Film director Carl Hunter used to play in Liverpool band The Farm, part of the soundtrack to my 90s youth – and he was in a Liverpool recording studio when I called him to talk about his new film Sometimes, Always, Never (a title that refers to which buttons should be done up on a suit jacket, from top to bottom).
The film stars Bill Nighy as Alan, a retired tailor and avid Scrabble player searching for his son Michael, who walked out during as Scrabble game and hasn’t been seen since. The top-notch cast also includes Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny as Margaret and Arthur, a couple Alan meets; Sam Riley as Alan’s other son Peter; and Alice Lowe as Peter’s wife Sue.
I spoke to Carl after the film had screened at the London Film Festival last October. We talked about art, working with the legendary Bill Nighy and the difference between a Liverpool film and a Merseyside film… (Check out my 4-star review here.)
Sarah: I really loved the film – I thought it was excellent. I always got the title the wrong way round until I saw the film and now I can remember it perfectly, now I know about the buttons.
Carl: I’m glad. Well, where I describe the film, I’m trying to get people to remember the name of the film and when I say the title, I point to my jacket.
And do most people know where it comes from?
I’m trying to remember where Frank [Cottrell Boyce, the film’s writer] and I discovered it. But it’s a Mod thing. I’ve always been quite absorbed and quite interested in that kind of Mod culture, as a lot of young working-class blokes were. So I think it would have come out of that really, I would have stumbled on it probably just through listening to bands being interviewed, you know. I probably heard it in an interview with Paul Weller or The Specials or Madness or someone.
There’s a brilliant documentary out at the moment called A Modernist, which is the story of John Simons. He’s a clothes shop owner in London. And he basically introduced what we would have called the Ivy League, which is an American look in the late ‘50s. He brought that look – which we now called Mods – to his shop. So he introduced the kind of Mod look to young working-class people in London.
You’ve collaborated with Frank Cottrell Boyce previously haven’t you?
Yeah. Frank and I are old friends and we’ve worked on a number of projects together – we worked on a book together which did really well, called The Unforgotten Coat. This is our second feature film together. We’ve done a number short films together as well. We’re good friends and I enjoy working with Frank. Frank is a beautiful writer and he understands what it is I like about film.
Gosh, I haven’t seen that in years.
We’re both obsessed with it and we’re both big fans of Bill Forsyth. And one of the things we share really is a love of Bill Forsyth’s warmth as a filmmaker. All his films have a beautiful heart and a warmth to them.
My love of cinema, I look more towards Eastern European or Japanese or Scandinavian films. That’s a world I’m really, really interested in. But I also love the warmth of Bill Forsyth.
So, on this film in particular, what I was trying to do was make it feel unmistakably British because of its cast. But when you look at the film, I was trying to make the viewer feel actually, maybe we’re somewhere else in the world. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. It’s certainly got a very warm heart, the idea of a family and games bringing them together. Have you seen Puzzle with Kelly McDonald? She gets into competitive jigsaw puzzling – which is a thing – and she’s trying to break out and find herself, rebuild the family around her once she demands a bit more freedom. In some ways yours is similar, how do they cope whether Michael does or doesn’t come back, and using Scrabble for that.
Something I found interesting about Sometimes, Always, Never are the women, Margaret and Sue. They’re very different but they’re both essentially doing what women often do in life and in relationships, and they’re facilitating, but in different ways.
Margaret is “we’re not going to look the word up, we’re going to move forward with the game” and Sue is “we’re going to look this word up and we’re going to move forward with the game”. They’re managing their men the whole time, are they?
Yeah, that’s fair. I haven’t seen Puzzle but now you’ve described it, I already love it! [laughs]
One thing about games that I was trying to do, when you think about a jigsaw puzzle or a game of Scrabble – you start off with a mess, you start off with the absence of order. I mean what is a jigsaw puzzle other than a box where there’s a solution but it’s in the wrong order. And it’s down to the player to reassemble it. If you follow the rules you will create order, and resolve.
That interested me greatly. So, Scrabble starts off with a bag of letters which are a mess. They’re in no particular order, and the job of the game is to create order and create sense.
And in a way Scrabble as a motif, order can be created, things can be put right. But you’ve just got to know the rules and be willing to play.
Did you all play games on set when you were making the film, or was there enough Scrabble in the film?
No, we never played games on set because the days were quite intense really; in a good way because it was a very enjoyable film to make. But from the moment the cameras were turning in the morning from the moment they stopped we had to fit in so much. So, unfortunately, recreation wasn’t something we could adopt in any way.
But it was a fun thing to shoot. It was a fun film, the cast were very, very good.
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What was it like working with Bill Nighy? Were you nervous at all?
