Interview: Simon Rumley talks Fashionista, Crowhurst and going up against Colin Firth
Ian Winterton | On 01, Apr 2018
British independent film director Simon Rumley has ploughed his own furrow over the last 15 years, resulting in a series of films such as The Living And The Dead (2006), Red White & Blue (2010) and 2016’s Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word that, although widely different in subject matter, all share Rumley’s trademark blend of unsettling violence and a willingness to explore the darkest corners of the human psyche.
2018 sees him busier than ever, as his brilliant Nicolas Roeg-inspired mind-bender Fashionista hits VOD (read our review here), and Crowhurst – tackling the same tragic true story as £20 million Colin Firth vehicle The Mercy – gets a theatrical release.
As an independent filmmaker, it must have been incredibly tough to be able to boast a filmography as impressive as yours – fantastic films all made largely on your own terms.
I sometimes wonder why I’ve chosen this life. It’s hard. But it’s good to take a step back and realise I’ve done exactly what I wanted to: I’ve done nine features, two anthologies, and I’ve been pleased with all of them. When you hit rock bottom, you think ‘Well, hang on – you’ve travelled the world, made a lot of great friends, and just about managed to make a living.’ And the last four years in particular seem to have been particularly productive. It’s been non-stop.
With Fashionista, as with a lot of your films, you’re credited as Writer, Producer and Director. I know producing is something you’ve always done out of necessity rather than desire. Has the role got any easier over the years?
Well, I think if I hadn’t produced my films, I’d still be sat in my flat in the Elephant and Castle waiting for someone to give me that break. My first feature I financed myself for £4,000 and I was kind of inspired by the Richard Linklaters and Kevin Smiths and Robert Rodriguez who were all doing similar things. And producing is still something I can do. Most directors these days get a producer credit. On the one hand, it’s good, because I get a lot of control and get to work with people I want to work with. On the other, I’m not probably the best producer!
It must feel kind of blissful when you’ve got someone else doing most of the producer duties.
The great thing about working with other producers is they come to you when the project is close to actually happening – which was the case with Crowhurst, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word and [upcoming feature] Once Upon A Time In London – rather than the usual thing of me writing a script, developing it, sending it out, trying to get money for it, which can take anything from one year, four years to it never happening. When producers come to a project, it pretty much means the film is ready to go. That’s one reason I’ve now just done four films in four years. It helps that I have a great working relationship with Mike Riley, who produced Crowhurst, and Terry Stone and Richard Turner who produced One Upon A Time In London. I respect them, they respect me. I’m trying to make the film that they want made. We’re all striving towards the same goal.
“I’d always been fascinated by how Nic Roeg structures his films. With Fashionista, I just thought ‘Fuck it – let’s try this.'”
Fashionista, with its non-linear cut-up depiction of a woman’s descent into insanity, you acknowledge at the film’s close that it’s inspired by Nic Roeg. Many of your films, including Crowhurst, could be said to be similarly Roegian – has he been a major influence on your work?
I can’t remember the first time I saw a Nic Roeg film but when I was 18 I was seeing a girl who lived in Notting Hill and she lived very close to the Electric Cinema and I remember seeing a lot of Roeg films then, late at night, sometimes drunk, and they always made a great impression on me. So I guess I started watching his films from then on. Performance is a film I’ve always loved. But all his films from that period – from ’69 through to the late Seventies – Bad Timing, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout – they’re all just stunning.
I love his films for his beauty and structure and edginess. I watch a lot of films, of all genres, and my favourite ones are always those where I can’t work out how they achieved an effect. Roeg’s films are full of moments like that. So, I’ve tried to emulate what he does. Working with him came about because I was having a meeting with Mike Riley and he was heading off to see Nicolas Roeg, who’s a friend of his, and I tagged along. That led to us approaching him to be exec producer on Crowhurst. He jumped at the opportunity because, it turned out, he’d tried to get a Crowhurst film off the ground in ’74, ’75 and it never quite happened. So he was already fascinated by Crowhurst the man and his journey and he came on board. Even now I have to pinch myself that it happened. It was a real career high.
I’d just come off making Crowhurst and I’d always been fascinated by how Nic Roeg structures his films and, with Fashionista, I just thought ‘Fuck it – let’s try this.’ I wrote the script in a non-linear fashion, in a blur of Red Bull over three weeks. It was very liberating realising I could put anything anywhere – I could put as much information as I wanted in there without explaining it until the last five or 10 minutes of the film.
