Interview: Cosmo Jarvis on 'The Naughty Room'
The musician and filmmaker tells Gabriel Tate about his touching, funny micro-budget feature debut
When filmmaker and singer-songwriter Cosmo Jarvis heard his work described by Brian Eno as ‘a turning point in popular culture’ on R4’s ‘Today’, he reacted with commendable sang froid. ‘I’m astounded he said that and it’s very nice of him, but you can’t have your head turned by that stuff.’ Jarvis is Eno’s kind of artist: restless. idiosyncratic and versatile, a man who has operated on the fringes of the mainstream for quite a while. The highlight of the 22-year-old’s prodigous musical output – three albums and over 400 songs to date – has been his catchy plea for tolerance, ‘Gay Pirates’, a YouTube smash championed by Stephen Fry but banned by R1 playlist for using the phrase ‘gang rape’. But his first feature, which he wrote, cast, directed, shot, edited and scored, could just be his ticket to the big time.
‘The Naughty Room’ is a beautifully judged balance of foul-mouthed whimsy and genuine tragedy, telling the tale of a 20-year-old slacker (David Egan) living with his mum and lost in a fug of partying and drugs years after the death of his father. A discarded wank-sock brings him into contact with a neighbour he never knew he had: Todd (Jarvis, again!), for years kept indoors by his mother for an indiscretion only revealed later in the film. Over time the pair’s bond deepens and redemption beckons. It’s a strikingly individual vision, a little naive (the narratives dovetail a touch too conveniently, and the voiceover is overused), but beguilingly put together and performed by an amateur cast and crew, all on a budget of only £8,000.
‘Things didn’t got to plan at all and the learning curve was huge,’ says Jarvis. ‘I asked my grandma if we could film in her place, so she fucked off to her bedroom while the crew shot in her flat. It was just asking for favours and taking shortcuts, really. The hardest part was finding two women [to play the mothers]: one was a friend’s mother who’d done a drama course, so she filmed on weekends. The other had just done pantomimes. But I didn’t need De Niro, just people who could make it feel real.’
His achievement is all the more impressive for the amount of trust required, both from the actors in a rookie director and from Jarvis in allowing them the space to handle such personal material.
Jarvis’s parents separated acrimoniously when he was nine, and ‘The Naughty Room’ deals explicitly with issues of communication, grief and parenting. ‘The take on relationships between parents and children is something I wouldn’t have arrived at without my upbringing,’ he agrees. ‘Everything I do draws on that to some extent. Everyone starts to see their parents more as human beings with flaws as they get older, it’s just that I found out early on. Sometimes you have to sever these emotional bonds, just as you have to find something good in something you may have written off.’
It’s hard to imagine Jarvis being written off after this airs. His next film, about a metal band, is on to its second draft. He’s hoping for more funding and will surely get it. If he’s concerned that more money might see the dilution of this unique new voice in British filmmaking, Jarvis isn’t showing it: ‘I’ll make it even if i’ve only got a hundred quid.’
‘The Naughty Room’, Monday August 20, 10pm, BBC4