I recently got the chance to talk to director Jesse Lawrence about his new film, ‘The Knot’. Here, Jesse talks about how he got involved with the project in the first place and what it was like working with the likes of Noel Clarke and Mena Suvari…
Hey Jesse. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘The Knot’.
No problemo, good to talk to you!
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
It’s the wedding day of a successful, sunshiny couple, destined to be together. Yet their friends are such a bunch of misfit incompetents that everything that can possibly go wrong does, to the detriment of their big day! ‘The Knot’, to my mind, is an American comedy in a British context – set in Britain with British characters but very much with that juvenile ‘American Pie’ sense of humour. It’s not a Richard Curtis movie and doesn’t try to be. Contrary to popular opinion neither was it influenced by ‘Bridesmaids’ or any other wedding comedy released this year. We were not all sitting around twiddling our thumbs when low and behold we watched ‘Bridesmaids’ and said, “Ding! Lets raise a budget, go into production and release a copy-cat wedding movie in record time”. I mean that would have been some pretty impressive turnaround. In reality we’d already finished our shoot when we first heard about this American comedy with a similar sensibility to ours, which was about to be released. We took it as a positive that there was a buzz around ‘Bridesmaids’ and in my naivety I never dreamt that the critics would use that as a major source of ammunition to shoot ‘The Knot’ down with, ha, ha.
You directed the film – how did the idea come about in the first place? How did you get involved?
The script was written by Noel Clarke, Davie Fairbanks and Geoff Carino ten years ago, before Noel penned ‘Kidulthood’. About three years ago I was hard at work with my producer, Enrico Tessarin, developing a web series called ‘Block X’. Enrico had secured a development deal with Hammer House Films and during auditions we met Davie Fairbanks who introduced the script to us. Enrico and his then partner, Junior Quartey, basically ran with it and raised enough initial finance on the script for Noel to take them seriously and lend the project his full support. It was their (Enrico and Junior) first feature as producers. At this early stage they were looking at about 7 different directors and Enrico proposed me. I remember him phoning me up and telling me to get my ass up to North London to drop my short films off at Exposure, a wonderful Young People’s charity that Enrico is involved with. I remember dropping everything I was doing, burning my shorts and doing exactly as he commanded. I have complete trust in Enrico, both as a film-maker a human being and as a fellow Che Guevara disciple. He could have ordered me to jump and I’d have asked, “long jump or high jump?” So Davie arrived at Exposure that same day to find my freshly minted DVD waiting for him. He was impressed with my hunger. He must have liked my shorts too, especially ‘Mash Up’. So now I had another producer (and co-writer) championing me. Noel must have liked ‘Mash Up’ too and eventually gave me the nod. I’m very fortunate, it was a massive break for me. Which film-maker gets to direct the likes of Noel Clarke and Mena Suvari on their debut feature? Noel, Davie, Enrico and Junior were all open-minded enough to recognize the dark layer of humour exhibited in my shorts and take a risk on me, even though I had no romantic comedy track record and I’m eternally grateful for that.
How would you say this film is different and unique? What tricks as a director did you try to throw in?
Well as I kind of touched on, this film is unique because there has never been a British comedy, made with such offensiveness and crude American taste as ‘The Knot’. Another influence for me was ‘There’s Something About Mary’. I love the ludicrous ‘crass’ humour of a guy zipping his willy in his trousers or getting fish-hooked by a fishhook and I relished attempting the same with ‘The Knot’. ‘The Knot’ is also representative of 21st century England. There’s a lot of working class accents in the film, lots of culturally diverse characters. In the scene where the boys barge into the wrong wedding a Nigerian is marrying a Polish bride. That to me is modern London. As director I was responsible for exaggerating the existing gags and for adding new ones. So I take full responsibility ha, ha. In terms of director tricks like giving one actor one type of direction and withholding information from the other, I think with a comedy you want all the actors on the same page and fully informed. I tried my best to facilitate a fun, trusting and bonding environment on set, to facilitate the conditions for a talent like Brett Goldstein, who plays Albert, to be loose enough to ad lib and for his co-stars to be comfortable with this and respond in kind. When you’ve got the crew giggling and struggling to contain themselves during takes then I think you know you’re doing something right.
