Photo: Phil Daniels as Johnny Jones directing a music video within the movie.
By Madelyn Ritrosky
How do you make a comeback in a youth-oriented business when you’re now the old fart?
How do you recapture the exuberance and success of your youth when you’ve gone the way of old vinyl records?
The British-Welsh ‘80s punk-rock group The Alarm came up with a sneaky way to achieve what many considered crazy and impossible. They hit some major snags and snarls along the way but they really did it.
And that’s what the new film Vinyl showcases via a fictionalized version of the 2004 true story. The group in the film is called Weapons of Happiness, and their fake band of 20-something kids is Vinyl. Boy, is it a fun ride! To top it off, we got the chance to speak with the filmmakers.
The Welsh-American film comes to us from writer-director Sara Sugarman, originally from Wales and now in the U.S. Her co-writer is L.A.-based screenwriter Jim Cooper. And her co-producer is Vanguard Films and Animation head John H. Williams, a producer of numerous animated features.
The film had its world premiere at the 2012 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and Sugarman and Cooper attended.
Jim Cooper happened to read a news story about The Alarm and was intrigued, ending up spending a day with the group. Cooper and Williams met up and began brainstorming a movie based on The Alarm’s tale. Cooper was originally going to write a script himself. They bounced around names of possible directors, but Sara Sugarman’s name jumped out right away.
The director of Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen was on their list of possible directors because of her Welsh roots and, it turned out, she actually knew The Alarm lead singer Mike Peters from her youth. Talk about great connections...
Photo: Jamie Blackley as Drainpipe.
Sugarman and Cooper interviewed The Alarm’s members to create the characters and their fictionalized lives. But since it was so closely inspired by the group, they made sure to get their approval of certain elements. While something in the script might not have happened to Alarm members, on more than one occasion they’d say it had indeed happened to a musician friend.
Vinyl was shot primarily in North Wales, where locations fell into place for the filmmakers. The police officer in the film is, in fact, the chief of police for North Wales, who enabled things to go smoothly for exterior shooting... like no permits required.
Sugarman also already knew the owners of Manor House, an inn where a number of interior scenes were shot and where cast and crew stayed. One owner was a childhood friend of Sugarman’s and, although his mother wasn’t initially thrilled with a movie crew disrupting things, Sugarman said they finally won her over.
Photo: Music video filming within the movie.
They used Mike Peters’s own converted chapel, which he uses as a music studio, and he wrote songs for the film as well. Yet another serendipitous element was using castle ruins for the concert shots that end the film. The place had been secured by Peters for a cancer benefit concert (Peters had been treated for cancer).
When the actual concert was done, the filmmakers were allowed a grand total of 15 minutes to shoot their stuff. With every available camera rolling, they did it. It was the first time those castle ruins had been used for a concert and a film shoot.
The actors who portray the members of both groups are musicians also. Phil Daniels, who plays Johnny Jones in the lead role based on Mike Peters, is a well-known British actor and is perhaps best known for Quadrophenia. Daniels actually sang with the British band Blur. Jim Cooper noted that Daniels’s character in that film was named Jim Cooper, so some might wonder if it’s a pseudonym for Daniels. It’s just cosmic coincidence.
Up-and-coming actor Jamie Blackley plays Drainpipe, the lead singer for the fake band Vinyl. He has a role in the new Snow White and the Huntsman.
With time and budget constraints, Sugarman said “limitations give style.” She described the movie and the moviemaking process as fast-paced. There’s a cinema verité visual quality, meaning it’s reminiscent of catch-it-on-the-fly documentary filmmaking. But that contrasts with some scenes that are meant to feel more static or confining, such as scenes in the record producer’s office.
Now let’s get to our little Q&A with Jim Cooper and Sara Sugarman.
Photo: Jim Cooper
First, Jim Cooper:
1. Tell us about the origins of this movie project for you.
I read about The Alarm's hoax in an article in the LA Times. My kids (triplets) were less than 2 years old, so it was sort of shocking I got a chance to look at the newspaper!
