One month on: director Ben Gregor on All Stars’ release

Ever wanted an interview where a director talked about the reaction to their film a month after release? Here's Ben Gregor on All Stars...

It’s our intention at Den Of Geek to support, wherever we can, British films. That’s why we covered the release of Ben Gregor’s All Stars this time last month, a family-centric dance movie that, truthfully, we didn’t rate particularly highly. Our review is here.

And yet, in spite of getting some critical attacks, the film has found space to become a solid hit. Furthermore, its director, a chatty and lovely man by the name of Ben Gregor, actually wrote back to one critic- Christopher Tookey of the Daily Mail – taking issue with some of the attacks in that paper’s review.

One of the interviews I’ve personally most enjoyed doing was chatting to Peter Ramsey, the director of DreamWorks’ Rise Of The Guardians, in the aftermath of that film’s release. And I was fascinated to hear just how the past month has been for Ben Gregor too. Without further ado….

Can we start at the end? We’re three weeks after the release of All Stars in the UK, with £1.6m and counting in the till. And it’s still in the top ten. Appreciating directors rarely get asked immediately afterwards how they feel about things, can you capture what the past few weeks have been like?

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It has been very interesting. It’s my first film, and it’s the number one film after franchise movies. It feels really good, it’s exciting to have something that people talk about. I built this film like a tough little football that could take a kicking, and it got one. But it charmed people, and people like Mark Kermode loved it. Other critics haven’t, but that’s alright. People are seeing it.

People seem to have responded to the heart in it, and some of the more imaginative sequences in it. People who have just focused on the storyline? It’s a traditional storyline, and some don’t like it for that. But it’s almost like a mechanism to make people happy I suppose.

Is it a relief to get it before a proper audience?

Yeah. It’s amazing. I hear stories of people dancing in cinemas, and all kinds of things. We get a breakdown too. It’s very advanced data you get. We get a breakdown of almost every cinema in the country. So in Peckham and Wandworth, they’ve just gone mental for the film! It’s funny how people have responded across the country. It’s done well in Manchester too.

When you’re used to doing TV, late night TV at that, it’s amazing to have a much better response from so many more people.

If you purely going on what people have done before, All Stars wouldn’t have struck anyone as a likely first feature project for you though…

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That’s why I knew it would take a pummelling. I’ve only really done things that have been on late at night, and material that’s always gone to very dark places. And there’s a real thrill to doing that. In making comedy that some find offensive. I did really enjoy doing that, but it’s almost like I started to admire shows like Community, wondering if I would ever be able to deliver ‘clean’ comedy.

We’re having this chat just after The Hangover Part III comes out of course, and I’ve written a piece reacting to that, bemoaning the cruelty and the meanness at the heart of films such as it.

That’s exactly it. There are places in No Heroics [one of Gregor’s many TV credits], which was so fun to do, which you shouldn’t be able to film, but we found a way. Cruelty, when you do it well I suppose, it’s pure edginess. But it does have to stop somewhere. So I wanted to try something clean, and see if it was possible. I think it’s so uncool to do clean stuff nowadays, and we’re culturally neglecting some people. So I thought that I’m going to do a U certificate film.

I just wanted something, the kind of things that had heart. Your own website’s review said All Stars was “anti-adult”, which I think is kind of interesting, and I quite like that actually. Your reviewer was responding to some of the issues that I was putting in there. People have been critical, but they have picked up that it has issues in there that we just don’t film, that we don’t show our kids. That kids can either have some completely unreal American fake family, but there’s nothing in-between until they’re about 15.

When I look for what to take my children to the cinema to see, I live action U and PG films are utterly neglected. It makes something like Johnny English Reborn, a film I really didn’t like, a bit of a novelty. That it was a PG-rated film that you could take children and adults too, and they could both get something from. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island last year, too.

You look at E.T. Amblin, the stuff that they did, the loveliness at the heart. The comedy. The movies are the only place in the world where you turn your phone off now. It’s why I’m excited to move towards film. With TV, the way it’s marketed, what we do now is Tweet this, red button that, watch on your iPad with a skin, so you’re missing other stuff…

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We’ve got this space in the movie theatre though. I saw two films yesterday, and my brain could just concentrate on those.

You look at Arrested Development and shows like that, and they keep it clean. And that doesn’t make you a religious right winger to like that. It’s challenging to try and do that. Can you do it, can you entertain? Can you touch on things that aren’t being touched elsewhere? Yes. But when you do it, what do people say? They don’t respond to it critically in this country particularly well. Some did, but most criticised the overall delivery mechanism of the dance movie story, which you kind of have to do. It’s like a romantic comedy: they will kiss!

When those reviews start rolling in, is that when you feel helpless to a point? You said before that you were expecting the critical kicking, as a consequence of decisions you made. But when it actually comes, how does it feel?

Well, I wrote a letter to the Daily Mail in response. He’s an hilarious reviewer [Christopher Tookey]. Some of his reviews are hysterically funny. But he wanted to go for me, so I just replied. It felt a bit like writing comments at the end of an article.

I liked that people have responded to it. People were cruel, especially the printed press. But they’re talking about it. That’s why Mark Kermode hit back at everyone, and said they were being cynical, and that was no reason to dismiss a film like this.

When I made it, did I think it would open Venice? No. I just wanted to take a risk on this. I can’t dance. My spots were too bad to dance! But I wanted to take a risk. It would have been a lot easier for me to direct an adult comedy, and I had a lot of opportunities to do that to be honest. But I wanted to do something for young people, and now I’m kind of hooked! I don’t think I’ll do something for exactly that age group again – I’ll probably do something for teens next. But it’s exciting, and I’m glad I took that risk.

