Screen talks to the veteran director about the challenges of shooting Singularity and looking ahead to forthcoming films including The Archbishop And The Antichrist.
Roland Joffé calculates the budget for his Australia and India-set time travel romantic adventure Singularity at around $35m. The project, produced through Paul Breuls’ Antwerp-based production, sales and tax shelter specialist Corsan, has had a lengthy and complex gestation.
News filtered back from the set of the production facing financial problems and of crew members downing tools as they waited to be paid. In early February, the Australian press carried reports that one of the companies behind the film, which is a UK-Australian co-production, had gone into administration. Nonetheless, Breuls now says Singularity should be ready for the autumn festivals. All that remains is to shoot a few re-takes at Pinewood over the summer.
“I like independent producers, I like independent financing. It’s a very, very healthy thing that the industry has that but a movie of this size throws a big strain on a company like Corsan,” Joffé states of Breuls’ outfit (which was behind Lee Tamahori’s Devil’s Double.) “I never anticipated it would be incredibly smooth sailing!”
For the Oscar-nominated Joffé, a veteran of such complicated Goldcrest-backed epics as The Killing Fields and The Mission, such turmoil simply comes with the territory.
“Making a movie is a bit like going into war. It just is. You have to plan your campaign. You hope it is going to go in X direction and sometimes it goes in Y…every day you make a film is a test of character. You don’t know what is going to be thrown up.” he says. Filmmaking, he also suggests, is “a voyage of discovery…you can’t be risk averse in doing it.”
Chaos and creativity, Joffé reflects on the Goldcrest era, often go side by side. “In a strange way, if you’re not frightened of the chaos and you let the chaos exist and you flow with the chaos and use what the chaos if offering, you can achieve quite creative things. The relative chaos in Goldcrest - and it was relative (these were very smart people) - came from the fact that they all had very distinct creative energies and these energies were bound to be difficult to hold in equilibrium.”
Singularity, which Joffé himself wrote, explores what happens to a marine archaeologist who is left brain dead after a dangerous dive to save his wife while exploring an 18th century merchant ship wreckage. In his coma, he is whisked back to the India of the late 1770s. The screenplay was partially inspired by Joffe’s interest in quantum physics. “What we consider to be rational may be a very limited view of the way the universe works.” He talks of the human need for poetry “in our lives. The reduction of our lives to the purely material has been driving us to a strange insanity in which we’re beginning to devalue everything.”
Joffé enthuses about his crew and cast of Singularity (led by Josh Hartnett, Bipasha Basu and Neve Campbell) and about the way they all “mucked in.”
Shooting in rural India clearly presented enormous challenges. “For me, the beauty of that experience was the way the crew stuck together, no matter how tough it was. We were doing six day weeks and working extremely hard. There was a warmth and affection in the crew that got us over those problems.”
The problems weren’t just with the cash flow. There were occasions when Joffé and his collaborators had negotiated for months to use a location or set. “And on the night before we were due to shoot the next day as a night shoot, we’d be told we couldn’t shoot at night.” This meant the filmmakers often had to switch locations at only a few hours’ notice.
Joffé says he took the disruption in his stride.
“I think it was a tough shoot but it wasn’t destructively tough. It was, in a strange way, inventively tough and inventively interesting…it was very, very tough but in retrospect it was also beautiful.”
Referring to his work with such different actors as the classically trained Jeremy Irons and the ‘method’ driven Robert De Niro on The Mission, Joffé describes the director’s role as being “part psychotherapist, part physiotherapist and part butler. You’re making people feel comfortable, telling them where to hang their hats and coats.”
David Puttnam gave Joffé his chance to direct The Killing Fields, his debut feature. “I think he understood that I was loyal to the concept of the movie, that it wasn’t a Roland Joffé trip…David I think felt that I thought it was part of my job was to facilitate the production.”
It is a point of principle for Joffé (a former stage director who also directed episodes of Coronation Street for Granada) to try to stick to a budget. “My job is to say how do I make this dollar work for the movie, how do I stretch it and wrap it around as many things as I can. With a producer who respects that, you get a very good and strong partnership.”
While he puts the finishing touches to Singularity, Joffé is pushing ahead with further projects of his own through his company Lightmotive, among them The Archbishop And The Antichrist (in which Forest Whitaker is expected to play Desmond Tutu), thriller In God We Trust, and a drama about spy and femme fatale Mata Hari. Whatever the challenges along the way in making Singularity, Joffé makes it clear he has no regrets at all about taking on a job he calls “a grand adventure.”
“All in all,” he insists, “it has been an incredibly creative experience.”