Mark Norfolk

Can you tell the readers a little bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Mark Norfolk and I’m a filmmaker living in London. I also write drama for the stage, radio and screen. I initially studied drama and was an actor for a few years. However I was out of work, resting, as most actors are so I got a part time job at a local newspaper as a junior journalist. And thus began a writing career… writing about old ladies’ cats stuck in trees and errant tortoises. I did once get a scoop though. It was an exclusive photograph of Sarah Ferguson before she married Prince Andrew. That was also the time that I learnt LESSON No. 1: AMBITION CAN BE A KILLER… especially in the cutthroat world of the media. Survival first.

So I was sent to see if I could get a photograph of ‘Fergie’. After waiting two hours I managed to grab the shot. I called the staff photographer and told him I go the shot and he came to get it. I handed him the undeveloped film (it was all film in those days) and he would develop it immediately as the editor was holding the front page. It was all very exciting, my first front page. However, when the newspaper came out that evening somehow I found my byline shared between myself and the staff photographer, who at the time I was taking the photograph was at least ten miles away. Incidentally, he was soon off from this little local newspaper to the grand offices of the London Evening Standard.

Could you briefly explain the plot of your new film, Ham and the Piper, and perhaps explain how the project came about?

Ham & The Piper is a love story about an elderly man who discovers his wife is dying. In his moment of grief he finds himself battling with his own conscience about the frailties of long term marriage. Although he loves his wife dearly, as far as he’s concerned he has given up much of his life investing in the marriage and losing her now would mean he has nothing more to live for. His pyschosis is such that he begins to question the role society has played in forcing him to abandon his youthful dreams and ambitions in order to get married. So he decides to take revenge against the society whom he blames for his weakness.

The project came about in very strange circumstances. I was writing a script for a futuristic political fantasy feature film which I’m very excited about. I’d even gone as far as discussing production design with a London based Korean designer. But then one day everything changed. For the last four years I have been a writer in residence in a prison. During my time there I found it to be full of interesting characters – and I’m not just talking about the prisoners. One day after I’d finished teaching a class of inmates I got talking to a student who told me he was now going back to the war. He certainly wasn’t a soldier (unless he was a street soldier) so I asked him what he meant and he went on to explain that when the cell door bangs shut behind you, it’s just you and your mind in a battle for the next twelve hours or so. This set me off thinking about the human mind and how well it sits within itself and how it copes under stress.

Throughout their daily lives most people will have experienced some form of trauma. I ondered how they cope even if on the surface all seems well. I’d read an article once about the serving Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik. In 1998 he began suffering depression and took six months of sick leave, before returning to the job. In the article it talked about how he began feeling anxious and forgetting things and even talked to himself.

Sometimes you will see a story about someone doing something wrong, illegal or downright strange and you then see the family and friends of this individual talk about thier actions being totally out of character and they are baffled as to why or how a loved one they know would do such a thing. With this in mind I immediately began writing a film about a man battling with his mind. The script flowed easily and within a couple of weeks the bones of the narrative were in place. I’d planned to make this film as cheaply as was possible, although it was important that I shot on film. I love film, celluloid. My last film, Crossing Bridges, was shot on 35mm. It was a crazy experience. I love the texture of film, the discipline needed to set up and shoot a scene, the sheer artistry of working with a crew who know they are working on film and every crank of the magazine meant money was being spent. Within the next few years, film will be a thing of the past except for the really big projects, but for now while it’s there I’m all for it. Anyway, no sooner than I finished the script I met up with some of the investors who’d backed my last film. I pitched the project to them and they were interested and after divvying up all the numbers and they agreed to invest. The ball was rolling… and it has kept rolling ’till now.

How did you get into film directing?

As a young actor I was always particularly interested in how shows and projects were put together. I saw that the director had a vision which he or she tried to achieve. I found that this was a brave and yet scary position to be in. If it works, everybody loves you. But if it doesn’t work, for whatever reason, the director cops the blame. No one talks about the lack of money or the limited choice in casting or the dodgy venue – it’s the director’s fault. That aside, I was fascinated by the creation of ‘the show’, not that I ever thought I would be directing films – I couldn’t even get work as an actor. Back in those days, black actors were only hired if the part called for a black person. So you’d get an audition and find yourself lined up alongside the cream of the black acting community. Can you imagine going up for a one liner in a TV soap and you find yourself next in line after Denzel Washington? And then you turn round and James Earl Jones (in Darth Vader costume) is patiently waiting behind you whilst reading ‘War and Peace’. Well, that was it then. I’m not sure how much things have changed, though I’m positive it has in many ways.

