TIFF Preview: From the Set of Pusher


It put Drive director Nicolas Winding-Refn on the Euro talent map, spawned two sequels and a Bollywood version. Now Pusher has been relocated from Denmark’s Copenhagen to London’s East End for its long-in-development English language remake. Remarkably as edgy, exciting and explosive as the 1996 cult classic, executive producer Winding-Refn chose writer Matthew Read (Hammer of the Gods) to adapt his screenplay that once more focuses on a small-time drug dealer descending into debt hell following a spot of busted bad luck and a series of bad choices. The more desperate his behavior gets the more isolated he becomes as he tries to avoid the death threats of the gangster who supplied him with the gear and is expecting his money back in two days time. Starring Grabbers lead Richard Coyle as Frank, supermodel-turned-actress Agyness Deyn playing his girlfriend Flo, rising Brit actor Bronson Webb as his best friend Tony and Zlatko Buric, reprising his role as crime boss Milo the Mediterranean from the original movie, Pusher is directed by short film award-winner Luis Prieto who calls his take on the stylish material, “’Goodfellas’ in the East End.”

“There was no way I was going to direct it,” remarked Winding-Refn. “Déjà-vu and all that, especially as they landed the same Milo. I told producer Rupert Preston I didn’t want to be too involved as a new director had to come in and make it his own while essentially staying true to the central core of the story, which is the fight for Frank’s soul. I saw Luis’ short film work and liked it a lot and the only advice I gave him was just to go ahead and shoot it the way he wanted.”

Shot on location in London for five weeks during Summer 2011, I followed the production for a couple of days as the opening nightclub scenes were being filmed in the basement of the hip Hoxton bar, Electricity Showrooms. It was there Luis Prieto added, “I feel we’ve created our own fresh ambience and not just copied the hundreds of other movies about seedy London gangsters and their involvement in the drug trade. Nicolas’ original was more about the situation, the rich characters and their complicated relationships, so it was vital I continued on that path while being as gritty and realistic in my own way. I’m sure I was chosen to direct based on the fact that I’m a Spanish guy, living in Italy, working in Great Britain and could bring a diverse atmosphere to the table.”

Winding-Refn is famous for shooting his Pusher in sequence, but that wasn’t possible schedule-wise for Prieto. “Way too problematic,” he noted. “It meant that Richard Coyle had to keep looking at the monitor all the time just so he knew where he was exactly in the dramatic arc. He’s never done that before because he hates watching himself act, but there was no other option because he’s in every single scene. Richard was the perfect Frank because no matter what the character does he always keeps the audience on his side.”

“I do like to wear my characters,” pointed out Richard Coyle, “But Frank has taken me to new places I’ve never explored before and I haven’t been able to get rid of him as ‘Cut’ is called at the end of the day.” The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time star continued, “It was Luis who told me not to watch the original film so I deliberately made the choice to stay away and not be influenced by how Kim Bodnia played Frank. So I just read the script and realized it was about this guy trying to stop his life falling off a cliff, drugs was the least of it, Frank is unraveling and trapped in a lifestyle he just has to escape from. Frank is a very contained person. I circled all the moments in the script where he is on his own because that’s when you see the real him. My job was to mark the difference between the man acting a part on London’s mean streets and the panicked stillness of his own persona. I wanted the important bits to leak out at the right moment.”

He added, “I don’t like to judge any character. That’s up to the audience and I put whatever I really feel to one side. If I had a view on his actions I couldn’t have played Frank with as much reality as possible. Frank is a tragic figure, almost Shakespearean, what he does is reprehensible and I understand that. He’s not just a psycho losing the plot. He’s lashing out at things beyond his control like his rage and desperation. He’s a man who’s elsewhere, his eyes aren’t present and he’s lost in a nightmare scenario he didn’t want to get stuck in.”

Agyness Deyn also took the decision not to watch the original film as she explained. “I wanted to make my own choices and watching it would have been counter-productive to that. Frank’s girlfriend Flo is a different character from that portrayed in the first film. I cracked her open after rehearsing my stripper routines with a dance trainer. I’m such a tomboy in real life so getting connected to my sexy side – my femininity – was a breakthrough. I felt liberated and free, angelic and fragile. For Flo uses her stripping as a release from her addiction and I understood that empowering escape.”

Pusher represents a major step forward for Deyn’s acting career after appearing in some shorts and playing Aphrodite in Clash of the Titans. She remarked, “I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up but when I started acting it was like something triggered in me. I realized I wanted to communicate the human condition to people. I saw Flo in those terms. She loves Frank so much she’ll do anything for him, sell drugs, even wear the lingerie he buys her as a present, despite that being boring for someone who wears all that stuff to work. Intimacy is the most terrifying thing in the world to Flo but even as she faces rejection after rejection, it’s the search for true love that drives her.”

She added, “Luis picked me out of the audition line-up without knowing my modeling history. I originally read for the part of (drug mule) Danaka (played by Daisy Lewis) on tape as I was out of the UK. Luis liked me and asked me to read for Flo instead. With his guidance he got me in line with his vision and I found it very nurturing. Luis is a romantic at heart and that’s what I feel he has done with ‘Pusher,’ knocked off the harder edges to craft his own fable. Whereas other directors might just have copied Nicolas to the letter, Luis hasn’t been so spot-on, what would be the point of that?”

Unlike Coyle and Deyn, Bronson Webb did watch the original film. “Yes, I broke the golden rule,” laughed the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides actor who plays sidekick Tony. “But in my defense I had watched it already in the past when the DVD box set trilogy first came out. I’m more happy-go-lucky as a character than Mads Mikkelsen’s Tonny. Okay, I’m a bit mean sometimes, but there’s no dark side to him at all, what you see is what you get with my version. He just loves being around Frank and the free drugs and girls that come with the high life. In many ways Frank looks at me and sees his younger self, naïve, hopeful and open.”

Two hours after he auditioned for the first time, Webb was called up by director Prieto and told he had the part. “Apparently I was exactly what they were looking for,” he said shyly. “Soon after that Richard and I were in rehearsals to work on the friendship angles to make it totally believable. We filled in our backgrounds, did lots of improvisation and that continued throughout the shooting. We’d often play for a minute after each line, spinning it off into something fresh to keep the characters immediate. It was a terrific way of working especially when you have someone like Richard to play off. Tony looks up to Frank and its that warmth that proves so devastating in the long run as Frank’s actions make him lose the one thing left he had to cling on to. In pursuing these artistic routes hopefully we have made something as iconic as the Winding-Refn classic.”

Luis Prieto concluded, “The violence is as full-on, the fighting is scrappy, not choreographed, we aren’t hiding anything or hiding behind anything. I’m less interested in seeing the blood flow as the intense emotions but I think that’s what will set my ‘Pusher’ apart. I want it to be as heartbreaking as it is hard-hitting, a shock to the system. That has been my ultimate goal all long.”

Pusher will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday, September 7.

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