We talk exclusively to Gupta (left, on the left of picture) about adapting the novel into a film, the back-story, casting and shooting experiences, and get an unique piece of advice on how to prepare to make a film, plus an insight into his new film, based on his acclaimed BBC Radio 4 play, Jadoo.
HeyUGuys: What was it about Owen Sheers’s novel that made you want to turn it into a film?
Amit Gupta: I think when I read it the first thing that really stayed with me was the atmosphere of it. I felt there was something about it that felt very filmic to me. It also felt very poetic and I feel poetry translates very well to cinema because it’s such a visual style of writing.
How did Owen (above, right) help you visualise his novel at the writing stage, as there is not a lot of dialogue in the film.
Well, we walked in the valley together; we’d been around that landscape. We put some detail into the script, but a lot of it was about the way the story unfolded. I think a lot of the visual stuff was conversations between myself and the production designer and the director of photography. The look I was after was based on a combination of things in the novel, little images, but also I came across some paintings that I found very influential by an American painter called Andrew Wyeth, who painted mid-West America in the 30s and 40s, and that felt really strangely relevant to what we were doing, in terms of the space and the shape and the kind of photography I wanted.
The back-story about the UK Auxiliary Units – the Resistance – on standby is fascinating. Can you elaborate on what these groups were expected to do and the lengths they were expected to go?
The people who were recruited were told their life expectancy was two weeks, so they knew it was serious in the event of a German invasion and going underground. They were very likely to lose their lives in trying to resist the German advance. It was a very sophisticated network of units in the country. It’s very interesting as it’s one of the stories about the war I didn’t know about until I was made aware of it. I am very interested in the Second World War; I did a History degree and did a lot of reading on it. But I didn’t know anything about it and I guess people don’t. A lot of the background reading I did was on the Resistance in Europe, just to get a sense of what it was like with the Germans going into France and the Balkans. That gave me a sense of what it would feel like and what lengths they went to. Occupation was a strange system of ‘normalising’, making the place feel as normal as possible. This is something I wanted to do with the film, which is why the style is quite restrained because I didn’t want it to feel over the top, like a war film. I wanted it to be an anti-war film if anything.
There are a lot of difficult choices the characters must make, and with the limited dialogue, we never really know if Sarah has feelings for Albrecht, or if they are out of survival.
There is a scene early on in the film where Albrecht (bottom, right, Tom Wlaschiha as Albrecht) does say they are not going to report in to their local command and will just wait for the war to be over – they don’t want to take the risk of going back to war and being killed in the last week before it’s over. I found that quite interesting, as I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be in a situation where, what if you’re the last man killed before the Armistice. It must be an awful feeling for the family. They choose not to go back and have gone AWOL, which is why, if they went back the Gestapo would arrest them and probably execute them. Sarah to Albrecht, whether or not he’s really in love with her, it’s more about what she represents; she represents a new start. I really feel that when people are in extreme circumstances, emotions are heightened; you don’t have to know someone that well to feel they are an answer to your problems. They become someone you can project the life and your desire you want onto them. I think that’s what Albrecht does with Sarah. I wanted there to be ambiguity there with Sarah, and whether she ever wants to go with him. I think the romantic choice is that she stays true to her husband. The practical choice is you perhaps do leave with Albrecht and start a new life. You are weighing up the chances of your husband being alive, or should you go and build a new life?
How did you find casting on this, especially getting Michael Sheen onboard?
I worked with Sam Jones, a casting director who I work with a lot, so she knows what my taste in actors is. We always knew we were going to cast German actors in the German roles. I never wanted to make a film where people spoke English with German accents. When we first looked at casting the role of Sarah, Andrea Riseborough (above, right) wasn’t available, and we initially spoke to someone else. Eventually Andrea was available and she read the script within a week. I met her at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport to talk to her about what I wanted to do with the film – she was on the way to the Toronto Film Festival – and a couple of days later she called saying she wanted to do it. It was scary but easy because I knew she’d be perfect for it. I also knew she’d been filming constantly for two years and probably, for her sanity, she should have gone home and got some rest. But she saw a great part there and I’m forever grateful that she chose to do the film because she was fantastic. Michael (above, left) committed to the film emotionally. He read the script and he made his timetable work. It comes down to some really good agents who, if they can make it work, they will. You don’t get the Andrea Riseboroughs and Michael Sheens in a film unless there is some commitment to younger filmmakers. This is why Britain continues to produce filmmakers who get to work in the States and elsewhere really – we have a film industry here that’s open enough to make these things possible.
