San Sebastian Talent: Rufus Norris on ‘London Road’

Director and London’s National Theater chief talks about his second feature

SAN SEBASTIAN– Docu-musical ‘London Road’ closes the 63rd San Sebastian Film Festival on Sept. 25. It marks Rufus Norris’ sophomore directorial outing as a film director after 2012’s romantic drama “Broken,” which bowed at Cannes and won awards at Calgary, Zurich and California fests.

In an unusual musical,“Road” examines the social impact of a chain of murders on a small neigborhood and its atempts at catharsis to overcome it.

A big screen version of a stage musical, produced by Norris, “London Road” was hailed as ground-breaking. Fronted by Olivia Colman, and co-produced by Picturehouse Entertainment, the National Theater, BBC Films and the BFI, “London Road” the film offers an excellent opportunity to explore from a new perspective, theater, music and cinema’s undying ties; especially talking to London’s National Theater topper Norris, whose Broadway works include “Festen” and the Roundabout Theater Company’s 2008 revival of “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Some of his recent National Theater credits are James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” and Tanya Ronder’s “Table.”

What did you sacrifice and what did you gain with the onstage-onscreen transition of “London Road”?

The two forms are so different that it is difficult to talk about in simple terms, but I guess that one sacrifice, inevitably, is the live impact of the work. The singing is so technically difficult that there was a great sense in the theater of the incredible skill involved in the show; clearly this could not have the same impact on screen. The gains in the cinema version were manifold, but particularly so in the visual areas. Not just location, vistas, cast numbers and all the opportunity for closing in on individuals’ thoughts and dilemmas, but also the tone and atmosphere – the grading process allowed us to explore quite a strong visual language.

 “London Road” is for me a smart documentary-musical. That for many people would be an oxymoron. Was that precisely what attracted you to the project?

Yes. It is unique – the fact that there is nothing like it, no template and consequently no easy way to describe it was enormously appealing. It is one of those rare projects that genuinely breaks new ground.

As a genre, musicals are sometimes dismissed out of hand. Why do you think they cause such reactions?

Musicals are notoriously expensive to develop and produce, so their development often rests in the commercial world, where huge appeal is the given target. Darker or more experimental work is harder to sell. However, many feel-good musicals are fantastic examples of craft and storytelling of a particular kind, so I don’t hold with dismissing it as a form. To be accessible is not a bad thing! However, I welcome any advance in opening the form out and exploring wider parameters for the art form.

Some reviewers praised the independent, even arthouse tone of “London Road”; a few took issue with the “feel-good” finale of community catharsis. Why do you think reactions were varied, not so much about the film’s quality as its tone?

The subject matter is divisive, and because it is drawn from very precise sources and real events, it touches on a lot of sensitivities. Also the idea of a verbatim or documentary musical is in itself provocative. We tried to find a balance that was true to the subject matter and the real story, but also accessible.

What are your expectations for international distribution and reactions to “London Road”?

We hope it will find a good international distribution – it is already being released in Australia and New Zealand and North America and other territories are all in discussion.  Through our NT Live broadcasts, there is a global audience who come to their local cinemas to see the National’s theatrical productions, so it’s exciting to see how this now correlates to the film. 

The response to “London Road” in its life on stage at the National Theatre and as a film has been remarkable.  We recently held the international premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival and audiences seemed to really embrace it.  Whilst the piece is very much about a specific time in a specific place in Britain, I think that the story of a community that heals itself in the wake of a tragedy is universal, and that is what people respond to.  Every country has a small town that could feel like Ipswich and the issues surrounding the community traverse cultural boundaries, even if London Road is, at its heart, very British. 

Would it be possible for you to say what you are working on next? Any new detail, for instance, about “National Theatre Live: Everyman” possible international screenings?

I am about to go back into rehearsals for “wonder.land,” a new musical written by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and me.  We premiered the show at the Manchester International Festival this summer and now have another period of rehearsal and reworking before it opens at the National in December.  It’s a thrilling collaboration with a great creative team and developing a new musical is always an exciting challenge.

“Everyman” we filmed and broadcast in July for NT Live, though there are still international screenings and encores taking place.  I felt it worked particularly well on NT Live as it was a very visual piece and the capture embraced its theatricality and its setting in the vast Olivier Theatre.  It’s a totally different experience from filmmaking but an exciting form in its own right that means so many more people around the world get to see our work.  

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