Filmmaker Interview: Michael Caton-Jones (Urban Hymn)


Set against the backdrop of the 2011 England Riots, “Urban Hymn” follows a neglected and volatile female offender, who possesses an amazing singing voice.

Torn between her loyalties toward her inspiring, unconventional care worker and her possessive and volatile best friend, the film is a redemptive coming-of-age story with an all-star cast.

Now, with the digital release of “Urban Hymn” upon us, we caught up with its Director Michael Caton-Jones for an in-depth look at the making of and intention behind the film.

How did you get involved with this film?
I read the script. When I read it I felt there were a bunch of elements in it that I was really interested in, that I thought could make a decent film by the end of it. Really as simple as that. You kind of reject what you’ve done before and try to do something slightly different each time. I’ve been wanting to make a certain film about London for a long time on a more personal level. And that’s basically how I got involved in it. They sent it to me, I read it, I liked it. I said I’d like to do it and went for it.

Were you looking for a smaller project to do?
It surprises me, people say this seems out of character for you to do a film like this. I actually feel this is probably closer to my sensibilities than any other film I’ve made. Mainly because it’s very human, it’s very emotional, it’s about real people and real situations. I always felt you could make a social realist film that was entertaining at the same time, it’s not mutually exclusive. So I felt that the size of a film doesn’t really matter to me, it’s the same deal every time. You’ve got a camera, a story to tell, and you point it at the actors. You shoot it and take it away and cut it up. What changes with more money, in my experience, is the amount of fear involved. There’s less risk-taking on a bigger budget film because of the sums involved. You don’t want to have people who are nervous that it’s not gonna work, so they don’t want to be blamed for that. And they don’t necessarily want to push the envelope in terms of what the film is and what it’s about and how it’s done. Which is all very understandable on a human level, but I don’t believe you create great work if you are afraid. I think you have to be ready to take a chance, take a fire and be ready for it to fail at a high level. And on a lower budget level, you have much more of that freedom. You’re only limited by your imagination to a certain extent.

So there wasn´t much pressure to do it a certain way?
One of the things about not having enough money to make a film is you don’t have enough time. All of my years of experience came into the focus at one point because we didn’t have time, we didn’t have money. So your choices are more limited. You make your choice, you shoot it and you move on. You don’t second guess yourself, you don’t worry too much. You just get it made. And it’s liberating in a way, but it also becomes a much purer film because you’re working instinctually as opposed to having enough time and money to second guess. You have to make the decision. There it was, this is what it’s going to be and move on. Some people would find that dangerous and some people find that liberating. I find it liberating myself.

How long did you shoot for?
27 days. We banged it out. We were doing between 8 and 13 scenes a day. That’s like soap opera speed. When you get used to working at that speed I actually like it very much. But I’d rehearsed the actors very thoroughly so there was no great interpretation or discussions when we went to shoot it, it was simply the technical part of putting it on film.

How long was the rehearsal process?
A week. It was very intense. I had the three girls and I worked them pretty hard for a week before. They loved it because by the time we went to shoot they completely got their character and completely got the nuance and the influence, and then it was time to just react to whatever the circumstances are. But they knew the import of what they were doing at that point.

Tell me about the casting process.
Interestingly I was gonna cast Letitia as Liane and I thought ¨I’ll put her in my back pocket,¨ because I had to find a combination. When you’ve got three leading females you want to find different colors in the emotional spectrum so that they compliment or contrast. And I couldn’t find someone that I thought was really convincing as Jamie. Some of them were really good singers, some of them were really good actresses, some of them were too sympathetic, too soft or not hard, or vice versa. And it was only when Isabella sent a self-tapeing of her doing Liane I thought “Wow she’s really good at that¨ and I thought maybe I could swap them. I got Letitia back in and read her for the other part and then put them together and they got on really well and that became settled for that. With Shirley’s role, every company wants the comfort of a movie star. With the money we had, we couldn’t throw money at a movie star so we went through the usual waste of time of sending it to movie stars who are never going to do it because they’re getting way too well paid and are not interested. You get rejected enough that you get down to the level of the people that you really want. And Shirley was at the top of that list, so I was quite happy when we went through these people. I worked with Shirley on Rob Roy right at the beginning of her career and it was just one conversation on the phone and she was in. She’s fantastic.

You´ve compared Letitia to Leonardo DiCaprio.
I had Leo when he was 16 in This Boy’s Life and he was extraordinary at the time. You couldn’t tell at the time that he was going to become as huge as he has become. He was obviously a very good actor. He had a raw material, he wasn’t overly trained. He was naturally gifted and he had a sponge-like desire to learn and improve himself. And Letitia is the first actor I’ve worked with- first young actor- who has the same base material. The camera loves her. She is natural, she’s not overtrained. She has an innate honesty of emotion that she can convey. And since Leo, she’s the best I’ve come across. I think she can be as big as him if she desires it, it’s up to her. I don’t think it’s the be-all-end-all to become a movie star. She has all the material to become that I believe.