What were some of the challenges in making the film – how intense what the shoot?
We shot the film in five weeks. Anyone in the business will tell a first-time feature director like myself the things that you shouldn’t do is work with animals, children or on a period film, and you probably shouldn’t shoot on film either. I had a number of these things on my first feature. At the same time, if you don’t have any expectation, you don’t know what you should and shouldn’t be doing – you just know you have to get the film done. That’s a real plus, I think, because you don’t have that fear. But it was very intense. We were working six-day weeks. The seventh day I would be rewriting quite a bit with Owen and meeting the actors and talking about the schedule ahead, as well as talking to my production team. But we stuck to our timetable and we didn’t go over very much because we knew how hard people were working. I didn’t want us to run over too much because you can’t keep people going at that pace if people are going to be working an hour, two hours over every night. The big tension release and cheer on the final day after shouting, “Cut” and someone else shouting, “That’s a wrap”, was that we managed to keep to our timetable and we had another day in the bag out of 30. It is demanding. It is tough, but I thing the best thing that happened to me before making the film was my wife and me having a baby. I think it’s a good idea before making a film! I don’t think anything’s as intense as having a small child around the house. For me, it put everything into perspective. I thought I’m never going to sleep less than the first six months of being a new parent, so if I know I’m going to get four or five hours sleep a night that’s better than what I was getting in the first year of my daughter being born. Maybe all young mums should go and make a film.
How has adapting your Radio 4 play Jadoo for film been coming along?
It’s completely different to Resistance, and this is what’s going to be quite fun. Jadoo means ‘magic’. It’s a family comedy set in the world of restaurants in an Asian area of Leicester. My family still have a vegetarian Indian restaurant there, and it’s about two rival chefs who happen to be brothers. We’ve the script in pretty good shape and I think we’re going to be shooting in the spring. The next stage will be closing the last bit of finance, casting – we don’t have any confirmed cast yet, as contracts are yet to be signed, but there is one person I really want in the film and I think she wants to do it. There is a part for a famous chef who I really like, so I guess you could read between the lines; famous Indian chef who would be an inspiration to this film. It is going to be a largely Asian cast, given where it’s set. My great influences for this film would be Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and Big Night (1996). The aim is to make a fun, warm movie that will make people want to go and eat a curry straight after!
Finally, what do you want people to take away from Resistance – does it resonate with contemporary occupation situations?
I really hope so. This was something I was really conscious of. I remember my conversation with Michael Sheen, the day before we were shooting him, and we were talking about the character of Atkins. I said what was very important to me was the contemporary version of Atkins is the person who recruits the suicide bomber. To me, George in the film is the equivalent of a suicide bomber – he’s young and influenced by somebody. His world, emotionally, falls apart. A decision he makes in the film has major consequences. That to me felt like a very contemporary resonance, as does a German patrol unit going into a valley. You have British soldiers going into areas of Afghanistan, where the women have been left behind because the men have gone into the hills. They had to try and help these women survive, and at the same time, worry about whether there were snipers around. In this film, we’re so far along in the war that they are not expecting a great deal of trouble where they are. But it still applies, that feeling of somewhere where you don’t want to leave behind because do you really want to go back to war – soldiers, I think, get that. It was important we made a film with enough ambiguity that it makes people think what if Britain had been occupied? Sometimes for me, things are spelt out a little bit too much in films, and what European cinema does really effectively is allow things to breathe.
Resistance is in cinemas from 25 November. Read our review here.