Welshman Marc Evans has established himself as one of British cinema's most distinctive directors since making his debut with House Of America in 1997. The controversial Northern Ireland-set thriller Resurrection Man followed a year later, but it was 2002's My Little Eye - Big Brother with homicidal tendencies - that really made his name. Now he's turning cute and cuddly Colin Firth into a psychopath in Brit thriller Trauma...
Why did you become a director?
When I was in my teens I had the idea that I was going to be a painter, an artist - that was my dream - but then, by a series of accidents, that turned into directing films. In practical terms I did a degree in the History of Art and then a one-year course in film. I didn't know anything about how to make a film until I did that course, to be honest, but it suddenly all clicked. I started as a runner for a commercials company in London and worked my way, not so much up the ladder, but around the ladder in Welsh television.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what what you be?
There's the reality and the romance: the romance would be something like a painter - definitely something visual because that's what I'm preoccupied with. The other big thing in my life is pop music - I used to be a very bad drummer, so I suppose the other romantic idea would be to be involved in music in some way. In practical terms... the trouble is, you get into this job and you get obsessed with the job so you turn around after 20 years and go, "Well actually, I'm not sure what else I could do." If I weren't a director I'd probably be unemployable!
What other director would you like to see at work?
I'd like to see David Lynch at work because there's a mystery to his work where you don't know quite how he does what he does. There are other directors who you deeply admire but you can imagine how they do it. That's not an insult, it's just there's no mystery in what they do - the mystery is in how brilliantly they do it. There are directors whose technique is very interesting, like Darren Aronofsky, who did Requiem For A Dream. What would be really good is to see how other directors rehearse and direct actors. You never know if you're doing it the right way. Woody Allen would be quite interesting for that.
What was the last movie that you paid to see?
It was last week, but what was it? Oh no, my brain's gone... Well, the one before last was Bad Education by Pedro Almodóvar. I thought it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I particularly like directors who, like the artist René Magritte, seem to make the same painting over and over again but do it differently and brilliantly each time. I love directors who revisit the same territory all the time and look at it in a different way. I love Almodóvar's work, I've seen all his films.
What was the last movie you walked out of?
I don't walk out of movies. The great thing about movies (and I find it a great comfort when I think about my own films) is that it's the act of going to see a film - whether it's good, bad, or indifferent - which is the thing. In an age when people went to the cinema more often, they'd stick with it, because you always get something from everything you see. There are a lot of films that are considered bad films, which I love. These days we're more picky, but I don't mind going to see a film that I end up not liking very much because that's the activity.
Do you believe in God?
It's a big question - obviously. I was brought up as a Welsh Baptist but I certainly haven't signed up with that version of things. I'm not very enamoured of organised religion and neither do I really spend much time being a hippy spiritualist with the "greater force" line of thinking. But it's a difficult question to say an unequivocal "no" to, because there are so many things that I'm completely incapable of understanding.
Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?
Famous? I don't know. I'm not the sort of person who hangs around with actors, do you know what I mean? But I have good relationships with people I've worked with, so Colin Firth I consider a friend as much as a colleague. But I don't deliberately cultivate... I'm on good terms with the magician John Kael - although he's not very famous really - and bands like the Super Furry Animals. I'm more interested in those kinds of people, really, than being friends with Brad Pitt or something.
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
The ones I consider underrated are sort of rated, really. I'm not trying to avoid the question, but I think these days we do look at films in a different way. I would say someone like Todd Haynes is a great filmmaker but I don't think he'd consider himself underrated; it's just that he's working on the margins, making films that are very odd and will never quite fit into the mainstream.
And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?
I don't know. I'll tell you something, which might sound really stupid, but a mentor of mine once said, "It's a really good idea, if you ever get to a position when you have to do press, not to slag anyone off." So, no comment.
Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?
This might sound a bit squeaky clean but I've never really had that. I've been lucky not to have made any really big films and had that Harvey Weinstein experience that people complain of - you know, when a bullying senior executive will come in and tell you how to make your film. I have to be honest and say that one of the advantages of not working on big budget films is that you get a combination of respect, criticism, and help. So it would be wrong of me to say that anyone I've worked with has been a pain in the arse. As long as no one is trying to mess you up or undermine you, anything else is just about personality and you have to deal with it. No complaints.
What's your favourite movie quote?
Actually one of my favourites is, "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage." Which is what Harrison Ford says to the girl at the end of Indiana Jones [Raiders Of The Lost Ark]. That's a good one to bring out as you get older.
What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
It’s interesting with a film like My Little Eye - which is a cult film - you get a lot of people obsessing about details or recognising things that weren't necessarily there, or not that important to you. But somebody did recognise Sean CW Johnson - who's one of the lead characters in that - as being one of the Power Rangers. And I thought, My God, that is somebody who really knows his trivia! Because even I didn't know that about him - and they wear masks, for God's sake! So we did this Q&A and this bloke stands up and says, "Excuse me, wasn't that Sean CW Johnson - one of the Power Rangers?" And I thought, F***!
Do you believe in test screenings?
