Simon Baker • Director
“Until I got into the LFF, I had never thought of my film as a comedy”
by Thomas Humphrey
- After his debut film, Night Bus, premiered at the LFF, Simon Baker chatted to Cineuropa about his background in documentaries and how this influenced the movie
In the wake of his feature debut, Night Bus [+see also:
interview: Simon Baker
film profile], premiering at the London Film Festival this year, Simon Baker spoke to Cineuropa about realism, the film’s use of humour and how his previous work in the field of documentaries contributed to the creative process behind this movie.
Cineuropa: Tell us a little bit about the lead-up to your “20-year overnight success”, because your debut does feel very accomplished.
Simon Baker: Thank you. My day job definitely varies a lot: I direct items for TV, the odd commercial and the occasional digital music video, and I’ve been doing that for a living for around 15 years now, which really does hone your craft.
You previously worked in the field of documentaries; do you think that had an impact on Night Bus?
Well, I did a series of mini-documentaries on a number of paralympians. But I don’t know, really; the sort of realism, or slightly documentary-like side, to my film really comes from the casting and the approach of not writing a screenplay. The great thing about Night Bus is that even though it has that slightly fly-on-the-wall feel, I didn’t really make it to say: “Look, this is a document of London life.”
Do you think fly-on-the-wall adequately describes your film, then?
We very specifically shot it in widescreen with mostly locked-down camera positions because I wanted to offset the realism of the performances with a more cinematic style of photography that felt a bit more – what’s the word? – glossy, or bigger-budget. I knew there would be something of the documentary film in the performances, and I wanted to play the two things off each other.
So you were consciously thinking about improvisation in terms of realism?
Absolutely. I mean, I’m not so up to date with movements, but one thing I did know is that I’ve always loved that approach. I remember seeing Shane Meadows’ early shorts as a film student (I think they were on Channel Four really late at night). I remember turning on halfway through and just being so excited and engaged. Even though it almost walked the line between good and bad acting. You know, that sort of realism that is so real that it’s like you’ve just put people in front of the camera, and there’s that awkwardness? But I find that utterly magnetic, I really do.
I’m curious to know what you thought about your film’s inclusion in the “laugh” section of the London Film Festival?
It was really interesting. When I got the email, I was overwhelmed by the fact that I’d got in. But until that point, I had never thought of it as a comedy. I knew there were moments that were funny, but to me those bits were funny because they were something natural that came from those characters. My only problem with being in “laugh” (and when you read the BFI’s broad definition, you feel a bit better) is that audiences then go in expecting to have to laugh.
Do you think people outside of London will be able to relate to Night Bus' humour?
Well, I think you’ve got a city mentality (so that’s London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and wherever else), then you’ve got a sort of urban-rural or urban-suburban mentality, and as you watch Night Bus, you think it’s very London. But when you scrape away the surface, I think its stories are quite universal. Maybe this film will be well suited to cities around Europe, but not so well suited outside of those cities.
Duane Hopkins recently said, “We need an emotional interpretation of what’s happening to the British working class” in British cinema. Would you agree?
I would definitely agree: the representation of the working class, or real people, is incredibly important, and I think it generates the most engaging cinema. I came from a working-class background, though, and I’ve always thought that when you talk about working-class backgrounds, you’re actually talking about 80% of the country, anyway. In terms of just getting through daily struggles and not having choices and being stuck in life, that represents a lot of people.
But do you think that mantra can potentially lead to an almost formulaic box-ticking in British cinema?
I think there might be a slight issue with what you describe as box-ticking because ultimately, the film business is not particularly working-class-orientated. I found it very difficult to get into the film business. I didn’t know anyone, and you have to work for free, so I guess I’m wary of a middle-class industry trying to represent working-class life, because then I think you do get that kind of box-ticking.
I think maybe the answer to that is for the industry to just be more inclusive and accessible to people who want to tell their own stories. Not necessarily by trying to illustrate a particular kind of philosophy, but just by seeing people’s lives, by seeing them play out, and by seeing them from that perspective.
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