Of all Roeg’s films, it really brought to mind Bad Timing.
You’re exactly right. Bad Timing is primarily the film I used as inspiration. Of all his films, it’s his most chopped up. You’ve still got the backbone of the story in the ‘present day’ with Art Garfunkel and Harvey Keitel, but the rest of it is really framed around that. It’s probably Roeg’s darkest film, too – which is saying something.
It has Art Garfunkel committing necrophilia
There you go. And it was banned for, like, 20 years or something crazy. The script I wrote is pretty much as you see it on screen – so chopped up and non-linear. Maybe as much as 90 per cent of what you see in the final edit was how it unfolded in the script. When we got Amanda and the rest of the main cast on board I actually told them to watch Bad Timing so they could make sense of my script for Fashionista. It’s a puzzle of a film. In the edit, inevitably, some scenes were chopped out or moved, or we added dialogue from some scenes into others as voice over. People often say that no matter what your script is, when you start shooting everything goes out of the window. Roeg said that, and it did on Crowhurst. But usually, as with Fashionista, I’m more like Hitchcock – once I’ve got the script, that to me is the film.
Fashionista features a hipster woman named April with an unhealthy obsession with clothes whose mind, for various reasons, unravels – where did that idea come from?
Basically, I’d come off the back of doing Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word which was my first Hollywood film and wasn’t a great experience, to be honest. I decided I wanted to do something completely different so I wrote a script about a guy who threw away all of his possessions and lived a happier, easier life. I gave the script to a few people and everyone was pretty indifferent to it. Script readers gave reports that gave it C+. With my scripts, people usually react by thinking it’s rubbish or it’s amazing, but this script just everyone shrugging their shoulders. I decided I didn’t want to make a film that was based on an average script.
It takes place in Austin, Texas, somewhere I know you’ve spent a lot of time.
I love the city and, from making Red, White & Blue there, I had a load of contacts: great facilitators and line producers and crew. As I was reworking my original idea, I kind of started thinking I wanted to make a drug film without drugs and all these thoughts going around in my head converged on Austin’s vintage clothing scene, so I hit on the idea of a film about someone who’s obsessed by clothes, which led me to consumerism.
Amanda Fuller in the lead role is fantastic. You really put her character through the mill.
Amanda’s great. It’s so hard to cast low budget films and I’d had a great experience on Red, White & Blue with Amanda and I knew that she could do pretty much anything as an actress, and would be for the challenge, so I wrote the script with her in mind.
It’s an incredibly dark and disturbing movie, but Fashionista isn’t a straight forward horror – how did it go down at horror festivals, such as London’s FrightFest?
It’s funny because I’ve had a longstanding relationship with FrightFest and with the guys who run it – they’ve been incredibly supportive of my work. Every time I screen something at FrightFest I tell them ‘this isn’t really a horror film’. But what’s great about it is, even though it’s a genre festival, and they mostly show gory, slasher kind of films, they always have a few movies that are a little weirder than that, which is where mine come in. But FrightFest, for me, is the best festival in the UK and the audiences are always great.
The only happy character in the movie is Hank, a homeless hippy. Was he a ghost from the script that eventually mutated into Fashionista? He seems a counterpoint to the ultra-consumerist bad guy, Randall.
That’s a good point. In a weird way he does stem from that earlier script. But as he is in Fashionista, Hank was written for Devin Bonnée, who plays the titular role in Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word. He’s a great actor. I try to work with people again if we’ve got on well. He’s a happy-go-lucky, free spirit so I wrote Hank for him – a guy who lives on the streets of Austin, doesn’t own anything but is happy.
April’s addiction to clothes leads her to becoming a sort of sex slave to Randall – he’s an almost Satanic representation of the fashion industry acting for men to control women.
There is that, yes, but the other thing the movie is about is gentrification. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Austin, it’s a place I love, and I’ve seen it go from a grungy place to somewhere full of traffic jams, smart, preppy people, swanky restaurants, so the Austin I remember from 2004-2006, which back then was all full of Americana, people wearing cowboy boots in the streets – everyone looked like they were some kind of hippy-punk hybrid. You certainly wouldn’t see so many people wearing white shirts as you do today. And there are new boring buildings being constructed everywhere. The same thing was happening in London and LA and all over. So Randall represents that. You mention he’s kind of Satanic – gentrification is Satanic. When he comes into the film, everything changes – the soundtrack goes from rock ‘n’ roll and country to electronica and synth. And is house is this amazing minimalist space – uncluttered and Zen-like. He’s an exploitative character. At one point he says in marketing, and another he’s in the tech industry – he’s deliberately vague, just hints at these sleek, bullshit jobs that no one quite knows what they are.
