In Snow in Paradise, the main character, a young white English man living on the outskirts of organised crime in London, finds himself drawn down a dangerous path. The only escape on offer is through Islam. It’s not a story you hear every day which is exactly what drew veteran film editor Andrew Hulme to co-write the screenplay and take on directing duties for the first time.
Ahead of the film’s release on 13th February, Andrew spoke to Flickfeast to discuss the switch from editing, the unique approach he took with the film, and the future career prospects of his lead actor Frederick Schmidt.
Flickfeast: First things first, this is your debut film as a director after a successful editing career. Why move into directing now?
Andrew Hulme: I directed my own films at college, mostly abstract films, before putting that to one side. I’ve spent 25 years as an editor but the idea was always to come back to directing. Then I met Martin [Martin Askew who co-wrote the screenplay based on his own experiences] and found this story and felt compelled to tell it. It’s a great story, not the whole truth of what Martin went through which is fascinating, but I wanted to explore it. I come from a born again Christian household so the idea of conversion is big in my life. I’ve rejected religion now but I wanted to explore that background through this story. Addressing Islam in any way is also hugely political. It felt increasingly relevant five years ago, and even more so now.
FF: You mentioned that you always had ambitions to direct. Is that the same for writing?
AH: I moved away from the abstract directing work of my early years but I’ve been writing all the time. 25 years now without ever doing anything with it. I didn’t delve into the process of actually making a film. There are piles of writing at home. I had to go through all of that to get to the good stuff. I should probably throw away the old writing but it got me here. The way I see it, the best novelists acquire years of life experience before producing their best work. It’s the same for me though nowhere near that grandiose.
FF: Did you find much crossover between editing and directing?
AH: The ways my experiences as a film editor have helped me make the switch to directing are straightforward though not simple. I’ve worked with a lot of directors and as an editor you really get to see their filming methods, what works and what doesn’t. It’s also a key part of editing, knowing what works in a story. Filmmaking is a convoluted jigsaw puzzle and editing helps to understand it. It’s only part of the process though. The way I see it, you develop a script, then you realise it through the shoot, and post-production, editing especially, allows the material to be remade into the right shape. If you don’t understand this process you’re not helping yourself. I have a very developed editing muscle which gives me a good understanding of story, but I’m not as strong in other areas. Pitching films, finding locations, working with the art department, working with actors. It’s all been new and I’ve loved it. It’s like a door to a new world has opened.
FF: How did you find having to hand over editing duties to someone else?
AH: It was the most frustrating part. I wanted to get heavily involved and should have stepped back. I didn’t give Barry [Moen] enough freedom and I would do it differently again. I really needed to just sit back somewhere and surf the net or something. But it’s hard because you want to get involved in everything.
FF: Snow in Paradise seems to have been a very collaborative effort with Martin. How did you meet him?
AH: He’s a friend of a friend whom I met at a short film club. I got to know him and his story and it’s fascinating. He’s a white Muslim for a start. Why wouldn’t you want to tell this story? It’s not exactly his story as such. He had a friend who died leaving him in a dark place in need of finding a higher one. Islam offered that. It’s the essence of the story that we built Dave’s [the main character played by Frederick Schmidt] arc around.
FF: It’s interesting to see a western film approaching Islam as a peaceful alternative. It seems rare at the moment.
AH: Martin really wanted to push the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion. It would have been really easy in the film to give him a gun after he gets close to Islam and call him a jihadi. Everyone would have just gone oh yeah, here we are. We wanted to subvert the clichés in this area. Funnily enough, the French got it. We didn’t get funding or even interviews in Britain. No one ever told us why. Maybe they thought there are too many films in this urban drama space or they thought it was clichéd. It’s not clear as no one in Britain would speak to us about it. Really though, we just wanted to make a story about a guy finding peace in the same place Martin did.
FF: The role of Islam is only one of a number of themes you tackle in the film. The gentrification of the East End occurs prominently with Dave reacting negatively. What are your own thoughts on this?
AH: It’s not as simple as saying look at these people coming in disrespecting our life. They have something to add as well. It’s a difficult subject and it works both ways. The problem is the lack of interaction between both communities. The hipsters coming in are like immigrants that don’t integrate as times. They like the idea of being around Turkish shops but don’t engage with it. It’s a fascinating subject that all comes down to change. That’s what we see in Dave. He can’t change; he’s an angry, working class anti-hero who simply can’t change at the start. But gentrification was only one of a number of themes we were playing with in the script. We threw a lot in and some ideas stick and some don’t. This one worked with Dave’s character.
