One needs only to look at the first season that Rufus Norris put together in his inaugural turn at the helm of the National Theatre in London to know this is a guy who likes to take chances. Commissioning an Alice in Wonderland-inspired musical from Blur frontman Damon Albarn to go along with a British staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Motherfucker in the Hat” is the type of schedule meant to make a statement, no doubt part of the reason Norris was asked to succeed Nicholas Hytner at the prestigious theater company. However, for film fans, the timing of Norris’ new gig was less than ideal considering the director had just come off directing his first feature “Broken,” a promising drama with Tim Roth, Lily James and Cillian Murphy that suggested greater things ahead.
So it is with considerable excitement that Norris found the time to marry the two mediums together, bringing to the screen an adaptation of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s irreverent musical “London Road,” which he directed for the stage in 2011. An unlikely prospect to even get the theatrical treatment, the wildly original production centers on the Ipswich murders in England of 2006, concentrating less on the gruesome details of the five prostitutes who were killed in the area than the psychological effect it had on the middle class community that was largely unaware of their presence, let alone the murders. For years, Blythe did interviews with the locals and ultimately, with the help of lyricist Cork, decided to put their words to song, an extraordinarily clever use of music that shows how communal harmony is so egregiously upset and eventually pieced back together.
In some ways, it’s ironic that “London Road” is dependent on repetition, given that you’ve never seen anything like it before, but a necessary element to keep Blythe’s commitment to the exact transcripts of her interviews intact, every “um” and “aw” included. This posed a formidable challenge to Norris, who had to find the space between authenticity and the dream logic of a musical first on stage and now on film, but he succeeds brilliantly, bringing in familiar faces like Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy to supplement the cast taken largely from the original production and filming on a street in Belvedere where real residents of London Road could take part in the production. Shortly after the film made its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Norris spoke about his attraction to taking risks with “London Road,” finding the right neighborhood to film in and why he created a role for his friend Tom Hardy that wasn’t in the original show.
Before you even developed the film version, what was your interest in developing this for the stage?
I’m very interested in musical theater, [or in general] integrating music a great deal with storytelling. Something like this, which is formally so challenging that’s really moving the form forward, was really fascinating to me. I’d never heard anything like it, and I certainly never directed anything like it, so it was a no-brainer to get involved with Adam and Alecky, the composer and writer respectively, who worked quite closely on it for a couple of years before I got involved. I thought the story of a community that heals itself was fantastic, and there’s so many situations in our lives that are reflected in a way in their experience. Alecky’s verbatim technique — of getting actors to do exactly not only what the real people said but exactly how they said it — is a very extreme form of writing and performance, and it’s something that I’d never done before, so I was very intrigued to work with her.
Were you immediately on board with the verbatim approach or was it something you had to come around on?
It wasn’t a question of whether or not I wanted to get on board with the verbatim thing. That was the deal with Alecky and Adam. The music is also incredibly specific. When I had my first meeting with them, I said, “Look, I’m interventionist, I’m opinionated. I will try and encourage you this way and pull you that way and put my stamp on it, but you have a veto. You need to understand that when you get frustrated with me, if you don’t like what I’m doing, then you just say, ‘We don’t want you to do that,’ and then I’ll stop.”
But there are a million differences between being a film director and a theater director, particularly in the UK. In the movie world, if you’re the director, you’re the boss. It’s about your vision. You can, to a degree, bearing in mind what the producers need and money and all that kind of stuff, have a lot of artistic control, and you certainly have control over the script. You can cut scenes and ask for rewrites. In theater, it’s the other way around. If a writer has a new piece of work, it’s the director’s job to serve up what the writer has written. In Britain, we are a literary tradition — it’s the country of Shakespeare — and the writer is powerful, or should be.
When we made the film, the first thing that I said was, “Okay, it looks like this film is going to happen, and now that deal is off. I’ll still obey Alecky’s work … ” And by then, we were so close that it was never going to be a problem.
You’ve said you actually did a bit of a trial run by shooting a bare bones version of the film with what was available to you before actually making a real version. What did you learn about the cinematic opportunities of this while doing that?
When we first started talking about it, we thought, “Well, we’ve got the actors in the theater every night, so why don’t we just get a couple of locations nearby and literally walk down the road, get a very simple set-up and just do a couple of days to get some material?” We got 15 or 20 minutes of very rough stuff very quickly. What was interesting about it, to be honest, was that it didn’t really work. It raised more questions than it answered. Rather than offering up cinematic potential, it was saying, “The way you’re imagining this is wrong.” That was very interesting to have a rejection from the medium, which was also salutary, because in storytelling we deal with adaptation all the time and it was quite a good lesson in going, “No, you have to really dig into why this piece might want to be a movie, and it isn’t going to be easy.”
