Indie writer and director Jamie Adams rounds off what is referred to as his ‘modern romance trilogy’ with ‘Black Mountain Poets’; a mistaken identity comedy of errors. His improvisational trio of movies began in the music industry with Benny & Jolene before tackling the festive period in A Wonderful Christmas Time. Concluding on a slightly darker note in the poetic, yet wacky world of wordsmiths, we meet con-artist sisters Lisa (Alice Lowe) and Claire (Dolly Wells) as they commit the latest in their series of petty crimes and are forced to go on-the run. To keep a low profile from the pursuing authorities, they grasp at an unexpected opportunity to assume the identities of another set of sisters, who happen to be well respected bards expected at a camping trip with their creative crowd of poetry enthusiasts. Can they keep up the pretence for an entire weekend of writing and recitals, or will they be unmasked as the fraudsters they are?
The narrative is thematically deeper and darker than the other films Jamie Adams has made, and I think this is because the fun is poked at older characters with less time left to make a mess of their lives. Lisa and Claire live their lives with little direction and although there are still laughs, there is an underlying sadness that goes along with them. The Allen-esque struggling artist idea toyed with in Richard, the brooding man that comes between the sisters played by Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen. The improvised script is playful but razor sharp as the cringe-inducing scenarios are executed naturally, avoiding the staged awkwardness that can plague comedies of the same ilk. Lowe and Wells excel in their co-leading roles, as their alter-egos enjoy screen time with one other, lampooning not just each other but everyone around them. Excellent support comes from Rosa Robson as Richard’s on-off snooty girlfriend Louise and Richard Ellis is hilarious as possibly the most Welsh man alive, Gareth Jones.
Filmed in just five days, ‘Black Mountain Poets’ is low-budget brilliance. The ‘modern romance trilogy’ has matured and gives an assured and interesting finale which has all the attributes of the predecessors and more to boot. It is tightly written and intimate yet the story unfolds on the wide and wonderful landscape of Wales’ black mountains. Despite the bizarre predicaments Jamie Adams’ characters find themselves in, they offer up a brutally amusing yet entirely relatable and down-to-earth representation of the highs and lows, or in this case the peaks and valleys, of life as a British adult who should really be settling down by now, but doesn’t quite know how.
At the 2014 Glasgow Film Festival, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the work of writer director Jamie Adams (pictured above right) when I watched indie gem ‘Benny & Jolene’. His latest feature ‘A Wonderful Christmas Time’, starring Laura Haddock and Dylan Edwards (pictured above left and middle), follows similar themes and Jamie Adams kindly agreed to discuss these with me. See it on-demand from Monday 24th November.
It’s exciting to see that films can now avoid the standard route of distribution, and ‘A Wonderful Christmas Time’ is to be available on demand first and in cinemas after. How did this decision come about and do you see it happening more in future?
‘These are digital new wave movies so it makes complete sense that our path would lead to on-demand platforms in the first instance, where a good percentage of our audience will discover the movie. Hopefully it will be backed by decent word of mouth and positivity and the movie heads into selected indie cinemas. This system has been working brilliantly in America this year especially and so to bring this idea to the table in the UK and to be the first to distribute a movie this way in the UK is exciting, and also what we’re about. For our next movie we’re looking at BitTorrent bundles for example. I love going to the cinema and believe it’s where movies come alive but that doesn’t mean both platforms can’t work together and compliment one another, to co exist and actually support one another.’
Your new film clearly looks at the Christmas spell through a perspective we are not used to seeing on-screen, highlighting the loneliness that some face at the time of year. Personally, are you a festive-fanatic or are you a bit of a scrooge?
‘I can see there’s a loneliness there sure, but I think that’s because there’s a pressure to spend Christmas with your family and friends – for it to be a collective experience as much as possible. It’s also the time of year where we take stock as individuals and reflect on where we are in our lives and where we want to be so even though we tend to be surrounded by people, close relatives, loved ones, we are all essentially more alone than ever as this introspection seeps into our thoughts. Having said all that family is important to me, it’s the time of year geared toward bringing family to the fore and as such I love Christmas, I have three children and a beautiful wife that get incredibly excited about the festive season. I think in the movie we see that a surrogate family emerges almost organically – you can’t escape it at Christmas, somehow a family environment, and all that entails will emerge somehow! It’s the domestic detail of Christmas and the tension all the traditions bring to a family environment makes me smile! So much opportunity for awkward moments between relatives that hardly talk to one another all year!’
