Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tony Passarelli: too blessed to be stressed

I know Tony Passarelli, a Nottingham-based independent film-maker, through my partner Paula, who acted in his short film, ‘Ignorance is Bliss?’ I talked to him recently about some of his productions:

Before we look at the films, can I ask about your influences? Which directors inspire you?

At this point I should reel off some of the great directors from cinema history, right?

Well, truth be told, I don’t have any one great influence. Not even a list of those I would consider the true greats. What inspires me is a great film. There are so many factors that go into painting a great tale onto celluloid, whether it’s a fantastic performance from the actors or just a script that is almost impossible to fail or a great director working his magic and creating something memorable out of an otherwise mundane tale.

If you had to pick just one director?

Tarantino! There goes my credibility at the start of the interview … lol! I’m just the kid that never grew up I suppose.

What was your first film and how did you come to make it?

At school. It was before fancy things like drama lessons came about. I was pretty much a drop out. I’d turned my back on the whole education thing by the age of 15. The only subject I liked was English, but I got dropped from the O-level group because my spelling and grammar held me back. That was the end of my collaboration with the educational side of life!

It came about one day when I wouldn’t do a damn thing in Maths and my peers followed suit (a rebel without a cause but one who had his followers) and the teacher Mr Booth had a one-on-one chat with me and asked, “What would you like to do?”

I answered, after giving it some thought, in an innocent 15-year-old kind of way: “Make a film”. Sounds really bizarre looking back on it now, but when you’re a kid everything makes sense because you don’t have the time to procrastinate! Anyway, Mr Booth was into filming weddings at the weekends as a sideline. I think he was onto a good screw – about £150 for a weekend’s work! This was back in 1985 when people didn’t have video cameras, but he had one.

So he said alright. Something followed on along the lines of “What do you want to make?” and I said “We’ll make a film about gangsters and prizefighting”. So we made a 50 minute film called ‘Prizefighter’ which he filmed and directed and I told everyone their parts and lines. It involved kids from two Maths groups and it was watched by the entire school. It just happened. I never thought it was an unusual thing to do.

I guess I just didn’t give a stuff, really. Best attitude to have!


‘Ignorance is Bliss?’ is a dark, thought-provoking film. How did you get the idea?

I mulled on the idea of a man who had the worst thing happen to him that could and then had something even worse come upon him. A sort of walking curse. But I wanted the protagonist to be intellectually deaf and dumb to it all. Just a suffering wretch of a human being. Basically the main character, Carl, is the zombie in the movie. He only utters one meaningful line in the film: “You want to know something? Nightmares are God’s way of telling us we’re not in control.”

The title is supposed to be a question to the viewer: Ignorance is bliss? Because the audience sees the nightmare in the end, but Carl still cannot remember it. The nightmares have brought his life to a stop. He can’t get past his loss and grieving because he can’t even get a decent night’s sleep. Would he be better off remembering the dreams, even though in the nightmare scene he goes insane?

I didn’t think I got the pay-off with that film. It’s a learning curve. My inexperience as a film-maker rather than the viewers not getting it.

Obviously, your films are made on a very low budget - possibly no budget. How did you achieve the make-up effects on Paula?

All the credit goes to Adam Poole. I told him what I had in mind and he took the idea and ran with it. I can't remember the cost. I think I said “Just give me the bill.” It ended up being peanuts anyhow. Adam has got a gift. The effects would have probably cost a few grand in Hollywood.

The make up was fantastic. Paula Harrison is a real trooper. As a director you couldn't ask for a better actress to work with. She gave a solid performance throughout the film and never complained about the latex face mask she had to endure. It isn’t easy to give a performance where your mobility is limited and you have to watch how much you can move your mouth or eyes. Too much expression could have made the mask crack. Maybe that’s why Paula was so great at doing scenes in one take. She wasn’t going to have to go through hours of hell again!

Adam Poole gives a very understated, introspective performance. He features in all three of the films we're looking at, as well as doing the make-up effects on 'Ignorance is Bliss'. Would you say that he brings as much to the creative process as you do?

As a package he’s great. Any film-maker would give their right arm for some one like Adam to be on their team. He’s versatile and getting more so as he’s learning what happens behind the lens.

I know I've always got a lead man to fall back on. He can do the pretty boy roles, but can tackle deep characters as well. He’s mucking in and learning to think with an eye for the camera. He’s moved on from being obsessed with the performance and now thinks about the shot composition, how we want it to look on film. Adam really is an artistic person. It comes naturally to him.

