Known for his numerous television credits, including Prime Suspect, Luther, and Life on Mars, Andrew Tiernan is also a regular feature on big-blockbuster affairs like 300. For his latest movie Dragonfly, the recognisable actor took up roles on both sides of the camera to give us a piece of modern independent cinema that’s bound to keep you on your toes. Pete Cary caught up with him to find out what brought it about.
Your new film, Dragonfly credits you as the writer, director and lead actor: what are the challenges of balancing three roles at once?
Well it wasn’t an ego thing; it was more of a necessity due to budget constraints, as in that there wasn’t one. I’ve never been good at schmoozing, so finding financiers wasn’t really going to happen for us. When I decided to go ahead and make the film, I‘d just finished working on “300: Rise of an Empire,” which was a massive production and I wanted to do something guerrilla style with a small unit, so I took the money that I’d earned from that, put it to good use and threw it into starting the Production. I had many hats on the Production and it was a 24-hour job, which is only just coming to an end now that the film has been released, but I didn’t even have the time to stop to think about diving in front of the camera and behind it at the same time.
It’s an accomplished movie – do you envisage that you’ll move more towards writing and directing from now on?
I would love to move forward with Directing and Writing, but in today’s world where the counter culture is being crushed, it’s hard doing things yourself for little to no money, even though it is more liberating. You don’t do it for social network ‘likes’, you do it for your own freedom of expression and sanity. Of course, I would love to be able to make my money back and pay my crew and actors a fair wage, but we live in a world where most people are watching commercial superhero zombie movies and CGI FX laden drivel, it’s a tough sell if you go against the grain even a little.
To someone who has yet to see it, how would you summarise Dragonfly and its wider themes?
DS Blake has been accused of the death-in-custody of a black middle class student, Dexter Thomson (Kobena Dadey). To keep him out of the public eye he is ordered to investigate the cold case of a corrupt MP’s missing daughter. This leads Blake via a website named “Dragonfly” to delve into a world of conspiracy, human sacrifice, police and political corruption, revenge, Faustian pacts, gangland enforcers, clapped out rockers and the occult.
What did you find most difficult about putting the project together?
The hardest thing is actually getting people to watch a movie. I didn’t make it easy for myself shooting “Dragonfly” in Black and White and I guess to some people that makes it uninteresting automatically, but there have been some great examples of modern black and white cinema, so I don’t understand the stigma that is connected to that. I had very positive reactions from people like Jake Arnott, Kim Newman, and even Martina Cole who had seen the film before it was put online, and many industry colleagues, well known directors who I’ve worked with, were all very positive and complementary about it. But when it came to trying to get Sales and Distribution it was another story. So in the end we distributed it ourselves via Vimeo on Demand Worldwide and Amazon US.
The film has elements of the surreal about it, but it grounds itself pretty firmly in serious contemporary issues (there are mentions of the Stephen Lawrence case, and ‘cash for questions’ scandals). Is it fair to say that you wrote this feeling angry about certain issues?
I think so yes. It’s what spurs you on. When you hear about austerity, animal cruelty, child abuse, racism, dodgy MP’s, paedophiles from Dolphin Square and Elm Grove, that’s pretty surreal. I tend to try and write about it to express that anger, it’s a more fulfilling project when you’ve got something to say. Does it have relevance to your life? This is why I get involved with projects such as Jimmy McGovern’s Common which was about the Joint Enterprise Doctrine being used to convict groups of people for crimes. Hopefully with drama we can highlight some of these issues, rather than running away from them.
A big theme in the film is the way that we perceive and interact with ideas of prejudice. Do you think 21st Century Britain is still a very prejudiced place to be?
In my opinion, it’s worse than it ever was. The media is turning society against itself, whether that be about religion, poverty, race or sexuality. The past few years we’ve had the bankers getting away with murder and passing the blame onto the poor and the sick, it’s banal, the whole thing. The class divide is getting wider.
As an independent film it feels quite unique in how it’s shot and presented to the audience – can you explain some of your reasoning for shooting it in the way you did (i.e. black and white, intertwining, close-clipped shots).
I took a lot of influence from the films of John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Derek Jarman, Billy Wilder and Beat Takeshi in the way that it was shot. Myself and producer, Shona McWilliams, watched a lot of their films. I love wide panoramic shots and extreme close-ups, strong character faces, I don’t like actors over-emoting, so I was very restrictive with that. Filming on a DSLR requires stillness with certain lenses especially with focus. I didn’t want to make a film full of wobbly handheld camera shots. Nothing wrong with that, I just wanted to stay away from that style, as it’s been a bit overused in modern low budget filmmaking. The edit style is very influenced by the work of Nicolas Roeg and David Lynch.
You seem to like your twists – did you grow up admiring thrillers?
I grew up admiring Debbie Harry. But yes, I did and do enjoy watching thrillers, particularly Brian De Palma’s movies, which eventually led me onto Hitchcock. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist was an important film for me growing up, especially because of the stigma around it. The first time I was aware of the film was being told the plot at school by a kid who boasted he’d seen it cause he looked old enough to get in, he told me in such detail that I knew the film inside out and I was terrified. So eventually when I got to see it with my own eyes, it had such a big effect on me, it was even better than I’d expected, it was one of the first films I watched on VHS video and I watched it over and over again.
