John-Paul Stephenson

Interview: Fiona Gillies talks about City Slacker

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Image: Fiona Gillies and Tom Conti, © City Slacker Ltd / Richard Pavitt

City Slacker, an indie British comedy film, makes its television debut today on Sky Movies. The film stars Fiona Gillies as Amanda, a business woman who is desperate to have a baby with minimal inconvenience, known to comedy fans as Becky in Steven Moffat’s Joking Apart.

Fiona, who co-produced the film alongside writer Michael Mueller, manages to spare a few moments away from pre-production to chat to John-Paul Stephenson about City Slacker and their next project, a comedy film about a former rock god starring Luke Perry.

JPS: Hi Fiona! You play Amanda in City Slacker; could you tell us a bit about your character?

FG: Amanda is a single-minded, high-powered businesswoman, who’s really following her dad’s path. He’s a workaholic, and she’s a workaholic. It’s that thing when your goals change without you being involved in the decision making process. Suddenly she wants a child.

JPS: Because the thing that’s gone wrong is that her frozen eggs have been destroyed.

FG: When Amanda was in her 30s, she froze her eggs in a clinic so that she could get them when she needed them, after completing her career goals. But, she gets a call from the doctor saying that there has been a fire at the clinic and “you’re eggs have all been fried”, so if you want a baby you’re going to have to get out and do it the way nature intended.

At first it’s a bit of inconvenience, but then she realises that she doesn’t want to have children with her long-term partner, she really doesn’t want to give up her work. She has to compromise somewhere so she finds a youthful ‘slacker’ (Dan, played by Geoffrey Streatfield) with no ambition who can become a dad and stay at home and bring up a baby, while she can carry on working, barely stopping to draw breath. That’s her grand plan and, of course, it fails miserably.

Everything that she always wanted, she realises through the course of the story that she doesn’t really want. As the very useful slacker says to her, “what you need and what you want are very different.”

JPS: Amanda’s father is played by Tom Conti! It must have been a thrill to get him.

FG: It was great, because we rang him and said “we have a part that we’d really like you to do,” and he said, “send me the script.” We sent him the script and he really liked it, which was fantastic. He’d just come off the Batman movie and come to us, so instead of having a massive Winnebago and a five star hotel, he was being picked up by us and ferried around and having a chair in the kitchen.

JPS: Of course, as well as starring in the film, you were one of the producers. How did the process start?

FG: The process started when Michael Muller, the writer, had an idea for a high-powered business woman and egg-freezing. And how to look at that in a light-hearted way. So he wrote a script and then composer Geoff Jackson, who is a friend of his, read it and started sending loads of music through and three o’clock in the morning, saying “Let’s make this film because I’ve got all of these ideas for music!”

We teamed up with a couple of other people. It started around the kitchen table, and it got bigger and bigger. It was all pretty quick in the grand scheme of the filmmaking world because it’s small and the control stays within the production, so that you don’t have too many other outside influences. There are two executive producers, but they were also around the kitchen table.

JPS: Great, so that there was that common aim. The film seems to have been pretty well received.

FG: I’m really excited. It was nominated for Best UK Feature at Raindance, and it was nominated for a British independent film award. It’s starting to sell around the world. We’re getting some really nice feedback.

We decided to make a romantic comedy, which is not the easiest genre to make on a low budget. It’s much easier to make horror or a shoot-em-up kind of movie. We thought we’d have a go at something that’s a little bit fun and a little bit glossy on a budget of twenty pence.

JPS: What were the challenges of being one of the producers as well as a lead actor?

FG: Get yourself a nice cup of tea, get on the sofa and I’ll bore you rigid. It was dreamy!

There were a few challenges. Most were to do with logistics, such as I was very aware that we only had another seven minutes in the location, so therefore I have to hit the mark and say the line first time.

It was really interesting to see the process right from the very beginning, from the pencil hitting the paper, right the way through to signing the agreement with the distributor.

JPS: So did that lead to any improvised, creative decisions? For example, did you veto any retakes?

FG: Haha.  “That’s fine… moving on.” That’s a decision you’ve got to make with everyone else, really, but it was aided by the fact that you only have a few minutes. Time constraints are the biggest thing when you’re shooting on a low budget film, but then I think that works well for a lot of actors. American actors maybe have a bit more time to go for 50 takes, but in the UK you never have that luxury; you’ve got to hit the ground running.

JPS: What are the consequences of that? Do you think that enhances the naturalness?

FG: I think so because after ten takes people aren’t as fresh and they are losing something. You probably get the best work in the first few takes. She says as a low-budget filmmaker!

JPS: It sounds quite reasonable, though.

FG: A friend of mine worked with a very famous American actor who took 72 takes on a scene. By the seventieth take, all of the British actors around him were on their knees. He was fantastic because he’d worked up to it in a very different way, but they were exhausted. It’s a collaborative thing; you’ve got to get it to work for everybody.

JPS: Lots of retakes doesn’t work for comedy, because that’s about more than technical perfection…

FG: It’s about atmosphere and rhythm. The skill of the director is capturing that; putting your actors in the right position and making them feel comfortable, lighting them well, and then letting them go. Making sure you catch it.

JPS: I understand you’re working on your next comedy?

On the strength of City Slacker, we set up a production company called Scoop Films. We are making our next film, a comedy-drama called The Beat Beneath My Feet. We start filming in three weeks. It’s about a teenage boy who lives with his mum in a flat in London, and in the flat below lives a rather lonely, depressive, former rock God who faked his own death ten years ago.

He disappeared owing a fortune to the Inland Revenue. Our boy works out who he is and starts blackmailing him. It has a lot of original music, with Geoff Jackson and [Bowie producer] Tony Visconti, who produced the music for City Slacker.

JPS: Are you allowed to say if anyone else is connected with The Beat Beneath My Feet?

FG: I am allowed to say as from this afternoon. We have signed Luke Perry!

JPS: Luke Perry! Beverly Hills 90210! And here he doesn’t have to pretend to be 16 while clearly in his late twenties!

FG: We’re very excited about him. It’ll be weird and wonderful experience. He’s a nineties cultural icon, so he fits in perfectly with playing a former rock god who has disappeared and resurfaces in a flat in South London.

We start filming on 30 September. So Geoff has to get his finger out with his lyrics, because we need them!

City Slacker is premiering on Sky Movies on Friday 13 September, and The Beat Beneath My Feet is scheduled for release next year. Click for further information about both Scoop Film projects.