Is he more talented than me? More versatile I'd say. We compliment each other very well. He’ll want ‘just one more shot’ for ever and a day. Whereas I'll say “That’s it, I've had enough.” He’ll push me to do a few more takes and I’ll be the one to draw the line and say “That’s it.” That’s the trouble with perfectionists, they’ll go on forever! Adam pushes me and I let him know when he’s gone beyond enthusiasm.


‘Life’s Great’ is the very opposite of ‘Ignorance is Bliss?’ - warm, poignant, life-affirming. I understand you made it to enter a competition. How difficult was it to bring the film it at exactly 60 seconds?

It was for the Orange BAFTA competition. A one minute short based on the theme of ‘Celebrate’. It was Adam’s baby, that one. He came up with three different films, but because Christmas-time is busy for every one, we only made the one. That was the easiest one as well! It’s a feelgood film. Very cosy, not like our usual work. If anyone is feeling down they should take a minute out of their lives to watch ‘Life’s Great’. Sometimes we all need an emotional pick me up.

They're running the competition again this year. The theme is ‘Unite’. I've got an idea, but again it’s whether I get the time to shoot it. The editing isn’t a problem. In fact putting a 60 sec short together is a joy.


‘The Good Shopper’ is different again. This time you use the documentary format to address the importance of Fair Trade products. The closing frames of the film show you volunteering at a Fair Trade stall. Why is this issue so important to you?

I wrote a drama called 'The Good Shopper' a couple of years back. Everyone agreed to play the parts and I gave them the script, but it never got made. The scene at the end is me on the Nottingham Oxfam Campaign group’s Fair Trade stall. I’m still a member of the group, although I do all my campaigning online these days.

Because I had that footage it gave me the idea to do a documentary. The same title but completely different film – different to all the other films I’ve done. I’m not looking for any praise with this one, I’m not taking much interest in what the viewer thinks of the cinematography or direction. I want is for the viewer to look and listen and realise they can make a difference in the world. I have a real passion and I get to show it in this film. Maybe I could become the Chris Martin of the film world. Print out the Make Trade Fair logo on my left hand.

I’d prefer the viewer to watch ‘The Good Shopper’ than for me to talk about it. If you ask me to recommend just one of my films then that is the one. It isn’t about entertainment. It’s about the real world and we’re all in it.

What of future projects? Further documentaries? Any plans for a full-length feature?

I like the documentary format for the reason that post-production is just as creative as the filming. Not as much fun as a one minute film but pretty close. The subject would have to really interest me, though.

I’m looking at a short we filmed last year called ‘Kid’s Talk’ but didn’t fully complete. I’m looking at what we have got and going to try and weave some magic in the editing suite. If I manage to create the finished article you’ll be able to see that we’re getting stronger on the technical side. Some very nice shots. Looking more polished than our previous efforts.

Besides ‘Kid’s Talk’ and the 60 second short for BAFTA, Adam and another mate Nathan Rose are both working on different short films. I’ve got a little gem called ‘Belial’ but I try not to plan ahead, though. Plans can go wrong.

As for a full feature, no way – it’s a back breaker, a killer! I just can’t do it. I haven’t got financing, I haven't got a full crew. I’ve done two ‘Prizefighter’ films and I tried to do another but it was too big. It drained me. I had to quit and that makes me feel guilty for every who gave their time and energy to the project.

If writing came easy to me then I could do a full screenplay or even a novel. The short film ‘Belial’ that I may do is so rich in material. I could take the story to so many places: fallen angels Belial and Satan plus all the other stuff that could be created with that world. I’ve seen the ‘Prophecy’ films and think they’re pretty poor. I guess Hollywood don’t want to upset religious groups or be accused of blasphemy. Maybe it’s a good thing that I just stick to short films.

Thanks for the interview, Tony. Is there anything or anyone I’ve missed?

I’d like to mention Lee Hallam. He’s a great musician and I've used his songs in both ‘The Good Shopper’ and ‘Ignorance is Bliss?’. I don't have to worry about getting music for my flicks. If we do ‘Belial’, Lee has agreed to play the lead role.

I’m happy doing shorts and pretty blessed to have a great pool of talented friends ready and willing to muck in. I'm too blessed to be stressed.

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