Tag Archives: Ben Charles Edwards

On set of Set The Thames on Fire, this year’s most astounding British film

12 Sep

 

It was already the Dinner Party From Hell when a huge crash stilled the chatter. “Fuck!” cried an anguished voice over the sudden stunned silence. “The moon!”

For a moment, only the crayfish stirred, crawling determinedly over the seaweed-strewn banqueting table. Then we all turned to look as one: the Impresario, with his hunched back and lips covered in warts and buboes; the Golden Twins, each with a huge black horn of hair sprouting from their ‘dos so that, together, they made a single devil girl; Pop-Pop, a china-boned angel with pink candy-floss hair; The Pig Man, a financier in a pin-stripe suit with a hessian sack over his face and a porcine snout poking through the hole; and me, in a bearskin hat as big as Marge from the Simpsons’ hair-do.

It was just as we feared. A moment ago, a gigantic full moon had bathed this unearthly gathering in a silvery glow. Now, through the window, all that could be seen was a black backdrop. The moon had crashed to the ground.

It was near wrap-time on Friday night, and we’d been shooting this crucial party scene for the last two days, with just one week to go on Set The Thames On Fire, a hugely ambitious sort-of-science-fiction buddy movie set in a Dickensian retro-future London. This is the second feature film from Blonde to Black, a production company set up by actress and fashion entrepreneur Sadie Frost, alongside advertising and music video veteran Emma Conley and backer Andrew Green.

“We’ve kept budgets low, without using big names, so we can make something challenging,” says Frost. Conley describes the film, which is directed by former fashion photographer Ben Charles Edwards, as “Withnail & I as directed by Peter Greenaway or John Waters. A lot of low-budget British films recently have been grey estate films. But Ben comes with this crazy vision.”

You can say that again. I first met Ben Charles Edwards ten years ago, when I interviewed him for a feature in The Times. I was attracted by the description of his debut short film, The Town That Boars Me, showing in the Portobello Film Festival. It went something like this: “A mutant pig-boy terrorises the women of a suburban town by stealing their high-heeled shoes at night in a musical starring Kelly Osbourne, Sadie Frost, Andrew Logan and Zandra Rhodes.”

Ken Loach he ain’t.

Ben and I ended up collaborating on a couple of ambitious short films. We co-wrote Animal Charm, a 25-minute Gothic horror comedy and occasional musical about a fading fur designer (Sadie Frost) who is kidnapped by an animal rights activist bent on revenge (Sally Phillips). Boy George played a policeman. And, more recently, we made Dotty, an award-winning two-hander between Sadie Frost and her young son by Jude Law, Rudy Law, set in the Nevada desert in the ‘60s (watch it here).

So when Ben asked me to play the small part of Music Industry Type in Set The Thames On Fire, I threw dignity to the wind and leaped at the chance.

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The banquet scene as it appears in the finished film of Set The Thames on Fire. Note the luckily still intact moon in the background, and me lurking in a huge hat on the right

I’ve been on a number of film sets as a journalist, doing location reports; but never as one of the cast. Sets are pretty dull, mostly. Long periods of inaction while the crew do whatever it is crews do, the director squints through camera monitors, and the cast stand around for hours waiting to be called, bantering and bitching over tea and biscuits. But this was one was a lot more fun.

Look, here’s cult comedian Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh fame, dressed in little-girl’s pigtails, a leather miniskirt and fishnet stockings, like Grayson Perry doing an X-rated version of The Wizard of Oz. In the finished film, Noel is terrifying: “I’ll turn you into a glove puppet next time!” he calls out to a man in a gimp suit escaping from him in terror. “I’ll wear you like a fucking suit!”

Here’s top model Portia Freeman, the aforementioned pink-haired angel. My own key scene at the party was with her, and every time I delivered my lines she would gaze up intently into my eyes as though in a staring contest. That would be unsettling at the best of times, but when the starer is of a celestial beauty such that it could reduce a mortal man to a pile of ash and a wisp of smoke, like a magnifying glass concentrating the almighty power of the Sun on an ant, it was really quite off-putting.

