The comedian turned film director talks about his debut feature Huge, which had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival and stars Noel Clarke, Johnny Harris and Thandie Newton.
Ben Miller’s Huge started life as a play about a struggling comedy double act, which he co-wrote with Simon Godley and Jez Butterworth and performed for the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 1992. Nearly 20 years later, Miller, who is best known for being one half of UK TV comedy duo Armstrong And Miller, makes his feature directorial debut with the film version.
Tell us about the film.
It’s a buddy movie about two comedians. Bits of its DNA are in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Stir Crazy, but 75% of its DNA is in Withnail and I. In the film, these two no hopers end up together on the stage in the comedy club one night and get a taste of possibly what is the most potent drug of all..other people’s laughter. I’ve spent my whole life chasing that feeling. I love making people laugh.
Have you always had aspirations to be a film director?
I’ve always been excited by the idea of making a film. I’ve been in lots of films, which is an enormous pleasure, particularly when I get to have creative imput. But you don’t get to make something that touches you, often you are trying to help someone else realise their creative urge.
Acting is often more interpretative than creative. I wanted to do something that was creative, that you could make something. Something about films, you watch them in the dark, images on the screen, you watch with other people in what can sometimes be an unpleasant environment. You wouldn’t sit in that room if the film wasn’t on. There must be something we all really crave in that experience.
What was the biggest challenge during the shoot?
It is set in a series of different comedy clubs, and that was the hardest thing to do on film, because while film isn’t a spontaneous medium, comedy really is. You can’t recreate a funny moment, so we had to do that brave thing where you shoot in one take and get the audiences’ reaction in that one take. Technically it was extremely challenging, and probably the thing I’m most pleased about. In the end, the solution wasn’t that complicated - it was just, shoot with masses of cameras and make sure we’ve got everything.
We had amazing sound design on the film, we spent a lot of time recreating the sound of a comedy club so that when you are watching the film, you experience the laughter like you do in a club, so that felt really real. That is real laughter, recorded in a club with real comedians.
How have you found the transition from theatre to TV to the film world?
I am very privileged because I work in a subset of real TV, high quality TV, so the experience is exactly the same, it is about honouring whatever it is you want to do, and doing whatever it takes to get it to work.
But still, film is a completely different medium to TV or theatre. I didn’t want it to look like TV, or like a film of a play, or even worse, a TV film of a play. With film, you expect to be there, but you don’t necessarily want the event in the frame. You approach it with a different language, I did a lot of preparation, the whole movie was storyboarded before we shot.
Was it easy to get Thandie Newton and Noel Clarke on board?
I really wanted Thandie to play the part, because I had written it for her. But she read the script, and she said she didn’t quite get what I was doing, and I listened to what she said and went and did a complete rewrite, with the help of an amazing script editor, Jay Basu, based on some stuff that Thandie had said. And then I phoned Thandie and said this is a different film, she read it and loved it. It was very 11th hour..but probably everything is.
I wrote all the parts for specific people, but with Noel it was pure luck. Noel ended up getting involved when we were in the final few weeks before the movie. It is a hard part to cast, and I am so massively fussy, as you can imagine. But I wanted non comedians for the main parts, because I didn’t want the audience to have any opinion as to whether they were any good or not. And also I thought the poster would look good. Noel Clarke in an Afro and big glasses, that’s going to sell tickets, right?
Were you tempted to go down the “studio” route?
I had been working on this big romantic comedy with some big stars in it, one of those multi million dollar things, big glossy thing, I had co written the film, set to direct it, but it ended up not happening, so I thought rather than start again, I just wanted to do something where I felt that I could raise the money myself, rather than having to rely on studio money.
And then, I started watching more carefully the films that had been made independently. I saw London to Brighton and was really inspired by it. I ended up asking Johnny Harris, who was in it, to play one of the main parts, and talking to Paul Andrew Williams about how he did it. And he said there is one very simple rule; Set a date. So that is what we did. We set a date to shoot, and once we had a date, we told all the actors agents “we are shooting on this date, it may be shot on video for £50K or it may be shot on film for £1m. I don’t know what’s going to happen, here’s the script, do they want to do it.” And so we got some very honest answers from people, people like to keep their options open, but at least they knew where they stood.