44 Inch Chest: Malcolm Venville interview
Former commercials director Malcolm Venville on his thriller that reunites the cast of Sexy Beast.
After years working as a photographer, Malcolm Venville moved from London to Los Angeles to focus on film. He wound up directing TV commercials for ten years which brought him into contact with revered indie producer Steve Golin (Being John Malkovich). Ironically, their first feature together would bring Venville back to UK shores. That film is 44 Inch Chest, a sweaty, esoteric thriller from the writers of Sexy Beast and it boasts a sterling cast of British actors, including Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane and Tom Wilkinson.
Venville tells BBC Film Network how he handled an ultra low-budget and very big egos...
After Sexy Beast, this must have been an in-demand script. Why were you trusted to make it, despite never having made a feature before?
The producer, Steve Golin, who worked on a lot of thoroughbred movies like Being John Malkovich, Wild at Heart and Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind]; he had a commercial production company in Los Angeles and I worked for him for about eight or nine years, making commercials. 44 was a kind of reward for my loyalty. Steve bought the script for me. It was an in-demand script. Stephen Frears, Danny Boyle and Woody Allen were skirting around it at various points.
Did you not have to pitch for it?
I did have to pitch to the writers because they had approval of the director and so did Ray Winstone and Ian McShane. My pitch was to approach it in a cinematic way, rather than going for a vérité approach; to go for a much more beautifully photographed piece and to focus on performance rather than trickery and effects. It is all about performance and, thankfully, Ray Winstone supported me.
Ray Winstone, Ian McShane and Tom Wilkinson at work in the film's confined set.
The story is mostly contained in one space. Did you feel you'd have more control?
It is a very contained script. Actually, I'm making my second film now and I'm longing for that containment! With 44, I did suggest we shoot it at Elstree Studios where we would have a very contained, fully controlled environment and where we wouldn't have to worry about any noise and location shoots and crowd control and things like that. The writers were very open to that. They had written the script about eight or nine years before, so they had moved on, but I had to go back to them continually, in Brighton, to bring them back onto the project. They were very cooperative and fascinating guys to work with.
Did the script change much as a result of your input?
I think so. The script was longer so we trimmed it down to a more compact form and it's still very wordy, you know? It did change, but I think every script changes when a director comes on board, to put their signature on it, whether that's in terms of the colour palette, or the casting, or the tonality. It's funny, as I go from working on one film to another, I realise that your personality, or your mental state, everything about you comes through into the movie. I definitely imposed my-- it's the blackness of the comedy that appeals to me.
Though shooting in one space is economically efficient, it's also ambitious in terms of sustaining dramatic tension...
Oh God, yeah. That was such a challenge. That's where Steve Golin was so brilliant in financing the movie because most people didn't want to touch it. That's why it was an American producer who ultimately got the film made. Nobody in Britain wanted to touch it because it was so confined. But, you know, in the history of film, confinement has created masterpieces like Twelve Angry Men , Rear Window  and Panic Room . Many movies have been stuffed in one room and those types of film were my benchmark.
In Twelve Angry Men, the room is shot in a way that makes it seem smaller as the film goes on. Were there ideas like that in your mind, visualising 44 Inch Chest?
Absolutely. Sidney Lumet is one of my heroes and I love that increasing sense of claustrophobia and doubt in Twelve Angry Men. I tried to do that in 44 when the dream sequences happen. We went from shooting on dollies to shooting with Steadicam, which is much looser and softer and much more mobile. That's more about Colin losing grip on reality; expressing that in the way we moved the camera, as Lumet did in Twelve Angry Men.
Ian Mcshane, Stephen Dillane and John Hurt take a breather.
When you're working with such a great, respected cast and you're a first-time director, are you tempted to just leave them to it?
This is what I learnt from all the preparation I did: you have to understand your material. If a director understands the material, then the actors will respect him, or at least engage with him. If an actor senses that the director doesn't understand his material, you're in big trouble. I was prepared enough to answer any of their questions and I had suggestions for how they could approach their performances and it was a very collaborative experience. Also, I think British actors are incredible to work with. I think they enjoy working with first-time directors.
Was it a culture shock for you having worked on commercials, to be engaging with A-List actors? It's got to be much more intense...
It was much more intense, but also so much easier. It's like jumping out of a knackered old car into like a really beautiful sports car. They were effortless to work with, but it was also intense because you're with them for so long in such a small space.
Was there a bit of cabin fever then?
God, yeah! Definitely. Imagine all those sweaty egos rubbing against each other! But, no. It was great. The thing about a film like 44 is that it's not a big Hollywood extravaganza, so everybody wants to be involved in it because it is about the performance.
There is a lot of hard language in the film. Was that ever an issue, if not for you, then for the financiers?
Yeah, I think one use of the c-word is considered very offensive, but with two hundred, it suddenly became banal. But there's something about the script; I think this was considered a very poetic script and the language is authentic. It's even old English in some ways, almost Chaucerian, and the actors loved it so we had to take a risk on that. We never had to justify it to financiers because enough people trusted Steve Golin - his connections are so good - that they left us alone to make the movie. There were some issues with the scene where Colin [Winstone] beats his wife to pieces. That was a more explicit scene and we were asked to cut it down because buyers around the world were kind of appalled by that. We cut it down and, in a way, I think it benefited the movie. I realised it was just too...grotesque.
Do you think violent films are often overlooked in terms of their artistic merit?
That's a really complex question. But, yes. I actually didn't realise how conservative it is out there. It's much more conservative than I ever imagined, you know? The mainstream world is militantly mainstream. I think it is a problem. But I don't consider 44 a violent film. It's centred around violent feeling, but the violence is really absent. It's more about the complexity and absurdity of men's feeling towards love.
Joanna Whalley as Liz, one of the film's few female characters.
You're already making your next film in the US, but you mentioned earlier that you were longing for the containment of 44. Why?
The thing about 44; it was made just before the recession here, so there was enough money to make the movie without feeling you were going to war. Now, post-recession, it's war for independent filmmakers. There's no money, no time. You have to race to get the scenes in. I'm sprinting to get the coverage. At least with 44, there was time to rehearse and really craft the movie. We spent nine months cutting it and that was a great pleasure.
I assumed you'd have a bigger budget for the second film...
No. Actually, I have a smaller budget. It's a film called Henry's Crime with Keanu Reeves, James Caan and Vera Farmiga. We're shooting in Buffalo, New York, and it's really cold and there are lots of exteriors and we were nicely centrally heated at Elstree Studios! No, everything's good. I'm very excited about it, I am. But I'm particularly proud of 44 just because it's home-grown. Everything about it: British talent, British writers. And there were no compromises made to the mainstream audience either.
Interview by Stella Papamichael
44 Inch Chest is released nationwide on Friday 15th January 2010
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2 comments posted.
Feb 17, 2010
I had expected, with such a strong cast, that British Cinema may have a new heavy-weight contender in Venville; after all he is a complete unknown and these actors can't have been easy to get on board.
Sadly this is not the case: Venville handles the superb Bosendorfer provided by his cast, with the dexterity of a brick-layer wearing boxing gloves.
Why, with so much directorial talent in the UK struggling for a foothold, was the manifestly in-adroit Venville chosen to direct such a potentially high-profile film?
Venville's advertising background is all too clear. The peddling of soap powder and the coaxing of narrative are only tenuously related. Venville's directorial garb is disfigured by the rancid stain of the salesman.
A deeply disappointing trip to the Cinema indeed.
Jan 13, 2010
I think is a great film ray winstone shows off a suberb preformance and i think its a great film