Interview with Abner Pastoll
Writer, director and producer Abner Pastoll has been steeped in cinema his whole life and now his unique take on the medium is being shared with the world. His latest film Road Games (review here)was recently released and he was kind enough to answer some questions via email AND speak with me over the phone. Besides being a wonderfully charming gentleman, he has also crafted a great thriller. Road Games is currently available via VOD.
Your family used to run a two screen cinema. Does this account for your love of film or is there a more specific memory that led you to becoming a film director?
Have you seen Cinema Paradiso? That’s based on my life! Not really, but yes, absolutely it’s because of our cinema, which was in South Africa. I grew up in London but would be out there to visit family every Christmas – which is summer out there – I had 2 summers a year! And I basically grew up watching movies – most of the time I’d watch the same film 3 or 4 times a day at every showing. I’d help sell the tickets, thread the projector and just sit in the theatre all day long. Watching films like Back to the Future made me want to be an actor – I wanted to be Marty McFly!
My dad was really into technology and gadgets and always had bits and pieces hanging around. I just started making lots of little movies, editing them myself either in-camera or on his video8 editing/mixing deck. It wasn’t long until I realized that I much preferred being behind the camera, creating the stories, characters and the visuals. It felt like a natural development. I just kept doing it all through my childhood and teens and never really had any other goal than to be a filmmaker. I wanted to make movies to screen in our theatre. But it wasn’t until the theatre closed down in 1999, due to a new multiplex opening nearby and killing business, that I really thought, “Okay, I really have to make movies properly now” because I didn’t know what else to do with myself.
Was there kind of a different culture thing going back and forth between the two cities? As far as in film? In the sense that, would you see different things between London and Johannesburg and, I assume, that would influence you now.
I never really thought about it that way, but you have a really good point. It’s definitely an influence, because having been mixed between these cultures and never feeling, specifically, that I belonged to either of them, I think actually, that’s probably one of the main influences in my work. It’s very true because I was always sort of out of place, in a sense. It was very interesting, though, to be in the middle of these different environments.
I think it’s probably really good. Maybe not growing up.
Right. Well, my memory of South Africa, I’m sure I met lots of interesting people, buy my memories of South Africa are mostly being inside the cinema, watching movies.
Were they modern films?
We had two screens, so we always had general, new releases on the one main screen and then my uncle would program something more interesting or sometimes an older movie or whatever on the second screen. It was kind of interesting learning his mentality and the perspective of running a business and having to balance not just what he liked, but also what he thought the locals would like or what would make money. So, having that perspective early on was really interesting to me. I remember being really frustrated with him when he wanted to program RoboCop 3. Why the fuck do you want to show this movie? He’s like, “Because there’s a market for it.” As much as I love RoboCop, it’s such an amazing film, by the time it got to RoboCop 3, it just didn’t make any sense.
I’m sure that must come into your life now, though. Do you make concessions sometimes with your work in order to get something to fruition?
Not so much yet. I try to stay true to what I want to do, to the story that I want to tell.
Well, you have a production company?
Yes, that’s right. Based in London. February films.
O.K. So you have a bit more control than the next person.
I have my producing partner and we work really well together. I wouldn’t say I have more control. but I definitely have more of an idea of what it is that I want to do with the material. I listen to other people; it’s not as if I’m a control freak.
Director, Writer and Producer are all a part of your resume. Is there one that you find you specifically gravitate to?
Honestly, I think they all kind of go hand in hand, especially these days – you need to be involved across the board. Directing is the most enjoyable and fulfilling for me, because I’m able to bring things to life in a sense – whether working from my own material or somebody else’s, I love working with actors and creating shots and a general tone and feeling for a film. I learned a lot of my technique as a director and writer from editing, actually. I kind of did it the other way around, because I’d always edit these little movies together and realize how I could change the affect of a moment by switching a shot around or whatever. So whether I’m directing or writing I’m always editing in my head on the spot – for me it really all goes together. That’s not to say I will always be so heavily involved in all those roles, it takes a lot out of you, and it is also great to collaborate with others.
Writing can honestly be like self-torture because so much of it is living inside your head, figuring things out, but once you get through the initial hurdles of an idea, it can be an absolute blast and I thoroughly enjoy creating characters and worlds, it’s really fulfilling to make something, an idea in my head, work on the page. I like the challenge of completing a draft and have written a lot of scripts – some will never get made, but others will for sure; it’s all about the practice and honing your style. The writing never stops through filming and post. I’m always writing and rewriting.
