We caught up with first-time director Perry Bhandal about the making of his new film Interview with a Hitman, starring Luke Goss. After years of writing screenplays and dreaming of the industry, we found out how he got into filmmaking, the difficulties of shooting a feature length film in three weeks, and the benefits of knowing your way around a camera.
You’ve had a very exciting past week, with the release of your first feature film ‘Interview with a Hitman.’
It is, it’s the culmination of a journey that started over three years ago, when I set up my own production company, but compared to other people, things have happened really quickly for me!
It must have been quite exhilarating with it all happening so fast.
I think when you’re in the process of getting stuff off the ground, it comes together very quickly. It’s a mad scramble to try and get everybody onboard, and get everything set up. It doesn’t feel very glamorous at all! It’s a lot of hard work, but the end result is something I’m incredibly proud of. It’s pre-sold in almost every territory worldwide, and it’s already had commercial success, before selling a single cinema ticket or DVD! We’re just hoping for the same critical acclaim.
We love the sound of ‘Interview with a Hitman,’ could you just give us its basic plot?
It’s about a young boy, Viktor, who grows up in the slums of Romania and becomes a contract killer for the mob. It’s about his betrayal at the hands of the men who he thinks of as family, and his escape to London in search of a new life. But, as with all men of violence, he gets involved in a vicious underworld struggle, and his past starts to catch up with him. But when a woman comes into his life, he realises he had a reason to leave the life he was born into, and he must fight for his chance to be with the one he loves.
It’s a character piece, as well an action thriller. I wanted to get under the skin of what it takes to make a man like Viktor; asking questions like ‘Does a man like this deserve a second chance?’ Most hitmen in movies come to the screen fully formed, but I wanted to look at what creates a hitman – and that’s why we go back to Viktor’s childhood. After a test screening, someone who works at a children’s home told me they thought the film’s description of how children are changed by their surroundings was one of the most authentic they’d seen. We tried to create sympathy for Viktor, which is very difficult, but everybody who’s seen the film says they have empathy for him. There’s a lot more to convey about Viktor than just the ‘hitman,’ and I hope that comes across.
What attracted you to write Viktor’s story?
Well the common theme in all of my work is people who live outside of society. I’ve grown up in a very conventional way, living by the same rules as everyone else, but I’m fascinated by those who live by their own rules, and have to cope with their environments. With all the screenplays I’ve written, I focus on how a person changes when they’re faced with an environment that is totally different than what most of us experience. I think people find these characters fascinating, and we love watching their trials and tribulations – I think that’s why films like The Terminator, James Bond and Bourne are so successful. We get a window into this other, closed world that may or may not exist.
So are these the sort of films that inspire you? What do you think are your biggest influences?
One of my favourite directors is Michael Mann, I love the character studies that he does. I love classic films like Leon too – things where I really get the character. I don’t like films that pander to the lowest common denominator. Audiences are so sophisticated now that they want a challenge. They want established genres, and they want to enjoy themselves, with something that isn’t difficult to watch, but they want to be challenged as well. Like in Interview with a Hitman, we go back and forwards in time, and I think audiences like that. They like making the connections for themselves, and there’s a sense of satisfaction in it.
But I think the main draw in films are the characters, and it’s excellent having a really great actor like Luke (Goss) in the lead role. He is really living that character, and he also brings his own nuances and details to the vision that I’ve shared with him. I remember him saying to me he was going to have to do a romantic comedy after this to remove Viktor from his psyche, because it was just so intense! But the part I loved most, about making this film, was collaborating with everyone, and bringing to life this fictional world that I’d envisioned.
Considering you’ve written quite a lot, is seeing the story become real what interested you in filmmaking? It is obviously a lot more tangible than writing novels.
I think in pictures, so I’ve always wanted to tell stories through the medium of film. I made a short film a long, long time ago – just a student thing! – and it opened doors for me; but as you can imagine, sometimes life has other plans, and you find yourself on a different path than the one you want for yourself. But I carried on writing screenplays, and dabbled with novel writing (in fact my next film is three-quarters novel that I converted into a screenplay), but I’m a much better screenwriter than I am a novelist! So I’ve built up a body of work over the years, and in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to take it up professionally.
