Director Ron Scalpello Talks Pressure
Close-Up caught up with Ron Scalpello, director of the recently released intense psychological-thriller ‘Pressure’, starring Danny Huston, Alan McKenna Matthew Goode and Joe Cole to discuss trying to stand out in the current film market, working on a budget and a CU-F exclusive for his (potential) next feature.
Pressure is the story of the struggle, as four deep-sea saturation divers become stranded 650ft below sea level. As vital supplies begin to quickly deplete and hysteria kicks in, it is a race against time to make it back to the surface. Who will survive?
What was your inspiration for the film?
The films concept came about through a treatment supplied to me by the producer and it was about 4 deeps sea divers trapped at the bottom of the sea and felt the dramatic possibilities for this film were huge. Over a period of time I started working with the co-writer to develop the script. We spent a lot of time just exploring themes and concepts. We then shadowed actual deep-sea divers and began to wonder how these men actually spend up to 6 month a year away from their families and also face the mudanity of industrial work etc.
Was there a lot of this kind of research?
Absolutely. In addition we had to learn the science of the world, understand diving bell mechanics and how those systems work and some of their experiences are directly quotable in the film from the entirety of the research that we did. For instance a few of the divers have been in a situation where they have had to write final letters home to families that they may never see again. That struck a particularly profound chord and I think you can see that in the film.
Great. So in terms of casting, did you have any actors already in mind or did it just come nicely together?
Well you know, you write characters and there are only four characters in the film and they had to be quite distinctive and they had to be visually strong and strong performers also. At the same time although they are all men they had to be different versions and characterize different aspects in the way that they had led their lives, So for instance Joe Cole’s character who is the young apprentice, Danny Huston representing the slightly older, senior member of the diving team and then Matthew Goode’s character is a man who believes in the meta-narrative of god, family and company. Then when you put those guys up against each other and see how it plays out. So you know you write your character and you automatically start looking for characters who may inhabit them and luckily Danny Huston grabbed at the opportunity to play Angel, then Goode came onboard and I had already worked with Joe Cole on ‘Offender’ my first film, and Alan McKenna who was also the co-director is a very good actor so he came into the film as well.
So what was it like working with such a small cast, and such diverse acting talents?
Well… that’s a good question
With my first film I was working with a lot of young actors and most of them were untrained straight out of juvenile detention center and they had a brilliant energy. It is weird this kind of “uncultivated training” that you had to manage the younger guys in a different way. However with Danny and Matthew, even Joe to a certain degree, they knew more than I did so you always feel particularly privileged when they decide to do a film with you and then you have to take the responsibility of helping them to realise their character and believe in the possibilities and the realism of the film.
It was constantly rewarding and having our set at Pinewood studio and watching their performances and the film coming to life was beautiful stuff really. You cultivate the landscape, design the film, you make the look of the film look right, you do the art direction, but unless the performances are real then no one is going to buy it and my team was so professional in that respect
So going off your comments about working at Pinewood Studios, what was it like working in a man-made tank?
Well of course at Pinewood studio you have a number of different sets. We were working exclusively in an underwater tank with some o the best film diving professionals who have worked in a number, if not most big budget movies. When we were there ‘Black Sea’ [Macdonald, 2014]’ was filming next door and ‘Exodus’ [Scott, 2014] was not far from us. They have some phenomenal, if not the best resources in the world and we had the privilege of working there. We had a tank, which was not massive, but it did the job.
Speaking of size, the films setting inside the tank seemed tiny, was that exaggerated or was that the actual size, and what was that like to work in?
Absolutely, the set was designed pretty much like how you see it in the film. Actually it was slightly bigger then how you would find a normal diving bell [Laughs]
Most diving bells are half the size and most of the divers will spend 8 hours on shift and 8 hours out of the bell but always in decompressed conditions/environment. So the claustrophobia was very important to design and I wanted this shared experience with the audience.
Well, I definitely feel that your editing helps to maximize that feeling of claustrophobia that you were speaking about a minute ago in that it remains choppy and fast paced. Was this they way you always intended it to be and for the audience to feel the same?
Absolutely. I wanted the audience to go where the actors/characters were [psychologically and to a degree physically] and to create this intensity.
But also to explore how this issues can affect your sense of self in that you start to analyze they way you have lived. Most people have a perception of how you should live your life but when you are facing imminent death those things are pushed to the forefront.
Strangely such universal things in so many ways.
