David Morrissey can lay claim to being one of Britain’s best loved actors, with a string of TV and film roles, including State of Play and Doctor Who, to his name.
Now, after a few forays into directing for television, Morrissey has made his first feature film, Don’t Worry About Me, a small-scale love story set in his home town of Liverpool which manages to be both touching and thought-provoking.
I recently caught up with Morrissey in Inverness following a screening of Don’t Worry About Me and began by asking him to tell me about the film’s plot.
It’s about a London guy called David who has a one night stand with a Liverpool girl in London and he thinks in his mad romantic way that this is the girl for him. He follows her up to Liverpool and she’s not as single as she led him to believe, and her boyfriend kicks-off.
David gets drunk, gets his wallet stolen and he’s stranded in this city. So he goes to make bet on a dog in order to get some money to get home and in the bookies he meets another girl and they spend the day together through various circumstances.
It’s about two incompatible people who decide to tell each other their secrets and share their pain with each other.
How did you come to get involved with the script?
I had spent about three years trying to raise money for another film which had a budget of around £5 million and I kept getting close to it and then it wouldn’t happen and it was quite tortuous. So I decided to find out how much money I could raise without a script.
My brother’s a businessman in Liverpool so he set-up something called an EIS, a tax incentive initiative and combined it with another Government tax initiative. We then went to the business community in Liverpool and brought together four guys who were very interested in low-level investment and I ended up knowing I could probably get around £100,000 by just saying it was a film but not what it was about or who was in it.
Then I had to find the film. I sat with lots of writers, lots of people who had ideas, read lots of books and they would either be too long, not good enough, short films or too expensive. So I was stuck up a gum tree really.
Then I read a review for a play at the Arts Theatre in London so I went to see it. At first I didn’t think it was going to work, far too complicated, it was in rhyming couplets so I left the theatre but the story stayed with me about this guy going up to Liverpool.
I went to meet the two writers, who were also the two actors in the play, and asked if they’d work with me to make a feature out of it and they said yes. I bought the rights to it and we went to work from there.
You’ve directed before for television, including Passer By with James Nesbitt, but what was it that inspired you to direct a film?
I really wanted to direct, to go on a full journey with a project, like I had with Passer By and Sweet Revenge, but I wanted it to be a feature film as I felt that TV had its own rules and I watch films but don’t watch TV. I watch European cinema not American cinema and I wanted to make those types of movies, but nobody would give me the money to do it.
I was getting increasingly frustrated while going to the cinema and seeing film I thought were crap so I thought “I want to make a film.” So that’s what I did.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make the film I originally wanted to make, though I hope to make that at another point, but I was able to make this film which I’m really proud of and everything just fitted in: it had the sensibilities I wanted to have, it was set in my home town and it just worked.
One thing I notice with British films, particularly low budget British films, is the desire to show a Britain with drink and drug problems. Was it important to you that you avoided that depiction?
It wasn’t important but I was glad it did take me away from that. Drug abuse and violence has become a bit of a cliché in British films and I’m trying, though not for any conscious reason, to find a new way into a story.
I was interested in a story about two people who had things to live with that were very recognisable to most people, the line between being a family member but also a carer, and trying to live and deal with that. I didn’t set out to make a film that didn’t have elements of drug abuse or whatever, it was more that this story needed to be told in a certain way.
One film this reminded me of was an American film from a few years ago, In Search of a Midnight Kiss…
It was really weird. I’d made my film and went away and made a film as an actor, then came back and was re-editing it and after about a month he phoned me up to say I had to see this film and I thought: “They’ve made my film” and everyone’s going to think I ripped it off.
I was in a real state watching it with my wife and at the end of it I turned to my wife and said “I’ve just wasted two years of my life.” She told me they were very different but I had to go away and really re-examine myself and look at the film again before I could say to myself that it is different and there are so many films out there that are similar that it’s OK to make two films which have similar themes, but it took me a long time to come down from that ledge.
How would you describe your directorial style? Have you found yourself borrowing elements from directors you’ve worked with?
