After making impressive videos for the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Adam Smith has united Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson in his feature debut on Irish Travellers, writes Ed Power
ADAM Smith bristles slightly when it is suggested film directors with a background in music videos tend to prioritise shimmer over substance.
“I wouldn’t say Sexy Beast was superficial,” he says, referring to the existential caper from 2000 directed by Blur/Massive Attack collaborator Jonathan Glazer.
“I don’t think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [the surreal masterpiece by friend-of-the-White Stripes Michel Gondry] is superficial.”
It’s a fair point — though these examples are arguably overshadowed by pop auteurs such as David Fincher and McG, whose slick, moody music videos led to careers making slick, moody features.
Smith, for his part, earned his reputation directing highly stylised promos for the Chemical Brothers and the Streets [the violent short-film accompanying the latter’s ‘Blinded by the Lights’ earned a ban in the UK]. Yet there is nothing glossy or sensational about his first feature-length movie, Trespass Against Us.
This tale of familial conflict among Travellers in the south-east of England is gritty with a vengeance and has a big beating heart. Michael Fassbender delivers one of his most gripping performances in years as a career criminal on the cusp of middle age and unhappy with where life has taken him while Brendan Gleeson is mesmerising as his bullying father.
“When you look at the script, there is a ‘pop’ version of this story,” says the thoughtful, softly-spoken Smith. “One that is more heightened — a bit more like [Guy Ritchie romp] Snatch. It was important for me that we not go down that route. I wanted to tell the story from the inside out. To bring you into this world.”
Fassbender is the roguish yet conflicted Chad (his turn erases all memories of the recent, catastrophic Assassin’s Creed). The actor lights up the screen with his swagger — yet, just under the surface, lurks an unmistakeable vulnerability.
The Tralee native was Smith’s number one choice for the part: The question was whether this international movie star could find time for a relatively small-scale character study. However, Fassbender was instantly smitten with the conflicted, contradictory Chad and turned down bigger projects to work with Smith.
“I knew his agent and passed on the script. Michael read it in two days and then we met. I guess I must have passed the interview.
“His agent told me later, ‘You don’t want to know what he said ‘no’ in order to do this’. I said, ‘You’re right, I don’t want to know.’ What Michael has in common with Chad is that he’s sort of an alpha male. He drives fast cars, he is naturally charming. You believe he could be this person. It’s effortless.”
Fassbender was a coup — but also a challenge. Chad is a professional thief who outruns the police with ease. Yet one person he cannot escape is his quietly controlling dad, Colby.
But who could cast a shadow over the naturally cocksure Kerryman?
This was a crucial casting choice as it is the deference Chad shows his pater that gives the film much of its dramatic impetus. Chad wants a future for his children but is subtlety stymied by his father’s disdain for education and his unwillingness to let his son walk away from a life of crime.
“I looked through these pictures of Michael with all these much older actors,” says Smith. “In all of them, Michael has his arm around the other guy — he is the dominant one in the photo.
“Then I came across a picture of Michael with Brendan Gleeson. And it is Brendan with his arm around Michael. Starting out, I’m sure Michael would have looked up to Brendan — regarded him as someone to be emulated. He was acting when Michael was still a teenager. There is that frisson between them which gives something to their relationship. You believe in them as Chad and Colby.”
Trespass Against Us is based loosely on a 2005 documentary about a real-life Travelling family entitled A Summer with the Johnsons. Smith acknowledged his debt to the Johnsons by inviting the family to a preview of the film. He was nervous how they would respond. In fact, they accorded it a raucous reception, cheering and whooping their way through the screening.
One surprise is that the characters are English rather than Irish. Fassbender had suggested relocating the film to Ireland. He had some familiarity with Irish Traveller culture, having crossed paths with members of the community growing up in Killarney. Smith was adamant the setting had to be Britain.
“This is the Cotswolds, where the British establishment literally lives. The politicians, the business people, the judges. They’re all there. We wanted to explore that tension between the great and the good and these down and outs. It was absolutely critical to the story.”
The movie walks a delicate line between humanising Chad’s family yet honestly depicting their criminal lifestyle and somewhat squalid existence. There’s no glamour here, yet the film does not stand in judgement. The balancing act is pulled off perfectly.
“In a way it isn’t really about the Travelling community. In their society, these people are outcasts among outcasts. They are rather unique. For me, it’s a human story. It’s about family and being a parent.
“There is a bit where Chad’s son asks his father a question and Chad replies, ‘I don’t know son — you’ll have to work that out for yourself’. As a parent, I know how difficult that kind of honesty can be. You want to explain everything to your children. But you ultimately can’t.”
Smith was warned by friends in the industry that making a film was a far bigger undertaking than a video or TV episode.
He took them at their word — but, as he got stuck in, was still struck by the enormity of the challenge.
“It isn’t as if I haven’t been in this situation before. I directed the first episode of Dr Who in which Matt Smith plays the Doctor. In that situation, the pressure was very much on.
“What’s different about films is that you are sending this thing out into the world with no idea how anyone will respond. That is an entirely new experience.”
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