Imitation of Life: In Conversation with Kieran Evans

Kieran Evans

Until his recent BAFTA nomination for the film adaptation of Niall Griffiths’ book Kelly + Victor, Kieran Evans was perhaps best known for his groundbreaking and politically charged work with Manic Street Preachers, the director fusing a robust backbone of visual and ideological steel to the single releases from Rewind the Film, the band’s most reflective and identifiably ‘Welsh’ album to date; a trilogy of cinematic set-pieces so personally ideological in their conception and execution that to deem them mere promotional tools – or worse ‘music videos’ – is to criminally misjudge their collective visceral power. A son of Carmarthenshire, and a man whose national identity plays an ever-increasing role at the core of his creative output, it is not difficult to comprehend why the conceptual and cultural visions of both Evans and the band have become so fittingly entwined. When I meet with the film-maker in The Social – Heavenly Records’ infamous London pleasure palace, a hedonistic melting pot beloved of the self-styled ‘Welsh House Mafia’ – he contextualises these works as the next evolutionary stage in his relationship and on-going collaboration with the Manics, having initially taken the helm of the film Generations Terrorists; a lovingly curated time capsule of the band’s initially explosive cultural insurgency.  Did he see these works as a conceptual triptych from the outset, or was their evolution a more progressive one?

‘The first two,’ Kieran Evans explains, [Rewind the Film and Show Me the Wonder] ‘were, certainly. [Nicky] Wire emailed me to ask if I could find a way to connect them in a thematic way, which was quite hard as one sounded like a really big ’70s pop track while the other was very much centred around the passing of time and the impact upon a community. The idea I started with was to think less about characters and more about places. I’d been thinking a lot about the miners’ strike and I’d been researching the history of working mens’ clubs, and I thought about setting it in a place where the club was the epicentre of the community, the epicentre of the world, and to approach it from two very different time phases – the ’70s and its heyday, and then showing what it’s like now, showing the community in a different way. So we went down to Trehafod to have a look around and we found it almost straight away.’

Given the predatory vampiric nature of so much of today’s media output – the contemptible Benefits Street and Newport’s own Bouncers being two of the most extreme examples – I ask Evans whether the project needed to be handled with a certain sense of cultural sensitivity.

‘From the start, we presented it very much in a space of positivity, positivity in the face of adversity, and we were quite clear about that from the start, and the idea that we celebrate an identity of fighters, the spirit in the eyes of the people we filmed, of never being bowed.’ Inexplicably, it was the first of the band’s promotional films to have been filmed in Wales. ‘That also made us seek that connection, the notion of “our truth is made in Wales”, the atmosphere of the album framed very much how I wanted to make the films – the doubt at the core of This Sullen Welsh Heart, that “unsure-ness”, a feeling and a sense that I really share with them; the need to seek approval even after all the years of success they’ve experienced, the glass permanently half-empty, a very Welsh way of looking at things.’

A child of St. Davids, Evans looks back upon his childhood in both wistful and inspirational terms: ‘Everyone talks about the ’70s as being a really dreary time but I remember that period, even as a child, as being rooted in a real sense of community spirit. My dad was a founding member of the local rugby club, and I hang on to the memory of the smiling faces of those times. When I went back to film Show Me the Wonder it was like being sent back to my childhood. A time when people celebrated what they had rather than how it is now, the celebration of what you want.’

It is the film for Anthem for a Lost Cause however, a caustic and emotionally brutal analysis of the debilitating personal impact of the miners’ struggle, that appears to have had the most instinctive emotional impact upon its audience. Incongruously it stands even at this late stage, at a point marking 25 years since the band first formed in a frenzy of conceptual chutzpah, as the most angry and political statement that the Manics has ever made. As overtly political and single-mindedly partisan as it gets, I put it to Kieran Evans that this is a project that radiates a burning injustice at the notion that ‘people have forgotten about this and we can’t allow that to happen’.  ‘The band – Wire in particular – were very hands on with the project,’ he nods, an approach underlined by the lyricist calling Evans partway through our conversation to discuss the content of the short films and visual images that will form the backdrop to the band’s forthcoming UK tour. ‘We decided to move the characters from Show Me the Wonder on a decade, from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s. Where once they were 20, now they were 30, and I wanted to explore how the world and their worldview had changed. I’ve always been fascinated by the role of women during the strike. I’d also been doing research through the mining institutes and finding out about the film collectives run buy women to record the whole story from their perspective. The media, the whole world, seemed against them and I just remember it as feeling so unfair. I remember the spirit, the anger, the sense of misrepresentation. I did a collection for the miners in my school and was told off for supposedly politicising the education system! Me and Wire had a chat and through that the focus of doing it from the women’s perspective just felt right.’

