A Fantastic Fear of Everything is the first beneficiary of Pinewood Studio’s funding programme for new British films and co-directors Crispian Mills and Chris Hopewell are busy utilising live action and stop motion to bring alive the world’s first psycho-comedy.
Producer Geraldine Patten explained that key phrase, ‘We didn’t feel any existing phrase was going to quite do [the film] justice. It’ll all become clear but in the meantime it’ll hopefully give you an idea of where we’re going with this character and the film.’
The character in question is Jack, played by Simon Pegg and the title of this piece is perhaps a little misleading as we were physically on set with the actor we were told he was in character as much a possible and when we stepped on set we found out exactly why he wasn’t keen to break that spell.
Reading his tweets of last August Pegg was clearly excited at the prospect as Patten explained, ‘Jack is very much the centre of the story and this is hard work for him, but in a very good way. He is definitely excited, he’s got amazing energy and he’s leaping around the set and it makes a huge difference when your lead actor is like that. It’s dream casting really, and anyone who has read the script can hear him say the lines.’
Though the set is confined to a few messy rooms in Jack’s house there are books stacked ceiling high, pictures hung seemingly at random and fighting for wall space with the mounted head of a slightly startled moose. Antique furniture lines the walls, positioned not because of how it looks, more likely because it has stuck to the floor. Pinned to the walls are pages ripped from books, random doodles and scrawled notes, it is a patchwork of maps and muddle and Victorian miscellany as if someone has vomited up an omnibus edition of a popular penny dreadful. Like Holmes without the domestic insistence of Mrs Hudson someone is missing here and we are looking for clues as to who it is.
We are inside the untidy mind of Simon Pegg’s Jack, a man broken up and then broken down with memories (in the form of quite terrible paintings) of his ex littering the flat, and when we visited the set there was something emerging in the method of his own particular brand of madness. The brief synopsis online paints the picture perfectly. A former children’s author turns to crime fiction and dives into a deep ocean of research on the lives and deaths of the various Victorian serial killers and become lost. A script he is working on finds its way into the hands of an interested Hollywood executive and in turning in the final draft Jack has to find and overcome the source of his titular fear.
Co-director and production designer Chris Hopewell sat down with the four of us, myself and colleagues from Bleeding Cool, Collider and Coming Soon, to walk us through this carefully constructed set and into the dark, complicated world of a man living in his obsession.
We begin with the relationship at the centre of all this, the co-directorship of Chris Hopewell and Crispian Mills who have previously worked on music videos and are now bringing their own sensibilities to this project. A lot of the effects are in-camera and while Mills, who wrote the script, handles the actors and the overall direction it is the additional eye of Hopewell which lends itself to the overall focus of the visual and production design elements.
‘It’s always useful having two brains and one mouth, it means I can go on set and mess around without getting shouted at.’ They have been working together for three years and enjoying the experience of seeing what was in their heads for so long realised on screen, not least the ability to use that extensive pre-production on set.
’The whole flat was conceived by myself and Crispian, but then actually getting to design it you can build in all the shots, so we’re not going cold into a location. All of the angles were designed specifically for shot, so we worked out what you’d need to see – the sink, the toilet – so it all works for the drama’
The toilet, in particular, has a couple of oddities which are perfect visual representations of the obsession and paranoia at play here. The sink was there somewhere I presume, like most of the kitchen, lost under days of neglected plates and burgeoning new eco-systems. Although the claustrophobic set-up may play well into the themes of the piece it was originally planned as something else.
‘The original idea is that [the flat] was in a big old embassy which was shabbily converted in the 50s and now he’s rattling around in this once grand apartment and feeling a little bit lost.’ That this imagined grandeur has been relegated to a compact, “cosy” in estate-agentese, says a lot for the process of focusing the ideas to the point at which it goes before the camera. When we saw Simon Pegg ruminating on the unfolding mystery there was a sense that he wasn’t lost, but finding firm ground again, and while we were there several objects and particular lighting arrangement suggested that there are clues everywhere and the flat will change of its own accord as the mystery deepens.
‘Throughout the sets there are resonants of his previous life, and his former wife who he’s split up with, and all around are these rather naive oil paintings that Jack has done and pushed to one side, subtly forgotten. The idea is that at one point he once was in a happy relationship and had quite a nice flat and his obsession with Victoriana and Victorian serial killers has then led to this layer of morbid junk.
‘We didn’t want it to look like Steptoe’s Yard, we wanted it to have some classy lighting and nice touches that [his wife] put in, so there’s memories of her. You could have gone over the top, there are elements which are grand and gothic but really here’s a writer who gets so into his vibe that he surrounds himself with all the clutter.’
When we arrived on set there was a brief scene being shot of Jack making a crucial connection using the fantastically designed centrepiece of the room, ‘The biggest feature in the room is what we call the Wall of Death, which is all of his reference material on the various serial killers and there we just mentioned Crippen, and he also crops up in an animated sequence in a toy theatre in which he dismembers his wife in a bath. Which is quite fun.’
The animated elements are part of the film which Hopewell is keen to talk up, ‘They are Jack’s mind’s eye, really. The way they are introduced in fantastical, but there are a lot of fantastical schemes within the scenario. It’s not legitimised in any way, we see Jack’s toy theatre which he’s been building and he’s looking at it and it comes to life. It’s just the way Jack’s mind works within the environment.’
What we are seeing is Jack’s mind, and the man is making sense of it all which is something he can’t do in the outside world, ‘That’s not his place at all. His pantophobia, (which is his Fantastic Fear of Everything) is this overwhelming fear of everything around.’
Hopewell conjures up the spirit of Amelie when talking about the film’s ‘out of time’ nature and thought the world (Paris in her case, London in ours) is clearly contemporary the characters sit awkwardly within it and this points to how the film’s more stylised sequences will be dealt with, not least the demons Jack must confront in a laundrette…
‘We tried to find places which had a very noir feel, like The Third Man which is a very over the top scenic renditions of Vienna with the long shadows and the Dutch angles, which we use in here.’
Simon Pegg has been working with Crispian Mills on the role of Jack for a good while and, in Hopewell’s words ‘Who wouldn’t want to put money into a film with Simon in it?’, and according to the co-director it marks a departure for the actor, who has seen his star rise inexorably in the last ten years. With an estimated two-thirds of the film taking place in the apartment (though of course it won’t be limited to the four walls which contain it) and with Simon Pegg leading the film almost completely alone, Hopewell champions the actor’s bravery and there’s no doubt that it will be one of his most challenging and intriguing roles for a long time.
We have an interview with co-director Crispian Mills which will run on the site in the next few weeks and the film has a release date of the 8th of June.
Leaving the cramped, dark world of Jack’s flat and out into the streaming sunshine of Pinewood there is a feeling that the directors are clear in their vision and grateful in their securing of Pegg as the lead actor as their years of work will soon find its way out, into the cold light of day.