But it wasn’t until my father’s passing in 2009 that I was spurred into doing anything. He’d come to this country with my mother in the mid-60s, and they both worked really hard to give me the opportunities that they never had, but he had to sacrifice his dreams. I’d seen some of his writing, and it was really good – and I did try to get him to do something with it – but it was something he was resigned to. I knew it was something he would have wanted me to make something of, though. So within a few months of him passing, I sold my start-up business, and started my own production company.
That’s a bold move! Why did you choose that path into the business?
I took a different route into the industry because I didn’t want to make a short film, or go round the festival circuit: I just wanted to make a film. And I knew, from my previous professional background, that you have to have a product that people want to buy. So, the plus side for me was that I’d built up an entirely commercial body of work that was ready to go. I also emerged myself in all aspects of filmmaking – working the camera, lighting, sound – because being technical has served me well, and I wanted to know how to take what was in my head and put it on screen, without relying on other people – I wanted to be able to say ‘This is what we’re doing.’
It gave me a lot of confidence during the shoot. On the first day, we did a really technical shot, and I don’t think I’d would’ve been able to get it if I didn’t know exactly what I was doing behind the camera. We also shot a lot of really long takes, in low, nighttime lighting, and I just had to know about the camera and lens, or we would’ve had to use a lot of lighting – and that’s not what I wanted at all. I think some of the crew were quite shocked that a first time director knew what lenses they wanted, but that’s what I’ve always been like in my professional career – even before filmmaking. It was wonderful though, being able to talk knowledgeably about exposure and lenses, and all sorts of technical aspects, to the crew; it gave them a lot of confidence.
I really wanted to make sure the first thing I did led to something else, too, because in this industry you’re always judged on the success of your last project. We had a lot of interest in the screenplay after I did some final tweaks with the script editor, though, and it became a very interesting proposition: based on the size of the budget, and the title, it’s a very marketable piece. We knew we were on to something when we went out to cast, too - because we had a fantastic response, and assembled most of the cast really quickly!
How easy was it to cast Viktor?
Viktor was the only problem we had with casting. We had so many auditions, it got to the point where I thought maybe I’d written someone that couldn’t be played! He’s a very stoic character, and we kept getting two types of actor come in. We either had someone playing a James Bond-type role, which was totally not what I wanted, or we had somebody who just had nothing there, and was emotionless. We got the casting director to send out a request, though, and that’s when Luke’s manager got in touch. I was familiar with him from Hellboy 2 and Blade 2, so I watched the films again and I knew straight away he could do it, because he was just communicating so much through his eyes.
He’d played two characters that were quite stoic, but with bursts of emotions, and that’s really what I need from Viktor. I wanted a character, who (when he does show emotion) is like a klaxon is going off! So we cast him right away, and I knew that with Luke we could absolutely deliver on the film, and make it a success. But even I hadn’t predicted how well it would do – with Berlin, and Cannes, and selling territories worldwide. Luke‘s even said it’s the best film he’s ever done, and he’s come over to do all of the promotional press and TV!
And we heard you shot the film in three weeks, which sounds extreme! How did you get on with that?
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done! We had about thirty locations and loads of cast, but it was a god send to shoot in Newcastle, because all of the locations are quite close together. We were doing 13 hour days, six days a week, and roughly sixty to seventy percent of it was night shoots – it was just absolutely exhausting. But what kept everyone going were the rushes at the end of every day. We were so energised by what we were getting, that we just carried on and on and on! You just know that in that moment, you are never going to be able to repeat it.
It was helped as well by our very fluid, handheld and steadicam shooting style; there are only two static shots in the film, and I think that works brilliantly, as you have such freedom of movement. It comes out so organically, but as we were shooting long-takes too, it really helps the actor – they can live out the character as if it were real life. The style definitely helped us on such a tight schedule. There were a few compromises along the way though – a few quick re-writes and things, but I’d rather do that, than jeopardise the whole project. But I think an extra week would have been ideal!
‘Interview with a Hitman’ is out in cinemas now.
Written by: Jade Turner