Writer/Director Alex Taylor is about to see his first feature length production, Spaceship, which has been backed by the BFI, hits cinemas on May 19th. Taylor makes his transition from short films to embark on his hallucinogenic cinematic journey with an experimental unconventional coming of age story.
A story of teenage troubles, far from those Hollywood loves to portray but from those teenagers who are classed as outsiders in our modern society, ones that want to be unicorns and aliens and, to most, are just plain weird. Spaceship centers on Lucidia (Alexa Davies) as she fakes her own alien abduction, leaving her father to delve into her strange teenage world of neon dream-like visions.
We spoke with Alex Taylor at length to take us into his world of creating Spaceship, its musical connection and its triumphant reception at SXSW.
Spaceship is your feature debut; it’s an experimental piece that will divide opinion in most that watch – What was your inspiration to write a script that wasn’t a safe bet?
First thing to point out, for me it’s not experimental, it’s normal, other films are weird. Why would you just stick to the same boring plot when most of the time you can predict what happens? For me, a film is like a vision, and I just had a vision and tried to put that onto the screen. So it all felt really natural to me. A lot of the inspiration came from me being a teenager, I also spent a few weeks hanging out with teenagers in Guildford and Farnborough, just getting into their world and working out what makes them tick.
They have this colourful, chaotic way of viewing life. It has a lot of energy for me so I wanted to transform that onto the screen rather than a film where you’re looking down on teenagers and saying I’m going to allocate one of you as being the protagonist and you’re going to go through a journey and have an obstacle etc. A lot of films about teenagers are didactic, adults saying what teenagers should be doing for the purposes of entertainment.
Especially in Britain, they are always into knife crime or gangs but they’re an aspiring photographer and can they break out of the cycle, for me, it’s just really boring. You just have to look on the internet, there are so many thousands of these really weird and colourful teenagers who want to be unicorns or cosplayers, aliens and that is where the inspiration came from.
Essentially, it’s a coming of age story from the viewpoint of the troubled teen who doesn’t quite fit into the so-called normal society – Why was it important to represent the non-Kardashian loving young adult population?
For me, I always felt like an outsider so I wanted to give a voice to the teenagers nowadays who are outsiders. The don’t see themselves as outsiders really, they just see themselves as themselves but they end up being outsiders. They’re not the same as everyone else and they don’t all want to be Kim Kardashian or Kanye West. Which after the millionth pouting selfie that you see, you just think don’t you just want your own personality?
The structure of the film is rather fragmented but all scenes have Lucidia’s disappearance as a thinly veiled base – why did you go back and forth between the stories of her friends and her father?
I come from a music background and I like to think of the scenes as almost like musical motifs, music weaves in and out of themes, motifs, and melodies. I wanted the see’s the play a bit like a music compilation or album. I wanted people to be able to dip into the middle of it and enjoy a collection of scenes together because each scene in the film has something to do with finding yourself. You could watch one or two scenes together and still get something out of them. They don’t play a function, they are life experiences.
It hasn’t got a linear narrative where one scene has to have a cause and effect on the next scene. Having said that we spent six months editing and we very carefully placed the scenes next to each other in ways in which we thought would illuminate each other but not from a cause and effect angle as that bores me. If I think a scene is only there to create an effect on the next scene, then that scene is only playing a function. So once you’ve understood the function the scene is dead. Also, you can enjoy watching it once but I would never think about it again, I’ve seen so many films which I never think about and I wanted to make a film which had a living soul.
I have to admit there was one element I didn’t quite get. The two squaddies – which makes me think I need to go back and watch it again.
Some people say I love the film but you can take the squaddies out, some people say the squaddies are my favourite scene, so different people take different things from it. Again, like a music album, you can discuss with your friends the way you would with an album. But nowadays people feel like you have to make judgement on an entire film whether good or bad.
I tried to give everyone in the film a voice, Farnborough is an army town, and it’s the home of the British Army. I wanted a voice from the town; I wanted the squaddies to have something to say. It’s difficult because it does take you out of the main narrative, its balancing act that I am always going to have to struggle with.
Spaceship dips in and out of a documentary style of filmmaking – where some of those short clips taken from the research you conducted?