Anyway, one day my journalism skills saw me get offered an afternoon’s work at a Sports News Agency when a reporter missed his flight back from vacation. To cut a long story short, one afternoon for £30 turned into 6 years as a freelance sports reporter. I met some great people along the way who are now household names in television sport broadcasting. I eventually left the company to go back to acting (once an actor always an actor), taking a massive wage reduction too, but the writing continued. I had been attending a few video production courses mostly for access to the equipment. And here’s where I learnt LESSON No.2: BEWARE THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER…

Film courses were very expensive but a friend and I had been dabbling around with Super 8 film. One day we borrowed the college’s equipment and made a short documentary film about a young lad and his travails on the streets of London. We edited the material and showed it to the course Tutor and one other student. The Tutor loved it and decided to screen it to the whole class the next day. However the next day when he set the tape running he discovered that someone had recorded over it. Who? ‘Sorry. I wanted to have another look at it and I must have pressed the wrong button,’ came the answer. Right, he pressed the play button and somehow found his finger on the record button for nearly half the film. It was the lone student who had been in the room when we screened the film to the Course Tutor.

Not long after completing the course I went to work on a BBC documentary series as a production assistant. I had started off on travel expenses only but by the end of the shoot I was an Assistant Producer and was then headhunted to work as a Researcher on a ‘Dispatches’ documentary. The documentary led to me writing my first screenplay and being shortlisted and nominated for a couple of screenplay awards. It was at one of these awards events at BAFTA that I learnt my next lesson when a Scottish writer who used to write for Billy Connolly asked me, what I thought at the time was a baffling question, ‘Are you serious about this business?’ Well, of course I am. ‘Do you want me to pat you on the back and tell you how good you are? Or do you want me to tell you the truth?’ I candidly asked for the truth and his reply was, ‘Your screenplay was easily the best one there (out of 12 others in the final) but it won’t win. It’ll never get made. That’s just the way it is.’ He then bought me a drink and told me ‘Your first big screenplay is a ‘show script’. It’ll get you through the door. Use it to get other commissions.’ With that he went off on his merry way. Of course, true to form, my screenplay didn’t win, didn’t even come in the money places (1st, 2nd or 3rd). I slunk into a corner to drown my sorrows in the pint the Scottish writer had bought me. While I was there an old guy wandered up and said, ‘Loved your screenplay. It was the best one but they’ll never vote for that kind of material here. In fact, I didn’t vote for it either. Good luck.’ He left. LESSON No. 3: LIFE ISN’T FAIR. NEITHER IS THE MOVIE BUSINESS. I stuffed my face on canapes and got thoroughly pissed on free wine and within three months I was at film school in Cardiff studying Independent and avant garde film.

What films and film directors have been the biggest influences on you? Do you have any current favourites?

I suppose one is influenced by a number of things, not just films and filmmakers but stories, art and politics. In terms of film I grew up watching brilliant television, as it was back in the day. For instance, at weekends it was back to back black and white films, mostly B pictures but amongst them cropped up some real gems. Also on television you had Granada, Euston, LWT as well as the BBC all making dramas where they didn’t have to play to the gallery. It’s all changed now as advertising drives what we see on TV – I actually can’t bear reality programmes with all those wannabes. And I’m proud to say I’ve never watched one – tell a lie, I did once, in Germany, I watched half an episode of the German version of Big Brother. Even the BBC struggles to make quality. They do get it right occasionally but all too infrequently for my liking.

So as I got older and more discerning and with social politics a prevalent item on the agenda – I grew up under Margaret Thatcher – I began watching foreign films, Russian, Czech, French, Japanese, Indian. What I noticed for the most part, particularly amongst the European films was their adherence to the art of film rather than pure narrative. This interested me a lot. Then when I entered film school I discovered that one of my fellow students also lectured in Czech cinema and collected early Eastern European film. We talked long and hard about film and debated the whys and wherefores of narrative structure… the discontinuitous non-narrative feature film.

