Scottish-born Michael Caton-Jones has had the kind of career many directors could only dream of, effortlessly switching between genres and producing a number of memorable projects which began with his 1989 debut Scandal – a film which really chimed with American audiences and was one of Miramax’s early acquisitions.
Having worked with some of Hollywood’s acting greats, twice with Robert De Niro (2002’s City by the Sea and the hugely underrated Leonardo DiCaprio-headlining coming-of-age drama This Boy’s Life) films like Memphis Belle, Doc Hollywood, Rob Roy and The Jackal showcase his diversity as a filmmaker.
His latest project, Urban Hymn, is a much more dialled-down affair from his State-side work, concentrating on the lives of two young females in care whose lives are changed forever when are brought together with a new care worker.
We caught up with the director during the film’s edit where he spoke candidly and gregariously about his career so far, and his fondness for the this new material.
It’s much easier for people to get a hold on you as a filmmaker if you have a theme flowing through your work, and I think I tend to like familial stories. That doesn’t necessarily have to be an immediate family, like the bomber crew from Memphis Belle. Those kinds of relationships are what interest me. To a greater extent, I’m attracted to stories involving the morality and behaviour of people and the choices they sometimes have to make.
Urban Hymn combines both of those ideas. I’m kinda gender and race blind, and it never dawned on me until something said recently of the film, “you’re making a chick flick”. That’s a reductive term, but it works. I’m really lucky with [actress] Shirley [Henderson] who completely got the nuance of the whole thing. I like putting characters in moments of stress and then seeing how they react to what’s expected of them. All three characters [in Urban Hymn] are pulling in different directions.
What was it about the script which drew you to the project?
What I like about Nick [Moorcroft’s] writing is he’s not afraid of emotion, but it has to be earned. You can’t do it cheaply. I fought that impulse during the transition from script to shooting. The film is almost a musical, where people sing all the time but it’s in normal situations – there’s a choir, people singing in their own rooms. It permeates the whole story and hopefully counterpoints and underscores what’s going on. It’s a fascinating story and I’m really happy to be working on it.
Are you happy with the edit? Is there less pressure owing to the fact that it’s a smaller, low-budget affair?
It looks very good. It’s very well photographed and acted. The guy doing the soundtrack with me is in A&R and we talked about the music we needed cleared. He told me about this band he loved who actually broke up before he had the chance to sign them back in 2008. I really liked what I heard and said we should pull a few tracks from their album. I ended up taking lines from songs and mixing them into dialogue, so it became reverse engineering in some ways. Who knows how it was ultimately work, but when you’re doing a film of this budget you can take those kinds of risks. With a big studio film, there’s so much money and fear riding on it to be commercial. Working on this level you can just follow interesting ideas.
You’ve obviously been on that other end of the spectrum with something like The Jackal. That probably had a locked-in release date during the edit? Was that process tough?
It’s more the studio politics which are hard work as opposed to the editing. Once people have invested loads of money into a film the fear factor goes up, as does the amount of people who want to have a say in what you’re making. The real objective of every executive is to make something as close to successful as possible, or as far away from something that stinks.
You’re working with issues that are not really about filmmaking but the money can certainly afford you much more luxuries, such as a great crew for example. On a low budget film, you can’t pay the kind of wages a really good technician gets on a bigger film. Sometimes you’re dealing with people who are young and inexperienced and that costs time and money in itself, but it’s much more enjoyable because you’re a smaller unit. When you’re on a big film the levels of approval you have to negotiate are draining.
Your back catalogue is really diverse. You have period films, comedies and a big action movie in there. Earlier in your career, did you consciously decide to tackle different projects?
I don’t really think of things in terms of genre. I lot of people like to reduce a film like that but I never have. Every time I get involved in genre, I lose interest. Other filmmakers do it really well, but it’s kinda simplistic. I originally started at film school wanting to make comedies, and they’re really difficult to do. It’s incredibly rewarding if you do them well, and there’s nothing better than standing in a room with an audience laughing at your work. One of the greatest times of my life was experiencing audience reactions during the opening weekend of Doc Hollywood in the US. I got sidetracked when I first started making feature films which veered towards period drama, because that’s what was being offered to me.
How do you go about tackling a project?
What I’ve learned to do is have a looser hand on the throttle, as I would call it. Whether you start with a writer, or if you’ve been inspired by a book, or have this amorphous feeling [for the film] and from that it turns into something a little more specific. You have to maintain your original feeling whilst making a film, but be aware enough of all these different things which are happening around which will enhance what you’re making. It’s a mistake to hold completely onto that original idea. It’s something you do when you’re inexperienced because you’re fearful of letting go of that. This industry offers the ultimate collaborative experience and [your film] is only as good as the collaboration so trying to control everything is the antithesis of that process.
What you’re doing is creating an environment for a lot of great people to chunk in good stuff and then you are the unifier, so you don’t have to maintain that initial vision. You need to apply a looser hold on things, and I guess that comes with experience. Having made gazillion of fuck-ups throughout the years, you realise that mistakes are not necessarily a bad thing.
Has your outlook on directing changed since the early part of your career?
I feel now as I did then – I’m still learning my trade. You make a film as best as you can, finish it and then you do something which is quite different to make a change. If you’ve spent six months in the jungle, you want to do something in the studio, and vice versa. Once you finish a film, you don’t want to look at it anymore as you can’t stand it. All you see is a litany of errors. You have to make another film to be able to look at the previous one and reconcile with it. I never set out to be mister diverse – you’re gonna make some good ones and crappy ones. You just have to keep making them and judge them over the period of work. I still feel like that.
I’m really pleased with [Urban Hymns] because it’s pure in a way. All those issues with bigger films were absent from this. We had such a hard, tight schedule but the process became instinctual. You had to hit the ground running first thing in the morning and batter through it. You just shut down all the avenues which can normally take you in other directions when you have time and money because you only have one shot to scenes done. Often times I’d start key scenes thirty minutes before the end of the day because we couldn’t afford to go over. What you got was what you got.
Did any great moments come from that added pressure?
It was the same issue we had in Rwanda while making Shooting Dogs over there. The country is right on the equator and when the sun goes down at half five in the evening it disappears in a moment. It was like that every day, and no matter if you’d had a successful shoot that day or not, you’re fighting to get everything. What saved us with Urban Hymns was having rehearsal time with the three main actors. Because we had gone through all the scenes prior to the shoot, I was pretty relaxed and focused. The limitations and lack of money actually created things.
Urban Hymn is out in cinemas today.