Uncut Interview - Jon Wright Talks Grabbers
07 Aug 2012
We grill the director on Irish creature feature where you have to drink to survive!New Irish feature Grabbers takes a sprinkling of sci-fi, mixes in a raucous comedy and more than a sprinkling of alcohol for a unique movie experience which was already the toast of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It arrives in Irish cinemas on the 10th of August and we caught up with director Jon Wright for a long chat about keeping those drunken stereotypes in check and conjuring up some world class effects work on a tiny budget.CLICK: Tell me how you got involved in GrabbersJW: It was a pair of producers who I’ve worked with before brought me the project. It has been submitted to them by an agent, so you know the traditional way. And they spotted it as an interesting script and thought it would be a good fit for me. And then we all met with Kevin [Lehane] the writer and it was their plan for me to be on board.CLICK: Where did the story come from? Did you have any involvement in the script?JW: Not in the original script at all. So Kevin was backpacking around the world, having endured a lot of frustration as a writer and kind of wondering what to do with his life. And he was in the Cook Islands and was being bitten to death by mosquitoes. And someone said to him to try Marmite because they don’t like the Vitamin D in the marmite. And he tried it and it actually worked and the following evening he was out drinking and being bitten again and he said he hoped someone gets drunk on his blood and flies into a lamppost and dies. And a lightbulb went off in his head and he jotted down in his journal ‘get drunk to survive.’ And that was the seed of it and he wrote the script from that.CLICK: Was that premise pitched to you then?JW: No he wrote the script and struggled to get people to read it and just through a train of referrals he got it to an agent and when it finally got out there was quite a lot of people who wanted to make it.CLICK: What did you think of the idea the first time you heard it?
JW: I thought it was very original. It’s one of those things when you read the film and when you see the film I think it seems very familiar but… I think a lot of people are getting caught up in the similarities and how it reminds them of other films but if you think about it that premise is actually very original and quite unique. And while that was quite appealing I think it was more the execution and that it was an Irish movie written by an Irishman with a lot of affection for his characters. And I’ve obviously got an English accent and spent my teenage years in the Home Counties. But I was born in Ireland and I have lots of Irish relatives and lived there for a bit. And it just struck me as very authentic whilst also having a lot of fun with the Irish stereotypes. The characters are very true to life, so that was quite appealing for me. That we could do this for real and sell it in a rural location but do the truth of it as it would be nowadays. So all of that was quite appeal.CLICK: Was it also appealing to work on a creature feature?
JW: The films which got me excited as a teenager were horror, fantasy and sci-fi movies, escapist movies. It’s what I’ve come back to and I think I'm still the teenage me inside, he has the energy to make films.CLICK: So you’re interested in genre films?
JW: Yea. I love those kinds of movies and I think a good monster movie can be a great film. And unfortunately with horror there are a lot of bad ones.
CLICK: I read that production was difficult – you started in a tough winter?
JW: Yes there was a communication at some point that we should shoot in December and January and I voiced my concerns about that but rather than derail the project I decided to go ahead. But it did seem verging on insanity to be going to Donegal in January.CLICK: Because it doesn’t seem appropriate for the movie at all…
JW: No it’s completely inappropriate. And what we were hoping for was picturesque weather and sunshine essentially. For some fortuitous reason we did get quite a lot of sunshine. But when we were shooting the pub interiors there were three inches of snow and people were crashing on their way to the set. It was incredibly cold outside. And in the end we only lost two days shooting to bad weather and I think in another winter we could have lost 30 days.CLICK: You never considered changing the script to make your own version of The Thing?!
JW: [laughs] we actually recced some of the locations, like Moville where we shot the pub exteriors on the Inis Island Peninsula – we recced that in a force 9 gale!CLICK: And you still went back!?
JW: Yea and it was like The Thing in that we were all buttoned up and you had to shout at the top of your voice. So it was like we were in a niteclub. But it reminded me of moments like in The Thing or in Close Encounters when the wind is so loud that people are shouting. Something slimy this way comes... CLICK: The CG work in Grabbers is excellent and I presume not on a massive budget. How did you manage it?
JW: No we were working with a very small budget. In essence we had Nvizible who are a boutique CG company in London and a VFX designer called Paddy Eason who is something of a genius, a very bright man. And he just loved the script and wanted to work with me, we knew eachother a little bit. And he just committed to the project and we also had a guy called Sean Harrison doing the prosthetic work and he’s kind of a geek. Between them and all the people at the company, they just got behind it in a big way. One of the tricks we had was we got Nvizible to do all the visual effects work so if you see a monster in Grabbers and you like it or you loathe it you know that was the one company. And that’s kind of unusual because ordinarily you’d have 10 VFX houses and you don’t really have a sense of who did what. And one way we got Nvizible to get on board was we gave them everything. Which was quite a hard battle to win but I got my way in the end! And I think it meant that they really took it on as a labour of love, a calling card.CLICK: Did you work on the design or was it there in the script?
JW: The script was very suggestive, so it would describe the Grabbers as ‘medusa on a bad hair day’ or a lot of whipping tentacles. And these kinds of things were very suggestive but not specific. So we got into a long process with the teams where we brought them to life. And we worked out the ecology of the creatures and how they live on their home planet and tried to think it through. To the point where I hope you have a believable creature and a sense of its intelligence and intentions. Which is obviously not literally explained but there sort of suggested by how it behaves.CLICK: You also have smaller Grabbers – who are a strange mix between cute and disgusting. Did you work hard on that contrast?
JW: Yea we did because there’s a pint in the script where the local doctor confronts them outside the pub and he doesn’t run away. So they have to be deceptive so you’re not frightened of them. Just repellent enough to make him gag but curious enough to keep him there. And also they’re babies and babies in nature are very typically cute and loveable. Even the most ugly create have quite cute offspring often.CLICK: But you still attack them with a nail gun!