From the films you have written and directed to date, you have pulled in an impressive cast for both, having the brilliant Craig Roberts in ‘Benny & Jolene’ and Laura Haddock in ‘A Wonderful Christmas Time’. Tell us a little about the casting and how these big names got involved…
‘Craig (Roberts) noticed that this filmmaker from South Wales was making an improv comedy and that Charlotte Ritchie and Rosamund Hanson had got involved. He got his agent to get a message to me that he wanted in – I sent him a tweet and that was that he was in! Charlotte was the first on board she contacted me via Facebook to say she really enjoyed this short film I’d made with a mutual friend of ours and that she’d be up for making a short together. I then built the story around Charlotte being this Laura Marling type and I contacted Rosamund via Facebook and she called me while I was at work as a Park Attendant (!) We talked about how we’d be in a motor-home travelling into North Wales to a music festival and we’d improv all the way there and back and she loved the idea!
With ‘…Christmas Time’ I saw Laura (Haddock) in Inbetweeners Movie and thought she was fantastic – the best thing about what is an awesome movie. I found out who her agent was and sent him a long email explaining who I was and that I needed to chat with Laura about making a movie. Again it was the five day improv idea that caught her imagination and after a two hour conversation at Soho Theatre she was in! Actually this is how I discover the actors I would love to work with – I see them in a movie or TV show or play and “fall for them” in a ‘I really want to create a character with them type of feeling ‘… That sounds a bit rude! It’s true though that making indie movies is incredibly difficult so you have to be excited about creating characters and stories with your actors – especially with improvisation. Then I watch them in an interview situation on YouTube, so Laura on a red carpet somewhere being interviewed, and I’ll be closer to knowing whether or not they can improv in the way I’ll need them to. Sometimes it’s award speeches like Sean Harris at last years Baftas – what a speech – so natural and funny – so I’m currently chasing him! To make a movie with him is high on the agenda. Then I contact them via any means necessary that falls short of stalking! Digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have really been such a useful communication took for these movies. It’s all about how you approach people though – it’s not as simple as messaging someone and they’ll jump at being in your movie! Agents are really helpful too and they want their clients to be involved in a range of projects and so something like the experience we offer is exciting to a lot of actors. There are so many factors with casting, especially on indie pictures as you don’t have the finance to entice. Your picture isn’t going to raise profile necessarily and for me I don’t have scripts.
I have stories and character sketches and now I have a few movies to show as examples of my work – it’s a real passion thing – you have to work hard at setting up the projects in such a way that you can juggle actors other commitments so that come your shoot dates they can all be there with you and in the moment. Sometimes you’ll lose one or two along the way because you simply can’t keep all the balls in the air at once – there are too many variables – so I have yet to work with Tuppence Middleton, Sally Phillips, and Alexandra Roach all of whom I’ve come very close to working with on various movies but in the end it hasn’t worked out. Nine times out of ten if you believe in your movie and share that enthusiasm, communicate that enthusiasm using the appropriate form of communication for that particular actor and it’s something they are interested in doing. It doesn’t really matter that there’s no money or profile raising involved – for most actors it’s about being involved in a movie they believe in. That could be as much about the challenge of making it as it is about the final movie. That said having your best work at hand to present as an example of what you do is helpful, enthusiasm will get you through the door but it’s your previous work and the way in which you communicate your passion for the story /character that will attach your chosen star(s)!’
The dialogue in both films has succeeded in coming across very naturally, and the actors have gelled well to the improvisational approach. How much of ‘A Wonderful Christmas Time’ is scripted and how much comes in during production process?
