An Interview with Toby Tobias
Recently Way Out Radio had the privilege of visiting the fantastic Regent Street Cinema to attend the premier of ‘Blood Orange’ Starring Iggy Pop. The film was fantastic and left us with so many questions that we just couldn’t resist chatting with visionary Director Toby Tobias. Not only did we find out about Toby’s first full-length feature film ‘Blood Orange’ starring the illustrious rock star Iggy, we also chatted about his ever-evolving career from filming music videos to touring with rock and roll legends including The Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground. This is one way out story to sink your teeth into…
So your career has covered almost every aspect of production from acting on the west end stage…
Yes that’s true! I was in an Alan Bennet play (40 Years On) with Stephen Fry back in the 80’s when I was a child actor.
You’ve also been a video coordinator for Madonna’s “Truth or Dare”, Peter Gabriel’s “Secret World”, and the Spice Girls’ “Spice World”.
There was a wonderful side of my technical career where I spent four years working with some of the best and biggest loved bands from The Rolling Stones to Peter Gabriel and Madonna and The Velvet Underground when they reformed! I found myself as part of the team that basically toured around putting on concerts and filmed with 16 to 20 cameras. It was a fantastic period of my life and I got to work with nearly all of my heroes!
What was it like working with The Velvet Underground?
That was awesome! You had to pinch yourself really, to think ‘My God, they’ve reformed!’ They were a little more straight laced than they were first time round. A word went around to the crew ‘DO NOT have anyone taking drugs on this set!’ Well of course we don’t anyway but it was funny that The Velvet Underground were the only band to make sure that the film crew weren’t misbehaving and Mo Tucker on drums – my goodness she looked like a primary school teacher in her 50s but banging away on her drums so unusually – turning the bass drum on its side and playing it with the sticks. I loved that time of my life and probably spent too many years doing that before trying to break out as a director but then when you’re having fun you don’t want it to stop.
How did you finally come around to directing a feature length film?
It’s a long circuitous process, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. You practically have to reinvent the wheel from scratch with every different production that you do. For 15 year’s I’ve been writing scripts to turn into films, some sold, some never quite made it to production, I had a development with the UK Film Council before they folded. Meanwhile I was directing music videos and occasional commercials to keep my head above water. I was plugging away for a very long time before managing to get the magic ingredients, which obviously involved Iggy Pop to get Blood Orange off the ground.
In the film industry they say there are only 6 stories that get told and repeated throughout thousands of films. I saw Blood Orange and found it very different and intriguing. How do you keep it fresh?
It’s always about how you can approach something in a unique way and everybody has their own perspective. Hopefully how I see something is sufficiently different to make it interesting. But to be absolutely frank, Blood Orange takes a fair few, established characters – the uninvited intruder that turns things upside-down, the conventions of film noir with its femme fatale and I looked at a few movies that for me have relevance of one kind or another and tried to create a dish from ingredients that you know but with something that is unexpected.
What made you choose the Thriller genre?
There are certain films I am attracted to above others and a style I hope to evolve so that people can identify a Toby Tobias film. I think you need to earn that as a credit. Even if you write and direct it you can’t put that on your first film because you need to be a stylist. Why a Thriller – I guess because if you’re going to strip a film down to its essentials you’re looking really at a genre based movie to do that and the three main genres doing that are Comedy, Horror and Thriller. Although I do enjoy making the audience laugh with the occasional bit of humour in Blood Orange, I wouldn’t call myself a comedy writer, not naturally! I don’t veer towards horror anymore. Although I loved it when I was younger, I’m more into the subtle dramas that play out between characters now. Thriller really gives you an opportunity to explore character-based drama. It was something I felt I could use more effectively as for me, I had to strip it down, I had to have an idea that was contained and low budget enough that I could keep control of it so that I could make sure we got into production this time so if it hit a wall or I lost a partner – one of the inevitable things that generally tends to happen when you’re making something a bit ambitious and you haven’t got a huge track record so the aim was to work on a budget, deliver something entertaining and go on to make something bigger next time.
How did the story come about?
