Interview: J Blakeson on the Ambiguity and Trickiness of ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’

By  · Published on August 26th, 2010

The Disappearance of Alice Creed easily could’ve been a disaster. The film mostly takes place in one location with a total of three characters. If not done right or in an over-the-top manor, it could’ve landed with a thud. The three leads are also characters that could, arguably, be labeled as nothing but despicable. Spending ninety minutes with characters you cant stand or find morally reprehensible is a turn off for most, but fine performances definitely help there.

This is film that poses more questions than it does answers. Most details are left for one’s imagination, making it all the more fun. That’s what J Blakeson wanted with Alice Creed: ambiguity. Blakeson also wants this to be a film that actually surprises you, which is a type of film we don’t get to see too often.

Check below to see what J Blakeson has to say about his directorial debut which is now available on VOD:

Note: Heavy spoilers are discussed.

To start off, how difficult was it selling the film? It’s not exactly easy to describe.

The thing was I never pitched it, but I wrote it on spec. It’s a hard one to tell people about and I’d never tell people about it, I’d just send them the script. We had a teaser line, which was basically a reference of other films and it’d say it’s a tough kidnap thriller like, Reservoir Dogs and Michael Haneke. It was just to tease people a bit and not saying specifically what it was about. In a way, I’d just say it’s a kidnap film, but even saying that is a spoiler. Even the title has a spoiler; you know she’s going to get kidnapped (laughs). So it was more a case of them just reading the script. Lots of people read it and liked it, but a lot of people turned it down. Thankfully, we got picked up.

So the material itself made it a bit harder to sell? Certain aspects are a bit risky.

Well, it’s not risky because it was quite a cheap film. You can see on the page it’s a cheap film with just three actors and it taking place in one room, most of the time. For some people it was too small and they couldn’t justify a budget. It was really hard getting financing, but right up until the moment when CinemaNX picked it up. We couldn’t get any financing, but then overnight we got one hundred percent financing. It wasn’t like I sold it to a producer and went out to try to get money for it, I sold it to a financier and then went down the road with producers making it.

A film that takes place in practically one location and with just three characters could easily be a disaster. When you started writing the script, I’m sure you knew that, but was there anything you told yourself not to do or to do to make sure it worked?

Well, my main thing was not to make it like a stage play. I wanted to keep it as visual as possible. That’s one of the reasons why there’s no dialog for the first ten minutes, I did that for two reasons. One, I wanted to show with that it wasn’t going to be a stage play and that it was going to be a film. Two, once I got three characters in one room together I was going to have to rely on dialog quite a bit. For the midsection of the film I wanted it to play out as set pieces sequences like a suspense thriller, but how do you do that when you’re basically one room? Things like having the bullet on the floor and making that into a suspense scene. And just having face offs and just constant power struggle.

In the final film there’s more dialog than there was in the script. It was never really reliant on dialog, outside a couple of scenes. It was always meant to be these sequences where everything changes in each sequence. For when the gun goes off, to when the bullet is on the floor, or for when there’s a big reveal. At the end of each sequence the whole story should keep turning on its axis. When you got no money the only real thing you have is story, and you better make sure the story works. That was my main thing and I knew I was going to have no money to make it. I knew I was going to make it in my own apartment, so the story had to be as interesting as possible (laughs).

For the stage analogy, a lot of filmmakers in this situation probably would have the impulse to make certain aspects more theatric or over-the-top. Here, it’s very low key. Was it important to you to keep the film as grounded as possible for that reason?

Well, there’s some of that. With the performances, that’s the only thing I care about when it comes to realism. The rest of the film, like the camera moves, the design, and even the story, that wasn’t the case. If you just take two steps back from the story and paraphrase what it’s actually about, it’s slightly ridiculous. But when you’re in the moment, it should be absolutely believable. A lot of English films are very naturalistic with shaky cam and grain, but I wanted this to be very colorful and very cinematic. So that’s where that came from, but with the actors I wanted them to be entirely believable.

I was very lucky to get three astounding actors to do the film, and they made it easier to keep the film grounded. What cinema has over theater is that I choose what you look at it, but in theater you can look all over the stage and see the reactions, rather than the person acting. I’m in control of what you look at it. You can bring a lot of power to it the way theater cant.

A lot of the power comes from the aftermath of the violence more than the violence itself, and there’s not a whole lot it. Are you surprised by how violent people say the film is?

