Darren Ward looks like a normal person. Dark hair, average height, average build, sensible clothes...you could walk past him in the street and not even think about how normal he looked. But Darren Ward is not normal. There is something very different about him. He’s not like me and, I would imagine, he isn’t much like you either. Sure he has a job and he likes films but still...something is different.
Darren makes movies. He makes movies that are guaranteed to prompt some negative reactions; they are violent and brutal movies. His latest, “A Day of Violence”, is shockingly violent at times and has prompted more than one walk out during screenings. It is unlikely that it will ever receive a cinema release and you’re highly unlikely to find it lurking in the local Blockbuster. He made this film over a long period of time using his own money (and whatever he could borrow from friends and family) and in his own time. Sometimes filming would last for 18 hours which effectively means that for two years Darren Ward had no free time.
If “A Day of Violence” was going to make him a lot of money or see him given a big budget movie to work on next time then you could easily understand why he does it...but neither of those things are very likely. So when I meet Darren in the, sparse and functional, Guild Room at the rear of Edinburghs Filmhouse Cinema I begin by asking him the one question anyone would want the answer to...why?
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by films and the power that they have. It started with the Hammer films really; Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee. They used to be on really late at night so I’d get my old man to record them for me and I’d come down in the morning and watch ‘em. Then when the video nasties arrived I’d occasionally find one of them lying around and watch a bit of “Zombie Flesh Eaters” or cannibal this and cannibal that. I was fascinated by that world and, originally, I wanted to do special effects...I even used to practice with make-up and prosthetics and all the rest of it but I knew I wanted to be part of this world. Then slowly I began to think about making my own movies; get a few friends together, get a camera and we made this short, 45 minute, film called “Paura il Diavolo” (1992) which was a homage to the Italian horror films. Then I made another short film called “Bitter Vengeance” which came really close to winning an award at the BAVA awards...people kept asking me about the characters in that film and telling me that they wanted to know more about them and the world they were occupying so I started writing the script for “Sudden Fury” (1997) and at that time, in my early twenties, it wasn’t possible for me to just go out and make a film like studios do; it took about two years to finish filming and at one point we didn’t do any filming for a year because the money ran out. But eventually it got a release in various places around the world including the US and Germany where it has a sort of cult following.”
As Ward talks it’s difficult not to be moved by his love of film. He clearly adores the whole process of making a film from writing to filming. But if you’ve been paying careful attention you’ll notice that he still hasn’t answered the question. Just as I was preparing myself for the fact that the only explanation for why he makes these sacrifices for so little, apparent, gain is that he is a lunatic he tells me that “There is just something inside me that wants to make films and the sort of films I want to make and that I want to see aren’t being made so it’s up to me to make them. I don’t want to be cliched and use that Argento thing of “the monster inside me” but there is something inside of me that wants to break out. I mean look at the world we live in; it is violent, it is aggressive and it is brutal, my films sort of reflect that”.
That sort of comment is only a cliche if it isn’t true and Ward talks passionately about his films as a mirror of certain elements within our society. He cites the Shipman case as an example of what he is talking about “Yeah, old Bill who lives next door, he’s a great bloke, a lovely old fella and then you find out he’s got twenty bodies buried in the garden, so films like mine are simply showing you what could be going on right beneath your nose. And in the case of “A Day of Violence” it isn’t just violence for the sake of violence, the central character, Mitchell (played by Nick Rendell) does the things he does for a reason and that reason is to offer hope to a child and to rid himself of his own demons so, yeah, nasty things are happening but the point is he is doing these things for a reason. We might not make the choices he does in a similar situation but there are people like Mitchell who do make those sorts of choices”.
