After an acting career that has spanned almost thirty years, Neil Maskell is finally pursuing his long-time passion to write and direct. His debut feature is black comedy thriller Klokkenluider and centres around a government whistleblower and his wife. Ready to tell their story to the press, they are joined by a pair of eccentric bodyguards to protect from any potential threat. I was fortunate enough to chat with the filmmaker ahead of the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival…
You’ve got a wealth of experience in acting, but this is your first time behind the camera. Have you had the desire to direct for a while, or was there something in particular about this film that meant you needed to give it a go?
Definitely the former. I’ve been really quite desperate to be directing something for a long, long time. I’ve been writing for the last 15 years, trying to get either a TV project or film made. Klokkenluider was actually something I didn’t think would really come to fruition. It’s so fucking weird, you know!? The allusion I keep drawing on is that it was like the car in the garage with an old fella sort of tinkering with it, you know, you never get that thing started again! I really enjoyed working on Klokkenluider so even when I was on another project as an actor or a writer, I was always going back to it because I enjoyed being with the characters. I’d get ideas for it when I was in the supermarket after having not written for weeks and I felt I was always slowly getting somewhere with it. It’s kind of amazing that it ended up being the first thing I’ve directed because it wasn’t what I expected it to be, but I’m really glad that it did end up being that because I’m very proud of the script and felt very close to it as a piece.
In your roles as an actor, you’ve always struck a balance between darkness and humour. I think that translates into Klokkenluider, but was it tricky to achieve when coming at it as a writer and director?
Yeah, and exactly like you’ve just identified, it was tricky in the writing of it to get that balance right. Then when I shot the film, and we got into the edit, I found that it was a whole new kind of issue, and I had to work out striking that balance in the right way so that it doesn’t diminish the stakes. It’s got a lot of genre tropes in it, slightly poking fun at them or trying to subvert, and one of the best ways to do that is with humour! Even the rules the two close protection security guards have aren’t realistic, they’re kind of filmic. They’re trying to be representative of all the protocols of everyone ever, you know, so you’re never going to be able to do that with naturalism and realism. They’ve got to be slightly portentous and silly! Other things were thrown up in the edit like when we get into the party games section of the film. Without giving too much away, one of the characters’ emotional arc, for want of a less poncy term, has to be sustained during that scene but obviously it still has to be kind of funny.
There appears to be a cynicism, or an anger, towards the media and the government in the script. Could you elaborate a little on that aspect of the film?
It’s one of the things I think about when I see the film now because I started writing it about eight years ago. I’ve had a script for a long time, six or seven years maybe. I didn’t have a kid when I wrote the film so maybe it’d be different if I wrote it today. I feel like it doesn’t entirely stand up against an accusation of nihilism. When I see it, you know, obviously, the hundreds of times that I have, I think this is too nihilistic!
But I am angry. I’m angry with myself actually, as much as anything. I’m angry about how quickly I forget the people that have risked their lives and their liberty, and all sorts of aspects of the way they live in order to get truths out. I’m like the cookie monster. If you offer me cookies, I’m like ‘oh yeah, yeah, I’ll have that, everything’s fine’. Don’t worry about Cambridge Analytica, don’t worry about Edward Snowden now living his life almost entirely in exile so that I know I’m being surveyed and watched all the time. I just put it aside, so it’s a way of expressing my frustration with my own apathy and inactivity on those things, particularly in the treatment in the last few years of Carole Cadwalladr, who was, you know, as far as I understand it, driven to the edge of mental health issues by the pursuit of Arron Banks. I have great admiration for the lead characters in it, and I was driven by that. I’m sure there’s a lot of others that we haven’t heard about, and a lot that maybe we’ll never get to hear about. In a British independent film that very few people will get to see, I don’t want to suggest any grand ideas that it’ll find a global audience and change the way we all think, but I did want to at least honour the people it was about.
You’ve worked with so many great directors; Gerard Johnson, Paul Andrew Williams, Ben Wheatley to name a few. Did you get a lot of advice or any top tips from people you’ve worked with whilst making your debut feature?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve learned from all of the filmmakers you mentioned. Gerard, Ben, and Paul are all very present in Klokkenluider in very different ways. They’re all very receptive to actors and their ideas and what you turn up with on the set, and they lean into that, which is something that I really tried to do with the actors.
Ben has a DIY approach to filmmaking and gets a gang of people together that you can really trust and, in terms of the crew, certainly we did that.
One of Paul’s great traits is that whatever’s going on around the film, and whatever difficulties are occurring in terms of the logistics, he keeps that so far away from you as an actor. It’s just a relaxed environment. Even though Bull was shot so fast, it felt like you had room and you had time. I realised how much that gives you as an actor in terms of freedom, particularly when you’re improvising. I hope I replicated that to some extent.
Gerard has a great way of having an idea about how he wants to shoot and how it’s going to work out, and then adapting those ideas without losing them, and still maintaining that oversight. There’s no way on earth I managed to do all that stuff, but I did try!
And do you think your own experience as an actor helped you work with the actors on set?
