Q & A with Writer-Director John McKenzie

Twelve in a Box Writer-Director John McKenzie

“Twelve in a Box” Writer-Director John McKenzie

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director John McKenzie about his comedy “Twelve in a Box”, winner of the British Film Festival in Los Angeles’s Best U.K. Feature Film award in May.

Written and directed by McKenzie, “Box” opens Aug. 7 in L.A. via Cinevolve Studios and expands to other top markets in late August and early September. Produced by Bruce Windwood, the Masses Entertainment Ltd. presentation’s ensemble cast includes: Brian Mitchell, Anjella Mackintosh, Kenneth Collard, Katy Wix, Paul Williamson, Clare Welch, Lucy Chalkley, Gareth Clarke, Belle Mary Hithersay, Glynne Steele, Jane McDowell and Phoebe Sweeney. It was executive produced by Findlay Black, Karl White, Nick Allen, Andrew Woolger, Andres Love and Brian Mitchell.

The Story: A dozen people arrive for a school reunion dinner in a remote country mansion in England where they’re offered a chance to collect a million Pounds each. The only catch: they must all remain on the estate — cut off from the outside world — for 96 hours. As events begin to conspire against them, the question becomes can they stay united or will they turn on one another and lose the money?

It’s a tightly orchestrated comedy that barely pauses for breath as it heads towards a Will they or won’t they succeed? climax. With deaths, sexual intrigue, kidnapping and spiraling levels of farce and confusion, “Box” is in the best tradition of the comedies produced by Britain’s famed Ealing Studios in the 1940s and ’50s. Ealing is best known for such comedies as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951), “The Man in the White Suit” (1951) and “The Ladykillers” (1955), all of which are now regarded as British cinema classics.

After enjoying an early look at “Box”, I was happy to have an opportunity to talk to McKenzie (“The Wedding Job”) about the making of the film.

Q: What did you set out to do with “Twelve in a Box”?
A: I wanted to write a film that was a little bit like the old Ealing comedies — a selection of ordinary people who are thrown together in a strange set of circumstances and then behave in an out-of-the-ordinary way to get through (them). I also like comedy that isn’t overplayed and hasn’t got toilet humor. It’s an underplayed type of comedy. So that’s what I’ve tried to achieve with it as far as the style is concerned.
Q: So many times the combination of a stately English mansion and a group of strangers brought together turns into a story about somebody’s dead and who did it? But your take on this is quite different.
A: Yes. The set-up of the story is that a dozen people are invited to what they think will be a stately home reunion lunch for a couple of hours. When they get there a (video) tape is played which says effectively that if they stay there together for four days they’ll get a million Pounds each. And if one of them leaves, none of them will get the money. So it’s really a question of them trying to hang together without somebody jumping ship. And, of course, very weird things happen which put a lot of pressures on and that’s the origin of the humor. And, yes, I tried to avoid (having) 11 people dying in a row, leaving one person as the murderer kind of thing.
Q: When you wrote this did you have any idea as to how you’d get it made?
A: Well, what we did have at our disposal — and, in a sense, the script revolved around that — was the producer Bruce Windwood was close friends with the owner of the stately home we shot the movie in. So we had a fantastic scenario for the film before the script was written, if you like. I could focus my mind around this stately home and try to weave a script around that. That was fantastic for us to have because the stately home is magnificent.
Q: As you were writing it, did you think this would be an easy film to finance? I mean, the heyday of the Ealing comedies was 50 or 60 years ago now.
A: We didn’t necessarily think it would be easy to finance. You never know really. I think when you set off (to make a comedy) you just do your best to write a script which is funny and which is feasible to film. I mean, we haven’t got any action set in outer space so theoretically it was something we hoped wouldn’t cost an absolute fortune to shoot. In that sense, we weren’t going to go off and ask for 50 million Pounds to film the thing. It’s a very character driven movie so we felt there was a hope of getting the money together if the script was good.
Q: So you wrote a good script. Then what?
A: Then we set about getting investors interested. And once we had investors interested it was a question of casting. I think the key to it really is if you’re casting a movie with 12 people in it, all the acting has got to be pretty spot-on because if you get one or two really messed performances it can spoil the whole thing. And that was key to it. We spent a month casting until we got the people that we thought were right for each part.
Q: When you were writing the script did you know you were going to direct it, as well?
A: Yes, that was the intention.
Q: And when you write knowing you’re going to direct, do you do anything differently than you would do if you felt someone else was going to direct it?
A: I don’t think so, really, because you’re kind of into the characters and the scenario. So I’m not sure that would affect anything. You’re trying to write a piece of entertainment so whether it was for me or for somebody else I guess it would just be the same thing.
Q: Well, what I’m wondering is would you write something and then say to yourself, “You know, it’s going to be murder to film this” or “This scene that I just wrote takes place at night in the rain and I’m thinking I don’t want to be out filming all night in the rain”. Would you ever think anything like that?
A: No. I can stand in the rain. I won’t melt. I’m not made of sugar. No, I think I’d be very prissy if I wanted to sit in my armchair in a warm room, really.
Q: Can you tell me approximately what the film’s budget was?
A: It’s one of these awkward things. I’m not supposed to say.
Q: Could you characterize it?
A: I could characterize it as under $5 million.
Q: Clearly, that’s not a lot of money to make a movie, but you made it work. How long did you shoot?
A: It was quite a short shoot. We only had the use of the stately home for four weeks. So we had to get it done within that period of time. The one good thing about it is, of course, that because it was all on that one location we had all the actors together all the time for the four weeks. So we didn’t have to troop around to different parts of the country, which would have slowed it down.
Q: How did production go?
A: The shooting was extremely stressful. I have to say it wasn’t a joyful experience. I wouldn’t pretend it was. Funnily enough, there was no problem at all with the actors. They enjoyed it. But because of the very tight schedule there were a lot of things to set up so it was very tough on the crew. It was the usual getting up at six in the morning and finishing at 10 at night scenario. You do get worn out. You get very stressed. So at the time it’s not a pleasurable experience, I would say, in those circumstances. But the pleasure you get is six months later when you’ve got a cut and you stick it in front of an audience and people laugh.
Q: I enjoyed the film very much, but then I’ve been a fan of the old Ealing comedies for years. I’m wondering how American audiences who don’t have any familiarity with the Ealing comedies are going to respond to it.
A: It did extremely well when we went to the Zurich Film Festival. We won that audience award. But, as you say, American audiences might have been different. But we went to the Boston International Film Festival with it (in May) and we got the best screenplay award so we were really pleased.

