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Q: What genre would you put Hunky Dory in?
A: I suppose technically the film is a musical, but our approach was specific in the sense that we thought it would be great for everybody who plays music in the film, to play the music for real. We recorded it more-or-less ‘as live’. That came out of what I’d observed from making music documentaries. There’s something very intimate and alluring about people making music for real - there’s a concentration there and the idea of young faces doing that was something I felt could be very cinematic.
So it’s a musical, but the focus is the rehearsals more than the show. I wanted to illustrate the sort of camaraderie and intimacy and the complete involvement of the rehearsal space in which these kids are living, compared to the other world of isolation that teenagers inhabit. Brian Wilson’s got a song called In My Lonely Room and there’s a Beatles song by John Lennon called There’s a Place That I Can Go When I’m Alone. So it’s about the loneliness of these kids, and then the complete involvement through this teacher and this music. It’s a very simple premise. That’s what we wanted to do was do a film that felt very authentic and very raw in a way around the music.
Welsh director Marc Evans
Q: How was it working with the kids?
A: One thing I can say about the filmmaking process is that at times, there was no directing required, because when we got into that school hall with those kids, the violinist was playing the violin, the drummer was playing the drums and the singer was singing – all the kids in the room were a bunch of kids making music. Because it’s orchestral, the kids go on these weekend courses that are rites of passage experiences. Those kind of experiences for the kids were the same for the actors, because they’re all quite young and some of them weren’t, professional actors before this. So, once we got the kids into a room, the film started to become what we’d hoped it would be - a celebration of those kids doing that stuff for real.
Q: Are the school and characters based on reality?
A: Yeah, the school’s a comprehensive school, and I went to a comprehensive school, as did Jon Finn. We all have our little stories to tell. The challenge was making it an ensemble piece but I think the film explores all these little strands of stories, and I suppose what we wanted was an overview of how every final year at school is somebody’s entrance into the wider world and somebody’s exit from that world. We wanted to get that feeling across rather than make it a film which is about a single person’s journey.
So all the little story strands are based on real life I guess. They’re the kind you always have in high school movies, because people always fall in love with the wrong person, people struggle with their sexuality, people have rough times at home. It’s not a heavy film in that sense but it hints at these aspects.
There’s a line from The Tempest in the film: “Our little lives are rounded by a dream,” and there’s a sense of their little lives if you like, through the music. So it’s in some ways a very simple premise, but a difficult one, because the balance on an ensemble piece is always tricky to keep all the stories going”.
Q: Is Minnie Driver’s character Viv based on anyone?
A: Minnie Driver’s character Viv is based on a kind of teacher from that era, rather than being a specific human being. I think there’s a kind of teacher that probably came out of the 60s and was still around in the 70s, and maybe by the time the 80s had happened, they’d had the stuffing knocked out of them!
That kind of teacher was very inspirational, they would always want to switch the kids on to Shakespeare, but they wanted to do it their own way and Viv does it through rock music. They were the teachers who would break the rules and would inhabit a grey area that most of the time was a good thing and occasionally was a bad thing.
Minnie’s character is somebody who treads a fine line in terms of how she deals with the kids. There’s a moment of almost intimacy with one of the kids but teaching these days is much more regulated and contained. There were a lot of teachers who were basically a bit mad and inspirational in the 70s and we wanted to, to portray that! The other interesting element is that she’s staging a version of The Tempest, and The Tempest is the play in which you get to explore nature and nurture. There’s a kind philosophical battle between Minnie’s character, who believes in self-expression and bringing love into the equation in teaching, and Miss Valentine (played brilliantly by Hadyn Gwynn) who is much more from the opposite school of thought - the three Rs, discipline, exams and that school is a machine to get you through and equip you to go out into the world.
Q: How did Minnie come on board and what does she bring to the character?
A: We sent Minnie the script, and we knew that her big love was music, and that she is a musician as well as being an actress. What we didn’t know was that her dad actually came from Swansea! We also knew she was great at accents, but you know, but the Welsh accent is historically one of the trickier ones but she nailed it, she really did. Matthew Rhys lives in LA, and when she said she’d do the film, the first person she hooked up with was Matthew Rhys, and she used to go round to his house and have Welsh lessons every week!
