Billed by its writer-director Carl Tibbetts as a “claustrophobic psychological suspense thriller”, Retreat is a taut three-hander with an impressive cast even without considering its low budget. The leading trio are more commonly glimpsed in blockbusters these days with Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Inception), Thandie Newton (Mission Impossible II, 2012) and Jamie Bell (King Kong and the upcoming Tintin) all signing on for an intense four week shoot on location in a remote part of North Wales. Released to cinemas today – prior to a Blu-ray/DVD release on Monday – What Culture was invited to the set of the film just over a year ago, where we spoke to the principle cast and their surprisingly calm first-time director.
Tibbetts, a London-based former editor, appeared unflappable when we spoke, strange given that he was nearing the end of his first feature film. The movie and the shoot were described as “intense” more than once, by the director and his cast, on the visit but he seemed the opposite: relaxed and quietly confident about the strength of the project. In fact he puts his temperament down to the very same reason he was given the go-ahead to direct his long-gestating screenplay in the first place: “I think because I know it so well and I’d storyboarded it and edited it – if you’ve written something and you can break down a scene then you’ve got a clear vision of how it should be.” On his star-studded cast he apparently saw little reason to be nervous, after all they’d agreed to make the film because they liked his script.
One of the most enigmatic and interesting actors working today, Murphy plays one half of a married couple with Newton in the film and confirmed his admiration for Tibbetts’ work, saying that he selects his roles – whether in Hollywood or remotest Porthmadog - on the strength of the writing: “It’s purely the script, whether the budget is big or small doesn’t affect my choice. It’s purely based on what I can do with the character and what it offers to me, the challenge as an actor. What I like about this is the first part of the movie is a very adult, sophisticated relationship drama and then it morphs into something completely different. And it’s very well observed and the relationship between me and Thandie, who plays my wife, appealed to me. That’s what I liked about it.”
Indeed on the strength of what he’d seen on set the man from County Cork – covered in fake blood and dirt when we spoke – was full of praise for the director at work: “I think his instincts are bang on, it’s always great to have the writer as the director because he knows the script so intimately and it’s really helpful when you’re discussing character stuff, background and all that because he’s lived with it. I think it’s a very smart thing to do your first film in just a house on location… I love it because it’s a claustrophobic type of drama, very psychological and very character driven and it’s all about these three character so it’s very appealing for any actor.”
Actress Newton was equally enthusiastic about the material, as we sat on the grass outside the small, thatched-roof cottage that forms the film’s (save for a few establishing shots) sole location: “It was really intriguing how far these three people change in the space of 100 pages and also how believable it was. It’s playing on one of society’s biggest paranoias at the moment, not to give anything away, and it’s something that’s really quite possible. And I love the irony that these two people have gone away to try and nurture themselves into good relationship but they end up being visited by the most bizarre fairy godmother you can imagine – and that’s one way of looking at it. They think they’ve got problems!”
Set within the confines of a single house, supposedly on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, Murphy and Newton play a couple who are looking to get away from it all in order to mend a relationship that is on the rocks. However, any peace they find there is temporary as Jamie Bell’s edgy, mysterious stranger washes ashore and the tone becomes more ominous and apocalyptic. Bell, a buoyant, energetic presence on set, readily admits his ambiguous role playing, as he puts it, “the chemical ingredient that starts a reaction” is a refreshing change of pace: “It’s definitely a break from the norm for me. I never usually play someone so, not insane, but angry. This is straight after Jane Eyre, so it’s very different.”
Tibbetts was interested in casting Bell precisely because he wouldn’t come to an audience with any obvious bad guy connotations and, after confirming the central importance of the script as a “clever piece”, the former child-star (who made his name as Billy Elliot) divulged some of the influences on his new role. Straw Dogs is a film both he and the director cite as an inspiration on the project as a whole, with Tibbetts lauding Peckinpah’s penchant for creating tension from masculinity, but Bell focussed on Dustin Hoffman at work behind the scenes on a DVD making of. Indeed Bell – who apparently started the project in “method” mode – is constantly moving behind the scenes in Wales: strumming a guitar, doing funny voices and almost literally bouncing off the walls to keep the intensity up over the demanding shoot: “Six day weeks you start to get a little drained on the set, but also I watched The Shining and watched the behind the scenes on that and Jack [Nicholson] is just insane between takes. For Jack there is no difference between the stuff before and the stuff when it starts and I haven’t done that before, but it definitely works.”
When I do watch him bound onto the set for a take he’s thrust straight into a fight scene involving a struggle over a shotgun – and indeed the intensity between all three actors is palpable. Actress Newton acknowledged that shoots are rarely this demanding, but that it’s an ideal way to work: “I’ve actually never been on a shoot where I’ve been in every single day. It’s been intense and ultimately because it’s been challenging – really, really challenging – it will probably be better for the movie. We had a really brutal schedule… The most intense roles I’ve ever played have been very quick shooting; the most obvious example is Crash, where my stuff was shot in 8 days. To maintain that level of adrenaline for any longer than 4 weeks would be really, really hard.” Murphy agrees with his co-star’s assessment of the workload saying ”it’s like movie-theatre: work, bed, work, bed and in the character the whole time. Real-life just kind of stops so that adds an extra dimension to it… you can do it for 4 weeks; you can’t do it for 12.”
Bell also admits to being rushed off his feet here. Whereas Tintin involved short bursts of work over a long period of time, Retreat provided something very different: “I’ve never shot a film in three weeks in my life! It’s great because there is an urgency to it, especially for the material it needs that sense of urgency for the film to play as a thriller – which it should. But then there’s the other side of it which is “does time jeopardise certain things for the film?” And I don’t think it has: we’ve been incredibly economical the way we’ve made it. It’s a play, basically it’s three people in a house. Which obviously helps with the short amount of time and, with good actors: Cillian and Thandie are fantastic, so when we approach a scene we’re approaching it with a bit of forethought and experience which Carl is very lucky to have.”
Shooting a film with just three actors on one location allowed Tibbetts to shoot the film in sequence, a fact Newton hailed as “a luxury”: “It’s allowed us to really enrich the material in a way you can’t do if you’re jumping around – and I’ve loved it.” By all accounts the director has been careful to create an atmosphere of collaboration amongst his actors. “Not improvisation,” he says, “but there’s a rehearsal period where there’s space for people to have their input and I find if you create a little bit of space you get more natural things from [the actors] instead of imposing stuff.”
Prior to filming Tibbetts had been working on his screenplay for almost five years. I ask when, after his hectic shooting schedule and post-production, work on the film might finally finish. His answer is pragmatic and betrays a world-weary wisdom beyond his years: “I don’t think films get finished; I think the time runs out.”