Hunky Dory – Interview with director Marc Evans

Evans is perhaps best known for 2002 horror film My Little Eye, so the sundrenched sing along movie Hunky Dory is a complete change of pace and tone.

Director Marc Evans was in Dublin last week for a screening of his coming of age musical film Hunky Dory at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. Evans is perhaps best known for 2002 horror film My Little Eye, so the sundrenched sing along movie Hunky Dory is a complete change of pace and tone for the director. caught up with Marc Evans to find out what motivated this change

You were last in Ireland with your documentary ‘In Prison my Whole Life’, how does it feel to be back in Dublin?
ME: I love Dublin, I have a real soft spot for it because of the Welsh thing. I don’t know the city but it’s a City of Culture, so it feels like a proper capital. It’s the sort of city that if you come from Cardiff you envy it a little bit [laughs]

You decided to make Hunky Dory after the horror movie ‘My Little Eye’, how did that happen?
ME: Basically Jonathan Finn was the producer of ‘My Little Eye’ that I made it with. John had produced ‘Billy Elliot’ before that and he went off and he became seduced by the cape and the cane and became a bit of a theatre man. He produced Billy Elliot the musical so it was a bit of coitus interruptus between us, in terms of getting this on the road, but when we did get it going it was about finding the kids first, workshopping the kids first, having orchestral workshops – which was something I had never done before, it was amazing. That was part of the process and finding the kids and finding the songs and workshopping the songs, so that happened at two or three intervals during that time then we were ready to go in 2010.

It’s quite a change of pace and tone from ‘My Little Eye’…
ME: Yeah… Probably deliberately… Emotionally as opposed to career wise. I don’t really think of things in career terms. My American agent always goes “The trouble is, you are all over the map” which in America they don’t quite understand, because in a way, the whole thing there is to specialise. I was kind of the horror guy for a while, and then ended up doing a film called ‘Trauma’ with Colin Firth, which didn’t really work because it was half horror and half art house, and then I shook off horror for a bit and did Snow Cake after that, which is different again. It has been quite busy, but quite various, which is how I like it to be honest.

What made you want to tell the story of ‘Hunky Dory’?
ME: I wanted to work with John, the producer, again because we are kind of very similar and we work well together and we’re interested in similar things. We started talking, just as you do about stuff, and one of the things we talked about was school and that campus high school life that is celebrated so well in American cinema and it influences you and feels very exotic to you when you are growing up, and how we never do that really. Also how we don’t often celebrate the musical tribes that we have, especially being brought up in the 70s when the album that you bought on a Saturday sort of defined you, in a pre-digital world. So we were talking about that and then we remembered a thing that we both liked called Beautiful Thing, which is set in one of those new towns in East London, but was set in sunshine. So we thought about 1976, we thought about Sunshine and we thought about school and we thought about the music and how nice it would be to do the music as live. The big thing that influenced on that was The Langley Schools Project; this teacher in Canada had got these kids together and, to get them interested in music, had got them to record some of their favourite songs, so they were recording pop songs, but in a very sort of strange way that eight year olds with guitars would. David Bowie said no amount of mind expanding drugs could have made him come up with a version that interesting of Space Oddity, and we thought it would be nice to see how pop lives in different places and get the kids to play the music themselves. Out of all of those ideas came this film.

How did you choose the songs for the film?
ME: It was funny because it turned out that only certain songs work. Jeff Lynne and David Bowie are kind of masters of this – David Bowie is often more conceptually driven than ELO songs – but they write songs, within which there is room to imagine, especially for teenagers. You can occupy the song as it were. If you listen to Strange Magic you are not quite sure what it is about, it feels broken hearted and it feels it’s got yearning in it, but it is not a specific story song about a certain situation. You don’t have to project yourself into The Ballad of John and Yoko or Elton John songs – like Someone Saved My Life Tonight – seem to be a specific story about his life. So we picked songs which had that extra terrestrial, sexually ambiguous, teenager as extra terrestrial sort of feel to them. Roxy Music are another good band that used to do that.

