What was the inspiration for Level Up?
Level Up was a project before I got involved called Clean Face. I was sent the script, which followed the same structure and set up more or less but had a very different tone, character and feel to it. I really liked the idea but even more so, I was keen to see a film like this that had someone relatable at its centre, and the tone and humour that would then come from this. The idea of putting someone utterly ill equipped as the protagonist of a high concept thriller was hugely appealing and a large part of my pitch.
I was also excited to show the city I have lived in all my life, but to show it in between the cracks, down the alleyways, under the shopping centres or behind closed doors. I wanted to create a version of London that often bordered on the surreal, to create something heightened and cinematic but also fun, and hopefully funny. Finally, as a kid then teenager in the 90s, I was part of the last generation that can (just about) remember a world without mobile phones and access to the web. I am a tech junkie as much as the next man, but the effect it has on me and those around me, the worrying lack of empathy it can create, in addition to my years of barely leaving the sofa… These were ideas that felt interesting to explore within the framework of an intense and frantic roller coaster ride.
It seems like a ton of action/thrillers rely on a few set pieces to get by and forget to give us compelling characters. Your film feels like more of a character driven piece than an action one. Is that by design or just how you choose tell stories?
Its rather a cliche, but characters are the most important part of any story to me. I relate to Matt; if I didn’t have a passion for filmmaking, I could have easily slipped into the apathy and confusion he finds himself in at the beginning of the film. I wanted to present a version of a modern young man in our society, one who is as confused as to what it actually means to be a man as he is as to how to live. Then you put a character like that in a story where we usually see a certain type of hero, and see what happens…
The film acts as road movie in some respects so the other characters in the film are on the whole tied to a singular location. This doesn’t give us a huge amount of time or room to explore them, so I wanted each character to be slightly heightened, to give an immediate impression. There is also the question with almost everyone in the film as to whether they are real or an actor playing a part in the game.
One character who bucks this trend is The Businessman, who for much of the film is this relentless, Terminator style villain. But as the reveal shows, he’s really just another Matt. What I loved about that character, other than Will Houston totally owning it, was the idea that we could have easily told the film from his point of view, in a way it would have been a straighter, more commercial film..! This guy has his daughter kidnapped and must do anything necessary to get her back - he’s basically a Liam Neeson type, much more equipped for this story than Matt. But in his story, there’s this annoying 20 something layabout who keeps getting in his way and ruining everything for him…
The casting of your lead role seems like it could have been somewhat challenging. The character has to be believable as both an every man and an action hero, not an easy combination to pull off, effectively. Can you speak a bit about the casting process?
The casting process was really challenging. We needed Matt to be a believable sofa dwelling layabout but then also to be physically equipped enough that later in the film he can, often without planning to, defend himself. Due to the style of the story, we also don’t have a huge amount of time to get to know Matt, so we needed someone who you hopefully warm to quickly, despite his many faults. We searched and searched, and then, really a matter of weeks before we were due to start filming, were sent a tape from Josh’s manager. And honestly, it was just Matt. Now Josh is clearly a good looking chap, athletic, not who you would necessarily imagine for the role, but he played it so low key, the way he held himself, the lack of confidence, the mumbling and confusion. Combining this with his charm and humor, and you have a lead that makes sense, and one you can get behind. It was a relief…
The music in the film is unnerving and really adds to the tension of the piece. Its not a traditional action/thriller score... but then your film is in most ways non-traditional. What made you decide to go with Plaid for the score?
I have been a fan of Plaid for years and it was always a dream of mine to have them score one of my films. I’m a huge electronic music fan and Level Up immediately felt to me like it needed a bold, electronic score. It needed to be tense and unnerving, to be strange and uncomfortable at times, but also playful and occasionally touching on the film’s B Movie roots. Plaid felt the perfect fit, not only had I loved their music for well over a decade, but also the two film scores they had done before. We worked on the music for a long time, it was tricky to find the perfect balance - for it to be intense and work as a thriller score, but also represent the strangeness and humor of the film. But it really was a dream come true, as was working with Warp Records. Before any project I have a playlist of tracks that fit the film, that I write or shot list to, and to see them now in the film is amazing. Some scenes are completely tied to a track - like Clark’s Secret that plays from the end of the drug dealer’s flat through the scooter chase and him riding through London. To be able to use those Warp tracks - Squarepusher, Rone, Clark, Mount Kimbie - was one of the great joys I had on this film.