Everybody is trying to survive and I felt that the film was a perfect platform to discuss some of these issues.
Absolutely. I mean the film goes from this fight-for-survival type scenario to at the end becoming this larger story about redemption and more far reaching concepts like that. Was this then largely informed by your conversations with deep-sea divers?
In some reviews they have picked up on this notion of rebirth and I can admit that there are quite heavy ideas within the film.
You know to me the group come across as almost this group of ‘lost boys’ who all in some way and for differing reasons sought out this solace in the sea whilst also feeling partly guilty for that which they have left on the surface. All seeking something in the sea and so I guess then how do you move from that idea to then choosing or deciding to kill members of the group, and then you reasons for it remaining justified within the narrative?
You know I hate all of that three-act structure stuff!
I find very clear turning poinst boring!
It sounds very formulaic when you say things like ‘choose’ how they should die and at ‘what point’ should they die but I felt in many ways that the deaths within the film had to each, separately, represent something different, in terms of the narrative and in the groups dynamic within the film. I suppose they are significant turning point in the larger discussion of the abstract view of death. Essentially it is a case of ‘this is happening, actively happening and who will be next’ and that really drives the latter half of the film.
I guess it becomes the case that in the film death becomes very real but the way that the particular death plays out is almost like a kind of self-sacrifice.
In terms of the films cinematography, I want to direct you to a shot that you revisit a couple of times in the film of the diving bell, deserted on the sea bed, wires hanging off it and lights flickering. To this you then slowly zoom out to reveal the black abyss that is the sea that surrounds this seemingly helpless diving bell. I wanted to know how you achieved this shot, especially going off what we know about you filming location. Was this done on set?
Yes it was and as a director who wasn’t working with the biggest budget in the world you have to make do. Your comment about the black abyss is nice because for myself the idea of black is linked to ideas about infinities in the world and there are many overlaps with space moves etc.
You know I think it creates a canvas to work on. Sometimes you look at these vast expanses and you feel so small and then this realisation suddenly hits you like a ton of bricks. I found that is was very interesting to explore this notion.
Tell me more about budget.
Well it is always a fascinating thing when people talk about budgets. Sometimes [small] budgets can free you up. You do not necessarily have to do things in the most obvious way and you have to be clever about how you spend the money, how you get the effects and how you make things look. Sometimes that can work to your benefit. You know in terms of this film, some of the flashback scenes we though we may re-do, if not completely remove, as well deciding whether they should be a story in-themselves with a beginning middle and end. I am big fan of David Lynch and of the way he explores memories and the past that of course are not linear in the way we remember them. Having their own sense of time, place, look and feel, they aren’t all assembled with any structure, memories remaining quite discombobulated but they still convey the emotion of the moment. I think this if how we approached the flashbacks within the film on the budget we had.
In my opinion the flashbacks appeared quite whimsical and I think they were really interesting in terms of their placement, but also their juxtaposition with the films sequences. Contrasting this then to the very ‘cold hard truth’ of the film which remains very factual. How did you find this balance?
Errr, I mean it is interesting really. You know you have to make sure that the science is correct and it is believable as well as remaining understandable for the audience.
I get so many opinions on what the film is; a survival drama, a thriller, a psychological thriller, even a horror, but personally I think that drama in the UK can be a funny subject. I feel that drama generates specifics links with its target audience and a ‘design experience’ that all can engage with.
As a director then the dramatic genre in many ways allows you to explore at lot of the things we have talked about very comfortably.
And in terms of classifying what your films is, how did it feel making a film during the times where larger big budget films of a similar kind were being made?
You know by the time when we were making the film everyone had seen ‘Gravity’ [Cuarón, 2013] everyone had seen ‘Black Sea’ and to be honest we wanted to do something that was different and derail audiences expectations, both of my films and those that came before.
And to be fair I feel that it is definitely going to confuse some people who expect a very straight-laced film as they are confront with this ‘emotional psychological-thriller’.
Were films like ‘Gravity’ unnerving during your process?
The only things I would say was unnerving was the thing that after these film had been released there were this element of exhaustion [from audiences]
And probably my final question for this interview is whether you are currently working on anything now, any project we can get an exclusive on?
I am currently in the middle of reworking a screenplay of Frederick Forsyth’s The Forth Protocol, but to be honest I have so many projects coming through so it is a very exciting time.
As a director you want to be behind the camera as much as you can, but at the same time you have to make the right choices. Make a film that ‘feels’ right and explores ideas that you also want to explore.