Daniel Barber’s debut feature Harry Brown is a terrifying look at the state of modern Britain and one’s man attempt to clean it up. Starring Michael Caine in yet another iconic role, Harry Brown is released nationwide in the UK 11th November (see review).
I sat down with director Daniel Barber in London last week to discuss his vision of a society on the verge of chaos, making his first film and working with the screen legend known as Sir Michael Caine. Read on:
What attracted you to the story of Harry Brown?
DB: It is a story about our times. It’s a modern piece…a piece that is about a tale that needed to be told. Pick up the newspapers every day and you read about normal people standing up to gangs of kids. The project just spoke to me…and the fact that Michael Caine was very excited about playing the lead role. It just felt right. It felt like a film that needed to be made and I felt that I could do something really strong with it.
How did Michael Caine get involved in the project?
DB: He read the script and he really liked it. He saw a short film that I had made (Tonto Woman)…this is the first feature I’ve ever made…and he just really liked the script, we got on really well and he said to me, “I’d really like to work with you.” And it’s a great role for him too…a fantastic role.
And how did the screenplay come to you?
DB: It came to me through a rather roundabout way. A friend of mine who is a cameraman, said that I should check out the script and I went for a meeting with the producer – who’d seen the short film that had been nominated for an Oscar – being nominated for an Oscar gets you a certain amount of attention, and it came from that. He gave me the script and said tell me what you think.
Was there much work done to the script?
DB: Yeah there was script development quite a lot. Gary Young, the screenwriter, did a terrific first draft – and he was brilliant with me. We worked on the script over a period of weeks and months. We refined it. Stories are told both verbally and visually; it’s a combination of both. We changed a lot, but at its core, the story remained the same. It’s about an old man who seeks revenge for the death of a friend. But how you create that story and how that happens and where and so on, we developed.
Daniel Barber Michael CaineIt has been described as an “urban western”. Where do you think the western elements are in the story?
DB: I think the western in the tale is in the fact it is the story of one man. His journey is to seek justice. That’s a very western headline, if you like. I took that and I decided what might be interesting, was at times, to give it a certain western pacing and certain framings with the camera which are born of western films. There is one framing we employed that is called “the cowboy”, which is basically, when you have a single shot of a person in a situation and the camera frames them from just below the knees and gets in the rest of their body. That is known as the cowboy, in the industry, believe it or not. I didn’t know that before, but it is! The way he (Harry) moves through the landscape…this rather tough, urban cityscape…it has a certain western quality about it. If people go and see the film, they’ll see that…they’ll feel that.
Why did you choose to set (and film) Harry Brown in the Elephant & Castle area of London?
DB: The reality is shooting in London, generally, is cheaper than shooting in other parts of the country. Most of the crew I wanted to work with were from London anyway. London has many council estates that you can film on. The Haygate estate is kind of a well known one. I used to pass it every day on the way to college in Southwark. It is a real eyesore on the landscape. I think it was the perfect setting for where he lived and what goes on.
The visual look of the film is very striking; very “film noir”.
DB: I think the look of the film is born out of the reality of the places we shot. We shot a lot of the film at night. That does in essence mean some of the scenes will be quite dark. We lit it very sparingly, actually. I feel the way we should light, a lot. The most important thing is thing is the story, obviously, and the look we used just helps to define the story.
The social content in the film – were you ever concerned it was a little bit “Daily Mail”…a bit “Broken Britain”?
DB: Well, I think the reality is the film script could have come off any of our national newspapers. Every day you read about normal people standing up to defend themselves in horrendous situations against gangs of lawless youths. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. You can go and see the film and you can see it is born of that, and what is interesting is the audience reaction…they want Michael Caine’s character to do what he does and they feel good about it. But should they? No. It is immoral what he does…completely immoral. But he’s brought to do it. That’s a question for our society…and I’m really interesting that. I hope the film sparks a conversation because there are issues within our society, which are uncomfortable to discuss. The Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph, The Sun – all our major newspaper – all carry stories about normal people standing up because they want to do something about what’s going on in our country and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.