Steven Knight interview: Hummingbird, Statham, London

Duncan chats to the director of the new Jason Statham movie about, well, Jason Statham, among other things

Hummingbird (aka Redemption) sees Steven Knight make his feature film directorial debut after several decades in the film and television industry. He’s probably best known in the UK for writing the ’90s TV comedy show The Detectives, which starred Jasper Carrott and Robert Powell (which he also directed a few episodes of). Hummingbird marks the third part of his dark side of London trilogy, with Dirty Pretty Things being the first and the David Cronenberg directed Eastern Promises, the second.

Hummingbird revolves around a homeless ex-veteran, Joey Jones (played by our man Statham) who’s given a second chance at a new life, helped in part by his unlikely alliance with a nun, Christina (Agata Buzek). It’s a surprising film in many ways, with surreal imagery punctuating the visual aesthetic, which also includes some of the most striking depictions of the neon lit streets of London yet. The main character of Jones fits more of an anti-hero role, as he struggles to fit in to normal society while trying to stay on the right path and gives Jason Statham a chance to finally show a wounded vulnerability that’s not normally at the heart of his characters.

Steven Knight took the time to talk to us about his fascination with London, the difficulty of filming at night, his casting process and a whole lot more. His very British sensibilities came to the fore, especially in his humour and self-deprecation, so it was an absolute pleasure to speak to him. Without further ado…

What was the actual genesis of Hummingbird for you?

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The way I normally write is to start writing anything, which sounds very odd, but normally rather than have a plot, or beginning, middle and end in mind ahead of time, it would be seeing something and then writing that and then wondering why it’s happening.

In this particular case, it was seeing some homeless people congregating and sleeping in the doorway of a very expensive loft apartment in Covent Garden – I used to work in Covent Garden when I saw it – and there was an iron fire escape and I thought if just one of those people went up that fire escape and the doors were open, they’d have a beautiful place to live in.

So that sort of triggered the idea of what would happen if a homeless person broke into a beautiful flat? Whose flat would it be? Who would own that place? What about if they were away? Then I started writing the thing and then in doing the research into homeless people, came across the story, the true story, of a homeless veteran who had a relationship with a nun and incorporated that. I mean that, as usual, the most unlikely parts of any story are the true bits.

How long ago was that idea and how long did it actually take you to get the film together and finish the script?

I think I started writing it three and a half years ago and I’m still astonished that we got into production so quickly because, you know, first time director with a very dubious story, but they liked it which was great and Jason really loved the script and really wanted to do it and then we were away.

What was it about this particular story that made you want to direct it as your debut?

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Well, I wanted to direct something and I wanted to write something for myself, so this was it. I set out with a plan to write something for myself to direct. I thought it would be simple; I thought I’d keep it simple but it got complicated! Then it was done and obviously, as a writer, you always have the difficult step of getting a director on board and then you have to go through the script and change it and I didn’t have to do that with this as I was directing. That’s what I wanted to do; to do one and see if I could do it credit.

Having that complete control over your work and words must be incredibly gratifying?

It’s gratifying and terrifying in equal measure and sometimes you wish there was someone else there, that you could say “it was their fault!”. But it was sort of wanting to see how it would turn out really. I just wanted to take a script and just do the whole thing, do all of it and not see it transformed, or changed, or altered.

And if you’re there on set and there are any changes to made, they’re your changes…

Yeah exactly, and you can respond to circumstance. The thing that happens most when you’re on the set and you see a read through of the scene is that you realise that some of the lines don’t need to be said so you can cut them! [laughs] And it’s simple.

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The words, as you hear them in your head when writing, must also sound completely different when you hear them out loud?

Yeah, and it’s something that you have to get used to very early. But you have the perfect film in your head and then the reality is there and you have to see the different thing as better and make sure that the thing that’s different is better, rather than worse. In my experience, 50 percent of things are better than I imagined and 50 percent of things are worse than I imagined them and I was trying to get the ratio up a bit! [laughs]

Plus filming on location, regardless of scouting, must change the dynamic of what you visualised sometimes?

Well, what changes the dynamic more than anything is it being four o’clock in the morning, freezing cold, dark and horrible! [laughs] Thinking “I’ve got to carry on, I’ve got to make this work” and it’s very hard, physically very hard, to direct.

As a writer you’re in this virtual world, but in the real world things are cold and hard and noisy and difficult, so that’s when you have to keep your spirits up – with the help of, in my case the help of, thankfully, Chris Menges, whose been around forever and who takes no prisoners and won’t compromise and that’s what you need at four o’clock in the morning, is somebody who continually says “it’s got to be like that, it’s got to be better.”

I’d forgotten about the night shoots, as when I interviewed Jason Statham for Safe he was drinking a gigantic coffee, as you were filming in London at that point!

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Yeah we did four weeks of nights, it was hard.

I’ve been an advocate of Jason Statham for years [Steven Knight contributed an enthusiastic “Yeah!” at this point] and I think people underestimate and try to pigeonhole him and they certainly forget that he’s done a lot of character based work, particularly early on with The Bank Job and London, so at what point did you decide on him?

