With both the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals underway, Park City, Utah has become the epicenter of indie movies, pitting each festival in a turf war over whose festival represents indie moviemaking in the truest sense. And while Sundance may get all the media hype, there’s no question that Slamdance features some great indie films, showcases new talent, provides a platform for truly original ideas and gives its participants a chance to show off a truly grassroots approach to moviemaking.
One of these movies is Steve Kelly’s City Rats, a movie that stays true to the festival’s emphasis on a more natural method of moviemaking, where even the simplest of stories can become something much more when big-budget theatrics take a backseat to the ways in which characters are presented and engaged. Taking place over the course of a day in London, City Rats is comprised of four different stories in a variety of styles, from the darkly funny to the downright sad. With an ability to skillfully present the story’s emotionally charged content with grace, it looks as though Kelly will be a name worth remembering.
MM spoke with Kelly about his first feature film, his approach to directing and what it means to premiere in Park City.
Douglas Polisin (MM): You’ve made a name for yourself as a great director of prime-time television movies. What were the challenges in the transition to feature film with your cinematic debut, City Rats?
Steve Kelly (SK): I’ve always loved the movies and constantly sort of make my TV drama look and feel as much like a film as possible. I’d delve into the subject matter and extrapolate visual motifs and themes—something volume television drama finds hard to accommodate. I’d select actors with a unique quality who were still hungry and prepared to be different. I found the crews I worked with, loved the challenges of shooting on longer lenses and create high impact frames. So in many ways, I’d been rehearsing for features for years. I have also shot commercials so features felt a very natural progression.
MM: From what I’ve read, it sounds like you’re not a fan of over-rehearsal and that you let the camera capture “the unique moment of truth.” That’s seems like a very organic approach to directing but also a very risky one. Was it worth the risk? Does that stripped down approach lend itself to the simplicity within the script? What are the benefits of directing in this way?
SK: I love working with actors and I get such a buzz from their uniqueness. For me, the Holy Grail of directing is to help actors find that “unique moment of truth.” On City Rats I made it clear I neither wanted to over-rehearse nor over-shoot any scene. That approach invited each actor to be challenged beyond their comfort zone and in a reactive environment. I zone in on scenes that are a real. A moment in time witnessed by the camera and not contrived. I invite spontaneity and ask actors to surprise me. But this approach hides a mass of background work; it is definitely not an easy option, but I believe it pays off. For me the performances in the movie are beautifully judged and very deep. Even now, when I watch certain scenes, I’m still transfixed.
MM: Was it difficult to balance the humor of the movie with some of the darker things you explore (death, suicide, drugs, sex, etc.)? How did you find that balance?
SK: City Rats is a striking mix of comedy and tragedy and has many contrasts. It’s a rich… complex… disturbing… heartrending… beautiful… bitter… haunting… damaged…dark… brooding… provocative piece! This heady combination of genre types forced me to work tirelessly to blend each element. It’s great to place audiences in difficult dilemmas. Asking them if they ought laugh at such dark subject matter. Perhaps one of the best examples of this would be the three utterly divergent sex scenes, which are by turns eccentric, beautiful, gross and deeply moving. One is a beautiful scene where an autistic man, Chris, loses his virginity in absolute joy and serenity. Another is tragic, as two desperate characters, Jim and Sammy, have just agreed to commit suicide but try to find in sex a reason to live. This is profoundly sad and heartbreaking. The third is where a hooker, Gina, who wears leg braces, is having sex with a punter, John, dressed as a cowboy whilst the man who wants her to be his muse looks on. The scene is funny, repulsive and desperate. You can literally see some of these characters lose their souls during the scenes.
MM: City Rats is premiering at Slamdance, what does that mean to you? How does it feel to be a part of the festival?
SK: It’s amazing for me to premiere the movie at Slamdance. It’s a festival with a passion for selecting, dangerous, original and powerful films looking for the talent of tomorrow and I’m thrilled to be part of that journey.
MM: What is your next project?
SK: I’m currently filming a comedy in the UK. It’s a charming British road movie about 11 old and new friends who embark on a trip of a life time. It’s funny, heart warming and deeply poignant.