By Tom Ue.
Adam Stephen Kelly is the author of over 700 articles, interviews, features and reviews, and he has been read by a worldwide audience in the millions. He is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and he has conducted interviews with Sir Roger Moore, Simon Pegg, and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, amongst numerous others. His directorial debut, the short film ‘Done In,’ premiered in 2014 as part of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and which has earned the inaugural Brian Hibbard Award at the Cardiff International Film Festival in 2015. It has since been screened around the world, garnering popular and critical acclaim, and the subject of our recent interview in Film International 13.2. In what follows, Kelly discusses the making of his feature-length film Kill Kane (2015).
Congratulations on your feature-length debut! What is Kill Kane about?
Kill Kane is a revenge film that revolves around a school teacher (Vinnie Jones) whose life is left in tatters when his wife and kids are murdered at the hands of gangsters. Unhinged from the ordeal, he takes to the streets in search of justice.
Tell us about the change from your enormously successful short film ‘Done In’ (2014) to co-writing and directing a full-length revenge thriller.
The production of Kill Kane was certainly a more challenging experience than ‘Done In.’ With the short, which was crowd-funded, we did our very best to make a great film that those who were generous enough to contribute their hard-earned money would be proud to be associated with, which was thankfully the case across the board. But naturally, there was no actual financial return on their investment – it was all about belief in our vision and the desire to be a very important part of something great. With the feature, it’s a business. You have investors who are financing the film based on their belief that they will get a return, so it’s a different ball game entirely. Having said that, we shot ‘Done In’ in two days and finished ahead of schedule, whereas Kill Kane was somehow shot in nine days. I say somehow because no one makes features in nine days, especially action movies. It’s unheard of. Pure insanity.
In our earlier interview (Film International 13.2), you described Kill Kane as ‘fall[ing] somewhere between Death Wish (1976) and Harry Brown (2009) in style and tone.’ What are your influences for this film?
While Death Wish and Harry Brown are both great films and probably shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as Kill Kane, they were both influential as movies that broke the mould of what revenge films can be. So many of the heroes in these films are killing machines who call upon specialist training from their past when it comes to dishing out the justice. In Death Wish, Charles Bronson’s character is an architect. He’s a regular guy, and his transition from everyman to vigilante is slow. We see the cogs turning. He’s an imperfect predator. It’s realistic. In Harry Brown, Michael Caine does in fact come from a military background, but it’s well buried in his past – he’s an old man. I love that whole psychological process; the readjustment from old-age pensioner to gunman. It doesn’t happen with a click of the fingers, it’s much more subtle. Like I said, it’s a process. That’s what I liked about the script for Kill Kane. Vinnie Jones’ character is a school teacher and a family man. He may have been in a fight or two before, but he’s certainly never held a gun let alone killed someone. He’s a fish out of water when it comes to dispatching gangsters. It’s real, it’s human.
Revenge-gangster films are emerging as a kind of genre, with the Taken series (2008-14) being a prime example: how do you strike a balance between making something both familiar and distinctive?
Taken has become a benchmark of sorts for modern-day action movies, from the types of films being green-lit, right down to the marketing. Even Kill Kane‘s artwork has a Taken vibe going for it. There’s nothing remotely original about Taken, it’s just a very well made and effective thriller. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with unoriginal stories if they’re cool and realised in an entertaining way. Rest assured, Taken is cool. So cool, that it’s become ingrained in pop culture. Audiences like familiarity; to know what they’re getting for their money. You’re taking a fairly big risk if you blind buy an art house film off a supermarket shelf. Throw Liam Neeson, explosions and guns on a DVD cover and people know what to expect. Action and horror movies are the easiest to market because you can really sell them with the artwork alone, as opposed to say a rom-com where all you have to work with are two giant faces smiling at each other. People enjoy the theme of revenge. They like the core storyline of these movies. They want to see bad guys do bad things and eventually get their comeuppance. Ultimately that’s why these films get made, their impulse purchases based on the familiarity audiences have not only with the genre, but the actors who have made their names doing similar films. No one wants to see Vinnie Jones in a rom-com. Put a gun in his hand or have him walking away from a blazing inferno and people take notice.
There seems to be a resurgence of interest in British crime drama more generally in recent years, both on television and in film. Why do you think that is?
These films are uniquely British. When you think of the UK film industry, kitchen sink dramas and crime movies are what come to mind. They’re what we’re famous for. At the end of the day these films have real context. They’re a slice of life with a little creative license added to spice things up. In Hollywood you have these sprawling, epic mob movies. In Japan you have the yakuza films. In Italy there was the eurocrime craze years ago. In different parts of the world you have these crime movies that have their respective cultures at their core. In the UK our crime efforts usually revolve around the Krays or Krays-era “villains”, the Essex Boys murders or, more recently, hoodies. The essence of these stories is ripped right from the headlines. I think they’ve always been popular, but the times are what dictate the villains. 15 years ago people would probably laugh at a film that had a bunch of teenagers in black hoodies terrorising the streets. Nowadays this isn’t the case.
