I recently got the chance to talk to director Chris Presswell about his new film, ‘Forget Paris’. Here, Chris talks about how the idea for the film first came about, what it was like working with Ed Coleman and Mai Cunningham and which films have inspired him as an artist…
(Chris Presswell, (second from left) with the cast of ‘Forget Paris’).
Hey Chris. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about your debut feature film, ‘Forget Paris’.
You wrote and directed the film – how did the idea first come about? How easy was it to put into production, especially as a young filmmaker?
The story stems from the ultimate nightmare situation, really. It tells of Dan and Katie, a couple who plan a romantic new years’ getaway to Paris, only for their relationship to implode before their departure and leaving one of them heartbroken – but they decide to go anyway. There’s surely nothing worse than being forced to spend a week with someone who has emotionally pounded you, while isolated in an unfamiliar city.
The overall project was born out of practicality. I’ve worked on enough films over the years to learn by now that if you write an epic screenplay about a flying pink elephant, you’re only making things hard on yourself. And of all the stories that I wanted to tell, ‘Forget Paris’ seemed like the most achievable idea for where I currently am. That’s not to say it was going to be easy, but a film about the relationship between two characters as they wander a foreign city is much simpler to get off the ground – especially when you’re only 23, and nobody wants to take you seriously!
We’ve been immensely fortunate. Somewhere along the way, the stars aligned and we found ourselves in a position where we could actually do it. We suddenly had easier access to the equipment and resources we needed, and a short window during which we could make use of them. And given the time specific events of the film and our budget (or lack thereof), that pretty much set our schedule in stone. We didn’t have the money to flood Paris with thousands of extras, so the cameras were actually rolling at midnight on New Year’s Eve – allowing us one chance to get the film’s pivotal climax right. It was probably the most stressed I’ve ever been!
How would you say the film is different from other dramas released this year? What tricks as a director did you try to throw in?
I think it’s a painfully honest story. The dilemma that the characters are facing isn’t magically resolved, and the film is really about how they deal with their situation in different ways. I suppose it also varies in that it’s told from a male perspective. Usually it’s the man’s role to be the one terrified of commitment, and ruining everything only to learn that he’s made a mistake. To have Dan as the emotionally trampled one really gives the story a different angle.
In particular, I wanted to invert the stereotypes surrounding Paris. It has a reputation for being a romantic city, but it’s ultimately all a bit of a facade. I’ve always felt that it isn’t particularly romantic to check things off a list, such as going up the Eiffel Tower and taking a boat ride along the Seine. Real romanticism is surely born from individuality and uniqueness, not doing the same thing that everybody else does for the sake of it. There’s a scene in the film where Dan does something really unique and lovely in an attempt to win back Katie’s affection, and it really goes to highlight the differences between them.
There’s actually a psychological disorder called Paris Syndrome, where peoples’ expectations of the cobbled streets and romantic atmosphere aren’t met upon their visit, and they wind up having a breakdown. The Japanese embassy actually has to fly home around a dozen tourists per year when they succumb to the severe culture shock. Ultimately, that highlights why Paris is the ideal location to portray a story of this nature. The characters’ holiday was devised amidst the optimism of a blossoming relationship, only for everything to fall apart and their expectations not to be met. The city, along with their experience, winds up being a bit of an anti-climax.
How has the reception been to the film so far?
We’ve only had the one public screening at the Raindance Film Festival so far, but the response to it has been phenomenal! Despite not having any big names or a marketing budget, we managed to sell it out.
People really seem to understand the characters and the situation they’re thrown into, and I think it comes back to that honesty. Most people have been through some sort of turbulent relationship, and found themselves in a dark place at the hands of someone else, just like Dan. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that a number of people have since told me that they’ve had the exact same experience, and a lot of the time it was also in Paris. If anything, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for someone to tell this story.
The film stars Ed Coleman and Mai Cunningham – what was it like working with the cast and crew?
When we were casting the film, the pressure we had to find the right people was immense, seeing as there are only two characters. They carry the whole thing, so there’s no room for imperfections.
