Ben A. Williams
Originally published during BFI Flare 2016
THE PASS is the story of three very different nights over 10 years in the life of a Premier League Footballer. Jason, Russell Tovey, is at the beginning of his career, and on the night before his first big international match he and long-time friend and team-mate Ade, Arinze Kene, share a hotel room, trying to beat the inevitable pre-match tensions with locker-room banter and teenage high-jinks.
Hey Ben thanks for talking to tNC, how have things been going?
Good, thank you. I’m currently in the basement of a London VFX company’s offices finishing off a commercial. Very glamorous!
How does it feel to have The Pass open BFI Flare this year?
We’re seriously thrilled to be opening Flare. It’s a smart, important festival with excellent heritage, and we’re very happy to be there as they open their 30th year.
Any nerves setting in ahead of the screening?
Yes, a few! It’s twofold, really. It’s the first public screening of the movie, which is always going to be nerve-racking. And it’s in the Odeon Leicester Sq, which is enormous - there are 1,600 seats. But I’m not complaining.
Tell me a little bit about The Pass, how did the film come about?
The Pass is about Jason, a 19-year-old footballer, and his best friend Ade. The film is set over ten years, in three hotel rooms, and shows how a single decision made by Jason echoes through the rest of his life. It’s about the cost of extreme ambition, and whether that’s a price anyone can truly afford. It has incredible performances from a cast led by Russell Tovey, who plays a role that’s different to anything I’ve ever seen him take on before. The script by John Donnelly is tight, complex and profoundly moving. And it’s made by a mix of new, young filmmakers and extremely experienced industry figures.
The Pass actually began its life as an excellent play at The Royal Court Theatre in London, directed by John Tiffany. Our producer, Duncan Kenworthy, saw it and thought it would make a great movie. So he asked John to adapt his text and me to come on and direct.
You've got a really impressive cast, was it easy to approach them and get them on board?
Three of the four main parts in the film are played by actors who originated their roles on stage at The Royal Court. Actors very rarely get to continue that journey from the stage on to the screen, so all of them were really up for it. Arinze Kene, who plays Ade, and who wasn’t in the Court’s production, has such a great part in the film it was easy to get him on board!
With The Pass being your debut feature how much had your previous film experience prepared you for this film?
I’d made several short films, each slightly more elaborate than the last. I’ve worked with my excellent Director of Photography, Chris O’Driscoll since 2009 and we have very similar tastes. He’s my rock! We have a shorthand with each other that is very hard to find - I talk, he acts, it looks great and we’re both pleased. That relationship is one of the most important a director can have, so with Chris at my side the step up to a feature basically a became a matter of needing bigger memory cards.
Before The Pass, I also made 24 improvised films set on the London Underground. These let me accelerate the process of learning how to work with actors. They are the most important part of your film, and my approach has been to figure out how to get complicated and living performances from them. For a film like The Pass, that was essential. When you have a film that takes place in three rooms with only a handful of actors, poor performances have nowhere to hide.
What was it about John Donnelly's text that really spoke to you?
From my very first read of the play to watching the film at the cast and crew screening, what continues to strike me is the power of the writing. What does that mean? It’s not just great dialogue (though we have that). It’s the ebb and flow of the action, the herd of elephants in every room and, most importantly, the way the relationship between Jason and Ade is drawn. It’s at once love and hate. Repulsion and longing. Competition and compassion. It manages to be everything at once, and it’s a wonder. So, come the end of the film, you feel like you’ve travelled with these characters for the full decade - but you haven’t once left a hotel room.
What I also realised through John’s text is that professional football is generating an unprecedented amount of human wastage. For every success story, there are thousands of untold tragedies, of young men cast out of the profession without any warning. Even for the successful players, those among them who happen to be gay are still being forced to live hugely public and damaging lies, and we’re all to blame. Football is stuck in a cultural time warp that most fans just accept. But its position as a multi-billion pound industry doesn't give it the right to perpetuate anachronisms.
With this being your feature debut did you have a set idea about what you wanted your first feature to be?
I was offered The Pass long before I dared to dream about my first feature, so it’s difficult to answer that question. Like every director, I had ideas for features I want to make as soon as possible. They followed me around like a pack of invisible creatures, popping up in every daydream. I knew wanted my first film to be performance led. Not only is that much more economical and realistic, but that’s a much better expression of what I’m about as a director. It’s always been obvious: as performances are the most important part of any film, it's vital for my debut to show I could bring them into being. When you’re directing you can get help with everything else, but when it comes to talking to a confused actor, you’re on your own.
How much has your style as a director changed since your first short?
It’s changed a lot. I’ve moved away from trying to recreate everything exactly as I saw it inside my head towards a style that creates the conditions that allow for excellent things to happen. Of course, you can’t be irresponsible. I always have a baseline and I plan thoroughly. But now I’ve learned to be flexible. If you think you’ve got it and your actor asks to go again, no matter what, you go again; see what she’s got. If you’re shooting and a new shot presents itself, I know I can take it and then change what I had in mind for later because I’ve planned ahead. It’s a confidence to let yourself be challenged, I think. Oh, and I now wear a watch.
"For every success story, there are thousands of untold tragedies, of young men cast out of the profession without any warning."
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
There’s a scene in our third act where we have three very fast and motivated characters talking across each other, trying to outdo one another, and where two or more conversations are happening at once. The way we shot the film (with long takes where the camera moves position several times) meant that I had to block movements and plan cameras that answered all the eye-lines in as few setups as possible. That was quite simply very difficult. Worse, once it was all figured out in my head and shared with the cast and crew, we had to actually do it. That’s where an impeccable, expert producer like Duncan comes in. He was an excellent backstop with a thorough and forensic memory of every part of our development process. We checked and balanced each other.
When did you realise you wanted to become a filmmaker?
It happened in stages. As a child I saw films that made me sing and skip home from the cinema, buzzing with an American euphoria. It was the best type of play I knew, so I had to be involved. Then I learned about the craft. The precise filmmaking machines and their operators fascinated me. And then I learned appreciation. As a teenager I watched classics, always loading the DVD with a sense of obligation, but then, without fail, watching with instant curiosity and awe: knowing that what you're watching is good, and being desperate to know why. What other jobs could possibly hope to contain so much.
What has been the most valuable lesson you've learned so far?
As a director, it’s better to be unpopular for an hour than to ruin a film forever. This was particularly hard for me to learn, but it’s completely true.
Who have been your biggest inspirations?
For years it’s been Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendes, David Yates and Steven Spielberg; lately, it’s Clio Bernard and Andrew Haigh.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your film?
That love is difficult and never perfect, but always worth the effort.