FF: One of the most impressive things about the film is the way you portray London. It doesn’t feel like the stylised city we are used to seeing on screen. How important was it to get the location right?
AH: I wanted to make it feel as real as possible. All the places aside from Dave’s flat are real. It’s about where you find them and how you shoot them which is where our DP Mark Wolf really came into his own. He often shot over Dave’s shoulder to give it that feel. To a certain extent it comes down to money as well. It has to feel real out of necessity as the budget wasn’t there for fancy trimmings. For example, in the scenes in cars, there are no outside shots. There’s only one big wide shot in the entire film and that was intentional. I wanted it to be claustrophobic and gritty until you get into the mosque. Budget dictates how you do it but these were all conscious decisions.
FF: The music is also very unexpected. What were you looking for from the score and how closely did you work with the composer Kevin Pollard?
AH: I’m very pernickety about music. It should only be there if it needs to be and shouldn’t just be some background wash. I’ve also wanted to work with Kevin for a long time and I gave him some pointers on what I was looking for. I’ve been in a band myself for 35 years so it’s certainly something of an interest. In terms of what I asked him for, he’s a pianist and I placed restrictions on him straight away by asking for no piano. It was a very intense relationship and I worked on it myself and helped create some of the music. It’s all Kevin’s work really though. He’s something of a musical genius and was capable of weaving in all the different sounds in the film. I gave instructions but Kevin moved the sound through film noir, jazz inflections, transcendental sounds and finally Armenian music which he builds in subtly.
FF: You mentioned that you wanted to work with Kevin in particular. Given this is your first film, how did you go about finding the crew?
AH: Everyone needs a break so I approached it by thinking about who I know who is good and deserves a chance to demonstrate it. I found the crew this way. My partner is the art director and the set director is a friend. I kind of built a family. Ken Loach does this well and I found it to be a really exciting process honing a vision, leading a team and making the decisions. Some people I hadn’t met before of course but they had the right attitude. Mark Wolf was one of these people and he achieved great things with the camera on his shoulder all day long. It was exhausting for him but he was up for it which was just the kind of person I was looking for.
FF: Let’s talk about Frederick. It’s an impressive performance from such an inexperienced actor. I understand you found him on the streets in open casting. What was it that drew you to him for the part of Dave?
AH: We had a casting agent who gathered up great lads for auditions but I wanted to feel that they were real and no one who came in gave me that so we took to the streets. Most of the people we found were bad but Frederick fitted the bill. He has the right face and eyes. Some of the others were decent though. We used about five of them in the film. It was quite a time for Frederick. He got married two weeks before the film and I remember his wife saying she hadn’t married an actor. He was very raw and went through training for several months before the role.
He actually had a small role in Starred Up after we found him and while he was training to take on the role. It’s been fascinating watching him develop. We chose him because of his life experience. He can tap into anger and aggression and conversely serenity. By the end of his training, he could do this the moment he walked onto the set. It was a risky choice to pick him, the biggest risk in the film. Going with an untested actor who’s not a name you worry no one will come and see it. But watching him in training I learned to trust my instincts. Nothing is achieved without bravery and he’s really going to be something now.
FF: This debate around life experience seems very topical at the moment, particularly in an awards season that has seen British actors from a certain background doing well while working class film professionals are arguably marginalised.
AH: It’s thoroughly depressing. Fred should have been up for the BAFTA Rising Star award really, or something of that nature at least, but it’s all about lobbying. The funding bodies only seem to be interested in protecting their own and pushing forward who they want. People like him don’t get a chance. Genuine talent gets stifled in this environment. The voting process doesn’t help. Most BAFTA members will only watch a few films come awards nomination time and they will be the films receiving widespread publicity or at the recommendation of friends. It leaves a lot of films on the outside. The whole system in this country, funding and awards, needs to be shaken up. But it won’t be.
FF: So what next for you now? Will you continue directing or was this just a one off?
AH: I’m very keen to direct again. If someone wants to give me the money I’ll make it – depending on the screenplay of course. I think it will happen. I have four projects and a script in the works. One thing I’ve learned if you want to make an independent film is that you have to save up some money though because you’re not going to be paid for a couple of years.
Flickfeast would like to thank Andrew for taking the time to talk to us. Snow in Paradise is released on Friday 13th February.