So ultimately yes, I was influenced by a lot of films and, much as I might talk about maligned narratives, the movies that always remained emblazoned across my brain locker were the epics, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Once Upon a Time in the West and edgy suggestive films such as Black Narcissus and Peeping Tom. My favourite director though is David Lean. He is often seen as over-elaborate but was a genuine director with a vision. He would attempt to film classic books and as far as I’m concerned he’s been the greatest ever British director. The man was an artist and was able to get as close to popular imagination as anyone with films such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Madeleine, Ryan’s Daughter, Bridge on the River Kwai – I could go on. Artist. Next up for me is Sergio Leone, another artist who married popularism with schematic filmmaking. I could mention names like Kubrick, Wyler, Hitchcock, Frankenheimer (top director) and in modern times Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Carl Franklin and Steven Soderberg but right now without doubt the king of all directors is Stephen Spielberg. His ability to acutely tell a personal story is exemplary. In the UK the directors whose work I always look out for are Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold. I also like Guy Ritchie who gets a very bad press but is actually a much better director than he gets credit for.

With Ham and the Piper being your 3rd film in under a decade, has your confidence in your own directing ability increased? And has your ambition grown with it?

Good question. As a director I am confident (probably over-confident) in my ability but I think when you’re making films on the low budget end of the margins you tend to spend too much time as a producer rather than a director. I have ideas I want to play with but lack of support makes it very difficult, as you are continually thinking of making narratives that can be made for a full English breakfast and a pint. I get these grand ideas and then the harsh reality of the marketplace piles on the restrictions. I am an independent filmmaker because the industry is the ‘salmon run’… you have a million and one ambitious tail-waggling fish trying to swim upstream to see who can spawn their eggs and see their offspring through to the next generation. Ninety nine point nine nine nine percent swim but never spawn. And the nought point nough nought one percent that do get through find there’s a rather large Pike waiting at the mouth of the stream filtering the jetsam from the flotsam. If you make it past the Pike into the estuary of paradise you’ll find it under the control of a rather plump shark, wearing shades and chain-smoking on south American Cohiba cigars… and you must pay homage… or else.

Whether my confidence projects the ambition of my projects is debatable. I tend to want to study humans under stress so my films have tended to get simpler. Narratives are as simple as a man standing on a bridge staring at the water rushing below his feet. I want to be able to work on projects that are do-able rather than spend twenty five years chasing the dream of a project which sounds great when you’re sitting in the pub with film school buddies and sounds even better when you’re discussing it with the fairies in your mind. That said, I have three projects in development which are extremely ambitious but experience is generally the better part of valour.

With filmmaking being such a collaborative process, how closely do you feel your completed films match your original vision?

You know, it’s very rare to ever truly match your vision but one can get close. I think it’s easier to get closer to your vision when you make films that are considered art house generally because the narratives are a little left of field. Immediately you embark on something ‘different’, you are as close as you’ll ever get to your vision. Most of your crew and actors, producers are basically trusting in your ability to pull off your vision so there is less interference. Your main bete noir will always be finance and perhaps getting people to understand what you are trying to say. On the bigger, more mainstream movies the writer’s vision is more often than not tossed about like a tin bath in the ocean. Yet, if you have leading actors and HOD’s who trust you, you’ve struck paydirt.

Do you or would you ever direct someone else’s script?

Of course. As an arthouse filmmaker, producers tend to be afraid of you. They think you don’t or won’t understand mainstream sensibilities so they are reluctant to approach you with projects. A few years ago I was up for a couple of movie projects, one in particular I got really close. There were three producers, two British and one German. The Germans were putting up most of the finance. They’d all seen a short film I’d made and called me in. I had a few meetings but I noticed that the German producer wouldn’t speak to me at all, just stared and barely nodded his head. Here’s LESSON No. 4: TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.</p> It turned out said German producer had a German director up his sleeve so I was off the picture. I went to see the movie when it came out. And I have to say it was brilliantly done, a very good film – though I would’ve done it better (I would say that). No really, in terms of directing actors’ performance I will blow my on trumpet. In fact I’ll blow it again on my ability to create drama in a scene through images. I’m always on the lookout for a good property to direct, so any producers out there, feel free to make contact!

Do you think that independent films are in general more interesting than mainstream Hollywood fare?

