WAMG Interview – Stewart Alexander: Director of COMMON PEOPLE – SLIFF 2013
Stewart Alexander is a Canadian actor and writer based in London, England. He was born and raised in Lachine, Quebec, and moved to the UK shortly after graduating from McGill University. Having made a number of short films on Super-8 in college, he embarked on a self-appointed apprenticeship assisting in the lighting, sound and editorial departments for a number of production companies in the UK. He also wrote and directed a short film called, “The Leather Jacket,” which was shot on 16mm, and edited, in a pre-digital age, on a Steenbeck. After meeting Kerry Skinner while studying to be an actor, he wrote the stage-play “Body Checks,” which they co-produced to considerable critical acclaim, and then adapted into a screenplay.
Now Alexander and Skinner have co-directed their first feature, the comedy-drama COMMON PEOPLE. The film weaves together six stories and over thirty characters to present a dramatic, humorous and sometimes magical tale of romance, crisis and adventure on one of London’s luscious commons. With raw, funny and compelling performances from a talented ensemble of actors aged seven to seventy, COMMON PEOPLE touches on many of the issues affecting ordinary people today in a heartfelt, poignant and ultimately uplifting celebration of everyday humanity.
Stewart Alexander (right) with co-director Kerry Skinner (left) and actor Jeff Mash (center)
The critics have praised COMMON PEOPLE:
“A sweet and huge-hearted story of London life.”
Danny Leigh, Guardian Film Critic & BBC Film 2013 co-host.
“It’s like some gorgeous lovechild of Mike Leigh and Richard Curtis… a shining example of ensemble acting at it’s best.”
Phil Willmott Arts Journalist, Attitude Magazine.
“This zany and amusing London story deserves to be brought to the attention of all those who love film.”
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
Common People was honored with the Independent Spirit Award at the Sedona International Film Festival. Stewart Alexander and Kerry Skinner will be bringing COMMON PEOPLE to this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). It plays Friday, Nov 15th at 3:45pm and Saturday, Nov 16th at 3:30pm. Both screenings are at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
Ticket information can be found at Cinema St. Louis’ site HERE
Stewart Alexander took time to answer some questions about his film for We Are Movie Geeks before his appearance in St. Louis.
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman
We Are Movie Geeks: This is your first feature film and it was made for less than 100,000 pounds. What were some of the challenges of making such a low-budget film and was it more difficult experience than you were prepared for?
Stewart Alexander: An experienced producer gave us a great piece of advice beforehand. She said, “What you lack in budget, you have to make up for in preparation.” So, we prepared everything we could during pre-production; storyboarded every scene, sorted out every costume and prop, and spent three weeks rehearsing with the actors. The one thing we couldn’t prepare for was the English weather. It’s called “Common People” because it’s entirely set outdoors on a London common (or park). So we were at the mercy of the elements. And as it turned out, we ended up shooting during, “the wettest April since records began.” That was the official met office description, and that’s the wettest in England, which is famous for rain, and April which is synonymous with showers! We were scheduled for an 18-day shoot, but in the end due to the weather, I think we shot it in 12. We spent a lot of time standing under umbrellas, knee-deep in mud. BUT, because we had done the preparation, the moment the clouds cleared everyone knew what they had to do. It’s actually a very bright, and sunny movie!
WAMG: How is your film being received so far?
SA: The only festival we’ve played so far was in Sedona, Arizona and it was amazing to watch this quintessentially British film with an American audience. For one thing, they laugh a lot more than British people do. They don’t have that reserve. And, you know, they’d paid good money for their tickets, so they didn’t have to be nice, but we had fantastic feedback at the Q&A’s. I’ll never forget this guy who stood up and said that it touched his heart because it obviously came from our hearts, and we should tell people it’s called “Common People” because it highlights the humanity we all have in common. It was very moving to be able to connect with people like that. One of the reasons we’re so excited to be bringing it to St. Louis is that it’s one of the very few festivals that programs a high proportion of comedies, and feelgood films. It’s the only way a lot of films like ours will get a chance to be received, so it’s wonderful that SLIFF offers so much variety; lending a spotlight to both lighter and heavier fare.
WAMG: What was it like winning the Independent Spirit Award at the Sedona Film Festival?