I have been a long-time fan of the band and in high school went to UCLA (my eventual alma mater) to see them play a huge free concert that was broadcast worldwide live on MTV. That’s probably why the article caught my sleep-deprived eye.
I always viewed the movie as a fictionalized version of the true story, simply because it frees things up considerably. The funny part is, there was a lot of stuff I thought I made up but turned out to actually be true. Like the young band needing to play live. It just made sense that would be an obstacle and it turned out to be true.
2. How did the co-writing come about? It sounded like it worked out really well!
The co-writing came about because I was initially going to be the sole writer, but had to put that on hold when I got a gig writing for Pixar. Pixar insists that you be exclusive, so I was going to hand over writing duties to Sara and become a producer only. But when my time at Pixar ended, Sara and I decided to write the thing together. We would write pages, then send it to the other to rewrite and add more pages, before sending it off to the other. And yes, it did work out surprisingly well. It was especially helpful with the dialogue. If I wrote anything that was too American, she could Welsh it up a bit. And if she wrote something that an international audience wouldn't understand, I could tweak it
3. How involved were you with the shoot and then post-production?
I was on set for the second half of the shoot. Frankly, I couldn't leave my family for the full month, with the triplets and all. I was very involved in the shoot while there, from basic PA stuff to writer stuff. I tried not to get in Sara's hair and let her direct and would only speak up if there was something that might cause problems down the line in story terms. In post, Sara would send me various cuts and I would give my notes. Some taken, some not. We actually agreed on a surprising amount of stuff. For example, I had nothing to do with casting. But pretty much all of Sara's choices were in line with what I was thinking, so it was great.
4. What were your personal goals with Vinyl?
Really, my goals with Vinyl were always quite simple: to make the kind of British comedies that I always love watching. Since almost all of my work to date has been for studios, it was a real blast to just make the darn thing as close to how we wanted it as possible. Though I do miss the studio marketing and distribution arms. They do make life easier.
5. What are your other writing credits?
The only other credited project of mine so far will be the upcoming DreamWorks Animation TV show “How to Train Your Dragon.” I worked at Disney Studios for several years during the development of Vinyl and worked on a lot of films there in a “non-credited” fashion. They would have us do production work on various projects, which was a lot of fun. Currently I am writing something for Warner Brothers.
6. How would you describe reactions to the film so far?
The reactions have been great. All very positive, and frankly, in line with what I was hoping. We've got several distribution companies interested in the film, but none have quite yet pulled the trigger. Interestingly enough, Jamie Blackley, who plays Drainpipe, just got cast by Warner Brothers as a lead in the sequel to 300. So interest has increased dramatically with his star on the rise.
7. What other projects are you currently working on?
I'm working on the Warner Brothers project right now, but I can't really talk about it. Kind of secret, hush-hush. But it is being produced and stars a very A-list star, which is a lot of fun. Sara and I are also working on a follow-up to do together.
Photo: Sara Sugarman and her dog Bling Bling, who gets a cameo mention in the movie.
Next, Sara Sugarman:
1. You’re from Wales and knew Mike Peters. What else about your background made you an excellent choice to direct Vinyl?
I was a punk rocker, and I love music! My boyfriend at one time was Alex Cox, who directed Sid and Nancy and Repo Man. He’s a filmmaker who only did punk. He taught me a lot.
2. How did you get financing?
I asked everyone I knew for money and spent my own, too. That’s called beg, steal, and borrow!! And I also called in favors from townspeople.
3. What other festivals are coming up?
We are playing the Newport Beach Film Festival next, at the end of April.
4. You have acted in quite a few British and Welsh TV series and movies. What got you interested in writing and directing?
I went to film school for a year and I absolutely loved it!!!!
5. What are your upcoming projects?
There’s a new feature in the works called Stiff, with Meg Ryan. It's from Sacha Baron Cohen, who also co-wrote Borat and Brüno. I'm very excited! It's a great, very funny script. And it’s all set in the world of rock & roll, too!
Jim and Sara, thanks for making such a fun movie and for talking with us. Good luck as you continue your Vinyl journey...