One would expect an indie filmmaker to say, ‘Hell, yeah.’ But in all truth that’s not the case. Most films are made independently and most of them are quite frankly awful – I think there were over four hundred films made in the UK last year, and we can thank our cotton socks that we never got to see them. I go to the London Film Festival each year and get more and more despondent year on year when I see the quality of British film (when I say film, I’m talking about the cinema, not the stuff we’re seeing which is TV influenced). The Hollywood fare, or what we consider to be Hollywood fare, is generally exceedingly well done. The studios make films that cinema-goers are going to pay to see; that means stars, explosions, car chases, CGI, gloss, extraordinary production value. And it’s great. A couple of friends dragged me off to see the last Transformers movie. Ordinarily this isn’t something I’d see in the cinema – but this is where you have to see it. DVD is selling yourself short. The narrative was total pants but the production was outstanding. The CGI effects were out of this world, the sound quality was second to none, the look of the film on the big screen just tells you you are at an event. Hollywood is a brilliant model of people power. Yes, I said people power because the studios adapt to what the people want to see and thus they will spend millions of dollars delivering it so they can make even more money. I had a discussion with my mate the other day, he’s a university lecturer on socio-cultural trends, we were talking about terrorism and the lack of any ideas of combatting it. I suggested we ought to walk away from the countries harbouring ideas of ‘killing for God’ and leave them to their own devices. He said, ‘No, we should build cinemas for them.’ He’s right. Once they’ve tasted joy, fun and seen others doing it, they’ll be too happy to want to kill someone’s kid. Hollywood films are also interesting because behind them are a batch of writers all trying to get their little ideas onto the screen while the Suits try to iron out all politics, reasoning people don’t want to go to the cinema to think about how shit we are as a society – just pay the fifteen dollars… Independent films dont have the muscle behind them so have to contain other elements if they are to succeed. When my last film was being mixed in central London we were in the UK’s leading dubbing theatre which has two studios. In studio one was James Bond, ‘Casino Royale’, and we, ‘Crossing Bridges’, were in studio two. Both projects were aimed at the cinema, one was a studio picture costing many millions, the other a low budget indie costing less than the former’s tea budget for the first three weeks of principal photography. That’s the dichotomy of filmmaking.

Do you feel that financial constraints can benefit a filmmaker’s creativity in certain ways, or is it always a burden?

Anyone who tells you financial constraints benfit a filmmaker’s creativity is either lying, delusional or an artist. Ten years ago I would have given a positive thumbs up to the the first part of the question. But when you’ve been at the sharp end, not been able to get actors or crew because of a lack of money to pay them – and they do cost money – or not been able to get that little bit of kit that could make the difference technically it’s another story. Low budget filmmakers will know what I’m talking about; it’s always a burden not to have finance when making films because films are expensive. However, one might try to find ways to make films for no money (which I’ve done), but you are continually cutting corners and it’s a pain to see it on the screen time and time again knowing what you know. More finance though, does mean pressure. The more money involved, the more people you have with a vested interest recognising the risk, waking up in sweats at night… unless you have Tom Cruise as a best mate doing you a favour. I guess it all balances out in the end.

Has the internet helped you to gain a larger audience than you might otherwise have?

If you asked me this six months ago I would have said no. However in the last few weeks I’ve had people contact me from different parts of the world asking me for news of my next project or wanting to screen something of mine – weird. In all honesty though, I believe the internet in practice is not all it’s cracked up to be in the entertainment stakes. It’s great for buying your weekly shopping or some badly made electronic goods or paying bills, but when it comes to media it’s all about the soundbite. There are people who watch films on the computer screen, but they aren’t seeing what the filmmaker intended. They’re seeing a squashed down apparitition of the work. If you watch a download for instance (so you can tell your mates you saw that latest blockbuster) then go and watch it in the cinema you will find that you are watching an entirely different film. The experience is different, the little things in the corner of your 17″ laptop screen are actually props that the production designer searched all over the county of Waco to ideally place in order to enhance the visual aesthetic of the mise en scene. The internet can be reduced to ‘Change’, Obama’s election slogan. Two years later, nothing’s changed but the ‘internet believer’ generation bought it.

