Tomorrow’s Machine: An Interview with Filmmaker Caradog James
Caradog James’ sophomore feature, the science-fiction drama The Machine (2013), shares its genre sibling’s habitual tendency to hypothesise and present visions of the future. In keeping with its parental heritage, The Machine offers a bleak vision that merges the future of tomorrow with yesterday’s past. It takes the present-day fear of war with China and paints a vision of an approaching Cold War that leaves the Russians who kept 007 busy for many a decade out in the cold. While the film imitates the historical arms race between the U.S. and Russia, in typical science-fiction fantasy such a “race” doesn’t concern missiles and nuclear weapons, but rather the futuristic finishing line of the most advanced self-conscious Artificial Intelligence.
Aside from the bleak vision of tomorrow, one will notice the common inquisitive focus that is innate to the genre. The film finds itself in the shadow of not only Blade Runner (1982) but also Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as James steps up to confront perfected intellectual consciousness, as well as human frailty and accepting our mortality, which echo one of horror literature’s great works.
Moving away from his family comedy debut feature Little White Lies (2006) centred on racial tensions, The Machine relocates James not as far as one might expect from his Welsh-set comedy. He presents us with a tale of parental conflict, the nurturing of a destructive or peaceful child, and the fight to maintain control over our world and our identity as it spirals towards an uncertain future of Artificial Intelligence. If it drags Frankenstein from its familiar trappings, it does not separate itself from the familiar motifs of its own genre, but confronts these to comment on the thematic discussions that comprise the tradition.
Film International’s Paul Risker talked with James about his lifelong pursuit of a career in filmmaking that took him from Wales to West Africa, the challenges facing UK filmmakers, confronting science-fiction and the responsibility of the storyteller, and the star gaze into his near filmmaking future.
Paul Risker: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Caradog W. James: I was too young to think of it in terms of making a living, but there was a formative stage where I began to convey an interest in filmmaking. It was after seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). I was six at the time, and I just couldn’t stop talking about it in the car on the way home from the cinema. My mother said to me, “You do understand people make films?” Up until that point I just thought films were dreams that seemed to exist; I didn’t realise they were made by people. The idea that someone could make those movies was incredibly intriguing. By the time I was a teenager I had begun to focus on how I could make films, and hunting down directors I liked, and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen I had a wall full of VHS and DVDs of all my favourite directors, as well as a massive collection of movies of all different genres.
I didn’t have any contacts in the film industry, nor did I come from a wealthy family, which seem to be the two key things you need to become a filmmaker. So I read this book which was full of interviews with directors. The one thing that kept coming up again and again was if you want to become a director, and you don’t have any contacts, then you have to write a script that is so good that you give people no other choice but to let you direct it. It presented itself as an intriguing idea, and that’s how I set about learning to write, which was the beginning of the path to becoming a paid filmmaker.
While I was writing I was also learning how to make films, but I couldn’t get a job in Soho. A friend of mine whose parents were teaching in West Africa told me that they had a burgeoning film industry out there. So I thought, well, it seems like a much smaller industry, and I might have a better chance if I go over there. So I went out to West Africa where I managed to find a job as a stills photographer for Burkina Faso national television. This led to me getting work as a stills photographer on some feature films, and I was very lucky that Gaston Kaboré, the director of the brilliant film Buud Yam (1997), took me under his wing and showed me how films were made.
Returning to the UK I wrote a short film which was screened in a number of big festivals, and that got the ball rolling. From there I began to write screenplays and rewrite other people’s work, which gave me the confidence to keep on pushing forward. But it’s a very fickle and difficult industry.
PR: How difficult is it for UK filmmakers to get their films made?
CJ: It is incredibly difficult to get films made in the UK, and that is the reason I started up Red and Black Films, which I co-own with the producer of The Machine, John Giwa-Amu. We both started out as short filmmakers. Early on we realised that it is a very lonely business, and one in which it is very hard to rise up on your own. So that’s why we went into business together – we are much stronger as a team than we are as individuals. This is one of the reasons that we were able to push our TV movie Little White Lies, which was accepted into the Moscow Film Festival, and went on to win a number of awards.
