Writer-director Rupert Jones talks to Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens about his debut feature film Kaleidoscope. Starring his brother Toby Jones, the psychological thriller sees a mild-mannered ex-con’s life turned upside down when his estranged mother shows up following a death in his apartment.
Sometimes it’s a bonus working with someone you know so well. For writer-director Rupert Jones and brother, actor Toby Jones, the “nine to five” relationship, during the few occasions it has occurred, has been a harmonious one. This time around it needed to be. The stresses of bringing a film to life with constraints to time and budget put further pressure on this creative duo, particularly because it marked Rupert’s debut as a feature film director.
The film is Kaleidoscope. It’s Hitchcock does kitchen sink by way of David Lynch; a psychological thriller with serious mummy issues. Toby Jones plays the gentle, mild-mannered but unsympathetic Carl, a recent guest of her majesty’s prisons. His efforts to go straight are suddenly scuppered by the reappearance of his domineering mum (Anne Reid) after a date with a young woman goes horribly awry.
The beguiling narrative plays with audience perception as Rupert Jones drip-feeds us the clues to a puzzle waiting to be unlocked within Carl’s mind. Its sobering depiction of mental instability is made increasingly potent by the director’s subtle stylish flair and the emotional resonance of the performances. Reid is especially good, her Best Performance in a British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival for her work here is indicative of that.
I wondered from what dark regions of the mind such nightmarish journeys are birthed but as it turns out, Rupert is none the wiser. “I’m never sure where ideas come from,” he tells me. “This began with the notion of a man who wakes to find a dead body in his bathroom and with no memory of how it got there. Everything came from that, really. How did the body get there? And what to do now? The next big idea, I suppose, was the notion that the man’s mother would be the quasi detective of the piece.”
Before Kaleidoscope came along, Rupert always assumed he’d be a maker of comedies (“I particularly like Laurel and Hardy”) but highlights a number of directors who have influenced him, notably Lynch, Bresson, Ozu, Polanski and Haneke, whose various quirks and cinematic fetishes can be seen imprinted to various degrees on Rupert’s effort here.
Yet, Hitchcock stands out. Such a mention is flattering says the writer-director. “The challenge of holding the audience in a state of suspense was something I was really interested in from a craft point of view. As a writer, I wanted to engineer a story that worked in that way, I was interested in that kind of structure. I watched a number of his films, as I was writing, so I guess it was a conscious influence, though I couldn’t name any particular film or aspect.”
It helps having such a talented cast. “I couldn’t have been luckier with the casting. It’s a cliché, but if you get the casting right, you’re most of the way there. I think Anne [Reid] relished playing against the kind of role we might usually associate with her.”
Rupert describes his approach as being one that allows actors to “own” their character. That clearly pays off in the performances. “In my experience, actors are very keen to know facts about characters, to be given enough to allow them to somehow ‘own’ the character.
“I think it’s important to give the actor ownership of the character, rather than it be something they’re trying to second guess all the time. I like to think that I’m finding things at the same time as the actor. While I’m quite specific in what I’m after, there may be different ways of realising it.”
And by working with his brother, whose stellar performances have previously lit up films including Dad’s Army, Marvellous, Berberian Sound Studio and Infamous in which he played Truman Capote, the pair were able to channel a sibling shorthand to get the most out of the character.
“Given that it was such a quick shoot, there isn’t much time for anything outside the work and I think we’re both professionally minded, which is to say there for the same reason – to realise the script.
“The character of Carl is not necessarily a sympathetic one on the page. What Toby brought is a sense of vulnerability to him. While some have categorised the film as horror, I think of it more as a tragedy. And, as ever, Toby brought his usual attention to detail. You don’t always see how much an actor is doing until you replay it in the edit.”
While it helped having him on set, Rupert credits the efforts of the entire cast and crew. “Bringing the script to life is a fun and collaborative process. The problems and challenges that each scene brings are what actors and directors most enjoy trying to solve.”
That extends to the writer-director’s choice of setting and his aesthetic nuances. But given the budget, it was a case of waiting to see what would be available. “I only really got an idea of how I wanted to shoot it when the producer, Matt Wilkinson, asked me if I wanted to build it. I love building sets. Given our budget I wasn’t sure this would be possible. Luckily, we were able to re-purpose someone else’s set which allowed us to build pretty much what I’d sketched out. I think [production designer] Adrian Smith did a fantastic job.”
I ask how the final cut compares to the original vision when it was only on the page. “I find it hard to measure the difference between what I had in my head and the end result. Once other people become involved, the film starts to manifest before you and, as the director, you’re attempting to preserve its spirit, as it were. Its soul, you might say.
“You’re still writing the film, still trying to work out what you’ve made, right up to the end of the post production process. Only then, when you start watching it with different audiences, do you start to glimpse what you’ve created. I feel we’ve successfully brought the relationships to life.”
Kaleidoscope is released theatrically in the UK from November 10.