Green Street Hooligans : Thug Life


For a movie set in a world of thugs and violence, Green Street Hooligans has a surprising amount of heart. Part of that might be explained by the fact that it’s cowritten and directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander, which might not be such a shock, since the film never loses sight of the humans involved in the amazing fight sequences.

Set in London, the film stars Elijah Wood as Matt Buckner, an Ivy League journalism student kicked out of Harvard for something he didn’t do. When he goes to London to visit his sister, played by Claire Forlani, he gets deeply involved in the violent world of the football (AKA soccer) related gangs known as firms, forever changing his life.

Back in April, sat down to talk with Lexi Alexander during the Tribeca Film Festival. At the time, the movie was still simply called Hooligans, and while it had been receiving audience and critical raves on the festival circuit, it still hadn’t found distribution. Five months later, Alexander’s labor of love is finally coming out in select cities, so the time seemed right to hear a bit from the filmmaker about her labor of love. While the director of this drama may seem tame, it’s good to keep in mind that this diminutive German woman, a martial arts expert, can probably take on most guys. What made you decide to make a movie about British football and hooligans?
Lexi Alexander: Well, I grew up in that world. My brother took me to my first football game when I was 8 years old, really not because he wanted to but because he had to babysit me. We came from a single parent home and my mother had to work. He was 9 years older and it was either a choice that he was going to go with his little sister or not go, and he went because he already had this love for the club. So I went, and I quickly developed the same love. That wasn’t the time I joined the firm. It was way later when I was already a martial arts expert and I had a lot of students. I found out that some of these guys were following the same football club but were actually part of a firm, so I told them that they had to take me. Usually, with girls, they would say no, but given the fact that I could take care of myself, they were like “Okay come.” So for two years, these guys just became my family, and it was like my life.

CS: Where was that and how old were you then?
Alexander: Mannheim and I probably was 15 or 16.

CS: What are the main differences you’ve found between the German football firms and the British ones from your film?
Alexander: Not much at all. It’s the same. It’s basically my own experience, and the characters are all based on the boys back home in my firm, but it doesn’t matter if you go to Holland, England, Italy, Spain, Argentina or Germany, this whole underground world is the same. It’s got the same structure with the general and the major and the top dog. It’s the same thing; it’s a gang.

CS: That being the case, what differentiates these firms from just being a gang?
Alexander: Well, I think they just call a gang a “firm” over there, but if you’re talking about the difference with American gangs, they don’t want to have anything to do with drug-dealing or guns. It’s not like the Bloods and Crips. To us, it’s about your reputation, and it’s about honor and loyalty and standing by your mate, standing your ground and never running. That’s important to them. Shooting and guns they can’t even comprehend that.

CS: So they never get involved with weapons at all?
Alexander: No, no. I mean, it’s considered a really bad thing to even take a knife. There’s a certain firm in England and equally one in Germany that has a bit of a reputation as being knife guys, but they are very unpopular and have the worst reputation.

CS: In what year would you say this story takes place or is it still going on?
Alexander: It’s still going on every year, right now. Our film was obviously contemporary, set in the very present. If you go online and check last week’s Millwall/Westham game and the trouble that’s been reported there, or the two Milan teams. It is unbelievable. There is probably the worst outbreaks of violence that happened in the last two weeks. (Note: this interview took place four months ago.) It’s quite interesting because sometimes, the journalist comes up and is like well, this thing doesn’t happen anymore, right? They do try to keep it under the table.

CS: Because the firms obviously have a hatred for journalists, it makes sense that it wouldn’t be in the newspapers that much.
Alexander: No, what they don’t like is journalists infiltrating them, because they had been burnt. A lot of journalists have come, and they’ve taken them in. Bill Berman, who wrote “Among The Thugs” in the ’70s, was taken in and they embraced him, but what happened later was that journalists started naming names and then these guys, because they are doing something illegal, lost their jobs and lost their wives.

CS: Do you think the movie or book “A Clockwork Orange” might have had some influence on these firms?
Alexander: No, hooliganism was way before “Clockwork Orange”. Yeah, it was a great film. I think Kubrick did a great job in portraying that English mentality. I actually watched it a couple times with my Director of Photography before we started making “Hooligans.” Again, it’s the seductiveness of the violence and that all of a sudden going mental.

CS: It’s strange seeing a woman direct a movie that seems like such a guys film.
Alexander: Well, I obviously wanted to tell the story because I was fascinated by it, and what I’ve seen, it was such a fantastic character study to be with these guys, and there was so much drama involved, that I wanted to tell this story. It’s funny, Hollywood kind of sees me as this action director now, not sure why. I totally consider myself a drama director. I wanted to do this really. It was my baby.

