Director Nick Murphy followed up his first feature The Awakening with the new film Blood, a dark, atmospheric family drama which is in UK cinemas and available on download now. The film stars Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Mark Strong and Brian Cox. The film premiered during the London Film Festival in October 2012, and you can see what we made of it in our review from the festival. On the day of the premiere, we got a chance to chat with Nick about his new film and his career as a director. Here’s what he had to say:
Filmoria: So how has the London Film Festival been for you?
Nick Murphy: I love this it’s great, and it’s nice looking forward to the premiere. Particularly when you’re confident about a project, I remember when I made something for TV a while ago and I basically knew its floors, and it’s rather unnerving as the transmission date gets nearer. But this I know, without being too vain, that the film is what it is and I’m very proud of it.
Nick Murphy: Good, I get some titbits but I don’t get too involved. There’s names I look out for, but I try not to get too involved until I read the full text it’s always a bit unfair to sort of judge one comment a journalist makes.
Filmoria: So do you pay much attention to reviews from critics?
Nick Murphy: Yeah, I do actually because with some reviewers I think you can get a sense of whether the writer knows what they’re talking about, whether they say it’s a good film or a bad film. You can tell whether they have a point and it’s well expressed. There’s writers I read who negatively criticise films I like, not my own, and if they’re good writers the points they make are valid – they’re just not things that bothered me about the film but they’re still well expressed and well critiqued. So you’ve got to respect them, and not just because they’re influential but because they are an audience who expresses themselves very well invariably and if you’re a director why wouldn’t you listen to them?
Filmoria: So you brought your debut film The Awakening to the 2011 London Film Festival and you’re back in 2012 with your second feature Blood. Do you feel like a veteran director now?
Nick Murphy: I didn’t feel like a new boy last time really, because I’d made documentaries for 20 years, then factual dramas and TV dramas – so I didn’t really feel too new, although I look like a sprightly young thing (laughs)… I was talking about this with Paul [Bettany] actually, I don’t feel new and I don’t feel like a veteran – I haven’t been really aware of a learning curve, I’ve made the films I have. And I’ve never been conscious of a ‘Well that happened last time, so I’m gonna do this this time because I learned from that’ – I can’t really unpack my education, my filmic education that way just like I can’t really unpack my influences. When you see Blood it’s no surprise to hear that I’m a fan of Sidney Lumet, or Hitchcock or many of Coppola’s films that makes sense. But I wasn’t there saying “I’m gonna do this because this is what Lumet would have done”
You must understand half the battle for me is I look at these things and say “Do I believe it?” It’s not the actor’s job to make it exciting, it’s the director’s job to make it exciting and it’s the writer’s job to make it exciting and dramatic. Actors are not in the making it dramatic business, they shouldn’t be anyway, they are in the making it believable business
Filmoria: So when you’re directing would you say you’re doing it by instinct?
Nick Murphy: Yeah, I think you have to be a little bit. I think there’s 50% of the decision you have to make that you aren’t conscious of at the time. You’ve closed your eyes and you’ve seen the film a certain way and you call it, and you have to deliver that for the audience. And if it’s not what the audience like, then you won’t sell many tickets and that’s the truth of it. You can’t be too codified.
You have to codify when you’re inventing a world like Blood, when you’re creating a visual atmosphere, a visual world that is an inch off the ground – it’s not quite reality, it’s not quite period and it’s not quite contemporary. These sorts of elements of the film you need to think very carefully and be empirical about, and academic and methodical about to ensure it’s consistent. But when actually the moments within the film, why you make certain decisions about camera angles and why you do certain things – I think you shouldn’t be too aware of it. And as such, that willingness to keep your ears open during the rendering of what it is you have in your head is what defines a good director. Because if you’re not gonna listen to Paul Bettany and Mark Strong, Brian Cox and Stephen Graham then for God’s sake, why have you got them? So much came from our work together and talking together – so I’d never see it as saying “Look guys, I’ve worked out this and this exactly what we’re gonna do and you’re gonna do it!”
