If you’re a Boosh fan James Pilkington is a name that will probably have a ring of the familiar about it, even if you’re not sure why. If we tell you that he’s the man responsible for giving us a youthful Noel Fielding in an elephant thong I’m guessing it’ll click into place: James Pilkington directed Sweet, the hilariously daft short film featuring an early Barratt and Fielding, alongside an imaginary girlfriend, Poppy. Now nearly a decade later, Pilkington has another film out called Reg. He very kindly agreed to talk to The Velvet Onion about Reg and his other directorial work – including, of course, Sweet.
“It was almost like a dare. I was thinking, could we really make a film about this? It’s the film no one should have made…and that’s why I wanted to make it!” James Pilkington is talking about his new short film, Reg. Without giving too much away, Reg is a (very) dark comedy which some may say strays more than a little over the line. Coincidentally, the idea for Reg was first mooted over a drink with Noel and Julian after the filming of Sweet. They asked Pilkington what his next project would be, and with his reply to them Reg was born. It began as a bit of a joke, but now ten years later, he’s only gone and made it! He laughs and explains that it’s his rebellion against the arty pretentiousness he’s occasionally encountered in the film world. “When I was at film school the first essay I had to write was ‘What is art?’ I thought do I really have to do this? At film school you have to study all the theories – Marxist, Freudian – and this is a rebellion against that!”
Pilkington is refreshingly unpretentious, with a healthy sense of the ridiculous. He thinks making comedy films should be fun (“You try to make yourself laugh, and if it can do that then it’s alright.”), and distils the art of film-making down to being “original and entertaining”. He doesn’t worry too much about pleasing his critics either, noting without any hint of bitterness that Reg hasn’t been the best received film in the world, and describing it as “2 fingers to the critics; it’s so unnecessarily annoying and horrible – people like Mark Lawson would f…king die!”
If you think you’re up to the challenge, here’s Reg in all its glory. We’ve decided to include it in this article because we think it’s very obviously comic – it’s clearly not trying to make a serious point or hurt anyone. That said, readers who are easily offended would do best to avoid it. You have been warned!
Reg follows similar filmic contours to Sweet, and indeed to Pilkington’s other shorts, such as his career-defining debut, Pocket, in which the protagonist puts things into strangers’ pockets rather than stealing from them. Put simply, his style can best be described as ‘normal life with a beautifully silly and original twist’. Another theme that connects his films is the use of the first-person narrator. He explains why: “The voice-over is very good at speeding things up, getting you from A to B a lot quicker.”
“Too many short films are up their own arse – it’s all ‘look, you can see the pain and suffering in that close-up’, and you’re thinking I don’t even know who that is – I only met her a minute ago! You’ve got no back story in a short film so by having a voice-over you can get the audience involved a lot quicker. And for comedy it works because it allows you to set up one thing and then do the complete opposite.”
So where do his bizarre story lines come from? “They come up as a little idea, which you sit on until you end up thinking it’s quite good. Then you develop it – you take one joke and keep going with it until you exhaust it. You find every opportunity to make it funny.” So they’re not autogiographical at all then? “No…although when I made Sweet I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time…”.
And so onto Sweet, a film which Pilkington describes fondly as “Really solid – I still enjoy it, which is quite an achievement.” The involvement of Noel and Julian was serendipitous – one of his friends suggested he go and see the Boosh performing at the Hen & Chickens when he was casting for the film. “I couldn’t believe it – it was perfect for them. Comedians bring so much to a role too – as a director you’re like ‘Aaah, thanks’, and being a double act they’d already got all the timings right.” He describes Barratt as one of the best actors he’s worked with: “I think he could do pretty much anything – he’s got such a great face. One of my favourite bits of the film is when he says to Daisy that Pete’s having an affair, and he delivers it as flat as he can, and then he just leaves. It’s not an obviously funny scene, but he made it hilarious by doing absolutely nothing. It’s probably one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever shot – it’s just that line!”
He recalls that the filming of Sweet was hugely enjoyable with lots of laughs amongst the crew, recounting a time when his star actor narrowly avoided arrest in Camden: “One of the funniest things was when Noel was having sex against the shop front and we were filming from my flat over the road. Of course a police car pulled up, and he’s got his trousers around his ankles – they couldn’t see the camera! He just said “I’m in a film.” In the end the copper drove on, he didn’t want to be bothered with it!”
Following the filming of Sweet, Pilkington sidestepped the offer of directing The Mighty Boosh TV series, fearing that his involvement would have meant “too many cooks”. He goes on to explain, “The Boosh is them, and I didn’t just want to film other people’s things. Probably stupid of me!” As a comedy writer/director, he’s clearly more at home writing his own material than filming other people’s. To that end he’s also been turning down film scripts from the US for the past 10 years, saying that he’d prefer to make his own film first. In the meantime, he’s kept himself busy directing TV commercials around the world, including critically-acclaimed spots for Lynx, Tango and Trumpet ice-cream.
So what’s next for James Pilkington? “I’m writing a comedy feature. It’s a good story, but I’m just at the first draft. Now I just need to make it funny!” Given how much this director can squeeze into a 30 second TV ad or a 10-minute short, we look forward to seeing what the man’s capable of when he’s given over an hour of screen time! Just don’t let your Mum watch it…