Norwich Film Festival 2018: Q&A with Christopher Eccleston, moderated by Peter Bradshaw

Screening of Danny Boyle’s film Shallow Grave (1994) at Norwich Film Festival held on 6th November 2018 at OPEN Norwich, followed by a Q&A with actor Christopher Eccleston, moderated by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.

An official blog review of the event can be found on the Norwich Film Festival website.

Questions

As tends to be my experience with Q&As, I had so many questions I wanted to ask.

  • “Am I allowed only one question?”
  • “In 2005, I was eight years old. I went against my non-existent sense of fashion and ended up with short hair, a t-shirt, a leather jacket, a sonic screwdriver and psychic paper. So I’d like to ask you some questions that aren’t about Doctor Who.”
  • “This was a screening of one of your earlier films. What lessons did you learn from your nineties roles, like Let Him Have It (1991), Shallow Grave, eXistenz (1999), and how have they informed your more recent roles?”
  • “You’ve portrayed many morally ambiguous characters. In Shallow Grave, your character (David Stevens) initially seems sane and sensible but becomes darker as the film goes on. In Let Him Have It, Derek Bentley is disabled but is also a criminal. The Doctor is a positive figure but is also dealing with trauma; in G.I. Joe (2009) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) you portray villains. How do you balance characters heroism, villainy and the grey areas in between?”
  • “How does your experience differ between working in independent film, broadcast television, major Hollywood movie studios and the theatre?”
  • “How does it feel to appear in an independent film like Shallow Grave, and then for the cast and crew to go onto franchises and multi-million pound budgets, like Ewan McGregor going onto Star Wars, and Danny Boyle directing the 2012 Olympics?”
  • “What’s it like to work with an actor portraying a corpse in Shallow Grave, especially considering ‘corpsing’ is a part of being an actor? How did it feel to be stabbed by Ewan McGregor?”
  • “Given how important Film4 is to both the UK film industry and the global industry, what is your experience like working with them?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to ask a question. So many other people raised their hands to ask their own brilliant questions, I never had a chance! 

But here are some of the things I learned:

Growing Up

Eccleston’s parents were both creative people: his dad was very well read, and his mum enjoyed cooking, but they were limited by their working class backgrounds that favoured manual labour in factories.

Eccleston was very well supported by his parents to go into acting, which he compares to being unlike the hostility by the coal mining father towards pursuing ballet depicted in Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000). Both academically and in jobs he felt useless, and was only able to go to drama school with a grant. He feels that with the industry today, working class actors like Albert Finney (an actor he greatly admired from boyhood onwards), Sean Bean and Maxine Peake would no longer be able to receive the training and careers they have: being well off is what counts.

Eccleston had a number of inspirations and influences, including Finney, James Cagney (across dramatic, gangster roles and musicals), and footballer George Best. He watched much more television than cinema: because films were a special treat, Eccleston instead took great interest in socially conscious television, admiring the era of series like Play for Today that conveyed a message to people. In drama school, he was trained towards theatre and never thought about working in television or film, appearing in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. As a young actor, Eccleston carried a “Bob Dylan” approach, wanting to only appear in roles that could affect social change and address socially conscious matters. (He admits he no longer keeps to the same standard.)

Shallow Grave (1994), dir. Danny Boyle

Shallow Grave was developed by Danny Boyle and his partner, casting director Gail Stevens. Eccleston recalls being sent a script that was very appealing for many young actor, at a period in his life when he was living in a bedsit with a male friend and only just getting by. Both Bradshaw and Eccleston question whether the same film could be made today.

Eccleston was meant to lead the poster for the film, with a photoshoot capturing his character, David, as the lead character. However, Eccleston trusted in Boyle’s personal relationship with the project to instead depict the three main characters, even though the other strategy could have helped get his face known. Bradshaw discussed how much of 90s cinema such as Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) and series like Friends (1994-2004) were able to depict a group of equal characters which isn’t so much the case anymore.

Eccleston believes many aspects of the film are still relevant, especially elements such as auditioning flatmates considering the housing crisis – he notes that it’s now impossible to find a place in London. Bradshaw linked the questions the film raises of who you can trust and who your friends really are with social media. Bradshaw and Eccleston discussed how the 90s were different to today, with a feeling of hope of a transition from Thatcherism and John Major into Tony Blair and New Labour – a period Eccleston feels dissolved with 9/11.

Cracker (1993-95), Hillsborough and Our Friends in the North (1996) 

Eccleston appreciates writers, praising the writer’s room of modern American television series like The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Breaking Bad (2008-13). He prefers writers rather than directors, and will always try to follow the script well. He believes there was a golden age, prior to the 1990s when money became more of an issue, where a writer could propose a particular project idea and it would then be produced: Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and others were supported by the BBC.

Eccleston notes that many of these projects, like Cracker (1993-95) and Our Friends in the North (1996), were proposed to Danny Boyle, but Boyle is very selective in what he chooses, despite the amount of offers he gets.

