INTERVIEW: Duane Hopkins | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Shot in the north east and starring George Mackay, Duane Hopkins’ second feature length film BYPASS is set to be one of the most stunning and original British movies of recent times. Focusing on Tim, a young but sickly man struggling to fend off bailiffs, pressures to join the local drug trade and his increasingly ill health, it’s a stylishly made feature that shows off the immense talent of rising star Mackay as well as the directorial prowess of Hopkins.

This week BYPASS begins screening at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, so I caught up with Hopkins to ask him about the film, including his inspirations, his hands-on approach to research and the potential message behind BYPASS.

What originally inspired you to direct a gritty film that exposes some of the brutality behind “broken Britain”?

The truth is, I met Tim, the main character of the film. He was considering going and doing some burglaries with his friends that night, he seemed frightened and vulnerable and I wondered what the life circumstances and experiences were that had got him to that point, what would lead to that extreme choice that could be life-changing for him that night. It was extremely tangible and dramatic in that moment. He seemed conflicted and it was hard not to be compelled by it. It didn’t feel tragic, just interesting and factual, and at the same time very emotive. It was an experience that made me want to investigate his world, spend time in it and then fictionalise it, to try and see past the headline into something cinematic but truthful, to give that story some context.

As for the portrayal, is it gritty? I certainly didn’t set out to make a “gritty” film. I may have arrived there, but that was about making decisions that were truthful while still making a film that would be gripping and compelling. To be honest, I have something against the word gritty. It’s the same as “bleak.” They’ve been allowed to become somewhat pejorative and overused. This narrows the intentions and possibilities of film. They are ubiquitous and seem to be said about almost any film that does not sugarcoat its drama for ease of consumption, economics or conscience.

Broken Britain is also a discredited phrase, one that implies that this country is “broken”; well, if it is then who broke it? And how do we fix it? These should be straightforward discussions about society and decency. But, the truth is that these were all choices, all of this is evolutionary and is simply where we, as a democracy, decided to take our country. We voted the people in who made these decisions that resulted in these communities. We still vote them in. I knew that what I saw around me in the areas that I lived, on the periphery of many more prosperous areas, was not what I saw reported and I was curious about re-balancing what and who we see and engage with in this country artistically.

You’ve said that you wanted to temper the realistic nature of the film with redemption and beauty. Was this sometimes a difficult effect to achieve?

No, because I love the dynamic between those two things, so really it was a pleasure. Also it seemed the correct approach to a sensitive individual character that would inhabit that world, like Tim. It gave me access and freedom to explore a character that I felt I hadn’t seen on screen. I love the balance between opposites, to use counterpoint to try and get at something more complex, multi-faceted and to be honest, surprising and new. I enjoy the effect of placing sentimentality and brutality by one another. Love and hate. Eruptions of violence. Self-doubt against belief. Illness against health. Reality against an inner world. That rub between two clashing points of view and experience. That is when I feel I am seeing something interesting and curious, not just a story. I pay attention then. I feel that is closer to what I want to see represented as life, especially to the life of someone like Tim, who feels very keenly his emotional world against the violence of the world around him?

I think Tim’s inner life is extremely rich and moral, in contradiction to his exterior experience. I love films that are realist and then take you into a very different place quickly and then back again. I love that use of technique. It can be incredibly moving and best of all surprising and quick. Efficient and effective. Film often is quite timid and conservative. They allow the acting, or dialogue and plot, to do all the work and don’t engage enough with the art form itself. I enjoy films much more where the form is part of the fabric of the story.

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“I enjoy the effect of placing sentimentality and brutality by one another”

The film is something of a thriller in places; why did you incorporate some of the features of this genre into the movie?

I would describe it as much a thriller as it is a piece of social realism, domestic drama, love story, ghost story, thematic contemplation or even fever dream. But all were things that simply came organically from the writing, shooting and editing, through the collaborations. I certainly didn’t set out to make just a thriller. I was interested in this character, Tim and his life, his background, his history, his present and possible future; the rest are just vehicles that you use to tell the story as you need to.

Are you hoping that the thriller conventions will attract a younger audience to see the film?

I credit the youth with more intelligence than that. You just can’t operate that way, your integrity would be blown right from the off if that was your motive. Also, I don’t think because it’s a thriller that it will make it more attractive to young people. That is like saying that serious drama is not for young people, that they only want sugar. Young people are interested in the important themes, in their futures. They are engaged in the world around them, maybe in a more interesting way than when you are older. You might not be as economically committed but you are certainly as ethically and morally involved in society. You have an idealism and still operate with a very concrete and unshakable sense of right and wrong.

