INTERVIEW: Alan Butterworth director of The Drummond Will. Released on DVD next week

The Drummond Will, a very dark and very British comedy from newcomer director Alan Butterworth hit screens around Sheffield late last month.  Reunited by the death of their father, Marcus and Danny Drummond discover they’ve inherited a small house in the country and a secretly stashed bag of cash.  What follows are the duo’s attempts to avoid blackmail and the bizarre small town locals – both of which are easier said than done.  With excellent leads, an intriguing plot and a very funny script The Drummond Will is big screen British comedy at its finest.  We gave the man behind the camera Alan Butterworth a call to discuss directing the movie, his love of British comedy and plans for future projects…

How did the idea for the movie come about?

It sort of came about gradually.  I started with the characters, I wanted to write something for Mark Oosterveen who plays Marcus because I had worked with him before, I’ve made short films with him before and he’s someone that I really wanted to work with.  I like the way he delivers lines that I write so I wanted to write something for him.  So then just getting an idea of a character and the way he would work with someone else.  Danny in the film was just a perfect vehicle to be almost the opposite of him but a great double act, I always thought that once we had those characters they would work really neat together.  It was kind of a question of then writing a story around them that would be interesting but I would say that we definitely started with the characters first.

So was it a dream project long in the making?

It was a long time but only in the extent that any feature film takes a really long time! It’s not one of those ten year things or anything but I mean it just, especially when  you’re writing as well as directing, in total it probably took me around three years from the conception but I think that’s actually quite short for how long it takes to make a movie. It was long enough, it took a long time to write and get it right but it’s not a dream aspirational one, it’s just what we could do with a limited budget sort of thing.  It’s more about writing something we could do rather than ‘what’s the film I’ve always wanted to make’.

Was it a fun writing process? Phillip James (Danny Drummond) and Mark Ooversteen (Marcus Drummond) riff of each other really well

They are fun. The thing about writing something like that is that it’s really fun when you come up with each joke or each little exchange the first time and then the writing process becomes incredibly painful because of this process of editing the things that were initially funny to you and just getting it exactly right. Because what would happen with me and Sam (Forster, co-writer) was we’d write together then we’d take off. We’d discuss the scenes and then we’d take five each and take about three or four days and we would write those and then we’d come back and compare what we had done.  So that was fun when you come back and you can get this immediate reaction from your co-writer about how well things are working but on a whole I think comedy especially is really painful to do because it’s not funny when you’re doing it to that level of detail and you’re just polishing and getting things right.  I think you’re doing your job well if it looks fun and it was definitely fun the first time we had people perform lines and stuff, suddenly they were fresh again and they were fresh again in the edit when you just tweak it that little bit more just to get the gag you wrote a year and a half ago just right.  So there are elements of fun but no, on the whole, it’s dreadfully painful.

How much improv was there on the set, did you stick quite close to the script?

Pretty closely, we had one week of rehersal which was just in my house very casual only with Phil and Mark where we did try improving around a few of the things and we polished up the script based on that one week.  But actually on the set we had five weeks to shoot quite a lot, sometimes we’d shoot six or seven minutes in a day, I think the most we had done, so there really isn’t time for improv or to have that much variation on it.  So not on the set but I tried to have an, albeit short, rehearsal process that gave us a chance for the actors to get things a little closer to feeling natural with it.

It’s a very dark comedy, are you a fan of that type of humour?

I am, I’d say that it’s the most exciting form of comedy.  It just adds to something being funny when you know it’s a little but taboo like Chris Morris and Brass Eye and stuff, they’re just probably some of my favourite comedies because they’re making a point.  It’s just so much more exciting when it’s that little bit darker, things like with Monty Python and The Life Of Brian because their comedy is so bright and happy but when it’s got that darker edge to it it just makes it so much more fun and more dangerous and I think comedy has a lot to do with danger and having people on edge and when you’re a little bit darker you have that.

It’s that technique of having ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  I think British comedy does that especially well..

Yeah I really think so.  Especially if you’ve got a character and you’re confident with the character and the character is realistic in themselves then you can take quite a lot of liberty in making the situation outrageous. Yeah I think that’s a real source of comedy, to have a believable character in an insane situation but handling it reasonably is an absolute source for comedy.

 You have a lot of interesting character names in the film – Malcolm The Bastard, Hobo Dave, Constable Cuddles, Betty The Barmaid.  Are these based on people you know?

Well not exactly, they were almost playful the names I think to start with, but again when you’re co-writing something I think I called him Malcolm The Bastard in the script just to get a quick laugh from Sam but it kind of stuck and with quite a lot of them we were using them as place-holders and then the other characters become tropes.  Like the Vicar – he doesn’t have a name he’s just ‘The Vicar’ and ‘The Colonel’.  Later on we put in the joke about them being Cluedo characters because that’s what they had kind of become to us, but rather than try and flesh it out and maybe add something a little bit false or give them a back-story we thought we’d embrace giving them these tropes.  And I just love that someone could have the name Malcolm The Bastard. I think that might be from one king of Britian, I can’t remember what king it was, but I think he was referred to as ‘blah-de-blah The Bastard’ which is a great nickname.

