Sacha stops by The Action Elite to discuss his new feature We Still Kill the Old Way which he co-wrote and directed.
Your new movie We Still Kill the Old Way hits UK DVD and Blu-ray on December 26th. How was the story originally conceived and how long did it take to put the script together?
The original concept came from the distributors, Anchor Bay. They had an idea: retired gangsters from the Krays era going back to their old ways after an inciting incident. They had a title: We Still Kill The Old Way. And they had a set budget to finance the film.
I joined the production in March 2014 thanks to producer Jonathan Sothcott being very kind and offering me the opportunity. There’d been a couple of drafts of the script already, and I worked with Dougie and Gary, the original writers on another draft and then gave it a final pass to beef up the dialogue, add set-pieces and hone the characters and their individual personalities. All of that was about a month and we hit pre-production immediately for a May starting shoot-date – so from me joining the production to shooting was just under 6 weeks.
What made you want to direct as well as write?
I can always hear the collective groans when “another British gangster film” is announced, and that’s understandable because there are so many bad (or pointless) ones that have been produced. But this one felt different for a couple of reasons:
The protagonists aren’t greedy, horrible criminals who simply sniff cocaine and beat their wives and have no redeeming qualities – our guys have come from another era where respect was important, and there were ‘rules’ as to who could and couldn’t be hurt. Our leads have a motive that everyone can understand, the revenge of someone close who died trying to protect someone innocent – someone who in the ‘old days’ wouldn’t have been touched because of those rules.
Our leads have a motive that everyone can understand
The antagonists are a presence that any audience will recognise – a dysfunctional youth group that thinks they’re invincible just because no one has ever challenged them or tried to correct their behaviour. What our heroes do in this film is try to redress that balance. Their methods might not be something we personally would do, but I’m certain most people would buy into the notion of respect in society, and the youth having a conscience about what they do, knowing that punishment is the response to any crime.
Outside of the story concept, I was really interested in this pioneering way of financing independent films in the UK and saw it as an interesting challenge – if this works, it could open the door to more British Indie films being made, and that’s only a good thing for the UK film industry.
Fortunately the script we shot was multi-layered, full of wonderful characters and a rollercoaster of varying emotions and story beats, it’s been a great production from start to finish.
Do you like the cast to improvise while shooting or do you prefer sticking to the script?
A bit of both. I encourage improv and ideas from the actors, but I always attempt to make the shooting script as tight as it can be before we shoot. The delight of improv is something magical happening before your eyes, they are in the moment, firing on all cylinders and throwing everything out there – when that happens it’s absolutely amazing and makes the long hours worthwhile. We had a few of those moments on We Still Kill The Old Way, and it’s great because it means your cast are enjoying the shoot and want to make every moment count. Both Steven Berkoff and Ian Ogilvy have directed, so they understand that process and helped me make their scenes as true and great as possible.
The flipside to improv is key beats for the ‘bigger picture’ might get lost. It’s part of my job to make sure everything rings true, that there’s a logic to the world I’m attempting to build, so you do have to filter ideas that only serve and benefit the film and it’s story.
When working on the script did you have any particular actors in mind?
Again, yes and no. When writing I had some unrealistic inspirations – along with Jonathan Sothcott, I harked back to the days of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore, Michael Caine. All those wonderful charismatic stars coming together for those ‘Dad’ movies that are still a joy to watch to this day because of the star power on screen – Wild Geese, Where Eagles Dare, etc.
Very, very early days in discussions when the project was just a notion, there was an idea of me being reunited with Bob Hoskins (he was a lead in a previous film of mine, Outside Bet) but sadly he passed away, as had many names we’d thought of for this project.
And yet, there were names that instantly sprang to mind for the project once I’d signed up – the lovely and powerful presence of James Cosmo was someone I pushed for immediately (we’d worked together on Get Lucky) and the clinically brilliant Chris Ellison (another gifted actor I’d been lucky enough to work with on Bonded By Blood).
Jonathan suggested actresses he knew – Alison Doody, Lysette Anthony, Red Madrell, Dani Dyer – which demonstrates the difference between producer and writer/director. He’s having lunch with these beautiful ladies, and I’m slogging away trying to get the script ready!
But, as ever with Jonathan’s ideas, they were absolutely perfect.
Did the finished film come out as originally planned?
Pretty much. The tightness of pre-production meant that there were many locations I (and my team) hadn’t seen before shooting on the day, so it was hard to ‘plan’ in that respect, but the film came out how I hoped it would be.
But it was a very organic shoot: situations arose that meant quick thinking and decisions had to be made, along with some wonderful discovery as we were putting it together – for example, our terrific editor, Guy Ducker, watched the rushes we’d shot in Spain, including a heavily inspired opening sequence from the original The Italian Job, and he suggested I shoot a complimentary sequence with our antagonist (in London, driving on the opposite side of the road) so we could cut between the two for the opening titles. It was a brilliant idea, and opens the movie fantastically, setting up the inevitable clash between hero and villain.