Tell us about this production. What were some of the challenges?
As I said before, no one makes features in nine days. You just don’t do it, even when you’re making low-budget independent films. Some British movies in a similar vein to Kill Kane get made for somewhere in the region of $200,000 and filming lasts three or four weeks. Needless to say, you can get a lot more done in 30 days than you can in nine. The budget and absurd shooting schedule spurred countless obstacles. Kill Kane is quite an action-heavy film; we have scenes involving guns, knives and hand-to-hand combat. One fight scene even takes place inside a tiny car which itself is parked inside a tiny garage. In Hollywood, you might have nine days to shoot a single action scene, whereas we had a matter of hours. Sometimes we’d shoot two such scenes in just one day. The action had to be simplified as much as possible and broken down coverage-wise into as few shots as we could possibly muster for a coherent fist fight or gun battle. Time was always of the essence, and setting up shots, choreographing fights and ensuring the actors are all on the same page for safety takes time, and that’s even before the camera rolls. It was difficult, but we soldiered through it and overcame the hurdles with a crack cast and crew, and the end result is a film with very high production values that looks like it cost a hell of a lot more than it did.
The cast mixes new and experienced actors. As a young director yourself, what was it like relating to these different groups?
I think my favourite part of directing is working with actors. I love collaborating with passionate, dedicated people who really get into their characters and bring their own ideas based on their own interpretations of the script. Some directors are dictators who expect their actors to stick to the script verbatim and refuse to take on board ideas that don’t come from their own head, but I think that’s crazy. If someone comes up with a cool idea that works than you’d be a fool to dismiss it because of your ego. I had a great time working with guys like Conor Boru and Dan Richardson who frequently came up with little ideas and traits that were perfect for their characters.
The experienced actors in Kill Kane have a pretty incredible CV between them, from Vinnie Jones to veteran villain himself Sean Cronin and the fantastic Nicole Faraday of Bad Girls fame. Throw in young lions and lionesses like Sarah Alexandra Marks, Benjamin Way and Conor Boru and you’ve got a pretty wonderful cast who I’m fortunate to have worked with, and certainly hope to work with again.
Two of the qualities that we have come to identify in your work are your attention to detail and tasteful colour scheme. Tell us about the film’s photography.
You choose your locations for a reason so you need to get the most you can out of them. With ‘Done In,’ the house we found where the entire film takes place was absolutely perfect. It was everything I had envisioned and a character in itself. You have to exploit your locations for everything they’re worth. With Kill Kane, the locations weren’t always ideal and none were available for a recce in pre-production, but when you’re working on a shoestring you have to improvise as best you can. Great DOPs make the job easier. Jon McLaughlin and I were on the same page from the start, chasing the likes of an amber/streetlight palette for the external urban scenes. The colour scheme is very different to ‘Done In’s’. The short made use of golden browns to create an atmosphere of peace and warmth, whereas Kill Kane is darker, more reliant on silhouettes and even cold, blue lighting techniques.
Kill Kane differs from ‘Done In’ by incorporating exterior locations. Tell us about the location scouting.
‘Done In’ had a grand total of two exterior shots. Kill Kane on the other hand is set in Essex and has a much more urban vibe to it. Being such a low-budget production, a lot of the time it was about finding the cheapest locations possible, even if they at times vaguely fit the necessary scenes. One example of this would be the climactic sequence, which is set in a warehouse. The original script called for this sequence to be set in two connected warehouses, one of which was like an old house of mirrors, while the other was full of mannequins. I decided that we couldn’t have both because it seemed a little mad that these two warehouses would be next door to each other, so I rewrote the action to take place among the mannequins instead, simply because a house of mirrors would be far too expensive, even if it would have made for a cool Man with the Golden Gun-esque finale. In the end, a house of mannequins proved way too expensive so we ended up with a large storage space and dressed it up like a labyrinth of these tall wooden containers for a little cat-and-mouse action between the hero and villain. When you’re making such a low-budget movie you usually have no alternative than to make compromises and make the most out of them. Getting more out of less should be the coda of indie filmmaking.
Your next film, ‘Dear Diary,’ has only one tweet on its Twitter account, and it says, suitably cryptically, ‘A new chapter…’ Any spoilers?
No spoilers, but ‘Dear Diary’ is a spiritual brother to ‘Done In.’ I’ve used that term a lot recently but it’s not a sequel, just a new short that’s connected and perhaps set in the same universe as ‘Done In.’ Whether or not I’m making more features, I want to complete two more short films in order to have a trilogy of sorts that are all interconnected in some mysterious way. Mysterious because I’m not revealing anything further, not because I haven’t worked it all out yet! ‘Dear Diary’ is scripted and has a very interesting actor attached, plus perhaps a face or two from ‘Kill Kane.’ I’m just waiting for the stars to align schedule-wise before more is said.
What is next for you?
‘Dear Diary’ and whatever comes along in the meantime!
Thanks so much for this film and we look forward to many more!
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His bestselling edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films. He has recently completed the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists (Gale, 2015). Ue gained his Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London and he is presently a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.