Here’s Sally Phillips, as lovely and unaffected as always, despite being a Comedy Goddess. She’s in Set The Thames on Fire because of poker, funnily enough. When Ben was looking to cast her in Animal Charm, I recalled that my friend Sheree Folkson, whom I first met on a poker boat down the Thames (as one does), had directed Sally’s feature film The Runaway Bride, so I got in touch through her – top tip for film-makers, it’s useless going through agents when you’re not offering any money!

And here’s the on-set photographer taking my picture, saying: “I know you – Time Out, right?” It turned out to be Simon Frederick, who worked in ad sales at Time Out, and had now switched careers to photographer. And a bloody good one, too: he’s just been on the panel of Sky Arts’ Master of Photography series, which has just been given a second season.

It was fascinating to be in on the inside of a feature film. Ben is an enormously impressive director: planning all the shots meticulously for the ridiculously short shoot, but able to improvise when things go wrong – as well as the unforeseen moon landing, the generators cut out for several hours, shutting down the set; he used the time to rearrange the camera tracks so the shots were improved and all the time lost saved.

And it’s amazing what can be done on a small budget when you dream big. When you watch the film – and you really should, it’s a one-off (see my Loco festival review here) – try to guess the budget. I guarantee, however low you try to go, the real figure will have been a tenth of that. It’s one of the most impressive British directorial debuts in years.

Set The Thames on Fire plays at the Everyman King’s Cross on Sep 12, Everyman Hampstead on Sep 13; Picturehouse Central on Sep 14; all with cast Q&As. It will be available on demand from Sep 19, and on DVD from Sep 26. See their Facebook page for more details.

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Set The Thames on Fire goes LOCO with Noel Fielding, Sally Phillips and Sadie Frost

23 Apr

 

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The flooded, dystopian London of Set The Thames on Fire

“I saw the script, which called for me to play a transvestite, paedophile drug addict, and thought: ‘typecast again’!”

This is Noel “The Mighty Boosh” Fielding in the Q&A session following the UK premiere on Thursday of Set The Thames on Fire, answering how he came to be in a movie that comes on like Withnail and I directed by Terry Gilliam by way of Peter Greenaway and set in a dystopian retro-Dickensian London in which the Thames has burst its banks.

The BFI Southbank is an unexpectedly conventional setting in which to see one of the most original, daring and visually ravishing British debuts in years. Set The Thames on Fire was opening the LOCO comedy festival, and that was peculiar too, since despite boasting Noel Fielding and Sally Phillips in the cast, and having moments of the blackest humour, it’s as much tragedy as comedy: “An agony in three acts”, as it rather grandly announces at the start.

“I’ll turn you into a glove puppet next time!” Fielding calls out to a man in a gimp suit escaping from him in terror, in his key scene. “I’ll wear you like a fucking suit!” In pigtails and a frilly petticoat over fishnet tights and a gigantic white codpiece, Fielding is equal parts terrifying and hilarious; but at the Q&A, leaping down the aisles in silver boots to offer the mike to questioners, so clearly wanting to be centre-stage that the film-makers eventually invited him up to share the platform – “You might regret that, I’m very drunk” – he is simply hilarious.

Sally Phillips was also in the audience. Playing a fortune-teller whose father used to run the town, before the hateful, bloated, perverted Impresario took over, she gives the film its moral heart and emotional charge. She’s a revelation. In one scene she recalls Bob Hoskins in his magnificent long closing close-up in The Long Good Friday.

Sally appreciated the challenge of a non-comedic role. “I was expecting to play the whoreish landlady,” she said, of the part which went to the film’s co-producer, Sadie Frost. “But Ben [Charles Edwards, the director] swapped us round. I was astonished by how confident and comforting he was to work for in every area – and what an incredible-looking film it is from one so young.”