She also worked very closely with a dialogue coach called William Conacher, who Jon Finn knew from Billy Elliot, because he taught the kids Geordie accents. So we knew she would crack the accent and we were confident about her musical ability, so I suppose the mystery element was how she would interact with all those kids! When you’re in a school hall with sixty kids you have to take control of that situation, as well as concentrating on your acting, but that’s where she was just amazing.
There’s a scene in the film where they perform “The Man Who Sold The World” and there’s a big dance sequence in it. We’d worked out the music, we’d got everything ready, but I’m no choreographer, and she said, “Oh don’t worry, I’ll sort that out” and she did... she just led the kids into that dance and it was all very organic. The extra thing Minnie brought to the table was this ability to relate to the kids and to lead them as a really great teacher does and I think that comes through in the film.
Q: How did you cast the young roles?
A: We were very lucky, we had a very good casting person called Jessica Ronane, who did all the casting on Billy Elliot, so we inherited a lot of the know-how from Jon Finn’s experience on Billy. You have to get on the road and you have to just see a lot of kids but we had to make a decision to concentrate on Wales because it’s a Welsh story. We went to schools, colleges, youth clubs and had open auditions. As it happens, the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff is a good place at the moment, there are a lot of good kids coming through there, and Aneurin and Danielle were both in their last year at that particular college when we first met them, and were both at school together.
They’re two kids from Bridgend who were in college, so they, they were an easy fit for the film. It took us a while to get the film together and in the meantime Aneurin went off, did Spring Awakening, and won an Olivier award, so it just proved that we were right all along about him! We carried on casting the other roles and Tom Harries also came from that college, although he’s younger than Aneurin and Danielle. But a lot of the other kids came from totally different backgrounds, one works in a bank, one works in a restaurant, some of them are trying to get into college and some of them are still at school.
To a certain extent, if you create the right atmosphere and you get those kids into a room, they do the rest for you, because it’s an adventure for them. They all love singing and playing and they understood what a great opportunity it was. Once we got them together they started to gel as a group and they had a great party too! I don’t want to single anyone out, but know Tom Harries is gonna be big. I know ours is small film and films come and go but I do feel with with Aneurin and Tom we’ve got two very extraordinary boys here.
Q: When it came to selecting the music, was there a personal reason why you chose particular tracks?
A: I think we wanted the film musically to inhabit that world which I remember very strongly from the 70s and David Bowie’s the best example of this. He’s the kind of artists that allow teenagers to dream and to imagine themselves in situations outside of everyday life. If you listen to the words of Starman and it’s about somebody listening to an alien on the radio and when you’re a teenager, you are an alien, because you haven’t worked yourself out yet. You’re in some sort of film in your head. Bowie and bands like Roxy Music and ELO to a certain extent, created these dreamscape and that was a thing we wanted to tap into. All the interesting girls in my art class were into Bowie and Bowie is the guy who inspired otherwise fairly ordinary working-class boys to put slap on their faces! The idea was to have Viv the drama teacher let the kids pick the songs they loved and then they’d make them work within The Tempest’s sensibility.
We also wanted to use songs that when you heard them, you thought you knew them, but they weren’t so well-known. There were certain tracks there was no point covering them because they were too well-known so that’s why Queen’s not in there and the same goes for Elton John. Having such big well-known tracks would make it sound almost karaoke. With some of Bowie’s stuff, like “Life on Mars” we use the harps and it becomes something else. I suppose the most obscure song we use, is Nick Drake’s “Cello Song”, which Tom Harries sings. It’s funny, when you listen to the Nick Drake version, there’s a sort of knowingness about it, and when you have Tom singing it, with his innocence, it’s a different song altogether. I think we’ve done that with all the songs and that the thing I’m most proud of - the care we’ve put into that. The songs feel different to the originals, familiar and yet strange, and I think that’s what we were aiming for.
We were less interested in the happy clappy, “let’s put on a show right here in the barn” sort of music, we were more interested in the songs that maybe the kids would have chosen because they spoke to them personally.
Q: Hunky Dory is the title of David Bowie’s fourth album. Did he give his blessing to the film?
