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Director Rowan Joffe takes on a new 'Brighton Rock'

August 26, 2011 |  3:00 pm

Director Roland Joffe made a big splash internationally, earning best director Oscar nominations for 1984’s “The Killing Fields” and 1985’s “The Mission.” His latest film,  “There Be Dragons,” came out this year.

Now his son Rowan Joffe is making his debut as a feature director with the film noir “Brighton Rock,” which opens Friday. It's based on Graham Greene’s acclaimed 1938 book, which was adapted into a 1947 classic gangster film of the same name starring a young Richard Attenborough. The new “Brighton Rock” stars Sam Riley as Pinkie, a vicious young hoodlum trying to make a name for himself among the mobs in Brighton circa 1964. Andrea Riseborough plays Rose, a naive young woman who works as a waitress and becomes involved with Pinkie. Oscar winner Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis also star in the film, which played the Toronto Film Festival last September and was released theatrically in England in February.

Joffe, whose mother is Tony Award-winning actress Jane Lapotaire (“Piaf”), wrote several TV movies in England, as well as the 2007 feature, “28 Weeks Later” and last year’s George Clooney thriller, “The American.” He wrote and directed the 2008 British TV movie “The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall,” which won the British Academy of Film and Television Award for best single drama.

The filmmaker, who is in his late 30s, recently talked by phone from London about the making of “Brighton Rock."

Did you have any trepidation choosing to adapt and direct such a well-respected book as “Brighton Rock," especially since the 1947 film version is a classic.

Yes. This film was in many ways a very, very foolish undertaking. It is my debut movie as a director and we are working in an industry where it’s basically one strike and you are out. The reason why "Brighton Rock" is foolish in that context is that "Brighton Rock" is not a strategic career move. No matter how good the movie is, it will be compared to the black-and white classic. No matter how reverent or humble one’s approach to the material is, you will be perceived by a large chunk of critics as arrogant and stupid, and they will set out to punish you for that.

We had a review in the Telegraph, which is a hugely respected and widely read broadsheet, where the film critic started his review saying, "I haven’t bothered to see this movie because it doesn’t deserve to be seen."

That’s pretty cheeky.

Yes … I have to be honest with you, my career has taken a massive kick in the teeth because neither is it a massively commercial film or the most obvious or easily digested story because it is a period story. It was something I went into knowing I wasn’t going to be rocketed to overnight success. But I decided to do it because I loved the project, and by love, I mean it wasn’t a rational decision.

The film received three nominations last year from the British Independent Film Awards. Did the indie critics and audience embrace the film more than traditional critics and moviegoers?

The British Independent Film Awards seemed to enjoy giving us manifold nods, whereas more establishment areas of the industry, BAFTA and more old-fashioned broadsheets, I think decided that this wasn’t worthy of that kind of consideration, which is a decision they made.

We also had some very, very tough competition. "The King’s Speech" was probably the most successful British film of the period and we came out right up against that and "Black Swan." But the only thing I am sad about if I’m honest is that Andrea Riseborough’s performance didn’t get any award traction. She is the backbone of the film, I think.

Your "Brighton Rock" is based more on the original novel than the 1947 film.

Very much so. I said right from the outset I wasn’t interested in doing a remake of the film. I don’t like remakes. My feeling was this is one of the most popular, cherished and critically acclaimed books of the 20th century, so like a Jane Austen or a Shakespeare play, it is surely worthy of more than one adaptation. I think to a certain extent people bought that idea, but the '47 movie is so iconic, I think we never really escaped [comparisons]. That is probably why smarter and better and greater directors than me have steered clear of it.

Wasn’t Carey Mulligan set to play Rose but then left the project when she got "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"?

Carey Mulligan was not available at the last minute, and that massively reduced our budget. In fact, it almost derailed the entire movie. We were originally budgeted for about $20 million, and we ended up having to make it, let me say, for considerably less.

It was quite a challenge to make something epic and, I hope, visually exciting. We shot the whole film on lenses that were made in 1964, so the film is saturated from the equipment on up with the feeling of the time it is set in. We shot it with a real passion for the traditional British cinema -- the kind of cinema that Britain used to produce in the 1960s and 1970s -- the old epics. We wanted as much of that as we could. Because cinematographer John Mathieson has such a robust professional and financial relationship with outfits like Panavision and Technicolor, we were able to call in a lot of favors and  shoot a much bigger movie than we could actually afford to shoot.

Did you get any pointers in directing from your father?

You know, Dad is normally in some far-flung part of the world or pointing a movie camera, so I don’t always get to talk to him. But what I actually take with me on the set is more from my mum. Mum has been a theater actress for many years. I guess what I take is sort of a love of, respect for and hopefully an understanding of what makes actors tick.

Did you always aspire to go into the family business?

No. in fact it was the opposite. It was because Mum and Dad were in the industry I grew up determined to have nothing to do with it. I trained for some time and practiced oil painting. At the same time I wrote plays at college and when I graduated and came to live in London. Filmmaking only came together with the synthesis of those two things fairly late in life after I had written a few screenplays. I just got annoyed as a screenwriter having to give my screenplays away to someone else to direct. It was a little bit like having to give a baby away.

I felt that writers are treated a little unfairly because all movies end up being the director’s baby. I thought I could either sit around and complain about being a screenwriter or I can have a go at directing. Fortunately, my first few goes, which were for British television, weren’t a totally disaster and I ended up getting a BAFTA.

Are you working on another movie?

As a writer, I have just written a movie for Mike Newell called "Agent Zigzag," and as a director I am adapting a New York Times bestseller, "Before I Go to Sleep," which is to be executive produced by Ridley Scott and something I hope to start shooting by the end of the year. It’s very much a thriller.


Movie review: 'Brighton Rock'

 -- Susan King

Photo: Andrea Riseborough and Sam Riley in "Brighton Rock." Credit: IFC Films

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