Interview: Matt Palmer talks Calibre, elevated genre and releasing an indie thriller on Netflix
Josh Slater-Williams | On 01, Jul 2018
If Calibre’s plot of two life-long friends fighting for their lives in an isolated country setting after a hunting trip gone wrong might seem a little familiar, the nuances to how the plot escalates are anything but. The debut feature from writer-director Matt Palmer, the Scottish Highlands-based thriller stars Jack Lowden and Martin McCann, and is one of the most scarily tense films – that’s not explicitly a horror movie – that we’ve seen for quite some time. (You can read our review of the movie here.)
Ahead of its global launch on Netflix this weekend, we spoke to Palmer at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where the movie premiered, before winning the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film – the first Netflix Original to win this prestigious prize. We talk to about the influence of Deliverance and Wake in Fright, discussions of ‘elevated genre’, rising star Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), and the benefits of Netflix distributing the film.
Perhaps my favourite thing about the film is that everyone’s actions are understandable. Could you tell me about writing and directing the performances for that balance?
It was tricky ground because the worry with that is you have to be very careful that the audience are rooted in with your protagonists. And so I knew that the actor who played Vaughn, as well as being a really good actor to handle some of the more emotionally intense stuff, was also gonna have to be super charismatic. Having somebody like Jack definitely… in fact, I’ve shown clips to people; when we were editing the film, I showed a short scene to a few people, like the bar scene, and people were immediately like, “I’m rooting for the blonde guy”, just because he’s got that kind of movie star charisma. It really helps.
Deliverance was a huge influence on the film and I love that movie, but the one thing about Deliverance is that, in it, things are very heavily stacked in favour of the city folk who go out into the middle of nowhere. And I’ve always thought that dynamic’s a little unfair and I certainly wanted to do a bit of revisionism, so that I’ve balanced up the morality. There’s no clear morality, really, I don’t think, in terms of any of the characters in the film, which hopefully leaves the audience in the middle to navigate that.
For me, perhaps one of the key bits is this kind of action sequence in the film about 50 minutes in, and if the audience is still rooting for the protagonists at that point – which, I think, from feedback so far, that they are, but in a slightly uneasy way. ‘Should I be rooting for them or not?’ But I was definitely looking to blur those lines.
“There’s always been a sense that genre films are somehow not really real movies.”
As someone who’s now directed a tense thriller and also programmed genre cinema events, what are your thoughts on the discussions surrounding ‘elevated genre’ cinema of late, particularly horror?
Elevated genre is a massively popular term at the moment and it’s popular within the industry because, and this is historical, I think there’s always been a sense that genre films are somehow anti-artistic or a little bit cheap or not really real movies. But I think if you look at something like Deliverance, which I think is clearly a thriller, and a film like Wake in Fright or Straw Dogs or Southern Comfort, there’s always been genre movies made… the possible enormous strength of genre movies is you can hook an audience in through the genre and then lead them into territory that they’re not expecting; often into serious territory. And I think that’s always happened, but elevated genre’s largely a term for people who don’t really think genre cinema should essentially be good – it should all be bad. So they’re looking to differentiate the good stuff from the bad stuff, whereas I think there’s always been good genre movies and bad genre movies, in the same way that there’s good art movies and bad art movies.
Have you screened the film for any of the rural community locals you consulted?
Well, we haven’t, because we ended up… with the recce that I did, which was going back a long time now, about seven years, I went right up to the north of Scotland. In terms of the locations for the film, all of the locations, apart from when we went up and shot some landscape shots for a week, were within an hour of Edinburgh. We’re gonna do a screening, hopefully, out at Leadhills, but that’s only actually an hour from Edinburgh. I guess that the beauty of Netflix is that people out right up in the Highlands are likely to see the film in a way they probably wouldn’t if we were doing a theatrical release.
To some extent, when I went up and did my recce, I went up very open-minded, expecting all the clichés to be completely overturned. And to some extent, quite a few of the clichés were actually reinforced by the local people, who were telling me things that I was very dubious about representing in that way. Sometimes clichés are just true. A lot of that stuff really was from the gut. I mean, communities down in England are isolated and have the same problem of finance being primarily focused around cities. It’s a problem all around.
It feels trite to throw in a Brexit comparison, but some of the locals’ rhetoric reminded me of certain factions of the Leave campaign. Was that a conscious layer by the time you shot the film?
Yeah, because the script took eight years to write, essentially it was written before. And then I did start wondering if people were gonna start bolting on Brexit meanings to the film and start calling it ‘elevated genre’ because it had political dimensions. But really, primarily, in terms of both the core themes of the film and the morality, and also in terms of the situation between the locals and the city folk, I was really going for something a bit more universal. I think, historically, those problems have always been problems. There was an editor who read the script who I talked to and he said the film’s clearly about the [Highland] Clearances. And with the Clearances, you’re going backwards rather than to the present, so I think those issues always have and always will exist. With that and with the morality, I was trying to keep things fairly universal, rather than be specific.
“The audition tape was completely insane.”