Who are some of your favourite film-makers?
Difficult question to answer, it’s a bit like asking what’s your favourite film or record. But here are a few in no particular order; Powell and Pressburger, Coppola, Scorcese, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Michael Mann, Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Philip Kaufman, Sidney Lumet, Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Roman Polanski, Harmony Korine and I could go on, it might be easier to list the directors I don’t like.
It’s a good cast – how did you get everyone together and what was it like to work with them?
When I was being cast in “300”, I had to meet with Zack Snyder in a little room in Coptic Street, back when he was relatively unknown. I was doubtful about the film, so he showed me some test footage he’d shot, I was sold on it immediately and agreed to do the part. So I decided to use the same technique, we went out and shot test footage for “Dragonfly” and when we sent people the script, we attached a link so they could see what we were trying to do with the look and feel of the film, and it worked. I put together an ensemble cast and I think they gave it their best. There were good days and bad days, as with any shoot. Nick Reynolds who was involved in Dragonfly as Producer, Actor and Composer had organised a number of location for the production, in the middle of the shoot, we got the sad news that his father, Bruce, had passed away. Nick had to organise everything, a massive funeral and tons of press coverage (if you don’t know, Bruce Reynolds masterminded the Great Train Robbery). We offered to postpone the shoot, but Nick declined and he soldiered through dealing with a million things, but most of all the death of his dad. I’ll never forget that. The day before his dad’s funeral I helped him sneak the coffin into Saint Bartholomew-the-great of Smithfields, so the press didn’t have a chance to get any pictures. We attended the funeral, which had a glorious choir and many famous people giving eulogies; John Cooper Clarke read a poem he had written for Bruce, Nick played with his band Alabama 3, it felt like the equivalent of going to the funeral of Wyatt Earp. We dedicated the film to Bruce.
You grew up in Ladywood, Birmingham – do you think your experiences there filter into projects like Dragonfly?
Possibly, all life experiences have to be used in what we do as Actors and Filmmakers. You relate to something in the script and you use it, if you don’t relate to something in the script you find something that you can relate to, that’s called projecting, sense memory. My own experiences with the Police when growing up and in my later life living in Hackney have certainly influenced Dragonfly. I had kickings when I was a kid in Ladywood, we all got it for sneaking in the old factories, they loved to give it you there. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences as an adult too, especially since playing “bad guys” on TV, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been stopped and searched because I’ve been recognised or due to mistaken identity. I’ve been physically assaulted for no reason, had guns pulled on me and all this is only in the past couple of years. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve not been hurt too badly, but I can relate to what it’s like for Black youths to be stopped and searched all the time for no reason and they get it much worse than what I’ve experienced.
You’re very recognisable for your television appearances – what’s different about shooting a project like this?
Not much really. Obviously budget, I didn’t have the money for Winnebagos, or massive dining buses and caterers. The locations were all found by myself and the Producers, some being favours, and having a Producer like Nick Reynolds who also plays one of the suspects, Ashley Tassel, can open a few doors, the biggest one was that we needed a lavish mansion for the reclusive Rockstar; Flint Lock played by Ramon Tikaram and Martin Gore of Depeche Mode very kindly let us use his house and swimming pool. My phone bill was very large at the end of production and I’ve possibly used up all of my favours. But the cast and crew generally got on board with the whole guerrilla style film-making, which meant things like quickly getting a shot in front of a police station in broad daylight without anyone getting arrested, or finding a local café where we could get our lunch.
What advice would you give to fledgling writers and artists?
Don’t talk about it, do it. I get a lot of people telling me that they have a really great idea for a script, then proceed to tell me their ideas before it’s even down on paper. What happens then is, they’ll see me in something and they impose their ideas onto that, thinking that I’ve nicked them. So if I tell you to stop telling me the plot of your film, based on your life, you know why.
I think if you’ve got an idea you need to put it down on paper and just write it, before you tell anybody, that way if you’ve got a conflict of interest, then at least you’ve got your evidence, but also remember that your idea might not be all that unique, more than likely it’s been done before, everything boils down to seven basic plots. We can’t really make excuses for not creating, as we don’t have many restrictions. We’ve all got something to write and to film with, even if it’s only a basic computer or a camera on a mobile phone. So stop playing candy crush and get making.
Do you have any other writing projects on the go?
Quite a few, always, but it’s nailing the one to shoot, that’s the hardest part, I just hope I don’t get second album syndrome. Nick Reynolds asked me and Shona McWilliams to write the screenplay of his dad’s book; Bruce Reynolds: Autobiography of a Thief, which we’ve completed. That in no way could be done on a micro budget, so we’ll have to see if we can raise the money for that, but I’m very excited about what we’ve written, it’s going to make an amazing movie.
Since Dragonfly I’ve been working a lot as an Actor and I’ve been involved with producing the documentary; Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain. The Messenger is being released soon, it was directed by David Blair and I’ve just finished filming Joe Martin’s Us And Them with Jack Roth and Tim Bentinck, which is about a group of lads so sick of Austerity measures and the divide between the rich and poor, they decide to kidnap a Corporate Banker and dish out some of their own justice.
Dragonfly is available to rent now on Vimeo.