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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

Interview: Hunky Dory

15 March 12 words: Alison Emm
"All the music and singing was played live on location, which is a bloody feat if you’re standing in the middle of a field at 1am"
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Hunky Dory tells the tale of drama school teacher Vivienne and her quest to make the school’s end of year play something to remember – a musical version of The Tempest with songs from Bowie and his contemporaries.  Set in South Wales in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1976, she is faced with teen angst and apathy as well as disapproval from the other teachers. 

Why did you choose Bowie as the main song influence - did you think he was particularly well suited to Shakespeare, due to the theatrical nature of Ziggy Stardust?
Marc: He’s fantastic at inventing alter egos as well as being quite extraterrestrial. He certainly spoke to confused teens and that period of Bowie was very much dealing with gender and sexual confusion in his own life through his songs. I think when you’re a teenager you need a space you can occupy.  There’s two things that happen with music; one is that you listen to someone telling you their life experience, like Elton John or Lou Reed and you’d go “I want to live that life and be a grown up”.  But with Bowie, and Jeff Lynne of ELO, is they’d give you scenarios where your imagination could take you.

We also chose him because we had to have songs which were in the context of the play and you can’t have a song like Someone Saved My Life Tonight in The Tempest because that’s about somebody’s life.  We had to have songs which had a general message.

How autobiographical was Hunky Dory?
Marc: It’s not: part of it is slightly coincidental because 1976 was my last year of school, but we picked ’76 for the weather really.  What is true about it though is that in the process of writing it, which was very collaborative, there was a huge element of reminiscing verging on therapy.

Jon: Everyone in Hunky Dory are amalgams of people we actually knew, it was all drawn from one of our lives, which is why we felt able to do the coda at the end because we knew what happened to them all.

Marc: The codas were kind of inspired by American Graffiti. It was one of those discussions that we had at the beginning; is it better to leave them in the golden moment of their youth with the song at the end of the show? For me it is one moment of the film that is very emotional because it’s a reminder of that journey and of growing up. 

Was it hard to film a hot summer when actually it was pretty cold outside?
Marc: It was a nightmare.

Jon: It was the hardest thing about the shoot because we had to change the schedule every day, we were like a pair of farmers running out in the morning and checking the weather. Minnie had this thing that if you filmed in the sun you’d be in film because every bit of sun we got was in that film.

Marc: It goes to show that short term local weather forecasts are pretty accurate, long term ones you can’t predict anything so you take a punt on it.  And also, because we were on the West coast of Wales you could literally see the storm clouds coming in. 

The lido must have been freezing…
Jon: That Lido was on top of a hill and it was built by miners. We’d found it the year before but it had just been closed down before we started filming so we had to fill it back up - that’s why the pool’s only half full up. We asked some fireman how much water we would need to fill the pool and he got his calculations wrong by half.

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Chilly waters

How did you find working with such an inexperienced cast?
Jon: There was a mixture of people that had done nothing before and people who had done a little bit.  Aneurin, who plays Davey, we had found him a couple of years before and then he went off to do Spring Awakening in the West End, so he was an experienced singer. But then Tom, Evan in the film, he was still in his first year of college.

Marc: They were all smitten by acting and singing but in a non-stage school way.  Some of them are currently working in restaurants and banks in South Wales whilst other are staying with it.  It was a real cross-section of what actually happens at that age; we were looking for kids who were natural and wanted to be themselves.  If I could wish for anything it would be that the film allows them to do more work as they were all really good.

Did you find that hormones were an issue on set?
Jon: They were having a party! There were two different experiences: mine and Marc’s trying to run the thing, and theirs having a party and a great time. 

Was it hard to find actors who could also sing/play instruments or was there some dubbing trickery going on?
Jon: Everyone who sings can sing it live, everyone who could play an instrument could perform it live. It was also all played live on location, which is a bloody feat if you’re standing in the middle of a field and it’s one o’clock with the whole orchestra, trying to record them all live. It’s really hard but that was the whole point.