I’ve worked with a director called Jim Field Smith a couple of times, who is brilliant, and he said to me that it’s such a great thing to say ‘I don’t know’ on a film set, and not to pretend you have all the answers. My attitude was always ‘what have you got? because I want it’, you know, because I want to transform the script. In my experience, actors normally respond well to that, and I was very fortunate to have actors that are similar to me; excited to play, and try stuff, and bring ideas. I think that came from my experience as an actor, and I hope that it was useful to the actors.
Like you said before, there are flavours of filmmakers you’ve worked with in Klokkenluider, but were there any particular films that directly influenced your style as a director?
I worry sometimes that the influences aren’t worn lightly enough, and there’s always the fear that you might replicate the endeavours of the work you’re influenced by, but not the results. I’m a massive Harold Pinter nut and there’s lots of influence there, with nods and homages to Pinter’s work for people that know it. I love John Cassavetes and he inspires the final third of the film. It starts quite formal and gets less formal as it goes on, and I think by the time we get to the last third, we get up close on the characters and we start to see the effect the nerves are having on Silke and the weight of the knowledge. I find Sura (Dohnke) to be a very Cassavettian actor actually; she’s willing to just roll the dice and take risks on scenes. When we get to them sat around the dinner table, eating lunch and whatever, I think there’s a bit of Cassavetes about that; I like to think there is.
Other films that influenced me were films like The Conversation, The Parallax View, and I looked at Nuri Bilge Ceylan. One of the big ideas overarching ideas about Klokkenluider from the beginning was very small people in this vast place, like ants, you know. That came a little bit from Ceylan and a bit from The Conversation. Oh, and Alan Clarke who I’m a real nerd about. I thought the film was all quite classically shot, you know, but towards the end, there’s a couple of things where I’m like ‘I got a bit of Clarke in there’.
You mention the idea of small people in a vast place, and I’d like to mention one scene in particular that I found really impactful. Towards the final act, you’d expect the camera to move with the central couple but instead, it stays back with their bodyguards, meaning that Ewan and Silke become very small in the frame, and it gives a strange perspective to minimise them…
You’ve just made my afternoon saying that. That’s what you hope people will get from the film, and that’s absolutely right.
Aside from the films you’ve mentioned, I’d made a comparison that might not have been deliberate at all but, in a way, Klokkenluider is a bit like Reservoir Dogs. They both have scripts that work around something that you never explicitly see, and there’s also the link where your characters use false names to protect their identities…
I really hadn’t thought of that but I’m of an age where Reservoir Dogs was such a formative film. I think I was 17 when it came out and it was banned, which is insane now when you think about it. It couldn’t come out on video, so I think I saw it six or seven times at the pictures, maybe more. That film just ripped my head off. We’d come up loving Scorsese and Goodfellas was a big one for us, but I even remember the first time reading about Reservoir Dogs in Empire and getting very excited about seeing it. Thinking ‘who’s this guy, Tarantino? His name finishes in O so we’re probably going to like him!’ I really didn’t think of it in regard to Klokkenluider, but I’ll take that!! I’ll hoover that up, you know!
Now that you’ve got your first feature under your belt, do you want to direct more?
Well, I’ve always had the director’s bug, you know, it’s always been something I’ve wanted to do but everything’s come pretty late for me. Work wise, my 20s were spent pretty much in a state of despair about not having opportunities as an actor until Ben Wheatley wrote Kill List and changed my life. So, you know, I’ve always had scripts and have been wanting to direct for a very long time but haven’t had the opportunity to; someone has to give you a shot! I hope that I’ll be doing a lot more of it, and I want to write for television and film. You have to be given the opportunity and it can be very difficult to get the money, but maybe slightly easier to get involved on the telly front. I’m determined to be doing a lot more of it!
Touching on your television work, I’m such a big Peaky Blinders fan and really enjoyed your portrayal of Winston Churchill in that. It came at a time when he’d been played recently in films too by Gary Oldman and Brian Cox, so how did you approach taking on that role?
When I did series five, it was just a one scene, you know, and it was weird. I was away in Morocco on another job, and Anthony Byrne, who directs it, rang me up and said, ‘do you want to play Churchill?’, and you know, you’re gonna say yes to that! Then I had to really do as much research and work as I would have had to have done if I was playing Churchill in a thing called Churchill, you know. You’ve got to turn up with your bag packed to play that part. I read about 2000 pages of biography and endless speeches, and then you have to adapt it so that you’re not just doing an impression…because that can look really, really bad. It was a long, tough process for one scene but then you’re still very excited to then turn up and effectively, not play for 90 minutes but you have to take the penalty. Funnily enough, the second series I did, we had to stand down from Klokkenluider for two days so I could go to Manchester to shoot as Churchill on series six. That was incredibly difficult, you know, because I really needed some time to recalibrate and I could have done with getting in the edit…but instead I’m sitting in prosthetics for two days. Someone asked me earlier what the most difficult part of the shoot was, and I forgot about that!
To finish off…if you could get three actors from past or present to be in your dream film, who would they be?
Gena Rowlands, who is probably my favourite actor. I don’t want to just say three John Cassavetes actors…but Peter Falk. I should really think of someone who’s not in Cassavetes movies. It’s so hard now because now I’ve only given myself one left over…I love Robert Shaw. I mean, what a film that would be.
Klokkenluider screened at London Film Festival 2022. A general release date remains unknown.