At around this point Nick Rendell joins us and reveals that despite spending his weekends filming low budget, ultra-violent gangster films he is, in the real world, a University lecturer. “Despite lecturing on psychology I think I’d drive myself crazy if I tried to figure out what was going on inside Mitchells head”. In the film Mitchell is plunged into chaos after he steals £100,000 from another gangster. That’s not national lottery money but it’s a sum of money that could make a difference to most peoples lives and, for Mitchell, it offers him a chance to redeem himself. “I think it’s quite a black and white decision that Mitchell makes, how much would it have taken...where was that point for him to do what he did? £50,000? Where?” At this time of economic recession it’s this point that I think lies at the heart of the film. We all like to think of ourselves as “good” people but do we all have a price? We have mortgages, credit cards, holidays we’d like to take, clothes we want to buy...where would the cut off point be for us to make the sort of choice that Mitchell makes? It’s easy to sit in judgement on the character who is, let us not forget, a man who makes his living from hurting people, but if the situation was right and the money was right would we act any differently. I think it is the fact that “A Day of Violence” confronts us with that dilemma that makes people uncomfortable and not the random acts of violence.
Rendell plays a deeply unpleasant character, a mean and aggressive man with few redeeming qualities. It’s difficult to imagine him taking the role of “Bungle” in “Rainbow: The Movie”. Is he, like his director, using this process to allow the demon inside out? “Well, if I could do anything else I think it would be comedy. I think that I could lend myself to that. It would be novel too, this great big thuggish bloke playing it for laughs” It really would be novel and it’s difficult to imagine having just watched Rendell mow down hordes of gangsters in a nightclub.
It’s interesting listening to the two men, director and actor, talking. It’s clear that they have a very close relationship. It’s not just the convenience of friendship and geography that has seen them make five films together. “Yeah”, begins Ward, “You do get detractors because of that, people saying it’s your safety net but the day I write a film or make a film that I don’t feel Nick is right for then I won’t use him but I think every film we’ve done he’s come on ten-fold and so have I” Ward and Rendell...Southamptons Scorcese and Di Niro?
Right now both men are making exactly the films that they want to make. They have total artistic and creative control. They have to make sacrifices in terms of their time and their finances but as far as the creative process is concerned it’s their film. To take it to the “next level” might require a different sort of sacrifice. “I don’t know” says Rendell “I think that, like Mitchell, until the filthy lucre was there under my nose I don’t know what I’d be prepared to sacrifice for it”. “I wouldn’t tone down my vision at all” Ward says defiantly. “I’d be prepared to use cover shots to present people with a different view but I wouldn’t alter the tone of the films. If I had that big budget I’d still make a film like “A Day of Violence”.
One of the curious things about “A Day of Violence” is a cameo from Giovanni Lombardo Radice the Italian film star most well known, certainly here in the UK, for his roles in horror films of the early eighties made by the likes of “Cannibal Apocalypse”, “City of the Living Dead” and “House on the Edge of the Park”. It’s obvious from Wards earlier discussion about discovering video nasties as a youngster that he does like these films and the appeal of having someone like Lombardo Radice in his movie is obvious but what about the man himself. “I liked the script. They both have a real passion for what they are doing. They do it because they believe in it. Passion is a great force of human nature and if you have it it shows. It showed in the script.”
With all three men now together I had to ask about the films opening three minutes. A fairly explicit and very realistic sex scene involving Rendell who I know has a partner. Just to make him feel awkward I asked if he would be showing his partner that part of the film?
“No. The best thing about it is that it is the first three minutes of the film so for her it can start three and half minutes in.”
“That scene had to be realistic for me, this was an opportunity to show Mitchell as a compassionate, and passionate, man. The film starts with that to show that side of Mitchell. It’s three minutes and it is shocking but it isn’t exploitation, you don’t feel grubby watching it” Ward is right, the scene doesn’t play like an exploitation moment, it isn’t there just to get some flesh up on screen. It can be justified artistically and in relation to the development of the character.
It would be untruthful of me to say that “A Day of Violence” is a treat for all the family and even for those who enjoy these types of films it is a rough ride. The fact is that it is rough and tough film-making. It’s cinema from the edges. The big studios wouldn’t touch a film like this and most of you will never see it. But the important thing about Ward, Rendell and Lombardo Radice is that this is film-making by people who have passion. They are not doing any of this because it’s going to be good for their careers and I doubt that anyone is making a lot of money but, as Lombardo Radice said; “Passion is a great force of human nature”. There can’t be any argument about the fact that all three men and the film itself have passion.