SA: Um, shocking, surprising, amazing and of course… AWESOME! We’d seen a few great films at the festival ourselves. One was called, “Any Day Now” starring Alan Cummings and it just blew us away. So, we didn’t think we stood a chance of winning an award. At the ceremony we were seated at a table with a man and his wife who had featured in a documentary we’d seen about burn survivors called, “Trial by Fire.” They were real-life heroes, and wonderful company. As expected, “Any Day Now” won Best Drama, and then, just as we’re tucking into the black forest cake, Sagan, Sedona’s head programmer starts describing this film that represents the spirit of the festival. And Kerry and I look at each other as if to say, I wish we’d seen this. And then Sagan calls up, “Common People.” Well, we were flabbergasted. I think that’s the right word. Also, elated, and emotional, dumfounded and in Kerry’s case, dumbstruck. Obviously, we had no speech prepared, so when we got on stage, Kerry cried into Sagan’s shoulder, and I gushed like a fool. If you think I’m exaggerating you can see it for yourself on youtube at: http://tiny.cc/tnfwzw
WAMG: I have not seen COMMON PEOPLE (but plan to in St. Louis). What are some of the themes of this film, and what kind of story does it tell?
SA: It’s what they call a portmanteau film where six different stories are brought together by the characters’ encounters with an escaped parrot in a London park. The parrot lends it a fun, and magical element, but the individual stories touch on some universal themes that we are all dealing with in the world today. So one storyline shows the effects of the banking crisis on an average father. In another a pregnant woman considers what the future holds for her unborn child. There are references to concerns about immigration, homelessness, honoring our veterans when they return home, and what constitutes a dignified death. And then there’s a group of Boys who go scouting for birds and end up on a massive adventure. So hopefully it’s a combination of things that will make you think, and laugh, shed a tear, and maybe fall in love with the human race all over again.
WAMG: Tell me about the cast that you assembled for COMMON PEOPLE.
SA: We hired a fantastic Casting Director named Briony Barnett. She said from the start that we wouldn’t be able to get huge stars on our budget but we could get great actors because the characters were so interesting. She also came up with a strategy to assemble a really strong ensemble by attracting someone who commanded respected in the industry for one of the main roles. So the first to come on board was the actor Sam Kelly. He’s not well known in America, but he’s appeared in some of the UK’s most popular sitcoms, worked with all the top theatre directors, and been a favorite with Mike Leigh for years, both on stage and in five of his films. And Briony was right, once Sam came on board all the agents who had previously said, we don’t consider micro-budget movies suddenly started offering their clients. I have to say the scenes with Sam Kelly and Diana Payan as the loving old couple in “Common People” is worth the admission price alone. They’re romantic, funny and incredibly poignant. It’s a real acting masterclass.
WAMG: Did your actors stick closely to your script, or did you encourage some improvisation?
SA: There’s only one improvised line in the entire film, and we didn’t even know it was there until we spotted the sound wave in the edit. It’s great, and funny and fills a hole at the end of a scene, but otherwise the film is exactly as it was scripted. On such a tight schedule, we had to get the story told as simply as possible, so it was easier to stick to the script. But, since we’d set aside time for rehearsal during pre-production, the actors had time to make the script their own. So, I think the acting in the film still has the kind of natural feel that improvising can give you.
WAMG: How did you come up with the idea for the film’s concept and did you base some of these characters on people you knew?
SA: Kerry and I live around the corner from the common where the film was shot. We’ve been walking there for years. A couple of years ago we’d been trying to raise finance for a film which needed a much bigger budget when the credit crunch hit, and everything fell through. We literally had to transfer half-a-million pounds back to investors. We spent a lot of time taking therapeutic walks on the common, and one day we saw a poster for a missing parrot. It offered a reward, and gave a number where you could report sightings. Then a few weeks later, a new poster appeared reporting that the parrot had been found, and thanking everyone on the common who had helped to locate and rescue her. That was the Eureka moment. We had a story with a beginning and an ending. All we had to do was fill in the middle, and populate the common with other characters. And it was a similar process with the characters. They’re a combination of people you’d see in parks anywhere, actual people we saw walking on our common, and characters I created to serve the overall story.
WAMG: One reviewer compared COMMON PEOPLE to a Mike Leigh film. Do you think this is an apt comparison and why?
SA: Wow, that’s a difficult question! First of all it’s incredibly flattering. Mike Leigh is one of the world’s few truly independent directors and he has an amazing body of work. And working with Sam we learned a lot about his methods, and what a gift he is for an actor to work with. But people have expectations when they hear something’s a Mike Leigh Film, and having only made one film ourselves I’m not sure we’d be able live up to those kind of expectations. Another reviewer said “Common People” seemed like the lovechild of Mike Leigh and Richard “Four Weddings and a Funeral” Curtis. I think that may be more apt. It feels grounded the way Mike Leigh Films do, but it also has lots of humour mixed in with pathos.
