EIFF22 · Interviews

It is in Us All Interview: Antonia Campbell-Hughes – ‘It was like a one-man-show, like theatre. It was extraordinary’.

I have been fascinated by the work of actor Cosmo Jarvis for the past few years, and always take a keen interest in what he’s working on and who he’s working with. His latest performance is in Irish drama It is in Us All where he plays Hamish, a Londoner who takes a trip to Donegal to visit a house left to him by his late aunt. On his way, he’s involved in a brutal car crash, which forces him to confront his past and leads to an unorthodox new friendship. I was very fortunate to sit down with writer and director Antonia Campbell-Hughes to chat about the film…

In the Q&A after last night’s screening, I found it very interesting that you described the film as sci-fi, as it does have an otherworldly quality to it. I saw it as a Western in the way in which Hamish arrives in a strange town at the beginning, and how people sort of know who he is but there’s still that air of mystery to his presence. I know you might not want your film to be defined by its genre, but can you speak a little on how you approached that…

I love what you just said about it feeling like a Western, because in the beginning, all the people he encounters are like the townsfolk. People asked whether or not I changed it for pandemic, but it was always written that way. There are these very individual encounters where people almost deliver a message, and I used to reference Deliverance in that sense because everyone he meets is slightly off. I think there is a world between the Western and science fiction elements. It’s not either, but it is ‘the weird and the eerie’, and those were films that I find curious and interesting.

What I used to say to Cosmo is, after the event of this crash, it is that he’s never really felt any engagement or interaction from his inner self; everything is just a noise around him. He has no connectivity with anything because he is a man who, as a child, has never been seen. If you don’t have a sense of yourself, then everything else becomes immaterial. So, what happens when he goes to this place? Because of the accident, he is sort of thrust into a new landscape and it’s like going into a portal, I suppose. It affects him in a very profound way.

The story is almost bookended by pivotal sequences in cars, and there’s also a key section in the middle when Hamish is driving with Evan. You manage to create a lot of tension in these moments, but in a different way to the blockbuster-esque way of shooting these types of scenes – did you find that challenging to pull off?

The car scenes were incredibly difficult, and that was the only thing I found really challenging in terms of pandemic. Our tiny, tiny, tiny budget couldn’t get us a car and we had to have permits for everything, so those scenes were most challenging from a budget perspective. But, in terms of shooting, I did a lot of work with Piers (McGrail, the cinematographer) beforehand. I did a lot of research. I studied and have spent years figuring out how to shoot certain scenes. I looked at aspect ratios and camera lenses and I’m very fascinated by the technical side. I thought ‘if I want to make a film, I should have the knowledge of a gaffer’. Obviously, I don’t, but I should be able to speak the language to the various departments…

Yeah, you want to wear all the different hats across the production…

Yeah, because otherwise, I’m just writing things on a notepad. I want to really understand. I want to make huge action films, so figuring out how to shoot things on a budget was challenging. I didn’t want to use drones because you don’t feel drones. If you actually have a tracking vehicle, you feel the movement of the car rather than just being above and observing.

For the crash, it was really difficult. There’s a car roll so we used big metal barrels from a farm and attached lights to it and rolled it down a hill. That was actually Piers’ concept, and it works like a dream. Things like that were very difficult so we had to be very innovative.

And that must be the nice thing about filmmaking collaboration on a production with a small budget – everyone can bring their ideas to the table and be heard.

Yeah, and I work very, very closely in edit too. I think the edit is where you craft the whole film. I see things very visually, and I think every aspect from it creates the mood, which gives the feeling to the story and performance. Putting together those moments in the edit was very concentrated.

Antonia Campbell-Hughes with actors Claes Bang & Cosmo Jarvis at the UK premiere

From a director’s point of view, what sort of work inspires you or influences you to want to make a feature film like this?

