Tom Tyrwhitt
The director on growing up in East London, how he went about making his first feature film, and why it’s definitely not “like Adulthood on crack.”

24 September 2010

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Writer and director Tom Tyrwhitt has just released his gritty, UK street drama Hush Your Mouth on DVD and is a fast-rising name in Brit indie film circles. Here he talks to Pure Movies about growing up in East London, how he went about making his first feature film, and why it’s definitely not “like Adulthood on crack.” Oh, and don’t expect any extra deleted scenes on his DVD releases either…

Hello Tom -for those who don’t know, could you just tell us a bit about what the film’s about?

Well, the title Hush Your Mouth refers a “grass” or “snitch” whatever you want to call it. It’s a story about a 17 year-old lad whose brother gets killed, and it’s about him trying to work out why this has happened.  At first when he realises it was because his brother was a grass, he feels that it’s something to be ashamed of. But as he grows up he realises that there was a very good reason for that, and he goes from a boy to a man, really.

You’re the writer and director of the film, which is set in Silvertown in East London –why did you choose Silvertown in particular as the setting?

It’s really because it’s a forgotten part of London. It would be very easy to drive through Silvertown and not know that you’d ever been there – it’s not got a beginning or an end really. It’s like no other place in London – you’ve got the river, and then right by the river you’ve got a railway line at the same level as the road, which is quite unusual in London. When I was a kid I would race home and try to beat the train on my bike. It looks more like possibly somewhere in New Jersey, or like an odd bit of Eastern Europe or something – it doesn’t look like London particularly, and it’s also as if, especially at night and in some of the pubs, you might have stepped back 100 years or so, as nothing’s really changed. They’ve got a jukebox and a fruit machine, but apart from that it really does seem like old London.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

If you’re making films and writing stuff, you’ve always got maybe two or three stories racing around your head – they’re not quite formed yet, but you kind of like the ideas. I guess I was just kind of chatting to a lot of kids from around 14-18 years old – whatever they wanted to talk about, I was just kind of recording speeches and stuff like that. After a while, they really wanted to talk about serious stuff, like why they were always blamed for things, and religion and death and things. What I was really surprised about and was different to when I grew up was that they’d been to loads of funerals of their mates. Kids of 17 had been to about four, five or six funerals – not for their grandparents or anything like that, but people of their own age. So they were really confronted with death, and that’s what they wanted to talk about. So that kind of gave me the first ideas for this particular story, and then a lot of the characterisations of the kinds of people and things that went on came from when I was about 15-16 and I used to go to this boxing club – where people like Lenny McLean used to go box. The way the people there spoke, acted and what they did – that’s where I got ideas for some of the characters in the story.

So it’s quite a personal film for you in many ways then, and the first feature film you’ve directed?

Yes – yeah, it’s the only feature film I’ve written and directed. I’ve done lots of short films, TV drama and documentaries – stuff like that – but it’s a very different thing. You could make probably ten short films but it won’t be as hard as making one 90-minute film. From the point of view of getting the story right and getting people to go with the story for that amount of time – it’s a very different thing.

You used a lot of first time actors and also non-actors and real people – funeral directors, police and strippers – in the film. That’s quite a brave thing to do for any director, let alone a first time director – did you find that daunting or difficult?

Not really, because I’ve done quite a lot of documentaries and that’s about going out and filming and getting lots of material – recording real stuff. Putting a little written stuff into that situation isn’t a massive leap, really. When we did that first coroner’s scene – in a real place with real dead bodies and stuff – I just said to the guy, “just kind of do what you would normally if somebody comes barging in and demands to see their dead relative, and I’ll tell my actors to just say what they have to say.” Then you just basically press ‘go’ and see what happens – maybe film it from a couple of angels, maybe film it a couple of times – but then you get the scene. Then in the editing room you can kind of take what works and leave what doesn’t. Sometimes it was really difficult, but a lot of the times in the film I think the best scenes are those ones where I’m mixing up maybe an experienced actor like Ruth Sheen and people who have literally come on a set for the first time. People like Khalid Abdallah, for instance – he’s gone off to be in a lot of big films like Kite Runner, United 93 and stuff like that – but when he first came on set, he’d never seen a camera or a film set and spent the whole time sitting behind my director’s chair asking questions about why and how we’d done a particular shot. He really wanted to learn and he’s obviously since gone on to do really good things.

So in many ways the film was both planned and improvised?

Yeah, I guess what I mean is I probably got around three feature films out of the stuff I shot, and I’m only showing the good part, while the other two parts are pretty bad… I’d never put deleted scenes on this DVD, because deleted scenes are deleted for a reason, you know? I just want you to see the good stuff, and that good stuff is what’s on there.

I suppose in some ways it’s a bit like Curb Your Enthusiasm – obviously  it’s very different as that’s a comedy – but it works in a similar way where they’ve planned what’s going to happen but they bounce ideas off each other and don’t necessarily have a strict, written-down script.

Yeah, I guess so. I mean obviously those people have been doing it for like 30-40 years, so they’re very, very skilled at it. So I wouldn’t compare myself to them, but I know what you mean, yeah.

