We Are Happy
What inspired you to come up with the idea for the film?
I’ve realized that I’m very often influenced by the behavior of other people. If someone sitting next to me on the bus is eating a doughnut, I often think, ‘Hey, I’d like a doughnut too’.
So I began to wonder how many of my life choices had been made because I’d observed the choices of other people. And then I wondered, what it would be like if one had made the big decisions in one’s life – to get married, to have children, to get divorced – simply because your friends were doing it. And that’s how the idea for the film came about.
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
My films are very personal – they are often inspired by something that’s happened to me or an aspect of my personality that I want to tease out or unpack. The heroes of We Are Happy are a couple who start questioning their marriage because they’re friends have done the same thing, so not only can I see myself in the main characters – my fear is that I am them.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
No aspect of the story changed during the writing – only in the sense that myself and my writing partner, James Handel, had written an idea for a film and we decided we didn’t like it (well, to be honest, the feedback from actors we knew told us it just wasn’t that strong) so we dumped it, and came up with something else.
From that point the story didn’t change at all during the writing or production. I always shoot the script as it is – well I certainly try. I think if things are changing too much it’s usually because I haven’t spent enough time on the writing process in the first place. In my experience, you can fix some things in the edit; you can paint out a sign or darken down a corner, but you can’t change someone’s motivation or performance. The meaning, the thrust, the turning points of the story is set in the writing.
What influenced the visual style of your film?
My films are very conversational and I’m often aware of not wanting to be too ‘tricksy’ when it comes to camerawork. I don’t like anything that may get in the way of the performances. As a commercials director I’ve had plenty of opportunity to use every obscure lens, weird camera angle and piece of kit available – which is why in drama l like to keep things simple.
That said, the lighting was, for me, an opportunity to try and make things interesting and the cameraman and myself looked at a lot of Rembrandt paintings. In the film, we had a lot of people sitting around chatting and the chiaroscuro techniques he used, where he allows large portions of his canvass to go very dark, was something that we borrowed heavily from, particularly in the first scene of the film.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during writing and production?
Easy – we dumped our old script. We had a script that wasn’t really working – actors weren’t responding and it wasn’t really reflecting the kind of social satire that myself and my co-writer were interested in making.
It was a story set a dinner party, but it had a thriller element to it, where a shocking back story was revealed. The idea was OK. It could have worked, but it wasn’t ‘us’. So rather than trying to fix it, we dumped it entirely and came up with a new script. It was the best decision we made. I don’t think that old script would have made it into this festival.
Were there any risks that you faced during writing/production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
The most difficult part of the shoot was when we were filming in the Conran Shop, a very expensive London department store. The store is closed on a Sunday morning until 11am. We had access from 8am till 11am to get all of our shots. However, they assured us that no one arrives until 12pm so we planned on shooting till 12pm.
Obviously, this being a shoot, the public never got the memo and when the doors opened at 11, fifty people trooped in, all of whom seemed to be wearing clogs that clanked and boomed on the wooden floors. There was nothing much we could do about it, so we acquired a bunch of unwanted extras and noise during the final shots.
Luckily, since we were following traditional filming schedules, we’d shot all the wides and mid shots first, so I only needed a couple of close ups. The sound man was worried the noise wouldn’t match, but in post, the sound editor edited the dialogues so heavily that I don’t think you notice all the extra noise. Essentially our location changed from having eight extras in it to fifty. It was a pretty close shave. If we were behind schedule nothing would have cut.
What risks does your story take?
The story of We Are Happy is about urban professionals who struggle with what some would term ‘high class problems’. It’s a satirical comedy – you’re supposed to be laughing at the characters and with them at the same time.
The film is not particularly visual – it’s not supposed to be. I eschewed all opportunities to be clever with the camerawork. I don’t think that would have made the film any more filmic. I just tried to make the film as honestly as I could. It’s not to everyone’s taste and there’s a lot of dialogue in it.
I’m working with a producer on another project who doesn’t like it. He say it’s ‘too talky’. But if anything, that is the risk we took with the film – it is talky. It’s supposed to be. It’s a film that relies entirely on the writing and the performances. If you don’t like a lot of dialogue, you’re not going to like this film.
The one risk you have to always take is to be true to your material. Not everyone will like it. If you like exclusively action films you will think this film sucks. But some people will and if it’s to their taste and they like it, then you’ve done your job.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screen writing or film producing?
My answer to this carries on very much from the previous question. I think it’s important to recognize in the writing process that if something isn’t working, it needs to be fixed before the shoot. The writing, the characters, their motivations, as we all know, can’t be fixed in the editing room. Similarly, if a script isn’t working, and you’ve tried it every which way, it’s often quicker to dump it and start another script.
I also think it’s important to get feedback from other people, but I would caution about getting feedback from other writers and/or directors. Us writers are all very competitive and may not give the most encouraging or useful notes. Also, I think writers tend to have genres they like and excel in, and they may simply not ‘get’ what you’re trying to do. This also applies to directors. I showed a rough cut to a couple of director friends who told me the material just wasn’t funny. I knew they were wrong but I doubted myself. When a much larger consensus of people saw the film they were proved wrong.
Equally, comedy’s a funny thing. It’s a serious business and everyone has different taste. It is, like many things in life, entirely subjective. On the one hand you can get a consensus, a sense of whether what you’re doing is working or not, and on the other hand you often really have to stick to your guns. If you’re convinced about what you’re doing, forget about everyone else’s opinion.
And finally, I would just reiterate, it’s all down to the script. I always ask myself a question, especially with feature scripts, before I’m about to send them out to producers or financiers, ‘Would I invest a $1m of my own money in this script?’ If the answer is no, then I don’t send it out. It requires another draft.
If on the other hand I know beyond a shadow of doubt I would invest every last dime I own into this script and would rather own it all because I’m so confident of the material I don’t want to split my investment and recoupment with anybody else, then I know I’m onto something. This obviously happens (if at all) very rarely.