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Waffling With CHICKEN Director Joe Stephenson

Joe Stephenson's Chicken is one of the best directorial debuts we've seen in some time. We chatted with the young filmmaker, whom we're sure you'll be hearing a lot more of.




Interview by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)


Hey Joe, great to talk with you, hugely impressed with Chicken. Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to bring Freddie Machin's play to the screen.

I have been trying to make my first film since I was about seven. Sadly it takes time. So I worked in different areas of the industry to get my head around how the whole thing worked. Then I directed a short film, got an idea of mine commissioned by Sky Arts and did three specials for them, all the while developing feature films for me to try and finance and finally direct. Of course my first film needed to be one that could be done on a limited budget, and my tastes are large scale cinema, which has always been a problem. But when I saw the play of Chicken, which was only on for one week, I immediately felt I’d found a story I could tell cinematically and faithfully on a limited budget. I felt I could bring my own sensibilities, expand the world of the play, and actually bring something to the table that would enhance the themes, characters and emotions Freddie had created so well on stage.

Scott Chambers delivers an incredible performance in his first lead role. Where did you find him and at what point did you know he would be perfect for the role of Richard?

Here's the funny thing. So me and Scott were great friends first, and then he got the role of Richard on stage. As he didn’t live in London at the time, he crashed on my sofa during the play's rehearsal and production. He’d come back from rehearsal and we’d talk about the character; together we’d develop certain elements and I accidentally found myself becoming very involved with the creation of Richard from the outset. So when I saw the play, and decided it was something I could see cinematically, it was never going to be anyone else playing Richard. Me and Scott then talked at length about how to develop Richard more and how to handle his disabilities on screen. We hit on new things and found Richard in a completely different way to that which he existed on stage.

There seems to be an abundance of great young British acting talent emerging in recent years. Why do you think this is?

The answer to this is almost a bit boring because it seems to be everyone's stock answer, but it’s because its true: it’s our culture of theatre. Actors can go and try things out, develop their craft and find their voice in a safe place. If you fail doing something in fringe theatre, the exposure is minimal. You can learn from your mistakes and not have it forever hanging over you. It makes better actors, and we simply have a more active culture of theatre than say the US. It’s one of the reasons we should protect it at all costs. 


Your work on Chicken feels like you're the latest in a proud line of British social realist directors like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke and Shane Meadows. Were any of those filmmakers an influence?

That’s an incredibly flattering thing to say! Of course they are all an influence to an extent, even simply in that they have affected the language of cinema and therefore given today's generation a set of tools we might not have developed without them. But I did also make a conscious decision to not watch films in the same vane as Chicken in the lead up to shooting. This was because I wanted to tell the story on my own instincts, and not subconsciously find myself repeating what had gone before. I wanted to be able to confidently say that all my choices were my own, original to me and the result of my own conclusions and feelings about the effects of film. Even when some decisions I’ve made might be directly comparable to works by others, I can hand on heart say I made it this way because it is what felt right to me, and I can explain each decision. 

This sort of social realist drama is something we've seen handled brilliantly in British cinema in the past, and no other national cinema pulls it off so well. Did this add extra pressure, knowing the quality of filmmakers you might be compared to?

Not really, because my attention was entirely on following my heart and instincts and telling the story how I best felt it would speak to an audience. That was my priority, and always will be; how the audience are reading a scene or a character or an emotion. The thought that you might be compared to anyone doesn’t really come into your head when you're trying to tell your story. It’s something other people do when you’ve finished your job, and if they do I will only ever be grateful and flattered of course. 


One of the things that makes Chicken stand out is its setting. Most British dramas take place in cities and on council estates. Was this a conscious decision to deliver a new setting?

Well my priority was that I wanted to earn the big screen. I feel like for a piece of film to be deserving of a space on the big screen it should be filmed as such. Especially in today's landscape of Netflix and VOD, where competition is so high for a slot on the big screen you need to offer something epic. Even if the story is subtle, the emotions and imagery don’t need to be. So I chose to make the landscape important in the delivery of the themes and emotions of the characters, to make it the fourth character and use it so it might affect the tonal shifts for the audience. Also, I don’t want to make a grey film, and council estates plus English weather equals a grey palette!   

While it feels very British, Chicken also plays like a piece of classic American drama. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is the one that explicitly springs to mind and there's also a Mark Twain vibe to the characters and setting. It also reminded me of Jeff Nichols' films. Are you influenced by US drama?

Well, thank you. And yes I absolutely am influenced by American drama. The first cinema that spoke to me, and this is the case for most of my generation I’m guessing, the first cinema that moved me, and showed me the awesome power of film, was Spielberg. When it wasn’t Spielberg, it was Cameron. So my tastes in storytelling come from an American sensibility more so than British or European. I hope to balance the two sensibilities because they both deliver very particular effects on an audience, and I think there is something interesting in merging them so they might both play off each other and give the audience a different experience than they might be used to.

It's a story that could translate to any country, and we've seen a lot of British filmmakers working in foreign territories (Gareth Evans' The Raid, Peter Strickland's Katalin Varga, Sean Ellis's Metro Manila), so if you were offered the chance to remake it in any country, would you be interested, and which country and actors would you choose?

Well if that were to happen, I’d never let anyone else play Richard, so Scott would be recast immediately! But to answer your question, if I were forced to re-set the entire thing including re-cast Richard, I think it would best translate to an American setting. Not just because of language but because there is a similar problem of people living on the edge of society and feeling lost. I would want to say something new though, so perhaps it would be good to bring the current racial tension in the US into the mix. Michael B. Jordan would make a great Polly. Richard would always need to be cast as an unknown though.


What advice would you give to budding British filmmakers in terms of getting their first film made?

Only tell a story about characters you care about. This feels like something forgotten about far too often. First films have a tendency to try to emulate the filmmaker's favourite films and tick too many boxes they’ve been told to tick. But none of those things will matter if you don’t care about your characters; the financiers will know, the actors will know and ultimately the audience will know. You are going to spend conversation after conversation talking about them, creating them, telling their story, working out their mental process and how best to portray them. My God you need to not just care about them, you need to love them. 

We can't wait to see the next Joe Stephenson film (and we hope you reunite with Scott). Anything in the pipeline you can talk about?

Well me and Scott will absolutely reunite, though my next film is actually a documentary. But my third is a biopic of the legendary playwright Noel Coward, a very different type of storytelling due to the period (1920s) and cast, including people like Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellen, and Jonathan Pryce. After that I have a horror I’m itching to do. 

Thanks for taking the time Joe, and all the best.

Thank you!


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