They’d just try stuff, Brian would throw stuff in – bonkers things! Laughing within weird moments in the scene. Smiles and looks, and pauses – incredibly brave and he knows just to chuck it in there. So we had this sense of invention on set. People are talking about the quality of the performances, and what a director does to garner those performances – well the firstly you hire great actors and then you give them an environment in which they can explore and try. Then you remain tough enough to tell them when it’s not worked… and open eared enough to know when it is working and you run with it.
That willingness to keep your ears open during the rendering of what it is you have in your head is what defines a good director. Because if you’re not gonna listen to Paul Bettany and Mark Strong, Brian Cox and Stephen Graham then for God’s sake, why have you got them?
Filmoria: You mentioned your great cast, which is made up of some of the best character actors working in the world today let alone Britain. How did you get the cast together? Did it involve selling body parts?
Nick Murphy: We got Paul first, we got that character Joe Fairburn first, and he’s well respected and he’s liked by a lot actors, and known to be a decent man. And I think it’s very hard to cast well against people who are known to be deeply unpleasant, and you’ve got to throw money at them to do that and we didn’t have it. So Paul’s name helped and they wanted to work with him.
Steve Graham and I knew each other, and so it was a case of me phoning and saying “Read it, do you want the part? OK let’s do it.” But I was amazed – Mark Strong, we got him. It was only really when I looked up and thought “Oh my god, look who we’ve got!” and Brian Cox coming in to complete the circle. He was a very easy man to deal with, very professional and very worldly wise.
Filmoria: And very underrated as well, because he’s been at the top of his game for years.
Nick Murphy: He’s been a superb actor for twenty years hasn’t he? He’s been absolutely brilliant – a very smart guy and very intuitive. And he has his own little story to tell. We talked at length about his character and the need to be in the here and now, and to deliver that with absolute integrity even though it contradicts what he said five seconds earlier as a character – such is the nature of his disease [his character has dementia]. But those little eddy currents of logic were beautifully formed in his mind, and when they came out it was completely convincing.
You must understand half the battle for me is I look at these things and say “Do I believe it?” It’s not the actor’s job to make it exciting, it’s the director’s job to make it exciting and it’s the writer’s job to make it exciting and dramatic. Actors are not in the making it dramatic business, they shouldn’t be anyway, they are in the making it believable business…. And everything that came out of this cast I invariably believed, which was just beautiful.
Nick Murphy: Yeah, it’s funny ‘gritty’ isn’t it? I’ve got a bit of a problem with ‘gritty British drama’ – I don’t like the term, nobody likes the term actually. But then again I’d say Kes is ‘gritty British drama’, and it’s one of the best films ever made – so we have to be careful about how much mud we sling at [the term].
But I wanted to avoid this film feeling like it was set in contemporary Britain that was somehow going to be a statement about Britain, a statement about our relationship with law enforcement or our attitude to sex offenders, or whatever. I wanted to lift it off the ground a little bit so the emphasis became about the family and the issues within the family, and less about a statement about Britain. I get a little bit nervous of cinema that makes statements, it’s this enormous supposition that somehow directors feel that the world out there wants to know what they think about a subject, and I don’t think the audience wants to know what I think about a subject. I think the audience wants a story and then to draw their own conclusions.
Filmoria: Is that why it’s not clear where the film is set and it’s never revealed?
Nick Murphy: It’s never revealed, and the time is never revealed… The police stations don’t look like police stations and the police don’t look like police… It’s very deliberately non-specific, and it was shot where I grew up in Wirral… I very deliberately didn’t want to ask questions about where it was… None of the accents make sense. None of the police procedure is genuinely police procedure… Because I wanted to get away from the British police, you know this was much more of a Greek tragedy… To shift emphasis onto what are the actual tensions, the dramatic tensions within the characters.