The theme of female rage was in itself an early Manics tenet, a focus not lost on the director: ‘Maerdy colliery is just down the road from Trehafod. Swansea University and its miners’ archive put us in touch with these two women who had set up a film collective and they’d entered it all into the archive, everything. They did it as an observational tool, much as people do now with mobile phones. Amazingly, my own brother was approached by a guy who said “I’ve just seen your brother’s video – my mother made those films”; and it proved to be the case. She’d had visits from MI5, she had her phone tapped, her windows smashed, just trying to stop them filming that.’

The band speaks highly of Kieran Evans, Nicky Wire referring to ‘how really gratifying it’s been to find someone who understands our world and can articulate it better than we can in a visual sense’; and in this sense it is likely that Wire has found much to relate to within the story of Kelly + Victor.  The city of Liverpool (the film’s setting), and Wales’s largest urban conurbations, share a common social and historical bond based around hedonistic escapism and political defiance; a mind-set gloriously exemplified by their football and rugby teams of the 1970s and ’80s who paraded a conviction of sporting excellence in the face of political destruction – a snot-nosed mentality of heroic insubordination that appeals to Kieran Evans’s individual sense of mischief: ‘I loved it when Liverpool and Cardiff fans joined together to boo the ‘God Save the Queen’ at the League Cup final a few years ago, it was brilliant.’

The filmmaker was ably supported in the pursuit of his artistic vision and I wonder how crucial the Film Agency for Wales was in the genesis and development of the film? ‘They were there from the start really,’ Evans recounts. ‘Peter Edwards [its former chairman] came in and made a point of declaring that “we need to start making things”. He sent Pauline Burt [its CEO] Niall’s book and said quite bluntly, “this is the film we need to make”. A wholesale review of all scripts took place and mine made the cut. By then, I’d written a different version, a lot clearer, a lot more succinct, and that’s when the ball really started rolling. They committed 50% of the working budget to it which was pretty much unheard of before then.’

What attracted Kieran Evans to that book in particular? ‘A number of things, really. It’s a very “Niall” book and I’m a big Niall fan. When Grits came out I thought it was amazing, there weren’t many exciting books out about Wales at the time, and it wasn’t necessarily all about Welsh people, but I recognised a generation of people in it, a slightly lost generation of E and acid house casualties. The drug-addled, those ruined by drink, and he wrote about it in a really visceral way. I thought it was brilliant. Sheepshagger was amazing too, in a real “Welsh rage” kind of way and at the point I started to think about making features, 2003/2004, I’d just made Finisterre with Saint Etienne. I’d got a taste for making longer films and I’d helped to write it. I made couple of films for BBC Wales’ Double Yellow and I was asked by the producer of that who I’d like to work with next, and I suggested Niall. So he gave me his number, I drove up to Aberystwyth and we got on like a house on fire. We agreed that we shouldn’t just make a film about him, as had been the initial plan, and we should do something together instead. He sent me a draft copy of Kelly + Victor and I was kind of blown away by it really. When I first read it I was reading it like a film and I saw it as a real challenge.’

