Writer and director Gerald McMorrow takes us behind-the-scenes on the urban fairytale “Franklyn”
Set between contemporary London, and the futuristic religion-dominated Meanwhile City, “Franklyn” traces the fates of four characters: Jonathan Preest (Ryan Phillippe), an atheist vigilante who has vowed revenge on Meanwhile City’s leader; Emilia (Eva Green), a privileged young artist whose difficult relationship with her mother fuels her cynicism and depression; Milo (Sam Riley), a sensitive young man whose heart has been recently broken; and Peter (Bernard Hill), a deeply religious man who has come to London in search of his missing son, a troubled Gulf War veteran.
Refreshingly ambitious for a
debut British feature, the film marries inventive storytelling with a
keen visual sense.- akin to V for Vendetta. Here Movies.ie talks to the director Gerald McMorrow about the inspiration for the urban fairytale “Franklyn”.
Can you tell us what Franklyn is about? It has been described as a few things. It’s been a tricky one to place, genre wise, which I think is a good thing, the marketing department might not think so. It is essentially a fantasy thriller set in London and it chronicles four slightly lost and fractured people who are pretty much trapped in their lives. Something’s missing, but they are not quite sure what. You at no point are aware of how these people could possibly be involved with one another, but you find out how they are. Three of the characters are set in contemporary London and one of the characters is set in a completely fantasy city called Meanwhile City which is a place totally and utterly run by religion and using religious power to control its masses. He’s an atheist detective who runs around righting wrongs. It’s their story, it’s how these people orbit each other.
Where did the idea of the film come from? Weirdly, it started as a short film. I had just finished a short film and I wanted to do something else immediately but I never thought in a million years that things would start happening as quickly as they did. There was essentially a short film that I started writing about a young woman in an apartment who was attempting to commit suicide and somebody who was in the apartment above hers was about to take somebody out across the street in a restaurant, and he can’t get a view on the guy so he comes down the stairs into her flat. The whole idea was it was somebody who was trying to take their own life ends up fighting for it within five minutes. There’s a beat with short films where they really should be short, that’s the thing and if there’s a story that can only be told in 15 minutes then that’s a really important part of a short film. When people try and get too ambitious it goes wrong, I have been to short films that are 40 minutes long and it becomes a weird hybrid, which is what started happening with this.
So what prompted you to make a full length feature instead? I wanted to know more about who she was and ore about the guy who was sitting in the restaurant across the road. Gradually this strange embroidery started coming out of these characters. So it was like a “What if?” in reverse; what if these people get into this situation, where do they come from? And that’s what was traced back. So it’s been very difficult talking about it without giving stuff away. As the film progresses you start having more questions about London, the two worlds start heading towards each other.
Where did the random religions in the film, like The Seventh Day Manicurists, come from? There were two things at work, I think it did us two favours. For a start, one of the powers that religion has, and I think Richard Dawkins put it really well, at the moment everyone is talking about this since The God Delusion was published. I think it is something that could not have been published 30 years ago, things are certainly changing. I think, more importantly, because of the power of religion and how sensitive people are, which is part of it’s power, as Dawkins says you can argue with politicians, you can argue politically until you are blue in the face but you can’t question someone’s faith system, you have to, as he puts it, tiptoe respectfully away. From a very practical sense, the last thing I was going to do was do a movie where we were just naming religion like the Catholic Church, Muslims or Buddhists because in that way there is no freedom of speech. So one part of it was to essentially show in a way how ridiculous it all was and it had a sort of comedic effect because when you are looking at, for example, the Church of Scientology or Mormonism they are things that are not that far away from the Manicurists. It’s the same madness designed to do the same job. So in a way, it was a comment and it was also a little bit of a safety net . At the same time, I think what is ironic is that Dawkins has started his own faith unknowingly. All the things that he said about people needing that system of belief, he started one! What I said, I hope, in the film, is that there is another part of it which is actually very spiritual and it’s almost like, you know what the real deal is, there is a nicer, more humane and altruistic and moral thing going on, which I think we all just have naturally. If you removed all religions in the world we would all still have it within us. If you wiped everybody’s brain, and no one had ever even heard of the Church, there is altruism within the human race and I think that spirituality is represented within the film.
Do you think you could have made Franklyn as a superhero, vigilante movie without bringing the ‘real world’ into it? Possibly, but I was more interested in the fact that… especially when you find out what happens that there’s just something rather… We are living in a culture of superhero movies, there are loads coming out this summer, and now that special effects have got to the point where you can do anything you want, [not being purely a superhero movie] was a little bit of a cultural nod as well. There are a couple of short stories that I have written on that subject because I think, in a literary sense, there is possibly more to do in Meanwhile. In order to quantify a movie like that, it would have to special effect-y go-go and I think the themes and the characters in Meanwhile City are more interesting than that and, I think, deeper than that, but nobody’s going to fund a $300 million dollar movie where a bunch of people are sitting around talking about theology!
So we won’t be seeing a sequel? Maybe in a book of short stories, yes. Or possibly as a graphic novel.
Jonathan Preest’s mask in the film is very blank, was that deliberate choice? It was a conversation with my costume designer, the brief was that he was an invisible man and I have always had a sketch of him, if you look at the early Claude Rains with the bandages… It was almost like if you took of Preest’s mask, there would be nothing there. There was an element of the straightjacket introduced that was actually taken off a real straightjacket but it also had to look a bit creepy, and skull-like and it is there to make people uncomfortable. There was also the culture that everyone is masked in Meanwhile City and everyone has something going on and it seems to be one of those places. It is also something that ‘does a job’ later on in the film and there is a real visual explanation as to what’s afoot. His costume is really quite Edwardian; he originally had a frock coat. He needed to be really nicely turned out. I think everybody in the upper levels of the city looked pretty smart and pretty cool… Art Malik looked great I thought, he has never looked like that before!
How did making a feature length film differ from making a short film, what was new to you? Being really tired. More tired than I have ever been in my entire life. My costume designer, Leonie (Hartard), had just had twins and she has another baby so she’s got three children that were, at that point, under two and even she was saying ‘I have never been as tired as this. I can’t believe I am still moving’. It’s a really gruelling thing to do. It’s the best thing in the world, but that was one of the big differences. The other thing is that it’s just a much bigger toolbox and I think there is a lot more responsibility, you have got people’s careers in your hands and I felt very aware that I had to do the best job that I could for Eva and Sam because they had invested in me and I think the responsibility on your shoulders is a big stress.
Ewan McGregor was attached at one point; did you think it was all over when he had to pull out? Yes. But that brings us back to the idea of chance; if that hadn’t happened, what would be happening now? It would have been a completely different movie, I think Ewan would have been great but he had a funny old year he broke his leg and all sorts of things were going on. I think we ended up with a rather eclectic but rather beautifully balanced cast. They are all odd by their difference but came together as a strong unit. That’s a perfect example of fate at play.
So what’s next? I’ve written a couple of things that are sort of bubbling away but I think I would probably like to work with a writer next as well, to co write something or develop something with somebody else aboard. I think it’s healthy to do that. I don’t want to go down that line of writer/director, writer/director… I think it’s just bad for you, I don’t think you grow. I was so lucky to work with the heads of department that I worked with, the people that were around me, you learn from them all the time, and I think to lock yourself away is not so good. You’re going to gain by working with somebody else. I have written this thing that’s going to be animated. It was a story that I wanted to tell but it seemed to be only able to be told through animation.
“Franklyn” is in Irish cinemas this Friday, Feb 27th.