In the first of, what will be many, interviews, OC Movies spoke to The Unseen director Gary Sinyor about how he got into film making, his latest film, THAT letter to Bob Iger at Disney and we also veered into the state of UK cinema for good measure.
Gary joined us from his home in London and is a very relaxed man who talks intelligently about the industry he is clearly very passionate about.
OC: How did you get into film making, where did it all start?
GS: I decided I wanted to be a film maker when I saw a film called Midnight Express. I came out of that film and, whilst everyone else wanted to go for dinner, I was like “no. I need to talk about this” it was such a powerful film, my legs were shaking.
That was the point where I thought I might be interested in doing something with film, but I then did the whole university thing and dropped film entirely.
Then, circuitously, a friend of mine said he was applying to the national film school, now the NFTS, in Beaconsfield, so I also applied and got in. I spent three years there and it was a proper education in how to make films and it led me to think that I could make films and gave me the confidence in my own judgements and abilities.
A couple of years later my graduation film was shown on the BBC and the following morning I got a phone call from Eric Idle, from Monty Python, asking if I had any ideas for feature films. After first of all clarifying that it was actually Eric Idle, I said “yes, I’ve got an idea called Leon The Pig Farmer” and he said “ok, let’s meet”.
There was then a process of a number of years before finally that film got made, sort of against the odds. It was never going to be an American studio film, so we made it quite independently and I think we were one of the first of that early stage, films being made outside of the people who would normally give you money for British films, we made it outside of that system.
Luckily it was nominated and won awards and the public took to it and so that was the beginning really.
How did your graduation film end up being on the BBC?
I think, at the time, the national film school did a deal with the BBC for some of their graduation films, so I guess the BBC got some product for very little money.
It was quite interesting as they showed it just before a Woody Allen film, I guess a lot of people were tuning in to Woody Allen and they were watching The Unkindest Cut just before, I think it was Manhattan, so we got quite a large viewing figure of three million people or whatever.
Those were the good old days when there were only four channels.
Who do you admire in the film making world, do you look up to anyone still?
Oh god yes. Yes, of course I do. I get all the nominated films here as a member of the DGA (Directors Guild of America), so I get to watch all of the high-quality films that people think are in the running for awards.
But I don’t have a director that I follow. I would say Ridley Scott has made some great films and I’d say that Ridley Scott has made some films that I don’t think are great and I think that’s probably true of all directors.
I’m trying to think of a director whose nailed it every time and…off the top of my head…I think that Rob Reiner, when he did two films back-to-back. He did When Harry Met Sally and then his next film as a director was Misery and they’re so different and yet they are back-to-back two really wonderful films, but he didn’t write them, he directed them.
I think that not much credit goes to the writer. It’s the writers who create, in my world it’s the writers who create, and directors hopefully realise brilliantly and the actors hopefully realise brilliantly, but it goes back to the starting point of what people have formulated as an idea that makes it worth, either you shelling out to go to the cinema or paying for it to be on DVD or whatever.
Have you had work directed by others?
I produced a film called Retreat which I didn’t write but which was written by Carl Tibbetts, who then directed it. I also did a Channel 4 series many, many years ago, which launched Alan Davis’s career called One For The Road, I wrote that and it was directed by other people.
Is it something you’d consider? Writing something for someone else to direct?
Yes I would. I’ve been asked to re-write things. I think, one of the things is, if you’re writing for TV and your one of the hot writers then you’re too busy and you get paid a fortune.
Now that I’ve done The Unseen, which is a thriller, so if someone came along and said, ‘here’s another psychological thriller’ but it’s a book or it’s a script and we’d like you to direct it, I’d be over the moon.
My next film that I’ve written is a comedy, so that’s the one that I’m progressing next. I mean, if you take the people who are directing all the time like, I think Ridley Scott recently said he directs two films a year, which is extraordinary, he’s just like biffing from one thing to another.
So, you know, it would be nice to be asked to direct stuff and if someone had something that was a book or a screenplay then I’d be interested in working that, but I think the ideas that I have are quite peculiar to me, my scripts have all my themes in them.
For some writers there’s a nervousness that what they’ve written won’t appear as they wished, whereas for others they’re happy to let it go.
I think, as a writer, you buy into that premise, as I did with One For The Road, that someone else is going to come along and realise it. The chances are you’re likely to be happy with some of it and unhappy with some of it. But that’s what you do as a writer, you have to give it up, unless your directing it or indeed I’m sure there are writers who produce, and they therefore take control that way.
Onto your latest film, The Unseen. It’s a shift from your previous films which are comedies and romantic comedies, was there a conscious decision for this shift to a thriller?