Eccleston remembers where he was in 1989 when the Hillsborough disaster occurred, with Bradshaw raising that the negative press coverage around the disaster conveyed football fans as bringing the disaster on themselves – a ‘natural’ disaster. Eccleston feels the families of the 96 victims have only begun to receive some sense of justice through court proceedings in the past year. Bradshaw proposes that the docudrama Hillsborough helped shift some of that perception. Eccleston and Jimmy McGovern met with and interviewed many of the victim’s families, getting to know them as people. Eccleston’s character, Trevor Hicks, was a part of the Establishment – a conservative who lost his daughters – with Eccleston arguing that this shows the disaster affected everybody, not just the working class. Many of McGovern’s series could get very high ratings, which simply isn’t possible in an era of multiple channels.

He felt he was too old for other television roles such as playing John Lennon in the biopic Lennon Naked (2010), but was cast anyway.

The Second Coming (2003) and Doctor Who (2005)

Eccleston never grew up with Doctor Who, unlike Bradshaw who raved about Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, and other actors like David Tennant and Peter Capaldi who approached the series as existing fans. Eccleston was more interested in playing football when the series was broadcast.

Eccleston had appeared in Russell T. Davies’ The Second Coming (2003), portraying the Messiah figure of Steve Baxter before Doctor Who. Davies hadn’t considered him for the role of the Doctor, instead interested in a well known star (Hugh Grant). Eccleston emailed Davies asking for an audition; Davies was shocked at the idea. The thought came to Eccleston while out running, wanting to bring some greater depth and sadness to the part – what a Time Lord actually is. The way the series handled female characters such as Rose (Billie Piper) helped pave the wave for the casting of Jodie Whittaker today, but executives would never have considered and have been dead against casting a female lead at the time – there would have been outrage. Eccleston had a massive, irreconcilable falling out with Davies and states he would never work with him again.

However, Eccleston feels very positive about the fans who have grown up from 8 and 10 year olds into their 20s who end up stopping him in the street to talk about their childhoods. Eccleston remembers his own childhood, with working class films he loved like Ken Loach’s Kes (1969). Eccleston recalls some fans who have spoken to him about hating his interpretation of the character – that he wasn’t portrayed as alien enough, but are glad he brought the series back. He was hurt by this at the time, but feels better about it now. However, one of the questions at the Q&A praised him for the grounded nature of his performance – unlike other Doctors.

He hasn’t seen Jodie Whittaker’s performance in the series, but had worked with Whittaker on the stage several years ago, believing this is quite “timey wimey” and could destroy the universe – the Ninth and the (it takes several hints from the audience for Eccleston to know her incarnation) Thirteenth Doctor together before she was the Doctor. Eccleston jokes about how one of his children doesn’t know about the series, asking him about how he is a doctor – does he help people get better? Eccleston is waiting for after his time at the RSC finishes so he can show his two sons, aged five and seven, Whittaker’s time on the series and experience it together.

Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Eccleston remembers one time he was drunk and a man approached him, praising him for his role as Raymond Calitri in Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) – he was exaggerated and terrible to the point where he was “so bad it’s good” and a part of a cult film. He felt pretty bad and hurt by this comment until he came around to it.

Eccleston feels very negative about abandoning his previous instincts about selling out, and “whored” himself out to Hollywood, with his respect for writers not crossing over the pond. However, with acting, he feels putting food on the table and paying off his mortgage is very, very important; acting is just another job. However Bradshaw is more positive about the formulaic nature of these films: they’re exciting and do their job. Often, agents would talk him into parts with a big paycheque – agents wanting a cut of the cheque themselves. By comparison, on films like Shallow Grave, Eccleston worked for equity minimum.

The Leftovers (2014-17)

Eccleston is very proud of his work on HBO’s The Leftovers (2014-17), but only “one person and their dog” watched it, despite the second and third seasons being well reviewed. Although Eccleston is an atheist, the series allowed him to look within himself and ask spiritual questions. Acting functions to Eccleston as a kind of religion – a replacement for it.

The A Word (2016-present)

Eccleston confirms a third series is being worked on. Eccleston forms a connection between his earlier socially conscious roles and his role as grandfather and father Maurice Scott, spreading wider visibility and awareness around autism. Although Scott as written was neither autistic nor neurotypical, Eccleston performed Scott with autistic traits, seeing him as ‘on the spectrum’ but coming from an older generation where people weren’t diagnosed.

Macbeth (2018-19)

Eccleston is frustrated by many of the negative critics around his performance as the monarch Macbethin the RSC’s recent staging of Shakespeare’s play. From his vantage point now, he wishes he had pursued theatrical roles rather than television, having performed little Shakespeare except in drama school and without enough grounding in it. He’s at his happiest working on stage alongside interesting characters like Lady Macbeth. However, he is especially happy about school parties who introduced to the play for the first time as he had with other plays when he was in school. He appreciates the RSC hiring people from diverse backgrounds and is making more of a push towards doing so: twenty years ago, he doesn’t think he’d have ever had a chance of being cast in the role of Macbeth.