The opening sequence of the film is highly effective in pointing out the distance our media devices have placed between us. With all of our "connectivity" do you feel a personal disconnect from the people in your life?
In certain respects I do and I’m guilty of being glued to my phone, addicted to emails, spending more time with mates on WhatsApp than in person… But that opening sequence, particularly the man hanging from the building, came from an experience I had when I was working on the script. I was on my way back to the station in central London, and there had been an accident, ambulances, crashed cars, one guy on the floor covered in blood. And there was this guy filming it on his phone, filming the guy on the floor. Soon someone related to the accident came over and started shouting at this guy until he walked away. It was the complete lack of empathy, the ability to put a screen between you and someone and take away any emotional connection. You see that with reality TV or Youtube - from someone falling over or being humiliated. But to see it in reality, to literally just hold up a screen and therefore completely remove yourself was disturbing. That’s what the crowd are able to do at the beginning, what Matt and Joel are able to do, and then what hundreds, thousands are able to do to Matt throughout the film.
What are the films that blew your hair back and made you realize you had more than a passing interest in film?
There’s a lot… I was a musician, that was my ambition and focus. I loved films, but had never thought about making them. As a kid it was Spielberg, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Big Trouble In Little China, 80s sci fi and action… Then as I entered adolescence, Goodfellas opened up a world of cinema, the entry point was Scorcese but soon I was hooked on 1970s/American cinema - Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Godfather, Chinatown and on and on. At the same time, Tarantino appeared and I was suddenly reading scripts and buying soundtracks. Through the discovery of his films, I was soon exploring Independent cinema as well as the blockbusters of the time.
Then when I was 16/17 I saw three films that fundamentally changed my path. Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. With the first two, it was realizing film’s potential; the complexity of the image, the power of sound and music, the world building… With the latter it was an emotional connection, a response so strong that I found it hard to think of anything else. I was so effected by it that I watched over and over, read the book… I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had to get closer and closer to that film. Until one day I realized that what I actually wanted was to make it. And so I put down the guitar (which I think was appreciated by anyone would heard me play) and decided that films were the way forward for me.
Please god tell me that is an actual Karaoke bar. That and can you talk a little bit about the locations you chose for the film and set design?
It is a Karaoke bar but you may be disappointed if you go there as we did a lot of work to it! The actual bar is in Islington, North London, not Chinatown, and it’s a modern, colorful place but no where as strange or intense as we tried to make it. The very first thing I wanted to do was cover the corridor in colored lights, to make it this surreal tunnel of color that would contrast with the greys and grime of the outside world and create a unique, abstract world for Matt to enter. This and him peering into the closed off Karaoke worlds of others was the key. Then with bold colored lighting and lots of design details, we tried to make it a very unique and strange little spot.
The locations were so fundamental to the film, each one needed to be a character in its own right. Because of the low budget, we needed to find striking and cinematic locations as we couldn’t afford to build or even dress too much… So we searched and searched… Some needed more work than others. The drug dealer’s flat was just a shell and we worked on everything from the wallpaper, the light fittings to the grime on the walls. Other locations like the factory at the end, or the shopping center, were tweaked and lit but on the whole similar to how we found them.
What is iBoy?
iBOY is my next film, although I started work on it long before Level Up. It was supposed to be my first film, but due to various reasons it was pushed and we ended up shooting earlier this year. The way it worked out was that I started soft prep pretty much the day after delivering Level Up, we wrapped shooting the films within a year of each other. It’s based on the novel by Kevin Brooks and stars Bill Milner, Maisie Willams, Rory Kinnear and Miranda Richardson. It's out in the very near future, I’m very proud of it and can’t wait to get it out into the world…