Posted October 5, 2010 by Marcia Degia - Publisher in Features
 
 

The McHenry Brothers


As their first feature film, Jackboots on Whitehall, is released in cinemas this week…

As their first feature
film, Jackboots on Whitehall, is released in cinemas this week, Edward and Rory
McHenry discuss with Matt Looker, how they made this epic war-time puppet comedy, as well as
their new project in conjunction with Nokia.

Q. Where did you get the
idea to make Jackboots on Whitehall and why make it with puppets?

E: We had the idea of rewriting World War II history
and I think from the start we always had the idea of making it with puppets
because it was the only way we could make an epic movie as our first film, so
the decision to make it with puppets was really because it seemed like the only
way we could make something on that scale.

Q. What attracted you to
World War II history in particular?

E: We had ideas for other genres but we really wanted
to make something that was very British, so we were playing around with
different periods of British history and World War II just gave us a huge
variety and colourful palette for characters and story.

R: It’s also a fact that a lot of our favourite films
come from that period or are about that period and we took great influence from
them.

E: Yeah, like the Ealing comedies and Powell and
Pressburger films. It’s a brilliant thing you can build on, a brilliant British
history – not only actual history but film history that we kind of took
advantage of.

Q. You’re both very young
filmmakers. Was it hard to get this, your first feature-length film, financed?

E: That was really the hardest part. It took almost up
to two years, which actually, in trying to get your film made for the first
time, is really quick, so we were very lucky. We worked really hard to get the
script into a position that was good enough to take to a casting director and,
because it was only voiceover work, we were able to secure big names and then,
on the tail-end of that, we were able to secure big money for the film. But it
was really hard – right in the middle of a recession, first-time filmmakers and
what was potentially a very bizarre, left-field film.

R: Yeah, it was really, though. We went round the houses
a little bit but we found people that really believed in the film and
understood what we were trying to do with it.

Q. How did you manage to
get so many big names to voice the film?

R: Our casting director, Debbie McWilliams, knew
Rosamund Pike because she had cast her in the Bond film Die Another Day, and
our agent is Sanjeev Bhaskar’s agent, so we asked them to approach those guys
and they both said yes. From there, we just drew up a list of all the people we
admire as actors and voices in British cinema and television and amazingly we
got everybody we wanted. Then the last person we approached was the lead, which
was Ewan McGregor, and he said yes. It sounds crazy now but really that was the
easiest part of the filmmaking process.

Q. It was great to hear
Richard O’Brien’s voice in the film too…

E: Richard’s one of my favourites! He’s very selective
about what he does apparently so it was a real honour to work with him. Most of
the stuff that he says in the film was improvised – he really took the
character of Himmler and turned him into something totally bizarre and funny.

Q. The film obviously
employs different kinds of animation technology – how difficult was the filming
process?

E: We shot it live-action with animatronic puppets, so
we’re filming them for real as they’re moving on set, which had it’s benefits
because we could shoot it on a much quicker schedule – it took us 10 weeks, as
opposed to something like Fantastic Mr Fox which took a year and a half to
shoot because you have to do every single frame.

R: But there was stop-frame animation involved in the
post-production period; that was CGI on the eyes and mouths, with cigarette
smoking and things like that. The benefit of doing a movie like this is that it
was all on a set in a stage, which meant that we didn’t have to worry about
weather or anything like that – we had control over the entire look of the
film. But there problems as well – the puppets caught fire occasionally under
the heat of the lights; suddenly you’d see smoke pouring out of Churchill’s
neck and he’d have to be whipped off set and a new one had to be brought on!

Q. The film is being
hailed as ‘the British Team America’. Do you think that’s fair, or would you
rather people didn’t have that preconception when going to see it?

E: We love Team America! We thought it was a brilliant
film and for us to have any comparison with it is totally flattering, but we
were making short films like this before Team America was made. Our film school
was making movies with GI Joe men in our parents’ conservatory, which we had
turned into sets/ We never really wanted it to be a British version of Team
America because we wanted it to be our film, but if that’s the closest gauge
people have to it, that’s fine.

R: Also, Team America really calls on the comedy of them
being puppets – the fact that they have strings and they get tangled up and
stuff like that. With Jackboots, we really wanted to make something real that
we would shoot in exactly the same way if we had a bigger budget with live
actors.

Q. One element that
really makes the film feel like an old-fashioned war epic is Guy Michelmore’s
fantastic score. Did you have much of an input with that?

