A Suffolk man on the mean streets - with Sir Michael Caine

A hard-hitting film about life on Britain's inner-city streets opens this weekend starring national treasure Sir Michael Caine.

Andrew Clarke

A hard-hitting film about life on Britain's inner-city streets opens this weekend starring national treasure Sir Michael Caine. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found that sitting behind the camera was Suffolk man Daniel Barber.

Eighteen months ago Suffolk-based film director Daniel Barber thought that life couldn't get very much better.

The former commercials director had just finished his first short film, a western called The Tonto Woman. Not only were people saying nice things about the movie but the project turned out to be more than a calling card or a training film, The Tonto Woman found itself on the Oscar short-list for 2008.

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Daniel, who lives in Wattisfield, near Bury St Edmunds, said that although his film didn't win the Best Short Film category, it impressed enough people to land him his first job directing a fully-fledged feature film.

The film, released this weekend, is Harry Brown and stars Sir Michael Caine, who delivers a masterly performance. The film was also accorded the honour of a West End premiere this week at London's showcase cinema The Odeon, Leicester Square - complete with red carpet, starlets and paparazzi.

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Daniel confesses that it is still all a little overwhelming but he is incredibly proud of the film and grateful for the help and support that Michael Caine gave him and the film.

“Michael was an amazing man. He is a legend but he is so professional and generous with his time and he is totally dedicated to the film. But, I am really grateful because he let me direct. He didn't try and take control even though he was a huge star and I was a new director working on my first feature film.”

He said that at the beginning it was rather unnerving to work with someone who he had watched up on the cinema screen ever since he was a child. But Michael soon put him at his ease.

“I was brought up on films like Zulu, The Italian Job and then was introduced to Get Carter when I was a little bit older. He has made endless films… films like Educating Rita - amazing stuff - and I was terrified when I went into work for the first time but I soon got over it because he is so disarmingly down-to-earth and we got on like a house-on-fire.”

He said that one of the things that really impressed him was the fact that Michael Caine was happy to wander round the streets of The Elephant and Castle in London and just talk to people.

“He cares desperately about this country and its people. He grew up on those streets and I watched him just walking around, talking to people, passing the time of day, answering their questions. He never, ever turned anyone away or told them to go away. He was terrific, always very approachable.”

The film is rather more hard-hitting than Michael's easy-going real-life nature. Daniel designed it as an alarming wake-up call to British society. He said he didn't want it to be a violent vigilante movie with nothing to say, he said that he wanted it to reflect the very real nature of Britain's increasingly mean streets.

“I hope people will see the film as a real wake up call. Our streets are becoming increasingly dangerous simply because there are a lot of people out there who are becoming increasingly disenfranchised.

“The gulf between the haves and the have nots is increasing. The educational and job opportunities for certain groups of people are rapidly disappearing and the people from areas like The Elephant and Castle, particularly the young people, are looking around and wondering why can't they have some of life's luxuries and opportunities, and so they turn to crime to get it.

“We sjot on our film on the streets of the Elephant and Castle, the very streets where Michael grew up, and we employed these kids to work as extras on the film and let me tell you they ain't stupid. They know what's what. What I found interesting was they asked Michael how he got out, how he was able to change his situation. He looked at them straight in the eye and said: 2Very carefully”. They appreciated not only the humour but the truth of what he said. There's no, one easy answer but it is a huge problem which is only going to get worse.

“I think if our MPs weren't so busy feathering their own nests then they would be concerned about the scale of the problem that we are building up for ourselves. Hopefully the film may sound some alarm bells before it is too late.”

Michael Caine plays a retired Royal Marines commando who is rather wearily resigned to the lawless nature of the inner-city streets until his close friend Leonard, played by David Bradley, is tormented and killed by a street gang.

Grieving, he decides that something must be done and can see no other option but to put his commando training to good use and take the law into his own hands.

His effectiveness is counterpointed by Emily Mortimer, as the local police detective, who, although her heart is in the right place, is increasingly hamstrung by rules and regulations.

Daniel said that the success of The Tonto Woman led him to Michael Caine and Michael introduced him to Harry Brown.

“When Kris Thykier, the producer, told me that they were going to show Michael Caine my film (The Tonto Woman) I could believe it. I couldn't believe that Michael Caine, one of the world's greatest film stars, was going to sit down and watch my little film.

“Then we met up in Scott's - a fish restaurant in Mayfair - we sat down and he said: 'I really like your short film, it's a wonderful film, I want to work with you, young man.' I was gob-smacked. I sat there in a state of shock. He said: 'I've got this film Harry Brown. I think you would be perfect as the director and it went from there.”

He said working with Michael brought him face to face with the consummate professional - a man who cared passionately about his work and would never accept second best.

“For him the film came first - that was what it was all about. Before I started work I thought about the films he had done and who he had worked with and I suddenly got rather nervous, so I just had to dismiss it from my mind.

“I still remember that first day of shooting; me walking up to Michael Caine and saying: 'Michael, this is what I want you to do' and being amazed that not only did he listen to me but actually wanted to hear what I wanted say.”

He said that during the course of shooting, the film was enhanced by the fact that the whole cast and crew got the feeling that they were making something special.

“Michael knew that he had a great part, right from the beginning, it was written that way, but just because the part is good doesn't necessarily mean that the whole film is good, particularly if I, or other members of the crew, don't do our jobs to the very best of our ability.

“What we found was that a bond developed, we believed in this film, we believed in what the film was trying to say and we and the film gained strength from that. It had a passion about it.”

He said once they realised that, it was easier not to be intimated by the Michael Caine persona. “As he and I discussed many times, it's great that he is Michael Caine and he brings an awful lot to the film but the film is not about Michael Caine, it's about Harry Brown and the world in which he inhabits.”

He said that he saw it as his job to encourage and cajole Michael into finding the character of Harry Brown and let Harry Brown dominate the film and not Michael Caine.

Daniel, who cut his directing teeth in the world of commercials and advertising, is following in the footsteps of such illustrious film directors as Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson and Alan Parker, who all made the leap from art school to advertising to film-making.

Daniel says that the disciplines aren't as different as an outsider would expect. Film and advertising are both visual languages, both are about communicating information, telling a story and creating emotion and an atmosphere.

And both need to connect to an audience to work.

He said that he has been so busy with the publicity and the launch of the film that he hasn't really had time to seriously consider his next movie.

“It's not something I am going to rush into. I am very aware that I don't want to be regarded as a one hit wonder, so it's very important what the next film is and that we take just as much care over that as we have over this film.”

He said that the one thing that has touched him about the publicity campaign are the supportive comments Michael has made about him.

“One thing you learn very quickly working with Michael is that not only does he not suffer fools gladly, he doesn't suffer them at all, - and he always says what he means.

“He has said something lovely things about me in various interviews and that reaffirms my belief that we have become good friends over the weeks and months it has taken to make this film. If he didn't take to you he would say nothing. I am chuffed about that - if only for my Mum and Dad and my missus - who think it's great that I get to work with Michael Caine.

“My sister phoned me the other day having heard Michael Caine on Capital Radio talking about the film and what she found most amusing was the fact that he kept referring to me as a young British director but he's 76 now, so perhaps I am young but I am pleased because I have been able to give him a really good part in a meaningful film.

“I am aware that he has been in some terrible films but I didn't want this to be one of them. I wanted to make this, one of his best and judging from the feedback from critics and audiences this is one of the films that he will be remembered for.

“I didn't want to make this as a mindless piece of entertainment. It's about striking a balance. It's not your typical date movie - it's a film with something to say and hopefully people will respond to that.”

Harry Brown is on release from this weekend.

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