Then we managed to raise private money to produce The Machine, and now because of the seven international awards, including Best Film at Toronto After Dark to the British Independent Film Awards and the Best UK feature at Raindance, along with worldwide distribution, private investors are now interested and eager to invest in our new projects. This is because we are starting to build a track record. But it has been very important to us that we’ve gone after private money and not only government money. Constantly waiting for lottery funding to get your film made is a trap a lot of filmmakers unfortunately fall into. With this approach it is very difficult because you have to cater to the tastes of just one person, and understandably you are not always going to have a project that is to their taste. So a lot of filmmakers spend a great deal of time struggling to move their project forward.
PR: What is it that makes science-fiction such a compelling and enduring genre?
CJ: The reason I love science-fiction as a filmmaker is that I’m fascinated by people and politics. I’m fascinated by the world in which we live, and also where we are going as a species. I believe that it is the job of storytellers and artists to hold up a mirror to society, to give it a different way to see itself. Now, why science-fiction is the perfect vehicle for this is because it allows you to talk about startling, uncomfortable and challenging ideas about who we are. But it can be done in a way that’s neither preaching to the audience nor talking down to them. You can discuss all of these incredibly relevant, contemporary and fundamental things about society but in a way that’s entertaining, thrilling and frightening. It is done in a way that engages all of the audience rather than an art movie that will bore people to tears. In science-fiction you can talk about deep and difficult things within a very entertaining context, and that tightrope is something I’m very interested in and would love to get better at walking along.
PR: The Machine is a forewarning to us that in our role as parents, when we do finally create Artificial Technology we will be required to set an example, because if we can’t be responsible at the point of creation then we are going to create a destructive rather than peaceful intelligence.
CJ: It’s a very real idea, and it is something I’m sure we are going to have to confront at some point.
PR: This is what science-fiction allows us to do as we strive towards these goals – to ask the questions now and to imagine the future and to learn before the event. Stories permit us to experience and ask questions with a safety net.
CJ: Definitely, and that’s one of the great things about the genre, but when you think about it, not just science-fiction but most genres.
PR: On the subject of the idea of creation, whilst the film touches upon the theme of our relationship with mortality, it also explores the limits of our knowledge and our powerlessness, in particular where knowledge and desire are not enough.
CJ: It is interesting because maintaining control of our own lives as the power of technology increases is going to be a challenge. As the power of technology increases the power of governments and those who control it is going to increase as well. This is something we are seeing now if only because of people like [Edward] Snowden and others who are uncovering how deeply governments are into our lives, and every aspect of who we are. So it’s not just mortality but the ‘Big Brother’ idea. Who holds these strings and how much power are they going to have over us as individuals is a separate movie that I would like to make at some point.
PR: How did the cast confront the challenges of playing their individual characters, and how would you reflect upon the opportunity to collaborate with the cast?
CJ: With a budget of less than one million we never thought we’d get the caliber of cast that we were able to attract. The budget of The Machine was half the budget of a Danny Dyer movie, and what we were trying to achieve for the money was incredibly ambitious. But luckily Toby [Stephens, who plays Vincent] loved the script and so did Dennis [Lawson, who plays Thomson], and that was a part of the reason why we were able to cast them.
We saw fifty or sixty actresses before Caity [Lotz] auditioned for the role of Ava, and what was fantastic about her was she played the humanity of the machine rather than trying to play the robot or the robotic aspects of the character. That was what I was looking for, because the machine in a way is one of the most human and emotional characters in the film.
The key to good performances when working on a low budget film is having time to rehearse. There is no time once you are on set because you are just so pressed for time. Especially for me, lighting and camera moves are so important, and they take time to get right. What I wanted was to make sure I had time to work with the actors on the scenes, and nail down their characterisations before we got onto the set, which would give me more time to give the film its polished look.
Before shooting, Toby, Denis and Caity gave up eight or ten days, and that gave them the chance to learn to trust me. Part of delivering an emotional performance is having the knowledge that you are in a safe pair of hands, that the work is going to be respected, and that the best bits of the work are going to end up on the screen. But it also allowed them to build some chemistry between each other.
