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A bright future for Dark Marc

Sep 10 2004

Rob Driscoll, The Western Mail


His latest film might be another fright flick, but Welsh film-maker Marc Evans has his eye on something lighter - a musical comedy with Catherine Zeta-Jones for starters. He swaps notes with Rob Driscoll.

YOU can't help wondering what kind of nightmares Marc Evans has. His last movie, My Little Eye, reduced millions to quivering wrecks with its watch-it-through-your-fingers tale of a Big Brother-style household terrorised by a serial slasher.

So what does he do for a follow-up? How about a downbeat and downright disturbing, pitch-black psychological horror in which he covers his star Colin Firth with ants and shoves a big, hairy spider into the mouth of his leading lady, Mena Suvari?

All of which suggests that the Cardiff-born director might be a rather tense and brooding type with a penchant for deep and meaningful introspection.

Far from it. Yes, he's a movie buff to the max, but as we chat over coffee on a sunny yet breezy morning on the rooftop terrace of London's Dorchester Hotel, 44-year-old Evans is bright, chirpy and witty, his mood complementing the weather to a tee.

So why the propensity towards these chilling celluloid journeys into the dark underbelly of mankind? Hasn't he got a comedy or a musical itching to get out?

Well, actually he has.

In fact, he's got plans to make a Swansea-set musical with no less than Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead role, if she fancies it. He has another project for Rhys Ifans, and his next immediate film looks set to star Sigourney Weaver - but more of that later.

In the meantime, it's business as usual for "Dark Marc", as Trauma, his latest mind-bending treat, is about to mess with the psyches of unsuspecting cinemagoers across the country and as its title implies, this is no jolly popcorn-fest for the multiplex brigade.

Fans of Firth, too, expecting a feelgood reprisal of his Darcy roles - either from Pride and Prejudice or in Bridget Jones - will be in for a shock.

In Trauma he stars as a coma victim who wakes up in hospital, frightened and disorientated, to discover that he has been in a car crash, and that his wife was killed in the accident.

As he plunges into grief he experiences a kind of mental illness while the outside world makes matters worse with its seeming obsession with the very public death of a young, adulated pop star, even though most of them never knew her personally.

The more the media hypes up the pop star's murder, the more Firth's character Ben retreats into a weird no-man's land of uncertainty, paranoia and possible fantasy - cue loads of weird camera-work and disturbing imagery.

Oh yes, and he keeps an ant farm in his flat . . .

Grim, depressing stuff, then? Arthouse smarthouse rather than crowd-pleasing cinema? Evans himself is realistic enough to foresee that Trauma, with its "difficult" or "un-sexy" subject matter, won't be competing on the same box office levels as The Bourne Supremacy or Spider-Man 2. But rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year could well make this quirkily different offering as cult a hit as My Little Eye.

"Horror makes money, even if you don't get a fantastic cinema release with it, as it lasts forever on DVD," says Evans, getting down to financial brass tacks straight away.

"I went ahead with Trauma because it seemed like the moment for horror was good.

"My Little Eye made £4m in a very short period of time, and there've been other genre films around like Dog Soldiers.

"And one thing that made Trauma easier to get off the ground is that I made a genre film before.

"The difficulty with it, I suppose, is that it's not a horror film; it's a psychological horror."

Evans has always dealt with the darker side - even in his formative years as a TV director, on BBC Wales dramas like Friday on My Mind and Thicker than Water.

His first feature film, 1997's House of America, which saw Matthew Rhys in his big-screen debut, was an unforgiving screen translation of Edward Thomas's Gothic-mood stage play about a dysfunctional Valleys family, while his follow-up, Resurrection Man, revelled in the visceral gore of Belfast's gangland violence.

It was My Little Eye, however, a movie shot wholly on digital video, that made Evans a bankable name in the trade.

These days the posters say, "My Little Eye director Marc Evans", a selling-point which always makes him laugh.

It's proof of that movie's fantastic shelf life as a regular video and DVD rental, and that's great news for our Marc, as it means that the studios are phoning him whenever they want someone to helm grittier, darker subject matter - or as he puts it, genre films.

"It's nice to have your name attached to something, and My Little Eye is the only film I've done that people have referred to on other posters," he beams.

"I'm very proud of that film, and it's nice to have a dark, nasty, cult film like that attached to your name as opposed to something wishy-washy.

"The only disadvantage is that people will come to Trauma expecting it to be another My Little Eye."

Evans was thrilled to work with Colin Firth on his latest release, 10 years after they first collaborated on Master of the Moor, a TV adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel.

Likewise, Firth was more than happy to return to the quirkier type of role he played earlier in his pre boots and jodhpurs career.

"Colin and I really understand each other, we're the same age, and we have a good relationship," says Evans.

"We had a conversation early on where Colin said, "As you get older, the parts don't exactly dry up, but why don't we make those man-in-a-suit roles any more? And why don't we make films where we deal with slightly more grown-up themes, such as grief?"

"So it was easy to get him interested in Trauma.

"With Colin, it's very much to the film's advantage that you know him through being a good guy, a reliable guy with integrity.

