Oliver Guy-Watkins Talks

Art & Culture

Now I may not have quite the level of film know-how as our resident film experts Tim and Lee but I can assure you that well over 50% of my free time involves me watching television in some form. My experiences aside, when the trailer for 'A List Of Angels' hit my inbox I felt like I was getting my first taste of something very wonderful indeed. Funerals are a topic that most people fear to tread, though I hear there's this cool new show called Six Feet Un… Oh. Sorry, bit behind the pace. Moving swiftly on, there's an invitation only preview screening at The Waiting Room on 5th February and, ahead of this, I caught up with 'A List Of Angels' director Oliver Guy-Watkins to find out a little more about his creationg before it goes live on 13th February;

Tell us about A List Of Angels – what exactly is the series about and what can we expect to see?

A List Of Angels is about a company who employ people to attend funerals, not just seat fillers, but people who will actively engage in the ceremony. The company essentially headhunts people who have a personal history to draw from, and over the course of future episodes this act becomes more and more sinister. In relation to both the visuals and the story structure you can expect something that sits between The Killing, Twin Peaks, The Tunnel, and The X Files. Although we did make a decision very early on to start off in black and white and with a narration that introduces the key characters. So the first 4 parts of Series 0, that will begin to be released on February 13th, will essentially introduce you to the people and the concept.

What was your motivation for creating the series? How has it developed from your original ideas?

I have just spent the best part of three years making a feature called Always In The Present. The story has some very personal elements, which has made the process incredibly difficult at times. After that I really wanted to create something that would stimulate my imagination. I’d read a biography of Krzysztof Kieślowski in which he discussed how it was important to reference your own experience, but it was a much greater accomplishment to hide that within the context of a larger storyline than to just present your thoughts on a plate. I really wanted to create another world with A List Of Angels. One of the key things was to develop the roles and the script with the cast. Sohrab Bayat, who plays Lucifer, travelled over from Amsterdam and we walked around London for a few hours at night talking the character through. There’s a great Charles Dickens short story called ‘Night Walks’ that made me want to do this, I think the environment you create an idea in is as valuable as the idea itself. Sohrab is a dutch Iranian who studied in London and has spent time living in Istanbul, so to me he is a person of the world, not a particular set of borders, and as such provides the perfect experience to develop a character who is an immigrant in another society. He is caught in a conflict of trying to escape the past he has been subjected to whilst being confronted by prejudice. Everything in that process was important, right down to the method of transport he took. When we shot his episode, he had just arrived from an overnight coach. He literally unpacked his suitcase in the set, and his clothing became the props you see on the screen.

How did you first come across the concept of societies like A List Of Angels? What are your personal views on the idea?

The initial concept came from two things. About five years ago my friend Gareth Cadwallader had an exhibition of paintings under the banner of ‘Tobias And The Angel’, and he asked me to write a short story that would feature in the catalogue. I can’t remember now if it did or not, but it certainly opened my interest into Biblical, Greek and Roman mythology. This is when I first read about people being hired to attend funerals in ancient history. Then a while later I heard an interview on the radio with a vicar who was trying to get people to attend the service of a war veteran who had died alone with no known family and very few friends. Google intervened, and as I began investigating the story, I came across a company in Essex called Rent-A Mourner. Subsequently I found out that in some countries it’s still a pretty well known concept. My first idea was to use the story as a background for a character in a feature film I was developing, however as I began to think it through it became apparent that it could lead to so many different stories, it was a perfect subject for the backbone of something bigger. In essence I see a seedy and dark underside to anyone that chooses to profit from someone else’s grief, but I find the individuals who mourn, rather than the company itself, of great interest.

I was listening to an interview with Victoria Coren-Mitchell recently in which she said that she'd discovered a group of people that routinely blagged their way into funerals, how do you think these 'hired' attendees differ to people that lie their way in? Is there much of a moral difference?

I also came across the Jolley Gang when I was researching. It is a very different aspect to the one we are talking about, although I don’t know how much the morals differ. I read in an article of Victoria’s, that one of the men she spoke to was a writer and would use the experience to develop stories, which is in someway more acceptable than those who just go to steal food and wine. Although there is a level of exploitation there. I will say that we have discussed the idea of having a version of the Jolley Gang appear in A List Of Angels later down the line.