Good actors come with a persona because you only know them through their onscreen characters. So my impression of Toby before I met him was that he would be quite aloof, cold and maybe tough to deal with. But actually that’s just because of the characters I’ve seen him play onscreen. In person he’s a warm, friendly, loveable guy. Caity did all of her own stunts, including a naked back flip in a sub-zero hanger in Wales during the dance sequence. I was blessed with a brilliant cast all-round.
I wanted the implant soldiers to have their own language, which ended up being the digital language they speak. But I didn’t want them to speak gobbledygook. I wanted it to be a real and structured language. So Pooneh [Hajimohammadi], who’s Iranian and plays the head of the implant soldiers, taught all of them their language in Farsi. For Sam [Hazeldine], who played James in the film, it gave him the ability to deliver the lines with conviction because he knew he was speaking a real language. Of course then I heavily digitised it in post, but I didn’t want it to be a political statement. Rather I just wanted them to have a structured and real language, but one which the audience wouldn’t know or recognise.
I love working with actors because they bring so much to the movie. When I go to the cinema it is that human face on screen which dictates whether I have an emotionally rewarding experience, and so much of that is down to the performance.
PR: Toby’s character Vincent calls to mind Victor Frankenstein, which calls to my mind Brian Aldiss’ belief that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in fact a science-fiction story as opposed to formative gothic horror.
CJ: It’s a brilliant book, and any film that deals with creating life is tentatively a shadow of Frankenstein. It has such a huge cultural standing that everyone all over the world knows the book, and so you just cannot escape its shadow. I read it because I had never read it before, and having seen the movies I was amazed how intelligent, agile and deep the character of Frankenstein actually was. I know there have been versions that have been much closer to the book, but I am not sure whether any of them have really done the source material justice in regard to how layered and complex the character in the novel is. I agree with Aldiss that it read much more like science-fiction than you’d expect because the genre didn’t exist then.
PR: David Cronenberg asserted, “Everything you do is autobiographical in the sense that it’s filtered through your experiences and sensibilities, especially if you write your own stuff.” Of course that doesn’t mean it is purely autobiographical, rather it’s just that the individual is a filter. Everything derives from reality, and therefore without reality, fiction would not be possible.
CJ: I totally agree, although there is a distinction between good fiction and bad fiction. Cronenberg’s brilliant at bringing the real world into his incredibly fantastic stories. What makes a great story is the fact that you can take something that is truthful and turn it into something truthful, entertaining and thrilling. But there are also those other good things that we go to stories for – the cathartic and the horrifying. The bad films are the ones where there is no truth in anything, and unfortunately in the market forces of $200 million, it seems there is for whatever reason a lot less truth in those movies than there were in the ones I used to watch when I was a kid growing up.
PR: You have spoken of the interest of private investors who are looking to invest in your upcoming projects. What lies beyond The Machine?
CJ: We have quite a few things in the pipeline. People have responded well to The Machine, and so I’ve had a couple of calls from studios which has been exciting. I have been out to LA to meet people about various projects that are in development. It is not that I want to leave the UK, but I would like to eventually try my hand at the bigger budget movie because you just have that opportunity to paint a bigger picture, and to play with more effects. Creating a world is something I would love to try and do in a film.
But with my company, Red and Black Films, when we showed the film at Tribeca I snuck into a public performance on Times Square and I just sat at the back and watched the audience. I loved the bits where they were reacting, and I could see them jumping – girlfriends hugging their boyfriends because there was something frightening on screen.
As a filmmaker I got a real kick out of that, and I said to John [Giwa-Amu] that I’d really love to do a horror movie. I’d love to do something terrifying which is all about those moments, and so we’ve taken an idea out to the Berlin film market and some of the distributors are really excited about it. So it looks like we’ve raised the money for a horror movie called Don’t Knock Twice. It is in the vein of the terrifying psychological horrors such as The Shining (1980) and The Conjuring (2013). So that’s next in the pipeline for us as a company.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.