‘I’m ready. I’ve limbered up’ – Gavin Boyter on going up against Star Wars: The Force Awakens
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With his debut feature Sparks and Embers set for release in UK cinemas this week, British director Gavin Boyter has found himself in the somewhat unenviable position of going up against Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

We sent Matthew Turner to find out if he’s up to the challenge…

How do you feel about going up against Star Wars?

“It’s patently absurd. I mean, there’s not a huge amount of overlap in terms of what that film’s about and what my film’s about, but, you know, they’re both pieces of entertainment. I’m thinking I might benefit from some of the overspill from people who maybe haven’t thought of booking ahead, because I’ve heard that you can’t get tickets for Star Wars for love or money for a couple of weeks. So even if people didn’t plan to see Sparks and Embers, they might end up seeing it anyway. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing!”

Are you ready for the challenge of taking on Star Wars?

“I’m ready. I’ve limbered up, I’ve done all my calisthenics. I’m ready for the massive press junket. No, I mean it’s a very strange thing. Every year now, there’s a massive tent-pole movie that comes out at Christmas, so if you make a film that’s likely to be released at Christmas, you are going to be up against a Marvel film or against Star Wars, for the next decade. So maybe I made a rod for my own back with the Christmas theme in Sparks and Embers but actually, I think there’s going to be a lot of people who are just not very interested in Star Wars, who might want something radically different and this is pretty different.”

It’s perfect counter-programming, really. So how would you pitch Sparks and Embers to someone who had gone to the cinema expecting to see Star Wars?

“Well, I’d say it’s a film about a relationship that’s told through a very unusual structure – we see the beginning and the ending, the sparks and the embers, of a relationship, and the audience has to do a little bit of work to piece together how these two people stuck together in a lift became these two people walking on the South Bank, possibly saying goodbye to each other. But it’s fun. It’s set at Christmas, there’s a tiny, mini-action scene, as much action as can happen in a lift.”

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But there are no lightsabers in it?

“There are no lightsabers. There’s a lot of light – there are a lot of sparkling Christmas lights – but none of it’s lethal.”

If you’d known when you were making the film that you were going up against Star Wars, would you have added in more Star Wars references? You could conceivably pass off being stuck in the lift as an homage to being stuck in the trash compactor…

“It is like the trash compactor, yeah. You could maybe do a weird mash-up of that scene where [co-star Annelise Hesme] thinks the lift is going to collapse and kill them both and the trash compactor scene in A New Hope, but that would be a bit of a stretch…”

You do have them both escaping from a collapsing metal structure…

“It’s basically a low-budget remake of the original Star Wars, because I think there’s so much demand for that.”

Are there any dos and don’ts that you learned from the film that you’d pass on to first-time filmmakers?

“Don’t write anything that’s massively location specific that means that suddenly in the middle of shooting you have to move your location to somewhere where it shouldn’t be. For anyone who knows the georgraphy of London, there’s a massive cheat somewhere amongst it, but I don’t think that spoils it for anyone else.

“Also, don’t make films entirely set in a lift! The main challenge of doing a film in a single location is finding interesting angles. I think I pretty much shot every conceivable angle in that lift, as we had a set where you could remove all the walls. But I would say do try and make it containable, make it something that is either set in one location or has two characters, because the more variables you have, the bigger chance you have of things going wrong.”

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How did you come to cast Kris Marshall and Annelise Hesme?

“With Kris I’d been tracking his career since before he was well-known. I saw him in a short film called Je t’aime John Wayne in about 2001, and then the little-seen but brilliant short-lived comedy series My Life In Film. I just thought he had great comic timing and he’s very charismatic, but there is some depth there too. And Annelise I’d seen in the Renault Clio campaign, where guys went crazy for her and women thought she was charming and funny, so I cast her in a short film called Beyond as a result of that and we worked so well together that I thought of her for this.”

Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are obviously a key influence for you…

“It’s kind of an homage. I love those two films and I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if you inter-leaved scenes from those two films. You probably could inter-cut scenes from those two movies and get a completely different third film, where you could directly compare and contrast how those characters aged and how their relationship changed over time.”

What’s your next project?

“It’s a documentary called The Long Run. Because I’m really into ultra-running and low-budget filmmaking, I decided to combine the two and I ran from John O’Groats to Land’s End. I’ve got about 450 hours of footage, which I’m still watching. But I have cut together a kind of teaser trailer and I don’t want to give too much away, but I did have a kind of near-death experience at some point during this run and I shot some incredibly beautiful vistas of Britain, so I’m going to be making this weird little quirky documentary, although I don’t have an ending for it yet.”

Sparks & Embers is in cinemas and on demand from Dec 18