No. So I think the very first script that I ever wrote, and now we’re going back a long, long way, was a thriller. In fact, it goes back so far that I don’t think it even exists in any form, because it was in the days when you would literally write out scripts on a little thing that would print out bits and there was no such thing as a file. I think that one’s gone, I don’t even know where it is.
Personally, I like exploring issues facing people and that never really takes me towards drama, it would tend to take me towards thrillers or, conversely and weirdly, towards comedy.
For example, Leon The Pig Farmer was originally, very originally when I first though of it, was about a guy who found out he was a product of artificial insemination and, it was a thriller.
Genuinely that’s a very weird thing to find that out, that you’re the product of this, it was quite a heavy, thriller, quite a dramatic piece.
Then, whenever I pitched it to anyone, and I didn’t do it very often as a thriller, they burst out laughing. That maybe me, but then I thought, “ok so maybe I can take this theme and turn it into a comedy”, and after that you tend to get pigeon-holed, so the industry says ‘ok, well he’s doing comedy’.
I think the reason The Unseen took so long to get made was people were going ‘ah, he’s the comedy guy’, which is extraordinary. If you carry out any interview with anyone who writes comedy you will find, amazingly, they have serious thoughts, shock horror! People have serious thoughts and yet they write comedy, shock horror.
I’d already written The Unseen when I came to produce Retreat and it allowed me to see how this works, with someone else’s script, and then I’ll go and make my own. So that for me was enabling Carl to make his film but very much with an eye on being able to make my own.
So for me it’s not a shift. I love thrillers. I like to be scared in the cinema and I like to laugh in the cinema, those are the two things. I find it difficult to go to the cinema and watch a drama, because it’s neither here nor there, I’m not saying I don’t do it, because obviously there are great dramas but I quite like to be engaged.
I am the person who goes to the cinema and screams when something scary happens, beyond what most people would do, I get ridiculously caught up in things.
So, it was natural for me [to make a thriller], it wasn’t a huge stretch.
You said The Unseen was already written when you produced Retreat, which was 2011.
Yes, it was 12 years ago I wrote it.
And has it gone through many revisions and changes in that time?
The very first idea I had was for it to be about a woman who had panic attacks that made her go temporarily blind and whenever she went temporarily blind the audience would also be affected.
That was like the eureka moment where I thought, “blimey, no-one’s ever done that before, that would be great”.
Then from that it developed into me thinking what was the worse thing that could happen that would enable her to have these panic attacks and that was where the idea of the child and losing the child and that she is responsible for it.
Those things became set but, the biggest single change has been that the Lake District, the house in the Lake District, was originally a lighthouse.
There was this theme within it that was to do with light and dark, the lighthouse was used in the original script quite thematically, so, when things got difficult the light was going on and coming off and there was a chase sequence that was outside in the dark and back in the light, it was quite good, the specific timing of the light that would come on for a specific amount of time, then go off. It was quite a jumpy, scary kind of thing.
I spent a lot of time looking at lighthouses all over the world. I went to a lighthouse in Puerto Rico, I went to lighthouses in Majorca, I looked at lighthouses in Australia and Gran Canaria and I’m looking at these bloomin’ lighthouses, and going up and down, up and down and every time I went up I was thinking, “this is going to be a nightmare to get the crew up and down”.
And then, about two years ago, an Irish producer said we might be able to do this in Ireland and I tried to look at lighthouses in Ireland and then I thought, “oh to hell with it, why don’t I just make it a house”.
It was a big shift, but when I looked it at I thought “what’s the most important thing”? The most important thing, the most important thing isn’t the lighthouse, the most important thing is everything else.
So, I ditched the lighthouse and just turned it into a Georgian house by a lake, then the Irish people turned around and said, “no”, so I though “ok, I’ve got it in a Georgian house, now I’ll do it in England”.
I literally typed into my computer ‘Georgian house, Lake District’ and that place that we filmed in, Graythwaite, is the first place that comes up and so I went to see them and that’s how the film happened.
That was the biggest single change.
There are some great performances in the film, particularly from Jasmine Hyde. Did that happen quite quickly and naturally?
I did a play a couple of years ago in the West End (NotMoses) and Jasmine was in that play and so I got to know her because I was directing her in that.
I thought she was brilliant and I thought she had the ability to really get to grips with Gemma. I showed her the script and she responded really well to it and so I said, “right, Jasmine you’re going to play this part and, that’s that, I’m not going to go around chasing any more agents to try and get other actresses, you are going to play this part”.
It was then a question of building people up around her I set the dates when I knew we were going to film, January 2017, and then approached agents to say I am making this film and I’ve got two male leads that I need to cast, and agents made suggestions and one of them was Richard (Flood).
I had a long Skype conversation with him in the first instance, because he lives in Milan. What was important was to cast, as Will, Gemma’s husband, someone which meant that they would immediately look like a couple who you couldn’t put anything between.
