Interview: Rowan Joffe Talks ‘Brighton Rock’, ‘The American’, and the Chance to Correct Roger Ebert

By  · Published on August 28th, 2011

Writer-director Rowan Joffe must love to challenge himself. With The American and his feature film debut, an adaptation of Brighton Rock, Joffe tackles the trickiest of characters: internal, cold ones. Like Jack (a.k.a. Mr. Butterfly), Pinkie is a lead that is always at a distance. He will never let anyone in. Everything remains internal.

However, Pinkie is not a sucker for the ladies.

Pinkie is a character that is not sympathetic, or likable, and is most likely insane. The gangster is a walking horror film; unpredictable, and will do anything he deems necessary out of fear. He’s insecure, which makes him a serious threat. This idea is, once again, expressed internally. Jack and Pinkie present their own challenges, both to the man behind the typewriter and the audience.

Here’s what Rowan Joffe had to say about his enigmatic leads, writing a character-driven film versus a plot-driven film, and correcting Roger Ebert:

The American and Brighton Rock focus on very internal characters. How do you go about writing a character like that?

[Laughs] You mean enigmatic characters?

Yes, exactly.

Well, the character of Jack I think is similar to Pinkie, because they have to be careful with what they say. Like Pinkie, he’s committed murder. Actually, that kind of enigmatic quality and guardedness has a dramatic energy in and of itself. If you get it right, it can put an audience on the edge of their seat. They become hyper-sensitive to every clue that character gives away about themselves, and what they’re thinking. In a sense, it’s like a charismatic person talking quietly. If you get it right, then the audience will work a little harder. It can be quite fun to write.

I’d say you get to know more about Pinkie throughout the film as his fear escalates. Did you and Sam [Riley] talk a lot about that idea?

I think you’re on the money, in terms of Pinkie living in fear, and that being his prime motivation. As a literary character, people rarely talk about “fear” in the same breath as Pinkie. They normally talk about evil, which is a very lazy way of describing Pinkie. It probably comes from the automatic reverence that most critics have for Green Catholicism. It’s important to remember that Green may be the distinction between being a Catholic and being a writer. I think what’s primarily, as you said, interesting about Pinkie is his fearfulness. When you’re adapting the book for cinema audiences, I think fear is something an audience can identify, understand, and sympathize with a great deal more than they can with cold-blooded, reptilian evil. That’s probably something that exists far less frequently in reality than it does in popular myth. Yes, fear was central, and Sam and I did talk about that. I tried to agenda in Sam’s Pinkie a constant white heat nervousness. Pinkie is like a shark. He can never stop moving. Hopefully, that makes for an interesting protagonist. He is a villain, but he’s also the hero of the piece. I guess you’d call him an anti-hero.

There’s also this intimidating boyishness to Pinkie, especially with his insecurity. Does he try to overcompensate for his unthreatening appearance?

Absolutely. I first saw Sam on-screen in the first movie he made, Control. I was actually writing The American for Anton Corbijn at the time. One of the reasons that struck me why Sam would make a great Pinkie is that, Pinkie is one of the all time great teenage protagonists, and the teenage facet in the fear you talked about is insecurity. It’s an insecurity that breeds a lot of things. It breeds self-consciousness, and Pinkie is obsessed with what others think of him. Also, it breeds extreme arrogance and contempt. One of the best defenses for insecurity is to feel an overriding contempt for everyone around you.

Structurally, The American and Brighton Rock are very different movies. The former is more character-driven, while Brighton Rock is more plot-driven. Is one form more challenging than the other?

I think you’ve defied the difference between these two [films] very well. Anton and I conceived of The American as a contemporary western. I remember Anton talking about the script for my favorite westerns ever made, which is Once Upon a Time in the West. The story was more about landscape, both the actual landscape and the landscape of the actors’ faces. It was about a particular slow-burn tension. I suppose most westerns are, really, morality plays. Therefore, they have very simple revenge oriented plots. Although revenge is perhaps the catalyst for the murder at the beginning of Brighton Rock ‐ the film is based on a novel, and the novel was inspired by the True Crime stories of the 30s. Those are unlike westerns. Although, they are quite archetypal, and very plot-driven. They are thrillers, and they require a certain degree of chicanery. It is a very different adaptation in that way.

Was the script for The American very sparing?

If memory serves, I delivered the script at around 90 pages, which is certainly quite shorter than the standard. To that extent, it was short. In the words of one of my idols, Tony Gilroy, there was a lot of white on the page. In other words, I wanted to document from the outset to visually show you what kind of movie it was going to be. It was a movie where dialog and stage direction were going to be very sparing. The character himself is sparing, and I wanted that to be reflective in the atmosphere of the movie. I remember Roger Ebert praising Corbijn for the terse dialog, but since when does the director write the dialog? I’m glad you’ve given me the opportunity to set that straight.

Brighton Rock is now in limited release and hits VOD on August 31st.

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