When art student Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff
) is dumped by his girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan
), he develops insomnia. To pass the long hours of the night, he starts working the late night shift at the local supermarket. There he meets a colorful cast of characters, all of whom have their own 'art' in dealing with the boredom of an eight-hour-shift. Ben's art is that he imagines himself stopping time. This way, he can appreciate the artistic beauty of the frozen world and the people inside it - especially Sharon (Emilia Fox
), the quiet checkout girl, who perhaps holds the answer to solving the problem of Ben's insomnia.
Interview With Director Sean Ellis:
You're an internationally renowned photographer, you've directed music videos and advertising films... Did all these activities naturally lead you to directing a feature film?
Nowadays, thanks to video, you can make films for nothing. But when I was young, the only way you could practice making films was with the costly 16 mm. process. So, to create the images I had in my head, I first turned to photography, although my aim has always been to become a filmmaker.
But did you have to learn a new craft when you directed Cashback?
You learn on the job every day, especially on a set. But the main way I learned was by watching films. I've always been obsessed by the question, "Why did I like such and such a film?" Ever since I was a child, I've always written down in a notebook what I liked, in terms of the photography, special effects, or even the credits.
So, you weren't under any particular pressure when you directed your first film?
You know, when you're a photographer, you have about a dozen people on the set, waiting for you to do something with your camera. But when you're a director, you're surrounded by a director of photography, a sound engineer, a wardrobe supervisor, a set designer, etc. And you can rely on them. So, in that sense, there's less pressure on a director than on a photographer. In fact, that's what I like about making a film: working with other people.
For your first film, you wrote the screenplay, too…
I'm not a screenwriter. My desire to write came from the fact that I wasn't reading anything interesting. Then someone said to me, "Why don't you write yourself?" So, that's what I did. But as I'm not a writer, I need to mentally visualize first the whole film before I put it down on paper. That's how I work. It's a bit laborious and strange.
This film came together incredible fast…
Having directed the short film (Note: which was included in the film), I wondered how I would develop this story to turn it into a feature film. Once I'd found the beginning and end, I said to myself, "From now on, I'll write ten pages a day." So, the actual writing took seven days. Then, we went into pre-production.
Do you realize that this kind of thing never happens in the movies?
I'd been contacted by the studios, but all their projects took forever to get off the ground. I couldn't understand it. I'd say, "We have a screenplay. Why can't we film it?" I was told that it wasn't as simple as that, that it needed more development or rewriting, etc. I was sick of it, so I wrote a screenplay and I said, "Here's the story. Let's cast it, budget it, and shoot it." And that's what we did.
As simply as that…
But that's how it happened! My theory is that if things are supposed to happen, they will…
And if they're not supposed to, then there's a good reason.
To what extent is Ben's story yours?
It is in a way. I've never worked nights in a supermarket. But Ben's ability to stop time, to suspend it, and to capture emotions - that's like my work as a photographer. And Ben's childhood memories are more or less mine. The one about the Swedish au pair, for example, is genuine. (laughs) To think that some people think it's a stereotype!
So, is Ben's view of beauty yours?
Partly. It's true that there can be something depressing about beauty. When you come across it by surprise, it's so intense… Whether it's a work of art, or a man or woman you meet in the street…
I sometimes spend the next few hours stuck on moments like that… And there are so many of them! It can go to your head, it's so powerful.
With Cashback, one gets the feeling that you wanted to work on subjectivity…
The films I like play on emotions. That's what I look for, stories in which you're plunged, immersed emotionally. So, with Cashback
, I too wanted to lead the audience into an uninterrupted flow of thoughts and actions - Ben's. Every scene had to flow on from the one before in a sort of current of perceptions which carries along the audience without their realizing it. Thus, the flashbacks, for example, had to remain almost imperceptible, without any breaks, so we could follow Ben's progress. That's also the reason behind the scenes in which we go from one set to another without cutting.
Would you say that making movies is "making time"?
Yes. And you have to have something to say. When you make a film, you work on the duration, or on a series of moments, whereas in photography, all the work is concentrated on capturing a fraction of a second…
The supermarket is a common setting in our lives, but little used in films. How did it go, shooting in a place like that?
It's a "self-lit" set. We added very little in the way of lighting. You can make a supermarket interesting, but at the start, I didn't want to - it's a sad place for Ben, and it had to be so for us, too. Then, as we get further and further inside the narrator's imagination and he starts to enjoy the supermarket, we made it imperceptibly more brightly colored, more attractive. That's what you see in the second part of the film.
One of the important choices you made as director was to cast Sean Biggerstaff as Ben. He's not a typical young lead…
He gives off something non-aggressive, he has an aura of calm. He's also relatively malleable. For the screen test, I asked him to record the voiceover using different accents. I then spent a while dreaming of the film as I listened to this cassette on which he displayed a wide variety of voices. But the main reason I chose him was you don't really see him as a sexual deviant. (laughs) Because if you think about it, what Ben does is a little bit suspect. If you could stop time and you take advantage of that power to undress women, would you go telling everyone about it?!
Probably not… I was very aware of this pitfall. As early as the short film, I remember showing the film to girlfriends and asking them, "Do you think this guy is a pervert?" If they had said yes, I would have got it all wrong. I needed them to say that he was adorable, touching, and ideally even say something like: "You know, I wouldn't mind if he did the same thing to me"!
You had to direct the actors - that's one of the main differences with being a photographer…
Actors are very interesting. To me, a good director is someone who knows people, who understands how they work and who then uses that to get what he wants. It's an art and it's very tricky. To think that actors go along with it to earn their living is crazy. With Sean Biggerstaff, he worked better under pressure and that meant not showing him playbacks and not giving him too much praise. This uncertainty made him go with his instincts and he has great instinct! On the other hand, with Emilia Fox (Sharon), I had to spend a lot of time describing the character and her past before the shoot so she could feel what it was that Sharon was going through and then she played it so beautifully from there.
Emilia Fox said the film could be described as "a way of learning to love imperfection". Do you agree with that?
I think that the film tells us that what we spend our lives looking for is often right in front of us. And if we take the time to see things calmly, we find in us what we want or we find ways to obtain it. And what is supposedly imperfect can be seen differently. I think that the little girl with hairy arms is adorable, I don't know why.
The film is full of allusions like that, such as the scene with Sharon's wandering bit of sandwich.
We all fantasize about Gone with the Wind
love stories. But the reality's very different. Sometimes insignificant or embarrassing things can trigger encounters. Some horribly embarrassing things have happened to me which, in retrospect, turned out to be hilarious as well as touching after all. In situations like that, you're far from posing, you're exposed. It's interesting.
With your keen eye for observation, you paid particular attention to the secondary roles…
To me, secondary roles must be lively. If they're not, they have no reason to be in the film. I wanted people to identify with them, for them to behave in ways people recognize or in which they recognize their friends. I drew inspiration from acquaintances or friends of friends. Others came about thanks to the actors who played them, such as Jenkins, the manager. The actor made us laugh so much on the short film that I wanted to write a big part for him. The atmosphere was very good on the set and we were also able to use several improvisations.
Like your photos, the film is sometimes very sexy. Do you have a theory about this?
No, there's nothing more subjective. I try to film things on instinct which I personally find very sexy. As for the lighting, my experience just allows me to know what will come out well, that's all. The rest is a matter of personal appreciation. For example, to go back to the Swedish au pair, it was one of the sexiest experiences in my life and yet my memory must have embellished it quite a lot. In fact, when I think back to it now, I see the reconstruction I did for Cashback
, and the real memory of it has gone.