There had to be no possibility that one of them was iffy or that they weren’t completely in love. There are only two scenes, and they’re really short, where they’re not completely put through the mill, so I wanted people to think ‘they look like a good couple’.
Then Richard came over and met Jasmine and after a couple of hours you just looked and said “yes, they make a great couple and I believe everything”.
With Simon (Cotton), we were searching for someone to play Paul and he put himself on tape and I met him and I just thought he was really good. He’s got both things that I really need. One is an enormous level of charm and the other was that, underneath, there could be something else and you would never know, and that was what I wanted and he was perfect for it.
And how long did it take to shoot?
About four weeks.
And is it true that there was just a crew of eight people?
Is that typical of your films?
No, it was highly unusual, it is highly unusual. What actually happened was; in October, a year and a bit ago, I got Jasmine down to my house in London and we shot a pilot for the film.
We shot a few scenes and I was the cameraman, and I’m a rubbish cameraman, but I had my DSLR camera and I shot this thing and I edited it together and, this is actually on the DVD, I put in the road accident that’s in the film because it was actually quite easy to do because you just shoot from Jasmine’s point of view on the M1, and then you add in all the sound affects and blind affects after.
We shot little sections and I showed it to people who said: ‘this is terrifying’. So that gave me the confidence, well two things, one; Jasmine is clearly really good, because people seeing the pilot are saying she’s good and two; people thought it was terrifying.
And that was just me, a crew of one, so I started from there and knew that there had to be more than just me, I’m a crap cameraman. I contacted a cameraman I’ve worked with before and he said he would need at least two people, so that was three people.
I knew we would need two on sound, so that became five. You need someone to hold the boom and someone to press the record button, and the other three people where a production manager, which was important to ensure that we spent the budget the right way and to do the stuff that would be administrative whilst I was directing and make sure that things happened.
Then we had two really bright sparks, I don’t mean sparks as in crew, two women who had more or less just graduated from university who are friends of mine, and they did everything else. One of them went off and did some make-up training, the other one took charge of props.
We didn’t have a first assistant director, we didn’t have a second, we didn’t have makeup, so the actors did their own makeup and the costumes were just jeans and jumpers, so we just bought them.
In the Lake District we lived in the house (Graythwaite), the crew were living in those rooms. We’d get up in the morning and have breakfast in that big kitchen downstairs and then we’d start filming There was no need for people to think they had to travel in a van to get to this place and we have to be there by such and such a time. We’d just get up and start filming.
That enabled us to shoot almost the entire film in sequence. Normally, what a first AD would do is say “you’ve a scene in a kitchen and then ten scenes later you’ve got another scene in a kitchen and then thirteen scenes later you’ve got another scene in the kitchen”
We’d do all those back-to-back. Then you’d do all the scenes in the lounge, that would be utterly normal. But I did it as; we’re in the kitchen, and the next scene is on the stairs, then the next scene’s up stairs then the scene after that is in the kitchen’ so we will do them in order.
That meant that the actors had a really clear way through the script, which is really important. They knew exactly what point they were up to in the dilemma. Considering how many twists and turns there are in the script it was vital, I thought, to do it that way, so that they always knew what they were wearing and what they were thinking, and they never had to worry about where they were in the script.
It is unusual and you can’t do it on a big film, if you’ve got lots of extras, but on this, I must say, creatively, I had the best time, I mean we were aware we were making a difficult film, but creatively I think everyone was really fulfilled. The actors got to do what they needed to do, the DP go to do what he really needed to do and everyone was just incredibly focussed on achieving the end result.
We had the editor with us as well, which was good, he’s not in the eight, but he was with us and editing in another room in that house.
If we realised we’d made a mistake, and there was one scene which I shot and shot badly and I went back and re-shot it because I’d made a mistake in how it needed to be, it was great to have the editor there.
What can I say, I’m really proud of the film, the fact we did it with eight people you don’t sit there and go ‘every film should be made that way’, but it worked for this one.
So you’ve made your film and now’s the time when it comes to show it and the behemoth that is Disney decide they’re going to release quite a large film in Star Wars at the same time. You write this open letter in The Guardian newspaper, aimed at Bob Iger (CEO of Disney), asking them to release a screen for you. Was that publicity or was it a genuine concern that you felt, actually, there is a genuine problem here?
Utterly, utterly genuine. We worked with a company called Our Screen through whom you can reserve a cinema if you get a certain number of people committed to going.
As apposed to going through one of the major distributors who might let you have the Everyman theatre in Hampstead, or wherever, we were forced into this route of using Our Screen.
Which is, I should say, it’s a better route than no route at all, because you can actually get cinemas. It’s a good alternative, it’s an option, if your film doesn’t get picked up by one of the big distributors.
