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Hal MacDermot [Film Festival 01.30.11] United Kingdom movie news interview thriller drama

Brighton Rock is Rowan Joffe’s feature film debut as a director, and it’s a very impressive first movie. Ambitiously he chose Graham Greene’s "Brighton Rock" and, cudos to Rowan, attracted such talent as Helen Mirren, John Hurt and cinematographer John Mathieson - known for Hannibal and Gladiator. Joffe’s screenwriting credits include 28 Weeks Later and The American.

Brighton Rock played to a sell-out audience at the British Film Institute on 29 January, and was followed by a Q & A with the director and actor Andrea Riseborough (Rose).

The film has its UK theatrical release on 4 February.


You’ve said that this wasn’t a remake of the classic 1947 film. What were the key things you wanted to get to the heart of in adapting this book?

Rowan Joffe: I think the thing that annoyed Green about adaptations of his work, was when a character was carefully built up of a layers and a screenwriter would come along and say, “well I don’t really have time to do justice to all those layers so Iet’s strip away as many as we can and just come up with the essence of character” and Greene would say he’d be left with a hero that had just two traits, that he liked ham sandwiches and had a cat. So I was really mindful of Pinky and Rose, and just trying to get them from the book onto the page.

There are a lot of complex decisions in doing that, for example the field of Catholicism

Rowan: One sort of semi favorable review after Toronto said that I had wisely eschewed Catholicism and had reduced it to a merely baroque ornament. I got quite depressed about that. I never realized that Greene’s script had been reviewed the same way by The Daily Express in 1947, and Greene had written a very angry letter pointing out that Catholicism was still endemic to the decisions he made on how the plot unfolded. It’s definitely endemic to the decisions we made. Whether that comes across, I don’t know.

But I suspect that one of the reasons it may not come across, is that Catholicism is a faith built on the possibility of redemption, and it has become a cliché to describe character arcs as redemptive. Hollywood was once described by someone as Jewish industry peddling Catholic precepts to a Protestant population, and I think there is some truth to that. Redemption is endemic to Pinky’s story as it is to every movie you see. I cannot think of a movie that’s not about redeeming a character from one flaw or another, and I think Greene’s role in that is an enormously complex one. Pinky is ultimately damned because he decided that God is not interested.

The book has a much bleaker conclusion in terms of redemption. Did you struggle about which way to go, or were you always wanting to keep that possibility of some hope in the final moments of the film?

Rowan: I think one of the opportunities I had was to honour the ending to the book. But you have to remember that the ending of the book is Rose tucking the record under her arm and going to face the greatest horror of them all. How do you shoot that? The solution Greene came up with when the Boulting brothers objected was a brilliant one. It’s often taken as a commercial compromise, and therefore inartistic, and that I would argue is a post-romantic view of what is commerce. The battle between art and commerce is something that was invented after the industrial revolution and was a product of middle class criticism.

Great painters like Rubens used to walk down huge rows of paintings, most of which were done by their students, put a few finishing touches on and sign their signature. That was commerce. It didn’t mean that he wasn’t a great painter. Neither does it mean that Greene’s ending, which is clearly designed to be more cinematically appealing than the book is a cop out, it’s not a cop out. Necessity is the mother of invention, and what Greene invented was a perfect ambiguity, when the record sticks you’re presented with a question, either this is happily coincidental or possibly miraculous confirmation of the possibility of what Greene called the tender murderer, or it is a very bleak and meaningless coincidence that will trap Rose for ever in the prison of a delusion. It’s your choice as an audience. Ambiguity is something that informs Greene’s work

Can you talk about the look of the film? Your D.O.P is one of the best guys around, and you created this fantastic film noir look.

Rowan: I think maybe I’ve been done because I saw a documentary that John Mathieson made on the art of film noir and it never occurred to me that he’d never actually made a film noir. So I panicked and read a lot of books on film noir and does anyone understand what film noir is? It would be helpful if they got up on stage to explain. Cause the more read the more confused I became. So I secretly asked John one morning, what is film noir, and he said “Hmm, I don’t know, but I think it involves a lot of up-lighting, and shadows on walls. It is critics that invented the phrase.

John and I shot the movie on lenses that were originally made in 1947 and then were adapted by and independent lens grinder in 1964. We were trying to recreate the 1960s and we thought we could do that by using the equipment of the time. The reason that’s important is because a lot of times you’ll see the look of a movie is significantly decided in post production and John doesn’t work that way. We shot this in a fairly old fashioned way, big animal 2-3-5 lenses, very hard to pull focus because the lenses shift and faces end up looking like Francis Bacon, and I think it has given the movie an authentic feel. I think John is a bit of an unsung hero. He should have got a BAFTA nomination. When you’re trying to depict heaven and hell on 5 and three quarters million quid it runs out quite quickly and I think we couldn’t have done it without John.

