GUARDIAN: Making your first feature film, can art and business coexist?

The Guardian article on Interview with a Hitman

I didn’t do a lot of planning before I embarked on making my first short film over twenty years ago. What was my plan? Who was the audience? How was I going to get it out there? I asked myself none of these questions – I just felt an overwhelming desire to make a film. So, aged 23, with a head still full of the deconstructed symbolism of David Lynch’s films (on which I did my masters dissertation) I embarked on an almost dialogue-free, black and white, metaphorical allegory. A year later, having roped in friends and family, and performing almost every role during the production, Only the Lonely was born – written, directed, edited, sound designed, mixed and mastered by Perry Bhandal.

As the meagre set of credits rolled off screen I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement and peace. This is what I wanted to do. Write and direct my own stuff. I took the tape out of the video player (VHS, yes it was that long ago), put it in it’s plain white case with the typescript title under which sat the immortal words “Directed by Perry Bhandal” and thought “now what?”.

A week later I sat before a festival entry form, pen poised over the entry for genre. Hmmm. Tough one. My film defied genre. It certainly couldn’t be dissected with such a blunt tool as genre classification … I settled for Fantasy, Drama. I’m still not sure what that means to this day. My, ahem, short film (at 42 minutes) managed a few festival shortlists here and there. I received some responses from television studio heads, along the lines of “I don’t know what to do with this”. But I was making headway. I was on the first rung of a ladder that I wanted to climb.

Fast forward twenty years – I’ve lived a conventional life, setting up and running my own successful consultancy firm. The only unconventional aspect was I had never really let go my passion for film and the dream of one day reembarking on a career as a film-maker. I’d been writing an increasing number of screenplays, each more commercial than the last, had a creative writing MA under my belt, and a three-quarters finished novel. I was ready. I had something – a compelling and commercial body of work to take from paper to screen.

But this time it would be so different. A business exists to make money. To sell a service, a product, to differentiate oneself from, and yet compare oneself to, the competition. Could the film business be any different? Did it, along with the music business, exist in a parallel universe where the fundamental tenets of economic theory and the laws of supply and demand were no longer relevant.

No it didn’t. I turned and looked at the neatly stacked screenplays on my desk and the title of the one on the top: The Winter Man.

Ask me what Only the Lonely was about and I’m not sure I could tell you without resorting to oblique references to the films of Jean Luc Goddard, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch. Ask me what The Winter Man is and I’ll tell you to think Taken meets Max Payne.

Driven by the nihilistic opus of a prisoner of conscience a father wages war on the criminal underworld that tore his life apart.

Set in present day Europe. This is the story of a man’s search for absolution, his fall from this world into darkness, his salvation by an unconditional act of love and his redemption through the ultimate sacrifice.

Which one of my films would you want to watch? Or more to the point, which one would you pay to watch. I made Only the Lonely for myself. I will be making The Winter Man for both myself and the audience.

It is “explosive … has real commercial legs”, said one distributor after reading an extended synopsis, well aware of the commercial successes of Taken and Max Payne, and that, with the right cast and budget combination, it will see big returns.

When I said I would direct it, the proposition seemed much riskier. Who could blame them, distributors and investors alike, for not wanting to undertake the film equivalent of charging a dubiously qualified pilot with a F22 Raptor.

So what did I do? I went away and wrote a much lower budget film called Interview with a Hitman – and to allay any concerns about my ability to deliver it, I went out and bought the same previsualisation software that studios use to model sequences. The script went down a storm and as the first protestations around track record began to form on the mouths of my audience I started the first five minutes of the previsualisation.

Given a budget that could both deliver the film (just) and make a return, we started casting. The quality of the script shone through and the assembled cast with the addition of Prince Nuada (Luke Goss in Hellboy II) himself as the hitman turned the project into such a compelling commercial proposition that the writer and director insisted on putting a third of the money in himself.

So have I turned my back on the creative and artistic impulses that drove me to make my first short? I don’t think so, it’s just that other auteurs like Michael Mann, David Fincher and Ridley Scott have joined David Lynch, Jean Luc Goddard and Andrei Tarkovsky as inspiration.

Interview with a Hitman is as much a character study as it is an action thriller. The overriding theme of all my work is the search for justice and the consequences of violence. As a producer I want the film to be a commercial success and so have come to understand the marketing strategy for my film.

And how has it turned out? The film had its market premiere in Cannes May 2012. It has gone on to sell in every major territory worldwide and has already recouped prior to selling a single cinema ticket. It was released theatrically in the UK on 20 July to great reviews. It is currently showing in cinemas in the Middle East and is out on DVD in Japan. It is being released in the US soon and was out on DVD in the UK on 27 August.

Audiences have gone to see it in theatres and it is selling very well on DVD. There is talk of a US remake.

So back to the question. Art or business first? You can’t have one without the other. Well you can. But then no one’s going to see it.

Read the article online at: Guardian article Interview with a Hitman