JW: Yea exactly! That’s when you find out how they actually behave. But that was one of the challenges in the film as well. When Lisa (Ruth Bradley’s character) goes toe to toe with them to not have your sympathy go to the baby Grabber! So we had to work quite hard on that with the noise it made, being very angry and unappealing so we didn’t get an ‘Aw’ from the audience!CLICK: What was the casting like – Richard Coyle isn't Irish!
JW: Originally I wanted to go for an all Irish cast but I was meeting with a lot of people. And someone we know very well from America who I was very against. But Richard managed to wheedle his way in as the only non Irish man playing an Irish man, essentially because he was very committed to the role and wanted to get it right. And it was a big thing for him to do his best with the accent – he had an Irish voice coach he worked with regularly. One of the top voice coaches and he also has Irish parents like me. So I kind of felt between these various things he passes muster. And it was quite hard to find a modern day actor who’s got that macho quality. You kind of feel he’s the sort of bloke who if you insulted his girlfriend he’d punch you. A lot of modern actors couldn’t punch their way out of a paper bag. There were various reasons why. I felt Richard was a very likeable and charming character; he has that side to him.CLICK: And he did do a decent job with the accent.
JW: It’s not perfect but it’s… certainly in the rest of the world it passes muster. But for me it was important to not have these crimes against accents that you get in Irish set movies where you get often English actors coming in and doing the worst Irish accents you’ve heard in your life. For the people who live in the country, it really ruins the movie because it doesn’t seem real. So I hope Richard’s got to the point where Irish people can forget about the fact that he’s actually from Leeds. Richard Boyle and Ruth Bradley in Grabbers CLICK: The film does focus on the drunken Irish stereotype – but it’s all seems to be a light hearted fashion…
JW: I think one of the things for us was that we took pains to show both sides of it. We show that drinking can be great fun and the chaos that comes out when everyone is drunk is quite exciting. But on the flip side you open with a character who’s an alcoholic and its actually quite miserable and bitter and lost and unhappy. So I like to think we show the two sides of it. And yes it does play up to an Irish stereotype and I’m saying this as an Irishman with an Irish family. The Irish do like a drink and they have great fun with it as well. You know I think that’s fair fame and we only poke fun at the Irish because they can take it and they’ve got a great sense of humour about themselves. More than most nations I think. I think the people that are concerned about it haven’t seen the film and when they do they get the tone and understand where we were coming from.CLICK: Your first Irish screening was in Galway – what were the reactions like?
JW: Yea it was brilliant; it was a lovely warm reaction. Because obviously we see the film a lot and so does everyone else. So you eventually stop laughing at the jokes. What was lovely seeing it in Galway was to be reminded that it’s a comedy first and foremost. It has jumpy bits and scary bits but it’s there to be laughed at. But it just felt very warm and I thoroughly enjoyed it.CLICK: On a technical side, the colours seem quite saturated – not necessarily like Ireland. Did you have a specific look in mind?
JW: I suppose we just wanted to get away from that modern cliché of washed out, bleached colours. We were sort of looking back to anamorphic Panavision films of the 70s and that rich colour scheme they had – warm brown skin tones and deep blues. And we wanted to evoke that in the sense that we felt were making an escapist movie. We wanted to be optimistic in the colour palate.CLICK: There’s also something in the musical themes which sometimes feels a little familiar. Did you call out any specific themes to your composer?
JW: I was very keen to have a hummable theme, again something modern movies tend to steer away from. A lot of the movies I loved as a teenager from the 70s and 80s you could name those movies and they could hum the tune. So in doing that we looked back to a lot of the John Williams themes from classic Spielberg, maybe Close Encounters and Jerry Goldsmith of course from things like Alien. And essentially embrace the notion of a score that’s pushed right to the front and has a tune and is noticeable. And what normally happens in modern movies is people take scores from other films and lay them out during the editing process. And then the composer half copies them. Whereas we didn’t do that and the composer was not briefed with a temp score. So he went off and wrote his own, with some influences and his own thing. So whatever influences he has are unconscious.CLICK: Towards the end of the film there are a couple of 80s homage’s – to movies like Aliens. Were they in the script or did you add them.
JW: They were very much in the script, they come from Kevin. They would be things that are at the edges of my comfort zone personally. Kevin is such a big film geek and I got carried away with them as well. But outside of those homage’s that we paid to ET, Alien and Gremlins we’ve tried to make our own movie outside of that. We’d like to think we’re sucking up those influences and making something kind of original in its own right. The important thing for me with those tributes was if you were to come to the movie at 16 for example and don’t know any of those old films it wouldn’t make any difference to your enjoyment. So you’re not using them as plot devices.CLICK: I quickly wanted to ask about Howl, which might be your next film. I’ve read the summary on IMdB and it just says ‘werewolves on a train!’ Can you tell me about it?
JW: Well there are two films that I'm attached to. One of them is on IMdB pro. One of the is called Our Robot Overlords that’s set three years after the robot invasion and everyone is confined to their houses and nobody knows why. It’s about a gang of teenagers who break out of their house and go on an odyssey across the tiny town where they live. And Howl is a commuter train is travelling out from London and it breaks down in a wood. And it’s a bunch of ragtag commuters who are battling werewolves that are invading the train, trying to find an alpha male to lead their pack. So they’re both very interesting projects and quite hard to say at this point which ones going to kick off first.Grabbers is in cinemas this week and we’ll have a review up soon. Richard (not Irish) Coyle and Ruth (actually Irish) Bradley in Grabbers