Ben Wheatley’s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead lands on BBC2 at 10.30pm on December 30, before going onto iPlayer right afterwards, where it will be available to watch for a whole year.
The new film from the director of Free Fire and High-Rise reunites Wheatley with his Kill List lead Neil Maskell, in the story of one man’s mission to bring his estranged family together for a New Year’s knees-up. It’s a very British affair, combining a comedy of manners with soap-style drama, and even some political discussion.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is one of the first fiction films to openly discuss Brexit, which made us wonder, how does title star Maskell feel about the subject?
“Well, obviously it’s been an enormous success so far,” Maskell laughs as he tells Yahoo Movies UK. “And I hope we continue to build on the result we’ve had (laughs), this strong pound that we’ve got…”
“I mean, put it this way, it’s probably best I don’t get started. My son’s Belgian and my partner’s Belgian and it’s not even that, before I met Sura I would have voted for Remain. I just hope someone, one of these morons, is getting what they wanted out of all this.”
“Not your Machiavellian Rees-Mogg’s and all that, who just want to give billionaires in Singapore more money, but the people who, to use their words, think we’re ‘taking back some sort of control…’ I hope the control they’re getting is teaching them f****ing something. But as I say, it’s best I don’t get started, as it sends me into a murderous rage (laughs).”
Discussing the brilliant Colin Burstead doesn’t get Maskell quite as angry, as we discovered during our illuminating chat about everything from collaborating with Wheatley, to Maskell’s memories of working on Nil By Mouth, to his thoughts on some of the year’s best films. You can read the full conversation below.
Yahoo Movies UK: Ben Wheatley said that the idea for the film came because he wanted to work with you again. How did you feel when you found that out, and what did you talk about in the early stages of the project?
Neil Maskell: Well, we first spoke about it when he was casting High-Rise and he went to see Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus, and he said: ‘I was watching it, and thinking I could do a distilled version of this.’ His original idea was to do it at an Essex barbecue. He wanted to called it ‘Colin, You Anus,’ and it would be about a contemporary bloke who’s a bit rubbish.
He wanted me to do it, but Ben has these ideas that might take a long time to gestate or come to fruition, so, yeah. But not long after that, he had a version that he sent across, but when he’s off doing Free Fire and High-Rise and stuff like that, I don’t expect him to come back to material like this, I expect him to go on making bigger and bigger films.
But all of a sudden, he sprung it – ‘Do you want to do Colin in January,’ and I said ‘Yeah, obviously.’ He wanted to cast Sura (Dohnke), who’s my partner in real life, and he knew what kind of level of actor she is, which is colossal. He asked ‘Are you happy for her to play your wife?’ Because she’d just had Marvin, our little boy, and we said ‘Yeah, I’m sure we can find a way to work that out.’ We thought it would be amazing for us to be a family on film, we’d have that for the archive.
And very quickly we were down in Weymouth doing it. I’m really happy we got the chance to work together again, but we’re constantly in contact about various things, even now there’s ideas for projects. We’re collaborating – though that might be too bold a word for it – constantly.
I saw you in a Random Acts short recently…
Little Monster, directed by Charlotte Regan. She’s f****ing special, that girl.
I thought you incredible in it, it made me realise you’re one of our best actors – how much credit do you give to Ben for changing your career, because obviously Kill List was such a turning point for you.
That’s lovely, I’ve so glad you’ve seen Little Monster, and thank you for saying that, because I’m very proud of that.
Ben gets very… He doesn’t take compliments very well, and he doesn’t like it when I talk about the impact he’s had on my career and my life. But there’s nothing about my life that isn’t better as a result of Ben’s belief in me, in writing that film. If I go into detail, I get emotional.
I’m sure they tried to make him cast that film with all sorts of well-known actors who hadn’t done stuff that was as limited in tone as my work in the past, and we weren’t even that close at that point, he just thought I could do it. Casting directors who wouldn’t see me for smaller roles were seeing me for lead roles two weeks after that film came out.
This is an industry which is almost entirely led by profile, by who’s the most famous person. That makes sense, people go to see films because Brad Pitt’s in it, not because Neil f****ing Maskell’s in it, but when Ben’s making projects that don’t need as much box office back quite so quickly, the fact that he gets behind you is flattering, and life-changing.
I’m glad that a role like this came along that continues to showcase your work.
That’s very kind of you mate, but I need to say that, honestly, some of the very, very best actors I’ve ever known, people whose boots I don’t feel fit to lace, leave the business every year, because they can’t get arrested.
So much withers on the vine and dies because it’s not recognised, because of the nature of our game. I could very, very easily be like that, so honestly, I do appreciate you saying that positive stuff, because I know that, I see my good fortune, I really do. I see being seen by Ben and being written for by Ben as being almost a miracle, really, because so much talent goes to waste.
What can you tell us about the TV show that’s spun off from the film?
Only that Ben’s told me that Shane Allen, who I was with at Channel 4 on a show called The Mimic, which Shane oversaw, that he wants to do six more, and Ben thinks there’s legs in it.