"I think there's a valid comparison with James Stewart in Vertigo. Hitchcock would bring these decent, Everymen into his films, and there'd be an ambiguity."

Firth could have been forgiven if he'd gone crazy during the shooting of Trauma.

It's an intense, unrelenting drama and he's in virtually every scene.

As his character approaches some sort of madness, the camera zooms in on his face, all distorted lens and unsettling angles. And he had to have ants crawl all over him.

"The ant farm was horrible," concedes Evans. "But it's a pop art film at the end of the day, it's not an art film; it's got those genre elements in it, that dirty little boys like to play with, so we got to play with ants and spiders!

"We even had an ant wrangler, who knows everything there is to know about ants."

Then there was a very large spider which you see Firth put inside Mena Suvari's mouth.

"She had a mouth double,"reveals Evans, "but it was still someone's mouth, and it's still a bloody big spider! It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it."

Suvari plays Charlotte, Ben's beautiful new neighbour when he moves house, attempting to start a new life after he leaves hospital.

It's an intriguing piece of casting, and Evans is as upfront and honest as ever about that.

"You want to get the film financed. It's not a big expensive film, but it's not cheap either so you want some names in there.

"Mena brings with her a constituency, a fan base of younger males, not so much from American Beauty, but from American Pie."

Evans is clearly now at the top of his career tree. He has the clout, and the name - the industry, and his fans, know what to expect from A Marc Evans Film.

He has an agent in America, on the back of My Little Eye, and as a result he gets "interesting" script offers from Hollywood, but he has no desire to move there.

"My home is still Cardiff, and I've got a place in London. There are a lot of things in Wales that are important to me, not least family and friends." Such as his girlfriend, actress Nia Roberts, who he would like to work with.

Wales also offers him "the chance to do interesting projects without any sense of patronising them", he explains.

"I call them Plan B, because I can go down there and make an interesting documentary, say about the Manic Street Preachers, without all the bulls**t and effort required to make a feature film, and get just as much out of it, and quite often tackle subjects close to my heart.

"Beautiful Mistake comes to mind, which was about music - John Cale, of Velvet Underground. Because music is one of my passions."

As he awaits Trauma's UK theatrical release, Evans is far from resting on his laurels, as he's got plenty of other film projects to be mulling over.

He's especially excited, and quite rightly, about a movie he's set to direct, having secured the casting of Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman; all they're waiting for now is the financing.

"It's called Snow Cake, and it's not a horror or genre movie. It's more a relationship comedy-drama, an indie kind of film set in a North American snowy landscape.

"As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to do it.

"I'm really thrilled, yet, ironically, this time I've got the script, and I've got the talent, but we haven't yet got the money.

"I've been speaking to Sigourney and Alan, we all love the project, so fingers crossed! God, can you imagine? Me geeking on about Alien to Sigourney?"

There are several other ideas that Evans is juggling on the back burner.

One is the long-fermenting film about Caitlin, wife of Dylan Thomas, for which Michael Sheen is attached to play the legendary Welsh poet.

"I think of it as Michael's Raging Bull, as he's born to play that part, and it's so good to have a Welsh actor enshrined in the film, ready to play such an iconic Welsh part.

"We haven't cast Caitlin yet, and it's a dark, grown-up film, but we got a phone call the other week from Pierce Brosnanís company, Irish Dreamtime, who love it, so watch this space!"

Another film on hold just now is a biopic about legendary 1960s music producer Joe Meek, which would star Rhys Ifans.

"The film industry is so faddish, and there's a slight anti-biopic mood at the moment," sighs Evans. "But I was thrilled when Joe Meek appeared as a character in the recent TV drama series The Long Firm. It only confirmed how wonderfully interesting that '60s English demi-monde is - but the financiers aren't seeing it like that at the moment."

More promising in financial-backing terms - and most intriguingly of all - is a musical that Evans will film in Swansea, called Hunky Dory; set in the long hot summer of 1976, it's about a school that's putting on a musical, while everyone would rather be down by the pool.

"That's progressing really well," he smiles. "We'd hopefully start making it next summer; I'm really pushing to make that the film after Snow Cake. I get to do snow and then sunshine although no doubt it will be snowing in Swansea in the summer!"

And has he got any casting ideas for Hunky Dory?

He gives me a conspiratorial look. "Oh, go on then - we'd love to get Catherine Zeta-Jones for that one."

It's no surprise that so many of his potential future works involve the commitment of renowned Welsh performers.

"I have to put my hands up - and this sounds terribly sentimental and nationalistic - but the generation of Welsh actors around now, from Michael (Sheen) to Rhys (Ifans) to Nia and Ioan (Gruffudd) and Matthew (Rhys) - they're all great people to work with, as well as talented actors.

"What's the film we could get all the Welsh lot together? I want to do a Patagonia epic one day. For me, it would be a backdrop rather than a subject matter per se, but it would be a great backdrop to talk about exile and family, and make a Welsh Western. I'm sure one day we'll pull something off." 

Trauma opens next Friday


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