5 Minutes with… Rupert Friend
He’s starred in action-packed hits like Homeland and Hitman; he’s written lyrics for jazz musicians; he’s produced and directed short films. Rupert Friend is a man driven by creative curiosity. And he’s followed that curiosity into the world of advertising – Another Film Company recently announced that they’ll be representing Rupert for commercials directing.
Rupert’s breakout directing project, the award-winning short Steve, features Colin Firth and Keira Knightley. It's about a quarreling couple whose existence is interrupted by visits from their unusual neighbour. As well as being an intentionally disconcerting watch and a lesson in character and restraint, it also allowed Rupert to get stuck into every element of craft from producing to sound design and composition. Rupert has also directed music videos for the like of Kairos 4Tet and wrote and produced the deliciously macabre short The Continuing and Lamentable Saga of the Suicide Brothers.
And don’t let his stoic performance as Peter Quinn in Homeland fool you, in person he’s thoughtful, charming and a gifted storyteller who is genuinely excited about the prospect of creative collaboration and turning his flexible mind to the challenges of commercials. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to find out more.
[Main image photo credit: Kate Friend]
LBB> You’ve joined forces with Another Film Company – what was it about Another and MD Nicky Flemming that made you think that they’d be the best collaborators for your adventures in the world of commercials directing?
RF> They found me and my short film ‘Steve’, saw something in it that they liked and dug me out from under a stone. I am a big fan of people who think outside the box, whether that’s shaking up typecasting or believing that somebody may be able to do something outside of the remit we associate with them. I really respond well to that.
I had a friend, a couple of years ago, who was a very successful British jazz musician and he asked me to write lyrics for him. I’d never done that before but I thought… I’ll give it a go! We went onto get pick of the year from The Observer and 4 or 5 stars from Mojo and whatever else and it was terrific. But that’s belief. And I’m into that.
LBB> I’m most aware of you as an actor – but I always think that transition from in front of the camera to behind the camera must be an interesting one. Do you think it gives you a bit of a different insight into how to work with actors?
RF> I think it would be very useful for any director to spend a day or two in acting school or being directed. I’ve spent 15 years being directed and I think there’s a huge bonus in that for me. I love actors and I speak the same language as them. I’m also not intimidated to talk to them.
For me, it’s not just a visual thing, it’s a storytelling medium. Where I really am excited to excel is in dialogue with actors.
LBB> And since you’ve got involved in directing, since you made Steve, do you think that’s changed your approach to acting and what you do in front of the camera?
RF> I’ve been interested in all the departments since I began. I was never the guy hiding in his trailer with a newspaper. I was always the guy wanting to know why they were using this light or that light. So to me it’s a natural feeling, an evolution of wanting to be more involved.
LBB> I once saw Tony Kaye say that he sees the camera as ‘another actor’ in a film… I was wondering what your thoughts are on this?
RF> My experience of being on a set is trying to become somebody else believably and then work with other actors in a way that to tell a story, so taking that to a place where I’m not even in the scene is very exciting.
LBB> What was it that made you think that directing commercials would be an interesting avenue to explore?
RF> I love a challenge with restrictions. The idea that someone says ‘can you tell this story in 30 seconds’ is something I find as exciting as being an actor and someone saying, ‘the sun’s going down, we’ve only got one take, can you do it?’ You’ve just got to nail it and there’s that wonderful confluence of time and people and energy and luck and serendipity all bashing together. For me a commercial, when it’s good, is a very concise piece of storytelling, like a well-told joke or a well-sung song.
LBB> Commercials are a quick and dirty change of pace to working on a high profile, long-running TV series like Homeland! How do you think you will find the short, intense bursts?
RF> It’s a chance to experiment visually and with storytelling, and I’m just really interested in all aspects of storytelling whether that’s feature film or a TV series or a short film.
On set of Omar promo shoot taken by Joanna Natalija
LBB> Having worked with countless directors over the years, what’s your perspective on what makes an effective director versus one who is difficult to work with?