Working with Bill is a wonderful experience. He’s an absolute professional and such a huge talent. He’s very generous with his time and a great listener. I thought I’d be nervous directing him but he quickly manages to remove this fear from you. He wants to be directed, he enjoys the experience.
Between takes we often chatted about clothes and music, I felt very relaxed with him as did all the actors and crew. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could.
It’s an incredible cast, isn’t it? Really topnotch.
Yeah. I watched the film for the first time at the premiere. I hadn’t seen it projected properly so that was my first experience of it as a film. And when I watched it I remember thinking blimey, that’s one hell of a cast. [laughs]
And could you focus on it or were you looking for reactions?
Well, I can watch it objectively, but what did shock me, in a good way actually – and something I’m very pleased about – is when I was putting the film together you create scenes which you hope are funny, and you create scenes which you hope may be tragic, and you’re never quite sure if it actually works or not.
But I was relieved to hear people laughing out loud in parts and I thought “oh, thank god for that, it is funny, I did put that in the right order”.
The reviews have generally been very good and the audience reaction so far, the feedback from the screenings is always the same – that it feels like it’s an audience film.
It does seem have an audience. So, I’m relieved by that because it’s a bit worrying when you’re sat there going “oh no is this going to work?” But you liked it!
I thought it was really great. I like Scrabble anyway so as soon as I heard it was coming out I was asking for a screener. I went to university in Liverpool, a long time ago, so it was good to see the area again. Where did you film the seaside scenes?
That was all in Crosby, which is kind of north of Liverpool about six miles from the city centre. But I’m glad you mentioned Liverpool because it’s not really a Liverpool film, it’s a Merseyside film.
I wasn’t exactly sure which part of Merseyside Alan was supposed to be from. He has a soft accent but he’s quite abrasive and disruptive in some ways, and I thought it was a good contrast.
Yes, and I think being from Liverpool, I wanted to make a Merseyside film because I wanted to populate the film with accents that exist within Merseyside.
In some cases you might get a broad Liverpool accent in the film although the only time that happens is probably Alexei Sayle; and then the rest of the time the accent wanders between borderline Lancashire and Merseyside.
So it felt more real to me because although I still live in Liverpool – I’m inside the recording studio as we speak in Liverpool – I didn’t want to make a film which was full of accents that made it sound like a Liverpool film. I was trying to show that actually where me and Frank live, actually there are lots of accents around us.
It kind of makes it feel bigger really, because I think if you’ve got a film with all the same accents – this is just a personal opinion – it just feels like a Liverpudlian making a Liverpool film, which I didn’t really want to do.
Where I live now in Crosby, I’m a 15-minute walk from a beach and once I’m on the beach I’ve got roughly 18 uninterrupted miles that takes me to Southport. It’s actually quite peaceful and Liverpool is surrounded by countryside – it’s quite a beautiful place. So, I didn’t want to make a film where people think “oh here’s another film where we know what Liverpool’s going to look like”.
That’s why I think the way I shot it is very, very much inspired by people like Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish director. He was a big influence on me when I was making the film. I love his pacing, I love his pathos and the photography as well. It’s a working-class film and I wanted it to be a very pro-working class film.
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It was beautifully shot. There’s a really strong design element particularly with colour. When you were developing the film did you have very fixed ideas about how you wanted the people and the homes to look?
Well, certainly with the design of the film, I had a huge part in that. I keep scrapbooks – very boringly – and I fill them with images and colour pallets. So when I was working with [production designer] Tim Dickel, I would take the scrapbook to meetings or photograph it and email them, and say “I saw this and I really like these colours”, or “I really like this design”.
There’s a brilliant American photographer called Gregory Crewdson, who I love – coincidentally, when we had our first meeting, me, Tim and the DoP were in London and by a complete fluke he had an exhibition on. So, I made them go to it.
The way in which he shoots is very, very interesting. So, if you look at Gregory Crewdson’s photographs and then you look at my film, you’ll definitely see a link – you can see where that kind of inspiration has paid off on screen.
But I work in a very hands-on way so I’d sooner just take someone to a gallery or show them a picture and go “I love that”. which probably comes down to the fact that my entire background of education is all art school. I did a BA in graphic design and then an MA, and I worked as a designer and an art director for years. So, I do come from a design background. Which is why I’m so boring about it!
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That’s not boring at all! The colour was really interesting, there’s lot of green wasn’t there. In the homes, and then a sort of green light coming through the window. It really stood out for me.
Colour is an important part of the design of the film. I love grading. I love it when the film’s finished and I get to grade the film. I always spend endless hours grading! But yeah, colour is important.
