Are You Still Alive?

On the eve of the world premiere at the London Film Festival of his debut fiction feature Kelly + Victor – a raw and intimate romantic drama with a dark side, set in an evocatively captured contemporary Liverpool  Indy Datta interviews writer-director Kieran Evans.

On the genesis of Kelly  + Victor

I came into film during the early days of acid house.  I was studying fine art, and acid house had just sort of crash-landed, and in that kind of great way that the e culture made happen, you try something different, so I picked up a film camera and found myself enjoying that much more, so I became an art school dropout, and moved to London with the idea of making films rather than becoming an artist.

I did a lot of music videos, and after a while, I started doing more longer form films – I started doing a lot more shorts for bands, they started having a bit of a narrative element. The big turning point, though,  was I’d just done a Kylie video (Breathe) and I’d just hated the whole fucking process, it was just typical of the way the fucking music industry works, not my proudest moment to be honest, just riddled with record company politics. And people liked it, but I found myself questioning the whole process and what we were doing this for. I was paying my fucking hairdresser more money than my DP! The whole value of it was wrong, and I’d just bought a little DV camera, and I was starting to make my own films, and I was just thinking about the money.  I just thought it was outrageous that seventy thousand pounds was being spent on 3 minutes of film, and I could really do something with that.

And then I was approached by my friend Paul Kelly (director of Lawrence of Belgravia), an old friend from the Heavenly Social days:  he was working with Saint Etienne, and they wanted to make a film, which they wanted to shoot on film and I showed them all my DV shorts and they said, let’s make it this way – it’s so much cheaper that we could make something more than the 12 minute short we had in mind – and that ended up with me working on Finisterre – and it was in that process that I started writing narrative. I finished my work on that film, and I was sent a pre-publication copy of Kelly + Victor, which I took on holiday (to Finisterre, coincidentally), and I went to my producer on the new film, Janine, who had seen Finisterre and was keen to work with me and I said I think this is the book, this might be the book. So that’s the story.

On collaborating with Niall Griffiths and developing the film

I’d started making visuals and experimenting – it was around the time that desktop publishing was starting to move into video, and then came Final Cut Pro, the first ever version, and I realized I could start doing things more experimentally, and so I did, and I went off to America and went to work with a band called Lift to Experience, shot this film on my own and realized how much I enjoyed it without worrying about everything else surrounding it. And a producer at the BBC saw that film and invited me to come and make some short films for an art series for BBC Wales. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I was really into Niall Griffiths.  And we hooked up and we had a chat and Niall said, actually I don’t really want to do a documentary short about me – what if we do something with a bit more narrative – what if I write a short story and you turn it into something? So then we had this really interesting and creative relationship, which was not a typical thing, he was proposing ideas that I actually wanted to do. And also he’s a Liverpool fan and he has the same parentage as me – he’s half Welsh, half Irish.

The thing about Niall’s writing which I think nobody was talking about at the time was, when I read Grits, his first book, I could see a film in it just purely because of the way he structured things, he was using overlapping narratives, so chapters were slightly out of time. And I love films like that, things like Amores Perros  were coming out at around the same time or a little bit later  -there was something in the air at the time about how you could tell a story, and all his books were like that

The actual development was quite an interesting one because the way it started was, the package was me and Niall. Niall was going to write the script with me, but Niall got very bored with the process, because he’d already written the book, and he was already writing novel 4 or 5. So it was down to me, really, then, which was a bit of a surprise, because I hadn’t really written much before that. So I went through a baptism of fire, to be honest, learning how to do it, and how to approach it, and there was a point when I don’t know what happened, but the excitement from funders fluctuated as we went through various drafts and outline, and then I went away for a bit and wrote a new draft based on a completely different idea, a very simple structural idea, to run Victor’s story going forwards and Kelly’s story going backwards.  We kept that in right up until the edit.

And just by separating the stories out in that way, structurally, I started writing it in a very different way – I wasn’t worried about the scene preceding or the scene coming in after, I was just worried about the scene. And then we started doing the final draft, just cutting and pasting, and it was a bit more like a montage then, we kept moving scenes around and running scenes up against each other, and that was the turning point in the development where people took notice again, really.