Much like the watering holes and fleshpots of his own nation, the Merseyside pubs and clubs portrayed within Kelly + Victor alternate between sporadic bursts of austerity and celebration.  ‘The locations were great,’ Kieran Evans recounts, ‘but it ultimately came down to having two great leads (Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris). We couldn’t have done it without those talents.  They got the script and they immediately got what they needed to do.  We had the usual pressure to find a “name actor” but when we auditioned a few who fell into that category we really weren’t that convinced by them.  These two were different though; their commitment, their passion for the script really shone through.  Their auditions stuck out as they did things so differently to everyone else.’  Without seeking to reveal too much of the plot, the film itself follows a narrative curve largely defined by an agonising battle between the forces of wide-eyed optimism and predetermined nihilism.  ‘The rage against life,’ Evans muses, ‘that rage against the dying of the light.  There’s a gentleness to Victor though, he’s a kind character, he sees the good in everything but he’s also concerned with everything too.  His relationship with Kelly is the first time he’s ever put himself first.’   There’s a fascinating synthesis of light and dark within the film; a standout moment of levity, for this writer at least, being the caricature of a bungling wannabe drug dealer and a tragicomic criminal master-plan that incorporates the stashing of a consignment of mephedrone ‘at me Nan’s.’  ‘Meow Meow is one of the most addictive drugs you can get involved with,’ Evans relates.  ‘We did a lot of research into it and spoke to a doctor who said that the worst people he’s ever had to treat are those who’ve come off that.  These are the kind of people who go on 30 day benders. By day 15 they’re hallucinating, by day 30 they’re schizophrenic. Society hasn’t woken up to it yet’, adding somewhat depressingly, ‘We saw a lot of drug abuse when we were in Wales too, and not just by young people either.  Men in their 60s doing wraps, men without opportunity who’ve just given up, snorting coke out of sweet wrappers.’

Kelly + Victor’s combination of light and dark extends to the city of Liverpool itself, its iconic skyline and the verdant beauty of Sefton Park exchanging places with images of squalor and asceticism at regular intervals.   Was this a deliberate attempt by the filmmaker to portray the city in its unadorned jolie-laide entirety?  ‘Liverpool,’ declares Evans ‘is a beautiful city.  It’s got history written all over it.  It’s been used as the backdrop to Sherlock, Captain America, it’s really a big film set.  I was trying to avoid the whole “Ferry Across the Mersey” cliché though.  I wanted to find locations that still said “Liverpool” but which gave a different angle on it.  The wind turbines (a recurring theme within the film), the fact the entire city sits on a hill that rolls into the sea, the incredible views that you can see from the rooftops of Liverpool and beyond, how close you are to nature in the middle of the city.  It’s second only to London in its number of urban parks, and it was such an industrial powerhouse, a city that’s always looked west towards New York rather than south towards London.  It had the first American embassy, way before London did.  There’s really something about it.  But it’s got that duality too, the juxtaposition of there being grinding poverty only 5 or 10 minutes away from the heart of what only recently was the City of Culture.’

I suggest to Evans that the writing of Niall Griffiths has much in common with the themes and motivations of the early Manic Street Preachers, a confrontational and often brutal veneer masking an inner pursuit of purity and innocence, a desire to revert to a simpler and more virtuous time and place.  A vision perhaps best exemplified by the astonishingly bleak ‘big reveal’ of Kelly +Victor, the point at which the excellent Julian Morris (the sensitive and wholly sympathetic Victor) concludes a terrifying tour de force performance of primeval intensity, a scene that ultimately defines the title of its source material.

‘That was hard,’ Evans recalls. ‘That actually made someone faint.  Julian really pushed that scene hard.  We were trying to create a balance where it didn’t feel desperate, but I like the sense of being faced with things, and we wanted to present something more than just the essence of something.  I’d watched Import Export by Ulrich Siedl.  He has a dispassionate view of life but still told this story of two characters struggling through their lives; one told from an Austrian point of view, the other from a Ukrainian view and though their characters never meet their stories somehow or other intertwine.  I showed that to a lot of people and though it’s still fairly dark, there’s an innocence and beauty to what you see, a Ukrainian woman tottering along a snow-covered railway track, going to work in heels.  I was looking for things like that; the presentation, often of the horrific.  But the end of Kelly + Victor is the real gasper.’  For this filmmaker the character of Kelly represents the other side of the emotional coin: ‘the perpetual victim of a compounding cycle of abuse, and how that fucks up people’s lives.  I’d though a lot about Michael Haneke’s Piano Teacher, the cycle of self-harm.  Kelly’s locked into that cycle and the big question is all about what would happen if she could really feel something, and how would she react?  It’s very much a “what if?” film.  Some people have given it a hard time –”you don’t have back-story” – but do you have a back-story in real life when you meet a girl in a club?  Of course you don’t.’

