Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Mark Gillis

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Mark Gillis has been combining writing, performing and directing since his university days (where he studied Biochemistry). As an actor, he has worked extensively in the theatre, most recently playing Agrippa in Antony & Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington (Chichester). As a member of the RSC he performed in As You Like It, Macbeth and Troilus and Cressida during seasons at Stratford and The Barbican. He played Mark in the Irish premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and F***ing. He co-founded and was artistic director of the touring production company LPC, with whom he produced and directed several European tours of modern classic plays such as Waiting for Godot, The Caretaker, The Importance of Being Ernest and GB Shaw’s The White Lady. And he has appeared in several television and film roles including: Silent Witness, The Bill, Emmerdale, Grange Hill, Eastenders, Holby, The Brittas Empire, Absolute Hell, Prick, Jean Moulin, Either/Or, Going Home and An Ideal Husband. Most recently he plays Mr. Hogg Diggins in the Channel 4 comedy Lee & Dean.

There’s a lot of creative stuff to talk about here, but we’re here today to talk primarily about his debut movie, Sink, which tells the story of Micky Mason, a working class man living in East London who must contend with a multitude of different crises of our modern world.

Produced by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (who says you will find yourselves “immersed” in it), Sink has received glowing reviews (including one from us, of course), following its screenings at cinemas across the UK.

But what does it take to produce a movie independently, particularly in a current climate that so clearly favours the established corporate behemoths over individual creatives? It was a pleasure to catch up with Gillis to find out.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

GILLIS

I live in Brockley, South East London (the film was shot here and in nearby New Cross/Deptford). I’m an actor who has been writing seriously for about 10 years. I have also directed in the theatre and have made short films. Sink is my first feature as writer/director.

INTERVIEWER

Is film making your first love, or do you have another passion?

GILLIS

I suppose most of my work has been as an actor in the theatre so that would be an equal passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

GILLIS

Donald Glover

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through how the process of taking your debut movie, Sink, from spec-script to fully-fledged film reality?

GILLIS

It was never really a spec-script in that sense. I’d had the typical experience of scripts being developed (unpaid) and getting very close to being made, then failing because the money didn’t match the cast (in both directions). When I was writing Sink, I realised we could make it very cheaply; I knew exactly who I wanted to cast (I’ve worked as an actor with all of them), I knew who’s flat we could borrow, etc., etc.. So I decided we’d just go ahead and make it ourselves. We did a crowd-funder and various small investors came in. We made it for £35K, which is nothing for a feature; BUT that was only possible with EVERYONE working for deferred fees and profit share. Everybody on the film from investor to runner was party to the same financial framework.

Of course, it’s all very well making your film, but at the end of the process you’re back at the brick wall; the first thing distributors ask is “who’s your lead actor.” Without a star name the vast majority won’t watch the film. So it’s very tough. We got lucky – a well known producer saw the film and badgered her distributor to watch it. They picked us up for a limited theatrical release which meant we could get Press reviews (virtually impossible if you haven’t got a distributor who is part of the Film Distributors Association who run the week of release screenings). So although all films are a collaborative process, this one REALLY was, in effect everyone working on the film was an investor in it, literally; they will only get paid once the film shows a profit. That’s a very humbling fact for me.

INTERVIEWER

In Sink, we follow the lives of those who have been dispossessed by the processes of modern capitalism. There’s a clear political angle to the film; yet for all that, it’s also intensely human, and character-driven. As a screenwriter and director, how do you tread the line between potentially competing focuses; the political and the human?

GILLIS

There is a political angle and that kicked off my wanting to tell the story. I live in the area where the film is set and there are pockets of people leading very challenged lives. There are also the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, looming up seemingly at the end of the road.  So you have people whose lives have been changed beyond recognition living in the shadow of the institutions directly responsible. They committed crimes on an industrial scale, yet nobody has been prosecuted. It made me question where we are with that; if people who benefitted so hugely from the system can do that with impunity, can we condemn somebody for doing whatever’s necessary to stay afloat? It also made me angry enough to want to write something! But if that’s all there is, there’s no point writing a screenplay. Write an essay or an article. There has to be a story and for that there must be characters.

At the start I was intrigued by these three generations of men; Micky, his father and his son.  Principally it was the way the relationship to work had changed over those three generations; Micky was once a skilled worker who can now find only menial, zero hours jobs; his father has only ever known skilled manual work and his son has never really had a relationship to work. That’s a massive change in working class men’s lives and a theme I was eager to explore. Then it’s a question of whittling away until you find the core story and that was Micky’s.

If scenes are trying to force in a particular political idea, they will immediately stick out (and ultimately be cut out during the edit). Every scene must move the story forward in some way, while planting enough of the politics that the guiding themes are catered for.