We were headed towards a December 15th, I think, release, and even that was sort of deliberate. I chose that date because normally, at a weekend, British cinemas, you get like 15 films being released so the reviewers have to review 15 films.
When I looked at when Star Wars was out, no-one big was going up against them because they’d be mad to. But I thought, “well, our reviews are really important to us, I think we’re going to get good reviews, so lets go against Star Wars so that there’s a possibility we might get space in the nationals”, or whatever. So that was my decision.
But then, Our Screen rang me up at one point and said, “Disney have taken every single screen in the UK”. Not just like, the Vue cinema Finchley, but all the screens within. They took every bloomin’ screen in every cinema and they had a deal that said they had to be in the biggest screen for four weeks or something.
So it was a genuine, look, we’d like to play at the Vue Piccadilly, where we had our premiere. We’d like to play there for three or four days, it’s not asking a lot, they’ve got a range of screens, give us a 50-seater, like literally 50 seats. It’s going to make very little difference to you, but it will make the world of difference to us to know that we can market a film and say it’s on in this cinema for four nights, back-to-back.
When you have an isolated screening there’s no chance to market it, it’s really difficult. But if you have four or five nights then you can go “it’s on at this cinema, go and see it”. Then you get people who will hear about the film, “oh I heard it was good someone saw it on the Friday night, we’ll go on the Saturday night”.
Anyway, all of that got pulled by Disney, so it was a very genuine, you know, give us a bloody screen. Give us one screen that really doesn’t seat very many people because you never know. 50 people might go and see it and there might be 50 more people, I mean Leon The Pig Farmer started off in six screens then it went to 20 then it went to 40, you never know what’s going to happen.
But you can’t do it, anyway so they shut that down, Disney shut it down, I mean they didn’t just shut us down, it was everything. It wasn’t personal. Bob Iger wasn’t sat there saying “I’m going to stuff The Unseen”, so it was a very genuine attempt to try and get one screen released.
I didn’t think Bob Iger was going to contact me, but there might be a possibility, let’s say, that the Vue or the Odeon said “oh hang on one second, maybe we can say to Disney…” but, clearly, they’re not going to do that. But it was a genuine attempt, by me, to try and get a screen.
Did anyone from Disney or Vue come back to you? What was the reaction from fellow film makers?
Oh fellow film makers where very supportive but, as for Disney, well, they were quite as a mouse. I mean, they’re not interested, they’re a huge corporation, I get it from their point of view, I do get it, but I think also, there’s another side of it.
If, Disney had gone “let’s give Gary Sinyor a 50-seater in the Vue Piccadilly”, that would have been good publicity. I think people would have gone “ok, that’s good of them”. I thought that would have been good PR for them, I still think it would have been good PR for them, (we agree!) but they didn’t, no.
They lost that opportunity, I’m sure they’re really kicking themselves.
What about the other options that are open to you today as a film maker, things like Netflix, Amazon Prime etc, would you make a film with them?
Absolutely. Look, everyone is doing it. What am I going to do? Sit around saying, “no, no, no”?
I think it’s a shame though, that you can make a film that you think belongs in a cinema, and you put a lot of effort into it, into the sound and the picture and you want people…for me, The Unseen is my Dunkirk.
I care as much about it as Christopher Nolan does about Dunkirk. You really care about it. I’m sure if someone had said to Christopher Nolan, “it’s going straight to Netflix”, he would have been a bit upset.
But I think also, you have to be realistic that the money is in those organisations, they have a lot of clout, and the viewing habits of the audience has changed. I was talking earlier about there being only four channels and now, literally, if I were to sit down and think “what should I watch tonight”, I have so many options of good stuff. So, to get people into a cinema is difficult; I think prices are too high, the cost of all the snacks and stuff like that are prohibitive.
Interestingly we had a screening at Stratford-on-Avon and we had like 30 people in our screening and I just nipped out to see how the other film’s doing in the other screen. The other film was the Ridley Scott thing, All The Money In The World, and I snuck in to see how many people, and there were five people in there.
Ok it was a Thursday night and all the rest of it, but even with the films that have got a lot of publicity behind them, I think getting people to go to the cinema [is hard].
I think the last film to really do it in the UK was The King’s Speech, were people were just going, everyone was going, the whole population of the UK and it caught a wind. But I think a lot of people these days just think, “it will be out on DVD or on Netflix or iTunes and we’ve got great TV’s and soundbars and I can sit at home with my packet of crisps that cost me 30p rather than £5 and my diet coke so why should I go to the cinema”?
I think it’s a real issue that cinema is confronting, and you look at certain ages that will go to the cinema more than others and there’s reasons why people go to the cinema more than others. So, you have to basically work with Netflix and with TV, it’s no longer the poor cousin by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s such good quality, you know, they’re putting a lot of money in.