RF> It’s changed for me over the years. It can work fine when you’re just on separate parallel paths. One of you is in charge of the visuals and the film and one of you is in charge of the character. But then I’ve had relationships with directors that are very closely interwoven and you really feel like you’ve taken the character on a journey with them – it’s very much a hand-in-hand feeling.
I think each project is different and you have to use your instinct and taste to evaluate how that might be the case. I don’t really want a hard and fast rule. I like the idea that it evolves and that you’re able to adapt.
LBB> In directing, there’s the inside-out view where you start with the characters and go from there, or the outside-in view which starts from the point of view of art direction and visuals and standing back. How are you feeling about the more stylistic aspects of directing?
RF> For me it pretty much goes in this order: character dictates story dictates visuals. If you start with visuals first I think that’s why there’s a lot of empty-feeling fashion-y things where you think, ‘wow! That’s so beautiful!’ and then in ten seconds you think, ‘wow! I’m so bored!’
If you know who the person is, you’ll know what they do, and if you know what they do then you’ll know how to make it look fucking great. ‘This guy likes sailing… let’s shoot it on a boat’ is more interesting than ‘there’s a boat’.
LBB> Am I right in thinking that your short film Steve started off as a short story that you had written?
RF> Yes! Not published, just for friends. Actually, the idea was that they would read it on the loo, it’s that length. One of the people I gave it to was Colin [Firth] and that’s how it all started.
LBB> There were elements of the craft that were particularly effective, like the editing and the sound design. What was it like getting involved with that side of things?
RF> I wanted to be really hands-dirty. The composer and the sound designer were both friends. I sat in the basement with the composer and we just played and had a lot of fun until we got that tingle feeling when you know you’ve got it right.
The sound designer was wonderful. There’s a great piece of sound design on the trailer – my remit was ‘I want to go inside Steve’s brain’. What we did was he recorded an aeroplane taking off, put it through a wah-wah pedal and then reversed it. It was like, ‘that is the inside of his brain’. I loved that. I’m not a sound designer, I would never have come up with that… but I hear it and go, ‘yes’.
LBB> I felt, ultimately, really sad for Steve…
RF> Yeah, and some people are scared of him, some people think the couple are the real villains, some people think he is. To me the conversation should begin when the film ends, not be answered by it.
LBB> Directing someone like Colin Firth, who brought so much to the performance, it was so subtle. As a director when you’re working with someone who is so incredibly talented, how do you walk that line between your vision and what you want the story to be and letting them have the freedom to take it in a direction that might be totally unexpected?
RF> I think the first thing is to see what they bring, rather than dictation. I don’t think film is a dictatorship, I think it’s a collaborative medium. Seeing what they bring and working to hone that I think is smarter than ramming something down someone’s throat.
Colin and I met and discussed and rehearsed about Steve a lot, so we knew who he was. Once you know that and you create the situation, the character will respond in a truthful way, even if it’s quite weird. That weirdness, that tonal ambiguity was what I wanted from the film. You kind of want to hug him, you’re kind of scared of him, that sort of thing.
LBB> I watched Steve a couple of times and there’s a lot going on under the surface. I think the feeling I came away with was a feeling of disconnection and isolation between the characters. It felt very relevant at a time where everyone just disappears into their phones and you’ve got a character like Steve who just wants to connect with someone. Was that one of the themes you had in mind when you were developing it?
RF> When I set out to write I definitely don’t have a theme on a Post-it note above my desk. For me, anyway, I tend to discover what I’m doing as I do it. I didn’t know what Steve was about until I made it. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to just being about one thing but there were elements of loneliness that I didn’t realise were there until I finished the film and watched it. I thought, ‘good Lord’, this film is on some level about disconnection and loneliness and the fact that, on some level, people are seeking connection.
LBB> Did it change quite considerably between the story and the script?
