Malachi Smyth • Director of The Score
“I like these small moments in time when lives are changed forever”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to the director of this British musical set in a roadside café, which features music by Johnny Flynn
With music courtesy of Johnny Flynn, Malachi Smyth’s The Score [+see also:
interview: Malachi Smyth
film profile] sees a pair of unlikely lovers (Naomi Ackie and Will Poulter) meeting in an equally unlikely place: a small café, where the coffee is cheap and tensions run high. They are hoping that their encounter, however brief, will finally change their lives for the better. We spoke to the director about his movie, which has just taken part in the First Feature Competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
Cineuropa: You decided to stick to this one location for most of the film, and have these characters sit in a café and just talk. Why?
Malachi Smyth: There are a number of reasons, both practical and creative. Many people commenting online have said that you can see it’s a COVID film, but that’s absolutely not the case. It just shows that many don’t understand the difficulty of getting a low-budget feature, particularly for a first-time director, up and running. You can’t start by making Star Wars; you start at a place where everything is manageable.
The idea of filming in one location and not quite in real time, but almost, excited me as a dramatist. You don’t want it to be too stagy; you want to explore the space, and at the same time, you are aware that people have short attention spans. But there are many great films that are contained like that – take 12 Angry Men. I wanted to build the tension in a way that was subtle and tell all of these stories while the fuse was burning slowly in the background.
We all know films taking place in one room or one building, but it’s unusual for musicals. Although in Chicago, they do spend some time in jail.
I didn’t write it as a musical at first. After the first couple of drafts, when I was looking for a way to make it more magical, I came up with this idea. I was listening to Johnny’s songs and thought: “This is interesting. Maybe I can do something with it.” By that time, the set was already fixed, so the songs were like the icing on the cake. Everything else was in place.
The way they sing is, well, realistic. It’s not overly polished.
I wanted to use the songs as a portal into their inner lives. There are times when you don’t know if others can hear them or not. As the love story develops, they start hearing each other, but no one else does. You can understand this underlying emotion within them: they might be saying one thing, but singing something completely different. Having shown the film now, one of the most satisfying things was having people telling me that they got it. Because I was a bit nervous! We were lucky to have the actors that we did, although I said to myself that even if they couldn’t sing at all, I would make it a part of the film [laughs]. On the soundtrack, it will be more polished, however.
These kinds of performances can provoke very different reactions – it’s enough to think about Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! [+see also:
You need an audience that’s willing to buy into it. Some will just go: “Ugh, films with songs. No, thank you.” For me, Pierce singing like that is great – it’s part of the character. It’s like the Shakespearean soliloquy – suddenly, a character comes to the front and tells you what they are thinking. The audience buys it in the theatre, so why wouldn’t they in the cinema?
What were you looking for in the central romance? It starts so awkwardly, but there is a connection.
Naomi came to us through our casting director, who told us she was going to be “massive”. The only fear was that if we delayed things too much, we would lose her to a big Hollywood production. Will had that “wow” factor, too, and it was an enormous help having Johnny involved, as actors love working with people they respect.
When you are telling a story of two people meeting and falling in love, within the space of a few hours, you need to feel there is something there. You have to feel that they get each other on a deeper level, that they are effectively singing the same song. When you think about the Before trilogy by Richard Linklater, it’s just two people walking and talking. That was certainly on my mind, or that German film Victoria [+see also:
interview: Sebastian Schipper
film profile]. Here, they are both testing the waters a bit, and I thought it was beautiful, getting this sense of people “investigating” each other. They are taking a leap of faith because they want to hold on to something good. I like these small moments in time when lives are changed forever.
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