The most remarkable thing about Ed and Mai is just how different they are in real life to the characters they play, and yet how utterly convincing they are as the ever more awkward couple. They’re really polar opposites of themselves, and they portray them brilliantly.
Ed’s background is mainly in comedy (he can currently be seen in Sky 1’s ‘Spy’), and I’d seen some of his work prior to the casting process. Based on that, I wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to pull off a more serious role – but he walked into the audition room and completely blew us away. And Mai, despite being convincing as a character that most see as a bit of a bitch, is one of the loveliest people I know.
Shooting a feature film in 12 days with a crew of around ten people is, with the gift of hindsight, complete insanity. But it’s a real testament to everyone involved that we managed to pull it off. They were all so committed to the project that I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better team of people to be surrounded by on this little adventure.
Let’s talk a bit about you Chris. What made you want to get into the writing and directing chair in the first place?
To be honest, I really don’t remember. I’ve written little stories for as long as I can recall, and knew when I was around 8 years old that I wanted to make films. Most people tend to blame getting that bug on the first time they saw ‘Star Wars’, and I imagine that probably played a part of it. In fact, I’d decided I wanted to be a director before I even knew what it meant. They were always the first person listed on the end credits, so I figured they must be important.
I suppose you could say that I’ve just never grown up.
What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in writing and directing?
As boring and clichéd as it sounds, all I can really say is go out and do it. The world of filmmaking is a completely different playing field from ten years ago, and it’s never been easier. Nobody’s going to come to you and hand you a career. You’ve got to get out there and prove that you’re capable, and there’s really no excuse not to. Your mobile phone now has a built-in HD camera, and you can easily download basic editing software legally and for free. It might not be technically brilliant, but that’s no excuse not to be able to learn the basics of storytelling.
And if I can do it, anybody can. I didn’t come from a privileged upbringing, and wasn’t born into the industry. I’ve had to work my way up, earn favours and do the hard graft. But the persistence has paid off, and all the experience helped make the connections that have led me down this path.
What films have inspired you as an artist? Do you have any favourites?
On this particular film, we had a reading list of titles for the cast and crew to check out. Stylistically, the biggest influence was probably ‘Before Sunset’. We used it as a template for the manner in which we shot the film, given that both are ultimately centered around two people wandering the streets of Paris.
Of course, there were others, too. Alex Holdridge’s ‘In Search Of A Midnight Kiss’ also influenced the aesthetic, as well as being set over New Year. ‘The Graduate’ is another one, albeit in a less obvious way. I’ve always considered it have one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. The gradual build-up of Mrs. Robinson over the last 20 minutes is nothing short of extraordinary, and is something I discussed at length with our composer, Jonathan Armandary.
And while I don’t know if there are any direct influences from it, Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment’ is a film that I love almost religiously, and I’d consider a big inspiration to me personally. Maybe some of its optimism amidst the bitter situation surrounding the protagonist has seeped through.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
Where do you start? The slow dismantling of the NHS? The whole St Paul’s debacle? Strictly Come Dancing winning the ratings war against The X Factor? The bottom line is, there’s an interesting story behind everything, and as a storyteller you can be inspired by any of it. Well, maybe not The X Factor. That’s probably doing more creative damage than good.
What’s coming up for you in 2011/12?
The main thing is working on distribution for ‘Forget Paris’. We’re hoping to continue the festival run ahead of an Autumn 2012 release in the UK, and are planning an US release around the beginning of 2013. We’re at the point where you start to realize that making the film is the easy part; getting people to see it is a whole different ball game.
In addition to that, I’ve got two features in development, one of which I’m hoping to take a few months out to write at the start of next year. And then, there’s a short called ‘Last Call’ that I’m hoping to shoot, which we have some big plans for. Most peoples’ first films are about two people in a room, but I never did that. I made an award-winning short called ‘Missed Connections’, which featured 15 actors across 9 locations, and was shot in four days. From there, I went on to make a feature film that was filmed in two different countries!
But then again, two years ago, I’d never have thought I’d have made a feature film by now. I suppose that’s why I love doing what I do; you literally never know where you’re going to end up next. It’s brilliant.
Thanks for the interview!