Ben’s so fast, the way he works – he’s so prolific, he is one of those people who can work at that pace.
What are your memories of working on Gary Oldman’s directorial debut Nil By Mouth? That’s a masterpiece.
It’s one of the best films ever made in this country, I’d say. I was there for three nights, my part was very small in it. I was 19 when we were doing it, and I was so overwhelmed by – not just working with Gary Oldman, but Steve Sweeney. He was a hero to all of us.
I went to Anna Scher’s when I was a kid, it was like an evening class for young actors who were from similar backgrounds, and that guy was a hero, and he was playing my mate in the scene. My memory of it now was that I wasn’t really engaged in what I was supposed to be doing! I was just star-struck, by Steve as much as Gary.
It was great, it was very loose. We were shooting on the Old Kent Road for three nights, it was all night shoots. I accidentally put my foot through the launderette window during rehearsals, it was an actual window, it wasn’t sugar-glass or anything. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the most responsible thing to be doing, but anyway, it was that period of time and it was Gary Oldman – if he’d asked me to jump through that window I would have done it.
What I do remember is that a big portion of people at the unit base thought ‘This is a mess, this is a crazy project, the script changes every day, we keep getting new stuff, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, this is some actor at the helm…’
And I’m sure they burned money in a way that they wouldn’t if they didn’t have money to burn, but when I went to see it, at 11 o’clock in the morning two years later, it’s as you say, it’s a f****ing masterpiece.
What might have appeared rudderless to people who had a bit of distance from it, he obviously had an idea of what he was doing and what kind of work he was attempting to create that led to that. I was enormously proud, and it’s a good first film to have on your CV, because I was actually in The Krays, but only as an extra, so luckily it’s not on the CV [laughs].
I met Gary again at the Empire Awards when Kill List was nominated at the same time Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was up for a load of stuff, and I went over to say, ‘look, thanks and I’m still doing it.’ And he goes ‘Schmuddie!’ Which was my character’s name. And I was like ‘Yeah, yeah yeah. We’re up for something tonight, thanks for the gig.’ And he was very generous of spirit, it was a nice full circle.
Colin Burstead is one of the first British movies to discuss Brexit, what are your feelings on that topic?
Well, obviously it’s been an enormous success so far (laughs) and I hope we continue to build on the result we’ve had (laughs), this strong pound that we’ve got… I mean, put it this way, it’s probably best I don’t get started. My son’s Belgian and my partner’s Belgian and it’s not even that, before I met Sura I would have voted for remain. I just hope someone, one of these morons, is getting what they wanted out of all this.
Not your Machiavellian Rees-Mogg’s and all that, who just want to give billionaires in Singapore more money, but the people who, to use their words, who think we’re ‘taking back some sort of control…’ I hope the control they’re getting is teaching them f****ing something. But as I say, it’s best I don’t get started, as it sends me into a murderous rage (laughs).
It’s good that it’s mentioned in the film though, there hasn’t been that much discussion of Brexit in British cinema…
British film is quiet, isn’t it? There’s a lot of American filmmaking going on in this country.
Weirdly, I think a lot of the tax breaks being offered by these posh hooligans to film companies might increase filmmaking. Not that I think any of that is worth it, but they’re going to have to do something aren’t they? Because we are f****ed.
But they won’t be British films, and the truth is it’s very hard to get British films financed, and therefore Brexit isn’t being discussed that much, as it isn’t that important to the rest of the world. Particularly not America.
Though it is surprising to me how little Trump is discussed, even in the most political work coming out of the US at the moment. I went to see Boots Riley’s film, Sorry To Bother You…
It’s amazing isn’t it?
Great! Brilliant. And this isn’t a criticism of that film, but there isn’t a lot of Trump discussion in American film, not that I’ve seen. Not even in artier stuff, I saw Leave No Trace, which I loved. Maybe because [the Trump situation is] so viscerally, obviously wrong (laughs).
You want to direct, what kind of stories would you like to explore?
I’d like to explore a lot of stories, generally to get to grips with people’s actual situations and lives, while not losing the drama, entertainment value and humour.
I’m as much interested in doing any kind of story, making it in a particular way, with a particular ethos, which comes from Ben, which goes back to Cassavetes and people like that, in a collaborative open way, saying ‘This is the starting point, this is the narrative we want to tell – what can everyone bring to that to change it in a way that would have been unimaginable to me at the beginning?’ that’s what I’d like to do.
You mentioned Leave No Trace, when I spoke to Debra Granik at the start of the year she said she’s influenced by Cassavetes…
Really? God, that was great that film, wasn’t it? When she says at the end ‘What’s wrong with you isn’t what’s wrong with me.’ Ah!
To distill something that’s so outside of most people’s experience – they live in this park, they survive, whatever – to every person’s relationship with their parents into one line of dialogue between two people… It catches me in the throat even now thinking about it. I just thought it was perfect, just beautiful that film.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead will screen on BBC2 on 10.30pm on Dec 30th and then be on iPlayer for a year.
The soundtrack by Clint Mansell is available now via Invada Records.