RF> The feeling of the absurd leaps in menace. Is this absurd and silly and a little bit Monty Python? Or is this dark and David Cronenberg? What are we supposed to be feeling? I wanted that ambiguity from the very beginning. The short story ended with the woman character, the main character, saying ‘what are we going to do?’ It’s open-ended: shall we make a joke out of it? Shall we call the police? Shall we make a run for it? That complete precipice is where I wanted you to be at the end of the film.
I discovered a lot doing it. I hadn’t visualised how he looked – and we found that iconic mustard yellow jumper that he never, never changes.
I shot a trailer for it that doesn’t use footage from the film. It’s one shot but if you’ve seen the trailer it gives you more info about the film and if you haven’t seen it, it doesn’t matter. It’s like a little Easter egg for people who stumble across it to go, ‘oh, now I know a little bit more about Steve’. The poster also isn’t from the film.
Colin and I, one day, want to do a feature and the idea is that all the little pieces will build the world. Maybe there’ll be music written that isn’t in the film. I like the idea of getting to know someone through multiple media, and I’m interested in that multi-fascinated look at storytelling.
LBB> I love that! That augmented reality, bleeding fiction into the real world…
RF> I think in the digital age people want to know what their favourite people are doing, what they’re tweeting about, see what news feeds they’re looking at. The idea that you do that with a fictitious character, that you get to touch his clothes and smell his food… you can use your sense a bit more. It’s not just a case of ’90-minute film, thanks, bye’. It feeds into your worlds in other ways and I love that idea.
LBB> I think that also links up with the TV renaissance. If people like a character, they want to follow them, watch them develop, explore them in different contexts. In a feature film you have to, by the nature of the medium, focus on one or two things.
RF> Think about gaming and films and the cross over there. Think about something like Hitman – you want to go into the kitchen, play with the food. You want to take the spoon and use it later. People want to go beyond. I think in film, it’s more dictatorial and you don’t get to choose your own ending… but that’s coming.
There was an Amazon project where the viewers helped create the content by choosing casting and storylines. That can work. Or it can be like having three captains on a ship! But I do think that there are more opportunities to embrace multimedia – which is a very ‘80s word now – or multisensorial storytelling.
I know with directors I’ve worked with, they’re interested in experimenting. With streaming, they’re interested in changing the lengths of things, changing the way we interact with things. That traditional view of an ad being 30 seconds, a TV show being half an hour long… I think that’s all going out of the window.
LBB> At the moment you’re starring in Homeland, a big action-packed TV show and you starred in Hitman. Aside from the character-driven stuff, are big action pieces something you’re interested in directing?
RF> Yeah, there’s not really anything I’m not interested in. I’m lucky enough to have now acted in bunch of action stuff and I try to do as many of the stunts as they let me. I have a fair bit of experience with it, vicariously. Obviously the film I made was three people in a room and there’s no car chases… but I would relish the challenge!
On set of Homeland - Rupert films a scene on his birthday.
LBB> So you wrote ‘Steve’ and another film, ‘The Continuing and Lamentable Saga of the Suicide Brothers’. Is writing something you do a lot of? Have you got any other writing projects on the go?
RF> I’m in development on a film that I wrote about con artists. It’s a homage to Paper Moon and The Sting and those kinds of films. We’re just in the process of trying to fit that in around everything else.
I’m pitching to write an adaptation of a biography that I can’t actually talk about right now – but if it happens, you’ll hear all about it!
I love the written word, I always have. I love the satisfaction of it. I love hearing a character’s voice and knowing that it’s not mine – and great writing, in my mind, is that. You shouldn’t hear the voice of the author, other than in stage directions.
LBB> And just to finish up, it sounds like you’ve explored so many different creative avenues: writing jazz lyrics, directing short films, acting… Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to try?
The short film, 'Steve', will be screened on March 2nd at the Charlotte Street Hotel, and there will be drinks before before the event and afterwards: RSVP email@example.com