Interview with ‘TRESPASS AGAINST US’ director Adam Smith

This week, Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender take to the screen as father and son for the second time in 2017, in ‘Trespass Against Us’. Inspired by a real life family, the film tells the story of Chad Culter (Michael Fassbender) and his family live on a halting site with Chad’s father Colby (Brendan Gleeson) and other members of the extended family. Inherently drawn towards crime, and standing up to those that would “trespass against us”, Chad finally sees that an environment where the police are constantly on their tails is not one that he wants to subject his young children to any more. After one final job for the domineering patriarch of the family, Chad sets about getting away from his father, but soon realises that this is not as easy as it looks.

Director Adam Smith was in town recently for the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, and we caught up with him to find out more about his first feature, the people who inspired it and the impressive Irish cast in the film.

How did ‘Trespass Against Us’ come about?
Adam Smith: I was making a documentary called ‘Ghetto on Sea’, which is about pirate radio station, which has become the inspiration for ‘People Do Nothing’ on BBC3, and there was a brilliant runner/researcher working on that with me, called Alistair Siddons, and he was very young then, and he was incredibly clever and sharp, and had brilliant taste. You know when you know someone’s going to do really well!? [laughs] I sort of sensed this. The production company then wanted to do another series of documentaries based in the country, and he was researching for them, and as part of his research he came across this family called the Johnsons, who were accused of all the crimes in the Gloucestershire area and he approached them and went on their site, and befriended them and got them to agree to do some interviews. So he was showing me these interview saying “you have got to do this documentary” and party of me really wanted to do it, and part of me regrets not doing it – it ended up being a documentary called ‘A Summer with the Johnsons’ – but at that point, 12 years ago, I had just done a documentary, I was just starting to work with Mike Skinner from The Streets on making short films that were masquerading as music videos, so I wanted to work [on] narrative [films]. So I said “Write all these stories down” and let’s make a film about it one day.

How did it go from a documentary into a narrative film?
AS: When [‘A Summer with the Johnsons’] had finished, [Alistair stayed] friends with them, and I would go up with him, and because I was friends with him they were very welcoming to me. We would get given a caravan to stay in and we would just get told stories over so much tea you wouldn’t believe! Plastic pints full of tea that, as soon as you finished one, another one would come. I love a cup of tea, but that much is just like “Oof!”. We started getting all of these stories together. Alistair and I tried to write it together and that didn’t work, then we tried to get a writer called Dennis Kelly, he’s a playwright who has also written some screenplays; he’s an amazing writer. We got quite close with him and then he felt he couldn’t find the voice.

How did it come about that Alistair wrote the screenplay?
AS: It was actually Lyndsey Marshall who plays Kelly, who said to Alistair “Why don’t you write it? You know it, you know this stuff better than anyone, write it”. I was really unsupportive, I got it totally wrong. I should have realised really, because his treatments for music videos always used to be very good; with hindsight, yeah he can write, but at the time I was like “What are you doing? We need to get a writer”, and I was awful really. He went on tenaciously and wrote it because he wanted to write it. It wasn’t like he had a commission, it wasn’t like he was getting paid; he just kept going and he wrote this brilliant script.

Chad feels like a very different role for Michael Fassbender, how did he get involved?
AS: Michael [Fassbender] came to mind and I knew his agent quite well because he had always supported my music videos, so we were able to get the script to Michael quite quickly; his agent read it and said “I like this, and Michael will really like this” and Michael, who had hundreds of scripts piled up that he was supposed to read, read ours really quickly, and two days said “Yeah, let’s do this”. He just understood who Chad was, and he had this same charisma that the real Chad had, and he likes driving fast cars, he’s not afraid of a tear up or a fight. There are not that many actors of that age range to choose from that you would believe would do that. He just understood Chad on a deeply profound level and we seemed to be on the same page. He liked my approach of telling the story from the inside out and doing it truthfully and authentically. Once we had him, it made the rest of the casting very [easy], this amazing script coupled with this amazing film star.

The cast have very thick Gloucestershire accents in the film. Were you ever apprehensive about using such a strong dialect?
AS: No, we belligerently weren’t. It hasn’t done us any favours in America, but that was the truth. We were trying to take people into a world they hadn’t been in before and I think if we had compromised on that we wouldn’t have been making a truthful, authentic film, and that’s what we wee trying to do. They say that if a film is made well you should be able to turn the sound off, and still understand what’s happening; I’m not sure if that’s true.

Have the Johnson family – the inspiration for the film – seen it?
AS: They came to a screening at the BFI and they came to the London Film Festival. Actually [their site] was raided recently and after the raid the police said “Like the film Chad!” so they have all seen it, including the police!! [laughs]

How did you go from working on music videos to working on TV on shows like ‘Doctor Who’ and Skins’ to jumping to the big screen with ‘Trespass Against Us?’
AS: I always wanted to make films, from when I was about 15 or 16, just the journey took a few different tracks. What I loved about that first episode of ‘Doctor Who’ – ‘The Eleventh Hour’ – was that it was like a fairytale story. It was like Father Christmas coming down to this little girl. It was beautiful, and we tried to make it more cinematic than the episodes before.

What’s next for you? Are you going to stay with cinema now that you have got here?!
AS: I don’t know. More film, more TV, more visuals for The Chemical Brothers; immersive theatre experiences, we are working on a virtual reality project for The Chemical Brothers with a dancer called Akram Khan; he’s a really amazing classical dancer.

Words: Brogen Hayes

‘Trespass Against Us’ is in Irish cinemas now. Watch the trailer below…