What can we expect to see and hear at the London Launch?

The four episodes from Series 0 will be played together as one 20 minute short. We will also have a full live set from Trevor Moss & Hannah Lou as well as Hannah In The Wars, and Hatcham Social will be DJing. There will also be a couple of small ‘interventions’ by cast from the series, which will be on a more personal than theatrical level. 

You've worked with the same actors a couple of times now, does being familiar with your cast make your job as a director any easier?

There is certainly a shorthand that is developed when you have a relationship with an actor. I’ve known James Payton for nearly ten years and we have a very similar way of seeing things. He has worked as a stand in for Anthony Hopkins and Robert Downey Jnr, and it’s really given him a strong understanding of the technical side of the industry. Once you have that as a base and you combine it with the personal experiences we have shared, or at least understand each other have undertaken, then its very easy to build a characters foundations. I have a similar history with Charlotte Hunter, although we met originally when she auditioned for my first short film. We knew immediately she was perfect for that role, and subsequently she has appeared in nearly every project I’ve done. I really admire her investment in a character, and I feel we have found a strong understanding of each others process.

How did you go about selecting artists for the soundtrack?

Music is a huge part of my life. I actively seek out new artists all the time, but sometimes you just hear a track and you just know it’s cinematic. That certainly was the case with Hannah In The Wars, Snowpoet and Kissey, who all feature in Series 0. In every case I heard the track and I could visualise a way it would heighten the feeling contained within the images and the narrative. I understand how important it is to build relationships in every aspect of filmmaking, music included, and Hatcham are a great example of that. We’ve worked together in so many different forms now, and hopefully that will continue for a long time. We see the world through very similar eyes, so it should. When we developed the concept for the two music videos from their last album, ‘Stay True To Your Family’ and ‘Don’t Go To Sleep’, I really wanted to pay tribute to the artist Bas Jan Ader who I discovered through a tutor at Central St Martins. I pitched them the idea of remaking some of his video works, and it just suited that albums sound perfectly. 

What role does the soundtrack play in the series? Do you feel that it's one of the most important elements?

For me it’s amazingly important. I tend to make a playlist and a visual book prior to any shoot. It may not include tracks that I will use in the film, but it captures my mood and intention. For these four episodes I had a mix of Portishead, Nirvana, Suede, Jungle and Young Fathers playing constantly. In A List of Angels there is a single stand alone piece of music in each episode, which is added to by the score that was composed by Michael Triponel. The Trevor Moss And Hannah Lou track ‘England’ is also an amazing juxtaposition. It’s a calm, folk melody that talks about the countries beauty and is laid over imagery of an immigrant lost in a sea of people at a funfair. As someone who grew up as the MTV generation, when music videos began to morph into short films, I have been greatly influenced by the power of pairing music and film and as such I actively seek to incorporate that synergy into my filmmaking. One of the greatest part of the process is sitting in a recording studio with a band scoring your film. It completely opens everything up and right before your eyes a whole new thing is born. 

Are there any other artists out there at the minute that are making music you love?

So many. Ibeyi’s ‘River’ is on twenty four hours a day at home. It’s a seriously amazing track and I’m really looking forward to what they produce in the future. Moko from Peckham is something I’m playing over and over again as well. It reminds me of growing up in Bristol when Massive Attack and Portishead were just coming out. 

What else can we see from you in 2015?

Always In The Present will have a limited theatrical release on May 1st, it’s very loosely based on the story of Richie Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers, but set now, and with a writer instead of a musician disappearing. It deals with the aftermath of his death and focuses on the people who are left behind trying to fill a void. Aside from that the second part of Series 0 of A List Of Angels will also appear in late April. After which it will enter production as a TV series, we are just talking through the possibilities with a couple of other production companies. I’m also working on a Thriller which will shoot in January next year in Spain. We are currently casting the three leads, with rehearsals scheduled to begin in July, and there are some really interesting options there. 

Anything else you'd like to add?

I think I’ve probably said enough 🙂

The first 4 parts of 'A List Of Angels' will begin to be released on February 13th, click here for more information.