Oh, absolutely. There’s actually not a lot of violence, but I think the threat of violence is there throughout the film in the characters. But there’s actually not much violence, but they do manhandle her and there’s some punctures like the gunshot. People remember it as violent, but it’s not. In real life a small amount of violence is terrifying, so I wanted to make it a bit like that. Violence is brutal and shocking no matter how big it is. Someone running being shot at by two guys with AK-47’s is extremely shocking, and so is someone getting punched on the nose.

I’d say how proficient Danny and Vic are is even more frightening than the violence. They’re not idiots. What made you wanna not go with showing just rookie amateurs?

It really irritates me in films when bad guys are stupid. It’s their job. Being in prison means they failed at some point, but I hate it in films where plans fall apart, especially if it’s a good plan. I’ve always been a big fan of Michael Mann’s Heat, because they really plan everything out and they’re smarter than the police. For me, making idiotic psychopathic bad guys, which is usually the case in movies, isn’t as frightening as someone who’s very calm and efficient.

Watching these people going to places you recognize like a hardware store, buying a bed at a furniture shop, or going to the grocery store, these are very normal everyday places and they look like normal day people doing normal things. But when they all add up it’s something quite horrible. I wanted to make it quite mundane. The fact that they stop to eat sandwiches and food breaks, they’re calm and it’s their job to be good criminals. Their plan is undone not because they’re not good at their jobs, but because they’re not very good at their personal lives.

The setup for the kidnapping just throws you right in, as well. There’s no hour-long setup or flashbacks, what made you want to just start off immediately with the kidnapping?

The reveals in the film are basically just what I haven’t shown you so far. I’ve seen so many films and read so many scripts where the first ten pages are just crammed with exposition. It’s just people on-screen telling you what you need to know about the characters: their backgrounds, their personal life, their love life, and their work life. I really didn’t want to do that and I wanted to throw the audience into the deep end, and let them play catchup. You know, audiences are extremely smart and throwing them into the deep end is fine.

They’ll be asking questions, which is great, but my intention was when they started asking questions they’d make up assumptions from the genre and what they expect. They would think they’d know what was going on because they’ve seen this type of movie before and they think they know who these characters are. You sort of assume one of the duo is a focused ex-con and the other is the young twitchy guy, who’s probably going to do something wrong. And you know the woman is this helpless, screaming, rich girl. You assume they’re going to do something absolutely horrible to her, but when they don’t do that it becomes a different film. They just want her for the money.

The audience is already a bit lost at sea because they don’t know what’s going on, and hopefully for the rest of the film they can’t guess what’s going to happen next until the very end. Anything can happen in this film. From the beginning I wanted to have that very ambiguity, even with the way it’s shot. You don’t know who’s the exact bad guy. While Alice’s name is in the title, you don’t see her face until about twenty minutes in and she doesn’t have a proper line of dialog, as well. You’re not sure who is the protagonist and it keeps switching from one character to another.

I really didn’t want to give the audience anything to hang their hats on. Even with the music and the way we shot it we didn’t want to tell the audience who the good or bad guys are, or what to think. I just wanted to show them what’s going on and let them make their own decisions. I think a lot of people haven’t liked that about the film (laughs), but I’m quite pleased by the fact you don’t know who the good guy is. When you get to know Alice she’s not a particularly nice person, either. She’s not the perfect person. Usually when someone is in peril the audience always wants them to be the good guy, but then they turn out not to be so nice. She’s a bit of a spoiled brat.

Do you really think she is a spoiled or bad person, though? You know a bit about her rich dad, but she acts pretty much like anyone else would for most of the film.

I mean, I think she’s also incredibly brave. She fights back in the film and is feisty, but it was also important that she wasn’t a charity worker (laughs). She’s obviously a rich girl, who’s been hanging out with this guy from the wrong side of the street. She’s obviously playing something she’s not and flirts with the bad guy, and goes against her father. You don’t get a huge amount of her character in the film, aside from her true character, but not her whole background.

There’s hints that, if you met her in real life she’s probably someone that tromps on people and lives a rich life, but doesn’t have a proper job. So it is important to me that the character was both good and bad. What the kidnappers do is a horrible, horrible thing, but by the end of the film you understand why Vic is doing it and you sort of feel sorry for him.

The final moment with Vic is actually kind of sad.

