I’ve had responses from filmmakers at the Edinburgh Film Festival before, but it generally only happens when you give a movie a glowing review. I don’t do a lot of interviews but I wanted to talk to Paul Andrew Williams, whose new movie Cherry Tree Lane opens today, partly because he had requested the interview following a review I wrote of the movie that was mixed, to say the least.
I found it somewhat disturbing, which I generally think is a positive response to a movie, but was troubled by its portrayal of relentlessly violent, heartless young people. The mixed response seemed general in Edinburgh as well; the violent and deeply unpleasant nature of the movie will inevitably put some people off completely.
‘Like any film,’ says Williams, ‘it gets a mixed response. It’s a medium that’s so subjective. My ambitions were to write and direct a film that as neutrally as possible shows what could happen in that hour and twenty minutes. Of course, when you’re making a film that’s got youth culture and middle class culture, then I think people going into a film like that are perceiving that I’ve got some message to say or to reveal my thoughts on “Broken Britain” and all this sort of stuff. I’m not trying to make any judgement, I’m just saying in my opinion this is one way that an event like this could possibly play out.’
The ‘event’ he is referring to concerns a couple from a middle-class background whose son has got into some kind of trouble with a young, dangerous group. Members of said group arrive at the house and restrain and terrorise the couple while they await the son’s return. It is a movie that plays on fears that may be related to modern Britain, or parenthood, or youth, or may be more general. It is a button-pushing movie designed to provoke strong responses, positive or negative, from its audience; no one is likely to leave the cinema bored.
‘If this was a normal movie scenario,’ he continues, ‘it would probably cut to the cops tracking down files and someone would come in and beat up all the kids and be the hero. What I’ve tried to do is include elements that might be mundane, that might frustrate people who want to be told, these are the bad guys and these are the good guys. You know, giving an audience what they want: well, some people don’t like that. Most people are intelligent enough to make their own decisions about who to support and who to like and what to take from the film.’
The movie is to be released today – 3rd September – on a limited release before its DVD release a mere 10 days later. The marketing suggests more of a conventional horror movie than the picture delivers, and I ask whether he thought of it as a genre piece.
‘When I go into making a movie I’m not really thinking about genre. You always have to put something into a bracket to make it appealing to an audience or customer or whatever. It’s the best way we can get ourselves seen by people and I do want people to see the film obviously and it is scary, I guess. But I think it depends on what your idea of horror is.’
Like The Cottage, Williams’s last movie, the action is confined to one set, heightening the movie’s sense of claustrophobia and invaded space. One of the achievements of the picture is that despite this limitation it seemed inherently cinematic, and not at all stagey.
‘When I’m making a movie I want to know my boundaries. My core thing when I speak to the DP or the production designer is we have to make this movie as cinematic as possible. I always wanted that kind of colour, you know the infinite space of the blue. The idea I think was to make all the shots count.’
A particularly memorable event from the movie isn’t actually seen; a character is taken to another room for an extended period, creating an even greater sense of dread.
‘I don’t like violence,’ he says. ‘I don’t think there’s any point in seeing violence just to show it; we need it so you can have in your mind that something terrible is happening. I remember watching The Accused when I was like 15 and I actually couldn’t watch it; I thought, this is too much.’
The movie depicts extended cruelty and humiliation; given the fact that it was filmed in a fortnight, I ask what the mood on set was like.
‘It was great! You’re up there with the same people every day and you know you’re always going for a beer at the end of the day and it’s in the Summer so you can sit in the garden. You have to make it as fun as possible so people will want to work hard. I’m sort of amazed nobody gets shouted at on the set; if someone’s got a problem you can discuss that privately. But we’re gonna get on, and if you fuck up, you fuck up.’
Finally I ask him if he could respond to my criticism – one I am not alone in observing – that that young people in the movie are so relentlessly cruel, so lacking in empathy, that young people might be alienated by the evil acts depicted.
‘Well, talking about being subjective: Evil is one thing, and people can do evil things. But they’re just kids, so they do still go and buy Kit Kats, they do stand up and let you sit down on the bus, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t gone out and done something really terrible. We talked about [it] with the actors a lot: we need to be sure that the kids are not stereotypes. One’s talking about what he wants to be in the future when he’s got kids, and the other guy is trying to engage with the woman he’s about to rape. To me that’s not necessarily evil, it’s a kid doing bad things.
‘If you were a social worker you might watch it and think, “those kids need a hug.”’
Cherry Tree Lane is on limited U.K. release from today – before hitting DVD in 10 days time.