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Trespass Against Us: Director Adam Smith on Fassbender, Gleeson, The Chemical Brothers, and Doctor Who

Adam Smith’s first feature, Trespass Against Us, is a taut thriller about a series of robberies committed by members of the travelling community. Smith’s background is in television and videos, working extensively with the Chemical Brothers on their video elements, as well as on episodic television such as Doctor Who. With standout performances by Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson and Lyndsey Marshal (read our interview with Fassbender and Marshal here), the film made a splash when it played last September at TIFF. Making its way to theatres this weekend, it’s prime time to share this chat we had with Smith.

At the start of your film there’s already plenty of tension between father and son and you drop us right in the middle.

I just think you have to credit the audience – They don’t have to be spoonfed. You’ve got these amazing actors that you’re working with, and you can tell there’s this dynamic going on. I find it really satisfying if you’re watching a film to work stuff out. Because Michael was so watchable, and because you’re being introduced to this world that most people haven’t been in, you could get away with it.

What was the hardest thing about moving up to feature film?

The hardest thing is to hear your own creative voice. It’s really a quiet voice, almost like a feeling. The process of filmmaking is very noisy – There’s a lot of voices and there’s a lot of opinions. I found it hard sometimes to just hold onto that.

The film rests almost entirely on the charisma of Fassbender to make us care about this troubled man.

I can’t see anyone other than Michael doing it. The first time I met Michael to talk about it, it just felt like he knew who this guy was. I think there’s a lot of charm in the script as well and the the real family it was inspired by. I’m not condoning any of the things that they do, but if you’re brought up to do that, it’s very hard with a domineering father, it’s very hard to believe that you can do anything else.

Part of what helps sell that is casting Brendan and Michael together as father and son

It was really important that the audience believed that there was a figure that was powerful enough, that would have the authority to boss someone. Michael is a powerful force in real life and as an actor and really powerful on screen. You had to believe that he’s a thirtysomething still living with his Dad, still kind of doing what his Dad tells him to do. You’re only going to believe that if his Dad is a pretty powerful man.

I’d seen a picture of Brendan and Michael together socially at some event and I don’t think they’d known each other that well but they’d talked about doing projects. There was something about the way that Brendan had his arm around Michael that very much said, “I’m the elder patriarch in this relationship.” And I printed that picture out and put it alongside all the other pictures I had on my wall for the project, of the cast and how it would all work and locations. It felt like the respect for Michael was built in and, I don’t want to speak for Michael, but I’m sure he’s spoken about how much he respects Brendan and grew up loving watching Brendan act. So there was something of that already there that we tapped into.

Trespass Against Us

You have a challenge here to tell an entertainment but also be respectful of the source material and also you’re developing on a real-life story. How do you do justice to the original story and still be respectful of the?

The guiding light was truth and authenticity. When we showed the film to the family it was based on, the ones that weren’t in jail, it was amazing. They were talking all the way through, talking at the screen, but talking about what was happening. They loved it. And they laughed at all the jokes and said it was truthful and it was real.

But as a filmmaker, do you have a priority to be authentic or do you have a priority to the film?

I think you have to be truthful to that instinct of your own. It had to be a story that worked. This wasn’t just a reconstruction of the documentary. I tried to stay true to what I thought was going to make a great film. But it really meant a lot to me that they thought it was truthful

You’d worked with the Chemical Brothers extensively – Could you talk about the score for the film?

In a way I didn’t want it to be a full Chemical Brothers soundtrack, like to sound like The Chemical Brothers. Obviously one of the chase scenes does a bit, but I wanted it to have this timeless feel. The Chemical Brothers’ music has got this raw, anarchic energy. It’s almost like every time it becomes too pop-y, a crash comes in and some gnarly electronic sound. It also has this huge emotional power and really moves people. That’s why I thought Tom [Rowlands] was perfect to do the film.

I sent him the script and he kind of started writing stuff after the first read through. He was really into it. But we did come to a bit of a crossroads. I was like, “Look, this can’t be synthy instrumentation because it needs to have a timeless feel”-which is why we shot it on 35mm. We talked about the palette having more classical instrumentation. At one point he all like, “Why don’t you just get somebody classical to do it? Why do you want me to do it?”, and I was like, “Because you’re going to do something different and something brilliant!”

The nice thing is that we’ve been working together for 20 years and it’s healthy to have these conversations. I don’t know if they’re going to release it or not but there’s a load of more typical Chemical Brothers stuff that he made for us that never made it to the film that are great, great tunes.

Would you get a cut?

[laughs] Yeah. I don’t know about that. I get to still have the best and longest job I’ve ever had-which is doing the visuals in their show, which is fantastic. It’s one of the few filmmaking domains where you get absolute full creative control, you know?

Was the transition better or worse than you expected from TV/music to your first feature?

It was tough, you know? Tougher than I thought. I had done some fairly high profile television stuff [Skins, Doctor Who] and I didn’t understand when people said, “Oh it’s going to be different when it’s film”. And it was.

How?

With television you kind of know there’s an audience to an extent and you know there’s a broadcast date. We were making this film and then a big star came onboard and suddenly the expectations became very big and who knows how well this film will do. People have invested a lot of money so they’ve got some fear around it and that fear is dangerously contagious. You’ve got to protect yourself and get your armour on to not be affected by that stuff. I’m not sure if I should be saying that but it’s my truth.


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