Film4.com editor Catherine Bray takes a look at an acclaimed new talent who has emerged from Critics’ Week at Cannes 2013: debut feature director Paul Wright, whose Film4-backed drama of survivor guilt and surrealist imagery For Those In Peril was warmly received yesterday
31 year old director Paul Wright’s career is shaping up pretty seamlessly thus far. His first short film Hikikomori, made while studying Film at Glasgow’s RSAMD, won the Scottish Bafta for Best New Work, Best Drama at the RTS Awards in 2007, and received a Bafta nomination in 2007 for Best Short. Then, while studying for a Fiction Directing MA at the NFTS in 2008, he made another short, Believe, which won Locarno’s Golden Leopard for Best International Short, plus awards at Winterthur and Leeds International Film Festival. In 2010, his short Photos Of God was selected for Berlin, and his graduation film, Until The River Runs Red won the Bafta for Best Short in 2011. Now, his debut feature has premiered at Cannes, in Critics’ Week, the strand that aims to highlight the work of talented newcomers. It’s the stuff of dreams and envy for aspirant filmmakers.
“Critics’ Week is the perfect platform,” Paul says when we speak, the day after the premiere. “We couldn’t ask for more, or hope for more of a way for it to stand out and hopefully connect with an audience in an increasingly crowded market place. It won’t be for everyone, but we hope that for the people who like it, it really has an impact.”
A cinephile from a young age, Paul’s earliest memory of a film that really made an impact on him is Nic Roeg’s superlative study of grief, Don’t Look Now – “I saw it when I was probably younger than I should have been, and the ending really got to me”. While he says that Roeg’s cult classic was not a direct influence on For Those In Peril, it’s fair to say that with their common themes of grief, guilt and the supernatural feel those emotions can have when heightened (plus an arresting shock image in the final moments), they would make a great double bill.
Another film with which some reviews have compared For Those In Peril is last year’s hot ticket at Cannes, Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Like Beasts, For Those In Peril features a lead performance that is being hailed as the arrival of a potential new star. George MacKay, who I spoke with yesterday, is, as producer Mary Burke puts it, “so different from the character that he’s playing. He’s from Barnes, and he’s kind of meek and posh and sweet.” George worked with Paul to create Aaron, the increasingly unbalanced sole survivor of the wreck of a fishing boat that claimed the lives of four local lads including Aaron’s brother Billy. Aaron is the character around which the film is built, and needed a strong lead. Mary remembers, “we did all these casting calls, searching for a needle in a haystack for a young actor to play and hold the lead role throughout the whole film, like with Submarine and This Is England. And I had never seen George in anything, so I had no idea who he was. He came into the office with a guitar on his back ‘cause he was going back and forth from Wales for How I Live Now and just came in for, like, 20 minutes, and yet I was almost crying in his audition. That’s how good it was. And I don’t cry, because I’m from New York.”
Paul was also thrilled with their leading man. “We knew pretty soon we were onto a winner. We knew we had our guy. On the shoot he gave 100% – we couldn’t have done it without him. He was in practically every scene.” And for his part, George says: “I’ve never had such a close relationship with a director before.” This attention to detail (Paul spent two days going through the script one-on-one with George before shooting) paid off, with positive reviews including Robbie Collins’ assessment in the Telegraph of the performance as “terrifyingly good: George MacKay, who four years ago was already showing promise in The Boys are Back, is simply heartbreaking in a performance that leaves you feeling like your own soul has been peeled.”
But Paul isn’t a director who came into the profession because he likes bossing actors about – he admits his initial passion lay with technique, but says of directing actors, “I’m getting better, but I’ve got this slight obsession with visuals and audio. It’s a testament to the actors that they came on board a project where such a lot of the script has no dialogue.” One of the most notable bits of dialogue is a recurring tale about a monster in the deeps, with which Aaron becomes fixated. I asked Paul whether it is based on a folk tale local to where he grew up, or completely made up for the film. “I guess growing up near the ocean, there were a lot of stories,” he says, “but it’s a combination of stories and myth, rather than any single one that already existed. I wanted to leave space for the audience to interpret the film for themselves.”
Paul has been mulling over the kernel of the idea for this film for several years, and began working on an actual script about two years ago. Yet this is the first time For Those In Peril has encountered an audience and begun to exist outside of Paul’s control. “Today was the first Q&A with what you might call average punters, from pensioners to teenagers – some of the responses were overwhelming. There were a few tears.”
Paul himself is ready to move on to the next project, which is at the ideas stage. I suggest that I can’t really imagine him jumping to sign on to direct an Iron Man 4 or a Transformers 5, but were the offer to be made, would he go to Hollywood? “Well, I think about it in terms of whether an idea is something you can care about for years of your life. I need to have an emotional investment, but there are plenty of different types of cinema that can provoke a reaction.” With his cited list of “gamechanger” filmmakers including the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe, and an ambition to follow in their foot steps in creating wide-ranging, authored works of cinema, I can’t wait to see what Paul does next.
For Those In Peril will be released in the UK in 2013