In some ways, Crowhurst is similar to Fashionista but in others, it couldn’t be further away. It’s so very British. It wasn’t a story I’d heard of before. Such a tragic story – he’s so utterly British and nice. Kind of like Arthur Dent on a boat.
I’d never heard of the story either and when I was approached I read the script and did some research I thought, ‘My God, this is crazy.’ In 1968, in an attempt to drum up interest in a shipboard navigation system he’s developed, Donald Crowhurst decides to take part in a round the world solo bat race. That’s crazy in itself – he hardly had any sailing experience. His boat isn’t up to the journey, but he feels he can’t give up, as he’ll have to return the money he’s been loaned, so he decides to cheat – his plan is to float around off the coast of South America for four months and then head back into the Atlantic pretending to have been round the world. Crazy. And he kind of justifies it, because he’s not cheating in order to win, but come heroically last. Ultimately, he had a breakdown and went mad. On every level, it’s really the case of fact being stranger than fiction. I wouldn’t dare to make something like that up.
On the Britishness of it… It’s funny because since Brexit we’ve had a few comments that it’s a post-Brexit film but we actually completed it well before Brexit. But it’s set at the absolute end of the British Empire – by 1968 when it’s pretty much totally over – we have the Falkland Islands, Hong Kong and a few other tiny places, so the nationalism I depict and all the ‘for Queen and country’ stuff seems almost absurd. And his wife seems quite content to just stay at home with the kids while he heads off round the world on a madcap scheme. It’s the flipside of British derring do. He’s sort of Eddie the Eagle but with a much darker story.
I think as you did with Fashionista, you don’t give easy answers, but Donald Crowhurst is such a likeable character, really warm and kind – which obviously makes his story even more tragic.
One thing I think we were all keen to deal with was to portray Donald in a positive light, because he did arguably do a lot of things that were very wrong, but they came from good intentions. He didn’t set off on the race wanting to do anything negative or bad. I think he was just a man who felt too guilty or proud – I think this is something that could happen to all of us to one degree or other. The whole Britishness thing – I’m not necessarily condemning it, just showing the ‘stiff upper lip’ Britishness with all its positive and negative connotations.
There’s a sequence in the film where Donald goes ashore in Argentina. Did that actually happen?
He actually did do that. His boat wasn’t up to the task from the outset – it was taking in water throughout the whole journey. He had an especially bad leak, as in the film, off the coast of Argentina and he couldn’t let the boat sink because at that point he was supposed to nearing Australia and so getting rescued in South American waters would give away the fact he was cheating. The only way he could think to avoid that was to actually dock. A coastguard did see him and did actually help him. Donald spoke no Spanish and the coastguard spoke no English. This was 1968 when a news story in Britain wouldn’t be known in the rest of the world. They helped him patch up the boat and he stayed ashore two or three nights and then sailed back off. The dancing and drinking sequence in the film is, of course, poetic licence. But when he walks on land and hugs the lifeguard – that’s the first time he’s had any human contact in eight months. You feel for the guy so much because he’s obviously way out of his depth.
The organisers of the race had decided that when the sailors came back that they should all have psychological tests. Of course, in the end, only one man – Robin Knox-Johnson – completed the race. But they were aware of the mental danger of being by yourself for eight, nine, ten months at sea and Donald’s case was harder because he couldn’t even talk to anyone for four months because the transmission would have given away the fact that he wasn’t in the part of the globe he was supposed to be – he pretended his radio was faulty.
Did you have his family’s blessing?
No. Mike the producer got in touch with the family and they had a couple of very polite email exchanges and I know The Mercy people were a lot more in touch with the family than we were – I’m not sure how that went. We all felt a duty to honour Donald and his memory. And one thing we achieved that The Mercy didn’t was we actually shot in the house Donald and his family lived in back when he embarked on the race. The house you see in our film is actually Donald Crowhurst’s house was. It was bought from Donald’s wife 15 or so years ago and it’s been owned by the same couple ever since and they’re these charming antiques dealers, so they hadn’t changed the place that much, hadn’t modernised anything apart from the kitchen. So it looked very much like it had done back when Donald lived there.
