Get Real (1998)
Originally published in 2016
GET REAL is based on playwrights Patrick Wilde’s What’s Wrong With Angry became a sleeper hit that firmly engaged a diverse audience about what it’s like being a young gay man in 90s Britain. A unique, honest and heartfelt feature film that so beautifully tells its story whilst maintaining its humour of polite frustration.
Hey Simon, thanks for talking to The New Current, how's things going?
Hi - very well thanks!
It is 18 years since Get Real premiered, did you ever imagine that the film would have such a lasting impact?
Not at all! The most we hoped was that we'd get it finished and that someone, somewhere would see it!
The attention Get Real got, and awards, was fantastic, did you ever expect that your debut feature would get this type of response?
I had the luxury of knowing that Patrick’s play, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ANGRY?” was very funny and moving - I’d seen audience reactions to it night after night - so I hoped it would resonate with people but I never dreamed that we wold win all those awards and even less that people would still be so fond of it after all this time.
What was it about Patrick play that really interested you so much, was it easy seeing how it could be made into a film?
I read a review for the play in Time Out, by Paula Webb. The first line read: “Imagine yourself back in teenage hell - spots, exams, parents and hopelessly in love. Ugh! Now picture yourself living in a world where even a fumbled kiss in the bike sheds makes you a criminal and you’ll know what it’s like to be Steven Carter - a 16 year-old gay living under our present age of consent laws”.
This sparked my imagination; it sounded like a gripping and very relevant drama, written in response to Section 28, “family values” and the unequal age of consent laws, but the review went on to say that it was also very funny. When producer Stephen Taylor and I saw it, we realised that Patrick had created a character in Steven Carter who was very original: funny, confident, not at all angsty and, crucially, more like his straight friends than he was different from them. The school dance scene, where no one is dancing with the person who they would like to to be dancing with, is something that everyone can identify with and this made us realise very quickly (by the interval!) that it could make a wonderful film that would appeal to a much wider audience than the mainly gay one who was seeing the play.
Patrick later told me that the people he really wanted to reach were not so much those already engaged in LGBT politics, but in people who knew little about it; for example parents or school friends of gay young people. These people were not going to the play, but perhaps we could make a movie that would speak to them.
How did Get Real come about?
So we talked to Patrick right after the performance finished. It was February 1994; I remember this because it was the night Derek Jarman died, an emotional day. We asked him if we could buy the rights and if he would write the screenplay. Patrick was an actor and stage director and "What’s Wrong With Angry?" was the first thing he’d ever written so he wasn’t sure about it but we insisted; his voice was what made the play so fresh and funny and it was also loosely based on his own life - it had to be him.
"...we decided not to mention Section 28 specifically and focused on things that we hoped would resonate with audiences all over the world, regardless of their laws and specific cultures..."
Did you change much from the stage version?
There are many sequences in the play which remain almost identical in the film: for example, Steven meeting John in the cottage, the school dance, John appearing unexpectedly in Steven’s bedroom the night of the dance, Linda fainting at the wedding, John beating Steven up to save his own reputation… these had audiences gasping or howling with laughter every night in the theatre and we knew they were nuggets that we did not want to change.
The main characters are the same (Steven, John, Linda), but we also changed a lot. The play (as the title suggests) is partly a protest about the politics of the time in the UK and we wanted the film to be more universal, so we did not mention Section 28 in the film and only dealt with the law in passing (we also naively hoped that the law might change soon…
The night I first saw the play was also the night that Edwina Currie’s proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill that would have equalised the age of sexual consent for same-sex activities to 16, was defeated in the Commons but we felt sure change would happen eventually and it takes a long time to get a film made!).
The school in the play was an all-male Catholic school, and we decided to change it to a school more like the ones that most potential audience members, or audience members’ children, would have gone to, which also involved introducing girls (Jessica and Wendy).
The end of the play is much less joyous than the end of the film. While the film does not have a classic love story happy ending, we did want to make it uplifting. The key to this came when we realised that Steven’s story in the film is that he eventually realises that what he really wants is to stop lying to everyone around him. So although he loses John, he gets something which will be more valuable and empowering to him in his future life.
Was there anything in the play that you wish you'd have included in the film?
No, I don’t think so. But there are some scenes that exist in both the play and the film which I think Patrick directed better than I did. No, I’m not telling you which!
Your cast fit Wilde's text so well, how did you go about casting for the film?
We saw everyone we could: actors with agents (Ben had already done two films when he was younger and had an agent), drama school graduates, school drama departments. Stacy Hart (who plays Jessica) was a student at the 6th form college in Basingstoke where we shot part of the film; she answered an ad asking for people to be extras and Di Carling, our wonderful Casting Director, noticed her.
Ben Silverstone puts in an amazing performance, what was it like seeing him read for Steven for the first time?
We knew. I made him do the big speech at the end and we were all in tears. I never rehearsed the scene with him after that moment because I didn’t want to jinx it: the next time he did it was on set in front of the cameras.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
Well, sports day was not easy. We wanted to fill a sports ground with people and we didn’t have a huge budget for extras so we’d tried everything we could to get people to come along to augment the crowd (advertising on local radio, raffles, bouncy castle...). I woke up as usual at 5.30am that morning and put the radio on. There’d been a car crash in Paris… Princess Diana was being rushed to hospital… A tough day for everyone but we obviously had to keep going and very few people turned up.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
The school dance. Partly because I owe so much to other people in creating that scene, especially steadicam operator Alf Tramontin and DOP Alan Almond. I told them what I wanted and they created it while I sat back and watched. We had no monitor on that scene so I didn’t see it until rushes the next day: Old school! You pick good people, explain yourself well and... trust them. Also the scene would not have happened without the outstanding talent of focus puller John Bremer: With anamorphic lenses, low light, a floating camera and moving actors, the slow dance was very challenging. When I look at most scenes I’ve shot I’m judging myself, but with that scene I can objectively say that it’s really beautiful.
A lot has happened since the film premiered, Auntie has revived Dr Who and Section 28 has been repealed, how much of the film would have changed if Section 28 had been repealed at the time?
As I said before, we decided not to mention Section 28 specifically and focused on things that we hoped would resonate with audiences all over the world, regardless of their laws and specific cultures, so it would not have changed very much.
The Dr Who thing was funny. We wanted to mirror the adults' lack of empathy with their teenage kids by giving Steven’s dad a hobby that was geeky and incomprehensible to the kids. When the film came out in the US I think only a very small number of people got the reference, but it would be very different now.
Sometimes filmmakers make sense of things in their own lives through their work. Do you feel you could see your own childhood experience in what John and Steven were going through?
Not specifically, but I think we always have to find a personal connection to our work. We all know what it’s like to be in love with the wrong person or not to be dancing with the person we want to be dancing with in life’s school disco!
How much has your approach to directing changed since this film?
I’m always learning; discovering new things about myself and new collaborators who enrich what I do.
Is it difficult let go of your work once you've completed them?
They take it away from you - we have no choice! This said, I work with a wonderful editor - Barrie Vince - who brings a ruthless objectivity to everything we do together and ensures that we tell the story in the best way we can.
Is there any advice you wish you had had when you started out and what advice would you offer up and coming directors today?
Don’t chase trends or do things to please other people. Make work that is important to you and hope that it resonates with an audience. If it is honest and good, it will find an audience.
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your Get Real?
"It’s only love - what’s everyone so scared of?"