Across his twenty-five year career as a film and television actor, Jason Flemyng has appeared in literally hundreds of productions including the likes of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Jekyll and Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Azazel in X-Men: First Class - and a stint as the lead in ITV’s dinosaur drama Primeval. Now he’s moving into directing and September sees the release of his first feature film, the high-octane British vampire comedy/horror Eat Locals, which stars a host of British genre favourites such as Eve Myles, Freema Agyeman, Tony Curran, Daredevil’s Charlie Cox and with, you won’t believe it, a scene-stealing guest role for veteran Annette Crosbie. We spoke to Jason to find out how he brought this darkly-comic chiller to the screen…
STARBURST: Having enjoyed a long and productive career in front of the camera, what tempted you to move into directing and is this a long-term career change?
Jason Flemyng: That’s the plan! I never just sit in my trailer whenever I film anything, I’m always sitting by the monitor. My dad was a director; he did Dr Who and the Daleks and all sorts of great stuff so it’s sort of in the blood, but I’ve never been the sort of actor to sit in the trailer and I’ve always loved the process and been fascinated by it. My theory is if, as an actor, you’re never in fashion you never go out of fashion so it’s meant that I’ve been able to very diverse and do all sorts of different things which has been great and I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to diversify - both in genres and also geographically. I’ve filmed in India, America, and Africa so I’ve managed to see all the different ways of doing things. My usual position is ‘slightly out-of-focus behind a very posh actor’ and it’s been great because with posh actors come posh directors and a lot of the time I’ve been able to sit and watch them. I suppose after about a hundred movies, I got to the point where I wasn’t exactly frustrated but I was like ‘that’s probably not the best call you’re making there, guv’ but it’s not for me to say. I’d just say to myself ‘that’s not the way I’d do it.’ That started to get stronger and stronger and I got more and more confident with it and then I bumped into my lovely producer Rod Smith who believed in me as well and after a couple of years of trying things out, the result was Eat Locals. So the plan is to direct more but it’s really a completely different language from acting. I think Eat Locals is a great film and I’m really proud of it and I managed to pull in lots of favours from some really great actors!
You mentioned your father who directed the - let’s face it - glorious 1960s Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing. Do you think you’ve been influenced by him and did he talk about his work with you as you were growing up?
Unfortunately, Mum and Dad weren’t together, so most of what I’ve learned about that period was through the fact that after he passed away, I became obsessive about collecting all that Dr Who stuff and that became a real passion for me because it felt like it was getting me closer to Dad, who I didn’t really know much about. So I didn’t have any real experience of talking to Dad about his work but I love all the ‘Now in Technicolour!’ posters. Dexter just gave me a French one for my birthday…
How did you end up directing Eat Locals as your debut?
The truth is that Dexter and I set up a production company years ago called Coracle Films - a coracle being a boat that just goes round and round and gets nowhere! - and Dex was going to direct a film and I was going to produce it. But as time went on, while we were looking for funding, Dex’s directing career took a kick and he started rising in popularity and he was going to be dealing with bigger budgets. Eat Locals was always a budget-specific film written by Danny King who wrote Wild Bill, Dex’s first film and it was always written as a genre movie that we thought we could get funding for. So over the years, the budget would change from when people would go “It’s not going to be expensive enough, can you make it for thirty million?” and we were like “Yeeeeaah, maybe the vampires could be on the moon…” down to it being a radio play! It went from one extreme to the other and finally settled on where we were, which was basically a micro-budget British movie! But Dex was gone by that time, it was too late to use him so I thought ‘I’m gonna have to find another director or do it myself’ and I realised the only reason I wanted to produce and not direct was my fear of not being able to walk away at the end and go ‘well, it wasn’t my fault, I was just the producer.’ When you’re the director the buck stops with you and no matter how many excuses you make about the money and the time, no-one cares; you’ve just got make it work.
Eat Locals tells the story of an ancient coven of vampires holed up in a farmhouse attempting to recruit a new member into their group whilst being stalked and hunted by a secret military organisation. Yet the trailer suggests that we’re in for a slightly tongue-in-cheek comedy horror? How would you describe the film’s tone?
It falls a bit between two stools in the comedy/horror genre but we’ve tried with what we had to make, as a lazy comparison, something in the genre of Shaun of the Dead. It’s really a great excuse to put a big group of British actors together - some of them underused, some of them well-known - and letting them do their thing. One of the things I’ve learned from most of the directors I’ve worked with, Matthew Vaughn especially, is that if you cast well then half the battle’s done.