I don’t reference or get inspired by other directors. A lot of photographers, artists, some architects but I don’t know directors as such. I’m making my own work and the story just emerges. It sounds pretentious, but it just does. I don’t make for any reason and don’t try to fit into anyone else’s shoes, or to copycat what someone else is doing. There were a couple of photographers that I was really interested in; Rinko Kawauchi and my friend Niall O’Brien. He’s an Irish photographer who does film stills. Of course I watch films as well, but I mainly just wonder about how directors achieve a certain shot!

I really liked the scene with the boys dancing by the bonfire to the song that sounded a lot like Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle! What was the idea behind this sequence?

I was trying to get the rights to that song, and I wrote it as Genie in a Bottle! That scene was so specific because what I was trying to showcase was how some will immediately characterise people based on their type. People might write these kids off as boy racers, but these children are not. I know these children, because in Donegal, kids kept dying car crashes, but they weren’t the stereotypical little teens in hoodies or tracksuits. One in particular was a boy that died at 14, and he was a nerdy little kid who read books. He took his parents car out because he didn’t have any friends, and he drove at night. I kept seeing this and it was in the news constantly. Whenever they have funerals, they drive their cars in convoy, but there’s something so beautiful about it; it’s like a tribal thing and reminded me of Lord of the Flies. They have no sense of consequence. They have no fear.

I did a lot of research into when boys hit puberty, the amygdala is releasing so much testosterone and adrenaline, but the rest of the brain, the frontal lobes, have not yet developed. That’s why boys jump off things and fight…and then when the rest of the brain develops, they learn consequences. That’s what I was very interested in because there’s something so profoundly beautiful to that.

To go back to that scene and that song, I wanted to show how tender they are, how juvenile in a very naive but pure sense, and just show the lack of cynicism. I am very blatantly looking at sensuality, without taking into consideration, age or gender or sexual orientation. It is something that is just innate.

Antonia Campbell-Hughes on set with actor Cosmo Jarvis

It was interesting to see Cosmo Jarvis play a little against type as this London businessman – but his character is playing a character in a way. What was your relationship like on set and how did you work on Hamish together?

As an actor, I know that you are put into a box of what people think you can do as a performer. I like to shake that up a little because I know it’s frustrating. I find it exciting to see something that you wouldn’t think was within their wheelhouse. Cosmo is so talented and he’s very immersive. I sent him lots of videos of men who do beauty regimes on their YouTube channels. I was interested in ballerinas and male models and how they walk, because it’s so different to how Cosmo was. That was just a really interesting journey, and then he brings something additional. He brought an extra stiffness. It was very important for me that Hamish sort of cracks open, and what you see is wonder. So, my main notes to Cosmo was that Hamish experiences everything like it’s for the first time.

That’s an interesting way to look at it. I enjoyed the scene where he’s getting ready to go to the club and he’s tidying up his hair and has a trendy polo shirt on. A bit of a different look for him…

I think that was very challenging for him, combing his hair! But he’s extraordinary. In that scene where he makes the homemade splint, I wrote that in a very detailed way, and it took huge amounts of research into actually what is done with a compound fracture. I looked into rugby injuries where you get a lot of home tuition on how to do everything with the splint and the superglue, and everything is true. It all works. I think when he did it, it was like a one man show, like theatre, and it’s extraordinary. We shot that scene early on, and I think that’s when I knew how lucky I’d got with my actor!

What does it mean to you to have your film’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival?

The first time I came to the film festival was 2019. I was on the jury, and I had such an amazing experience. Sometimes festivals are quite business-like and are quite functional, and there isn’t a sense of the festival itself, but this one has a real personality and it’s where I wanted the premiere to be.

You mentioned earlier that you want to make a big action film! Is that what’s next for you as a filmmaker? 

I really want to go on to do Terminator 7! I didn’t really watch film or television when I was growing up. I lived in Switzerland. It wasn’t because we couldn’t afford a TV – just that my childhood wasn’t that way inclined. I ran around forests and things like that, and I made stories. I did see Terminator 2 when I was very, very young in a German cinema, and I recorded the audio. I listened to the film for about five years which is quite creepy and re-enacted every role alone. It was a huge influence on me.

It is in Us All will be released in UK cinemas later this year.

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