Rowan Joffe’s debut feature, an updated adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel set in the 1930s Brighton underworld, was largely met with hostility from critics and indifference from cinemagoers when it was released earlier this year. The film will have another chance to find an audience when it’s released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 20th. I spoke with Rowan Joffe about the critical reaction to the film and the difficulties inherent in tackling what most would consider a re-make of a British classic.

HeyUGuys: Remakes are notoriously tricky things to pull off, particularly when the original version is held in high regard. Did you feel daunted at all by tackling this as your feature directorial debut?

RJ: I didn’t really see it as remake. I did something very different with the story, and set it in a different era, and I treat those characters rather differently. My Pinky is slightly more humane than pathetic I think, and my Rose is a great deal less passive and victimised. It’s no more a remake than Minghella’s Talented Mr. Ripley was a remake of The American Friend, but obviously I’m aware that it’s going to be perceived as that. You just have to bite the bullet and get on with it and make the film you want to make.

HeyUGuys: When you use the same title people are going to look back though, aren’t they?

RJ: Yes, that’s true, and there was no getting away from the title. I suppose in a sense I’m being slightly kind to myself, as I used the exact same ending as the original movie. I did that because Greene came up with it and it was a stroke of cinematic genius; it certainly isn’t one that I could better. The ending of the novel, which I was criticised for not using, is actually un-filmable and completely anti-climactic.

HeyUGuys: I haven’t read the novel in a very long time but as I recall the ending wasn’t used in the Boulting adaptation either was it?

RJ: No it wasn’t, and a lot of people see that ending as Greene being put under some sort of satanic, capitalist commercial pressure to sell out, but in fact Greene was extremely pragmatic, and loved cinema and understood that sometimes what worked on the page didn’t work on the screen. He came up with an ending that is far more exciting and dramatic than the ending of the book. There was no beating it in my view.

HeyUGuys: The critical reception to your film in the UK was quite tepid at best. Do you think that reaction was at least in part a response to a kind of perceived audacity on your part in remaking a British classic? In other words, do you think that the press was pre-conditioned to not like the film?

RJ: Yeah, absolutely. I had a two page spread interview with a journalist from a major broadsheet, who said nothing about the quality of the movie other than that it was a stunning debut. It was only off the record that he said to me ‘I can’t actually print this but I think it’s better than the original’. I know that if you sat down 500 people who had never seen either movie, and got them to watch them back to back, that they would prefer mine, not because it’s a better movie, but because it is better suited to today’s cinema going generation. That was my primary reason for making it. I knew I’d get a spanking from certain critics, and I did, but I think the preconditioning was beautifully betrayed by The Telegraph, which slagged the movie without even going to see it.

HeyUGuys: Always impressive when someone does that.

RJ: Yeah, and I won’t forget it. It was certainly upsetting, and it certainly hasn’t helped my career, but I believe in inspiration, and I believe in doing the kind of movies that I and the people I’m interested in would want to see, and I think secretly even the critics who smacked me in print might have perversely, guiltily enjoyed the film.

HeyUGuys: Despite any trepidation that may have existed about re-imagining a British classic, you seemingly had little trouble in attracting a real crème de la crème of a couple of generations of top British actors. Could you talk to me a bit about casting?

RJ: Obviously the casting had a lot to do with the script. As I understand it, John Hurt very much liked the script, and Helen Mirren very much liked the script, which was incredibly helpful and in fact crucial because without Helen Mirren onboard we wouldn’t have been greenlit. Neither of them seemed to have any trepidation about remaking a classic. Helen has always been very robust and forthright, and I think probably agrees with me that the original movie hasn’t aged very well and in many ways isn’t as good a movie as it is in many people’s memories or imaginations. It was both encouraging and financially crucial to have Helen and John on board.

HeyUGuys: Quadrophenia seems like an obvious touchstone for the mods and rockers aspect of the film, and the big beach front fight feels very close to the fight and riot in the earlier film. Are you a fan paying homage to it to an extent?

RJ: Only inadvertently. Obviously the mods and rockers riot that is the backdrop to Pinky’s attempted murder of Frank Spicer is going to feel similar to the riot in Quadrophenia because they are both depicting the same historical event. It’s an iconic event involving mods in parkas riding scooters and rockers in leather riding motorbikes and the whole thing is set in Brighton, so it’s unavoidable to feel similar to that, but there’s no deliberate homage. In fact, the 1964 setting was born out of a desire to a) distinguish this movie from its predecessor, and b) make it feel more contemporary without modernising it to the extent where it no longer made sense. For example, you couldn’t really have a character as innocent as Rose in today’s internet and media infested environment because that kind of innocence doesn’t really exist anymore.

We were also interested in the ‘60s because the film is set in the last year that the death penalty carried, and Britain was beginning to lose faith in the moral leadership of the Church. It was a country that was still staggering economically from the trauma of WWII and was very much on the knife edge between the old fashioned England and an unknown future, a modernity that was terrifying to some people and rather sexy and seductive to others. So really what the ’64 setting gives you is the battle between youth and tradition, and the supremacy of youth, the almost terrifying gangland power of youth.

HeyUGuys: You were quoted in the production notes as saying that the ‘60s updating of the story was meant to ‘contextualize Pinky’s youth rebellion’, but I didn’t see him as a rebel at all. He clearly wants to assume the leadership position in the established criminal order that the death of his mentor leaves vacant. Are the mod trappings (the tonic suit and the scooter he steals) not just camouflage that he adopts in order to blend into his surroundings and hide from his pursuers?

RJ: I’m not sure what part of the production notes you’re quoting, but I certainly don’t see Pinky as a card-carrying mod and never did. For a start he hates music, he hates sex, he hates drugs and he doesn’t drink. So he’s not a mod, you’re exactly right. He uses a scooter to escape from rival gangsters, he wears a suit because he’s rather vain, and he carries a flick knife because he likes intimidating people. He exploits elements of modernism to become a more ferocious gangster, but nonetheless he does embody in my movie and in the original novel, but not at all in the Boulting brothers movie, a kind of ferocious, amoral almost animalistic teenage ruthlessness that was very new to England in the ‘60s and was pretty much unheard of in the ‘30s when Greene wrote his novel.

HeyUGuys: Many films are given a second chance to find their audience through home viewing, and while this is fairly obvious, I assume that you’re hoping the film gets a fairer shake now that it’s about to come out on DVD and Blu-ray.

RJ: Yeah very much so. I love my DVD collection, and although I’m a huge fan of cinema and an advocate of the importance of going to the cinema, I think there’s a special relationship you have with a movie that’s part of your library and that you watch in the privacy of your own home. Brighton Rock is a complex story and something that will reward a really intimate viewing, and maybe even repeated viewings. There’s a lot of British talent in there, not mine necessarily, including one of our greatest DOPs and some of our greatest actors, and I think it will be a great addition to anyone’s library.

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Ian Gilchrist
I've worked in entertainment product development and sales & marketing in the U.S., UK and my native Canada for over 20 years, and have been a part of many changes during that time (I've overseen home entertainment releases on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray). I've also written and commentated about film and music for many outlets over the years. The first film I saw in the cinema was Mary Poppins, some time in the mid-60s: I was hooked. My love of the moving image remains as strong as ever.