Frank Harper is the writer, director and star of St George’s Day, a new British gangster film that not only has plenty of twists and turns, but loads of laughs too. The Film Review caught up with him about making his first film.
The Film Review: St George’s Day is the first film you’ve directed. What was the hardest part of that?
Frank Harper: Just about everything. The hardest part was probably before we began, getting the right people. I had a brilliant cinematographer and a great cast – I think that’s the difficult bit.
And then, being prepared for things going wrong on the day, and taking a deep breath and not losing it. The crew knew I wasn’t going to scream and shout at people if they made mistakes. Cos it doesn’t get you anywhere.
TFR: Lots of good actors, how did you get them together?
FH: The core cast, myself, Craig [Fairbrass], Vince [Regan], Neil [Maskell] who plays my brother, and Tony Denham, the parts were written bespoke for them. One it made it easier to write, because when you write you can actually hear the people saying it. And two, because we’ve all known each other for a long time and we’re all friends, that seeps through onto the screen that these people know each other very well and they bounce of each other; they know each other’s quirks.
I was quite surprised, when Dexter Fletcher and Nick Moran were approached to do a day on Frank’s film, they were like “Yeah, we’d love to.” And people like Ashley Walters, really wanted to be in the film. For me as an actor, that was one of the nicest things about the whole picture. The people that you work with actually want to work with you, that brought a smile to my face.
TFR: What was the bit you enjoyed most about directing it?
FH: Every now and then I’d be looking at the monitor and looking at some of the shots, and I’d be going ‘Wow!” There’s the moment when the gospel choir starts singing at the funeral, there was a lot of tough guys on set that day as extras, and there was a few tears in the eyes I can tell you. Little moments where you go ‘Oh wow, that was just how I imagined it in my head.’ Like the scene in the Olympic stadium [in Berlin] between me and Craig – the 25 summers scene – that was just how I imagined it in my head.
I like a challenge, and it was a challenge, and it gets me out of bed in the morning. I enjoyed all of it really, even after we’d finished filming. I learnt so much during the editing and post production process. That was a real eye-opener for me, how those people bring so much to the party to take the film to another level.
TFR: Any projects in mind?
FH: I have a particular project which is a very different genre. I’d like to do something different next. I’ve been told I can’t talk about it. I’ve done a lot of research on it. I spent the last eight months researching it. I enjoyed that as well, being around different people. It will be a very different project, but it will be a something that’s very current at the moment.
TFR: You said in your director’s statement that “St George’s Day is a look at a lifestyle and language of a culture that I’ve been outside looking in at since I began my working life working at Smithfield when I was 16.”
FH: Going to work at Smithfield at that age, and growing up in South East London, there were certain people that I was around. You’d go in a bar or a club and there’d be certain people in there who let’s say ‘lived in that world’. Some of them I was on speaking terms with and you just observe things and see that language and that culture. Four years ago when this first started, I thought I’ve got the best part of my life researching this without realising it.
Also, particularly Charles [Dance’s] character in the film, it’s a culture that is dying. A lot of these guys see that culture coming to an end and that language coming to an end. 20-year-olds now speak very different to what I did at 20, for me that was important to preserve that as much as possible.
TFR: Any additional research?
FH: Not really no. The 25 Summers thing, that was a thing I heard in a bar one night. I literally went straight home and wrote it down. I thought that’s got to be in a film at some point.
TFR: The script is extremely witty. How did you find writing it?
FH: If you meet real gangsters they’re normally very charismatic and very funny. If you make a film where your two lead characters are basically sociopaths, if the audience aren’t laughing at them in the first five minutes, you’ve got nowhere to go with it. I don’t want to criticise other’s work, but I think that’s a truth that’s been missed in the British gangster film is the humour of that life.
TFR: What did Urs Bueller, your collaborator on the script, what did he do?
FH: I’d got the script to a stage I was really happy with at the beginning of last year, and then one of the producers said I think script could go to another level, so they brought Urs [a script doctor] over from Switzerland. He said “I’m not going to change the language which is great, but certain bits of it need restructuring. You need to introduce certain characters earlier, and you need to link certain things in.” I went away and did some rewrites and then he came back again and afterwards I couldn’t believe just how much better the script was, just by a bit of restructuring.
I think there is a massive lesson to be learnt from this: we don’t spend enough time perfecting the script. It is something they do do in the States. You can always go another yard with the script.
TFR: The script has lots of swearing, which often very amusing, can you say anything about that?
FH: Some people are going to watch this film and not like the language, particularly the swearing. I think they swear in a comical way. They’re gangsters and you can’t have politically correct gangsters, they’re not like that.
Certain swear words used in a comical way, said with irony. I think you get away with it a lot more if you use it in an ironic way rather than a vicious way.
TFR: The guys are likeable, but the violence is pretty raw.
FH: That’s budgetary constrictions. One of the things on a tight budget was to make the violence quite quick and quite brutal, but to try and stylise it a little bit to take away from the fact that I didn’t have a lot of money to do the shootouts. I think I was doing that in a slightly realistic way.
TFR: I enjoyed the film, and it took me by surprise.
FH: To be honest mate, I’ve done my job then. It was always my intention to make a gangster film people weren’t expecting.