How did you avoid going down the same road as Glee with big show stopping numbers?
ME: To be honest, it was a very weird parallel experience for John and myself, like we had with ‘My Little Eye’. The concept of ‘My Little Eye’ was Big Brother meets snuff movies, it was started by an article that the writer had read about this show in Holland, called whatever the Dutch equivalent of Big Brother was, and he extrapolated from that and wrote the film. As the film progressed Big Brother existed and by the time the film came out it was sitting next to us as this we had copied, and we hadn’t. We were completely unaware of it. It’s the same with this, we started talking and thinking about this film in 2002 – 2003, probably, in some parallel universe there was someone talking about Glee and High School Musical, but those things came out while we were making this. To be honest, (I have seen Glee of course, but I didn’t look over my shoulder and reference it at all. I thought we had our own ideas and it is very socially specific to a comprehensive school education in South Wales, so we stuck to our guns. I am glad we did because in a way, where Glee is very presentational and proscenium and polished and this is much more about the rehearsal and the ramshackle process of making music.

What made you decide to use ‘The Tempest’?
ME: I think Minnie Driver’s character is representing the kind of teacher that, in the 1960s and 1970s, thought ‘Let’s bring Shakespeare to the kids! Let’s bring high art to meet low art!’ So her big idea is for the kids to pick their own songs, and to crowbar some Shakespeare into it. It seemed to me, and I am no Shakespeare expert at all, that The Tempest is very consistent with the idea of science fiction; it is the basis for Forbidden Planet and all of that, and also it has got room in it – like the songs. It is not a tragedy, it is not a comedy, it has got room for it to be non-specific and adapted. Also, as looked at is more closely, it’s got a central argument – through the character of Caliban and the words – nature and nurture, and in a way the argument through the film and the teaching of the film is nature versus nurture; should a kid who comes from a council estate not be encouraged to do Shakespeare? Should everything be done to get him into an apprenticeship as quick as possible so he conforms to his ‘nurture’? Or should you appeal to the nature? I think that was very rich. It isn’t The Dead Poet’s Society and it isn’t History boys; it isn’t about the Shakespeare really, but we needed something to hang it on and The Tempest seemed like a good choice.

How did you find the kids for the film?
ME: Basically we found them in the colleges and the schools and the youth clubs and those kinds of places, social media is really handy for that. The experience was slightly tainted by X Factor because there were a couple of us sitting around saying ‘Come and sing us a song’ and occasionally someone would come in with a guitar and sing a Bob Dylan song, but more often than not somebody would stand there, with a lot of hand gestures, doing a Whitney Houston kind of rendition. It was a strange process, but we found the kids that, we thought, approached things – especially vocally – in a way that a 70s kid would approach it. I can’t say there is not eye candy in the film because they are a bunch of very good-looking kids, but nevertheless they are very natural, not all of them are actors, some are. Aneurin Barnard – one of our leads – was in second year of music and drama. It took us so long to make the film that by time he came down to make it, he had won an Olivier Award for his performance in ‘Spring Awakening’ on the West End, so some kids have got a career, some of them are literally working in cafes and banks.

How useful is an event like the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, which screened ‘Hunky Dory’ on closing weekend, is to a film like yours?
ME: I think it’s massive. What you tend to do with films like this is not necessarily go that wide. I think what I am really talking about is, a film like this is really word of mouth and so every audience that you show it to, given social media, is definitely a way of starting to get a film liked and talked about. Festivals like this are where it belongs to be honest. I love festivals; I love bringing it here and to Glasgow. We are taking it to SXSW, which is a very interesting festival for it.

What’s next?
ME: Well, immediately I am doing a piece of television, which I have returned to with great appetite recently because it’s quicker, so I am doing an Ian Rankin heist movie for ITV. I have got two film scripts at second draft stage. One, I am doing with John, and it is the story of the Wigan casino based on a play called Once Upon a Time in Wigan. It’s funny because there is one scene in Hunky Dory where Stella’s character goes off to a soul club and we sat looking at the material and I thought ‘My god! There is another film I want to make!’ So that’s our northern Saturday Night Fever in a way. Then I have another script, which is the early days of Shirley Bassey, which is sort of about that netherland of post-war Britain and multi-racial jazz Britain in a way. I am never very far away from music in my films.

Words – Brogen Hayes

HUNKY DORY is at Irish cinemas from March 2nd 2012