In terms of producing, I certainly do want to be able to facilitate other filmmakers’ visions and help bring their movies to life – because I love movies and love discovering other people’s voices. My producing partner Junyoung Jang is really the producing brains behind me, and we work really well together. I’m always learning so much from her.
Road Games is your second feature length film. Can you shed some light on your inspiration for the story?
I’m just going to clarify something, because there seems to be a lot of confusion over whether Road Games is my debut feature or my second film or whatever. It’s actually my third feature length narrative! Though it is my first solo effort. So it really is my debut in a sense – a properly produced feature co-production between France and UK. A while back, in 2001 and 2003 respectively I made a couple of super-micro-budget features with a bunch of friends, the first was quite experimental and the second was more of a thriller/mystery narrative. They were basically my film school and I got to mess around and make a ton of mistakes to learn from. I was lucky enough they played a couple of festivals and one even got DVD distribution. But I took a step back at that point to redefine my style and focus more on finding a different path, so to speak.
Which brings me to the inspiration for Road Games, which came to me in the summer of 2001, when I was travelling in France. I was staying in a pretty creepy house, filled with odd paintings and mannequin figures. And it was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by farmland and the picturesque landscapes. That was the beginning – I thought it could be an interesting idea to explore a British person lost in a foreign land, feeling so far away yet still being so close to home. France is that perfect place. And the whole French/British divide is fascinating to me. I wanted to utilize cultural divergence within the plot. I wrote the initial idea and story and then totally forgot about it, went on and did other things. It wasn’t until about 7 years later, at the end of 2008, when I was moving apartment and literally just pulled out a drawer – the hard copy I had of the story flew all over the floor. I picked it up and rediscovered the idea; that’s when I started developing it properly into this bigger narrative, focusing on making it a love story yet still within the confines of this mystery/thriller tone and using language in a different way than I had seen in other movies.
Did you always know it was going to have that ending?
No, actually. When I wrote the original idea, it wasn’t even a love story. It was loosely the same ending, but without going into too much of spoiler territory, Jack originally died at the end of the short story.
For various reasons, I changed it. because As I developed the love story, I changed it because I thought it would be more interesting and somehow darker to go the way that we do in the film. So like I say, in the original shot story, it wasn’t a love story.
At the end of the movie, it’s very open. Did you do that thinking there is going to be a sequel or is this a Texas Chainsaw Massacre moment where we can just come up with what we think goes on from here?
I really like to leave things, especially with this project, I like to leave open to interpretation and you can come up with your own theories about what’s going to happen. I have an idea of where the characters would go next, but it’s fascinating to me to hear what other people think will happen That’s not to say I would never want to explore these characters further because I love the characters so much. I have ideas for a sequel, but I don’t know if it’s anyone other than myself that would be interested in seeing that. It’s nice to have that sort of open, in a way.
I think that’s what I liked, ultimately, the best about it. At the end, you have all these new questions because they were clearly mysterious characters, but what transpires, you’re like, “Now wait a minute, what happens now?” But sometimes, it’s lovely to just leave that to your own imagination. I would be interested to see what Jack thought a month down the road. Would he learn more?
Well, exactly. That’s the interesting thing to explore. Or is he really, truly, the scariest and darkest of them all, even though he doesn’t necessarily come across that way?
See, I never even thought about that. I thought maybe he was just too sweet for his own good.
Yeah, or is he?
What do you think sets Road Games apart from other suspenseful road movies?
Well, pretty sure it’s the whole language barrier aspect and how it’s integrated into the plot. That and how the cast is so mixed culturally, with the French, English and an American. I think that’s what gives it its own thing. It’s about taking something that might be a bit familiar but putting a different perspective onto it.
I absolutely love road movies – I even have another one in the pipeline – but I didn’t want to emulate anything else and to just focus on doing my own thing. I think any filmmaker who is true to their voice, to their vision, will have a unique perspective. You can only just be yourself.
Did Road Games have a fairly easy time on its path from an idea in your head to the first day of shooting?
Not at all, after the process of forgetting about the initial story and rediscovering it years later, it took a good couple of years to write the various drafts of the script and then even longer to cast, finance and eventually get to shooting. It was my ‘first’ film. As a ‘first-time’ filmmaker with nothing but a few shorts to show, it’s extremely difficult to get things made. It’s really about passion and persistence. I couldn’t show my earlier feature efforts because I’d be misunderstood; also they weren’t my unique voice because they were co-directed. The thing is, you’re always only as good as your last film. I could go on and on about the difficulties of bringing Road Games to the big screen but the most important thing is that we made it.
Horror fans love Barbara Crampton. How did you get so lucky to have her in your movie?
