Back To Brakes: Picking Up The Conversation With Mercedes Grower

Brakes, a new feature film from Mercedes Grower, will be hitting a select group of cinemas during the coming weeks, including an opening night in London this Friday. A few days ago we spoke to Mercedes about the film. Mog reports:

If you’re a regular reader of The Velvet Onion you’ll be aware of at least two things about the film Brakes: Firstly, the cast is essentially, if not entirely, a who’s who of TVO; and secondly, we think it’s brilliant.

Brakes is a raw, dark comedy about relationship endings and beginnings. Split into two halves, the film follows the tumultuous stories of nine couples. It plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of their relationships, then travels back in time to the moment when the spark of love between them first emerged.

We first talked to Mercedes about Brakes last year as she was putting the finishing touches to the film and gearing up for a handful of festival screenings. Since then the low budget anti-rom com with a punk aesthetic has charmed critics and audiences wherever it has been shown, and even picked up a special commendation for the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Now, thanks to her tenacity and entrepreneurialism, Brakes will be screened in cinemas around the UK, alongside Q&As with the cast (you can see the full list of dates – and book tickets – here). In celebration of the ‘Brakes cinema tour’ kicking off at Picturehouse Central this coming Friday (with a Q&A that features Noel Fielding, Julian Barratt, Julia Davis, Steve Oram and Mercedes herself), we asked Mercedes a few questions about the film. Think of this as the follow on chapter of a 2-part interview; chapter 1, from last year, was when we asked Mercedes about the foundations of the film’s narrative, cast selection, and development/production process, and it can be found here; it’s well worth a read if you’re new to Brakes.

For chapter 2 of our interview we spoke to the writer/director/actor, and the beating heart behind Brakes, at the tail end of a day of press interviews. In principle, Mercedes has every right to be exhausted and bored by the time we talk, but while she admits “my brain’s a little fried”, she’s still fired up, passionate and opinionated about the project.

Brakes has been a while in the making. Did you ever think you’d see the day when you were speaking to journalists about its cinema release?

There were times when I thought it was never going to happen, but another part of me that hoped it would. It’s been such a strange project, because part of me thought of it as a bit of a collage, almost, while it was going on – but there was another part of me that always wanted it to be a feature film. Some people asked me, “Why don’t you do it as web series?” but I never really liked that idea, I always saw it as a film in my head.  You have to believe in something to do it, don’t you? You have to have a driving force. But at the same time I was very caught up in the process.

When we saw Brakes in a cinema on a large screen the comedy element of the film was more noticeable. Why do you think that is?

It’s such a cinema film, it’s a much better film on a big screen. It’s an audience film; in a room full of people it has a momentum when people are together and cringe and laugh, and go “Oh god, yeah!”. It’s great that we’ve got it into cinemas and I hope we can get people there because it’s such a fun film to see with an audience.

The BFI screening was fabulous, the atmosphere was great and everyone was really laughing. It gets laughs where I didn’t expect it to – there some bits that always surprise me because they get a really big laugh where I wasn’t expecting it.

Your film relationship pairs you with Noel Fielding, who you’ve known for a long time and worked with before. Was it your intention to give his  character a different vibe to what we’re used to seeing from him?

We’ve got a good shorthand me and him, we’ve got a good energy. We know each other so well. I  really wanted Noel to be more…a bit Vincent Gallo, a bit sinister, a bit “rrrraaah”. He has got that energy anyway, but his comedy isn’t nasty, so people don’t expect it. I was lucky he jumped in to play my boyfriend. He’s very talented anyway – it’s nice seeing him mix comedy with more dramatic roles.

Were there any relationship scenarios you would have liked to have included in the film but didn’t?

One with children – I didn’t have time to shoot it. I had a whole scene mapped out with where there was a couple with their children in the actual room where it was all happening. It was all formed and Steve Coogan was lined up, but unfortunately at the last minute he couldn’t do it. But then again, how long can a film be? How much could I have fitted in? I had to cut out so much anyway.

Looking back at it now, which parts of the film-making process did you prefer? 

I loved the filming – I loved working with the actors, and I really enjoyed the edit. The thing I enjoyed the least was the producing side of it and trying to get distribution and get the film out there. That’s the part I’ve found the most stressful. Trying to get a film off the ground without the usual backing is difficult, and exhausting. Only a mad person would do it!

With indie films it’s difficult to get them into cinemas and promoted. Films which don’t have big machines behind them, it’s hard to let people know about them. I don’t even know that people, beyond our little world, are aware that Brakes is happening. Getting distribution in this country is really, really difficult. I was really lucky Bulldog came in with distribution.

Brakes was a labour of love which you produced on a shoestring budget. How tough is it for independent film makers? 

We had to work with the schedules and constraints that come with asking for pro-bono support, so we were filming for four years. We had the most collaborative support from the cast and crew, who often worked, last minute, in cold, insane locations. I wanted the audience to feel privy to a secret. I like the grainy look, and story-telling format advocated by film makers active or inspired by the Dogme 95 manifesto. We used mixed media, as we begged, borrowed and stole to make this film in the anarchic vein that falling in and out of love can be.

A lot of people are doing creative things right now at a low budget level. I wish there were more people keeping an eye out for emerging artists. There isn’t anywhere you can go; film funding applications are really difficult. If this many people are having to go out and do it on their own maybe there needs to be something in between. I was very lucky to get BFI funding at the end.

Do you think it’s more difficult as a woman film maker?

When I was at the Edinburgh Film Festival people were coming up to me and asking what I was doing there, and when I said I’d directed a film they would stop and say “Directed?” Men and women. Then they’d go “It’s a short right?” And I’d say “No, a feature,” and they’d be like “My god!” The shock was really weird. There needs to be more of us and the we need to help each other more. There isn’t a lack of talent.

2017 has been a great year for films from TVO-connected talent, with The Ghoul from Gareth Tunley, Prevenge from Alice Lowe and Mindhorn from Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby. Have you been able to compare notes? 

What’s nice about all of us doing films at the same time is that there’s a lot of support. Steve Oram, Tom Meeten, Gareth and Andy Starke at Rook Films have been so supportive of me. That’s been really brilliant, it’s really helped. There has been a nice community thing going on, which is wonderful.

Thanks to Mercedes for her time, and we wish everyone involved in Brakes the best of luck! Don’t forget to check out where the film is screening near you and look out for further screenings being announced. Tickets for Friday’s opening night in central London (inc. Q&A) can be found here.
The cast in full: Julian Barratt, Julia Davis, Noel Fielding, Kerry Fox, Steve Oram, Paul McGann, Roland Gift , Peter Wight, Kate Hardie, Oliver Maltman, Seb Cardinal, Mercedes Grower, Juliet Cowan, Siobhan Hewlett, Kelly Campbell, Salena Godden, Martin Hancock, John Milroy, Daniel Roch and Morgan Thomas.

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