I think that’s probably down to two things. One is my love of a particular type of cinema, Aki Kaurismäki is a good example: The Man Without A Past, I love the colour palettes in that film. Wes Anderson, he’s quite obsessed with colour.
And then again it’s that art school thing where I keep an eye on design and colours as well. I probably didn’t even notice it sometimes because it’s what I was trained to do and it’s what I love.
Have you seen a film called The Love Witch directed by Anna Biller? Everyone looks like they’re in the ‘60s but it’s present day and they’ve got iPhones. There’s a scene where this woman, the love witch, is driving her sports car and there’s an old-fashioned filmed backdrop behind her. Your scene where Alan and Peter are driving in Alan’s red sports car through the Merseyside countryside to the B&B reminded me of it. It had that old-fashioned look with the backdrop, so it’s modern but it’s got these older themes coming through.
No I haven’t seen it – the thing about the car and the backdrop projection, the reason for all that is that I was trying to make a film which is definitely contemporary but has a hint. So when you’re watching it you feel like it is in the past, which was a deliberate design decision. You’ve got Alan and his son, who are trapped in the past, and that’s why we had the back projections in the car.
I could have shot them on a low loader, and made it look realistic, but I deliberately want the audience to watch those car scenes and go, “that’s not real, that definitely isn’t real”.
I really like that scene.
It’s a kind of a visual metaphor about the past. So although it’s a contemporary story I just want these two characters, well the families really, everyone involved is anchored into the past. So they’re just not moving forward, or they’re locked in a time that’s gone. And the idea of the film is to release them from that self-imposed time capsule, I suppose.
It’s funny – someone slagged off the film the other day, I can’t remember which magazine it was. All the reviews have been good in general, but you always get a negative one. But one of the negative comments was about “and as for the car journeys”, I can’t remember it word for word but “the car journeys, they didn’t even look real”. [laughs]
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Did you think “I’ve done my job”…
Oh! they don’t look real! There’s a mistake I made… [laughs] And why would you even say that, clearly it isn’t meant to look real, that’s the point. The situation is so surreal, and these characters are locked in the past. Why would I want to shoot it so it looks real?
Just out of interest was there a particular bit in the film that either stood out or you really enjoyed?
I loved the talking in the car with the backdrop, particularly because of the conversation they were having about old toys and how Peter always had the cheap version. That really struck a chord because we quite often had the cheaper version when I was growing up.
And I really loved the scene at the end in the forest when they’re playing Scrabble, it kind of reminded me – you know the The Seventh Seal when they’re playing chess…
Carl : Oops! [laughs]
Ha I mean, just in terms of the setting and playing the game outside. I thought the colour was beautiful. There’s so many bits I liked! The wordplay when Alan and Arthur are playing Scrabble in the hotel and it’s like a battle. Of course, Alan pretends he doesn’t know many words and then all these meanings come out.
That scene is based on – have you seen the Paul Newman film The Hustler? It’s a cowboy film. It’s a wonderful film about a pool hustler who goes into town and plays badly, people think he’s rubbish, so they accept huge bets and of course he completely beats them.
And I remember me and Frank were talking about that film, and Frank said “wouldn’t it be great to have a Scrabble game where Alan hustles the other players” and I thought no one’s ever done that in Scrabble, that’s brilliant! And then he wrote that beautiful scene which is so well written – it’s a beautiful piece of writing.
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Tim McInnerny who plays Arthur, he has this growing rage, he’s impotent with rage. I thought it was a lovely scene. I love words anyway. What was your favourite scene?
I love the Scrabble scene. I really like that. Because it was so complicated to set up. Frank spent ages researching. That game is not impossible to play but the odds of pulling out the tiles in that order to play those words are – you’ve got more chance of winning the lottery, because the odds are so phenomenal odds against it. However, they are from one bag of tiles, so it’s not like we’ve cheated.
So Frank had to work out what words he could use, which were clever words like muzjiks, words that you’d never ever use, but there’d be enough tiles in the bag with the right number of letters to be able to have played that game. Even though the odds are just phenomenal – and that took him a while to work that out. And the words are good: muzjiks! Great words. I love that line “No it’s not a font, its a cheese actually. The stinkiest cheese in the world, made by Trappist monks.”
I was trying to remember that word muzjiks for my review, I spent hours googling stinky cheese and Trappist monks to try and find it! Tell me about the music. Edwyn Collins sings the title track doesn’t he?
From Day 1, I always wanted Edwyn to do the soundtrack. So, I asked him and he said yes. And then Chay [Heney] and Sean [Read] moved into Scotland into a recording studio with him – the soundtrack is incredible. Absolutely incredible. I’m thrilled with it, thrilled.
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Sometimes, Always, Never is in UK cinemas from 14 June. Read my 4-star review and watch the trailer here.