That’s quite a boon for a film on your budget.
Yes. It felt like the spirit of Donald was looking out for us. We were filming these scenes – the highs of him getting the money, then the lows of him leaving, then when he was finally able to talk to his family after four months, all these things happening in the actual house they took place in. It was one of the most unique filming experiences of my life, really.
The scene where he’s saying goodbye to the family – almost like he’s a ghost, kissing the children goodnight – is really moving, and more so knowing that they were filmed in Donald’s real house.
“The world of contemporary filmmaking has changed so much over recent years with the rise of VOD”
It’s such a tragic story that, in many ways, I could see most big studios passing on it – it doesn’t have a happy ending of any sort, really.
There’s no other way you can describe this story other than as a tragedy. So it’s sort of amazing that a £20 million film got made of the same story starring Colin Firth.
Which brings us on to the Colin Firth-shaped elephant in the room – when did you first hear that there was a Colin Firth project about the Crowhurst story?
When I was first approached to do the film, it was 2014 when I was in Cannes and Mike Riley the producer who I’ve known for ages, and we’re friends, he gave me full disclosure that there was this other Crowhurst film, it’s been around for six years. In reality, we didn’t think it was going to happen. It wasn’t until 2015 that actually, after all that time, they got Colin Firth on board and James Marsh [director of The Theory Of Everything] – two Oscar winners – it was considered a greenlight project. By that point our film had gone on hold and so when it restarted we knew we were going up against The Mercy. We filmed ours first but, unfortunately, theirs was released first.
So, StudioCanal, who had The Mercy, did they buy your film so they could control it?
Yes, basically. The idea was always that we’d do this film and get it released around the same time as The Mercy but the financiers of our movie decided to take StudioCanal up on their offer, which was fairly disappointing. I don’t think anyone thought we were going to get more at the box office than them. But we did think we’d maybe get reviewed side-by-side with The Mercy, which has still sort of happened.
Often in your favour, it has to be said – four stars by Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian for instance.
There’ve been a lot of positive reviews. The world of contemporary filmmaking has changed so much over recent years with the rise of VOD and downloading. This was a unique situation where there was a studio film and an indie film both telling exactly the same story. No matter how The Mercy treats the story, there are still the same story beats as in our movie. I think it could make a good study to examine the two. After this theatrical release, ours is due to come out on Amazon Prime Video, I think, and people will be able to watch the two movies to compare and contrast.
Their films called The Mercy, and in your film you have Donald whispering, ‘It’s the mercy…’ What exactly does that refer to?
When Donald’s boat was found in the Atlantic and he was nowhere in sight, the only way that people knew what he’d actually done is that he’d left both log books – his fake one and another that was more like a journal in which he was writing about what was happening in real life and, in that, he talks about the fact that he’s decided to cheat and all the ramifications of that. In the last 10, 20 days, his writing goes pretty manic and haywire apparently and the last words he writes are: ‘It is the mercy, it is the mercy…’ So that’s why The Mercy called their film that, and in our film they’re the last words we hear Donald utter. It’s been strange with StudioCanal because they haven’t wanted to do a poster for us and they haven’t wanted to do a trailer, so that suggests how much their heart is in promoting our film. It’s pretty ridiculous, to say the least. And frustrating is an understatement. But we wanted the tagline on our poster to be ‘It is The Mercy’.
The vagaries of film financing.
Yes. It always amazes me how many films do get made, compared to how many that don’t. People get fucked around by people who shouldn’t be doing the job they’re doing – they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s tough.
It makes even more impressive that you’ve got as many movies made as you have, against the odds. In a weird way, in the tradition of Crowhurst, your film is the underdog. What’s next for you?
Once Upon A Time In London. We’ve shot that – we are just in the last stages of post-production now. That’s hopefully out later in the year. It’s a gangster film, another true story, the missing link between Peaky Blinders and The Krays. It’s about how organised crime gained a foothold in London, set over the years 1936 to 1954, with World War Two being part of it, with rationing and the black market. There’s a line in it: “Who knew the War was going to be so good for business…” It’s seedy, but glamorous, and violent.
Fashionista is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.