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Makers of Set The Thames on Fire interviewed, left to right: writer/composer Al Joshua, director Ben Charles Edwards, producer/actor Sadie Frost, and comedian Noel Fielding; LOCO co-founder Jonathan Wakeham standing, right.

Sadie Frost, too, was happy to big up her young director. “I’ve known Ben a long time,” she said, “and he’s so comfortable directing the cast and crew. No one’s made me into a muse before – but he did! I’ve been in every short film he’s made. We [at Blonde to Black Pictures] saw talent in him but thought he needed some discipline, so we said if you jump through this hoop and that hoop we’ll make a feature with you.”

The hoop project, however, worked only so far. Ben’s never been afraid to bend a few rules to protect the film he wants to make. “To get it commissioned,” he said in answer to a question about the film’s spectacular look, “I stood in front of the  producers and just lied! I said there would be just six special effects – I think in the end there were more like 104.”

Al Joshua, who wrote the screenplay, based the main characters of Art and Sal on himself and Ben – they shared a flat together in east London years ago. A brilliant musician who had previously achieved cult success with the band Orphans & Vandals, he also took over duties as composer when the original score commissioned failed to match the film’s romantic but decidedly off-kilter tone, by which time he had only a couple of weeks to come up with the whole thing.

“Some of the melodies had been in my head a long time,” Al said. “But I didn’t even have a computer , so Ben gave me an iPad with his rough cut on it, and I sat there with a guitar and piano. Music has to pull the whole thing together. There’s a main theme that reoccurs in different forms – there’s a waltz at one point, piano at the end – and which sums up Art’s character.”

Al proved even stubborner than Ben when it came to protecting his vision. “I turned up to the derelict studio where he and the musicians were recording the score,” said Ben, “and said I wanted to hear it, but Al put a padlock on the door and wouldn’t let me in!”

Somehow, it all came together far better than all involved dared hope; Sadie revealed she is in the final throes of negotiating a distribution deal that would give Set The Thames on Fire a September release.

It’s not, perhaps, the easiest sell: the main character is gay, it’s peopled with bizarre grotesques, and it has more uses of the “c” word than the BBFC may appreciate. But when so many low-budget British films re-tread the same old gangster, horror or kitchen-sink clichés, it’s incredibly refreshing to see one that aims for the stars. This is one of the most startlingly original and ravishing films to come out of Britain since Ben Wheatley. Judging by the rapturous response of the packed house at the BFI Southbank, there is absolutely an audience for it.

Show it, to paraphrase Field of Dreams, and they will come.

 

 

Online at last! Watch our acclaimed short film, Dotty

20 Jun

1620580_10151837018812062_1676636489_n1I am unbelievably thrilled to announce that Dotty, a truly lovely short film I wrote, is finally available online to view for free. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you anything about the plot, save that my influences were Harold and Maude, Alan Moore and The Usual Suspects.

It’s one of those rare films where everything comes together. Sadie Frost, the producer and award-winning star, gave me a terrifically useful note on my first draft: it was just “simpler, with less dialogue”. Ben Charles Edwards, the hugely talented director, put great care into the details as well as the big picture, from the gloves Sadie wears as Dotty to the long hours spent in the editing suite with editor Darren Baldwin making it just so. John Hicks’s cinematography is ravishing, and it was he who first suggested filming something about a mysterious older woman in a trailer near his home in Lanzarote. The landscape looked to me looked like an American desert – helping to inspire my key story idea. The music by Paul Honey still sends a shiver down my spine at the climax. And Sadie’s son Rudy Law really is a natural in front of the camera, as we first found when Ben filmed him in Suzie Lovitt.

To me, it was the best possible illustration of the way film is the ultimate collaborative medium: that it may start with a strong idea and a few words on a page, but it takes the combined talents of many to give them life and make them sing.

