The Movie Waffler Interview - THE WIFE AND HER HOUSE HUSBAND Director Marcus Markou | The Movie Waffler

Interview - THE WIFE AND HER HOUSE HUSBAND Director Marcus Markou

Interview - THE WIFE AND HER HOUSE HUSBAND Director Marcus Markou
Markou discusses his acclaimed new drama.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

10 years on from his feature debut Papadopoulos and Sons, writer/director Marcus Markou returns with The Wife and Her House Husband, an unconventional breakup drama. Markou chatted with TMW about his latest movie and its unique distribution model.

Interview - THE WIFE AND HER HOUSE HUSBAND Director Marcus Markou

Hello Marcus! Congratulations on the release of The Wife and Her House Husband - I really liked it. I think the aspect I responded to so strongly was how the events of The Wife and Her House Husband are set AFTER the ‘love story’. A lot of films, of all genres, end with romantic union - this one picks up after the love has gone. We all fantasise about fairy tale romances, but how often are we told what happens when the fairy tale ends? I was hoping you could talk a little bit about this concept in relation to the film, and also what your intentions were when making The Wife and Her House Husband, please?

Every writer, movie writer, has two or three genres they feel comfortable within, I think. One of those for me is love and the love story. But, as you suggest, the area we rarely explore is what happens after two people get together and how they can make it work. And it's an area I want to continually explore because right now we are all looking at what a marriage or partnership or long term relationship is or can be. Culturally, we are drawn to how we get together (hence the popularity of the Rom Com) but rarely do we explore how we stay together. The pressures (from society, family, religion) of maintaining a long term relationship are, in my opinion, quite absurd. Even more absurd is the lack of willingness to talk about it and explore it. And now with social media, the pressure is greater. Millions of people posting photos of their perfect relationship each day when we all know behind the scenes all hell is breaking loose – as it does, even in the most successful of relationships. I don' judge that. I'm no better. We are all part of the madness. 

Another aspect I was really impressed by was how Cassie's sex life was treated within the film, and how her drive and her extra-marital activities are depicted with such maturity. It really was a refreshing representation: non salacious, sober and another challenge to the "one size fits all" hegemony within which relationships are usually considered. Could you explain what ideas the film is presenting via Cassie and her sexuality?

It's sensitive ground for me to tread – exploring women's sexuality as a man. But I am aware that this is a man's world. We have for thousands of years, as men, set the cultural tone and we have shaped the social conditioning around women's sexuality. And it's mostly unconscious. It's something we inherit – unconsciously. I am not here to "bash men." I am aware that the conditioning of women's sexuality has been shaped by men – not women. And this is something that has also been inherited (unconsciously) by women too. And at its heart is a fear of women's sexuality. Culturally, in religion, in our laws – all systematically created by men – there is a fear of women's sexuality by men. This was not a story about open relationships or even an exploration of that. I wanted to just assume that was the case with this couple – as a matter of fact – which I felt was quite refreshing. Most "open relationship" dramas are quite tedious, in my opinion. I just wanted this to be a given. I really liked the idea that Matthew intuitively got the idea that he could support his wife's exploration of her sexuality outside the marriage – as a man, in a man's world. He doesn't fear her sexuality. And that's that. He was comfortable enough to do that. And this was, for him, a form of expression of his love for her. But what I am really exploring here isn't the open relationship itself but the impact of trauma suffered by Cassie and Matthew upon their relationship – which happens to be open. The refreshing part of this is that line… "which happens to be open." I accept this is quite a complex idea to hold especially as we are only just grappling with the idea of open relationships. And I think this has confused quite a few critics already. They need to go back, take a deep breath, and calmly watch it again. This will feel like new territory for a lot of audiences and critics too.

Laura Bayston (Cassie) and Laurence Spellman (Matthew) have such a convincing chemistry on screen. Their interactions communicate a real history, and their relationship, estranged as it is, is authentically "lived in." I wonder if you wouldn't mind talking a little about how you worked with Laura and Laurence, please? What did they bring to Cassie and Matthew?

I spend the first morning of rehearsal just talking, and as a writer/ director what I do is spill my guts out onto the table. And I tell them everything about me and my life and my biography. It's treated as a safe space where this can happen. And it's confidential. And I don’t expect the actors to spill theirs in return. But it's important that I spill mine. It wins the actor's trust. And they get to relax. And relaxed actors can do anything, go anywhere and create truthful, gutsy performances. So that's where it starts. You build from there. And because it was Laurence and Laura's first ever lead in a movie you get huge advantages as a filmmaker. You get energy, desire, openness. Their talent is not in dispute. They can do anything. I believe that. They were a joy to work with.

But also, the way I shoot will always bring out the best in an actor. There's a lot of talk about what it means to be "actor-led" but for me it's about putting the actor's performance first and structuring the filmmaking process around the performance. So I don't have a shot list, for example. I create the shot list on set around the actors' organic blocking. I work with the actors on set, rehearsing the scene, and allow them to find a natural physical pattern that they then don't have to think about. They are not thinking… "I need to move on this line to this mark here at this point in the story." They just find a natural pattern without having to think about the technical demands.