Sink MJS
Three generations of men: Micky (left, played by Martin Herdman, leads his father and son through their local neighbourhood)

INTERVIEWER

What is your personal take on the current political climate, and how does it affect the stories we tell?

GILLIS

I really hope we are not in as bad a state as I think we might be in. I think the current ease with which the fundamental structures of democracy are being dismantled is terrifying. I am trying to have some sense of hope but the precedents for these early warning signs are so clear, I feel we’re sleepwalking into autocracy. It seems all the requirements are in place. If we don’t want that to happen, I guess it’s down to us to speak up.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel the characters in Sink would react to the unfurling narrative around the Brexit process?

GILLIS

It’s so weird for me, because Sink was written and shot before the referendum was even tabled. SO much has changed. I’m a remainer.  I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to decide whether to make Micky a leaver or not. I’m still not sure how he would have voted. It would have been up to me to decide whether I make the character I created reach the decision I want him to, or whether I would be entirely true to what HE would have done. And I’m still not sure which way round that would have been. I do know that an awful lot of people who have felt entirely left behind after 30 odd years of neo-liberalism voted Brexit. Perhaps Micky was one of them. But that makes me a bit upset.

Fr M Kitchn
A Brexit voter? Sink was written and shot before the EU referendum in the UK, so we’ll perhaps never know which way Micky would have voted.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in film making, what are your thoughts and feelings on the movie industry. And how would you advise aspiring film makers to break out onto the scene?

GILLIS

Obviously we live in the age of the huge franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, some of them are great movies. What we might be losing is the middle ground; it’s either massive budgets that only the studios can bring together, or the tiny (in film terms) budgets that are somehow drawn together by financial jiggery pokery based around tax credits. Or people making films themselves on no budgets. It seems to me this isn’t a sustainable business model.

Outside the public funding bodies (and even with their involvement) each film has to start afresh to raise its finance. Add to that the current surge in high end TV which has lead to crew shortages and therefore higher rates, it’s difficult to see where the film industry can be heading. And yet, films still get made. I don’t know an answer. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

As to what advice to give, I think the most important thing is spending time getting the script right. However you get the film together, it will be the script that brings people on board or makes them pass. It’s getting the right people in to the project that will get the film made. It all starts and ends with the script.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a film maker?

GILLIS

I think there is an ethical responsibility not to create work that simply reinforces a negative. By the same token (in an equal and opposite way) there is an ethical responsibility to create work that examines the negative – that pulls it apart and provides a new viewpoint on it.

But it’s not for the film maker to dictate how that work must be received. There has to be room for the “wrong” view to be taken – otherwise you haven’t created something truthful.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of screenwriting, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

GILLIS

What happens next.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write and direct?

GILLIS

I really try not to.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

GILLIS

The focussing and entrapment of energy

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘director’ mean to you?

GILLIS

Depends which director you’re talking about.

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – we live in a culture of ‘fake news’. What role do you think movies have to play in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

GILLIS

It’s strange isn’t it, that we head more and more towards finding truth in stories; in made up events. And yet, that is where truth is found. I’m very interested in the effect that Reality TV has had on our psychology. Even the title is a lie. It isn’t reality, everybody knows what they’re doing because there’s a camera there and they know they can watch it later. So we’ve spent 20 odd years saying that a fabricated reality is the truth. It’s kind of delicious (if it wasn’t so disgusting) that a “star” of the genre becomes the most powerful man in the world. Trump has spent his life lying – his whole ego is based on a lie that he was responsible for creating the financial success he’s had (multi-million dollar bankruptcies notwithstanding), instead of being gifted it on birth.

Can movies be a bulwark against lies? Absolutely. They can tell the truth because they are set free from the constraints of the market place (hang on, weren’t we just saying that the film industry can’t work because it’s not a sustainable business model?). They can show what humanity can be at a time when real life is coughing up its dregs. There’s an enormous role for movies (for ALL storytelling), I think now more than at any point in my lifetime.  Stories could pull us back from the brink. Will anyone listen though?

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

GILLIS

I have two other screenplays, one about a man discovering how his own acceptance of being gay has been affected by events from a previous generation and a story about a charity that goes rogue to be able to carry out its real work. I’m also working on a couple of TV ideas because that’s all anyone wants to hear about.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

GILLIS

He made his own way back.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for screenwriters?

GILLIS

I know it’s a hoary old cliché but just keep writing. And then keep re-writing. Find readers you trust, listen to them and be willing to really start again if necessary. There are all sorts of gut wrenching machinations that come from giving up what you’ve sweated blood over. But sometimes it can be an amazing release.

  • Watch the trailer for Sink here below: 

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