It look Andrew Piddington four years to finish his docu-drama “The Killing of John Lennon,” which won him a BAFTA nod last week as most promising British newcomer.
At 54, he’s the oldest ever candidate for BAFTA’s rookie award. Recognition has been a long time coming for this veteran TV writer-director whose two previous features, “Shuttlecock” and “The Fall,” never made it into cinemas.
Despite a solid TV career, Piddington describes himself as a “renegade outsider” in the “cliquey” British film industry.
Nothing has been harder than his tortuous journey to bring the tale of Mark Chapman, told largely in the killer’s own words from court documents and newspaper interviews, to the bigscreen.
This visually arresting, profoundly uncomfortable film, shot in the actual locations of Manhattan and Hawaii with a mesmerizing performance by unknown actor Jonas Ball, is a remarkable achievement, considering the unconventional nature of its production.
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Piddington and his producer Rakha Singh started filming in late 2003, having raised just a quarter of their supposed $1 million budget from private investors. When cash ran out, they went home to England until they could find some more.
That happened half a dozen times in three years.
In the meantime, Piddington and Singh couldn’t take any other work, and both ended up flat broke. They never had enough notice to book a production office in New York, and Singh often found himself desperately phoning around to hire key crew just hours before the cameras were due to roll.
“It took enormous persistence of vision to come back and shoot a sequence that would be cut right next to a sequence we shot a year before,” Piddington says.
Re-creating 1980 on a shoestring was a challenge. “If you shoot at night, you get away with a lot. Everything just merges into lights and reflections,” Piddington says. But some anachronisms remain — there was never enough cash to paint out posters for “Shrek 2” and “The Lord of the Rings” that can be seen reflected in taxi windows.
Yet somehow, the movie manages to capture an urgent sense of time and place, aided by access to the real places where the awful drama played out — Chapman’s apartment and office cubicle in Hawaii, where he lived for the year before the murder; the Gotham hotels he stayed in; the street outside the Dakota building and the police station he was taken to after the killing. Only the lobby of Dakota, where Chapman shot Lennon five times in the back, was out of bounds. That scene was filmed in London.
Of course, most sane filmmakers wouldn’t have started until all the budget was in the bank. But they thought it would be easier to raise the rest if they had some footage. In fact, the edgy material, the existence of rival Chapman project “Chapter 27” and a moral distaste about giving Lennon’s assassin a pulpit for his ravings just scared people off.
“I wanted to look into the dark side. Chapman was totally culpable, a calculating killer who knew exactly what he was doing. I never wanted the film to justify him,” Piddington counters.
By August 2006, the film was ready enough to premiere at the Edinburgh fest. They had spent about $900,000, but needed an equal amountfor technical and legal completion. “That was the only time we were very, very nervous,” recalls Piddington. “If the reviews weren’t good, we would have dumped it.”
A rave in Variety launched them onto their final lap. The pic won a special jury prize at Tribeca, but still wasn’t completed until the fall. After so many delays, commercial prospects look dim. A modest U.K. run in December grossed just $45,000. IFC released it on one New York screen Jan. 2, grossing $5,000.
But Piddington, at least, got noticed. That Variety review triggered a flood of calls from Hollywood. He signed with agent Robert Newman and management outfit Brillstein Entertainment, and is attached to two U.S. indie projects.
Yet Piddington says no one has ever called him from Blighty. Singh reports the same cold shoulder.
“I see my future in America rather than here,” Piddington saidbefore he learned of his BAFTA nomination. “It’s so hard and so small in Britain. You’re always looking up, whereas in L.A. you can walk in and look people in the eye. They celebrate a talent when it does well there.”