We spoke to actor, writer and director Mark Gillis about his new film: Sink. Here’s what he had to say…
A conversation with Mark Gillis comes with a strong dose of deep-rooted morality. He puts it down to a working class, community orientated upbringing and it’s a quality that shines through his feature directorial debut: Sink.
The film tells the story of Micky Mason, a redundant working class man who is driven to law-breaking extremes to keep his family afloat. Should Micky be prosecuted? You’d think so but Gillis’ script plays with intellectually challenging, yet entirely emotional, ambiguities.
For one thing, the film is set in the shadow of Canary Wharf, a business hub many blame for the UK’s financial crash in 2008 – Mark among them.
‘I live in the area where the film is shot and from just about every angle you can see the huge tower blocks and skyscrapers of Canary Wharf,’ he says. ‘You’re looking at that from some estates that are really challenged and have some really difficult stuff going on.
‘It seemed to me that so much of that difficulty and distress that so many people were suffering was as a direct result of what was effectively a huge fraud taking place by the people in the skyscrapers.’
‘People’s lives have been really transformed in a negative way and so there’s moral ambiguity in the contrast of somebody committing a crime to keep their family together, alongside people who already had everything financially but committed a con on such a huge scale that it had to be bailed out by the rest of us.
‘If that’s happened, who’s to say what’s right and wrong about somebody committing a crime to keep their family together?’
It is an irony of the film that it concerns characters whose economical circumstances bar them from an easy life, whilst the production itself had to battle similar financial instability to finally secure its release.
‘It’s been a long haul,’ laughs Mark four years on from setting the ball rolling.
‘I’d had a script that had gone through a whole five year development thing and not been made so I’d got to the stage when I thought I just need to make something.’
Without studio funding, Mark turned to the internet with a Kickstarter campaign, keeping the production close by hiring only those with whom he was familiar and would be prepared to work on a deferred wage. Among his picks was stage and screen actor Martin Herdman, who was known to Mark from their sharing a dressing room during a production of Anthony and Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse.
‘He showed me stuff he’d done and I showed him stuff I’d been writing and I just knew when I was writing Sink that he was exactly right for it.
‘He has that thing where, whatever the scene is, he’s not only in it but he’s taking you in as well. He has that ability to add a depth to what’s going on. And also humour. He has a great knack of just bringing a glimmer of humour into what’s going on and that can really help.’
And Martin wasn’t the only Herdman to wind up in the film, with the actor recommending his own son Joshua – best known for playing Gregory Goyle in the Harry Potter films – as ideal for the part of Micky’s son.
‘To be quite honest, when Martin suggested it, I was a bit reluctant, I was slightly wary because it can go both ways that. Sometimes when you’re asking a real life relationship to do things, it can clam things up a bit but as soon as I started working with Josh the opposite happened, they were able to go so much deeper, so much faster. I think it’s a really touching relationship.’
On watching Sink, many have likened the film’s plot and themes to Ken Loach’s recent BAFTA winning feature I, Daniel Blake. Both evolve around a man who has lost a skills-based job and is forced to turn to the Job Centre for help but there’s a key difference.
‘I, Daniel Blake is a fantastic film, I love it. I think it’s a case of us telling the story in a different way. I wanted to have more humour in this story because I felt that was a way of engaging it with the characters more and I really wanted this to be about people seeing people that they recognise and humour is a great way of doing that.
‘There’s something about humour and the response to humorous situations is somehow universal, you can join in more.’
Indeed, humour proved to be a integral element of Gillis’ film, with the director hoping its subtle employment might help break a number of all too common stereotypes in British cinema.
‘I do have a bit of a thing about working class characters in films and television’ he says. ‘I grew up in a working class family so those voices are very familiar to me, they’re the voices I grew up with.
‘I think a lot of the time, when you have working class characters portrayed, it’s often very one note, kind of shouty, a very sort of chavvy look at how things are. And you have those appalling so-called documentaries, like Benefits Street, that are revelling in a horrible poverty porn thing, which I find incredibly distasteful but also incredibly damaging. What it does is make those people other. And if you can do that then somehow their problems don’t really register, it’s as though they don’t have the same problems or concerns, the same humanity almost as other people have.
‘So, that was a big thing for me. Just because people live on a council street, they still talk to each other in a way that everyone would understand and everybody would be familiar with. They still make each other laugh, they still do all the things that any other section of society does, they just live in a council estate.’
Two people with whom Mark’s moral philosophy resonated were the late Alan Rickman and Steven Spielberg’s favourite actor of the moment Mark Rylance.
‘I never worked with Alan but I was at the RSC for a bit with friends of his and I sort of met him vaguely through that. As soon as he heard I was writing, he was always incredibly supportive. I sent him this when I finished it and he gave me notes and put in some money into it so he was one of those people.’
As for Rylance, he’s continued his support right through to Sink’s release.
We sent him the final cut and he offered to come and do the Q&A with us. In fact, he came to the ICA with us when we first did the film and gave this amazing introduction. He just sort of wandered down into the light and just started talking in this amazingly charismatic way about what the film was saying and where we are now.’
High praise indeed.