She really responded to the material, really got what I was doing and so I was super lucky. I just reached out to her on twitter actually and interacted as you do. I got my casting director Mathilde Snodgrass to send her agent the script. She read it and instantly recognized my name because of twitter! Otherwise it’s pretty simple and straightforward; she just enjoyed the script and wanted to come on board. I couldn’t have been any luckier than that.
Do you have a fun anecdote about working with her?
We had a really great time shooting actually. We would have these really long shooting days, but at the end of every day, we would just drink wine all night long. It’s funny. We had these really stressful days and we were running out of time, but we couldn’t wait to finish shooting so we could hang out with each another, even though we were all together the whole day. Me and Barbara, Andrew, Josephine and Frederic, at the end of every day we would just sit around the lobby of the hotel, kind of claimed our own little couch space and we would just drink wine and discuss everything we had been working on or were going to be working on. We actually did a lot of our work in our off times, off hours, drinking wine together, socializing and becoming our own little family unit, so that was really the most fun thing about making the movie. Hanging out with these great people and discussing the work. So we were always prepared. Showing up on set, I didn't have to give them much direction because we were doing that in the evenings, in a sense. It was really fun. I actually miss working with them. It would be great if we could do it again.
It looks like you guys really formed a bond and I think that always comes across in the film, which is nice.
That’s good. because it’s lucky when that happens. It doesn’t alway happen that you get along so well with your cast or the cast with each other. It worked really well.
Surely, there must have been some interesting aspects to filming in a rural area. What did you find to be the most challenging?
The main challenge on any movie is that there’s never enough time or money, no matter what the budget it. I didn’t feel specifically like shooting in the rural areas that we did added too many other limitations on top of that. I just approached it the same way as any other shoot, logistically. I almost preferred the environment of being in the middle of nowhere while shooting because it was so removed from normal life, that it was somehow simpler to focus.
And where did you film? It’s not where the film is set, correct?
Yeah, that’s right. It’s set in France, but we shot most of it in the Kent countryside in England. We shout just under a week in France, at the end. We shot 20 days in England and then 4 and a half days in France. Most people, especially the French people, who have watched the film, they can’t tell the difference, so at least that works. It was all about piecing it together so it was totally believable.
Now, is hitchhiking common in these areas? I can’t even wrap my brain around it because it’s so dangerous. You’re, clearly, going to be picked up by a serial killer and die, but it seems in this movie, and in many European movies I’ve seen, everyone is just hitchhiking like its a big party. Is it common?
No, I don't think it’s common at all. It’s just, I mean, it’s funny that you bring that up actually. One of the actors in the movie, the guy in the car with Veronique in the car at the very beginning, he hitchhikes all of the time.
Yeah, he’s telling me stories and I told him I’ve actually never hitchhiked myself and he’s like, “How can you make a movie about hitchhiking if you've never been hitchhiking?” Well, I'm kind of not comfortable with it.” I know what you mean though, I have the same thing. I think anyone who hitchhikes is crazy, so he’s a bit crazy maybe, I don’t know.
Well, between that story and the character he plays, clearly, he’s crazy.
No, he’s a lovely guy.
I’m sure. He must be. That’s why he’s still alive after all of the hitchhiking.
I know and he never had any bad stories. He only told me these great stories about how he was going to music festivals and he would hitch a ride across country.
I would never!
No, but the thing is, in Road Games is kind of set in a timeless period. You don’t know when it’s set and that’s quite a deliberate thing, so I guess I never really thought about Jack being a modern person. He’s more of an old fashioned, naive character, who doesn’t really think about it.
That’s a good point. It is timeless. If you had said it was set in the 60’s or 80’s or whatever, I would have believed you.
Yeah, we did deliberately mix time periods a bit. There’s no mobile phones, there’s a lack of technology and there’s old cars and it’s got this very rustic feeling.
I appreciated that nobody had a mobile phone, actually.
Yeah, that was definitely one of the main things. I came up with the idea in 2001 and mobile phones hadn’t really been around for that long at that point. I think I only had one for a couple of years at that point and already in movies, they were relying on technology too much, even then. Nowadays, it’s actually a bit ridiculous. A character needs to find information and they just go on Google.
Yeah, it’s silly. Also, I don’t know that people who hitchhike though the countryside would be tethered to their phones.
There has been some confusion as to whether or not this is a remake of the 1981 film of the same name. Can you, please, clear this up and elaborate on the title of the film? The title seems to be a little bit of a nagging issue that’s following you around, so how would you like to clarify that?
