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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 12.03.21] United Kingdom apocalyptic comedy drama

One of the pleasant surprises of this year's TIFF, if not of the year, is Camille Griffin's feature film debut Silent Night (review).

While on the surface it appears to be a well-appointed British society drama, Griffin quickly reveals her film for what it really is: a darkly comedic, apocalyptic drama that questions everything from our pre-conceived notions about class, wealth, friendship, parenting and so much more.

We recently had a chance to speak with the director about her feature film debut, including her inspiration, how Taika Waititi played a role in the film's development and how finding the right cinematographer was essential to telling the story.

Silent Night is available in theatres and on AMC+ on December 3.

Quiet Earth: You've spoken before about how both When the Wind Blows and War Horse were touchstone films and inspiration for this project but the most recent of those films is 10 years ago. When did you actually make the conscious decision to write Silent Night?

Camille Griffin: I have to thank Taika [Waititi]. I've been trying for a long time to make movies and the Brits would have me make pretty films - cause this is a bit depressing. It was on the set of Jojo Rabbit that it hit me hard. I'd never thought to explore these ideas with the use of comedy. And when I saw that he used comedy to parody to set up that all things dreadful in the world, I was like "wow, that's it. I know what to do now. I'm no going to ask any of the funders to fund it. And I'm going to try and get it made." This is why it's kind of all set in one location.

That was the inspiration really for this particular script. I think all my scripts have always been challenging my class system and the conflict I feel about my own middle-class upbringing and I have an issue with authority. I think that people who are in place of privilege have a duty to take care of people and I think they manipulate the truth. So I have my own source of conflict and then my own conflict with parenting because I think parenting is very, very hard.

So like, how do I get to be a better parent? I think one of the truths about being a parent is to admit we get it wrong. We're not always right, but we have the job of making decisions for you. It's very, very hard being a parent especially if you're a bit damaged and so I don't occupy the world of everyone being perfect. I don't know that person. And I don't occupy that well. So what I do instead is to try and share my imperfections and I think the film was a courageous attempt at going: okay, let's look at all things wonderful about us and all things dreadful about us.

I am curious about the writing process because clearly there was not that much time. Once you actually got it into your mind that you were going to write this as a comedy, what was the length of that writing process? And then how did that come to me? Because one of the things that I love the most about the film is just how wickedly funny it is and really poignant and then all of a sudden it's also really dark.

Like I said, I've written a lot of scripts and I've noticed that when they're not right they are harder to write. So basically, as we all know, you write a draft and then you have to write 15 other jobs. So the first draft happened in two weeks. It was quick. The whole writing process didn’t take long to do, it just came out to me. I didn't know if I could write a comedy. I mean, I thought I was quite funny, but can I actually be funny? It was easy to make jokes and to parody the genre because that genre represents posh people in the UK.

And it's easy to joke about posh people because they're so ludicrous. We're so ludicrous. Listen to me, I speak in a posh accent. It's like, I've been judged my whole life because of it. Well, unfortunately, this is how I sound.

The ridiculous thing is I grew up in a world where I was convinced the ship is sinking. I was like "this ship is sinking. We need to do something about that now." So those films are all references because I still carry that trauma from being a kid. There's a moment as a child, where you go, am I safe? There are nuclear bombs and people dying and I've never recovered from that. So I didn't have a happy, fancy childhood and when I got to 18 I was like, "oh, the world's really difficult."

I learned that very young and it's always been very much a part of me. So it was easy to write this. It was harder to make it, it was easy to shoot it and write it. But the post was the tricky bit.

So let's talk a little bit about the making of the film, because as you mentioned, you had fully intended to do this on your own but then you get an offer to make it. Now what do you do?

In England you have government funding, the lottery money goes to the BFI and then there's Film 4 and all those places. So those are these gatekeepers I'd been going to for years and I'd done all their schemes and I'd done training and I'd worked in the film industry... I'd done everything, but the doors kept shutting. So I promised myself I wouldn't do that again but Matthew [Vaughn] was an independent filmmaker and one thing is true about Matt: he’s very courageous and he is an entrepreneur and he's a talented man, and he does things his own way. He always has done. And I said to Ben [Davis], I think I should ask Matthew Vaughn for advice.

And Ben was like "Matthew's not going to help you. This isn't his kind of movie." But I just wanted his advice and I've never known how to ask for help because I'm a bit of a survivor, so I didn't know how to ask about this. So after Matthew read it, he phoned me and said, we're going to make a movie.