Therein lies how much of a team effort making a film is – against popular opinion, it’s not a director’s medium, it’s a team medium. My job as director is to take everyone’s brilliant ideas and make them work together coherently.
What did you learn from working on the film and looking back on it would you do anything different?
Ah, the usual: More money, please. More time, please…! It doesn’t matter what level of director you are — Mr Spielberg and Mr Fincher will still want to finesse things — and that means time and budget. But what we’ve accomplished I think is a really, really good film, one that will appeal to the sensibilities of an audience of every age, and it delivers far and above what most people would regard a Brit crime film: We Still Kill The Old Way is a revenge thriller that offers up great characters, identifiable situations, witty humour amongst the darkness and a tight, enjoyable 90 minutes of entertaining drama.
With such a great cast involved, there must be some entertaining behind the scenes stories. What were the best and worst days of the shoot?
If you ever get the chance, ask anyone involved in the final scene of We Still Kill The Old Way about the statement “Their gold” and you’ll get a reaction that gives you eye-rolling, a chuckle, then a louder chuckle, then tears of laughter.
It was a scene towards the end of the shoot, when the cast/crew start seeing the chequered flag, and all the anxiety of the film ever being finished dissolves into a light relief of giggles between set-ups.
Every day presents heaven and hell – there are always moments where you think “How the heck do we get out of this?”, but that’s the wonderful thing about a film crew, the whole ‘system’ is based on a military model from post-World War 2 when the film industry was flooded with de-mob personnel. There’s a do-or-die about film crews, if you run the unit correctly, they will work to the bone to make the impossible happen. Outside of the military, I believe it’s such a unique work-place because of the dedication of cast/crew staring IMPOSSIBLE in the eye and saying: “We can do this!”
I love it, and I love the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with – giving their all to make a brief moment in time last an eternity.
When we spoke to Jonathan Sothcott the other day, he described you as an “actor’s director”. Would you say that’s true and how would you describe your own directorial style?
Jonathan Sothcott is a wise man, but I’d half agree with him here: I am an actor’s director, and what’s helped is I’ve been in front of the camera and know what it feels like. Every director should try acting, just so they know the pressure, anxiety and questions you have being in front of a minimum of 35 people staring at you going “Really? Is that how you’re going to play it..?”
Actors are the gateway to the audience. If they don’t believe what they’re doing, the audience won’t believe the story you’re trying to tell… That’s obviously disaster!
It can be brilliantly lit, amazing sound, awesome production design, pitch-perfect music… But if the actor looks like they don’t believe what they’re selling, then no one in the audience will buy it. So I think upmost as a director you have to be able to get your actors in that ‘place’ or ‘moment’ that makes them forget who they really are and believe that they are actually the character they’re playing.
The flip to that is I am very hands-on with the look and design of my films. Again, I’ll embrace my skilled HoD’s ideas (Heads of Department: Director of Photography, Production Designer, Costume Designer, Hair/Make-Up Designer, Sound Designer, Editor, etc.) but I will always give them a platform to launch from. I compile a ‘look’ document with colour palette, mood boards and so on: Something that ties all their minds into one train of thought.
Once we’re shooting, my film tuition comes from the modern masters of cinema (Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Fincher, etc.) so where appropriate I’ll ask for camera movement in a certain way that enhances the story-telling (and on We Still Kill The Old Way myself and the wonderfully talented DoP, Ismael Issa, had a new toy – the MoVi rig which opened up so many possibilities). I love the technical side of photographing the film and bringing many influences to my decisions in capturing the scenes to be the best they can be.
So yes, I am an actor’s director because I understand what they need to deliver a performance… But I’m also a technical director because I know what I want the end result to be and how to get my departments (camera/lighting/design teams/sound/edit) to facilitate my goal.
What do you want audiences to take away from We Still Kill the Old Way?
As a film-maker, you’re asking someone to spend some money and time (90 minutes on the whole), so the ideal is that they’ve felt it was worth their while.
We Still Kill The Old Way is a rewarding film – you see bad guys doing horrible things, and it is action/drama that is connected and believable with ‘ordinary’ folk like you and I, not some intergalactic space battle where none of the audience have any connection or direct attachment to the storyline (apologies to the triumphant Marvel Studios output!) – We Still Kill The Old Way offers up a world that is not only believable, but is relatable to most of the audience on a personal level. By setting this world up, and the credible situations, I believe that the audience will not only recognise these real-life situations, but cheer as our heroes rectify this blip that has entered our society.
Thanks very much for taking the time to chat with The Action Elite and all the best with the film and your future projects.
Thank you for listening!