I wrote the original script from three points of inspiration. One was a director/producer who was badgering me to get out there and make a movie. He said ‘You’ve done short films, you’ve done commercials and promos but you haven’t made a movie and it’s going to be so much easier to make the big one when you’ve made a movie so write something you can make!’ He mentioned a film ‘My Dinner With Andre’ which is two people in a room and said put it around the festival circuit and get out there. I can’t do two people in a room because that’s an enormous stretch but he kept on at me and I was thinking – you’ve got a point, I should pull resources together and make something – but what? Secondly I watched a lovely French film called La Piscine, which they have remade and has a similar world to Blood Orange, a couple living in a beautiful villa, they have a pool and some friends arrive and things play out in one location. I thought that was a good visual environment to entertain people with because if you’re going to make a one-location thriller, the audience need some eye candy. I really didn’t want to be in a council estate or film in England. I want to do something that takes people out of their lives to give them something they like looking at. The other starting point was a documentary called ‘Beware of Mr Baker’.
It’s about Ginger Baker (drummer of rock band Cream) and I thought he was dangerous and charismatic. I wanted to bring a similar character into my film. I was always thinking about the ‘older-man, younger-woman’ preconceptions people have, that I wanted to subvert. That was part of the premise of Blood Orange. I wanted to take all of the preconceptions of everyone’s character and subvert them and do the same with the genre, play with it. I can believe that a woman like Isobel can fall in love with someone that has a history of being a rock star from the 70’s who’d lived and been a cultural icon and would have so many stories and so much wisdom to share that a younger woman might be fascinated by his presence rather than ‘I’m just in it for the money’. That was my point of beginning; here’s my point of location, here’s my world, here are my characters – what do I need? I needed a young man to come into their lives and turn it around. Quickly from there it took on a life of its own.
Iggy Pop’s character Bill is so profound – where does that wisdom come from?!
(Laughs) When you’re writing a script you have time to think about the best way for a character to react in a situation. There are some lovely lines Bill comes up with that I think ‘I wish I’d said that in my life’ – even though I wrote it! Its just the benefit of having time to think about it and not having to come back with a one liner there and then. Bills philosophy comes true in the movie, it’s a ‘take no prisoners’ philosophy that has its own dangers.
Blood Orange uses comedy to break the ice in some parts…
With a thriller or horror you do use humour to disperse the tension otherwise the audience feels uncomfortable. There’s a build up of adrenalin in certain scenes and you need to release it. The comedy comes out of the character situations and the absurdity of life. I learned early on with one of the short films I made that truth is stranger than fiction.
Did you have the actors in mind when you wrote the script?
I’d like to say I did because that’s probably the politically correct way to answer the question but no. The characters existed in my head and then we started the casting process. The first person on the list was Iggy. We thought about a few different rock stars who could play the role. Each one we thought of drastically changed the tone of the movie. After a few names I said; ‘actually Iggy Pop.’ There was a few seconds silence and then everyone went; ‘yeah’. We sent him the script and kept our fingers crossed and we lucked out! He said yes.
Had you met Iggy before?
No, never. When I say I’d already met most of my idols, he was one that I hadn’t yet and he is a lovely man. He was the only actor we offered the role to and we sat on our hands for 6 weeks while his management came back with questions and we moved dates around to accommodate. We were just happy he liked it and I did an immediate rewrite because I wrote it as a Brit so we Americanised it and that came through very easily.
What was it like having Iggy on the Set?
He was so professional, so easy, so willing and helpful. He would turn up and wanted to do the very best he could, he took direction and was a directors dream to work with because there was no ego, there was no prima donna behaviour. He was just constantly professional, absolutely amazing. Obviously when he turned up on set the atmosphere shifts, you all go into that serious mode, don’t want to keep him waiting or mess him around. Not that you mess anyone around but there’s just a different atmosphere from a rock and roll legend from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s than there is with an up and coming actor.
What was the biggest learning curve in directing Blood Orange?