I took a camcorder down to Guildford and I just walked around the streets [laughs] and just said “Hey can I hang out with you guys” and they said yeah sure, I thought I was weird for doing it, they probably thought I was a bit weird but they just let me hang out and get to know them. Very strange things happened amongst them which inspired me to think more about the things that teenagers go through, there was some self-harming and stuff like that but it wasn’t tragic it was just trying to express what they were going through at the time.
One scene in the film you see Max, one of the Goths, cut himself and then someone else just smears their fingers in his blood and draws a smiley face. That just sums up the whole experience of being a teenager, painful but happy. There is a punk, Derek, who came and smeared it on someone’s cheek and licked it off because that’s what punks do. Another one, his mum turned up, and he said I’ve got to go see my mum, she’s got a bottle of vodka in the car. So we went to see his mum waiting in the car park to give him a bottle of vodka, he smeared some blood on the window and licked it off in front of her and she was like, yeah whatever. That was just one day.
For most of the film the teens act like they are in a perpetual haze of drug-induced delirium but we never actually witness them do anything but drinking alcohol until the ending. Was this meant to be just a suggestion?
The film does have a kind of dreamy quality to it because it’s kind of like a vision rather than a social realist film, so that’s probably why it feels that way. Certainly when they get to the end party scene their doing what most teenagers do around that age. The atmosphere of the film and teenagers just being their strange teenage selves, I guess it comes from my own experiences as a teenager as well.
You had such a young cast to work with to bring to life your characters – How easy was it to cast these roles?
Yeah, Lara Peake is in Born to Kill and How to Talk to Girls at Parties, the Neil Gaiman film which is going to Cannes, she’s an amazing actress. Lucian Charles Collier, he’s now in Metallica videos and stuff like that, he’s gone to LA and Tallulah Haddon who had never worked in a film before and she’s now in Taboo and the lead in a new Netflix series, and then Alexa Davies from Raised by Wolves. I was really inspired by those young people, I cast people who I specifically who I felt I really got on with and I could hear some interesting noises coming from their personalities I could put into the album as it were.
It’s been rumoured you spent ten years making Spaceship, is this correct?
No, it’s been 8 or 9 years from when I made my first short film, it’s been about six years to make this, we made it about three years ago, we filmed two years ago. I was an archaeologist before, that’s why one of the main characters was an archaeologist. With archaeology, I was interested in the stories, because it’s all about digging up stories from the ground, stories, and hidden worlds and fantasy worlds. I also felt a calling to music, like probably a million of us did.
In our generation when I was 15 we all wanted to be in a band but that’s because we saw people like Nirvana just achieve super stardom with a grotty, grungy, anyone can do it kind of an album. If he could play those four chords so can I. The whole generation just thought we could be musicians, when I look at those musicians who made it through, I’m not even impressed with most of the bands, and I’m going to be really unpopular but how is the Arctic Monkeys sound good. When I was a kid commercial rubbish was like Michael Jackson’s Bad, which sounds cheesy but people will still be listening to Michael Jackson in twenty or thirty years’ time they aren’t going to be listening to a lot of bands from this generation.
Spaceship had an outing at last year’s London Film Festival – What was that like for you?
It was brilliant, and SXSW was even better. Especially in SXSW as the Americans seem to love the film, there were sold out performances and they had to add new ones because there were queues trying to get in. London was great as well, it’s been more of a challenge in London because it’s not a typical British film, and it’s more of an American Indie style. It’s been brilliant and it’s taught me a lot about distributing, getting an audience, finding an audience and that’s informing my next film which I’m working on already.
Now you’ve had a taste of a making a feature length film, what would you like to work on next?
Luckily, the BFI loved Spaceship, so I am in development on my next script with the BFI, but this time around I’m thinking carefully how to position the film a little bit because Spaceship was from the heart. Whatever I felt was right went into the film. This time around I think I need to think a little more carefully. It comes down to if you want to release in 200 cinemas, I essentially want to use new talent but you need someone that people will say I’ll go see that film because that person is in the film. It can’t be just that, it’s also got to be an interesting person, it’s a tricky one.
Alex Taylor’s Spaceship is in cinema’s from May 19th.