I then work with a DoP who is fast and smart to shoot around that pattern, which will also require the services of a genius Gaffer – and we had both on this film. That's when we create the shot list. Ideally, we can get a sense of the pattern in rehearsals before we hit the set. And that's why I like to have the DoP in rehearsals with me. There might be a few tweaks. I did this with James Friend on my debut feature Papadopoulos and Sons. James won the BAFTA a few weeks ago and is up for an Oscar. He's a great artist. And I did this on The Wife and Her House Husband with another very talented DoP called Chris Fergusson – who I feel will one day leave me for bigger projects. Again, another great artist.

But I also continually engage the actors. For Laurence and Laura their schedule included photos of the locations and even little notes about who else was going to be in the scene with them – the other actors – and how I knew them and what they were like. So they would know… that the actor playing the mediator at the beginning (for example) was a dear friend and someone I was at LAMDA with and some quirky info about him and my relationship to him. That meant they could get on from the off. Our WhatsApp group never stopped, at all times of the day and night. It's still going now! They would ping me questions and I would leave voice notes. We were rehearsing, thinking, working, exploring incessantly for two weeks before we hit the set. I would also take Laurence and Laura to the actual locations a week before we were shooting there and we would run the scenes… just the three of us. Again, this is the other advantage of working with smart, hungry actors who are playing leads for the first time. Imagine trying to get that past the agent repping a "Graham Norton sofa" actor? Of course, I want Laurence and Laura to be on that sofa too, one day… by which point I won't have access to them in the way I did. That's success, right? My job is done. That would make me very happy.

You wrote, directed, produced, financed and are distributing The Wifeand Her House Husband - fair play! I was hoping you could discuss the state of play for indie filmmakers, and how you see the climate at the moment. Do you believe that it is advantageous to take on so many roles? Are there increased opportunities for indie filmmakers with the advent of streaming platforms and digital media? The Wife and Her House Husband is receiving theatrical distribution - which is fantastic! - what will happen to it next?

I take on these roles because I have to. When I was younger, I wanted to be an actor. For many reasons, it just didn't happen for me. There was a fork in the road when I left LAMDA that would have started me on an actor's career path and I chose to help my family start a business instead. I dreamed of the RSC. I still get sad that I never became an actor. Out of creative frustration, I started writing. But then found that I needed to become a producer to see my work made. Then frustrated with writing plays – as I just thought I could do as good, if not a better job as a director, I started directing. This took me to filmmaking and then I realised in order to get the work out into the world I had to finance and distribute too. I never planned the next step. I just stepped into the next step. At each stage, I never took an agent or felt I had to earn a living as a professional writer or director or producer. In that sense I am an amateur and I am very proud of that status because it gives me the artistic freedom to tell more interesting stories. Even when I left LAMDA I had an agent who loved me but her assistant would say to her, "Marcus isn’t business… he's talented but he just isn't business." This was because I was turning down commercial castings for McCain Oven chips! My agent was hilarious. She convinced me to go up for a Pizza Hut commercial once by telling me that the director Tony Kaye was making the advert. He wasn't. I think he was loosely associated with the Ad agency at the time.

An agent recently said of me, when enquiring of one of his clients, "Marcus isn't a very exciting filmmaker" because I am trying to keep the budget as low as I can on a potential project, even though we have an established name attached (in a small role). The argument being a more exciting filmmaker would use that name to create a bigger budget and then pay more to a select number of actors. But I don't want to do that. I want a level pay scale. I'm not suggesting that should be the case on all films. Far from it. Go earn millions on a Marvel movie, I say. But there is also room for me too. I am an amateur filmmaker that has the freedom to create interesting stories that would normally not get made. There is room for that in this world. There should be room for me in this world, I think.

The streaming route for indie movies can also be a dead end, in my opinion. What I am doing with Cinema For a Pound is showing other filmmakers that they can get reviewed in The Guardian or The Movie Waffler or Sight and Sound and get treated as a serious filmmaker (even with my amateur status) when one pushes for a theatrical release. And I am trying to convince cinemas that they should be more open to smaller indie projects like mine who can bring an audience. The fact that we are having this conversation and I am discussing these subjects with you proves that a theatrical release – even a small one – is effective. We would not be doing this if I was going straight to a streamer.

What will happen next? I just don't know. I hope we find an audience. I hope we win over more critics like you. I hope it starts these interesting conversations.

If you were going programme The Wife and Her House Husband with two other films what would you choose and why?

My dream date with two other movies at the BFI would be Marriage Story and Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage. That’s a threesome I'd love to be involved with (ha ha).

Thanks Marcus. I hope that The Wife and Her House Husband continues to impress audiences. I've honestly thought about it every day since I've seen it! All the best with it.

Thank you too. We need you. We really do. And I will be forever grateful for your engagement and your intelligence.

The Wife and Her House Husband is in UK cinemas from March 10th.