And there were personnel changes at the Welsh Film Agency, there was a much more creative producer in charge, and he had initiated a review of all the projects that had been through the system, and he was a massive fan of Niall Griffiths and he said why the fuck are we not making a Niall Griffiths film?

On Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris

When Antonia walked in the door, it was one of those things, we’d gone through a lot of castings – and she turned up one day on her own, she just walked in through the door, it was just one of those things, I can’t even describe it, she just looked the part, she had that level of intensity but vulnerability – she came ready made, really. That’s not really true, but especially with the way she looked she brought a vulnerability to it – her face is incredible, her eyes are absolutely astonishing.

And Julian’s an interesting guy because Julian’s big in the States, big in telly in the States. He’s done a few films, he did Donkey Punch, but he’s big in America, 24 and stuff, and he’s done a couple of teen things, so he comes with a lot of teen followers. So that was the first thing, him turning up, you look at his CV and you think, OK, this is going to be interesting. And he came in, and again it was one of those things, where I thought he was going to be way too pretty and he came in almost identically dressed as the first scene you see Victor in, slightly unshaven, slightly haggard, and slightly quiet and kind of very composed, and just had this aura about him again, this confidence about the way he was.

On Liverpool

Liverpool is like the third lead character in this movie. There were two big challenges – one was that the book was set at the start of the millennium, and we were never going to be able to recreate the millennium, and secondly Liverpool was European City of Culture in 2008, so there’s been a lot of building leading up to that –the place has been completely transformed, I mean I went in 82-83 to watch football, and it was like another world then, a scary world as well. And it changed out of all recognition. If we did it in the same period as the novel it’d be a big CGI thing.

One of the things that marks the film out as taking place now, is there’s one drug reference, to miaow miaow – which is big in Liverpool – it’s like student cocaine. Ironically Liverpool is one of the easiest places to get cocaine because it all comes in there. It has that port city heritage, it’s like Baltimore, and there’s massive drug wars going on there. So when I was doing research, I was finding out about serious shooters, fucking mafia style, because there’s turf wars, there’s a lot of drug barons.  When we were there, just in the couple of months before we started shooting there was a terrible story about a kid who had been dealing miaow miaow, and had got addicted to it, so had to leave college to ramp up his dealing so he could get more money, and  he ended up taking on a drug baron in a turf war. And he was visited by these guys, and he got murdered in his bedroom, they stabbed him to death. And it was kind of weird because in the trial they kind of talked about the whole thing about Liverpool and drugs and the massive drug war, and they talked about how most people are getting their drugs supplied by people who are living in North Wales, and it was completely outside the story I’d devised but it became this whole thing, and it’s in the film now. There’s  this huge big trade in people importing drugs from Holland and Denmark and they store it in old farmhouses in North Wales, and you drive out there. Where we went to film that scene was only an hour outside Liverpool, but you’d never be able to fucking find it.

And that’s one stereotypical side of Liverpool but people sometimes don’t realize that Liverpool was this huge powerhouse in the 19th century. When we were doing our recce you’d wander around and you see all these huge buildings, and now many of them are completely empty and derelict, but there was a lot of money there at one point – and by the way I should mention at this point one of the most incredible location managers I’ve ever worked with in my life. We’d have never have got to some of the places we got into without him – a guy called Tom Harnick, he’s a legend in Liverpool, been there, done it, all that. Unfortunately he’s a fucking Everton fan but other than that he was a legend, and the thing was he loves Liverpool and he was so sparked up by the script, so we went on this incredible journey – I was having the time of my life – there’s me being shown Liverpool, and we got to see all the different sides of Liverpool, and one of the things he was going for – he was location manager for loads of films – he’d say traditionally this is how they film Liverpool,  so therefore we’ll go this way. So we tried not to do the clichéd Liverpool – we’d show the Liver Building but show it surrounded by cranes. And one of the things when we were filming Finisterre that we bought to filming Liverpool was we don’t look up, we always look down the street, to find all those nooks and crannies that people occupy rather than just the big landmarks.

On the dock road out of Liverpool, most of it’s derelict now, we came across this massive mountain that looks like a slag heap, it’s fucking enormous, and when you get close to it you realize that’s not slag, it’s actually… fridges. The scale of it is so huge that you can’t fathom it until you get close, and I found it really interesting that modern Britain has become a place where we buy this stuff from all over the world then we throw it away and end up sending it back to China to be recycled. What was so shocking was that where we shot Victor working we were watching other people work, and it was just people moving bits of metal into one place so it could be scooped up, and moved from one place to another – the heartbreaking futility of just moving things around.