You’ve basically landed Jack Lowden at the last chance, before Dunkirk, while he’s still relatively cheap, right?
It was a bit crazy. We had an amazing casting director called Theo Park and the first name that she mentioned was Jack Lowden. And actually, initially, I’d scripted it so that the two guys in the film were in their mid-30s, and she immediately said she thought the film would be more palatable and it would work better if they were younger. Jack at that time was around 25. So I pondered that for a couple of weeks and decided she was right; it gave a bigger age differentiation between them and the locals, which felt, instinctually, like a good thing.
There wasn’t even that much Jack Lowden film material out there at that point, so what I was given by the casting director was something like a 30-second audition tape. And I knew within five seconds, because I didn’t realise Jack was in character and I thought he was chatting to the casting director, and then I realised he was actually already doing the audition. And I was like, right, this guy is incredible. And then we managed to get him attached about a year before we started shooting, but after that, he then got cast in Dunkirk and that was the point where we all thought this might not happen; this is gonna be a big ask. So it was literally the last time we really could have got him for that sort of production and that type of budget before he went much bigger.
But I always thought we had a chance because the thing with Jack is Jack won an Olivier Award, which is one of the biggest theatre awards, when he was really young, and I just had an inkling that he’s a proper actor and that the material’s so intense that we just had this chance that we might just get him, because he wanted to see where this role would take him. I think, ultimately, that’s thankfully what turned out to be true, because, like I said at the beginning, we needed someone with that enormous charisma in that lead role because of the moral complications. He’s not a clear Hollywood protagonist.
Something about Martin McCann’s screen presence reminds me of Michael Fassbender – this shark-like grin that always seems like it’s concealing something…
We looked at about 20 different Marcuses and Martin’s tape came in, and, again, within a couple of hours of seeing it, I made the decision on that one. The audition tape was completely insane. I’d looked at all these others and there were some good actors, but the way Martin inhabited the character in the audition tape… at that point, I’d been working on the script for six to seven years and I had certain physical preconceptions about this character; what he might look like, how he might sound. And when Martin’s tape came in, the ground just shifted and it was like, ‘This is Marcus, I am looking at Marcus.’ And the character actually expanded. I saw the potential in Martin’s tape; it was a very, very quick decision to cast Martin. And I think he probably wouldn’t be averse to the Michael Fassbender comparisons; Fassbender’s a great actor. I think there’s a reason those comparisons are coming up and it’s because it’s a really stunning performance he’s put in and in a very difficult role. It’s a very tricky character; a character that I think some actors would have avoided because it’s a kind of warts-and-all kind of role.
“We’ve found an audience that I couldn’t have dreamt of through any other channel.”
How did Netflix get involved? How does it feel knowing your film will instantaneously be available around the world at the click of a few buttons?
Very excited, I think is the answer to that. I do think some of the films I’ve name checked like Wake in Fright… that film has sort of slipped through the net twice. It came out, played at Cannes and slipped through the net, and then it was shown again at Cannes maybe three or four years ago and there was a big fanfare about it again, but it’s almost like people again are like, ‘What’s Wake in Fright?’ It’s slipped through the net twice and I think sometimes films can slip through the net. I think Netflix is a great platform for this kind of film that maybe isn’t genre with a capital ‘g’. It’s a thriller but it’s a slow burn thriller… all the things that might potentially have made it a difficult sell. Getting onto Netflix and finding that size of audience instantaneously makes sure that the film doesn’t fall through the cracks, because there’s such a huge number of subscribers that we’ve found an audience that I couldn’t even have dreamt of through any other channel. Ultimately, as a filmmaker, you just want to connect with as many people as you can and want as many people to see your film as possible. Netflix is just an absolutely perfect fit for that.
Something else I’ve noticed, and it reminds me of when I was a kid and there were only four terrestrial TV channels and people would all talk about the thing they’d seen on BBC One the night before… it feels like there’s so many people now, who, when I’ve asked if they’re Netflix subscribers, so many people are, that the same thing’s kind of happening. Something catches fire on Netflix and you’ll find that a lot of your friends are simultaneously talking about it, recommending it to other people. It feels like there’s a sense of community around it, which I think is exciting, too.
It was a quite a long negotiation period, but Netflix expressed an interest last August and the deal was signed and done in, I think, February.
The film did remind me of a Scottish Wake in Fright, particularly since alcohol and substance abuse are such important plot points. Could you tell me about your relationship with the film?
One connection is just that utter dissection and annihilation of macho male behaviour. In Wake in Fright, that’s just great; it just rips the sort of macho Australian male psyche to shreds and leaves it in pieces on the floor. But also, the substance and alcohol abuse thing, obviously that’s very relevant to Australia but it’s hugely relevant to here; the drinking culture in the UK. And I think Calibre comes partially from a place of… you get older and when you’re younger, you’ve had a million hangovers and ended up in situations in no fit state to really deal with things. And there’s always that horrible feeling after a hangover that something’s going to go terribly wrong. Calibre’s almost like the ultimate hangover movie.
Calibre is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.