Sweet Girls (2015), dir. Jean-Paul Cardinaux & Xavier Ruiz

sweet.jpg

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

The dreaded curse of the film festival is when two films are shown at the same time. Two duelling voices fought within my mind. Do I watch Timothy Bottoms’ directorial debut, Welcome to the Men’s Group (2016), about how fragile masculinity is? Or do I watch a film with young female protagonists living on a council estate?

So anyway. I made my decision. I was the only person who made that decision, left to a projector scene in a church hall amongst a couple of event volunteers.

This film feels like the fever dream of a 15 year old just getting into radical politics, coming up with ridiculous, idealistic yet deeply flawed politics and just going with it because YOLO. Our protagonists follow in the footsteps of Che Guevara (although they resist wearing his face on a t-shirt), and apparently solve the housing crisis in the process. Where politicians and urban planners and austerity is unable to tread, two teenage girls solve the crisis in one housing estate that represents a wider issue.

It’s a lesbian love story, where their entire revolution could have been avoided had they not been too shy to express their feelings. So let’s explore how difficult it is to give a queer romance a voice amongst the pressures of heteronormativity through some throwaway scenes and making out, without making it the focus, yet simultaneously integral to the story.

Our protagonists are self-centred dicks, only caring about themselves and only ever thinking in the short term. So like most 16 year olds. Except here, being a self-centred dick includes tearing the elderly apart from their families, suffocating them to death, inducing grief, as if they’re not actual people.

“Old people shouldn’t be allowed to vote! They’re ruining the next generation! Old people are racist! Old people are sexist! Old people are homophobic! They voted for the Tories and caused Brexit! They’ll be dead soon!”

There’s a place to explore the deep divisions between the elderly and the young, not only within a spectrum between left wing and right wing politics, but also in places of relatability, even if in small ways). But this film doesn’t really find a good way to do that.

The film never questions how fucked up their methods are. Instead, it heralds them. Students now have a cheap flat of their own, and don’t have to live with their parents. The revolution succeeds. A new social space is instituted for young people (aka clubbing and sex), who simultaneously subvert stereotypes by pretending to be drug-addicted lowlifes. The elderly find themselves in a sheltered community where, despite the fear of a terrorist attack, become more of a community than ever before.

This film is stupid. But it’s also kind of cool at the same time.

Sembene! (2015), dir. Samba Gadjigo

sembene

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

It’s at this stage during the festival where I’m debating whether I should actually watch another film. I want to sleep, and I don’t want to sleep. I want to eat, and I don’t want to eat. I toy with the idea of catching something more simple like VHS Massacre (2015) that I can disengage with, but I’m glad I didn’t. I grab a burrito, and probably ruin my digestive tract as I rush off to the cinema on the other side of town.

It’s a cinema known as the Hollywood Cinema that I haven’t been to in years, but it makes up my childhood memory of films, from Spider-Man 2 (2004) to The Muppets (2011) to Fred Claus (2007), and far too many more to count. Their exterior still displays Shrek and Spider-Man, as if I were still 5 years old, still watching films projected on celluloid. They are the last place I expected to screen a documentary about a Sengelese director.

The dreaded Screen 4: once a bar, now a cinema screen no bigger than a flat screen TV. Nearly a decade ago, I watched Bee Movie (2007) in this screen, a film I still contend as an absolute masterpiece.

I knew about Sembene thanks to the BFI’s release of Black Girl (1966) last year (which still remains on my excessively long watchlist), but I knew very little about the man himself. The films refuses to be a ‘talking heads’ documentary, instead relying on archival footage and the reminisces of academic and friend Samba Gadjigo, who managed to get Sembene’s name out there and distribute his films through festivals, before becoming a confidant and ally; now, after Sembene’s death, Gadijo is the holder of his legacy, holding onto his estate. There’s something meta about watching a documentary about a director who became famous through film festivals within a film festival itself.

As we see footage of Sembene directing his last film, Moolaadé (2004), in his old age, there’s something inspiring in how he continued on despite his disabilities, delivering a powerful film on the issue of FGM when no one else would.

I’d have liked to have seen more of Gadjigo’s journey after Sembene’s death, exploring the world he left behind through his house: art, paperwork, film reels, and the local neighbourhood that once knew him.We never hear enough words from the personnel and the actor’s who worked on his films, either.

Often, it feels like a generic career retrospective. The tragedy being, I won’t be able to see his most interesting films for years to come. The film launched alongside the restoration of Black Girl, and at points feels no more than a commercial for his filmography. But this isn’t a bad thing. I feel a thirst to watch his most overtly political work, like Camp Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1992) and, most of all, Moolaadé. We glimpse extracts from these new HD masters, but it’s a shame I’ll have to wait to see them in full.