PÖFF : 2021 : BNFF
„The Score” director Malachi Smyth on writing as a journey without a detailed roadmap
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Wolf

At the end of the day, it all comes down to great screenwriting. Malachi Smyth knows his craft as a master of screenwriting and, luckily for us, is not afraid to broaden his scope up to the fields of directing. His first feature film „The Score” had its world premiere here at the Black Nights Film Festival and proved to be far from an ordinary crime drama. Malachi shows that he marches to his own directorial beat right from the start.

26th Nov, Friday, 18:30, Athena Center, Tartu

28th Nov, Sunday 20:30, Apollo Kino Solaris, Tallinn

Your first feature film „The Score” is a musical which is a very challenging genre. How did the writing process evolve? Was the idea of making a musical decided first and the story evolved from that or the other way around?

I had absolutely no intention of writing a musical. I was looking to write a simple story that I could get made as a first-time director. Something low budget, with a small cast and few locations, with a combination of thriller and dramatic elements. I’ve always been drawn to films that happen in a concentrated period of time – where the drama, and a great change or catharsis, plays out in real time, or what feels like real time – so I decided to write something along those lines.

The starting point was an idea about two small-time crooks on a job, and how the younger one – the less cynical, and less morally compromised one - has a transformative experience along the way. From there it started to take shape. The transformative experience was always going to involve meeting a girl, falling for the innocence and beauty – the different world - that she represents, and rethinking his life choices.

The way I work is to get an idea and run with it. So I started to write without a detailed roadmap and the form of the piece began to take shape – the three leads, various extras, the car journey, the fight, the meeting place, the wait… all these elements came organically very quickly to me as I wrote. I don’t remember at what point I decided there would be a betrayal at the heart of it, but it must have been quite early, because it is underlying so many of the earliest scenes. I wrote a first draft in a few weeks.

Once I had a first draft I took stock of it. It had much that I liked – strong characterisations, humour, heart, tension. I believed it could make a good film. At the same time, I wasn’t sure that it would be easy to finance. Would it stand out sufficiently to attract cast etc.? So I started thinking about a way to give it an extra dimension, something fresh and unexpected.

As I moved towards the next draft, I began listening to Johnny Flynn’s newest album, Sillion. Often, when I write, I listen to music, and generally I get stuck on listening repetitively to things that in some intangible way speak to what I am writing. There was something in the poetry, style, timelessness and earthiness of Johnny’s music that clicked with the mood and themes I was playing with. In particular, there were quite a few words and lines that jumped out at me as if they belonged in my film. There was even a song with the chorus ‘Gloria’, that I had never heard before, and there I was with a lead character I had called Gloria. It seemed almost providential.

I decided to try an experiment – I picked a song – Barleycorn – that I could imagine being sung by the four main protagonists as the introduction to my film. It would set the tone, announce the film as a musical, and give each of the characters a strand that I would draw together. It fitted like a glove. I showed the result to Ben, a producer I had a long-standing professional relationship with, and he was enthused. So I set about looking for other songs in Johnny’s existing back-catalogue that would fit in as well. It was remarkably easy. The songs I found didn’t need to be manhandled to fit, they slotted into place with almost no decision making necessary – Hard Road for the end, Jefferson’s Torch for falling in love, In the Deepest at the high point of the romance, Howl for Johnny’s flawed self-justification etc. Once or twice I tried different ideas, but I kept coming back to the same half dozen songs.

What was also a vital part of this process was figuring out how the songs would work in practice. I didn’t want to write the kind of musical where the characters burst into song and dance at the drop of a hat and where those sequences stand out as separate entities. In fact I shied away from even calling it a musical at all back then. That tradition didn’t seem to represent what I was trying to do. I was looking for a different effect – to use the music as a way into the characters deeper instincts and hidden emotions; to see inside them, and to create a tension between what they were expressing in prose and what they were feeling in song. The need and the want, or id and ego, fighting for domination. Also, I decided I needed to evolve the way I used the songs throughout, so that the love story’s development would be echoed in the way the lovers sing to each other – gradually hearing each other more and responding to each other more, until finally they are singing together.

Although some of these decisions are more in the category of directorial approach, they were consciously made at the script stage and informed every aspect of the script-writing and film-making.

Only after I had completely re-written the film as a musical, did we (Ben was by now attached as Producer) send it to Johnny to see what he thought…

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The music of „The Score” stands out with its unique touch and instead of bringing sweet, upbeat pop makes its own way through the waves of progressive and folk rock. Could you please tell us more about the collaboration with Johnny Flynn?

