Taming the Beast

June 01, 2001

-By W. Stephen Gilbert

For a first feature, Fox Searchlight's Sexy Beast is an unusually accomplished piece of work, tasty, unexpected and endlessly intriguing. But when you look at director Jonathan Glazer's previous work, including pop promos for singles by Jamiroquai and Radiohead and commercials for Stella Artois and Guinness, the latter having recently been voted by Channel 4 viewers as the best ad of all time, you see that he was always going to step into the big league.

Glazer trained as a designer and it shows in the look of his filmmaking. Many of the striking channel IDs he conceived while at the BBC are still in daily use on air. Now he brings his questing eye to the tale of a world-weary villain flushed out of retirement on Spain's Costa del Sol to attempt one last bank robbery. The marketing of the yarn, playing that title against Ray Winstone's far from lithe form as he turns lobster-colored in the Mediterranean sun, signals the wry and punishing nature of what is to follow.

British directors now resident in Hollywood like Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne took the ads-and-promos route and Glazer acknowledges being part of "another wave of that. At its best, there's some very idiosyncratic, powerful work done in those mediums and it's reinvigorated cinema. At its worst, it's made cinema that's cosmetic, flashy and structureless." Glazer's direction of Sexy Beast is anything but flashy, never drawing attention to itself for its own sake, very classical, even Hawksian. "It's a very classical story," says Glazer, "and it's not till the third act that anything kinetic happens. The rest of the time, my job was to maintain the tensions." Given his head, the director is apt to dwell on what he sees as the shortcomings of a movie he has now seen far too many times—"there's four minutes I still like"—and bemoan what he now thinks was too short a period of development for a notion originally laid out for stage production. Pay no heed: Though you can detect a three-act structure and, if you resist the robbery set-piece in the last act, you might feel a touch manipulated, nonetheless the whole is plenty cinematic.

"A lot of the filmmakers I admire have focused on composition," Glazer says. "Cinema is largely about how behavior informs events and that can be expressed by the positioning of someone in a frame or by color. But the traditions of British filmmaking are based on theatre and television. The Americans understand cinema much better. Epic novels were what the British produced in the 19th century because we were the center of the world. In the 20th century, America was the center of the world and cinema expressed that. I don't think we have to make American films and I don't plan to move to America but, for good and bad, that's the yardstick. Filmmakers will flock there because that's the hub of things. I'd shoot anywhere, but I do find England difficult cinematically. It's not about scale, it's about lack of texture and emotion and about the cynicism and dryness that comes with the English sensibility. It's only this moment, I think. There was some amazing British cinema in the '70s, subversive and powerful. Nowadays it feels homogenized, a sort of proxy for America. And they're looking to America as the paymaster. We're losing what's particular to us. There are a few exceptions—Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and Lynne Ramsay, in a wonderful way with great poetry. It's so big and I don't mean in terms of numbers or size of image but in size of emotion. That's where the epic really works. Lynne's Ratcatcher transcends its borders. But most British films don't have that ambition. Apart from those, it's all...well, it's television."

This lack of ambition, in Glazer's finding, also infects the treatment of native work in Britain. Having been concerned for its reception in the wake of the Guy Ritchie movies, which seemed to have set a pattern for the modern British gangster flick, the director found his film well-liked at festivals ahead of its British release. "My friends and family and peers are here, so you think, 'I want it to work here.' And it did decent business, but on the back of asinine distribution. I was amazed at the lack of confidence in the film. They had lots of good reviews up front, so they knew they weren't looking at a turkey and they put it on just 27 screens nationwide. It came out the same week as Castaway and it had better press from just about every newspaper. And I thought, 'What do you have to do in this country?' They should have trusted what the movie was telling them.

"But the Odeon chain turned it down and that I think is when the distributors lost confidence. Warners liked it and it played mostly in Warner cinemas. But Odeon has so much power and the British studio system doesn't. So the studio can't turn round and say, 'If you don't play this in 180 cinemas, we won't give you Star Wars,' because they're not making Star Wars so they don't have any clout. Jeremy Thomas said, 'What is the point of investing four million quid in a film if it's put out on 27 screens when you've got reviews like that and festivals jumping up and down about it?' And, of course, filmmakers are going to go to America while distribution is as asinine as that. Why wouldn't they?"

Thomas agreeing to come in as producer was a strong confirmation that Glazer and his writers were seen as full of promise. "He's a very independently minded guy and he's got European sensibilities and very eclectic taste," says Glazer, "so we liked that about him. If you can, you go with people you feel good about rather than people you feel you should feel good about." Recently celebrating 30 years as Britain's leading independent producer, Jeremy Thomas has worked with some of the most original and distinctive directors in the world, including Nicolas Roeg, David Cronenberg, Jerzy Skolimowski, Nagisa Oshima, and Bernardo Bertolucci, whose The Last Emperor (which Thomas produced) took nine Oscars in 1987. "He knows enough to know that he had something on his hands here that could have done big business. It was never going to be Billy Elliot, but it could have made four million dollars in Britain and that would have created confidence in the market."

If Glazer could wave a magic wand, he'd go back to a particular golden age. "I wish I'd been around in Italy in the late '40s," he says wistfully. "Imagine the freedom that Fellini or Visconti or De Sica had to paint on such a big canvas. They were defining the period they lived through. Get on a bus now in Naples and ask the driver to name three great film directors and he'll tell you those three. Get on a bus in Finsbury Park and ask the driver to name a great director and he'll say Steven Spielberg.

"I think Kubrick is the best model of all for a filmmaker in this climate. There aren't many directors now who are respected for their auteurist principles. Kubrick was only able to make a movie once every seven/eight/ten years, but every one of them is worth 30 of anybody else's."

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