We pretty much covered this on the call I think ☺ The original title, the French title is Fausse Route, which roughly translates to the Wrong Path or the Wrong Road, which sounds a little bit generic, translated into English, but in French it has a double meaning. It can mean, driving down the wrong path or when you drink water and it goes down the wrong path, but it also means a misunderstanding between people, which, I think suits the movie the most. It doesn’t really translate, at all, to English. We needed something that still had a little bit of an indication that they were playing each other, so road games was a natural title that we fell upon and at the time that we named Road Games, the original 1981 film, isn’t really that well known, not even today. Not that many people knew about it back then. It was about 4 or 5 years ago when we were putting it together and so we settled on that title. I think in the last couple of years, people are rediscovering that earlier film somehow and, obviously there are a few fans of the movie and they’re saying, “Oh, this must be a remake”. I don’t know; in the worst case, we’re just raising awareness of the 1981 film, inadvertently. Which is fine because it’s a great film, but it’s very different to this one.
Yeah, they’re not the same at all. I had watched that film (Road Games 1981) when I was young, which probably isn’t great, but I watched your film, in no way assuming it was a remake. Do you find it difficult when people assume it’s a remake? Does it make you internally bristle a little bit?
It didn’t originally, but the last, this week, there has been a couple of those moments where I thought, “Ugh, I should have called it something else.” But at the same time, I don’t really care about it too much. It’s just a title and hopefully. I mean the people who don’t watch it because they think it’s a remake, they’re missing out because they’re not discovering a new story, so it’s really on them to not give it a chance, thinking it’s a remake. It doesn’t bother me too much.
That’s good. That brings up a good question, though. People hate remakes. Do you hate remakes?
I actually don’t hate remakes. The thing is, I hate it when a great movie is remade. There are plenty of great movies that deserve remakes. It’s good to put a unique, new perspective on a good idea ad sometimes, movies don’t necessarily work and you need to give them a second chance. For me, it’s really confusing when you take a really great film and then remake it. Can you imagine if anyone wanted to remake The Godfather? That wouldn’t make any sense.
I’m surprised somebody hasn’t, though.
Well, now that we mentioned it.
Do you have a remake that you really enjoy?
Off the top of my head… Well, a good example of a great remake is The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly. Those are great examples of amazing remakes. They’re a bit older now, I don’t think of any recent films. Although, the Hills Have Eyes remake, I think that was 10 years ago, that was a good remake.
Yeah, that was great. The Thing, I don’t think, a lot of people realize is actually a remake.
I think when people don’t know they’re remakes, they enjoy them more somehow. Recently, there have been so many remakes and I think people are getting a little bit tired. So, just assuming something is a remake because it has the same title is a little off putting for some people.
The only reason I realized it was a question was because I had read a review where they said it was a remake and that’s how you and I got into this conversation. That must have been difficult, as someone who wrote the film to have a viewer have seen the film and called it a remake.
Yeah, I, mean, there have been a couple of people who just say it no matter what. I’ve tried correcting them and they say, “Nah, it’s a remake.” So, o.k., if you say so.
So, have you been having an awesome time doing all of the press this last week?
Yeah! It’s been really great, it’s been really good.
It looks like you’re enjoying L.A. It’s been enjoyable watching you promote this and you seem to be really lovely with interacting with people.
Yeah, it’s fun.
Is it mostly fun or are there times where you're like,’ oy.?
Ummm, I don’t know. Not yet. I haven’t reached that point yet. It’s pretty enjoyable.
Where do you go from here in terms of projects?
I have a really fun action/thriller set in the Arizona desert and we’re working on getting that off the ground right now. The script is done. It’s really kick-ass and sarcastic, with a teenage girl protagonist. I’m really passionate about it. And I have a bunch of other things – a sci-fi adaptation of a Korean comic, another suspense thriller and a horror film about cannibals… That’s all I can really talk about for now. Hopefully the desert action film is the one that will go first, but you never really know.
You’re working on an action film. Do you want to did your toes in all genres?
Oh yeah, for sure. Of the main projects I’m working at the moment, I have an action thriller, a sci-fi project and another suspense thriller. So it always depends which goes first, but I don’t want to limit myself to one specific type of genre, but I want to put my own style into other genres, if that makes sense. I think there’s a lot of great things that can be achieved that way.
I super appreciate you taking the time to do this because I know you’re been talking to people incessantly for the last week or so.
Yeah, no problem. I’m glad that we got the time to do it now.
It’s really sweet of you and you’ve been so wonderful and I’m just so lucky that I got this screener. You never know what’ going to show up .
I’m really lucky that you enjoyed it. Whenever someone enjoys something that I came up with in my crazy head, it’s a compliment, so thank you.