‘Just a quick question.’
It’s not a convention start to our interviews with Jeremy Wooding, Elinor Crawley and Aki Omoshaybi. But, then again, Burning Men is no conventional film. This is the story of two would be musicians who hit the road in an attempt to raise cash enough to fund a relocation to the USA but get more than they bargained on trying to flog a stolen black metal vinyl.
Before we can ask a single question of our own, regarding the film’s conception or production, Jeremy – the director – has turned the tables. He wants to know how we experienced it. In a world of streaming, it’s an interesting question and, as it happens, the answer is on a laptop. But that’s okay.
‘I recently watched the film on my iPhone and it worked very well,’ says Jeremy. ‘The compression of the image and the sound works to its advantage but also I think having it on a handheld device enables you to not get too scared.
‘Obviously, you can hear the music and the sound design better on the big screen. It’s a more immersive experience.’
Whilst Burning Men is certainly spooky, it’s not the film’s supernatural overtones that Jeremy suspects might give audiences the chills.
Wooding is best known for his work on the first series of Mitchell and Webb sitcom Peep Show. Sixteen years later, he’s carried the show’s iconic POV shooting style across to Burning Men to great but disorientating effect.
‘I always wanted to make a point of view movie. If I didn’t make it, nobody else would because nobody really knows how to do this. On a micro budget film you’ve got more creative leeway to go for it and that’s what it needed. It is a marmite movie, some people love that and some people don’t but it’s something I think I had to get our of my system’.
For viewers, the effect offers bold insights into Wooding’s characters and a remarkably unique aesthetic. But how about the stars?
‘It was really disturbing at first,’ says Crawley, one of the film’s leading trio.
’It’s a whole different way of working. It’s quite disarming to stare down the lens, you feel very vulnerable. And also it’s quite a challenge in that you really have to employ your imagination to bring a performance that feels like you’re connecting with someone.
‘As an actor, you’re used to facing someone and playing off someone’s reactions. It was a learning curve but by the end of the film it felt normal weirdly.’
By all accounts, in spite of its dark themes, Burning Men sounds like it was enormous fun to make.
‘It was an absolute adventure, the whole shoot’ says Elinor.
‘We started with a week in London, were on the road for three weeks after that and didn’t stay more than two nights in one location. It was just go, go, go. It was pretty intense. Myself Aki and Ed (Hayter), and Katie (Collins) as well for a little bit, travelled in a winnebago and we had the best time.’
‘Haha we did everything in that winnebago. We had hair and make up, we had coffee, we were napping in the winny. We felt like we were on the road trip. We felt like we were living it on the road. It was amazing fun.’
Jeremy agrees. ‘What I really enjoyed working with them was the fact that they started to bond as a unit themselves. They started to get into the role of being on the road and filming and so there was an excitement about it that sort of lifted me up from the day to day hard work. So it was fun to see them having fun.
‘Elinor’s a kind of unsung actor. I met her through another actor and clocked her as an interesting talent. She had something ambiguous in the playing of the role. I didn’t want her to be straight down the line’.
Crawley plays Susie, a hitchhiker picked up by the film’s leads on passing through Great Yarmouth. Why she joins them and where she’s come from is never quite clear but it was a lacking that worked well for the young star.
She says: ‘I like that we never really know why she’s there and what is driving her to join the boys as quickly. She’s not afraid to get stuck in and we’re never quite sure whether she’s been thrown into this situation or whether she’s engineering it a little more than she’s letting on.’
For his part, Jeremy’s inspiration for the film stretches back to the nineties.
‘It goes back years into when I was making short films and running a CD and record stall in Camden Market. I got to know a lot of vinyl dealers and I thought the scene was very interesting to set a story in. This was before vinyl became hip again but I was interested in the fact that all of these dealers were looking for holy grails of vinyl collecting. Something that would be worth thousands of pounds. So, as a mcguffin in a story, it has currency.
‘I met a couple of guys that were wannabe musicians; they were in a band and dealing with vinylists at the record fairs and using the money that they got from doing that to finance their bands. They had an old army van that was their sleep-in and storage unit and I thought that was an interesting duo, which could go somewhere if you set it in a road movie context.
‘I’m a big fan of US road movies – Easy Rider, Stranger than Paradise, Sideways, Thelma and Louise. Near Dark is a favourite of mine. We don’t make road movies that much in the UK. I think its because people say ‘you’re never really more than seventy-seven miles from the coast line and everywhere is easy to get to’. For me, British road movies are about the detours and the people you encounter on the way.’
Doing the meeting in Burning Men, playing Roy, Aki Omoshaybi had a confession to make after being cast by Wooding.
He says: ’before the film, I couldn’t drive. When Jeremy offered me the film I said I could drive, when I couldn’t so I had to do my driving lessons two weeks before the film. I passed my test on the Friday and on the Monday I was in the car shooting.’
Unlike his co-stars, Omoshaybi brought to Burning Men the experience of working on much bigger productions. A guest role in an episode of last year’s eleventh series of Doctor Who followed closely a small part in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
‘With Last Jedi, there’s so many people on set – it’s a huge machine – and it’s great but it’s just huge. There’s so many people. With this one there was one camera, with Last Jedi there were two or three. With a small budget you really have to pull together, otherwise it will just fall apart.
‘We kind of became a little unit, a little family.’
Before we finish, there’s just time for Elinor to put a question of her own to Jeremy. We did say this was no conventional interview.
‘How does working with younger actors compare to working with older actors, of your own generation?’
‘I think it is different working with younger actors, who maybe are less experienced than older actors. On the plus side, you’re able to throw some new ideas – some quite out there ideas – their way and they’ll leap in and try and make it work. They’ll come up with a lot of interesting ideas themselves; it’s an exciting and vibrant way of working. When you’re working with older actors, you have to get them to that point. Sometimes they can get set in their ways as to how they think they’re going to play it and then that’s all you’re going to get. Not to say that they’re unmovable but there is a kind of been there and done that attitude. These days, older actors audition me as much as I audition them. They want to make sure, if they’re going to do half a day in Norwich, if that’s going to be a good experience, rather than one they’ll regret. It’s all fair enough really.’
Burning Men is out in select cinemas now. Read our review here.