‘Thank you firstly! We work hard on achieving a sense of naturalism, especially with the dialogue, which is created over the course of production. In the scriptment (a detailed scene by scene account of the film) there are a few lines of dialogue here and there to give a sense of how a character might talk. I discuss the characters with the actors and these discussions feed into the creation of the characters and how they talk is a part of this. During the shooting of the scenes they reveal their characters in the moment and between each take I might say I liked this or that or didn’t like this or that and the actors readjust accordingly. We go again and again until it’s as good as it can be and I have what I need and then in the edit we make choices on what pieces of dialogue to use where – so in a way we are writing right through from inception of the idea through to the edit and sound mix.’
Following on from the last question, do you have tight storyboards and a polished treatment laid out before you start shooting, or do you let the improvisation take over to tweak and transform parts of the story as you go?
‘Storyboards are too rigid and too restricting for me as are treatments in their most polished form. I work hard on creating and writing a good story with great characters full of potential and strong relationships to explore. I begin conversations with the actors – sometimes about the characters – sometimes just about things that are interesting me leading up to the shoot. Then we shoot, and it’s here that I’m guiding the improvisation, always tweaking and leading the talent around me into the unknown and it’s there that we find the gold. Each take is different and builds on the last and as long as we are staying true to the relationships we are moving through our acts and gathering the material to create the story.
It’s there that the writing takes place and I truly believe the best cinema allows for freedom of expression in the first instance and that you have to be present during the shoot and in the edit to have the confidence in the talent to express themselves – and to be open to the film presenting itself. It’s difficult to put into words but anyone that’s shot a film will recognise that moment in the edit where the film they were making becomes the film they have made. It’s at this moment that you have to stay strong and react in a positive way to this film that isn’t the film you imagined for years during its formation. That’s where improvisation led movies come into their own because you are always aware that the film will constantly shift and struggle. In being prepared for that I know I’m in the best position to recognise the version of the movie that will play the best with our target audiences, which remain forward thinking, honest and sincere, hopeless romantics with a great record collection and an even better sense of humour!’
From my research, I know you started out as an editor and have documentary experience before you made your own features. Have you always wanted to direct or did the appetite for this come through being involved in previous projects?
‘Since I made my first movie on super VHS back when I was fourteen years old in 1994, I have been a filmmaker, director. I trained under a great documentary maker at Royal Holloway University – Gideon Koppel who made the brilliant Sleep Furiously recently – and I recognised early on that I gravitated to the work of the great improvisers. The French New Wave, Mike Leigh, the 1970’s independent cinema gang of Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, Altman and more. I mean Woody Allen writes his scripts very quickly in an almost stream of consciousness and encourages the actors to improvise all the time. His camera may be fixed and behaves traditionally but his actors are free to express themselves and that’s why they get award season recognition because they embrace the freedom.
Improvisation to me doesn’t mean shooting without a script – it means being prepared to live in the moment and make choices in the present not the past. I have worked with some of the best editors we have in Britain and learned so much about pace and rhythm and keeping your audience at the forefront of your mind at all times. This sense of confidence in the edit comes from many years seeing movies emerge as an editor. I’ve also worked as a lecturer in film and as a parks attendant, a shelf stacker in a supermarket, a finance assistant at a holiday park, a fruit and veg shop assistant and more, which have all influenced my approach to film making!’
I’ve seen ‘B&J’ and ‘AWCT’ described as the first two parts of the Jolene Film’s modern romance trilogy. With the former looking at the music industry and the latter at Christmas, can you provide us with any exclusive insight as to the direction of the third?
‘Well it’s called ‘Black Mountain Poets’ so we can assume we’re looking at the world of poetry and poets in some way and I can say that it looks at relationships and romance. I can also say that we have the best cast with Alice Lowe, Dolly Wells and Tom Cullen, amongst others including Josie Long making her feature film debut. Dolly and Alice play sisters Claire and Lisa and Tom Cullen plays Richard, a poet that hasn’t written anything decent for seven years!’
