The directorial debut of Ryan Andrew Hooper has its premiere at Glasgow Film Festival. A comedy Western set in Pembrokeshire, The Toll tells the story of an unnamed toll booth operator played by Michael Smiley, and about what happens when his dark past catches up with him. I was fortunate enough to chat with Ryan about the film ahead of its release…
I see you have directed The Toll previously as a short film titled Ambition. How closely linked are the two and were there any major changes to the story for the feature-length version?
In terms of that, it was actually written as a feature before it was a short. We came up with the idea and the writer (Matt Redd) and I had this strategy around a short film scheme in Wales called The Beacons. We decided to make the short in order to apply to Cinematic for funding to make the feature! We ended up making a short that was nothing like The Toll. We had different actors, a different toll booth, and there was some magic realism in it.
So the challenge was in stripping the story back for the short…
Exactly. You know sometimes when you watch a film and there’s an interesting side character that you’d like to find out more about as opposed to the lead…it was a bit like that, and we tried to tell a story from within the same universe.
A standard question might be to ask which films influenced yours…but in The Toll, it’s pretty clear. What made you want to pay homage so clearly to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns?
I think the budget we had for the whole film would pay for about a week’s catering on a Marvel movie, and the perceived wisdom with that is to do something really contained. We thought ‘Fuck it, we might only ever get to make one film. Let’s do the complete opposite of that’. We got animals, as many cars as we could, and were ludicrously ambitious with our cast. We wanted to take advantage of the Pembrokeshire vistas, and the story always felt like a Western to me. I think a lot of films take their cues from Westerns because they’re like fables thematically. We wanted to give it a similar kind of mystery to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
You wanted to withhold the backstory in the same way?
Yeah. There is a backstory to The Toll Booth Man and Smiley knows all about that, but we wanted to give a bit of a Keyser Söze feel to the character too, so that you’d question if he is a reliable narrator. We didn’t think the actual background would matter but think it’s interesting to explore whether he’d ever tell the truth about it.
It feels like there are so many little nods to other films that there could be one of those ‘Spot the Easter Egg’ YouTube videos made about it. I wondered whether the pub being called McDonagh’s was in reference to the directors…
Good spot, yes! We’re huge fans of The Guard and that was a big touchstone for this film. We wanted to pack in a lot of fun references. The pub scene was actually the first one we shot despite it being at the end of the story.
This brings me neatly onto my next question. As the story is non-linear, was it tricky in terms of continuity to work out a shooting schedule? How did you get around the challenges that this presented?
We had a really tight shooting schedule but did a sense check before each scene. I think the total shoot was just three weeks with a couple of weeks of prep beforehand. We laid it all out in order to make sure it made sense and my script supervisor has great attention to detail. We couldn’t film it linearly but thanks to the ridiculous quality of the actors we had, they had no issues with it.
I spoke to another filmmaker who said that having a low budget and a tight schedule helped him on the production, because it reined him in and gave him less decisions to make creatively…
That’s a very positive way to look at it! What it does do is that it boils the film down to its core elements. Your approach has to alter to the situation you’re in, so we gave ourselves broad stroke decisions that’d inform each scene. It’s such a long and difficult process to get a film made and this has been 6 or 7 years in the making. I think you really have to love it!
I think my key job as a director was to be the arbiter of the tone. The story is mental, there are crazy characters, and it’s my job to make sure it’s coherent. I thoroughly recommend the films of Jim Hosking (The Greasy Strangler, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn). They’re mental! You may not like them because they’re very marmitey but the thing I love about them is the coherence and how everything in them is put together and it all fits. The characters are so specific to him that I don’t think they could exist in another film.
There are so many mad characters in this film, and probably the most eccentric are the pairing of Dixie and Tab, the Elvis fanatic, and her silent sidekick! How did that particular duo come about?
For coming up with the characters, I ‘d go to Matt, the writer’s house and we’d have a cup of tea and some Oreos and we’d put ideas up on a whiteboard. Over time, these characters would ferment. Matt is an Elvis fan, and my mother is an enormous, devoted Elvis fan! Every year in a Welsh seaside town called Porthcawl, there’s an Elvis festival and it coincides with her birthday, so she disappears for a few days to go to all these shows…so there’s definitely a link there! We wanted something memorable with Dixie and Tab and I suppose that’s the Coens influence again as we made them quite theatrical.
What’s next for you as a director? Can you tell me about any upcoming projects?
We’re hoping to shoot our next film late this year or early next year! It’s about a life insurance salesman that wants to fake his own death. It’s in the same world as The Toll and there’ll be a scene at the Elvis festival so there’s a repeated motif. A bit like what Tarantino did with the Vega brothers. It’s called The Life and Death of Daniel Dee.
You had such a great cast and such an experienced lead in Michael Smiley who I’ve been an admirer of for a long time. What did you learn from him on-set and throughout the process?
It was quite late in the day when we cast Michael actually. I think with him, the timing is very important. There’s a thing that stand-up comedians have with their timing which equates to drama or horror as well as comedy. I think of his range between Kill List, Luther, and Spaced; he’s affable looking but has an edge…and he has that edge in real life. He’s lovely…but I still think he might box my ears in if I upset him! I’m sure he mentioned that this was his first ‘lead part’ and I was shocked. He’s got a great physicality as an actor but for us, we knew that he’d stay in the same place for pretty much the whole film so it’s important that you can just watch him sitting in a booth talking without me throwing in lots of tricks.
Well, he has that good line where he says ‘an expert in battle moves his enemies, but is unmoved by them’…I think that perfectly summed up the way his character is in the film…
That quote was a big jumping off point for us. I must’ve gone through the toll bridge thousands of times in Wales but could never, ever remember the face of any person I’ve given the money to! My girlfriend gave me the idea to make a film based around that. What if this person that you wouldn’t think is that important turns out to be the most important person you know?
Going back to Toll Booth’s dialogue, there’s a few lines where he’ll take common turns of phrase and alter them ever so slightly. For example, he says ‘Sit down, you’re making the place look uncomfortable’ which seemed odd to me…
Haha, you’ve picked one of the lines Smiley ad-libbed. That’s something his mother said I believe. It’s a weird phrase now that I think about it, but we needed something for Toll Booth to say so that Catrin would sit in a specific spot as this was part of his plan.
The other was him telling Catrin that ‘nothing out of the obvious’ had happened instead of out of the ordinary…which I found interesting.
I think that was another Smiley ad-lib! I liked it because we were looking for ways in which to differentiate Toll Booth to give the impression that he was slightly out of place. Quite often, that would be the Dutch angle or what the character is wearing. Black for a villain etc. We left that line in because it was ever so slightly not right! Nobody else has picked that up so I’m sure Smiley will like that you’ve mentioned the stuff he ad-libbed.
We know that Toll Booth is a loner, and he enjoys his own company. Aside from the obvious Clint Eastwood roles, who is your other favourite cinema lone wolf?
No Country for Old Men was another obvious touchtone for us, and I think I’d go with Javier Bardem’s character from that. Chigurh, his name is. There’s actually a little nod to that film in The Toll where we used a lighting cable to look like a noose in the background of a scene with Catrin. I think the rest of my career will be me trying to do a scene as good as the coin flick scene. I think that’s masterful.
Check out my review of The Toll and visit Glasgow Film Festival to get tickets for The Toll this weekend!