It just made us sit back and go, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to take a lot more time about it. We need to get a proper screenwriter to work alongside Alecky. A [cinematographer] needs to be in on the discussion, and the editor needs to come in.” Then it was a gradual process. I guess underneath it all I could smell it, I had an instinct that this was the right thing to do, and I just stuck with it. One of my jobs is to understand when I should not question my instinct and just go, “Well, we’re going that way, and I can’t even tell you why that’s where we’re going.” You’re the director, so to make that decision is your job. It wasn’t just me. David Sabel, who is the executive producer from the National Theatre, and BBC Films, and everybody, were just going, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do.”
Even without the actual presence of the music, the film has that heightened reality of being a musical with little visual touches. Was that tricky to figure out?
Really it comes down to the choreography principally, but people can be very adventurous with the kind of camerawork they do all over the place. We use a lot of slow motion and dissolves, but particularly with the choreography, finding that balance was quite delicate. In fact, the first sequence that we shot in the marketplace, and we discovered very early on, on the first day of shooting, that the choreography was too strong. It was too much like a musical. We had to reconceive it and pull it right back in the moment. That took a little bit of finding the balance, because there’s no room for jazz hands in there. We tried to be quite subtle, and just at certain key moments going, “This is heightened.” The whole world is slightly lifted off.
How did you the settle on the neighborhood that you shot it in?
It’s a real neighborhood and what’s interesting is in the final party scene all the actors are there, all the people who lived on that street are there, and a lot of people who lived on the real London Road in Ipswich came in as well. You’ve got the three layers of the real people who lived the experience, and we were camped on that street for a while, so we got to know the people. The important thing when we started looking for the right street was, “Okay, we know we’ve got to cover this number of houses, it’s got to have this feel, and we don’t want the road to be too wide,” because you’ve got to be able to visually contain it. If this street and this community is the central character in a way, it’s got to fit in a frame. That defined a lot of stuff.
London Road itself in Ipswich is really weird, because there’s about eight different kinds of housing on this one small street. Almost any part of society could live on the real London Road. After a while, all that actually became irrelevant because what became really important, and it relates back to your earlier question — how do you make this a film? Yes, you can have a strictly accurate street, but that doesn’t mean anything. That’s boring to look at.
What we discovered is that we needed in some ways a visual metaphor for society imposing itself on this community because that’s what the story’s about. This community — when they moved there, when they lived there, when they were born there, when they bought their houses — did not buy a house on a street [thinking it would be] used as a thoroughfare for 30 working girls going up and down outside. So when those girls turned up there, that was really a problem. It broke the community up and turned the residents into people who are capable of saying some of things that get said in the film. That experience, year in, year out, is very, very unpleasant for the people who actually live there, particularly if you’ve got teenage girls.
In a way, to have a metaphor of society dumping on these normal people became very important, but the reality is those girls being put on the street is a responsibility of society because they had been moved there due to CCTV cameras being placed where they were working, which was in a non-residential area. The people who owned the football grounds thought, “We don’t want the working girls here because it’s bad for our image, so we’ll put the CCTV cameras here, and we’re not going to take any responsibility for the fact that that means they’re going to be standing outside people’s houses.” We found a street which had a great motorway going over this old Victorian street and to find this place with a gas tower at the end of the street felt like a visually appropriate metaphor for what’s happening in the piece.
Tom Hardy appears in a striking cameo as a cab driver with a fascination with serial killers. That wasn’t originally part of the stage production, so how did that role come into the film?
What we found was because it’s all very strictly related to what Alecky recorded from the people that she spoke to, she had recorded a load of material before she met anyone on London Road. In a theater sense, that can work fine because you’ve got 11 actors who play the residents of the road playing all these other parts, so it feels like you’re being told a story by the core protagonists. In a film, that doesn’t work because you’ve got 70 actors [each playing one specific role], so we had to relate every scene that was not on the road or didn’t involve a resident to one of our core protagonists and we had to alter it slightly to keep bringing it back.
The scene where Tom Hardy’s in the cab is a turning point for the person who’s in the back of the cab. He’s freaking out this woman who lives on London Road, and it helps her come to the decision that she’s going to leave, which she does later on. All the time, he’s heading back to London Road itself. In reality, that was a man in a pub talking to Alecky before she’d met anyone who lived on London Road and before Steve Wright had been caught. Still, it was maintaining the absolute accuracy of what he said and put back in one of the residents where Alecky, the writer, had been. It’s just a little bit of artistic license to bring it back to the core story of this being a community and how it breaks and shapes itself.
It’s a lovely film, I hope you find the time to direct a few more of these.
[laughs] Not for two or three years, but hopefully I’m not quite done yet.