1 February 2012

An Interview with Silver Tongues' Simon Arthur

Silver Tongues follows Gerry and Joan, a couple driving across America, who regularly assume different identities for their own amusement. Their manipulative encounters with the other characters are both disturbing and enigmatic. It stars veteran character actor Lee Tergesen, best known for Oz and Generation Kill, and Broadway actress Enid Graham, featured in Margot at The Wedding and Boardwalk Empire. Both excel in these roles, with Graham balancing callousness with a certain fragility, whilst Tergesen exudes a bullying, perverse masculinity.

It has been almost exactly a year since it premiered at Slamdance festival, where it won the audience award, and it's finally coming home, showing at the Glasgow Film Festival on the 18th and 19th of February. There are also screenings at festivals in Vilnius, Dublin and Belgrade in the coming months.

I caught up with the film's writer-director Simon Arthur, and asked him about the ideas which helped the gestation of his debut feature:

“The idea came from a research project: I was working as a screenwriter and had felt that I didn't understand enough about people and society, so when I started a script which involved some prison scenes I also began working as a prison guard for about 3 months. I learned a lot from the experience in terms of dialogue and character. The next year I worked in a brothel for three months, and a couple of years after that I lived homeless in parks and construction sites around London for a month. I had to exaggerate parts of my personality in order to fit into those worlds, but I felt that the people I met were also changing theirs and wearing different masks in order to survive in different situations. Prostitutes have fake names and personalities in order to draw clients in, but also in order to separate themselves from the job; convicts create various identities for different prison situations. I became very interested in the idea that people could change their identities, becoming a different person each day, and what would motivate them to do it. How much would they have to hate their lives in order to do that?”

“What Gerry and Joan do is very abnormal, but anyone could do it - they are essentially ruining people's lives within the confines of the law, employing the tactics of con-artists, and letting the other characters hang themselves with their own failings and prejudices. Our lives are often about performance - whether speaking to bosses, children, lovers or friends we assume the mask that best fits the situation.”

The film itself has shifted identities, conceived in Scotland and completed in America:

“I originally shot the nursing home sequence in Dalkeith in Scotland, hoping to get funding to shoot the whole film in Scotland, but I was unsuccessful in securing funding and couldn't get a proper producer on board. I ended up going to The Screen Academy of Scotland (where he shot the short, Rebel Song). When I moved to the US in 2007 and got together with my producer Jared we decided it was the most financially feasible of my scripts to develop as a debut feature. So we shot the whole thing again in New York.”

Another British filmmaker who has left the UK's industry for the wider possibilities offered by its American counterpart, Arthur laments the lack of investment opportunities available for British filmmakers, especially after the demise of the UK Film Council:

“I was very sad to see that happen: unlike some other regional screen bodies they had been doing a decent job and making very good films. Steve McQueen's Hunger is a perfect example of a film that couldn't have been made in the US, the sort of film that needs arts funding. I think it's one of the best British films to be made in a while. They were turning a profit and it was a political decision by the Tories to shut it down as a precursor to cuts in health and education. Arts had to best the first to feel the axe, it didn't matter if they were successful or not. The filmmaking and theatrical traditions in the UK will mean that there will always be films produced, it's just a question of whether they'll be properly funded and whether they'll get proper distribution. The films will get made one way or another, and I think the New York independent scene - where people go out and shoot no-budget films - is something that the British film industry could learn from. Sacrifice the budget but not the story - it has never been easier to make a film on-the-cheap. One of my inspirations to move to New York was a film about an arranged marriage in an Brooklyn orthodox jewish community called Arranged. It was made for $100 000, a figure which would have put it under the radar of many of the UK funding bodies. It was a good film that played at a lot of festivals and helped the filmmakers go on to bigger things. Of the films that I've played with recently at festivals, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a good example of a low budget movies that's played at a lot of festivals like Cannes, San Sebastian, Sundance, and has done really well. There's a whole slew of American indie films that are made on much smaller budgets than UK funding bodies would consider.”

The Film Festival circuit has introduced Arthur to many other indie filmmakers:

“It's always good to meet people who are going through the same shit, almost surreal. It becomes a smaller community, you often meet the same filmmakers because you start at the same point and do a lot of the same festivals together. I've been sending script ideas back and forth with my friend Hossein Keshavarz, an Iranian filmmaker who made a film called Dogsweat, and also with Clay Liford who made a film called Wuss.”

He's full of admiration for newly emerging indie talent, including
Glasgow-based filmmaker, Zam Salim whose Up There also screens at
Glasgow Film Festival on February 24th. ‘Prairie Love’, ‘Stranger
Things’, ‘Fanny Annie and Danny’, ‘Without’, ‘Everyday Sunshine’ and
‘Natural Selection’ also get honourable mentions.

Film festivals also connected Arthur with composer Enis Rotthoff, who created the score for Silver Tongues:

“We met at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007. He sent me
his portfolio, we talked a lot about music and kept in touch. Working
on the score was difficult given our different locations (Rotthoff is
Berlin-based). He had a budget for the score, but he wasn't really
getting paid - he put everything in to hiring some good musicians and
making the best score possible. I'm very happy with it, it's probably
the thing people talk about the most, after the performances (it is a
very actor-heavy film), so for people to talk about the score is a
great thing. For me it's like the characters, elusive, ambiguous and
dark. You never know where it's going and it's often surprising. Enis
and I have a great relationship- we pushed each other very hard, and
are both very proud of the work.”

Despite the relief of completing a project which has taken around 5
years to come to fruition, selling a dark and ambiguous film like
Silver Tongues has been a challenge:

“How do you make money in independent cinema? The short answer is: you
don't. The back end doesn't produce much money at all, although we had
some tax credit from New York State. Most filmmakers supplement their
income with commercials, industrial video work, writing for the
studios or TV. It's very difficult and is becoming more so. In terms
of distribution, Virgil films (Restrepo, Supersize Me) are handling
Silver Tongues for DVD and Video On Demand, so it will be available on
iTunes and Netflix, and K5 are selling it internationally for
theatrical release. They're taking it to the Berlin Film Market in
February, so we'll know then if it will attain a theatrical release in

Arthur is also developing 4 scripts for future production:

“One is based on interviews I made around Cairo and Tahir Square during the Egyptian revolution during its less-dangerous phase, but it's hard to get something like that funded, unfortunately. Another is about white trash homeless teens hopping trains across the US - it's a recession movie which sees them travel against a backdrop of foreclosed and abandoned towns. The third centres on a badly bullied school kid who decides to try infiltrate the 'cool crowd', and turn them against each other: destroy them from the inside-out - A Fistful of Dollars if it had been set at an American high school. The last is a domestic drama about an American soldier trapped in a house with an Iraqi family. I can't give away too many plot details there, it would spoil it“

For more information check out the interview Arthur and Tergesen gave at Silver Tongue's premiere:

Silver Tongues at Slamdance Film Festival:

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