That was like a life-saving opportunity. He was extremely helpful and he taught me an awful lot and we argued about an awful lot as well. It was a collaboration. This film is the essence of me but it's got Matthew in it. It's got Trudie [Styler] in it. It's got all the filmmakers. I do believe in collaboration. I don't think a lot of people should come to work every day and just be slaves to the system. I like to think that everyone has got to bring something. So there's a lot of heart in the film, a lot of the love that the actors found that in the material, they were extraordinary. They gave so much and I'd like to think is because they were there, they felt safe and they were appreciated. I appreciated them. Their talent was boundless. It just kept coming. So I was very, very lucky. I think we, we were lucky.

I'm curious about your cast because you look at it on paper and you expect a type of film but then it turns into something a little unexpected. You've talked a little bit about not wanting to trick people into the film but this is not really trick. It's a surprise.

Yeah. I mean, I think I'm parroting the genre. So the thing is, when I say, "I don't want to," I don't want people to sit down and just think there watching a happy movie. I want there to be a trigger warning as such so that they go: okay, I'm ready for this but I don't want the whole thing to be explained. The point is the characters are cliches of the class system and the actors are cliches of those characters. What I admired Keira [Knightley] for is that she came on board first and she should have as much credit for the film as any of us and Matthew [Goode] as well, because a lot of people wanted to work with him and a lot of people came on board because of Keira and the script, because I was a first-time filmmaker.

They didn't know me from Adam, but what was extraordinary is that I was asked who I wanted and I was like, "it's got to be Keira." I mean she's had to play Ms. Perfect, British, Perfect Rose her whole life and then when she said she was interested, I was surprised. What an amazing human being; she's prepared to risk her career to play such an extraordinary character. It was interesting because she's a dramatic actress and Matthew's or dramatic actor, Lucy Punch is a comedian, and Kirby's [Howell-Baptiste] a comedian and Rufus [Jones] is a comedian, but they're all comedians. And these dramatic actors and also comedians.

I can't say it was just lucky. I think we were very careful in the process. Matthew was very thorough and I admire him for that. Nothing is good enough until it's right. And that's why I say he's an extraordinary mentor there, but these actors were brave and they were relieved because like you said, it was surprising for them.

It's not fair to box actors into one type of role. And I think they were just so relieved at playing something different and also being a part of a great ensemble. So it wasn't all riding on Keira.

The location is so interesting as well. Can you talk a little bit about the location and working with your cinematographer Sam Renton?

It's interesting because when I looked at the genre shifts through the film, the first act is comedy, then the second is fantasy versus reality, and the third is reality. And it was like, the downstairs was the fantasy and the upstairs was reality. Franckie [Diago] used that as a metaphor. I'd unconsciously written that, but that scene on the stairs where you've got Matthew and Roman at the midpoint between being downstairs and upstairs, and he's saying, what who's taking the pill and who isn't taking it... that's all in that image.

We had a different cinematographer when we were location hunting and then Sam came on quite late but when we saw that house, I was like, it's perfect. It's like a sponge cake and I knew that the audience had to be comforted to suffer the trauma and the heartbreak in the film and the comedy had to do that. And the load came when I saw that location, I was like, "great we can do this [comfort] with the location too." We can have this sweet, perfect, typical cozy British house and then we can do terrible things in it because there's only so much bleakness and audience can take. That's the lesson I've learned.

I think Sam's extraordinarily talented. I've known Sam since I was a camera assistant. We started the industry at similar times so I've known him for a long time. I think it's hard for, for, for directors with cinematographers, because a lot of the times cinematographers don't listen. My husband's a cinematographer and I was a camera assistant so I know cinematography as well and you have to find a cinematographer who's going to listen. And I have opinions because I was brought up in this department and some don't listen because they've made many more movies than first-time directors have.

There's always an imbalance then but some Sam and my husband Ben - he God parented us in a way. He was in the background helping and advising and he operated the second camera, but we knew it had to look like a Working Title movie. We knew that was important to bring people into a genre film and we weren't trying to be tricky, I think we were just trying to tell the story well, and we were trying to allow the story to speak for itself and allow the location and the cost to speak for itself. So we weren't trying to do anything spectacular. We were just trying to do our jobs well. And I think that's what worked in this.

Silent Night is available in theatres and on AMC+ on December 3.

Recommended Release: When the Wind Blows

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