Simon Rumley is a British director, producer and writer, best known for Crowhurst (2017), Fashionista (2016) and Red White & Blue (2010). His upcoming movie, Once Upon a Time in London dramatises the violent reign of two of London’s most notorious gangsters, Billy Hill (Leo Gregory) and Jack ‘Spot’ Comer (Terry Stone). These gangsters paved the way for the notorious Kray Twins and The Richardson criminal empires and charts their rise and fall in an area which has set the stage for much criminal activity.
This interview was perfect timing for me as I am currently researching the East End for my own script and still reading The People of the Abyss by Jack London – his account of experiencing life in this part of London post-Ripper years. I have often thought of the East End of London as a character itself, the poorer, unhealthier brother of the neighbouring, glamourous West End. They perfectly sit alongside each other – polar opposite – till recent times. There’s a certain magnetism to this once impoverished area of London which has seen its fair share of deprivation and crime and I can’t wait to see it’s depiction in Simon’s Once Upon a Time in London.
This double interview also features an interview with Surrey-born artist Vincent Kamp, who is most certainly one of the UK’s most evocative and exciting new painters.
Fascinated by the dark, gritty underground world of urban subculture, his paintings delve beneath the surface of social class; creating intense portraits of charismatic people in a fused background of atmospheric lighting, sexuality and impending violence. Heavily influenced by cinema, particularly the crime and gangster genres, Kamp says he likes to capture a moment of high tension, always imagining there’s something surreptitious going on in what could be a perfectly innocent situation.
Vincent Kamp conjures up an intriguing nether world of noir fiction…a world most of us have only dreamed of but that few can resist.
Simon Rumley, Filmmaker
The Mighty Dragon interview with Simon Rumley
(transcribed notes from call)
Simon: Most people start making shorts rather than features because of the learning process involved. It’s daunting enough to make a short film let alone a feature film – so that’s exactly how I started. At some point though you do know when you’re ready to do a feature film. I started shooting silent films on super 8 and promo type videos and by the time I started on my film Laughter, I was working in a post-production facility in London. This gave me more access to more equipment and this is where I became a bit more ambitious. This ultimately lead to Phew which I made on super 16 and then onto Handyman, which I was approached to direct. Handyman’s script had already won a script writing competition, so that was more me being asked to direct rather than me initiating the project. Most stories are well suited to one thing or another and inevitably most short stories tend to be more focused on a couple of scenes or one smaller idea rather than features, which I suppose are not necessarily more rambling, but a bigger theme.
Vikki: Is there a specific genre that is better suited to a short?
Simon: Short films are generally lower budget and harder to get money back for any investor. So I don’t think necessarily it’s the best idea to try a science fiction film or a period drama. Much like lower budget features, the easier the better really. It’s easier if you have three people in a room than say a period drama with a thousand extras. It all comes down to what you as a director and producer, or your producer, feel you can achieve on the budget that you can raise. For example, let’s say you can raise £50,000, you’ll be able to set your sights slightly higher than if you can simply raise £5,000 – so, I dont think theres a specific genre which necessarily is better – it’s more down to the budget really and making life as easy as possible while you are maintaining your ambition and vision. I know sometimes people hate twists in the tale shorts, but then other people think they’re good – everyone will have a different answer on that.
Vikki: Your film, Once Upon a Time in London, is a dramatization of the reign of two London gangsters, Billy Hill and Jack ‘Spot’ Comer. How long did it take you to research this subject to start on the script?
Simon: As I was progressing my career I used to write, direct and produce everything pretty much from scratch. I realised that this was very arduous and time consuming – quite often I’d write something and actually it wouldn’t turn into a film at the end of it. About 2009/2010 I decided I wanted to try and make more films and the way to do that would be to attach myself to scripts which had already been written with producers who are already trying to get the script made.
I’ve done three features to date where that has happened, the first one, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, then Crowhurst and For Once Upon a Time in London, where I was approached by producers, Terry Stone and Richard Turner, but there was already a script there. I know Terry and another writer, Will Gilbey, had worked on earlier drafts. The script was presented to me and then changed over a three week process, but I was working with material that was already there. But like everything you research online, newspaper articles and then you get an overall feel for subject matter. A lot of what’s in the film is historically fairly accurate I think and some of the things we made up. So it’s a mixture of getting a bit of reality and then heightening that reality at the same time.
Vikki – These gangsters pre-dated the Krays and the Richardson’s in London; does your film convey a certain amount of sympathy for them in terms of people wanting some empowerment in an impoverished part of London?