Good question, one was to continue to think on my feet and plan for the next day. There were a couple of scenes that were written whilst shooting. We were 48 hours behind in terms of editing but I’d see what we were shooting and edit the scene in my head as I was resting in the evenings and a couple of times I’d realised I needed a new scene and we had to find space in our ridiculously tight schedule of 15 days, but we actually finished in 13 1/2. That was one major learning curve. But I think the difference in longer form narrative cinema to commercials and music videos is that it’s not about the shot. It’s about the scene, how you get into a scene, how do you get out and how does the scene flow with the overall film. It was always a case of trying to hold where we’d come from and where we were going to influence the scene being played out. That was a new experience for me.
When you’re making a film it’s a huge collaborative effort, how do you keep the relationships strong?
I’m fortunate enough to have spent a long time working as crew, not director and I’ve worked for hundreds of directors, some great names I’ve admired and been honoured to work with and some people that I felt were in over their heads. I’ve seen how really good directors run the shoot and I’ve seen how a shoot shouldn’t be run. It is absolutely collaborative. The director makes choices but everybody who is an essential creative component should feel valued of their ideas. You select and cherry pick the best things to help you ideas become better. I think the working atmosphere on a film set is absolutely the most important part of it. You need to have a very respectful environment where the actors are working in a place that is protected and they feel that they can trust the director and the crew because they are baring their emotional soul. You have to listen to your crew and that way you have a very happy family, because it is a family. We were all living together and became really close so it was essential that the atmosphere remained positive throughout, which it did.
What sets you off when you see a bad movie?
I could probably watch half a dozen films with you and point things out but it’s probably more ‘style over substance’ filming. I’m not interested in a cool camera move – does it help the story? No.
I’m really pleased with the cinematography in Blood Orange I think Mark made every frame look gorgeous but hopefully you’re involved enough with the characters not to keep saying ‘Oh isn’t that a lovely picture’. Everything should evolve the story and being clever or stylish for your own sake can take me out of the story. That to me is just naive.
What films do you love and what’s your main inspiration or influence?
I’m a bit old school. Most of the films I love come from the golden age of the 70’s and 80’s of cinema, films that you’d never be able to make again in todays modern climate like ‘Midnight Cowboy’ or ‘Harold and Maude’, ‘Blue Velvet’. I like films that challenge you an have great stories, characters and there is a treasure trove of movies that were made then and you can play a game with modern film distributors and surveys and pitch stories like that which sound so uncommercial and so unappealing but my God are they brilliant and involving and engaging stories. For me its not all about a one line pitch, its about how that story unfolds over 90 minutes.
Do you think filmmakers have any responsibility to culture?
Completely, absolutely! At the risk of sounding pretentious, I think film is one of the highest forms of art. Unfortunately it has a very complicated relationship with commerce to make it. It is pictures and sound over time combining all of the art forms in one when it’s done well. It is so immersive, telling stories is primal. But telling stories in a dark room with a big screen, with characters that are larger than life – you lose yourself – its magic.
You are currently working on a number of projects including “Man without a Shadow”, an adaptation of Colin Wilson’s 1957 bestseller – can you tell us a bit about that?
It’s what I would call a Faustian romance in the world of a thriller but it’s really about a young man who falls in love with a married woman who is also involving with a black magician based on Aleister Crowley. He asks a favour of this man to get her away from this unhappy marriage she’s in and when the occultist delivers we realise that he is in favour with the devil and the devil is about to take his due. That’s as concisely as I can put it but it deals with human sexuality, morality, reality vs occult, psychology, it’s pre sexual revolution and combines a lot of things and is (hopefully), like Blood Orange, witty and thrilling in the right places.
You’re also working on “Hell Hath Enlarged Herself”. How did that come about?
That’s a script that my writing partner Marcello and I have been developing based on a Michael Marshall short story. It’s a fantastic story that basically combines science fiction and horror and this is going to be directed by Gerald Mcmorrow who is visually very stylish but smart at story telling. Marcello and I agreed that we needed a different director than the way I would see things but it was a story that we fell in love with.
After attending the film premier of Blood Orange, we would highly recommend that you make time to go see it! For more on Toby and Blood Orange, visit:
Hear Toby’s interview on Kane FM Radio here:
(Listen from 36 mins)