That is why the majority of radicals are young. This is the quick way of saying how I really see BYPASS is as a thriller with a conscience. It has social domestic drama mixed with historical and contemporary themes in the clothing of a thriller. Once I realised there was the skeleton of a thriller after I wrote the first draft, it felt stupid to jettison it. I became interested in “smuggling” some of the themes into the film. It felt more correct to do that. To be more opaque and less dogmatic. That was the real balance that was hard to navigate while editing. But that is more a natural evolution of filmmaking interests and style than it is a wish to manipulate the audience. I always try to be very honest and direct with the audience. I respect them and I don’t want to miscommunicate.

You worked with Robert MacDonald, author of Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low Pay, NoPay Britain, when researching for the film. What insights did he give you into Britain’s poorest neighbourhoods?

I needed the philosophical argument as much as I needed the real world stories. I wanted context. Robert provided that with great detail. He could explain the evolution in terms of economic, social and community factors but very much in the context of policy, as laid down across generations and by successive governments. Robert could provide something that the kids who live it couldn’t. It was a discussion about the evolution of certain environments and the population of those areas. What the communities were and what they are now. There is the historical, academic perspective and how that marries with the contemporary, immediate reality.

I wanted to get a background based on sociology, political history and economics and see how that married with the physical, in the field, interviews and research, to see where the crossover of argument and experience was, what the philosophy and figures behind the headlines are and how does that relate to the individual’s experience of these things within the actual culture and see if those could be fused to make a drama. What is the real life experience against the media and academic interpretation?

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“Young people are interested in the important themes, in their futures. They are engaged in the world around them, maybe in a more interesting way than when you are older”

As part of your own methodological research, you went to hostels and key support organisations. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to conduct your own primary research?

It was incredible. A great experience. The most amazing thing was the generosity of the people I spoke to. It was one of the most fascinating and rewarding things. I spoke to grandparents who had worked all their life at the same jobs, at the same factories, for the same companies, many of which companies were fiercely committed to the communities they gave employment to. They would organise educational days for their staff, send employees to university and provide apprenticeships.

But, that changed. The older generation had to watch as their life work was dis-assembled. It was very interesting, and actually surprising, the arguments most of them had for the failure to win the ideological and economic battle for the future of those plants, which of course they lost, it was interesting where they put the blame. I won’t say where, but it was not where the media narrative has concluded it is. Their interpretation is much less ideological and class led than you would imagine, it is much more practical.

I then interviewed the grandkids that now had no real life recollection of their industrial or political heritage; a complete removal of history and experience, all within two generations. They had completely lost their influence. In the process they had lost their bearings and sense of pride and ownership. I was trying to understand how that played out in day-to-day life. Interviewing the gangs was also incredible. The eco-systems at work in certain communities. It was educational. There is much more behind it than what I was able to get into the film, how they operate, but the crash into Tim’s life shows you a very tangible window.

The thing about life sometimes is that your avenues of experience become narrower, they evolve but they stay essentially on the same track. We choose our friends and stick to that and that of course mirrors our upbringing and family background. The fantastic thing about this type of research commitment is the opportunities for contact it gives you. You find out things and stories that are beyond your sphere of experience. For example, the gang that you see in the film that attack Tim in the garage. It took time to get access and have people vouch for me before I got through to people who were the real deal, at that point just to conduct research. After they realised I could be trusted they were extremely open, the stories gave me total background of what you hear reported about inner city gangs. Armed robberies, kidnappings, rivalries and reprisals. Everything you read about but with context. I got a full understanding of their histories, how they arrived at that point, the consequences of such a lifestyle, and most importantly what the day to day realties consisted off, economically and personally. I realised that it was pointless to cast actors when the charisma and authenticity level of these guys was so off the charts and that they easily had the ability to do it.

Darren, the main guy who does the talking in the scene, is a genius. He could ad lib intimidation in the most vicious and authentic way. They would constantly shift between the roles so that the person being intimidated became even more confused and disorientated. This was a daily operation for them. After each take I would give Darren a little more information to use, “Tim has a sister, mention that this time” “Tim has an older brother, see if you can bring that into it”. There was so much incredible stuff that we did not have time to use in the final cut. It’s a great scene, very raw, authentic and full of aggression, the audience always fall silent and open mouthed when that comes on.

If I didn’t do this type of research I would never have had the pleasure of meeting, working with and presenting to an audience the authenticity of the gang. What the audience may read about in the newspapers about these characters made flesh for them to experience in the film.

What did you learn about the young working class of today from conducting your own research?