The style of the music is very important, as you say – there is a very deep richness and quality to Johnny’s music and lyrics – a profound existentialism, psychological complexity and subtlety, and this is what I responded to in it – and what made it work so well dramatically.

Once we had approached Johnny, he responded with great interest in the project. He is immensely generous and giving as an artist and enjoys for his work to be re-imagined and re-interpreted, for it to be part of an artistic conversation. I met with him a few times to talk about the script and the music. It might surprise some to know that we didn’t meet all that many times, or for that long, but it was quickly clear that we didn’t need to. My script had spoken to him in a similar way to that in which his music had spoken to me. So the conversation took place via the work, rather than in any long drawn out discussions. He liked the approach to the songs and approved of the ones that I had chosen. We talked about other possible alternatives from his back catalogue, and also the treatment of the songs visually, but by this point I was fairly fixed in my thinking and he was always immensely respectful and supportive of my vision. He also offered essential practical advice on how to - and how not to - shoot the musical sequences.

Johnny became involved in script and casting discussions, which confirmed the closeness of our thinking, and once we began to get finance in place he set about reworking the songs to make them fresh and distinctively for the film. By now we were approaching a shoot date, and I had little idea of what he was about to present me with! But I trusted him implicitly as I had no doubt we were on the same page. At this point in production, a director is being pulled in every direction, and asked to decide on countless big questions and a million minutiae, but the one thing I didn’t worry about was Johnny’s contribution – which is not to say I wasn’t desperate to hear it.

True enough, when he sent through the demos that were to be used for pre-recordings I was blown away with everything. The reworkings came from a place of deep appreciation of the project. He had even thrown in a ‘bonus’ track which is the immensely beautiful final credit track.

Throughout the development process people had responded so positively to the concept, but you always had the sense that they were thinking ‘it’s great fun, but is it going to work?’ I would have to admit I shared those feelings on a regular basis. But the recording sessions that preceded the shoot, where Naomi and Will unveiled their extraordinary voices for the first time (we honestly had no idea they could sing like that!) quickly made me realise that this rather off-the-wall notion of mine actually had legs and real potential. It was a eureka moment.

Throughout the shoot, Johnny was on hand as a musical director, offering invaluable advice to the cast about the best technique for singing to pre-recorded tracks, and instilling confidence in them as singers. Meanwhile he continued to polish up the songs, and to offer more creative suggestions; one day on set he played me a demo of a new song that he thought might be in keeping in the film. Again his instinct was spot on and we use it over the dance scene in the boat, and reprise it at the start of the credits.

In post he worked wonders with score elements and, whenever needed, came up with a new gem at the drop of the hat. ‘I need a greek europop number for the car radio’ I would say, and before I knew it he would present me with a fresh joyous masterpiece. ‘How about a french chanson for the café radio?’ Voila!

In short, he was an inspiring and tireless collaborator, who makes you aspire to rise to his level.

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„The Score” stands out with its leading actors Will Poulter, who is currently filming „Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and Naomi Ackie who we know from „Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker”. How easy or challenging was it for you to find the perfect cast and direct them?

Getting cast for a low budget feature is a challenge at the best of times. Right now it seems to be harder than ever because of the amount of work available, much of it great and well paid.

So finding a good casting director is such a blessing, and in Kelly Valentine Hendry we had a great one. Having Johnny Flynn already attached is also a big draw needless to say, though it sets the bar at a high level.

It was Kelly who said to me ‘cast Naomi’ with great firmness at a very early stage in the process. At the time, to my shame, I had little awareness of her work. I had seen her in Lady Macbeth, but nothing else, and it was not easy to find much otherwise to watch. But meeting Naomi was such a joy. Matt, by then a co-producer, and I met her for coffee and we were both charmed instantly. The way she spoke about the idea and responded to the script was everything you would want. From then on, she was attached, and the only fear was that if we didn’t move fast enough she would be stolen away by Hollywood – which her recent casting to play Whitney Houston proves was not an idle fear.

Will came much later to the project – in fact very late. We had had another actor attached for some time, but lost him, and we were struggling to replace him at short notice. It was only a few weeks before production and we were beginning to worry that we would not find a leading man of the calibre to match Naomi and Johnny, when Kelly mentioned, almost in passing, that Will Poulter was in town. We all felt immediately he was ideal and jumped at the chance to show him the script and then to meet him. He loved the script – and Johnny – but understandably for someone with so much experience of large productions he had a few questions about different aspects of the production. Fortunately we managed to convince him we wouldn’t make a mess of it!

