Jamie Thraves: Going for broke
The director of 'Treacle Jr' tells Trevor Johnston about the risky business of low-budget indie cinema
Fear can make you do some crazy things. Remortgaging your house to the tune of 20 grand so you can make a film – an independent British film – has to go down as some pretty crazy stuff. Yet here’s writer-director Jamie Thraves talking as if ploughing his own money into the frisky little comedy-drama that is ‘Treacle Jr’ was an act of utterly implacable logic.
‘It was really do or die. I felt like I had no choice,’ says the man whose low-fi twentysomething Dalston romance ‘The Low Down’ remains beloved by a coterie of astute cinephiles since its release way back in 2000. ‘I’d got to the point where I felt that, rightly or wrongly, if I wrote another script, no matter how good it was, it wouldn’t get funded in the UK. I was disillusioned and scared, but I refused to let that be the end of it. The only thing I could think of doing was funding a film myself.’
This was two years ago, after Thraves had just poured five years of his life into a moody Patricia Highsmith adaptation ‘The Cry of the Owl’, a larger-budgeted co-production than the aforementioned admired debut. Whatever its merits, the finished result never made it into cinemas. In less than a decade, Thraves was in danger of going from hot young talent to ‘Jamie who?’.
On the face of it, the fact Thraves somehow made his movie for £30,000 and has managed to get it into cinemas should be an inspirational paradigm of success for all aspiring moviemakers. The saga, however, hasn’t been quite that simple, and is indicative instead of the sometimes fractured relationship between production, distribution and exhibition on these shores.
First off, ‘Treacle Jr’ itself is certainly endearing and well worth your time. Not the least of its charms is Aidan Gillen’s awards-calibre turn as a motormouth nutter who proves an unlikely yet big-hearted ally as co-star Tom Fisher hits a mid-life panic attack. Fisher's husband and father flees the pressures of domesticity only to find himself homeless and clueless on the streets of south-east London. Gillen, of course, was memorable as the risk-averse, unsettled protagonist in ‘The Low Down’, a spot-on portrait of youthful uncertainties. The actor’s ongoing friendship with Thraves threw up the key characterisation (based on a real Dubliner, apparently) from which the new film took shape – the script honed by comments from a raft of industry insiders Thraves shared it with, then further refined through acting workshops. ‘It’s a simple story, in a way,’ reflects Thraves, who’s quick to praise his producer and his wife for their support through what’s been a seriously stressful process. ‘But it was all about energy, and I think the film’s really got a bit of heart.’
Given that Thraves could only pay the cast and crew their bus fares and lunch each day, ‘Treacle Jr’ is certainly the product of much good faith and generosity, yet finding anyone else to believe in the end result brought but more anxiety. ‘It was a liberating experience making the film, but afterwards we just felt like total outsiders,’ recalls Thraves who couldn’t get a British distributor to take a punt on ‘Treacle Jr’, even after it came away from the Dinard British Film Festival with a share of the Golden Hitchcock.
Enter unexpected salvation in the form of Clare Binns, programmer for Picturehouse Cinemas, whose roster includes a sizeable proportion of the UK’s arthouse screens, and who watched their DVD screener after producer Rob Small buttonholed her at the Electric Cinema’s centenary do. When the disc got stuck 56 minutes in, others would have harrumphed and tossed it aside, but Binns says she was struck by the film’s ‘warmth and humanity – a rarity when there are so many bad British films out there’. She made Thraves an unusual offer of week-long slots at the Clapham and Greenwich Picturehouse cinemas come what may – plus help printing posters – knowing this might then persuade a distributor to come on board.
It worked. Indefatigable indie stalwart Soda Pictures signed up ‘Treacle Jr’ as the latest in their New British Cinema Quarterly initiative, where it acts as facilitator for a UK-wide touring programme where film and filmmakers meet audiences in a series of one-off Q&A-boosted screenings designed to generate interest for further bookings. ‘It’s about trying to get people into the habit of watching British independent films,’ says Soda’s managing director Ed Fletcher.
A happy ending then? Only time and the box office will tell, but it’s fair to say that Thraves remains ‘philosophical’ about the whole rollercoaster ride. ‘Yes, it’s re-energised my career, so it’s paid off in that respect. But I’ve never been so broke. I’m up to my neck in debt and we had to move out of our house. I’d love to inspire other filmmakers, but there are pitfalls. We had a tight script and a great actor and we made a film for very little money – but we still needed a fair amount of luck to actually get it seen.'
Read our review of 'Treacle Jr'
Author: Trevor Johnston
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