CS: How did you end up with a star as big as Elijah Wood playing the lead in your movie?
Alexander: His agent found the script and called me from an airplane saying that Elijah needs to meet with this director, and so he came in and he was really wanting this role, because as you know, this character has an incredible arc. It starts off as somebody who’s spineless and doesn’t stand up for himself. Everybody walks all over him. To somebody whose chest is up high and would stand up for anybody or anything, especially for him. So, it’s an actor’s dream to play a character who starts at one place and goes to a complete opposite. Every actor we had wanted this role. It wasn’t a question of we having to beg him or anything. This was a very popular script in the acting world.

CS: He wasn’t at all hesitant about the fighting?
Alexander: Not at all. That’s what he wanted to do. What young actor wouldn’t want to do that? You wouldn’t believe the young actors who courted me for these parts.

CS: Getting into those fight scenes, you obviously have a martial arts background. Did that help with the choreography?
Alexander: My first official Hollywood job was as a stunt woman and the fight choreographer who hired me was a man named Pat Johnson, and he’s very, very well known. He did all the “Ninja Turtles”, all the “Karate Kids” and he was also the captain of the Chuck Norris team. He did “Mortal Kombat”… “Batman & Robin”, he did everything. He’s like my adoptive dad through the stunt world. Even though he gets so much more money on his usual projects, I can always ask him to come and help me. He did my short film, which was about a boxer, and he came out to London and he trained and choreographed them and it was great.

CS: How did the two of you research the fighting style used by the firms?
Alexander: Well, I knew it. I showed him these undercover documentaries that were made about hooliganism and when you see that… Here’s the difference between a Hollywood fight scene or any kind of film fight scene versus what needs to happen here. Like in a film, a hand always comes straight, but when you really see a fight, it’s never beautiful. Because it’s not perfect, you have to focus on making it very imperfect. At the same time, you can’t just let actors hit each other, so you have to choreograph the imperfection, which really becomes an art.

CS: The whole movie builds up to this epic battle that reminded me of something out of “Braveheart” or “Excalibur.” Did you happen to watch any of those movies before making this?
Alexander: No, I don’t even remember the scenes in “Braveheart.” I looked at this film and it had five major fight scenes, and each fight scene had to be shown in a different way. First of all, it had gotten longer and more extreme, but in the first two acts of the film until the end of the second act, it had to be seductive, and I knew that audiences would go “Oh, my God! What are they showing? They’re going to have people all over America starting firms.” I needed to show why these guys get into this world, and why this is such a rush. So each of these fight scenes was different and I really wanted it to be a bit stylized, almost like a Coca-Cola commercial where you’re like “this is cool” and then BAM! Look what happens. That last fight scene to me needed to be about ugliness and pain. There’s these great shots of these guys looking around and basically saying “What the f*ck are we doing?” and that’s what it was all about. It just breaks your heart, because you wanted to take each one of them and give them a hug and take them out of there. That’s what I wanted.

CS: In regards to the British setting for the film, how were you able to get access to the football stadiums and tube stations?
Alexander: We were real guerilla filmmakers. I was really proud of that. We only had $5.5 million dollars, which at the time, was only $2.8 million pounds, which in London, the most expensive city in the world and has no interest in supporting filmmakers whatsoever. We had 31 days, and we hauled @$$, man. I was supposed to not get the stadium, and I heard that we weren’t going to get it, but I’m not one who takes “no” for an answer really lightly. We might not have really told them the entire truth. Actually, what I did was I played the girl. I’d go in with the real nice girl clothes and say “Do I look like somebody who would make a violent film?” It was a bit scammy.

CS: Once you decided to do this in England, where did you find the guys to play the other members of the firms?
Alexander: We had a really great casting director, this guy Des Hamilton who was in London. Once I had my stars–Charlie Humman, Elijah Wood and Claire Forlani—I went to England and I started this process and it was amazing because these actors, they had these raw talents. They all studied. For them, it’s like a profession. It’s not like the California actor dude, who’s all “I’m good looking”. They religiously eat, drink and breathe acting and they go to school and nobody comes in unprepared for their auditions, nobody is late. It’s unbelievable. That really was the shock of my life, to see the difference between American actors and English actors.

CS: It’s amazing that they’re all trained actors, because they seemed like maybe you just found some street thugs to be in your movie.
Alexander: Well, that’s because they’re good. Some of them lived that life obviously. It’s London and a lot of these boys grew up in South or East London, so for some of them, it wasn’t a big stretch, but others, had never been to a football game. They were just really good actors.

Green Street Hooligans opens in select cities on September 9, so take your whole gang (of friends) to see it.