Christmas films are typically full of schmaltz, sentimentality and festive cheer, building up the hype for yet another fun-filled day spent with family, playing games, eating and drinking to excess and telling bad cracker jokes. To combat this idealised depiction of 25th December, writer-director Jamie Adams continues his indie-rom trilogy of sorts to bring us ‘A Wonderful Christmas Time’, which comes closer to capturing what the time of year can really be like for the single twentysomethings of the modern age. Noel (Dylan Edwards) has returned to his hometown of Porthcawl in Wales after splitting up with his long-time girlfriend to find that his parents are going away over Christmas. This leaves him alone with his thoughts, reminiscing and reflecting over where it has all gone wrong and what to do next. In an attempt to move on past this grey period, he turns to old friends, the local pub and a therapy which involves primal screaming at the edge of a cliff. Here, he meets Cherie (Laura Haddock) who tells him that ‘everything is going to be OK’.
The improvisational style implemented into the script, as well as the documentary-esque camera work means that the story, and the few characters within it seem incredibly natural. We can relate to Noel as he stumbles his way through uncomfortable conversations and scenarios and this appeals to the very British downtrodden sense of humour where we quite happily cheer for the misfits or losers of society. Because of the free-flowing dialogue, the jokes filter in seamlessly and laughs come both in the deliberately cringey lines and attempts at freestyle rapping, and in the moments of awkward silence. The realism techniques are continued on from the Adams’ last project ‘Benny & Jolene’ which used the music industry as its platform for a dysfunctional love story, and music works its way into the narrative again as well as cinema when Noel and Cherie bond over their shared tastes.
At the heart of the piece is the forced preconception that everyone should be happy at Christmas and should be having ‘a wonderful time’, despite what they may be going through for the other 364 days of the year. Noel and Sherry’s friendship tackles this idea as well as the emotions we go through at the end of romantic relationships, both wanting to be together but neither wishing to be seen as nothing more than a rebound. Their despair is disguised by alcohol and good company, and the highs are accompanied by an upbeat indie-laden Christmassy soundtrack. Dylan Edwards is superb, a natural at appearing unnatural with his equally impressive co-star Laura Haddock, best known for her roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and The Inbetweeners Movie.
‘A Wonderful Christmas Time’ brilliantly sidesteps the notions of joy and celebration surrounding the end of the year, poking fun at traditions to illustrate the true, if pessimistic, sense of the holiday, where we can escape the mundanities to drink and be merry until the hangover sets in and we’re back to the daily grind. That might seem a negative prospect but it is refreshing to see the genre handled in this way, dragging it into the 21st century. The aforementioned indie-rom trilogy from the Jolene production team is two down with one to go, going from strength to strength to reinvent the worn-out formula, presenting the rom-com from new angles with a quirky twist in an ultimately more satisfying way.
The effort of youngsters to breakthrough into the music industry has become part of British pop culture this century due to the success of Simon Cowell’s popularity contests. It’s refreshing to see a film depicting a couple of dreamers who want to do things the old fashioned, old shall we say proper way. Benny and Jolene are a folk duo, played by rising stars Craig Roberts and Charlotte Ritchie respectively. Very much a personal project from debutant director Jamie Adams, who also wrote the screenplay. Filmed in just five days, this low-budget gem is full of natural charm and wit, having a sideways glance at the music biz and media circus that goes with it.
The road-movie is filmed in mockumentary style, tinged with awkwardness. Comparisons have been made to This Is Spinal Tap, the much-loved rock-mock from the eighties, and its influence is evident in the subtleness of the writing. The leads gel well with this style, and are the perfect fit to the quirkiness of the film as a whole. Craig Roberts, known best for his role in Submarine, is a natural at playing the socially inept misfit, and is now cropping up in big US comedies doing what he does best. Charlotte Ritchie shares a certain chemistry with him on screen and from working on Fresh Meat, she is used to working with sharp scripts laden with British humour. Their difference in height makes for very amusing physical comedy, particularly a sex scene that goes terribly, but by that point in proceedings typically, awry.
Benny & Jolene is a fun little ditty which showcases the talent of its stars, as well as serving as an impressive debut for Jamie Adams, demonstrating a fantastic knack for capturing moments of cringeworthy humour. Poking fun at the media types in a lax but effective manner, there are signs of substance behind the carefree indie persona, if you see past the hipster shades. As they go through the gawky gigs, dodgy TV spots and lapses in judgement, it soon becomes hard not to cheer for the not-so-rock n’ roll underdogs.