FAULT Focus: Mat Whitecross, director of upcoming feature film Spike Island

There are a very few emerging British directors who deliberately choose to create or work with projects that combine both the light-hearted, visually experimental  nature of film making (Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) with work that demands the courage of one’s own conviction to even begin the research process (Moving to Mars/The Road to Guantanamo). Mat Whitecross, however, continues to experiment with his choices with an informed political awareness and intelligence and with the rare ability to make films that are also true cinematic visions – such as his second feature film, the exhilarating coming of age journey Spike Island, which premièred recently at BFI’s London Film Festival 2012.

Whitecross previously worked on iconic Madchester film 24 hour Party People, and Spike Island is another story that we all are familiar with: the quest to pursue something that you so strongly believe in, in this case that all-too familiar feeling that you just have to get to see that band or festival whatever it takes. In the film, five friends who are in a band called Shadowcaster start their mission to see their favourite band – the iconic Stone Roses – and get into the famous festival. The soundtrack alone is perfect, and worth going to the cinema (it is due out on April 2013) for on its own.It is during my very own travels for FAULT, that I met with director Mat Whitecross and asked him to share the story behind the making of his inspirational film:

Mat Whitecross – director of Spike Island

FAULT: In one sentence, please summarise Spike Island.

Mat: It’s a coming of age story about a bunch of kids growing up in 1990, they’re massive fans of The Stone Roses and the band is about to play their biggest gig ever and the most important gig ever in Spike Island; these kids want to give them their demo tape but they don’t have the money so decide to try and get there and sneak their way in.

You’ve directed & co-directed quite a few high profile films (Road to Guantanamo/Documentaries Shock Doctrine) and Music Videos (e.g: for Coldplay) – What makes Spike Island a Mat Whitecross film?

That’s a really good question, it was a project that was brought to me and also nearly every project I work on tends to be something I’ve originated and I take to other people; so there was already a script before I became involved and Chris Coghill (Writer) and the producers had been working on this for a couple of years. We’ve known each other for a decade because we worked together on 24 hour Party People. The element that I associate with the things that I’ve worked on is just trying to turn the script into a piece of cinema rather than something that feels enclosed like a chamber piece. Also I try and give the actors free reign to experiment, I try not to have too many camera moves that lock them into a way of acting

The film is perfectly stylized, evoking dream -esque sequences & very accurate emotions that we as the audience starkly feel when watching – What was your process for developing the stylistic direction of the film?

I’ll read the script and break it down, I’ll pull out geography and colours or the paintings I associate with the time, I did a lot of research about the time and sat with my production designer Richie (Richard Bullock) and Cinematographer Chris Ross we looked at what people were wearing so a lot of work in terms of that sort of detail was the starting point and I worked with story board artists to try and get everyone thinking on the same page.

You’re certainly an example of an emerging British director that has the ability to combine aesthetically beautiful commercial projects that are it must be clearly stated, without crudeness ,with ones that have politically complex subjects  – Now there is Spike Island a classic feel good ‘Coming Of Age’ story – Are you a director preferring to establish a specific style  throughout the different projects or is the process of experimentation with divergent genres a more appealing way to exercise your ideas?

I definitely prefer to go between different projects, I don’t think I have a visual style, I admire film makers that have a theme that they tend to revisit; for example people like  Michael Winterbottom where each film almost feels like a reaction to the last, they’ll go and do a documentary and then go and do something else entirely different. It’s the same thing with my work, after I work on these amazing music videos and then with everything else I do, each one refreshes you and after doing a 2 year documentary it’s great to get on a set like Spike Island.

All photography by Dan Meldany

Yes I think it’s easy to get burnt out, burnt out in two ways, trying to finance the film and I know I’ve been very lucky and  so I tend to have several projects on the go where 9 out 10 will fall apart so that part of the project burns you out and then also when you finish something and you’ve  been working  24 hour days you then do want to try something new.

What lengths have you been to, to see your favourite band or pursue something?

The first year I went to Glastonbury, we jumped over the fence, that’s probably my version of Spike Island. I probably shouldn’t say that, but it’s a lot harder now to get into now!

Spike Island combines and balances between recreating the power of  music festivals and the euphoria they bring – with the serious drama aspect of the relationships within the film. How did you work towards lifting those emotions and making them so visceral within scenes?

I think we’ve all been in those situations in one way or another and primarily it is a coming of age story; those father and son relationships; the actors are the same age as their characters and they can feel everything they do; when you can’t get to the gig you want to go to so badly or  the idea of not getting together with the girl of your dreams and it seems like you can’t carry on living . Also creating the music scenes was a lot of fun, they hung out with musicians and in the studio and Mani from Stone Roses visited them (Bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield) it was a lot of fun.

Which traveling journey has given you that electric shock of excitement so far?

Travelling around South America when I was on my Gap year, my mum is Argentinian so I’d been there in the past but this was on my own and hitch hiking and catching buses travelling up and down Argentina, Chile  Uruguay  and Brazil and that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It felt like my version of On The Road and also it was before Facebook and the internet;  I think those kinds of journeys are harder now as everything can be  mapped out easily. I didn’t know anything about where I was going, I’d just hear a rumour about a town that’d be nice to go to and it’d be 3 days drive away so I’d hop in a car with some strangers and go.

It can be said that youth is a mirrored reflection of positive stupidity. How strong and alive is your idealism today on 16th October 2012?

I was having exactly this conversation with someone a couple of days ago and we were saying that if you could time travel and bump into yourself when you were younger, would they respect your decisions and the person that you are and would you be happy to see yourself at that age. I felt like I wanted to be a film maker from a very young age, but I never thought it would happen. I’ve tried to stay true to my ideals in terms of choose interesting projects rather than lucrative ones. I get sent a lot of scripts and try to choose challenging projects, we spent a long time getting my previous film Ashes made (with Ray Winstone) to the point where we were turned down by everyone in England 3 times over.  By the time it came together, it felt really rewarding and the fact that it just exists; if in twenty years’ time it has an impact on a kid watching it or inspires them, then that’ll be worth it.

Introduction and interview by Marcella Karamat; photography by Dan Meldany