Do you think it’s an approach that is becoming more common nowadays?

Yeah, I mean it was done by loads of people in the seventies by Ken Loach and those types of people – it’s definitely not something that I’ve invented or anything. I think it was also done quite a lot in France in the sixties – kind of going out and writing with the camera, rather than writing and then shooting it. I wouldn’t recommend this way of making a film to anybody going out for the first time and making something, because it takes a long time and you’ve got to keep up not just the audience’s enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm of everybody involved. If you’re a 16 year old and you’ve shot a scene, and then nine months later somebody says “can you do the same part?” – you’re not the same person and you’ve got to do some work to get back into character. I’ve done it once, and I wouldn’t do it this way again, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film – there’s some interesting stuff there, but it was just very tough making it. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make it this way. This is sounds a bit pretentious – but it really was a very organic process.

You  cast quite a few young and unknown actors in the film – Jay Simpson,  Khalid Abdullah, Jessica Jones, who have since gone on to successfully work on films as diverse as Cemetery Junction, United 93 and The Holiday – did you find casting difficult, or was it quite clear to you the kind of people you wanted to work with?

I like casting, because you’re meeting people that basically want a job. They’re going to be enthusiastic & interested hopefully in what you’ve written, and you can have a good conversation. Obviously it takes some time to get the right flavour of the person to fit the part, and sometimes someone can come in and they’re not what you expect, but actually they could be really exciting and you might change what you’ve written slightly because they’re going to bring something special to it. With people like Jessica Jones and Jay Simpson, they were both first-timers – Jess had done some dancing training and Jay had done some youth theatre work – but other than that they hadn’t done anything. You’re always going to have that extra kind of enthusiasm if it’s your first time, and that’s what brings something special to it I think.

The press release I was sent said that critics had described the film as being like “Adulthood on crack”, which I thought was an odd description – I wasn’t sure what it meant really. I just wandered what you thought about this and what your interpretation was?

I think that’s a terrible description, and I told them to take it off – which they did. That didn’t come from us, and I think it’s very lazy to say anything “on crack” – it just doesn’t mean anything. So no, I seriously objected to that from our distributors, and they took it off the box and the other press stuff after I asked. So you must’ve got an old version of it! That’s not the tagline at all.

I’ll tell you what that’s about – that’s about kind of thinking “who’s the audience? Well let’s reference a film that this audience have seen.” I can understand why distributors and PR people want to do that, but the film is very different in many ways from a lot of those kinds of other urban films. It’s got a different perspective. Some things will be similar, but actually it’s a different kind of film. But when people are selling stuff they don’t want to say that it’s different, they want to say “this is like this, plus that” – you know?

I mean, I’ve got nothing against those films because I know how hard it is to make something, but we’re doing our thing and they’re doing their thing – and it’s slightly different.

And you’re now working on another new film that you’ve written and directed, is that right?

Yes, it’s a film called You Get To Me, which is the title of a song that gets bootlegged in the late seventies by a British girl. She really wants to be a DJ, but she’s not really allowed to be as there were no girl DJ’s at that time. She knows everything about this kind of music, but she’s not taken seriously by the men in that scene. She finds a really rare tune that’s worth a lot of money; she bootlegs it, makes copies and sells it to the guy who’s stood in her way. But she feels guilty that she’s made £6,000, which in 1978 is a lot of money, so she goes to Memphis, Tennessee where she thinks the guy who sang the tune lives and decides to give him the money – she feels as if she’s kind of robbed him. But when she gets there she finds this guy who hasn’t been singing for 10-15 years, works in a foundry shouting to be heard over the factory noise. He has no voice left and is quite messed up, so she tries to return him to what he once was. That’s the basic storyline – but it’s about a white girl from the north of England, a black American singer and their relationship. But it’s also about this other guy who’s really into this girl and follows her out to Memphis. So it’s about these three people and their love triangle, in a way.

I’ve also written the song You Get To Me and recorded the demo with Yolanda Quartey, who fronted the Massive Attack tour a couple of years ago and sings in the band Phantom Limb. We’re demoing some of those songs and we’re going to record some of them in the studios over in Memphis. We’ll be recording it on the old tape gear and giving it that authentic sound, so hopefully when we press them up on vinyl and play it on the decks it will sound close to that sound of the sixties when those songs were made.

And when can we expect You Get To Me to emerge?

Well, it’s been a long process and it’s not a cheap film because the first 30 minutes are set in the UK and the rest of the film is set in Memphis. So that makes it expensive, and also it’s set in 1978 so obviously you’ve got to get the right locations, cars, and costumes – and all that stuff costs quite a lot of money. The advantage is that if you go to Memphis today and pick the right streets and buildings, take a few things away and put the right cars in – it pretty much is 1976. It’s not that it’s a hugely expensive film, but it’s not a kind of cheap and cheerful thing. We’ve got some American producers as obviously a great deal is set in America, and we’ve got the soundtrack and some good people attached. We’ve got Nicholas Hoult to play the Jimmy character, who has recently done A Single Man and got that BAFTA nomination, so we’ve got some good people on our side and hopefully we’ll be shooting that early next year.