All the best British films seem to be set in small rural towns, did you grow up in one?

I did, I grew up in two different rural places, once called Warbelton which is about the most rurual place you could possibly imagine but then I moved to university and then I’ve been in London ever since but I think the people involved – the producers and Sam – we all grew up in the country and moved to the city and I don’t think any of us plan on returning to the country. We’re sort of the countryside ex-pats of the world.  It leaves an impression on you growing up in that sort of thing, but I don’t think they were ever quite as creepy as the village we envisioned.  Which I’m sure existed at some point but it was actually really hard to find one and then we had to fake that this place even exists because we were filming it in the South.  I think if we had gone to Wales we would have found a lot of villages like that but we actually had to invent one because they don’t exist within commuting distance from London.

On film, a lot of these little towns hold the deepest, darkest secrets. What do you think it is about them that is so appealing to filmmakers?

I think that’s true because you have a commuity where people do know each other and they do talk to each other and outside soap operas, things like Eastenders and stuff, I don’t think that kind of thing exists.  I’ve seen my neighbours a couple of times and we talk about some post or something but I don’t think that exists in the city anymore in the way that The Daily Mail would like to imagine it does.  It’s not something I can even imagine existing, but in the countryside, yeah people do know each other because they have to rely on each other a little bit.  And any situation where everyone knows everyone, not out of choice but out of situation is more apt to lead to comedy or to drama.

With it being set in a small rural town you get the impression that these two characters could actually get away with the money…

Yeah, I think that was something we theorised, that is possible and that there are probably places like that where they wouldn’t really go to outside law, they just wouldn’t really need to.  They have local law enforcement – we actually have a post credit sequence where it turns out that he’s (Constable Cuddles) not a policeman at all, some people missed that but I like that idea that he just turned up and decided to be the policeman and I see that as working. I think in some small villages if someone turned up and just started doing it…in fact I think there have been cases in small American communities.  Yeah I think that would work, he’s just a figure of authority, he’s got the uniform, why would people question it?

Speaking of the Constable Cuddles (Jonathan Hansler) he reminded me a lot of John Cleese, very Pythonesque. Was this intentional?

Well funny story about Pythonesque. There was a play that was on in Edinborough just before we were filming in which Mark (Ooversteen) played John Cleese and Jonny Hansler had also been up for that role, I think he was their second choice for John Cleese! So it was definitely something…I wasn’t asking people to Python it up a bit but I think some of the dialogue does become absurdist so I think if you’re British and you’re doing absurdist it becomes very easy to slip in and out of Python.  It just suddenly makes the absurd something that people are very familiar with.

What would you say your favourite British comedies are?

Recently I’d probably say Four Lions actually, talking of Chris Morris earlier.  The Edgar Wright stuff is all fantastic I loved Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz.  The Thick of It was is quite good speaking of TV, in the last few years, especially with TV comedy I think we’ve maybe fallen back a little bit, The Office was the last thing that was really a new thing on TV that was really exciting.  Can I call Dr Strangelove a British comedy? It’s just about British, it’s my all time favourite film ever, I’d say Dr Strangelove himself is just about enough to call it British.  It think it’s borderline, it’s got some British cast and it was filmed here so it still counts.

What’s next for you directorial-wise? Are you in full on Drummond Will mode?

Well we’ve actually been writing for quite a while and writing again with Sam, we’re well along the process of writing another film we’ve got the story down and we’re working on a script for a film called Conspiracy which is a dark comedy about 9/11 conspiracy theories.  I don’t think America would touch it with a barge pole.  We’ll have to see, it’s very difficult and it hasn’t been touched upon apart from conspiracy theorists because everyone in the mainstream and anyone who isn’t a bit of a mental just sort of wipes them off and goes ‘oh well you’d have to be insane to believe that’ so there’s been no backlash against them, they’ve just been left to exist. In the stats that we’ve read I think it’s something like 35% of Americans believe there was some sort of conspiracy or some sort of inside job with 9/11 which if you believe that and some of the theories these people hold it’s just baffling. So we’re going to try and address that.

Is that due to start production early next year?

Well we don’t really have a full first draft yet so it’s really difficult to say about that.  But I’d like to be filming it maybe the second quarter of next year, maybe the middle of next year would be a realistic time to start getting it turned over.

Will it reunite you with The Drummond Will’s Mark Oosterveen and Phillip James?

I would love to re-team with Mark and Phillip. I’ve been chatting with Phil he’s living over in New York at the moment I’m going to go over and stay with him for a bit, we’re very good friends it was a nice working experience because I hadn’t met Phil at all before but I was old friends with Mark and I think a lot of people had a really good experience on the film, the friendships have stuck and we’ve really gelled together so I’d love to work with Phil again he’s a really talented actor.

The Drummond Will is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 8th 2011.

Interview by Simon Bland.

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