(laughs) Yeah. A lot of that goes to Eddie [Marsan]. When you meet Eddie, he’s just someone with so much humanity in his face. He can be scary with his eyes and he’s kind of like a pit bull. It’s hard not to feel warm to him when his eyes are shining with tears. He’s just a phenomenal actor, and I’m very grateful he agreed to do it.

I like how Vic, and both Danny and Alice, start off a bit like stereotypes. But as the film goes on they really start to unravel…

To be polite and a bit more brutal about it, they’d be archetypes. With a kidnap movie you know the rules of the game. You know what’s going to happen in this type of film. There are two bad guys and there’s a victim. You’ve seen these characters hundreds of times, so you really understand them and I presented them to you that way at the beginning of the film. It’s completely on purpose. When you make these assumptions about them and reveal things about them, those reveals work. If I had done the film telling you everything about these characters the film would just be watching them go about their business.

When I watch the first ten minutes of a film, more or less, I know what’s going to happen at the end of the film nine out of ten times. In this one the idea was that after seventy minutes of the film you still had no idea what was going to happen. Anything could happen. Setting up those archetypes makes you think you know what film you’re in, but then it turns into something else. They’re just interested in money and not torturing her, but then you realize it’s not just about the money and it’s something else. It was a way of making the audience feel like they’re comfortable, but then showing them something different.

Vic and Danny’s relationship is completely ambiguous for most of the film. What was the decision behind not presenting their relationship upfront?

It’s about midway into the film you find out. If you watch it a second time I think you can figure out what’s going on. I think audiences are trying to figure out their relationship right from the beginning. Are they father and son? Is it his uncle and nephew? You’re not quite sure what’s going on, but when you watch it the second time there are little hints as to what’s going on, especially the opening montage. Obviously, the actors knew and they’re playing for that reveal before it comes. Even after the reveal you still don’t know how the power in that relationship works. You don’t know who’s in control, and even by the end of the film you still don’t quite know.

The moment where Vic puts on Danny’s tie for him is definitely a big indicator.

Yeah, yeah. And when they’re getting changed they’re very comfortable changing in front of each other. It hints maybe that they were in prison, so they’re comfortable. There’s also where they’re eating dinner it’s very domestic, but twisted domestic. They both dress the same, too. It’s just this very odd, off kilter tone to what’s going on with them. You just don’t get an idea of who’s in command.

How did you come up with the idea of Danny and Vic dying by each other’s hands? There’s something very Shakespearean about that.

I think when there are two people and one gun, one of them is going to die. But it’s a nice trick that they both die in the same way. I like the idea that Vic kills Danny first, but Danny still gets to kill Vic. Danny gets the slow death and Vic gets the quick death. I think that has to do with their power dynamic, as well. Danny just wont die, and Vic dies almost immediately.

It’s almost like the two bad guys knocking each other out. When there’s money on the table and there’s only two people, of course they’re going to kill each other for it when they’re desperate. The whole film is kind of a Mexican standoff going off between the three characters, but with one gun. Vic is using his emotions and Danny’s got a weapon. At the end of the film, their weapons switch. You know, Vic’s weapon doesn’t work on Danny, while Danny’s works on Vic.

Do you think Danny actually had a plan throughout the film, or was just playing it by ear?

Me and Martin [Compston] talked a lot about this. Obviously, Martin is playing the role, so he had to know what he was thinking (laughs). I don’t really think there’s a solid answer to that, but I think he knew he was going to getaway with the money. Ideally, he’d probably choose who he thought was the best, which you’ll have to make your pick.

Martin said to me while filming that he doesn’t think Danny is a guy who thinks five minutes towards the future. Danny thinks of money as his goal, but he doesn’t have a plan to get it. But he’s a very fast talker, so he can get out of a jam and get through the next five minutes. He trusts himself that in five minutes time he’ll be able to get himself out of the next problem. His plan is he’ll be able to get out of the next five minutes and manage to get the money.

My last question, and the big one, do you think Alice keeps the money at the end?

That’s not really for me to say (laughs). You know, I think there’s a bit of a clue in how the title comes on the screen at the end of the film, but it’s one of those questions left to be answered by people watching the film. It’s for them to make their own, so make your own mind up.

What interpretation have you heard the most?

I think most people just say what they would do, and I think most people would take the money. It depends on the relationship you have with your family, but I think most people would take it.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.