I’m inspired by directors I’ve worked with and also from those I’ve not. You have to be careful because you have an ambition for something but when you get on the floor or you get your budget, to execute those plans takes a certain amount of skill, equipment or whatever so you’ve got to really know what your capabilities are.
I knew we couldn’t do a lot of trick shots on this, we didn’t have a lot of equipment and weren’t able to afford some of the things we’d have liked such as steadicams, cranes or even tracks, so I knew I had to rely on the actors and that it was an actors story and I knew I could do that.
My “thing” is that my films are full of strong performances because I know actors and how to treat them and get inside their head and if there’s a style I have then it’s to do with making actors brave and giving them an atmosphere they can create in, but you hand it to them.
Sometimes on a set directors don’t hand a set over to you because they’re too busy with this, that and the other that they forget that what is coming out of you is important and creating that atmosphere is important and I think I can do that and know that’s a discipline a director has to have.
I’m currently reading the autobiography of actor Ray Brooks, someone who’s scathing of soap operas and their production techniques after a stint on EastEnders. How do they affect the acting process?
[Their style is to] say your lines in the right order and get out. It’s a terrible way to work because what you want is to give an actor time and also mess with their head a bit. Sometimes you’ll hit a plateau with some scenes and you want to have a chance to come through that. You might have done something yesterday that when you come in the next day you think you’ve got to change them because something else you’ve shot changes it.
The old maxim that you set out on the first day to make one film, you shoot a completely different film and edit a third film is true and you have to be alive to the possibility. With my film things were changing around us as were going, the actors were warming up and getting relaxed with their characters and with the camera and I had to start using that and enjoy letting them improvise a bit and if your schedule is bang, bang, bang you don’t have time for that.
But I’d say that’s not just soap but TV in general, it’s tough.
Are your actors new to film?
Completely, they’ve not done anything before.
How much ad-libbing was there?
Quite a bit on the beach, I let them just go for it, or walking down the street. Sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t.
You mentioned before that the BBC have bought the film for transmission but how important was it that it was a film and not made for TV? How different is it?
It was very important and it’s a very different thing. You framing is different, your sensibilities are different. I always feel with TV there’s a need to keep things going because you don’t want people to turn over, you’re worried about them using their remote control. With film you know you’ve got more of a captive audience and you’re hoping you’ve got time for the the story and characters to develop and that the audience will stay with it to find out what’s happening.
TV audiences tend to get bored faster and turn over. It was always made for film. The BBC have been very supportive of new filmmakers and do show their things quite often so it’s been very good for me.
We hear a lot about the shiny floor shows such as X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing and how they’re being made instead of new one-off dramas. How do you think it’s going?
Not good. One-off dramas are the hardest things to do because they’re so hard to sell. TV executives want a growing audience, its first episode to get 5 million, its second to get 6 and for it to grow in that way so people go to work and discuss it, which is why one night it’ll be on BBC One, the next on BBC Three, on iPlayer and so they can catch it.
One-off dramas don’t have that because they can’t build an audience, which is a shame because I loved all those Play for Today and Screen One dramas. How some people have got around that, which is brilliant, is you’ll have a series such as Clocking Off or The Street which have a precinct thing such as the workplace or the street, but they’re basically one-off dramas, and that is genius.
They have completely different teams and actors but the same set. I did a Clocking Off for Paul Abbott and it was brilliant, a great script but inside this TV series.
What to you means the film is a success? If it goes to number one in the Box Office or if people see it and take something away from it?
The answer to that is that the film is a success. For me standing on Crosby Beach with the rain coming in wondering when we were going to finish this and thinking it would never happen, to sitting it thinking nobody’s ever going to watch this to standing here tonight standing in front of an audience, that’s a success.
Getting from A to B, that’s the success. I can’t tell you the amount of scripts I get and jobs I’ve started that never get finished. I had an idea to make a film and I’m here now talking about it: that’s success.
I’ve also paid my people back, so in that respect it’s a success. The short answer is it’s already a success and anything else is a bonus. It’s been a real ride making it and I hope people enjoy watching it.
Don’t Worry About Me is out on DVD on Monday 8 March.