And that’s a hell of a cast. You seem to have cherry-picked some of the most popular ‘cult’ actors in the country…
Luckily in my iPhone, I have the numbers of half of British Equity and that’s been quite useful over the years. Charlie Cox was in the States and I said “I’m doing this film” and he said “I don’t need to read it, tell me where I’ve got to be and when.” It was really funny because Marvel were like “What are you doing? What’s this thing, we’re not sure you’re going to do this!” and Charlie was saying “Listen, I‘m doing it, so you just work out how you’re going to make it okay for yourselves.” Tony Curran and I have been friends for hundreds of years. Eve and Freema came on quite late but they were both great - the Doctor Who ‘fantasy’ connection between them all is a bit of a coincidence, it’s just the way it worked out but I’m glad of it because of my history with Doctor Who so I’m quite chuffed that we got a bit of Who represented. Annette Crosbie was a dream. I did my first job with her - Doctor Finlay - and she was playing an old lady then! I phoned her up and she said “Oh, I’m not sure, night shoots?” and I said “Annette, I’m begging you, you’ll be amazing” and she said “OK.” The first day she was sitting there quietly and I was a bit worried thinking that maybe she wasn’t going to have a good time and by the second day, she was the centre of attention and she loved every minute of it and had a little weep at the end. I was so chuffed, so relieved that I hadn’t put her through some ordeal at her age, but she loved it. She really embraced it, you can see from the trailer that at one point she’s wielding a full-sized hand machine gun!
Were you conscious of the fact that vampires have lost their ‘bite’ at the cinema since they were somewhat domesticated by the likes of the Twilight saga? Were you keen to make them proper monsters again?
I was aware that it was a genre that was a bit tired and that no-one was interested in but then I’m a director who’s not at the forefront of everyone’s mind when it comes to directing films so it seemed like a good marriage to do a film in a genre that not everyone wants to do and not everyone might want to see or that might be hard to sell. The thing about Lock Stock is that it’s a very violent film with no violence in it because they couldn’t afford it and I learned from that. Eat Locals is a film about rabid vampires who kill and eat voraciously but there’s not much blood in it and not much violence just because of the budget and because with the money I had, I didn’t want to try and make a slasher film with blood spurting against windows fired out from syringes and stuff, we’ve seen all that and it’s too easy to do.
Did you find it hard to take off your ‘actor’s hat’ when you were directing?
No, it was easy because you’ve got a rapport. I know what an actor goes through, I know exactly what’s important to an actor and I know exactly how it should be done. Each part in this film I played out in my head. But as I said, I learned from Matt Vaughn - cast strong and don’t cast anyone who’s going to need too much assistance in case you can’t give it. It’s hard for an actor to talk to another actor because it seems like such a crass direction to say “Look, that was great but can you do it quicker?” but that’s basically all I had to do with any of them!
Did you have a particular visual ‘look’ you were aiming for or were there any directors who especially influenced you?
I’ve been very lucky to work with David Fincher three times and my protection for myself to was to storyboard the whole thing. I watched An Evening with Michael Caine once and he said “If you see something you like, you steal it” so I’ve been building up a library of shots that I’ve wanted to use for 25 years so I nicked as much as possible. Time restrictions meant we had to shoot some stuff really quickly; in my storyboard, I’ve got eight shots but we’ve got time for two, maybe possibly only one - 45 minutes to shoot three pages of dialogue, how the fuck do I do that? So the time restrictions forced me into making decisions that looked like really great artistic statements to do it in one shot but really it was just down to the fact we didn’t have any time! There’s a great series of books by Christopher Kenworthy and one is called Mastershots, the Director’s Vision, a 100 Set-Ups, Scenes and Moves for your Breakthrough Movie, which is like a bible on how to shoot your first film and I just sat in the car with that and people would be saying “Jason, put that fucking book away!”
Was there a lot of material you didn’t have time to shoot?
I had this great guy called Jimmy Scribbles and he does all the storyboarding but to shoot the storyboard would have cost ten million so every day I’d stick the storyboard up and go “Right, this is what we’ve got, this is what we’re going to lose” and that was it really. I lost a lot of shots but pretty much every single frame we filmed is in the film. There’s not reams and reams of extra footage, the stuff’s just not there. We had to extend the credits just to get it up to 90 minutes so there’ll be no half-hour of deleted scenes on the DVD! To sell a film, it has to be 90 minutes and I was like “I ain’t got no more footage” so we went off and did a couple of reshoots on an iPhone up on Putney Common and that all went in!
Despite the time constraints and your low budget, there seems to be a lot of high adrenalin action stuff in the film.
Jason Statham came in and did a great one-shot fight, which he helped direct and then Tony Curran did the gag from The Great Escape with the motorbike, so we replicated that as well. There’s loads of good stuff in it. All the stunt guys came in for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea, guys from the X-Men films and Vic Armstrong, one of the greatest stunt directors in the country, lives in the farm next door to where we were and he came down with his sons and did some stuff for virtually nothing; it was amazing. Dexter Fletcher’s in it, Nick Moran’s in it and Jason came and did the fight. Basically for press, I thought it’d be a good little gag to have the four Lock Stock boys reunited!
Sounds like you had a blast. Presumably, you’re up for doing it all again?
It was great, mate, it was fantastic; I love it and I hope you do, too. I’m up for doing another one, correcting the mistakes I’ve made and having another go. I loved every second of it, every single crazy exhausting second of it.
Eat Locals is released on September 1st and will also be available on iTunes and VOD.