Alex Moreland talks to director Christopher N. Rowley…
So, first of all: I’d like to ask you how you got into directing in the first place.
Christopher N. Rowley: I… my father was an engineer and he has a company that does aquatic engineering around the world. I fell into that, and we started marketing to clients in Asia, and I made a film to speak to them; the process of making that film was what lit that fire, and as a result of that I went to film school in California.
I’ve got your IMDb page open here, to track your career – did you find that, working your way up through second unit director, art director, and now actually directing, that these skills were transferable? How did the different tasks compare?
CR: Well, my educational background is architecture and business; when I went into this, a lot of people said “what are you doing, this doesn’t make any sense”, but to me it made perfect sense, because the business side gave me a production understanding, and how there’s creativity in business. The architecture side obviously fuelled the production side of the projects. And I love people, and working with people, so that helps in understanding the psychology of the characters.
That’s interesting that you say that, that there was that initial confusion from your friends and family and so on. Did you ever have moments of doubt yourself?
CR: I mean, when the lights went on, I was determined to do it. Some friends who were already very comfortable in the entertainment business said “Absolutely not, you do not want to do this, you don’t want to go down this road, it’s a nightmare”.
But I stuck to it, and it was a long haul between Bonneville and Molly Moon, it took a long time to get things going, but I really do love it. There were times during the film when I felt that I’ll never do this again, but the magic always resurfaces, and you get behind another project that you love.
That’s what happened with Molly Moon – I read the books, and I thought this is great, you know? That sort of ugly duckling, underdog story – stories that I love – and tracking Molly’s journey from being an orphan that the world is frowning on, and then despite all odds she wins. That’s the story that I was drawn to.
It is definitely a great archetype, yeah. Now, with Molly Moon, you also wrote the screenplay?
CR: Yeah, I worked with Georgie [Byng, who wrote the original novel the movie adapts] on the screenplay.
Could you tell us a little bit about this process? Having written it and then directing it, how did it influence your approach?
CR: To me, I would always want to be involved in the writing, whether I’m the screenwriter or not, as thoroughly as possible, just because I’d have a certain vision, and I would want to be as close to that as possible. What was great about Molly Moon was to work with Georgie; all of these characters were born in her mind.
So we went down the road, and things had to change – we couldn’t have a train, we had to have a bus, or we couldn’t go to New York, we had to go to London – I had Georgie right there with me, to say yes we can do this but I’m fine with it, because I’d hate to take a book away from someone, write what I thought was important, and then present it on film, because I think the creator of the story should always be part of that process.
Did you find it particularly frustrating when those production problems presented themselves?
CR: It’s part of the game; I mean, to me, production will always presents things – the camera will break, or it will rain, or we’ll lose the location at the last minute. By the time the ball is rolling and we’re in production, it’s like getting on a sled in the snow and going down the hill – you just go for it. Whatever happens, if you lose an actor, in my mind it’s all for a reason; something better’s coming along, it’s not, for the most part, always what happens. And you know, sometimes things outside of what you expect can make it a better film.
Anything like that spring to mind on Molly Moon?
CR: Uhm… One thing that we couldn’t control was the kids, and how they interacted with each other – that was always a concern. We cast Molly and Rocky first, and it was important that they had a bond; we found Jaden and Raffey [Cassidy, who plays Molly Moon] and that was, to me, a perfect match. Then you have all these other kids, and you don’t know how that’s going to meld together. In our early rehearsals, they bonded really quickly – for some of them, it was their first feature film, and they all looked after each other and became a little family. We found that yesterday, at our first screening, where you could see how happy they all were to be together again. So, that was unexpected and nice.
You’ve got, in this movie, quite an impressive cast – Celia Imrie, Joan Collins, Ben Miller – so what was it like directing them all?
CR: It was wonderful – these are all people that I admire and look up to. It was a tremendous opportunity. And, also, again with Raffey – Raffey I directed as I would an adult. She takes direction wonderfully, she gives her own two cents, she absorbs all this information. Each one of these actors, Celia and Leslie and on and on, commented about how wonderful it was to work with a child who was so present in the process.
Did you find that you changed your style of directing when dealing with child actors, against the more experienced actors? Did you need to be more hands on?
CR: Yeah, it is a different… it’s simpler to direct a seasoned actor, because with a few key words they pick up on where you want to go. With the kids it’s a crapshoot, even when the camera’s rolling, because they don’t all retain the same information. For the smallest children, you want to keep that sense of play, and make them feel safe; don’t confuse them with too much, and pray that’s it’s gonna work on screen. The big scenes around the dining table in Molly Moon, that was a lot to deal with at once, and they did a great job.
I suppose this is perhaps a bit delicate – how did you feel about the critical response to Molly Moon when it was released in the States?
CR: I mean it was such a small release… I actually haven’t read any of the reviews. It had almost nothing of a life over there. I gathered that people saw it as episodic, I understand that – it’s hard when you have a book, and you don’t want to go too far away from where things are.
The best thing for me is to actually be in the screenings with the kids; we had a great screening at the Toronto film festival, and there were about a thousand kids there, and to see that response, that’s what I was going for. You know, to make the kids happy, to get the message to the kids and the parents – it seems to be doing that, and that’s what I wanted it to do.
Well, that’s the most important thing in the end, isn’t it?
CR: Yeah. It’s not a Pixar film, it’s not a Marvel film – it’s it’s own little thing, and hopefully it’ll find its place in the world.
I know it’s part of a series of books – are you hoping to be able to tackle some of the future ones?
CR: I know that Georgie has been working through a screenplay for the next one, but I;m not sure what’s next. We could move into television, it could be another film, we’re not really sure – we’re watching what happens with this one, and that will determine the future.
Have you done any television before?
CR: No, I haven’t, but I have a few series I’m pitching right now, so hopefully the next time we talk…
Would you be able to tell us a little bit about those series, or is that all top secret at the minute?
CR: One is a political drama that takes place in Washington DC, which is different from House of Cards and other dramas that we’ve seen, so I’m excited about that. Another is a story about a mother whose child is misdiagnosed and on pharmaceuticals, so tries to commit suicide unsuccessfully.
And so, a mother in Southern California becomes a reluctant activist, and in the process is branded a domestic terrorist by the pharmaceutical company, because they don’t need any bad press because they’re about to undergo a giant merger, and so she ends up thrown in prison, and being ‘disappeared’ by a whistle blower support group organisation. She’s in hiding for the entire series, trying to seek revenge.
I would definitely watch that.
CR: I would too, I’m excited about it. That’ll head out into the world, I think in the early part of next year.
Well, we’ll have to do another interview then!
CR: Absolutely, absolutely.
On a final note, then: if there was one thing that you wanted someone to take away from your body of work, what would it be?
CR: Never give up.
That is an excellent note to close on!
Massive thanks to Christopher N. Rowley for taking the time to speak with us.