To what degree has being Welsh informed Evans’s work, his craft and his thought process?  ‘At the start, when I was growing up, I just wanted to get out.  I came to London at the same time as the Manics.  Growing up in West Wales I was very much informed by landscapes, I painted them.  Then as I moved progressively east I got a bit more ambitious about what I wanted to do.  Being Welsh, you’d get culturally hammered though, mainly by the lazy perception that nothing ever happens in Wales.  I’d get the piss taken out of me about my accent.  I suffered racial abuse in Newport of all places! (where Evans studied fine art at the city’s art college).  I was the only Welsh guy on the course and I got fucking abused for being Welsh.  In Wales!  Being Welsh can give you a real determination to prove yourself, to fucking show these wankers.  As a Welshman living in London, the sense of hiraeth kicks in quite early though.  I found the Manics to be really inspiring and you gravitate towards the things you want to connect with; in my case Super Furries, Gorky’s – who are from my neck of the woods – the re-emergence of the Welsh language in a pop setting.  I could speak Welsh when I was very young but I gradually lost it.  I’m surrounded by a lot of “Welshies” these days though and it’s inspired me to reclaim some of my own culture a bit, to represent myself a bit more within the country I was born in. I’ve become much more politicised and much more reconnected with that whole socialist community thing, certainly within the last five years. My purpose and sense of identity has always been driven by politics and whilst you’re a bit cushioned from that in London, when I go back to St Davids you can’t help but feel moved and empowered to do something – seeing it not just from a beauty and landscape perspective, but also seeing how people are living.  Reconnecting with “Welsh-ness” has inspired me to re-read Dylan Thomas, to engage with the poetry of RS Thomas, looking at things from different eras, seeing Wales as an island, as an entity within itself.  It’s not just reconnecting, it’s understanding the worth of where we come from and trying to do something about it, and something like this BAFTA nomination gives someone like me a real platform to do that.’

So what opportunities does a BAFTA nomination (Outstanding Début by a British Writer, Director or Producer) open up for a filmmaker in Kieran Evans’s position?

‘It opens doors more than anything.  Within a day you get four or five LA studios on the phone, wanting to be kept abreast of what you’re doing.  You get that, so that’s all good.  It’s more of a recognition that its actually worth talking to this guy,’ he laughs.  ‘So you need to make the most of it while you can.  It helps you to raise finances too, certainly with the likes of producers when you’re developing a project.’  He pauses.  ‘It gives you…momentum,’ he adds, before remembering the other beneficial side effect of such esteemed recognition: ‘…and of course, it makes your Mum really proud!’

Evans’ next project in development, a biopic of the iconic and much revered Merthyr-born boxer Johnny Owen, has a distinctly Welsh flavour: ‘It’s such an amazing story.  It focuses on his last four weeks in LA and the script is fantastic. Ali was in awe of him, Mike Tyson is obsessed with him.  He’s seen within that kind of community as a true warrior.’  This project, coupled with the development of a film adaptation of a novel by acclaimed author John Burnside, and a further documentary music film he’s working on about the inimitable and mercurial Dexy’s, means that whatever the esteemed denizens of BAFTA eventually decree, the immediate professional and artistic career of Kieran Evans looks to be in unapologetically rude health.

In the days and weeks since the untimely and tragic death of Philip Seymour-Hoffman – a man exquisitely characterised by Hugo Rifkind of The Times as ‘our guy in the land of the beautiful, watching nervously, never quite fitting in, often wanking’ – the role of actors in this vein, and film-makers such as Evans, feels even more essential. Indifferent to the gaudy cosmetic allure of, in his own words, ‘zombies, rom-coms, fucking gangsters,’ Evans is keen to underline how he gravitated towards Kelly + Victor as ‘a more unusual and clever story.’ The considered treading of a patently less commercial path undoubtedly, but one far more attuned to a personal and artistic world-view motivated by compassion and rage in equal measures.  In keeping with the aspirations of a man who describes his inspirational exposure to Derek Jarman’s The Last of England at a student film screening as ‘my Sex Pistols moment’, these are not films propelled by celebrity, irony or froth, but stories of men and women balanced precariously upon the periphery, of struggle and of personal turmoil, of lives becoming a landslide – the imitation of life in all of its ugly truth and unconventional beauty.

Illustration by Dean Lewis