TIFF 2017 Interview: Journey’s End Director Saul Dibb

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Journey's End

Journey’s End: New cinematic take on classic wartime play had its world premiere at TIFF 2017

Journey’s End had it’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. This film adaptation of R.C. Sheriff’s play about the British Soldiers waiting in Aisne for the German’s to invade. What was really great about this war film is that it is not about the war itself, rather it is about soldiers living in confined places, dealing the impending doom that is about to come their way. ComingSoon.net was lucky enough to get a chance to sit down with director Saul Dibb (The Duchess, Suite Francaise) and pick his brain about making his third historical non fiction film.

ComingSoon.net: R.C Sheriff said “I want to place on record one simple story of the war before memory died” which was about why he wrote Journey’s End [in 1928]. Why did you decide to adapt this story into a film?

Saul Dibb: Well, when I read the script it just had this incredible reign of truth to it. If that is what he wanted to achieve, he achieved it. For me, he made such an honest and truthful and humane account of these people’s experiences. That to me, still felt very fresh but also very relevant and I saw an opportunity to create something like an unusual type of war film because they already shoot a shot. It’s not full of action. It’s all about the sense of waiting. The absurdity of all these people waiting, knowing they are going to die. That felt like a very powerful story to tell.

CS: Of course, it’s all very claustrophobic for a lot of this film. Was that your intention?

Dibb: Yeah, I think the thing was that I had made a decision early on to restrict the point of views to say “look, we are only going to see what the soldiers see”. So, if they are in a trench, most films set in trenches they tend to shoot over the top. I suppose I took the lead from films like Das Boot or even Alien. That restricts the field of vision. It makes it very very very claustrophobic, and I thought if we do that then we are going to create a real sense of intimacy and claustrophobia but it means that when we finally go out for these little bursts that they will create more impact.

CS: Was the play your main source material or did you branch out and see what other angles drove you to create this film?

Dibb: Yeah, the play had already been adapted in the script so that was my starting point but I had not read the play, I had not seen the play, and I didn’t seek out the play, I haven’t see the adaptation. So, what I did do was take the play and take the book that Sherriff originally wanted to write a book, a novel but he didn’t. He wrote the play, and when he had written the play he went and novelized the play which we had got hold of. This book that nobody has read, really. So, I used that as the basis for the adaptation. It was really important to me because it such a well-known play but for it not have vestiges of theatricality attached to it so I just stripped it down with Simon Reade [the writer] as much as possible and opened it out wherever we could.

CS: There are many films out there about World War 1, what sets your film apart from the rest?

Dibb: Well, I think its because of its concentration on this one event. You know, it has a very compact time frame. I think that because the bomb is right under the bed right from the start, you know, it’s not as if we are trying to deal with complex reveals in the narrative. We are essentially saying that “look there is this attack coming, it’s not IF, it’s WHEN”. So, you are going to watch 100 minutes of these 120 dead men walking essentially, and I think that stretch conceptually is a different kind of approach. I think also to show the war but without all of that kind of action. Showing the waiting, again, I think has a different kind of approach to it. To restrict the field of vision so clearly and strongly also allows us to stand a part.

CS: Do you find that making a movie where the audience sort of already knows the ending to be challenging?

Dibb: No, it’s liberating actually because I think much of the time if you’re making films its about massaging the plot to fall into the right places. To me, this about – we certainly withheld information, things like that, which is important. To feed in information about characters during the film but actually to set it up really clearly from the start and for it to be about something else. It liberates you from the usual constraints of plotting and that is because this is all about character. Its all about getting to know these people before this inevitable thing is gonna come. I actually really kind of relish this. It has a three-act structure. Most films run the 1500m, people pace themselves and they run fast then slow and they pace themselves. Ours is like running the 400m, which isn’t a long distance but you run it like a sprint. That’s what I was trying to do, I was trying to maintain the same ton, the same mood, the same atmosphere, for 100 minutes. That was unlike any other films that I have done.

CS: So, this is your third historical non-fiction film?

Dibb: Not including anything for television, yes.

CS: What draws you to this genre?

Dibb: To be honest, the only thing that draws me and I’m sure most filmmakers is that it’s just a good script. A good story. So, immediately before this I made an adaptation of an Zadie Smith novel, that was like cosmopolitan London in 2016 like it couldn’t be more contemporary. So, I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to do these things in the past, it just happens to be what it is but it also happens to be what the majority of the scripts you come across in Britain. The tend to be ones from the past that will reach out internationally.

CS: Working with this genre of films though, do you feel that this is way of preserve history for future generations?

Dibb: Not really. I mean, because I guess you make them and they work because they are able to talk about now, even though they are set in the past. I certainly think that with a film like this that have that sort of reminder of the experience of wars and the sheer waste that is involved in that war is very important but it isn’t my primary motivation for making it.

CS: Lastly, the score of the movie is just beautiful and I feel as though it drives the story forward. Why did you choose to work with Natalie Holt to do the music for it?

Dibb: Well, the truth is actually 80% of the music we used is this Icelandic cellist Hildur Guónadóttir but she’s credited in the film. What I did was I came across her and she is just this unbelievable cellist who creates these really experimental cello scores and I started to play them against the picture and loved them. So, Natalie scored the parts of the film where I didn’t have Hildur’s music. So, it’s a kind of difficult balance, you know, it’s a balance between two people. In a sense, you have Natalie who is brilliant, scored the parts that I hadn’t taken Hildur’s music and licensed it. But listen to it, you can hear the whole thing, she’s amazing. Have you seen the Revenant? So, you know all those kind of sliding strings and stuff that you hear in the background of that score? That’s her. Basically, I started cutting it and I started putting the music on and I loved it because it wasn’t like scoring a film in a way traditional films are scored. It wasn’t trying to hit moments, drive stuff, it was creating that kind of psychological element, a sense of dread.

CS: I thought it was great, I loved the score. I’m not big into war films but I was really into this because it wasn’t about the war it was about the soldiers.

Dibb: Yeah, it’s about men dealing with fear and how a particular class of men or how men generally deal with fear. They sublimate it or reflect it through conversations about food. It’s weird because some people say “well, it’s all about men how are women going to respond to it?” but actually women respond to it really strong. I think because it also shows that men being intimate with each other.

CS: Yes, they’re being vulnerable.

Dibb: Yes, vulnerable, exactly! That’s what drove the play, actually. What drove the play’s success was women going to see the play because I think they wanted to understand what all of their husbands, sons, fathers had gone through.

Journey’s End‘s official release date will be announced soon…