Simon: It’s not so much the impoverished nature of their upbringing because I think there was a lot of people then as there are now with impoverished backgrounds. The focus of the film is much more in the late 30s and 40s as he is rising to his zenith and falling away from it. It’s really about a man who takes the world in his hands and perverts and bullies the world for his own personal gain, I don’t think at that point there’s a lot of sympathy for him as you can see him control his own life.
Where it does offer a bit of sympathy for him is the way in which he became his own worst enemy. He didn’t treat his colleagues or friends very well and he wasn’t probably the most intelligent man with his money and what he did with it. I think like many people in that situation, success led to greed and greed led to more negative emotions, which ultimately cost him his standing. There’s something sad about him losing it. On one side of the fence you can say he managed a long life and died of natural causes, which many gangsters don’t. He went to prison, but didn’t spend the rest of his life in prison like the Krays for example. But on the other hand, he did have what was essentially a mini empire and he lost it all. And then at some point he shied away from crime and never managed to gain back any power, authority, respect or money that he had – there is a kind of melancholy and sadness about a man who gets something through hard work and loses it all. It’s a life of crime though, so one shouldn’t be too sorry for whatever happened to him really.
Vikki: The East End has seen its fair share of crooks, gangsters and murderers over the years – what do you feel has been the magnetism for this area in particular?
Simon: It’s interesting because actually I was discussing this with someone over the weekend and they were saying that the East End gangster that was so prevalent in the 30’s to the 70’s probably no longer seems to exist and a lot of crime that happened then has moved online or robberies now are nowhere near the amount these guys carried out.
It’s partly down to people coming from nothing, living in impoverished areas and that there were a lot of large families living in full houses, all not eating much. I guess too everyone loves the rags to riches story with the indomitable spirit of the English man, or East End man, it’s all about that kind of thing – seeing people do well for themselves.
I think especially with the code of honour among the gangsters that they really would try not to harm the public, although of course they were still robbing from people. But it did seem that they were respectful to women, older people and to kids. So it was very much like if you went into that world, you could come up against anyone, but if you weren’t in that world, then you’re probably going to be reasonably safe.
I think the Kray’s certainly have got a lot to answer for and it’s amazing that actually these guys really were the inspiration for the Kray’s and certainly in the film the Kray’s appear at the very end. It’s amazing how much the Kray’s have a stranglehold over the mythology of the East End, however Jack Comer was from Camden, but hopefully with the advent of the film they’ll become slightly better known.
Vikki: Has an actor’s interpretation of a character you have written been totally different from your vision from the script?
Simon: I’m sure that does happen from time to time, but when, you’ve got a 80 to 120 page script and you’ve a character, action and dialogue in place – the likelihood is that you choose someone who you’d like and will interpret that role well. You usually talk, meet actors and audition and go through that whole process. You think you like someone, you think they understand what you’re giving them, what you want them to be and the likelihood of them doing something so different that you’re like, “hey man, what the f**k are you doing?” is low, to be honest I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.
It’s more about the subtleties of interpretation, whether it’s a voice or how they they walk, you know all the tools that actors use to make their trade work really. The exciting thing for a director I suppose is seeing the actor take that role and turn it into something that you kind of thought was there, but could never quite articulate or perfectly see in the way they’re presenting it.
In an ideal world, when an actor comes on board you need to give them an amount of trust and let them get on with it and really guide them and their actions rather than going “Are you fkg crazy about that? That’s completely wrong!” Actors by the same token, should be equally respectful of the director so if they have some ideas which are bigger than what’s on the page – they should ask the director for advice, sometimes you agree and disagree, that has happened before. I was doing a film in America and one the actors wanted to do a character in an English accent. I thought about it for a while but we didn’t go for the idea – it’s very much give and take on both sides. Hopefully a character misinterpretation won’t happen in the future but you never know.
Vikki: Has there been one key underlying motive that you have wanted to convey in all your films?
Simon: Each film usually has inevitably something different about it however I’m sure there are motives that run throughout all my films. Quite a lot of them are about people on the fringes of society and quite often deal how characters deal with communication. How we communicate or fail to communicate with each other and how that brings problems to our lives. Other themes are madness and breakdown, the inability to cope with positioning in society – certainly Crowhurst had those elements, Fashionista and Red White & Blue did to a point. Once Upon a Time in London is quite a different film for me as its more a tale of two men, neither of them had a breakdown/madness, it’s a traditional gangster film which I’ve put my own spin on. Isolation, communication and breakdown have appeared in a few of my films.
Vikki: Where do you feel are the strengths in the British film industry?
Simon: There’s always been an amazing creative pool of talent in this nation of directors, actors, writers. As an island which is smaller than most countries we have always excelled creatively whether and if you look at the Oscars or most award ceremonies there’s always British people there. It’s the constancy of every generation and decade with amazing young people coming up and providing fresh talent and voices and the want to continue to tell stories which are prevalent of the time.
