Madagascar Skin brings John Hannah and Bernard Hill together as a very odd screen couple. In a rare interview, director Chris Newby talks to Trevor Johnston.
Although Anchoress, his visually evocative story of an incarcerated medieval visionary, will go down in the record books as writer-director Chris Newby’s début feature, it's only with his new ﬁlm that he’s been given carte blanche to show what he can do. Providing, that is, he brought the whole thing in for under £450,000. Such was the open commission he received from the British Film institute Production Board, an offer that did away with the usual script- mincing machine of the development process, but
still challenged the ﬁlmmaker to tailor the
promptings of his imagination accordingly.
‘Actually, i never felt the strain once i decided it was going to be a character piece,‘ he says of the eccentric and delightful two-hander Madagascar Skin that‘s the disarming end product. ‘l mean, you don’t need a jet aircraft to tell you who people are when you can do it through the dialogue. Once i had it down to pretty much two speaking parts, it was ﬁne, but it‘s still a challenge to make a 35mm feature for that kind of money. A bit like doing a watercolour
instead ofan oil painting.‘ With its limited locations and narrative
concentration on the developing bond between John Hannah‘s repressed young gay man (whose distinctive facial birthmark gives the ﬁlm its title) and Bernard Hill‘s mischief-making shady character, on paper Madagascar Skin almost sounds like the
will be. It‘s terriﬁc to see a movie — a British movie indeed — which creates that kind of alertness, though even the ﬁlmmaker himself, a self-effacing individual who only rarely gives interviews, puts it down to a purely instinctive process.
‘1 always ﬁnd it difﬁcult to talk about my work,‘ reﬂects the Royal College of Art graduate who‘s been making his own short ﬁlms for a decade and a half. most notably I991 ‘s dazzling AIDS test drama Relax. ‘I just watch what happens in my head like a ﬁlm and try to get it down. l‘m bad at articulating why it‘s like this or that, and why it’s shot in a certain way, but i just try to be entertaining and think along certain lines. your head to go along in a certain direction.‘
While Newby is extremely self-critical towards his own work (‘One of the reasons i don‘t like giving interviews is that i don‘t feel l‘ve made a movie l‘m really pleased with yet‘), there‘s certainly a line you can trace from his short work, like 1990‘s evocative Arts Council project The Old Man Of The Sea through to Anchoress (‘a divergence in my career,‘ he says, because it was someone else‘s script and he only took over the project when Beeban Kidron dropped out) and Madagascar Skin. All his work chimes with a certain lyricism, a delight in the shapes and sounds and forms and varieties out there in the natural world, and all visualised through a combination of upfront framing and razor-sharp
While both Relax and his latest offering also show his skills improving as a writer of succinctly bittersweet, almost sherbety dialogue, Newby himself professes he‘s still learning. ‘Michael Powell
Something like setting the controls in
Madagascar Skin: ‘eccentrlc and delightiul'
antithesis of cinema — ‘pictures of people talking‘, as Hitchcock would have it. However, it‘s the vrsual invention in the piece (look under a bucket on the
‘it’s a challenge to make a 35mm feature for that kind of money. A bit like doing a watercolour instead of an oil painting.’
could shoot three quickies a year, but today you only get a chance to hone your craft once every two years. l've always made ﬁlms in whatever way I could, even when l was on the dole, so l’m just glad to be having the opportunity to continue with that. Deﬁnitely though, I‘m in love with 35mm Scope, so the next feature is going to move up a step or two in terms of size and budget. l’m writing at the moment but i won‘t put a curse on it by saying anything
beach and you‘ll ﬁnd someone buried or hiding) and its playfulness with ﬁlmic form which means you‘re never quite sure what the next shot. or the next scene. 23 February.
more.‘ (Trevor Johnston)
Madagascar Skin opens at the Edinburgh F ilmhouse on Friday 2 and the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday
It’s a fair
Harrison Ford isn’t the cinema icon that Humphrey Bogart will always be. Talk show host Greg Kinnear hasn’t the timeless looks of William Holden. Director Sidney Pollack ‘certainly didn’t consider myself Billy Wilder’. Nevertheless, they’ve had a stab at remaking the 1954 romantic fairytale Sabrina, peppering it with a sprinkle of cynicism for the 90s. The only original ingredient that can never be matched is the sparkling presence of Audrey Hepburn as the Cinderella
figure who transforms the selfish ways of a rich American family.
‘i felt in my gut that the worst mistake I could make would be to try to find someone like Audrey Hepburn,’ says Pollack, the man who has brought us The Firm, Tootsie and Out 0! Africa. ‘What would you find? At best a pale imitation. There are certain obvious choices - not in that they’re like her, but they’re the contemporary versions in the States: Winona Ryder or Julia Roberts. But it would be finally unfair to them and unfair to the picture to have everybody making thisdirect comparison.’
The task of recreating the necessary on-screen magic for this new version fell to much-in-demand British actress Julia Onnond, recently seen in
Legends 0! The Fall and First Knight. ‘i tested Julia with Harrison in the long scene in which he tells her he’s lying. At the moment she realises that he wants her to come to Paris with him, Julia had such a radiant joy that I could see Harrison beginning to get almost physically ill at what his character was doing. Julia’s not a fragile girl like Audrey Hepburn was — you’d say about Audrey Hepburn that she was gamine, delicate, otherworldly. Julia’s more substantitive and she approaches the role much more straightforwardly as a realistic actress rather than with charisma. i knew she’d be able to find her own way to come at the part.’ (Alan Morrison)
Sabrina opens on Fri 26. See review on
The List 26 Jan-8 Feb 1996 23