to do it, and the rest of us are like, “Yeah, we’ll do it.”

The one bit where the British movie has to play by the rules is the one you don’t want it too!

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Yeah! But we did all the stuff getting washed down the river. Which was freezing!

Was it all about as much fun as you’d had on a film set?

Yeah. When am I going to get a chance to get washed down an ice cold river in Scotland again?!

It looks like a great stag night, that’s what I thought.

Yeah, in a Roman outfit! [laughs]

Can we go back to 4.3.2.1, then, a movie we’ve chatted about before? Looking back on the film now, and you were inevitably very close to it when we spoke last, I don’t know whether you’ve watched it since, or had a chance to watch it with an audience. But what are your thoughts on it now?

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It’s five minutes too long.

Do you know which five minutes?

It’s tough, because the problem we ended up coming across – and yeah, I could probably pick things to cut out now – but the problem is that it’s not like a linear film where you can cut things. You look at it and think, “Yeah, you could lose that in Shannon’s story, but it affects something that’s important in Kerrys’ story.”

So, it started getting to a point where it was tough to cut it down. You look at it now and think, “I could take that out, and I could take that out.” But that’s part of filmmaking.

At the time, we definitely put out the film we wanted to make. I’m very proud of the film. It’s definitely the best film of the three that I’ve written. Because it’s the most accomplished, and visually it’s the most polished of the films. It’s not something that I look back on and say, “I shouldn’t have done that.”

I’m glad that we did it, I’m glad that we gave the girls a platform, and I’m glad that the film did alright.

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What are your thoughts on the abolition of the UK Film Council?

I’m not happy about it. I think it’s a very short-sighted decision by a group of people who have no idea, seemingly, what they are doing. And they’re supposed to be culture ministers, but actually have no interest in the culture of what the film council actually has done.

Do you think longer term, at a point where Britain is arguably making more interesting films, that it’s going to take money out of the industry?

It is going to take money out of the industry. I think it’s going to be very difficult. Films now are going to have to have something for people. Because it’s not like the film council can come in and do it. If they’re not going to be there, then it’s going to be very tough.

When you say they’re going to have to have something, do you mean having a star attached? Or something like that.

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Something that’s slightly different, because there’s going to be a lot more competition for whatever money is there. And it’s hard to find money anyway. So, the film council not being around is going to bite.

Your deal with Icon is unaffected, though? And your slate of many movies is secure?

It’s a first look deal, so they won’t necessarily say yes to them.

But is there a security to it?

Well, again they don’t have to put in all their money. They look at a film that we bring to them as a company, and say, yes, we want to do it, or, no, we don’t want to do it.

And is your secret comic book movie one of those?

I can’t tell you anything!

Damn! I was reading your recent blog posts where you wrote at the end that you were “starving” to get new things moving. I’d imagine it’s been quite a year…?

I’ve worked constantly for three years. There used to be a big hunger that I kind of had to get things done. And over the last couple of years – not blaming the kid, but obviously, I had a kid and priorities changed – I haven’t focused as much as I could have.

I put this question to Kevin Smith once and so I figure I’ll put it to you. I heard Stephen Fry on a radio interview once saying that the problem that a lot of people have is that they have an ambition, and when it’s realised early, it’s the working out what to do next.

I haven’t realised my ambition yet, though.

Where’s the ultimate ambition?

Ah, I can’t tell you that! That’s the thing. You can’t tell people your ambitions, because then it’s like having delusions of grandeur and stuff. But I take steps towards what I want to achieve, and I’ve been doing that so far. So, there’s a plan. There’s definitely a long term plan.

How did you get on in America? You seemed to be taking lots of meetings there, and presumably that was part of it?

I was there for five weeks. There’s a lot of foundations being laid, a lot of plans. I changed agencies out there, to a different one. I’ve been offered a film out there, which I might not actually do. But this is part and parcel of having a better agency. It’s not just about taking stuff you get, it’s about taking the right stuff. And so they are part of the long term plan. The wheels are in motion of that plan.

And are you rolling 4.3.2.1 out over there?

I think they’re sorting that all out. I don’t really look at where it sells. I just get told the information. I know we did Canada the other day. I think they’re dealing with the US sale at the moment, but I don’t know what’s happening.

So, what is the next project? You’ve got a play coming up…

Yeah, the National Youth Theatre. I don’t know when they’re putting that out.

And you’re working on these three unrelated scripts, too. But what do you think is the next project, the next film you’re going to make?

It’ll be one of those three, or there’s a sci-fi thing called Reign Of Death that we’d like to get made as a feature. The short is online, we’d love to get it going as a feature. I’m not the director of that, so we’ll just have to wait and see if the person who is directing it gets approved and stuff like that.

We do sci-fi so well on television now, and we’ve got America buying our sci-fi TV. But they won’t go near our films yet!

No!

But you’re going to sort that out?

Hopefully!

Noel Clarke, thank you very much…!

Centurion is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.