I think more than anything its that constance of talent plus the older generation of actors such as Maggie Smith and Michael Caine who in their 70s and 80s continue to work and be so fantastic.
Vikki: Which directors and writers have inspired you – and why?
Simon: Nicholas Roeg is a big one for me, I was very happy and fortunate to have worked with him on Crowhurst, he Exec Produced that and we discussed scripts, he was going to make a similar film in the 70s so it was close to his heart. I remember going to the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill and watching Performance, The Man who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing and I was always back then, and now, constantly amazed at what he did and how he did it. Also, the subject matter was very exciting – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, exploring mental psychological states, everything I like in terms of creativity. Martin Scorsese is another one – from Taxi Driver, Raging Bull to Wolf of Wall Street which is pretty much up there in terms of films. To see him in his 70s making these massive epic films is a great source of inspiration and wonder. Also Paul Schrader the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, great to see him come back with First Reformed. The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski films I have always loved. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ken Russell and Alan Clarke. I guess more gritty, punky directors , it’s hard to say exactly why, but these are certainly a few.
Vikki: What films or shows excite you right now – and why?
Vikki: Have you seen Bird Box?
Simon: High concept horror just seems to be getting more unbelievable – in reality there’s nothing wrong with that but I prefer my horrors to based in some sort of reality. I’ve seen Roma, Gaspar Noe’s Climax was amazing – really stunning piece of filmmaking and would have liked more people to have seen it, it’s quite challenging. I like The Square which I saw last year, it won Cannes 2017.
The Mighty Dragon interview with Vincent Kamp
Vikki: When did you start painting professionally?
Vincent: I’ve been able to support my family just from painting from March 2017. I was selling work well before then, of course.
Vikki: Your paintings strip away social class, to the rawness and realness of all human beings. Being born in Britain, a country with a historical class system – do you feel this is falling away and your paintings are reflective of that shift?
Vincent: I certainly haven’t tried to reflect this. I like to tell stories with my work, I’m not trying to make any comment on social class. However, I do love it when people come up with all sorts of unintended message and completely different narrative to what I intended. A painting can be so many different things depending on who you are and your own journey.
Vikki: Does the psychological makeup of a character compel you to paint them – if not, what does?
Vincent: Absolutely, but of course there has to be some sort of physical appeal, the character’s face has to tell the story to some extent.
Vikki: What do you want people to feel when viewing your artwork?
Vincent: I want to take them on an adventure into a world they don’t necessary live in. Film and TV do most of the heavy lifting for you, they give you plot and character, with a painting your imagination has to do some work and that can be such a rush. I give people a few prompts and then let them go for a ride.
Vikki: What challenges does an artist face in today’s UK among the Instagram generation.
Vincent: Instagram is both a blessing and a curse. You could never get your artwork out anywhere near as big an audience without it, but then the audience experiences a large oil painting through a tiny 3 inch digital window and that’s a terrible shame.
Vikki: Do you feel that art supports modern film in a way that can’t be represented elsewhere?
Vincent: Ultimately for me it’s all just about telling stories through different mediums. Film, painting, music and writing are all complimentary ways to tell stories.
Vikki: Who are your inspirations?
Vincent: People inspire me in different ways. I look a lot at filmmakers like David Fincher and Wes Anderson for story-telling and then cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Conrad Hall for composition and lighting. Then artists like Sean Cheetham and Jeremy Mann for contemporary painting and of course masters of light and paint like Rembrandt and Caravaggio from old school.
Vikki What is your interpretation of beauty in film? Dialogue, cinematography or acting?
Vincent: It’s all three, but equally the music. If any of those are compromised the whole thing can fall apart.
Vikki: Your book, Robotslayer, I understand was inspired by your sons. Can you tell me more about this novel and will you be writing another?
Vincent: Ha ha no way. That was something fun I did in those early years when the kids were small and you’re not really sleeping much. I was reading them a lot of bedtime stories and I thought I could do something with a bit more action. It was good fun and my boys became mini celebs at their school for a while. I will definitely not be doing that again. Comic books are a lot of work.
Vikki: Can you tell us more about your work with film director Simon Rumley?
Vincent: I met Simon about a year ago and we instantly had a rapport around the subject of art and film. Along with directing features, Simon has also curated quite a few successful art shows over the years. I really like Simon and loved his film Crowhurst. I was trying to find a way to work with him on something. He has a new film coming out in April this year and I will be creating a few paintings inspired by the film.
A big thanks to Simon and Vincent for their time, knowledge and expertise. Also to Greg Day, Clout Communications for coordinating these interviews.