WAMG: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers and films?
SA: If I started naming my favorites, you’d probably find all of the usual suspects from those “Greatest Movie” lists. The only controversial thing is that I’d have “It’s a Wonderful Life,” above “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo,” because to me they may be more technically impressive, but IAWL goes right to my heart. Like most people I’ve gone through phases during my film education where my favorites have been Hitchcock, or Hawks, John Ford, Woody Allen or Ingmar Bergman (to name only a few). At the moment, I’m really into Susanne Bier’s films, which I only recently discovered. They’re dramatic, and funny and have an honesty I really admire. Otherwise, based on the most played DVD’s in my collection, my favorites must be: Both “Godfathers”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Psycho”, “Only Angels Have Wings”, “King of Comedy”, “Amelie”, “Terminators 1&2”, “When Harry Met Sally”, “Jaws”, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Moulin Rouge”, “Up”, “Magnolia” and of course, “Dirty Dancing.” The last isn’t one I’d ever expect to see on a list like this, but my wife and co-director loves “Dirty Dancing” and I love watching it with her.
WAMG: Did you grow up a movie buff?
SA: Yes. I’ve always loved stories, and storytelling, and movies have always been my favorite way to do it. I wrote and directed my first film when I was in Grade 4, and they hired this amazing new contraption called a video camera. So, I made a rip-off version of “Bonnie and Clyde” because I’d seen the Arthur Penn version on TV. I also made films on Super 8 in college, and supported myself by working as an usher in the local cinema. It meant I got paid, plus I got to see movies for free. I remember that when the big blockbusters were sold out, people would ask me to recommend movies in the smaller cinemas, and there was a period where I would always say, “Raising Arizona.” And the reaction when they came out was fascinating. Some people would thank me and shake my hand, and some would look at me like I was nuts. It was an interesting lesson in how you can’t entertain all of the people, all of the time.
WAMG: What filmmakers had the most influence on you?
SA: My favorite film is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and one of my favorite directors is, Frank Capra. If you were looking for the biggest influence on “Common People” that would probably be it. “It’s a Wonderful Life” has everything I want from a movie. It has heart, and humor, it’s charming, and heartbreaking, and even quite prophetic. Since the economic downturn, there are parts of London that are beginning to look like the Pottersville we see if George Bailey had never existed. And it’s one of those films you can watch over and over again. It’s a shame that people only watch it around Christmas after too much food and wine, because it really deserves proper appreciation. Another influence on “Common People” would be Charlie Chaplin. Again, a filmmaker working during hard times who could break your heart, but make you laugh too. I also love Powell and Pressburger. There’s a hawk called Tarquin in “I Know Where I’m Going,” who may have influenced the parrot in our film. British comedy has been a big influence too. There’s an homage to a Peter Cook & Dudley Moore sketch in “Common People” and one to Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” in our next film.
WAMG: What is your next project?
SA: Our next project is called, “Body Checks” and it’s a romantic comedy set on a British ice hockey team (you have to say ice hockey in the UK because they think field hockey is the real hockey!). Though I’ve lived in the UK for 25 years, I grew up in Canada, so naturally, hockey’s in the blood. The premise is that Duke, the British team’s Canadian import played one game for the St. Louis Blues 25 years ago. Things have gone so far downhill since then that he’s now playing in the English League, the lowest in the world, in a country where they think field hockey is the real thing. And now he’s 40 so even they’re telling him he’s getting too old and has to retire. All looks bleak until the new team physiotherapist checks him out, and romantic comedy ensues. It’s actually adapted from a critically acclaimed stage-play we produced, and what makes it so exciting is that it combines romance, comedy and bone-crunching hockey action. Since Duke is also the team fighter, we like to say, “It’s a hockey Rocky!” If you’re interested in finding out more you can visit the website at: http://www.bodychecks.co.uk
WAMG: Would you like to work in the United States or stay in the UK?
SA: Right now, we have two films ready for production. “Body Checks” has to be set in a particular part of London, because it’s been written into the script, and it’s like an extra character in the film. Our other film, “Songs From a Gilded Cage” is currently set in London, but it could be adapted for the US, as long as it was somewhere that the hottest singing star in the world might live. But, in answer to your question, I’d really love to be able to do both. I’ve been living in the UK for 25 years, but I grew up in Canada, and I’ve always loved America. American culture has had a massive influence on me, and it would be wonderful to contribute to it. I mean, the hero of “Body Checks” is called Duke. He may be Canadian, but he’s obviously named after John Wayne. American icons don’t get much bigger than that!