Anyway. I’m proud of our little film, as you can tell. The many festivals round the world who accepted it for screening, from Australia and Korea to Raindance and Hollywood, seemed to like it. I hope you’ll like it too. Let me know!

To watch Dotty on Nowness.com, click here.

Online at last: watch Rudy Law in Suzie Lovitt

15 Jun
A then eight-year-old Rudy Law stars as Suzie Lovitt

A then eight-year-old Rudy Law stars as Suzie Lovitt

At last! A short film I helped out on a few years ago has been put online for free viewing on Nowness.com. Suzie Lovitt is a quirky, avant-garde, ravishingly shot film starring a young Rudy Law, son of Sadie Frost (who produced the film) and Jude Law.

Rudy liked to make up characters, and in particular liked to “channel” the character of a middle-aged dry cleaner called Suzie Lovitt. When director Ben Charles Edwards saw him “doing” Suzie, he knew he had to put Rudy’s rich fantasy inner world on screen. I helped out with redrafting and restructuring Ben’s initial script, though much of it was jettisoned on the day to let Rudy do his own thing. Just don’t take the stories of family life in it to be a true reflection of the Frost household – that’s all fiction! In other words, it’s not Rudy playing the part of Suzie Lovitt, but Rudy playing the part of another boy who likes to play the part of Suzie Lovitt. Very meta.

Rudy proved to be such a natural on film that Ben, Sadie and I developed another short specially for him. That’s Dotty, my favourite of all the shorts I’ve been involved in, and I’m incredibly excited to say that it too will go online on Nowness.com later this week – watch this space!

Ben Charles Edwards has since made his debut feature film with Sadie Frost and Emma Comley’s production company Blonde to Black, out next year. Set The Thames On Fire is like a darker version of Withnail & I set in a retro-Dickensian dystopian future London. This one is written by musician Al Joshua, and I have no vested interest in it beyond a cameo in a party scene, so you can believe me when I say that, having seen a (very) rough cut, it promises to be one of the most bizarre and visually striking films you’ll ever see.

To watch Suzie Lovitt, click here.

The new folk hero: Al Joshua’s showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s

14 Jul

Al Joshua press picAl Joshua, who plays a showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on Tuesday (July 15) that you’d be foolish to miss, is one of the cleverest, funniest, charmingest, bolshiest, stubbornnest people I’ve met. He had a promising music career and strong cult following a few years back as Orphans & Vandals, but has been out of the limelight for a while – working on new songs, and writing the screenplay for Set The Thames On Fire, a dystopian sci-fi buddy movie directed by Ben Charles Edwards which finished shooting a couple of months ago.

A few years is a long time in the music biz. Al’s comeback gig at the Notting Hill Arts Club a few weeks back was attended only by his new manager and a few friends.

Yet it was one of the most mesmerising gigs I have witnessed.

How to describe Al’s songs? There’s a dash of Tom Waits, a sprinkling of Bob Dylan. But they sound raw and fresh and achingly lovely. Though delivered by just one man with a guitar sitting on a stool with a black rapscallion hat perched on his ginger hair, they don’t seem retro at all. These are songs of loss and longing, distinguished by a rare linguistic dexterity. Songs to be listened to. And, in typically stubborn defiance of the conventional wisdom about attention spans getting shorter, they’re mostly about ten minutes long. You wouldn’t want them any shorter.

Al’s signature tune, perhaps, is I Love You Madly. You can play it on Soundcloud here, but it’s especially hypnotic live – the phrase, when it comes, repeated again and again in urgent but subtly different ways like a mania, a mantra, a plea, a prayer.

His manager, an industry veteran with a strong track record, told me after the gig that he had had no desire to take Al on. He didn’t exactly seem like the most commercially lucrative prospect. But then he heard the songs… “And damn him, I just couldn’t not say yes.”

Click here for discounted tickets to Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on July 15.