Oh, I've got a story about this. My Little Eye was due to be test screened on 11th September, as in 9/11, in Los Angeles, and obviously all of America - well, the whole world - was in a state of shock. So we didn't test screen it that day but we did it two weeks later and it scored 26%. We were very glum about that and we changed that film three times in response - not to take into account everything that everybody said but to take into account what they didn't understand or thought was tricky. So we tested it again and it got 24% - less than before! So we took on board some more comments and changed it again, and it got 28%, and then it went out and did really, really well for a British film - extremely well, actually. And you go, "OK, test scores are meaningless." But actually some of the test comments were really useful.
The trouble with test screenings - and it happened on My Little Eye - is that if the film gets a bad score, the studio will walk away from it if it's a low-budget film, or just not spend too much money on the marketing. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy because the film that tests well gets more money spent on it, and the film that doesn't gets less money spent on it. Very tricky.
Which performer would you love to work with?
I love what Anthony Hopkins once said: "I don't particularly want to go on a journey with anybody, I just want to do the part." I'm not in it to make friends and influence people, but when I think of performers whose work I admire, I think of Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman. But what they'd be like to work with, I have no idea. They could be a bit tricky, you know? I remember Alan Parker saying about Gene Hackman, when they were working on Mississippi Burning, that Gene Hackman knew more about filmmaking than he did. To be honest, there's something very satisfying about working with unknown actors, so I'd rather do that.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
There are two quotes that come to mind. A writer once said to me, "Just ask yourself every day: what's the story about?" And there's another good quote, which I've heard in a couple of contexts, but I think is really good, and that is, "You don't make one film, you make three films. There's the film you write, the film you shoot, and the film you cut." And I think that's so true because once you learn that filmmaking is a process, all the pain of having to change or compromise your ideas as the process goes on lessens.
And the worst?
I can't exactly say it's advice, but the worst attitude I've come across is... François Truffaut said, "You can learn everything you need to know about making a film in an afternoon." And I think the worst attitude that hangs around this industry is a mystification of the process, because essentially filmmaking is very simple. There are rules to be learnt, and you can learn stuff about lenses and cameras and things, but actually the basic rules are very simple. If there was ever a time when you could just pick up a camera and do it, it's now. So that's a bit of advice I can pass on - in the Nike fashion, just do it!
How seriously do you take reviews?
I'd like to think is that I don't take them seriously at all, because I've had lots of bad ones - some very bad ones - and some very good ones as well, and often for the same film. So as long as you remind yourself of that before the whole thing kicks off, then logically you shouldn't take them to heart. I think the problem with bad reviews happens, emotionally, when they're unfair, or sloppy. They all hurt, but a bad review that actually echoes some of your own reservations about your work is different.
People forget that directors obsess about the work, so I already have a feeling about what's wrong with Trauma, as well as what's good with it - you never think it's perfect. So when someone reflects on those same aspects of the film, you have this grudging acknowledgment that they're telling you something you know already. I'd be lying if I said I didn't care, but I've learned to put a crash helmet on and try to pick out the best and most positive things from the reviews and - dare I say it - sometimes you find things that help you improve.
What's your biggest regret?
I haven't got any big regrets. I suppose it's just part of getting older and a bit wiser that you learn everything is a process. You have to have faith in that and the story unfolds as you go - no one gives you a script before you start. So I've got no major career regrets, but I suppose I have this melancholy about not getting to make films often enough. Having started off with this idea of being an artist who makes stuff, and all those romantic notions, it's bloody hard just to get to the position where you're making a film. And then if you're not careful, the film becomes too precious because it's taken so long to get there.
What film makes you want to spit?
There's a whole bunch of films that offend me, and they're usually American and dishonest - when you feel yourself being manipulated towards a kind of easy redemption. American films always make you want to feel good and make you believe in the status quo, really, and that's fine when it's innocent and from the filmmaker's point of view, but sometimes you feel like there's just a horrible opiate effect going on. It's more an attitude than a specific film. It's the falsehood in bad Hollywood studio films that makes me want to spit.
What are your three favourite films and why?
They change every week, obviously, but off the top of my head: Badlands, by Terrence Malick, because I like films that you can go back to. When I saw it the first time I thought it was brilliant, beautiful, and artful, and then I saw it a couple of months ago and I cried. I don't know what that is, but it has power and it lasts. Raging Bull I love because I just think, technically, it's the one of the most brilliant films ever made, and again, it's very powerful even after seeing it lots of times. Recently, Donnie Darko - I love Donnie Darko because I love films that entertain you while you don't know what the hell is going on. I like films that mess you up a bit rather than hand it you on a plate. I thought that film was particularly poetic, and intriguing - a bit of pop art, really.
What do you think of Norman Wisdom?
He really gets on my nerves. We shot parts of Trauma on the Isle Of Man and there's a statue of him there, because that's where he lives, but I'm one of those people who just never found that type of slapstick humour funny. In fact, I find it grating. So there, I slagged somebody off!
Trauma is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th September 2004. You can also read Marc's exclusive online diaries for the FILMS site