So it’s no wonder that people are so desperate for something, I think that’s the case for a lot of people – and especially when Niall wrote the book, he wrote about a lost generation who really believed that rave culture and e culture and all that was going to completely open up a new society, open up ideas. And what happens in the film is, the wonderful thing about love is that you can be lifted out of something, you can transcend something, it can take you somewhere that you’ve never been before – I think that’s what happens to Victor – he’s taken somewhere he’s only been before through drugs. And in one night it all changes and it never can be the same again.

On Cinematic Influences

I love Scandinvian films – Thomas Vinterberg and Lukas Moodysson before he went a bit crazy. I love sparseness. I love the Dardenne Brothers and people like that, I’m  a massive fan of European film. But also Hitchcock, which I grew up with, and Nic Roeg’s early films. Walkabout is one of my favourite films of all time. And he was one of those guys who would just crash into a scene, come into a scene at a really weird point. I love his way of editing, I’m very influenced by his strong editorial line, the way he shifts time around.

Julio Medem is another one –Lovers of the Arctic Circle really blew my mind, and he was a pioneer of digital film making with Sex & Lucia, and then there’s his sexual frankness.  I’m very influenced by the way Latin and Scandinavian film makers are so matter of fact about sex. First time we did a sex scene I was kind of, lose the Hollywood shit, pushing people against the walls and shit like that – the signifiers in a Hollywood film of a big passionate seduction, when it doesn’t really work that way. It was kind of funny, because Julian has worked a lot in Hollywood and came loaded with how to do a sex scene – the first thing he did was he hoiked her up and pushed her against the wall. So we had to get rid of that.

And David Lynch, of course – because of his appreciation of cinema as an experience,  the way he uses sound and music, and I was very particular about the music we used.

On film music and mix CDs

Victor physically makes a mix CD for Kelly from vinyl records rather than sitting in front of a laptop, I just found that really touching, it makes it a bigger thing. The music in the film is all stuff I’ve picked up on my travels. The key track on Victor’s mix CD is called Dancing by the Water Day by a guy called Viking Moses – I’m friends with the Fence Collective and I came across Viking Moses through them, and Domino Records were also heavily involved in putting the music together for this film. I didn’t want this film to be scored – there’s enough music out there already. The music we hear is like listening to one of Victor’s mix tapes. – and the mix of music in the film also reflects Liverpool  -that range from the kind of dance music they played at Cream to the kind of music that The Coral or Clinic play.

One thing that came out of it, was there’s a scouse writer called Bill Ryder Jones, who was in The Coral, and had a bit of a nervous breakdown and retreated to the Wirral – he’s become agoraphobic but he makes this incredible music. It was really weird, I came across his record just about 3 or 4 months before we started filming, he released this little EP, it came out on Domino and I got hold of it and loved it – there’s a song called Moel Famau, which is the mountain you can see from Liverpool – although it’s in Wales, and it’s where all the scousers go.  And we ended up using his music all over the film, it was almost as if he’d scored it, it fit so perfectly. It’s like sometimes you’re walking down the street and a song takes you perfectly from A to B. I love that kind of moment and it was like that in the editing room, it could have been scored, but it wasn’t.

On Cruelty

One thing that’s important to me is, people feeling sorry for certain characters, and isn’t life shit and all that: I didn’t just want that.  For me, the one thing I wanted to try and get across was that life is cruel, and nature is cruel, and there were certain little things I dropped into the film about the cruelty of nature and the cruelty of what we all go through, we all live, we all die, we all suffer. So it can be anything from the fact that a butterfly’s life is so short, and you see that butterfly in the opening scene and it will be dead by the end of the film. And Kelly’s so cut off from the world as the film starts, that she won’t even release that butterfly, it just doesn’t occur to her to do something like that.

Also the film starts off with birdsong, which can be seen as a thing of beauty, but it’s basically birds waking up and shouting to each other, are you still alive? And that’s kind of the thing about nature for me, and in the film – that sense of mortality in everything you see.

Kelly + Victor is showing at the London Film Festival on Sunday 14th, Tuesday 16th and Saturday 20th October.

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