TIFF ’12 Interview: Rowan Athale on the Hometown Charm of His Heist Thriller “Wasteland”

If his first feature is an indicator that Rowan Athale was born into filmmaking, the fact that he went to the school where Ken Loach’s breakthrough film “Kes” was shot bears it out. Now, Athale’s time in the sticks of Great Britain has been put to great use in “Wasteland,” a deviously devised heist thriller that may operate with the same smoke and mirrors as a glitzy caper as “Ocean’s Eleven,” but takes on an entirely different tenor when set in a sleepy town where everybody knows everybody else.

It’s a particularly close knit group of friends who decide to case a working men’s club in the neighborhood, a quartet of childhood friends who will open up a coffee shop together should they successfully find their way into the club’s safe and additionally extract a small amount of revenge for their mate Harvey (Luke Treadaway), who has been recently released from prison on a drug charge he was set up for by the club’s owner. While the mechanics of the job are told in familiar, meticulous detail, what’s unfamiliar about it is just how high the stakes are since for a group of small-town lads without much criminal inclination, a score isn’t measured in monetary gains as much as in maturity and fostering a greater bond with each other. Shortly after the film’s debut at this year’s Toronto Film Fest, Athale spoke about bringing real camaraderie to a caper film, shooting in his real hometown of Yorkshire and the filmmakers that got him interested in becoming a director.

How did you come up with this?

I’m a huge fan of the heist genre, crime films, classics of the US cinema to European fare. I’m also a big fan of verite cinema and a lot of films that fall into that category like Ken Loach and Shane Meadows films, they’re set in the area where I grew up and they’ve always got warm, rich characters. And I thought what would be great [would be] to take those characters, take that setting and then bring in the actual heist genre, the conventions of that genre and see how it works, humanize the fantasy of the Hollywood heist film.

If you set this film in the neighborhood you grew up in, was it fun to think of how you might case it to rob them blind?

Exactly. I’ve been thinking about that my whole life. (laughs) No, it was actually a lot of fun. To a certain extent, it was part of me thinking, what would a best friend do if I put him in this position? All the characters were kind of an amalgamation of the people I grew up with, the people that I’m closest to, friends I should say. And you’re absolutely right. There is a lot of “What would we do if we would go around and do this?”

There’s a shot in the film that feels like a clear homage to Martin Scorsese’s long Copacabana tracking shot in “Goodfellas,” but the twist is how it’s hardly exciting since it’s a tour of this club in a sleepy town that Harvey is casing for a future robbery. How did that scene come about?

To be honest with you, it was an homage to two [films] – it was an homage to the Aronofsky/Matthew Libatique following shots you get in “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler,” but also very much the “Goodfellas” shot. There was a reason for it being there as opposed to just being a piece of fancy camerawork. The thing is that a lot of people wouldn’t exactly know what a working man’s club is. If you see it from the outside, you may think, well, it looks like a bar. These places are huge, the size of a casino. When you walk in, there’s three bars, there’s a concert hall that could fit half of Wembley in it. There’s just room after room after room. They’re big places because they’re in kind of run-down areas, but they are places of significant size. So I wanted to show that. I just wanted to introduce audiences specifically to the place where the lads plan to pull the job off within, so you can get a lay of the land there, but also just to show to people, certain people from [outside of England] that wouldn’t know what a working man’s club is.

Was the idea of doing the wrong thing to get the right thing accomplished something that was particularly interesting to you?

It was very interesting to me. I’m not going to try and make any grand political statements, but the terrible things that people do for a good cause and whether it’s justified at certain points [is interesting] and just the flawed nature of it. There’s a huge ambiguity about what [this group of friends is] doing. They are committing a crime. They have honorable reasons for doing it. Is that honorable? Is there honor among thieves? There’s certainly a moral ambiguity to it and I like that about it. I like that the characters possess certain flaws that you as an audience member would either see past or not.

How did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?

I’ve been a huge fan of the movies since I was born pretty much. Watching films was one of the most exciting parts of my week. Watching them with my parents — more action type films with my dad, more serious fare with my mom. With my dad, it’d be what we call in England “video nasties” – everything from “Beverly Hills Cop” to “Die Hard” when I was a little kid and my mom would say, “oh that’s rubbish. That’s going to warp your mind. Now let’s watch ‘Midnight Cowboy,’” I’m 11, [but] mom thinks it’s got a simple quality that I should pay attention to. It was always just been a big deal in the home. Both my parents were big film fans. My brother’s a big fan, so we always just watched them.

There’s probably a turning point somewhere around 12 or 13 when I started to become aware of more what happened behind the camera. Like a lot of people my age, that was kind of thing that was given to people when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez [became more famous] where you just say right, okay, well, that’s what a director does. A lot of other filmmakers would be much more of an inspiration than they are now, but at the time, normally when you flicked on the TV, it would be the actors you always see. All of a sudden you’d see the directors, people were talking about them and you’d start to get an interest in that kind of thing. then I probably revisited all the films that I’ve seen up the age of 13 and I would be thinking of them more in terms of who the directors were. A lot of it comes from ’90s U.S. independent cinema the filmmaker [came] into the popular consciousness. That very much sparked an interest that grew from that for the next 15, 16 years.

Was that your brother Neil in the credits as the film’s composer? If so, did that allow you to start thinking about the music well before post-production?

Yes, it did. He’s an excellent composer. In terms of music, [it was] very much prepared in broad strokes, here’s some of the things that I was thinking about and he’d bring some of the things that he was thinking about. It was very much prepared to within an inch of its life because it was such a long time, but [Neil] really wanted to see the scenes and get a sense of it and then just work endlessly to get it right. So we’d talk about the style — I’m trying to make a classical mood piece at times, but the specifics of what he did [was after] seeing the picture and getting the feel for it that way.

It’s terrible to ask since you’ve only just completed this film, but do you have plans for more?

I’ve got two scripts in serious development that a lot of people are very interested in and I’ve been sent about a thousand scripts as well, so it’s all about choosing what’s right next. The ones I’ve originated myself I will make, it just depends on the timing. But it’s an amazing thing to direct a film. It’s a wonderful, a brilliant and a hard thing — a soul-destroying thing at times (laughs) —so you’ve really got to pick the right thing for you. You’ve got to love what you’re doing – I do anyway because just the amount that’s involved in it, it can’t be something that I don’t jump out of bed for every morning. It’s got to be something I’m truly passionate about. So I’m trying to figure that out right now.

“Wasteland” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play the London Film Festival at the Odeon West End on October 14th, the Ritzy on October 16th and the Hackney Picturehouse on October 20th.

UPDATE: “Wasteland” has been picked up by Oscilloscope and will open on July 26th in Los Angeles at the Royal and in New York at Cinema Village. A full list of theaters and dates are here. It is also currently available on VOD.

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