SXSW 2021 Interview: Nick Gillespie on a Master of Delusion in “Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break”

“I’m Paul Dood and I’m a triple threat,” the titular character (Tom Meeten) of “Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break” says as he prepares his audition for the Trend Ladder Talent Show, alluding to his purported abilities to act, sing and dance, but this being a dark satire from Nick Gillespie, the longtime cinematographer for “Kill List” director Ben Wheatley and a helmer in his own right, you know the “threat” part is no joke. Smearing on eye shadow and violently thrusting his hips to the Human League’s “Together in Electric Dreams,” his plans to be discovered on the social media-fueled television sensation filming just across town are unlikely to go as smoothly they do in his head, even if he actually had artistic merit when he’s saddled with an elderly mother (Ninette Finch) he needs to take with him to keep an eye on and find a way out of work at a thrift store with a two-faced boss.

Of course, the worse the day goes for Paul, who captures it all on an iPhone strapped to his chest to livestream for his 14 followers on Trend Ladder, the more entertaining it is for an audience watching his Quixotic quest for fame, with Gillespie enlisting a murderer’s row of British comic actors such as Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Mandeep Dhillon and Johnny Vegas to thwart Paul’s best laid plans and inspire what could become the most spangly serial killer ever committed to film. Suggesting there still may be no worse way to die than on stage, the raucous comedy still sees Paul take the pain of the thousand little deaths he suffers in trying to make it to his audition and attempt to inflict them on those he holds responsible, a murderous rampage that could net him the place on the telly where he always saw himself and even if he doesn’t make it, he certainly leaves an impression given Meeten’s disturbingly committed performance and Gillespie’s devilish direction.

With the film premiering at SXSW, Gillespie spoke about the decade it took to figure out what was the most hellish 24 hours imaginable for Paul Dood, plotting out the path he would take and the improvisation that resulted in some of the film’s most killer bits.

One of the things that thrilled me so much was that this one seemed like you were getting the gang back together from “Sightseers,” and going back into that great black comedy tone. Was that an exciting prospect for you?

It was really exciting. Matt White, the original writer on [“Paul Dood”], sent me the script in 2010. We’d worked together on a few things and wanted to do a feature. It was 10 years of, not working on it constantly, but always one of those projects that we came back to that we thought right, I’ve got to try and get this made. On [“Sightseers”] it was amazing actors, amazing time, amazing thing to have done, but I thought [we] can’t have the “Sightseers” reunion — and we sort of did that anyway [laughs] — but carefully tried not to recreate anything that had been done before. But the making of [“Paul Dood”] was just the greatest time. I was surrounded by a lot of my friends who are very talented and very patient who all did it, and I think they liked the script. We all got together and there was a real energy there, which just gave me lots to work with. It was great.

Did Tom Meeten come to mind immediately for this guy?

Tom was the first choice. I knew him from work and socially, and he’s just got a real energy. You can have the most rounded script and character in the world but once I sat and talked with Tom and he first started just riffing a few accents and mannerisms, I realized, “Oh wow, that’s what it’s really going to look like.” He brought all kinds of things to it. He’s a character actor, he’s a stand-up comic, and there’s a real danger too. He’s got one of those faces [where he’s] very photogenic, but there’s a real lovable danger to that on screen and that’s what we needed for Paul Dood. I’m also a big fan of improvising on set as well, where possible, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but a lot of the actors brought a lot to that, especially in dialogue. Once you’re hitting the beats of the scenes and have learned the script, I think it’s alright to do that.

Was there anything that happened you might not have been expecting, but it’s in the film and you like about it now?

The directors I’ve worked with who I admire have taught me this — we’ll do a version on script and then the we’ll do a version off-script, but you keep in the realms of the script, so improv is great fun and there’s a freshness there, but [it’s after] learning a script in and out, and the best actors on the planet I think can still make that look rehearsed. I’m a big fan of it being a bit more fluid and a bit more real. “Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break” definitely isn’t real, it’s a heightened world, but I always encourage the improv. It’s mostly dialogue really, we get little nuggets that would just be jokes or things that we’d not expected. There was a temptation in the edit to use all of it. Then you suddenly think actually this doesn’t necessarily move things along. There was so many funny bits that we just couldn’t fit in there, so hopefully there’ll be some sort of behind- the-scenes thing where you’ll be able to see hours and hours and hours.

Did you actually have a neighborhood in mind to shoot in? It seemed like you really thought about the geography of how Paul moves through the day.

Yeah, there were quite a lot of chats about it. It’s not specific. We made up the name of a town and a village as if these places were quite nearby. I was living in London at the time, and you can run between two or three tube stops. but it’s quicker not to, so the geography really was figuring that out. How long does it take to walk to a certain place? Or is it quicker to get the train? Then if you’re pushing your elderly mother in a wheelchair, that’s going to hold you up a bit longer. I’d always seen it that he lives on the very outskirts of suburbia and there’s a big sort of corporate part in the middle with a shopping center and all that stuff.

Was the Human League’s “Together in Electric Dreams” always your north star as far as the music?

It was written into the script, and at that point moving forward, [we thought] it might not be this song, but lyrically and tonally I thought it was a really great song. We had that rerecorded and we took Tom to a recording studio and he is actually singing there. A lot of the music in the film we had our own compositions, which honor some of the more tonal and darker bits, and then there’s this pop music, and some library music as well, so it was trying to find the balance of it all sounding like part of the same album and the same film, but also being a bit varied a bit like social media.

Was the camera that Paul Dood wore on his chest actually capturing the POV footage you see in the film?

Yes, we used a prop mobile telephone, and we shot conventionally with digital cinema cameras. Then for the actual POV of that it was a GoPro camera — Tom should get a camera credit really. When you saw his hands in the shot, he’s really wearing that camera.

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?

Probably every day was quite crazy, and that was great. It was a very structured chaos, if that. We had a day where it rained a lot at the skate park scene, and then it was very sunny, and then it was very rainy [again], and we had some big special effects sequences to do. Tom doing [Paul’s] performance at the end, that was really good fun. Genuinely, it was the best time. I really loved every moment of it. You get into this set-life bubble where it is a crazy world to be in, and when you come out of it, you’re like, “Oh, I want to go back.”

It seemed like you might have had a new cast to work with every day. Could you look forward to thinking “Oh, Steve Oram is going to come in today” or “Now here’s Alice Lowe”?

Yeah, because it was all broken down in a way that we could get people that we were really big fans of to come and [take] small parts, or what in turn became big parts, so Alice and Johnny Vegas were there for two days. Kevin Bishop was there for two or three days. Mandeep Dhillon was there maybe two or three days, so you’d always have a different character. It was a challenge because it was quite a big ensemble. That was the biggest cast I’d worked with as a director, and we didn’t necessarily get much rehearsal time as you often don’t, so to be available for all of those actors for when they had questions about the character or motivation, it was challenging in that sense. But as you say, I’d know so-and-so was in the next day, or a friend that I’d worked with, and I was looking forward to seeing one of them in a certain costume. It was great.

What’s it like starting to send this out into the world?

It’s fantastic to have it playing at South by Southwest. It’s really wonderful, and I’m always nervous about showing stuff that I’ve worked on to anybody. You don’t know how people are going to react, and the world changes so quickly. Since we shot this film, the world is a very, very different place and it’s been such a long time since I first read the script 10 years ago to actually be in a position where people are going to watch it. It’s a lovely feeling. Obviously, I hope people like it. I wouldn’t have made the film if I didn’t want that.

“Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break” will screen at SXSW beginning March 17th at 4 pm CST.