Well, like you I’ve always thought that there’s this horrible English class thing about anyone with a London accent and that’s why they get, I think, pushed into certain directions – it’s not the ’60s any more, where Michael Caine can break out, you know, but people like to put others into categories and like you I’ve always thought that his work was brilliant. I think of him as like Lee Marvin, where you have this person who’s just a force, as well as being an actor and that it’s the force, that energy and power inside that really makes the performance work and it survives anything.

It survives even a not particularly good script, if that’s what happens, but I think he’s brilliant and this was confirmed, because before I directed I asked the advice of all the directors I’ve ever worked with and they all gave me these great pearls of wisdom and one of them was David Fincher, who said he thought Jason Statham was the only person to play this role so, well, there you go.

That’s a good endorsement!

Yes, exactly! [laughs]

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Talking of casting, Agata Buzek is relatively unknown, to me certainly, but I thought she was fantastic. How did you find her?

Well, we were looking for an East European actress, because in the true story of the relationship the nun was from Eastern Europe. Some very illustrious names were very keen to do it; however, the problem I had was I didn’t want that first shot of Christina to be “Oh look at that beautiful actress playing a nun.” Which is what can happen, it’s very difficult – nuns are funny for a start and all that stuff about nuns that you have to just bite the bullet and say “No, it’s a nun!” [bursts out laughing]

It’d be much easier if it wasn’t a nun for people who get freaked out by it – not for moral reasons, just because it’s a nun and it’s sort of funny and weird.

I just wanted somebody who could, when you look at them, you’d think “Yeah, that’s a nun” but equally someone who can be absolutely, catwalk model beautiful, which is very rare and that’s what Agata has got. So we looked at lots and lots of actresses, we had lots of actresses fly over, we did screen tests and there’s something about Agata on screen that’s amazing and she can look like nothing, she can look like anybody and then she looks completely beautiful, so she was the one straight away and without any hesitation.

Speaking to Jason Statham earlier, it really helped his performance as she came without “baggage” as he put it, as well as her character who you could watch develop without any sense of preconception…

Exactly. Exactly and you know I think that really helped, she’s such a gentle calm person on the set and that helps as well at four o’clock in the morning, so it’s good to have someone like that there and a really experienced actress – she does a lot of theatre in Germany and Poland and the way that they run theatre there, she’s always on stage, virtually every night of the year, she’s always doing something and she does a lot of films in Germany, but there’s just something very great about the way she acts.

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One of the aspects I loved most about the film is that is that it’s very hard to categorise, because there is redemption at its heart, but then there’s romance and action and tragedy and drama and violence! So was it always your intention to keep it as original as possible?

[Laughs] Well what I wanted to do first of all was make it so that no one could know what was going to happen next totally, but also to confront… because it is a true story and a lot of these things are real, the problem I think often when you’re writing fiction is that you think “I can’t do that even if it’s true, because people will jump to this conclusion, or will think that” and I wanted sort of confront those and not be subtle, I was trying hard not to be subtle in any of this.

I also wanted a concept, that at the beginning was “London needs a Robin Hood”, albeit a very damaged Robin Hood from wherever this person comes from, so I was trying to tell a story that… it’s like if you write a film in a genre, then only things that are in that genre happen to the characters, when in fact everybody’s life is a comedy, a tragedy, a thriller, sometimes even within an hour and so the idea of not including things because they didn’t fit in with a particular genre disappeared, because these things happen.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cinematography, as I thought it was fantastic…

Chris Menges is a genius. I mean he is 70-odd years old and has got the power and energy of a man in his 20s, he’s like a warrior, he’s like a buccaneer, he just charges on and he doesn’t care. He’s fallen in love with the new digital technology, he’s not one of these people who’s misty eyed about film and just makes it his own and I think London, if nothing else, looks beautiful in his hands.

It really did and it was a great mix of beautiful and haunting…

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Yeah, absolutely.

What is it that keeps bringing you back to the underbelly of London, as there seems to be a theme running through some of your work…

It’s funny, everybody that teams up with me – because I’ve just done another film set in London as well – and everybody’s saying “Can we have one where it says ‘Exterior: Beach: Day” [lots of laughing] as opposed to cold and wet! I see this as the third part of the trilogy with Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises really. And I mean, I live in London, which is sort of why it’s about London, but it’s hopefully trying to look at the invisible bits of London, because there’s nothing more invisible than a homeless person, especially if they’re asking for money.

People deliberately don’t look at them and don’t hear them and so that’s where I wanted to start and then find out who this homeless person is and that homeless person probably will be a veteran, that’s the tragedy.

Your next film (according to IMDB) is Locke, is that right?

Yes, that is true.

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What can you tell me about that? I notice you’ve got the ubiquitous Olivia Coleman in it…

[Laughs] Olivia Coleman, yes. And it stars Tom Hardy, as I’m sure you know. It’s a different sort of concept, it’s having an astonishing effect… I mean this is for another day, but I think when you see it you’ll see what I mean, but it’s having an astonishing effect on people when they see it. I can say that!

And finally, as part of our on-going survey – what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

[Laughs] Apart from HummingbirdThe Bank Job!

A fine choice! Steven Knight, thank you very much!

Hummingbird opens in the UK on the 28th June.

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