'Closed Circuit' Director John Crowley Says Great Material is Migrating from Film to TV

John Crowley (L) and Eric Bana on the set of Closed Circuit. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)
Irish director John Crowley's new film, Closed Circuit, is a bit of a departure for the filmmaker who brought us the sympathetic Boy A and the ensemble drama Intermission. Closed Circuit is a straight up modern thriller. Starring Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall, the film is immersed in the British legal world as a horrible act of terrorism gives way to the court system in the aftermath. The prime suspect isn't what he seems to be and, more, he was given up by his teen son.

We spoke with Crowley about Closed Circuit and he gave us a fascinating blow by blow of the production process, casting Bana and Hall, as well as offering insight into his influences and what he sees as a decline in film during a rise in television quality.

Zimbio: Closed Circuit reminded me of a modern action film like a Tony Gilroy or a Paul Greengrass movie. Could you talk about constructing the look of the movie?
John Crowley: Well, on one level that's a perceptive comment. I wanted it to lean a little more on the drama than on the action than in some of the Bourne films but, that said, Michael Clayton was a very strong point of discussion in terms of the look and feeling of the film. That was a film I watched several times with Adriano Goldman, our D.P., because I just loved how the film felt and looked and sounded. In lots of ways, as we were going out into the streets of London and looking for locations and, since you mention constructing the look of the film, we wore our film references very lightly and I didn't want it to feel like it was trying to reference other films because i wanted it to feel rooted in a real London.

Looking at a film critically, you rely on those parallels and looking in the past to find out what influences how a filmmaker makes a film today. Do you look at (that kind of thinking) as a negative while making the film or does it help you?
Tough question. There's tension there because, obviously, I look at films all the time, as it were, and when you begin to focus on actually constructing the film you're embarking on making, your viewing becomes more selective and specific to a certain end. All the great thrillers of the '70s— the Kubrick and Sydney Pollock films—are the touchstone for me. But, equally, you know you're going to come off second best in comparison so I don't want to draw attention, that's not the point. In a way, there comes a point where you have to let go of all of that and let your own instinct come into play in responding to the work the actors are doing in this specific context you're in. Which is to say you have to get on and make the film in front of you. That's part of the joy of it for me is, when it dissolves, you don't feel like you're making a "kind of film," it's sort of like your making your film. So I try not to carry an onerous sense of what the demands of the genre are or how many great examples of the genre there are. I would find that a bit emasculating (laughs).

Steven Knight wrote this script, was his involvement what initially got you interested in the film?
No, it was the notion behind the film. It was being written but the description of it made me sit up and pay attention. I'd been looking for a smart adult thriller for a long time and the idea of a film set in the legal world in London really intrigued me. and the notion that it was about a terrorist that got arrested based on a tip by his son I thought was a really intriguing hook. When i read the script there was this relationship woven through it that wasn't part of the original pitch and that made it more interesting. One of the things (Steven) did in the script, which I believe he did in his previous films, which were Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, was to show you a London inside the London you know very well. I live in London and have for 15-16 years and in both of those films I saw a London that was  recognizable and yet totally other to the one I live in. That felt really exciting to me because one of the ambitions of the film was to make a great London film that doesn't feel like a picture postcard version.

Could you talk about casting the film? Were Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall your first choices?
Very close to it, basically. There were a number of conversations and it was difficult to cast Eric's role because there are many wonderful English actors. It was difficult to conceive of somebody who could play a barrister but who could believably be a scholar or a rower of extreme distinction. Somebody who had that kind of physicality and that kind of intellect is a rare combination. I've always been a fan of his work and I thought he'd bring something fresh to the role. I didn't want the film to become mired in a certain kind of English class consciousness. We worked very hard with the casting director to make sure it wasn't all sunny posh voices in there. Rebecca, it was more straightforward because we discussed her very early on in development. She seemed like she would have the absolute right in terms of the emotionality needed for the part, but also the piercing intelligence and the believablility that, at her age, she could be one of the leading advocates in the country. So they were both sent the script very early in the process and became attached very quickly. It wasn't a long casting process at all.

Did you go through rehearsals?
We had one week in February where Eric flew in, Rebecca was in London, and it was before pre-production and we used it as a research week. We sat in on a huge number of the kind of court cases they were dealing with and had chores with members of the legal world. We met a lot of special advocates and then we'd rehearse in the afternoon—just sit and read the script and I'd throw ideas their way. And then they went away with all of that and let it percolate. About two and a half months later they were back in town and shooting and it was invaluable to have a bit of time away from the pressures of pre-production where everyone's a bit panicked and you get an actor for an hour and then they've got to run to a costume fitting, and you know, all of that stuff going on. I really believe in rehearsal as a process.

Who are some filmmakers and what are the films you've admired over the past few years? Who would you like to work with in the future?
There're so many filmmakers that I revere. I think
Paul Thomas Anderson... Derek Cianfrance is a huge talent, my God, he's hugely exciting. I would never miss anything that Michael Haneke does. There are great directors working now and then there are the masters of the '70s—Coppola, Scorsese are great. I don't know if there are any hidden gems in there. I love Nicholas Roeg. I love everything that Danny Boyle makes. The films aren't always perfect but I love the gesture of the films and the energy and his passion and enthusiasm are so infectous.

But I think the thing that saddens me, in a way, about the time that we're making films is perceived to be a slight abdication of the film industry in their responsibility to grown up cinema-goers. I think a lot of intelligent material has migrated to television. Which is great for TV and the material is great I just think it's a shame that a certain kind of loss of nerve in films of the scale and topics like we're trying to make with this one.

Do you attribute that to filmmakers being frustrated with studios? It takes so long to get a movie made and TV is more instant gratification.
I think it's about two things. One, you just follow the money. Studios will always gravitate towards embracing and aggressively trying to develop things they know how to sell and the tricky things are hard to sell from home and why would they? Why would they head to a multiplex when you can have Tivo at home and pause, do all these things, and have a cup of tea when u feel like it. I think that cinema has a different kind of challenge ahead of itself shich is how to retain that audience or bring them back and it's not an art house audience. And yet there's a hunger for it.

Every so often there's a film that reaches that audience and it's not because the marketing people have figured out a clever ploy. It feels like the audience goes, "Ah! This is what we're missing!" And we're finding this is what we want in the film. So the other kinds of films I would really like to be making, which is not to say I dont lke popcorn movies, i love them when they're good. I just dont want to live on them anymore than someone wants to live on popcorn all the time. There's something missing in the ecosystem of the film world. The films I grew up watching on TV were the films in theaters five years earlier which, I fear, are getting thinner and thinner in the ground. But these things are cyclical, maybe things will swing around a little bit. Who could've predicted that TV would ascend in the way it has.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.