A: We didn’t speak to Bowie personally, but he gave us permission and his blessing to use two songs. We’d love for him to see the film because it’s such a hymn to him, in a way. If you have to pick one artist who inspired the film it would be David Bowie. Not just David Bowie’s music, but the world that he inspired and the inspiration he was to teenagers, including myself during that period.
Q: The school hall burns down just before they’re about to do the show. Is that based on any real incident?
A: The gym burned down in our school, and I think a lot of schools in the 70s had their gym burned down – there seemed to be a lot of arson around at that time!
We put it out as a plot device, but it’s the kind of thing that used to happen. There were other things that happened during that time that we thought about using. There was a scene that we cut, based on a bunch of kids in our school who used to go and visit a blind old-age pensioner, they’d get her shopping and stuff, then would sit round her house smoking spliff. For anyone who grew up at that time, in a similar environment, there was a was a kind of roughness and madness to school life in the 70s that would occasionally have repercussions, but mostly it was just a looser world where there would be less parental supervision, school gyms used to burn down, kids used to bunk off, but on the other hand, there was less fear, I think, about abduction or pedophilia. It was a free, loose, kind of messier world and we wanted to capture that in the film.
Q: Tell us about the locations and the challenges of the shoot.
A: Weather and doing a period piece are two terrible things to deal with on a low budget film. Especially as most of our money was really spent on the music and getting that right.
So, the reality was, we were a low-budget film shooting the hottest summer of all time in Wales! We were shooting during the summer of 2010 and in September, I kept thinking to myself, ‘we do tend to have Indian summers down here in September’, but it just didn’t really happen!
The school we used is actually Bishop’s Gore School in Swansea, which used to be Swansea Boys’ Grammar. It was a school that Dylan Thomas attended, it was a school that Russell T. Davies of Doctor Who fame attended too, so it’s got this tradition of sorts and it has a reputation for being a good school. It’s also the school they shot Submarine in. It’s a school that’s been visited a few times, and remembered for all sorts of things, and it’s just got a really great feel. It’s got the parquet-floored hall, it’s got those corridors that are so reminiscent of every school you ever saw in the 70s. So it definitely brought something to the table, that school. It had its own atmosphere, its own history.
During the shoot, we were continually rescheduling to try and chase the weather, and I think we shot every sunny moment there was to hand, that was available to us in that short period of time. In terms of locations for the period, we picked Port Talbot, next to Swansea because it has a big steelworks in the middle of it, and it’s still a working town, and my memory of South Wales in the 70s, was that there were still coal mines, there were still steelworks, and people worked. So there was poverty, but a different kind of poverty, it wasn’t like the poverty of unemployment. So we picked Swansea and Port Talbot because they’re coastal and there’s this sort of feeling of them turning into a bit of a surf town in the summer.
We had great locations. With the houses, we looked for ones that little old ladies lived in that hadn’t changed anything since 1976 more or less. I think we managed to find 1976, but by the skin of our teeth, both weather-wise and period-wise!
Q: Was it emotional for you going back to South Wales to shoot this film?
A: I think the good thing about having lived it, is that it just smelt real to me. I’m not sure how emotional it was, because you’re so busy trying to shoot it that you don’t have much time to think about that, but it definitely had huge resonances. It brought back huge memories. My affection for the film is based on that. The film is real in that sense. It’s authentic to my memory of what the 70s was like, and what being in school in the 70s was like.
Q: What’s the appeal of this film?
A: The worst part about making a film is then trying to ask retrospectively who it’s for, because you make it for yourself in a funny sort of way. I suppose the film is for people like me out there who remember the 70s and have the sort of affection for that music and that sort of chunk of pop culture. But inevitably it’s for kids. I think there’s definitely a sense of contemplation on youth in it. I think you definitely get a sense of that idea about youth being wasted on the young.
When you’re 17 you don’t know who you are and you don’t know what you’ve got, and you cannot possibly realise that that golden period of your life will never come again. Because when you’re in it, it just feels complicated and unknowable, but when you look back on it, you can’t help but have a huge nostalgia for being that age, because your life’s ahead of you.
I hope it speaks to everybody who’s been to school, because for better, for worse, your schooldays just stay with you forever. That feeling of that period of your life not coming again, is very strong, and I think it’s what fuels all these sort of high school reunions and there’s a massive nostalgia for that.