Tell us about casting, you have a fantastic cast.

Rowan: We couldn’t have got the movie made without Helen Mirren. I came with a wheelbarrow full of research, I found music, artwork, films and books and I laid them all out on the coffee table waiting for Helen, and um she came in and sat down and looked at the spread on the coffee table and she said “Darling, I’m not that kind of actress.” Helen’s only question was, “Who are you casting as Rose.” I said I was casting a young actress called Andrea Riseborough, and Helen said, “Hmm, never heard of her, she better be good.” Three days into shooting Helen came up to me and she said “You were right, you cast Andrea right”

Helen Mirren’s character takes on a whole new dimension from the book. It’s quite different.

Rowan: Greene said Ida fails to come off the page, and so I felt that we had some poetic license with her. So I made her the proprietress of the tearoom which gave her an immediate relationship with Rose that was both maternal and authoritative and protective. And I made Fred Hale that flame, simply because I wanted to motivate her investigation. People always talk about Pinky as the villain of the peace, but he’s not the villain, it’s Ida who is the villain of the peace. Ida operates in the brutal justice system, and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that’s a pretty horrendous responsibility to take as a human being. That kind of ethic is hell in a hand cart.

What were some of the challenges in creating the 1960s look?

Andrea: Shooting in Eastbourne was incredible helpful. We walked out of the Grand Hotel….

Rowan: It’s Basil Fawltey meets the Shining.

Andrea: that and the Bloomsbury set. This huge hotel, not of its time. Eastbourne is relatively untouched and beautifully antiquated, it feels very different to the way Brighton would have felt. It felt like it was smaller, the world was smaller. We walked out onto the pier and there is was, candy floss, that sickly sweet smell and the dark underbelly, that was something quite extraordinary.

Why did you choose 1964 to set the movie?

I thought about making it contemporary, but it doesn’t work as there’s no death penalty, and Rose becomes less credible if you put her in a media saturated world, she’s be more savvy. 1964 sprang to mind because it’s the last year there was the death penalty and then when I found out that it was the same year that there were Mods and Rockers fighting on Brighton beach… Mods and Rockers became youth rebellion and I thought about why Greene had chosen a 17 year old gangster, I still don’t know the answer to that but it feels like there’s something prescient about that. It just seemed right. It was the first time really Britain had started to question the church as a social authority, so Pinky and Rose are isolated in their fierce religiosity.

Where did the scooters come from?

We could only afford 100 scooters with extras of the right age, the rest came from London, so that meant when I was cutting the film I noticed that about 250 of them were slightly older. It’s quite hard to know because of the way we cut it, but the guy who did the sound, the wonderful end track, Richard Hawley, who is one of my favourite musicians, when I asked him if he wanted to do the end title music, his manager came back and said, well it’s not likely because Brighton Rock’s his favourite movie ever. But he wants to have a gander at your effort. So we put a screening on for him and I smoked really quite a lot of cigarettes and stood outside in the screening room in Soho, and waited, and then he came out and he had tears in his eyes, and I thought YES. Outside he came up to me and he put this very meaty hand on my shoulder and he said “Well you didn’t F that up lad, and he then took me into an underground car park and took me into a car, which was a bit scary, and played me a song that he thought he could adapt, and then he said “But there’s one thing, there’s a bloke on a scooter in the parade who is completely ffing bald.” So we did CGI. It was one of our most expensive effects. CGI for hair onto a moving bikers hair.

Quiet Earth: Does Pinky really love Rose, or is he just a psychopath who doesn’t know what love is?

Andrea: We’re talking about the happiest time in her life…the lights are turned on for her. The lights are turned on for her, it’s the most elated joyous moment, and it’s an exploration, terror, joy, passion… I think for my money Sam’s Pinky does responds to that and the love that he feels is something to do with the love Rose feels about him.

Rowan: there are moments in the book when Pinky feels sexual longing for Rose, feels an uncomfortable affinity with Rose, and doesn’t like what he feels. There’s even a moment in the book which is alarmingly close to Jerry Maguire that says “she was good, he was bad, they completed one another.” So yes of course it’s a love story, I mean would it really be an interesting book if Pinky was unremittingly evil and incapable of human sentiment, I think that’s what makes him such an interesting psychopath. I wouldn’t say he loves her, but I would say without the possibility of that gentleman asking that question it wouldn’t be such an interesting book.

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mononoke (12 years ago) Reply

Good interview. Like the colour of the film and looking forward to seeing it.


G_D (12 years ago) Reply

Looks like a classic for the Tuesday OAP Special deal crew!

Shockingly poor.


Cyberhal (12 years ago) Reply

guess that means the jury's still out then :)

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