Before you think it, I’m not a Luddite. Technology is heading down the way of the global web but our dreams tend to be moving faster than internet viewing technology. Of course in the next ten years that’s where television will be (it probably deserves to be there for their short-sighted programme making) but I do think this is where filmmakers must stand up and be counted. The internet is driving modern populations into solitary cyber-socialising. Mobile phones, Facebook/Twitter, internet usage are all solitary pusuits but you are sold the illusion of being part of a large group. The internet has virtually wiped out the music industry (is it a good thing to wipe out all the bedroom Q-basers?) – however, live music is how musicians get paid. We were told the internet was going to democratise the media world. All it’s done thus far is narrow serious debate and increase mistrust. There are great filmmakers sitting around with no chance of getting any support for their work and the hardest hit will be the future film practitioners.

Is British independent filmmaking in good shape right now? Will the closure of the UK Film Council make things noticeably more difficult?

British independent filmmaking, for all its ills, has been doing okay. With the industry as it is currently, filmmakers such as myself can go out and try to seed projects and get them produced. It’s still hard but when you have an industry you can ride alongside it and feed off the crumbs. However this was all thrown into jeopardy when the so-called coalition unilaterally decided to kill the UK Film Council. It’s a bad decision. Okay, the entity might have needed trimming and decentralising but to announce abolishing it as a direct policy is tantamount to a coup d’etat. Don’t get me wrong, I have no love for the UKFC. They have never been a friend to me. I have been working in the film business for the best part of the whole time they have been in existence and being one of only a handful of black film directors, I’ve never had a meeting.

Our relationship is summarised with an award I won a few years ago. The directors who came 2nd, 3rd and 4th were invited to meetings, yet I’m still waiting for a ‘congratulations’ from anyone associated with that body. That said, I recognise that they have done a phenomenal job here in the UK and abroad… let’s not forget that their tentacles reach across the globe. They brought money into this country by attracting all the world’s leading movie-makers to shoot here, keeping thousands of people in work. I still remeber when the last Conservative Government crashed down on the BFI production arm and then went on to summarily kick out the tax breaks which attracted foreign investment. The industry collapsed and thousands hit the dole queues. The UKFC was a body designed to rectify that and after early teething trouble began to assert itself. What I see happening in the future is a new body being set up. But in the meantime, while the politicians are pissing about, the Goose that layed the golden egg will die. It will take ten years for the golden egg to hatch before we get to the stage where we are now. The UKFC’s demise is a poor decision less based on financial matters than political ones.

Many have suggested that professional film criticism is dying out, and that it will be replaced largely by amateur online bloggers. Is this something you can see happening, and if so, how do you think independent films would fare if this occurred? Do film critics currently provide independent films with the oxygen of publicity that they might not otherwise have?

Good question again. There is a fundamental problem with online bloggers, in that we are being fed hamburger and Pizza, Pepsi-laced, Xbox anecdotal critique (if I can call them that) rather than esoterically considered responses to a piece of work. This kills independent film because there will be no understanding of a cineastes work – arty or urgent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Derek Jarman will be dismissed, to be simply considered shit. Independent films will, as they have always done, adapt, but it would be a shame to offer yet another hurdle for a filmmaker to navigate as is happening now. I can recall when I made my last film Crossing Bridges I was approached by a black newspaper who wanted to do a feature on the film and myself as a black filmmaker. Once they got a DVD screener they didn’t even have the balls to refuse to do the piece. They clearly didn’t understand the existential elements of the film which has won many awards in the UK and abroad. Because it wasn’t about gangs and drugs and hip hop it fell outside their perceived remit. The same can be said of certain black film festivals. This is what independent or arthouse filmmakers would be up against across the board. The mainstream press is currently undergoing massive change, ironically because of the internet.

Most of the publishers/broadcasters are running on shoestring skeleton staff due to the squeezes in the marketplace. Most don’t have dedicated reviewers of old. You will find that the person who repairs the boiler or the I.T. Man repairing broken computers will be the person they send off to the cinema or the theatre to see a show. Although I say all this, the glory is that there will always be a place for comment. It may not be today or next week or in the next decade but artists and writers will always have a platform, no matter how small.

What have you got planned next?

Next up for me is a psychological thriller set in Norway. I am currently writing the script and meeting with Norwegian co-producers. At the same time I’m still developing my futuristic political fantasy thriller.

[Originally published by Cherwell Online, 22/09/2010:]

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