That those at the very bottom of the income scale in this society are very aware of how they are viewed and scapegoated. And of course, they resent it. They see the hate that is directed towards them and they react to it. They youth know that the chances of them ever achieving the same standards of living as the middle aged in society are almost nil. The resources are being sold off to facilitate the older generation and those who are already wealthy. It is a concentration of assets into fewer hands. The main thing is that the options open to them are much narrower, and fewer.

The segregation of classes is becoming more extreme. That can only be a bad thing, even if it is what we appear to be actively choosing. We need diversity and that breadth of individual experience to articulate and understand who we are as a nation. But, the social apparatus to enable that is being dismantled. It’s like a culture war. There is an intimidation of the poor out of the decision to be able to go into the arts or humanities, the poor cannot afford to do internships for free to gain experience. This means culture will become the preserve of the wealthy. We are going back to pre-war times on that front and undoing the progressive steps created by previous generations. It’s frightening what the nations cultural output will be like for it in say twenty years’ time. We will lose very important voices.

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“We need diversity and that breadth of individual experience to articulate and understand who we are as a nation”

George MacKay plays the lead role in the film. What was it like to work with him, considering that he’s best known for much more uplifting movies such as Pride and Sunshine On Leith?

That might be what he is known for but that man’s talent level is too extreme to be limited to anything. He was amazing. He is a character actor in the truest sense. He disappears. I did not deal with George Mackay for the length of the shoot, I dealt with Tim. I enjoyed literally every second of working with him. It’s funny, because I’ve just thought, I have always been a fan of casting against type in another people’s films. When you see an actor known for one thing to then up-end those expectations in a performance is very satisfying.

If George is known, as you say, for those types of performances then BYPASS is something different in his filmography. I only cast George based on talent, nothing else. George needed to become someone else and we decided to start that process by changing his relationship to himself physically by losing a lot of weight. He needed to see a different him when he looked in the mirror, to recognise but not recognise himself. To still be in touch with his interior but not his exterior. To feel almost alien. He went for broke and it was great to follow and support him. I felt like I was just trying to keep up with him in his portrayal of Tim. To film it correctly and honestly. The scene where we did the fit was another great experience, everyone on the set was too taken aback to talk to either me or him after the first take because what they were seeing was too much, too emotional and real, but there was a communication between us and we knew where we had to go. When I said ‘cut’ the atmosphere was electric, everyone was holding their breath. I think we both enjoyed it. Him acting and experiencing it, and me filming it. Same as when we shot the gang scene in the garage.

George had no idea what was in there waiting for him on the first take. By the time we had finished shooting that was 13 takes later. Each take was running at around 9 minutes. So, all told, over two hours of abuse and being physically, verbally and mentally intimidated. He had bruises around his neck from being gripped and pulled by the guys; marks to his temple from the gun and his knees were bleeding from the concrete. I think he enjoyed it. He was covered in dust and a mess at the end. As he should be. He had to constantly watch his weight throughout the whole shoot. When we shot the escape from police foot chase after the car chase he was finding it hard to run because the muscle in his legs was gone from the weight loss. All of this he had hid from me during the shoot so I would just deal with him as Tim, he was extremely committed. It taught me a lot. I really respect him. But all the above is almost academic, that was just the technical stuff really. It still comes down to interpretation and demonstrating his ability and commitment to character in the moment.

His emotional intelligence, subtly of performance and physical phrasing, all in these beautiful grace notes of emotion, along with his camera awareness make him great to watch and direct, not to mention edit. You never doubt him.

Overall, to me at least, the film comes across as a strong social comment on the disenfranchised nature of youth in David Cameron’s Britain. Was this the effect you wanted to achieve? To you personally, what is the message behind Bypass?

The first thing I wanted to do was give someone an intense and cinematic experience. That was always number one. But I did want to create a story which contextualised a new class. A story which produced empathy with a character an audience member might not empathise with usually. But politically and socially, no conscious comment to be honest. At least, not at the start. I just wanted to make a story about ‘Tim’. I wrote the script until it felt right. The same with the prep, the directing on set and then the editing and post. It’s intuitive. But, of course an intuition that you hope is based on something deeper and more resonant. I do analyse my choices but I don’t feel like I want to admit to them any more than that. You make a film based on so many factors, a lot of which you don’t really control or fully understand. You just work until the ingredients feel correct. BYPASS is the sum total of that. What is next for you as a director? I want to do some smaller projects but the next big project is set in the upper bourgeois middle class and the lower levels of aristocracy in the UK. It’s about Europe and class mobility. A film about a great female character that has a raw talent that she can use for her own betterment, and what are the bargains she has to make to be allowed to use it.

BYPASS begins screening at the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on Friday 10th April.

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