The audience really laughed and that was an all American audience. That was a fantastic feeling because we thought, “Yes, American audiences do understand and like this.” And at the Los Angeles British Film Festival it won the Best U.K. Feature Film award (in May). We were really pleased with it and, again, the audience watching it really laughed and enjoyed it. We got lots of Americans coming up (afterwards) saying, “We really loved the film.” So we’re hoping that although it’s a slightly off-the-wall film — as you say, it’s got a retro feel to it — audiences will take to it in the same way, if you like, that they took to “The Full Monty”. When you look at a film like “The Full Monty”, that was very English in style so I would have thought it’s very unpredictable that that could have done what it did (grossing $46 million domestically plus another $212 million internationally in 1997). We’re hoping we could get something like that going with this one.
Q: How has the film done in the U.K.?
A: It hasn’t opened in the U.K. yet. The U.K. ironically is extremely difficult to crack with an independent film. It’s more difficult, funnily enough, than on the Continent or, for example, in the U.S. What we’re hoping, frankly, is that with these awards if we get the film noticed maybe we can get a good theatrical distribution in the States (which is what’s happened since we spoke) and it can go on from there.
Q: Do you have a distribution deal in place yet for the U.K.?
A: We’ve got distributors who have been of the position (that) they love the film. They’re nervous about it because it has no famous actors in it. But one or two have said to us, “Look, if you can get a distribution in the States we’ll look at it again.” Strangely enough, I think that happened with “The Full Monty”. It couldn’t get a U.K. release. Then it got a release in the States and then it came back to England. I think “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was exactly the same. It’s a weird process.
Q: So success here in the U.S. could get your very British comedy into the U.K.
A: That’s exactly how it works, sadly.
Q: The marketplace here for independent films has changed a lot in the last few years. A number of distributors that handled such films have gone out of business or have seen their operations scaled back significantly and the competition to find distribution is fierce. What do you make of all that?
A: All I can say is, in the end, it has to rely on the film and if that film is different enough and (in the case of “Box”) it makes people laugh and it’s entertaining, we hope we can get through that difficulty. I do appreciate what you’re saying, but in the end you have to have faith in the movie and hope you can persuade the distributor to say, “Well, actually this does work with audiences.” Wherever we’ve had audiences, they have laughed, enjoyed it and clapped at the end. The good thing with a comedy is you can actually tell from an audience reaction. If you’ve got a straight forward drama film you don’t necessarily know how much the audience is enjoying it.
Q: Coming back to making the film, how was the weather while you were shooting?
A: That was very difficult because we were filming in January to February. It was freezing cold middle-of-the-winter and we did want some external shots of the house, at least, that didn’t look bleak and wintry. It was very difficult managing to get the camera outside to do that because when the weather’s horrible it’s very difficult to film. Fortunately, we got a few little windows of good weather open.

It was also physically very cold because being a big stately home it actually wasn’t heated and in January it was really very, very cold. So we were shooting all the time in huge wooly coats inside the house. Of course, the poor actors and actresses had to be wrapped up in wooly coats until the moment they walked on set and then they’d take everything off so they’d look normally dressed, shoot their scene as quickly as possible and go and sit in front of the big coal fire we had because it was a stately home. There was a nice room with a big coal fire and big old fashioned settees so the actors spent most of their time huddled ’round this fire while the crew was freezing cold elsewhere setting up the shots.
Q: How was it working with your large ensemble cast?
A: I would only say that I think the performances of the actors, although they’re not known actors, is very relaxed and genuine. It was important to me that they’d learned their lines and then they could relax into the scene. I would let them get on with it and if they’d done the scene well and correctly there’s no point in me interjecting as a director. I think some directors almost want to change a performance for the sake of it whereas I prefer to let them do it their way and then if it seems to work you can say, “That’s fine. Let’s move on to the next scene.”
Q: Did you do any rehearsing with the actors?
A: We would rehearse the scene just before we were shooting. We’d call them on set and rehearse it and maybe do a run through once or twice both for the DOP (cinematographer) and for the actors and then we’d go for a take. But we didn’t rehearse the movie as such before we started the shoot. I think in a way sometimes if you do that you can get a rather stilted performance because it’s almost over-rehearsed whereas if they come fresh on set and get it all pretty right the first time then you can go for a take straight away. They’re supposed to be reacting to a situation so they wouldn’t have rehearsed that situation in real life.
Q: Looking ahead, I understand you have a couple of screenplays in development.
A: Yes. They’re both comedies. They’re different in style from “Twelve in a Box”. We’re looking around for finance at the moment. So, hopefully, if “Twelve in a Box” is successful that will help us with these future projects.