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What’s interesting about making a film for that audience, is I sit and watch my children when they watch a movie, and there’s no cynicism in them. They go in with no preconceptions. They either like it or not.

If they say it’s the best film they’ve ever seen, it’s true. When you grow up and become an adult, it’s different.

How did your own son react?

It’s interesting, because his mum’s in it as well! It’s a bit odd for him! It’s touched him in a way that he’s always asking about it. He was mesmerising by the dad plotline [which we won’t spoil here].

When I’ve watched it with young audiences, they scream and jump about in the dancing and fantasy sequences. But the most rewarding thing is the dramatic scenes, which are nothing to do with a dance movie. Having that overall dance plot lets me do stuff.

There’s a scene where one of them goes and talks to his dad [again, specifics have been redacted!]. I remember thinking I’ve never seen anything quite like it in an English film. Then there’s the idea of Amy’s character being a carer. It’s a massive thing nowadays, that lots of kids are carers. They are 13 or 14, and look after the family. They take responsibility, they can’t be kids and their childhood’s gone. I wanted to reflect that a little bit.

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The family-centred film that I most remember for tackling an issue like this was Mrs Doubtfire. I can take or leave the guts of the movie itself, but the thing that still strikes me, 20 years on, is that they didn’t cheat the parental divorce story at the end of it. And that felt like a big thing back then.

You never forget that stuff. It’s almost like fighting for your family has become a little bit of a shorthand. Mrs Doubtfire is far more powerful and arresting, though.

Planes, Trains And Automobiles too. The family issues there, the loneliness.

Yes. That’s a really interesting example. The genius of what John Hughes does with that movie is that he makes John Candy’s character someone you really care about by the end. That’s really hard to do, given some of what he does in the movie. Then you see something like Identity Thief, that tries the same thing but ends up with a nasty character that you can’t feel for at all.

It’s brilliant that we’re talking about this. This is the hot button, the issue for me as a comedy director. As someone who’s been part of ‘oh, that’s the nastiest thing I’ve ever read, how are we going to shoot this, oh I can’t believe we’re shooting this’. But it is just like where do you go now? It is a dead end. It’s like explosions. How many things can you blow up?

So what are we doing with comedy? Look at Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? It’s one of the best plays ever written, and it’s a comedy. It’s hilarious. But when the cruelty comes in – and you don’t have to be vanilla – it has real heart. The cruelty is based on solid characters, it’s not just wanton. There’s no unmotivated gross out.

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It is so easy to sneer and, in this world of social media and trolling, it’s so easy just to put everything down. It’s like there’s something bitter and sad about it sometimes. Take a film like 24 Hour Party People, which I think is one of the funniest films Britain has ever made. Or Withnail & I. They have satire, they have bite. But they’ve got so much heart as well. On the one hand, with the Olympics last year, we were really into trying. But in the rest of our culture, we damp down people who try things. And it’s just so easy to do.

But haven’t you proven, through the success of All Stars, that there is another way?

It’s a humble film. It’s a lovely little film. But it does have tons of heart, and it is about setting up the movie so that you can say that line that if you let adults make decisions for us, we’ve going to have a messed up world. I think that kids think that.

I do a lot of youth work, down at London Bridge. I set up a music video scheme, Dead Rappers Society. It’s for children in care, or kids with nothing really. No family. We write songs and make music videos. And it’s amazing to see. There’s so much good work down there done be the company, it’s incredible. But every time, what’s the most rewarding is when you see a kid who realises it’s okay to try something, and have a go. And I think it’s really important that we let young people know that they can have a go at stuff. I think it’s easy just to think they’re being cut out economically, and that their services are being cut.

And yeah, I touched on that in the film. I’m not making a political movie, but at least I touched on it. But I think it is a crisis. These are young human beings who aren’t getting the attention and the resources they need, full stop. I’ve really adopted that philosophy now as something that gives me a lot of fulfilment. I put a little bit of that in the film, and people seem to be responding to is. We’re still in cinemas, it’s half term. People seem to be responding to the heart. I still love satire and lots of comedy, but it has been nice to take the risk and step outside my comfort zone. And I kind of life it out here now!

You’ve come a long way!

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The thing is, I remember when I got my first TV show, the first thing I did was write to Carlos Ezquerra. And I just said thank you so much, You would not believe how many people I work with and am around who have had their imaginations fired up by the stuff you guys do. Every Thursday, with 2000AD. The humble Britishness of it was my entire culture, It just means so much to me.

And I think it’s cool that you guys support British film. I think there’s a sense that a lot of people just get sneered at here and then fuck off to America. You look at all our black actors. Our great, great black actors. And they’re virtually all in America! Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we appreciating them and valuing them? It’s like we’re not supporting them trying to do something different.

Vertigo, who backed your film, clearly are a lot more supportive.

Yes. Allan Niblo at Vertigo just believed in the film and loved it. Just in that building, they are writing some of the future of British film. They operate completely outside of how others operate. They don’t crave reviews, they get their films funded themselves, they pay to get them made. They are a group of very lovely, motivated young people, overseen by James and Allan. They’re such crazy film fans, and they’ll drive ahead like bulldogs in what they believe in. Not because they think it’s cool, but because they want to.

They support the film when you’re making, and crucially, they distribute it themselves too. They’re doing stuff no one else is doing.

Ben Gregor, thank you very much.

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All Stars is still in UK cinemas. And doing very nicely.

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