What do you mean by overtrained?
Either theatrically trained or have done too many films that they are set in their ways about how they’re going to portray. Too many tricks in their locker. So when you get to an actor at the beginning of their career you can imbue them with good habits and you can teach them that you switch on, you switch off. You give the equal amount of import to gesture, to movement, to infection. And if you can get an actor at a young age you can give them those tools and help them with those tools and help them with their approach to how they act. Then they take that on to the next one and the next one and they exponentially grow. If you haven’t got the talent you can get these talents but it won’t help. But if they have got the talent and they have got the desire and you give them these practical helps the world’s their oyster.

What do you think about theater actor crossing over into film?
I think it’s a different discipline. There are a precision and a comprehension of technique in film. I think the best actors are filmmakers, they’re part of the whole filmmaking process and they understand how films are made and they understand their part in it. They understand how things slot together, the best ones do that. And I feel it’ s up to them not to say “I’m just an actor” whereas in the theater you can be just an actor and you can control your performance to a great extent. In a film, you are less in control of your performance and more at the mercy of what other people will do with that performance in terms of editing for instance. But if you understand the process you can save your emotional heft for when it’s necessary and not burn yourself out.

Was it like that with Letitia and Isabella?
Yeah. The two of them are fantastic. But Isabella is different because she is actually a theatre-trained actress and she was playing a complete opposite to her personality in the film. Letitia was playing much closer to her personality. You could in some ways say that Izzy did a bigger acting job in this. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because all you’re asking people to do is accept them as characters and accept them for what you see on screen. Can you believe and can you relate and can you empathize with what they’re going through? And really that’s what you’re aiming for. And it’s my job to corral that, but it’s also their job to fit into that corraling and head in the same direction.

Does the issue of race play a part in this film?
I didn’t think there was anything to do with race in the film because I think you could change the ethnic makeup of all these characters and it would be the same story. The strange thing in the States, of course, is the use of the word “urban”. In North America it means black, it doesn’t mean that in Britain. And I think that to a greater extent in Britain people are much more integrated, we all live cheek by jowl. I’ve got loads of black and Asian friends, so does everybody up north. So to me race wasn’t really an issue as far as I was concerned. It’s white, it’s black, it’s everything. You know, this wasn’t written for a black actress. When Letitia came in she was just good, and it was no desire to make a statement in any way from any of us.

What camera did you shoot with?
We shot it on the Arri Alexa and the IPhone (laughs). We did the opening scenes on an IPhone. I wanted to blend the documentary material with the same kind of feeling, so we actually ran around with an IPhone 4 and filmed the opening scenes and it works fine. You spend a lot of time trying to make digital look like film, but I’ve had the same cinematographer for years and it’s just a delivery system for us. If you don’t know where to put the lights and how you want it to look it doesn’t really matter if it’s digital or film. It’s just a delivery system to a greater extent. I think there’s a whole load of first world problems by directors saying it must be filmed.

Does if benefit the actors shooting digital?
It doesn’t really matter, I don’t run the camera and leave it running. I was trained and brought up in an old school filmmaking where you have one camera and you make the decision about that shot and you shoot that shot and move on to the next one. You make a film one shot at a time. I think a greater dictator of film style these days is actually the use of multiple cameras. You light the scene for your A-camera and you shoot your main part with that. The B-camera often picks up what it can, hands and details all over the place. Now you’ve got this material and what happens is they throw it in all the time for spurious reasons, you cut away to this and cut away to that. It gives it a false energy but it’s not necessarily precise, it’s kind of scattered. That’s a big dictator of style for me at the moment than anything else.

So you’ve only got one camera rolling at a time?
Yeah. Unless I’ve got crowd scenes it’s just more expedient to have if you’re going to pick up a wide shot and a close-up. If you’ve got two people acting there’s no need for two cameras. It’s just as quick to take the shot, to change the lens, or move in than keep running and walk it in. I mean we were running at such a speed we had no overtime on this film whatsoever. There were often times when I was starting scenes with only fifteen minutes to go and I would do one take wide and I’d walk in. Because they were well rehearsed we’d just bang it again, turn it around, bang it again and make a scene within fifteen minutes. There’s a lot of this film that’s held together by sellotape and string round the back, but that’s just a function of the budget. We didn’t have enough time and enough money. You’ve got to get it in the can.

How many takes on average?
Three, four, it depends on the shot. If it was highly technical maybe four or five. I don’t think I did more than five in the whole thing. A lot of times there’s only one- bang you’ve got it and move on. I don’t believe in safety. It’s very rare that something happens in post-production. I still think it’s fine with one camera, it keeps an intimacy and an immediacy. You can actually move quickly once you get into the rhythm of it.

Would you like to continue doing more films in this way?
Yeah, this is more my cup of tea I would say. I like more intimate stories where things are recognizably human. Emotions, honesty, behavior, all things that you can do with a lower budget than you can on a bigger budget. I’ve done my time in the studio system and it’s fine, I wouldn’t rule out doing it again. But I get much more satisfaction out of doing this kind of film on a personal level and professional level. You can just control more, make more of the thing that’s in your head. That’s really what you’re striving to do. Every film is the same. You’ve got a picture in your head and you’re trying to get it out on film. And sometimes it comes out misshapen and sometimes it comes out close to what you want. This came out closer to what I wanted than any film I’ve made.

– Ian MacKenzie


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