Marc: I think that’s the film’s biggest technical achievement and it’s actually thrown away – which is how it should be. The fact that, take Hoople for example, he can act and sing like a proper heavy metal God and play the drum and is slightly mad – in a good way – there’s not many kids out there like him.   

How do you feel about the comparison to Glee?
Jon: The thing with films is that you’ve got to mean them. With Hunky Dory, we meant it. We started work on it about eight years ago, before Glee happened. 

Marc: It’s a different approach.  The only thing that would infuriate me about is any idea of cynicism about us trying to cash in on something.  We didn’t come at it from that angle, it was stuff we were interested in and the idea about making a film about the school experience in Britain which doesn’t happen very often whereas the Americans do it all of the time. 

Jon: There are no British school films really. You can’t hang out in a Victorian school the way that you can in a big campus spread across acres of ground. It’s everything, from the weather to the architecture of the schools.  

Marc: There’s an exotica about kids going to school in their cars and hanging out on campus and being in a state of dress like going down to the beach - British films don’t really have that looseness.  There’s a book called Teenagers that’s about American high school kids in the seventies and it’s a wonderful set of photographs: kids on the beach, kids hanging out and that state of freedom.  British school are much more about rushing from one place to another with your collar and tie on. A big part of my memory of school is hanging about in the gaps between lessons and home, it was a hinterland that was your own which is just like those American films. 

Was it a challenge to do a British school film then?
Marc: It was in that we were trying to do a film about a year of kids and not just a small group of them.  It’s quite difficult to do but the person who keeps it going is Minnie.  We always remember teachers like that, you know, the good ones. 

Jon: It’s the lie that you only realise when you get older, that it’s the most abnormal existence, your school years.  You’re never dumped with a couple of hundred people – a completely mad bunch of people, no matter what school you go to – and told to get on with them.  So it’s the most traumatic, good and bad, time of your life.  It’s seared into your brain.

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There are quite a few clichés, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing…
Marc: You’re making a high school film and so you’re hoping to play the cliché out because every school year has the same characters in it.

Jon: The weird thing about it is you can subvert the whole thing by trying to subvert the cliché.

Watching it there was always something you could relate to, especially the swearing…
Marc: You do swear a lot more at that age than you need to.

Also, the teachers seemed to be spot on, especially the gym teacher.
Marc: Sports teachers, in my memory, they were just generally cruel.  They might be decent or not, depending on the person, but there is definitely a streak of cruelty in there.

Why did you choose Minnie Driver for the role of the drama teacher?
Jon: She’s really good fun to be with and I think that comes across in the film.  The other thing is that she’s classless. My memory of that time is that teachers were very middle class and you were very working class and they treated you like you were slightly beneath them.

Marc: We felt that she was perfect. She was the right choice for the film; she bought her singing and technical ability to do accents, but she also bought her free spirit.  I wouldn’t call her a hippie but she has a sense of humour and a sense of freedom as a person that made her the kind of teacher we imagined would, and also it allowed her to speak to the kids the way that many Hollywood actors would find difficult. 

Did she help the kids much then?
Marc: Not by talking down to them but just by making herself accessible.

Jon: If you asked her, she’s probably more in awe of the kids than they are of her, which is always the way.  She’s been around for a while and she can sing and all the rest of it but the kids have no fear and can sing at the drop of a hat and live even though most of them hadn’t done it before. 

You both have worked together before and your films mostly have serious political and social undertones - do you have similar views?
Marc: Absolutely but politics isn’t what drives me, it’s just that you find it in everything that you do. It’s that Marxist thing, everything is political. 

Jon: It’s the interest in people, it’s an endless look at your past.  The second half of your life is about trying to make sense of the first half.

Are you hoping to work together again in the future?
Marc: The next film we have lined up is about Wigan Casino and Northern Soul. There’s the Northern Soul scene in Hunky Dory that was a little homage to a club I grew up near where all the black kids went and it was a different scene to the one I’d grown up with.  We started to think what club this would be and we got hold of the Tony Palmer’s original documentary about Wigan Casino and we jus thought “we want to make that film!”

Jon: We’ll be shooting it early next year; we’re on the second draft of the script and are raising finances for it. If you’ve got any money…

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