E: We watched the film again last night at Raindance
Film Festival and I think Guy really deserves an award for that score.

R: Yeah, I really hope he goes up for a BAFTA because
he took the film and really just elevated it to another level. We always said
we wanted a big score but, with our budget, it would have been really easy just
to get someone to do it with Pro Tools on a computer, but Guy approached it on
such an aspirational level and then we took it to Prague and recorded it with a
75-piece orchestra, so we were getting big, old-fashioned music that you don’t
get to see in British films of our budget.

Q. You are currently
working on a new project with Nokia to promote their new N8 phone. How did that
come about?

R: We had made Jackboots and they were looking for
directors to make a movie that would sell this new phone, the N8 – it shoots in
high definition video and it’s sort of the same size as an iPhone. We just met
them, as we were meeting lots of people, and this project just looked like a
really exciting way to, in 3 months, have a small but exciting film.

E: We were given a clean slate on what we wanted to do
so we went off and wrote what we wanted, which was a short action movie with
loads of flash stuff in it. We’re editing it now with Chris Blunden, the same
editor who worked on Jackboots.

R: We just saw it as a great challenge and a lot of
directors would have turned away from shooting an entire film on a camera
phone, but we thought it would give us an enormous opportunity to put the
camera where you wouldn’t normally be able to fit one – you can stick it to the
front of a car, or attach it to bikes, and get incredible shots with it.

Q. And, again, you have
managed to assemble an all-star cast, with names like Dev Patel, Pamela
Anderson, Charles Dance and Ed Westwick all featuring in the short film. How
did that happen?

R: When I spoke to Dev, I said: “Look, we’re going to
shoot this on a phone” and that was a real attraction to him. It was the same
with Charles Dance actually. He’s really into cameras and was fascinated with the
quality.

E: It was great fun shooting with Dev – he’s got so
much energy. And it was incredible to work with Pamela Anderson too. If someone
had said to me 10 years ago when I was a teenager “Hey Ed, you’re going to be
working with Pamela Anderson”, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Q. And of course, Ed
Westwick [pictured] is a huge star from Gossip Girl…

E: He’s actually a fantastic actor and there is this
misconception that he’s just a pretty boy but I think he’s a really good actor.

R: The whole idea is that a lot of these big names are
playing cameo roles in our film, apart from Dev, of course, who is the lead. So
Ed Westwick probably has less than 20 seconds’ screen-time; we got six takes on
2 set-ups and I’ve looked through every single one of them and he’s on the
money every time.

Q. Can you give away any
hints on the plot?

E: No, you’ll have to watch it!

R: It’s called The Commuter and there’s tons of action
in it. It’s a guy’s commute to work but lots of cool stuff happens.

Q. What is the working
relationship like between you? Is it like the Coen brothers, where one
concentrates more on writing and other directing?

R: A lot of people say “You guys give exactly the same
direction every time” and that’s just down to us working a hell of a lot
together before we go on set so that we’re both on exactly the same page and
anybody can ask us a question about how a scene is meant to be and we’d give
them the exact same answer. We have our arguments before we get on set so we do
it all in private!

E: The preparation is really where we make the film. I
know it seems cliché but the shoot is almost arbitrary – we really make the
film with storyboards, scripts and notes before and rehearse it with the
actors. That sort of prep work enables us get a more ambitious film than we
would usually get. Like this film, The Commuter – there’s an awful lot of
action and a lot of multi-camera set-ups, and you’ve really got to be prepared.

Q. So now that Jackboots
on Whitehall is due to be released and filming has wrapped on The Commuter,
what will you be working on next?

R: I think we’re going to step away from puppets for a
bit. We might come back to it in the future but our next film will definitely
be live-action. Something fun, with a bit of comedy, a bit of action – just
pure entertainment.

E: And also possibly directing other people’s material
is something we would never turn down. We’re reading some scripts at the
moment. We shall see – we don’t want to close off any options at the moment.
Like Tim Burton does live-action and animation, we’re not just animation
directors and we’ve proved that by making this short film. We just want to tell
stories.


Marcia Degia - Publisher

 
Marcia Degia has worked in the media industry for more than 10 years. She was previously Acting Managing Editor of Homes and Gardens magazine, Publishing Editor at Macmillan Publishers and Editor of Pride Magazine. Marcia, who has a Masters degree in Screenwriting, has also been involved in many broadcast projects. Among other things, she was the devisor of the documentary series Secret Suburbia for Living TV.