 

Despatch from Hollywood #3: the night I became Sadie Frost

15 Feb

ImagePhew! Yesterday was fun. I’ve picked up awards for magazine editing before, but never for film.

A couple of years ago, I stood on the stage of the Dolby Theater, where the Oscars take place, and yelled “You like me! You really like me!” over the empty chairs. I vowed to be back someday for real.

Okay, so it wasn’t actually my award, it was Sadie Frost’s. Her achievement in winning Best Actress in a Short is especially impressive given the competition, which, having watched ten hours of shorts at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, I can tell you was stiff. Sadie was up against not just Juliet Stevenson, but the ageless Lee Meriwether, as well as Caitlin Harris who is terrific as Vivien Leigh in Love Scene.

And okay, this wasn’t quite the Oscars. But it was still good to get up there, in Hollywood, in a rep cinema owned by Quentin Tarantino (the New Beverly), in front of a hundred-odd gifted film-makers and actors. I apologised for not being Sadie, since “I’m not nearly as pretty as her”, and on her behalf thanked Sadie’s son Rudy, the film’s producers, cinematographer John Hicks, and of course “the director, Ben Charles Edwards, who’s ridiculously young, handsome and talented – the bastard”. I hope the Californian natives understand British humour.

Set The Thames on FireAnd on that note, I’m delighted to draw your attention to today’s Hollywood Reporter article which officially announces that Sadie Frost will be producing Ben’s first feature film. It’s called Set The Thames On Fire, after a Tom Waits lyric, and he and the writer, the also hugely talented raconteur, flâneur, wit and songsmith Al Joshua, have been developing this project for a year or more. Last time I was with them, they showed me some amazing artwork for their modern-Dickensian, dystopian alternate London.

I had no idea till then that their buddy-movie project, which I always thought of as “Withnail And I in Shoreditch”, had spun off into fantasy. But with Ben, you always have to expect the unexpected. Fingers crossed they get the film – and the cast – they deserve.

More reviews from the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival tomorrow. Or maybe the next day, if I get distracted by the joys of LA and my feature deadlines!

Despatch from Hollywood: the day before the world premiere of our film Dotty

12 Feb
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Dotty, premiering at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival tomorrow

So here I am in West Hollywood. The sky is as ridiculously blue as it almost always is – that’s partly why the first film pioneers chose this place. I’m staying with hospitable fellow film journo and screenwriter Steve Goldman. And tomorrow the short film I wrote, Dotty, is having its world premiere at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, with Florida, Australia, St Albans and New York so far to follow.

I’m really proud of the film. Ben Charles Edwards, with whom I collaborated on the hugely ambitious Animal Charm, did a superb job of directing. Sadie Frost is so good she’s being awarded Best Actress at the festival – despite Juliet Stevenson also being in the running. The specially composed score still echoes in my mind.

I can’t tell you too much about the plot of Dotty, as it would spoil the ending, but it’s a touching inter-generational friendship between a lonely, troubled boy and the eccentric woman (‘Dotty’) he finds in a colourful caravan plonked in the middle of the dusty Nevada desert. I had the cult 1971 film Harold and Maude half in mind when I wrote it. I’ve shown it to septuagenarians and nine-year-olds, and all ages in between, and it seems to strike a universal chord.

One great lesson when writing it: less is more. The first draft was 10pp long – half the length of Animal Charm. It was deliberately light on dialogue, since it stars a nine-year-old kid. And though that kid is Rudy Law, son of Sadie Frost and Jude Law and with acting clearly in his genes, you still can’t ask too much of children in the way of scripted dialogue.

I got one note back on the script: make it shorter, with less dialogue. It was a great note. The even more stripped-down 6pp version worked even better.

And now, tomorrow, The Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival gives Dotty its first showing to critical fellow film-makers, ones who aren’t cast or crew or friends or family. I’m not nervous. With my film critic’s hat on, rather than my insecure writer’s hat on, Dotty works. It’s good.

I’ll tell you on Friday how it all went…