With her first major action thriller, Born of War, about to hit cinemas, Oxford-based director Vicky Jewson talks to Daily Info about making a low budget movie look like millions, knocking on Hollywood’s door, and why The Hunger Games helps.
What are your ambitions for the film commercially and as a staging point in your career?
It’s already done quite well. It’s sold to 16 countries and even had a theatrical release in Japan. In England, for me, it was a dream come true when we signed with Lionsgate because they’re a really big studio. I’ve had a mentor there, their head of acquisitions, since I was 18. He’s been encouraging me throughout my career. I kept wanting him to bite. And now he has. So that was really satisfying.
Do you see Born of War as a calling card?
It’s been a really strong calling card. I’ve just signed with an LA management company, the Gotham Group, with a producer who’s voted one of the top ten most influential in LA. They want to help me grow my career. So in terms of what Born of War has done for me, I’m delighted. My next film, which my company’s written, will be for a bigger budget. We’re flying out to LA next week to start pitching it.
Your company’s ethos is to make films with female protagonists. Are you also hoping Born of War gets a female audience too? Many women do love action movies.
My realistic commercial view is that the audience is men from 16-25. But there’s a massive secondary audience of women who like seeing action films. Often they’re overlooked by the buyers. But, actually, look at The Hunger Games, Divergent, Insurgent, Hanna – the appetite is there. In the age bracket between 16-19, the gender split is quite equal as to what kids watch. I say ‘kid’ – that makes me feel really old!
You’ve referenced Luc Besson’s film Nikita as an influence for Born of War. Is that about the look or the theme?
Both. I love the way Besson paints the colour and creates a real atmosphere. I find a lot of filmmaking at the lower-budget end can be painted with just one colour tone. You miss all the opportunities to have contrast. I was always going on at my Director of Photography “up the blacks”. I wanted an atmosphere in the image, for it to look beautiful. Jordan to feel dusty and exotic - England to feel blue and cold in contrast. Besson does that really well. And Nikita is the only film I’ve seen about a normal girl whose life is turned upside down to become a spy. It’s a great concept.
Besson can get away with making action films in France, a genre which French audiences seem to like. Do you think there’s an artistic snobbery towards action films in this country?
Definitely. And certainly towards commercial films, particularly lower budget ones. If people go to a commercial film they expect it to be a Hollywood one. So they’re actually surprised you can make one outside that system. If people see a low budget film in this country, they’re expecting arthouse, something that’s won a BAFTA. So I feel I’m carving a new niche. It’s been very difficult to get Born of War sold and placed in the UK. We needed Lionsgate and they’re using The Hunger Games to leverage it.
Given the kind of films you want to make – and given the difficulties of making them in the UK, isn’t it tempting to up sticks and move to abroad to make them?
Thing is, I love Britain. And I’m a real family girl. Also the tax credits to film in the UK are so good. The big thing that excites people about my company is we can make a low budget film look good. So they think, “if you can make that for under half a million, what would you do with £6 million”. A lot of films are shooting in England now. So we’ll make the films here the selling and packaging and the progression of our company will be in America.
Some people have a downer on more recent action films because they’re so quick cut you can’t see what’s going on. How did you approach that in Born of War – creating energy but keeping clarity?
It’s a really good point. I didn’t want it to be confusing. The key for me was to follow the character. We used her as our point of reference. We couldn’t put huge set-pieces together, we couldn’t cut back out and see it all on a huge wide. And I didn’t cut too quickly – because I find that frustrating in films. You’re watching a car chase and you don’t know which car is chasing which. I want you to see what’s happening. And here it’s normally just happening to one or two characters – not fifty.
Joey Ansah was your fight choreographer (he has his own Oxford connections having been at Oxford Brookes). What did you want out of the fights?
I don’t think it’s the film’s strongest point. It’s something I’d love to work on more in the next film. We worked with Joey and our stuntman Glenn Marks. They came up with a lot. I’d written the action scenes and had a vision for how I wanted them to feel... There’s a moment in a car where the heroine’s hit and I wanted it to look brutal, to really slam her into the bodywork so we all get jolted... But moving forward, I’d love to spend a month with the stunt people rehearsing fight scenes - because they’re so important to an action movie.
How do you know you’ve got the footage you want from each shooting day?
You just do. You have a vision in your head of what you need. The worst feeling is when you know you haven’t got it, you’re running out of time and the next day you’re going to another location so it’s your last chance.. The pressure-moment was where we turned up at a location which is supposed to a private hospital; the art department had put an Argos bed in this big empty room; and it just didn’t look like a private hospital! Everyone thought we had to go with it. But I said “we’re not filming, we have to get a hospital bed”. It’s a risk but it was worth it.
So is the editing where the film really comes together?
Yes massively. There aren’t many people on set who think of the film as a whole. The director is one, the director of photographer is another. Amongst all the chaos I had a vision of how I wanted the film to come together. If I hadn’t edited it, I don’t know if another editor could have found it. The continuity person said “it’s not going to cut”. But I knew it would. I was always thinking of the edit.
Is the hassle of pitching the film and getting it financed and distributed a bit like having it reviewed even before it comes out?
The biggest moment for me was screening it to the industry. They said “you guys have made a really good film, we can sell it to a Hollywood sales company “. When we premiered at Berlin, Lionsgate also said “you’ve made a proper film”. I know it’s not a four or five star movie. I know we couldn’t craft the perfect piece for what we were dealing with. Just so long as people enjoy it and don’t want to rip it to shreds.
Through all the tribulations of getting it made, how have you managed to stay in love with it?
I think that’s one of the things that allows me to be a director, that I do stay in love with it. It comes down to a core central idea of making a female action heroine. Writing is a different process to when you’re directing, and again when you’re editing: that also keeps you alive with it, it becomes your baby, you’re the ultimate control freak.
Given you have an overall viewpoint on your films, would you say even at this early stage that you have an approach that identifies ‘a Vicky Jewson film’?
I’m still developing my style. But what I’m aware of at the moment is I’m trying to bring a colourful, edge-of –your-seat, dynamic approach that connects you to a character. That’s what I’m trying to do. You’ll decide if it works or not!