It was a daunting prospect to direct actors of such talent and experience, but I could not have dreamed of having such a great bunch of human beings to work with. I already had a relationship with Johnny and was confident we would continue to work well together. With Will and Naomi I had had a couple of meetings only when we went into prep, and a few exchanges about the characters which had demonstrated common thinking, but I had liked them both enormously – which is such an important thing on an intimate production where speed is of the essence. The recording of the songs was a great bonding moment, and a time when we all felt something special was on the cards, which I think relaxed us all.

It was essential to me to have a decent amount of rehearsal time, not only for everyone to get to grips with the material but to build a relationship with the cast. The thing that gave me confidence was being the writer – I knew the material like no one else, and actors respond well when they feel you understand the characters at a deep level and can instantly respond to questions or uncertainties about how to play scenes or to different ways to approach certain lines. It helped that they were so taken with the material and the characters, so it was always easy and great fun to talk through the dramatic questions, and to rehearse. Because they all have such good instincts, it also gives you confidence as a director that they are not going to go too far off piste!

On a small production, with such time and budget constraints, there are enormous challenges in terms of the amount of time you might have to shoot a scene, or the amount of coverage, or number of takes you will get. You need to get shots quickly and be efficient in terms of coverage. Everyone on set feels that pressure, including the cast, no matter how hard you try to insulate them from it. But the great virtue of a cast of this ability is that they can deliver spontaneously at such a high level and make so few technical mistakes – by which I mean apparently simple things like continuity which can cost time – and are so well prepared. Every day they went to the well, dug deep and delivered. It was a great privilege to witness, and even more of one to be a part of it.

I hope that by giving them a secure and very happy set the production did all we could to facilitate that, but really they made the dramatic side of the job comparatively easy. A couple of the night shoots, in particular, were especially demanding – shooting 9 or 10 pages overnight – with technical problems that demanded great patience. But as long as you keep people informed of, and understanding of, the issues and make them part of the process, then they respond by giving their all. Those scenes with Will and Naomi are among the ones I am most proud of and enjoy the most – including the final one – because I know the demands on them were so great.

How did „The Score” find its way to PÖFF and what in your opinion is most interesting about the festival?

We – being myself, the cast, and producers, as well as our sales agents - are aware that our film is a distinctive thing – something that is not easy to place or define. In fact for us that is a major part of why we love it.

But such a thing can be a hard sell. People want to put things in boxes. So finding the right festival for our world premiere was such a critical issue for us. POFF was very high on our list of targets because of its reputation as a top festival, but also one with distinctive programming, where independent films have pride of place. Having such a strong emphasis on premieres generates the excitement you want at, and from, a festival. For me, the association with Northern European and Nordic cinema is a great draw too, because of the diversity and originality of the voices that originate in this part of the world.

Not only does your first feature premiere in Estonia but you have also written a script for Estonian director Tanel Toom's anticipated feature „Sentinel” which is currently in post-production. How did your script end up in Tanel's hands and how would you describe your collaboration with him?

Many years ago, in about 2009, when Tanel had just graduated from film school, we shared a very wonderful agent in London. I had been with her a few years, and she had just taken on this Estonian hotshot whose graduation short had been an Oscar success, so she was busy spreading the word and trying to find the right feature project to attach him to. She suggested showing him a particular script of mine – I forget which one now – but after she showed me his brilliant short The Second Coming, I told her that the one she should give him was a recently completed original piece called Gateway 6 (now Sentinel). I got the sense from watching his film that that would be the script of mine to which he would respond best. At the time, Ben, the producer (same as the Ben above) and I were meeting a bunch of directors, most of whom were somewhat longer in the tooth and more experienced than Tanel. But when we met Tanel his enthusiasm for the project won us over immediately. We both knew he was the man for the job. We understood it would be a tougher road to completion with a first time director – as it proved – but Tanel’s energy and instinct for the story were compelling. Unlike the other candidates, he didn’t see it as another directing job, but rather as nothing less than a mission that he threw himself into with incomparable energy and integrity.

We spent many years working on the script together, and it was always such a pleasure to work with him, drafting and redrafting, then undrafting... through several hundred iterations. Though we are both very strong-willed and quick to argue our corner vociferously, there was enormous mutual respect for each other’s opinions and abilities. That is the critical thing, because disagreements are inevitable as part of the creative process, but you have to go through these battles to come out the other side with something that has been properly tested in the forge. The script has changed enormously over the years, but what is striking is how much of the original is still there, and how the essence, which is what attracted us both to the idea, has not changed. And that is down to a great collaborative partner and a shared vision. Meanwhile each of us had to move over to other projects as they came to fruition sooner, but we always came back to Sentinel, which finally shot this Autumn in Estonia – and I can’t wait to see what he has made of it!