The film stars Noel Clarke, Mena Suvari, Matthew McNulty, Talulah Riley, Jason Maza, Susannah Fielding, Davie Fairbanks, Brett Goldstein and Louise Dylan – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
Technically the shoot was challenging. I had a large ensemble cast and this being a glossy romance they all needed to be shot as flatteringly as possible. Sometimes this had an effect on the pace of the shoot in terms of lighting the setups and the constant hair, make-up and wardrobe attention, particularly with the girls. But this was good discipline for me and forced me to be at my economic and efficient best. This is the reality of low-budget, commercially ambitious filmmaking – everything is so finely scheduled and budgeted that even going one hour over is potentially disastrous. There is zero room for error and absolutely no time to be indulgent or doting. In short I had great fun! It was a real buzz to complete a good day, enjoy a hard-earned beer with my DP and go through our shots for the next day. There were some impressively big set pieces with cranes and churches full of extras – there was a lot to get right. I was lucky to have an unstoppable machine of a crew on ‘The Knot’. It was amazing to witness the phenomenon that is one hundred professionals, from all walks of life, joining forces for four weeks to form a cohesive and determined army. When we would finish for the day the sparks would blast Aswad’s ‘Warrior Charge’ while they packed away the big lights. It became something of an ‘end of the day’ tradition and would always get Mina rocking. She is a massive reggae fan by the way. The gaffers, the sparks, the camera assistants, the grips, the make-up artists, the continuity, assistant, location and art directors… all these people are the backbone of the industry and I marvel at their craft. I’d like to take this opportunity to give a big shout out to my 1st AD Stuart Williams, my DP Trevor Forrest, my production designer Paul Burns and my head of wardrobe Andy Blake.
Let’s talk a bit about you Jesse. What made you want to get into the industry in the first place?
I wanted to be a black James Dean but with dreadlocks. I was raised with dreadlocks in a dreadlocks family and had starred in a series of Bob Marley videos as a kid. So I had a deep emotional and cultural attachment to my locks and would not consider cutting them. My dreads actually enhanced my brief but successful career as a model, which included a major Benetton campaign but when I tried to move on to the acting they were a hindrance. I responded to the rejection by forming a theatre company with my best mate, Cristian Solimeno and generated meaty acting roles for myself. We put on productions and performed all over London. It was an exciting time. But that was how I started writing and directing. Anyway at some later point, after doing various other things like studying a degree and amateur boxing I decided to give acting another try. I trimmed my hair, emerging with more acceptable ‘baby locks’, got an agent and started going for auditions. Around the same time I’d co-formed the production company ‘La Famiglia’ and we managed to secure a documentary commission from Channel 4 television. So at the age of 28 I’d got my first ‘proper’ directing credit and suddenly found myself with an important decision to make – to carry on as a struggling actor or devote my full energies to film-making, specifically directing. I never looked back to be honest.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
Don’t do it! I’m only joking – well kind of. Don’t do it unless you are seriously prepared for your fair share of lean times. If things like financial security are important to you then I wouldn’t recommend it. But if you have an un-flickering desire then of course go for it. Actually many roles in the industry are pretty secure and even on a no budget short the sound-recordist will always get paid. If your goal is to be a cinematographer, focus puller, editor and so on, there are traditional routes into that through reputable schools and then hustling as an assistant and working your way up. These guys make a good living. The gaffers are ex electricians, the camera grips all seem to hail from a monopoly of Essex families. But if you want to pursue something that sounds more glamorous like being an actor or a writer or a director then be prepared to embrace poverty with open arms my friend. I would urge this category of entrant to learn some related skills on the side. For example I can edit and camera-operate and this has helped me stay afloat ‘between jobs’. Or you can just marry somebody rich.
What films have inspired you as a director? Any favourites?
Wow so many. Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, David Lean, Nicolas Winding Refn… but since I’m a comedy director, after all, I have to pay homage to Judd Apatow and co, spearheading the new American comedy wave. I recently caught Michael Cera in the very funny and very touching ‘Youth In Revolt’. All those guys are really interesting. And my favourite comedy? That has to go to ‘Trading Places’ which stars a very raw and free-styling Eddie Murphy, let loose upon Ronald Reagan’s America.
What is currently on your I-Pod right now?
Anything selected by Giles Peterson or Don Letts.
If you could have dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
Well I suppose having dinner with dead people is a bit morbid so I would go for the living legends. Oliver Stone. He’s made so many of those films that seem to encapsulate an era like ‘Wall Street’ and ‘Natural Born Killers’. I remember when a new Oliver Stone film was a big event sparking controversy, furious debate and national soul-searching on both sides of the Atlantic. So it would be cool to pick his brains. I understand he likes to let his hair down too. Then there’s Mickey Rourke. He’s kind of cut from the same cloth as Marlon Brando and is carrying the flame for actor rebels everywhere. He could take me on the pads, we could hang out and drink bottles of beer while Oliver prepares the shrooms. I’d throw Kerry Washington in there to balance out the mannishness of the gathering. She’s a great actress too, plus she made a great speech at the Obama nomination this year.
You’re stuck on a desert island, you’re only allowed three personal things with you – what would you choose and why?
I’m going to have to answer that question like I’m 11 again – a magnifying glass, a pen knife and a good pair of trainers.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
Well we’re nearly at the end of it! I just need to find or finish a good script and get it off the ground.
Thanks for the interview!