Saul Metzstein came to prominence with the 2001 feature Late Night Shopping, an offbeat comedy about four friends in dead-end night jobs. The Scottish director’s latest film, Guy X, shot in Iceland and Canada, stars American Pie’s Jason Biggs alongside Jeremy Northam, Natascha McElhone and Michael Ironside, as a young American solider sent to a Greenland military base with a dark secret.
You had a tight shooting schedule and obviously difficult working conditions shooting Guy X in Iceland. Are you pleased with how the film turned out?
I’m pleased that I survived till the end and didn’t die at some point during filming because it was really tough. If you can make a film like that in the Arctic you’ve either got to be a huge budget film where you have everything under your control, or a minute budget film, where you hardly have to control anything. In a funny way, we had the worst of both worlds, because we tried to do something quite big in 31 days, though we were in a studio in Canada for 20 of them.
And you shot differently for three different seasons?
Yeah, just to make it a bit tougher on myself. We shot summer, autumn and winter. Summer in the Arctic is constant sunshine and winter constant darkness, so we devised three very different aesthetics. We used much longer lenses for the night stuff than the day, making the backgrounds flatter.
In terms of control, this must have been quite a step up from your previous feature, Late Night Shopping.
Yeah, in a funny way it was so difficult and crazy that it was liberating because having an aesthetic scrappiness is nice in this type of situation. We embraced the complications rather than fought against them because we would have lost. The curious thing is that I’m naturally a very controlled filmmaker and I enjoyed working in this other way where you just go for it and see what happens.
It’s been four years since you made Late Night Shopping. Have you spent the time since turning down bad scripts?
Yeah, some of it. But you can also waste a helluva lot of time on a film that doesn’t get made. I thought I was making something almost immediately after Late Night Shopping but it never happened. Yes though, you do get sent a lot of inferior versions of the film you’ve just made. I’ve received many scripts about friends with nothing to do. And annoyingly, you never get sent a better version of something you’ve already made. Guy X came more or less out of the blue. It just appeared and I thought oh God, I really want to do this.
What was it that made the script so appealing?
It’s an eccentric, different kind of story and it’s quite … a lot of the themes are very interesting. I suppose it is a bit like Late Night Shopping insofar as it’s about trying to find a purpose in life, which to me is a very modern theme. It’s not like you’re facing some terrible dilemma and you have to solve it. You have to find who you are in life and what’s going on. It felt really good to make something enjoyably crazy as a movie. Usually, there’s a very set pattern for a film to be made – it should be a romantic comedy or a horror film, a thriller or whatever, and to make something that doesn’t want to follow any of these, it’s a great privilege to do this kind of stuff.
The novel on which the film is based, No-One Thinks of Greenland, seems to have a basis in real life events, so what research did you do to prepare?
We talked to the army, obviously. The writer of the novel, John Griesemer, had been in the army so he gave us lots of interesting insights. We watched documentaries and we unearthed some really interesting army newspapers, they’re not historical, they’re just about the day-to-day of what was happening. We actually filmed on a real army base. The base is correct, so we didn’t have to anything, that’s just how it is. And just a general genning up. I always remember reading Ang Lee writing about Sense and Sensibility and how everyone on the film knew the Jane Austen novel better than him. And he just did everything to learn everything else about everything that could go into that film because he was frightened someone would spot he’d got something wrong.
Jason Biggs has claimed the film has contemporary political relevance, but you seem to have distanced yourself from that position.
Well, I think it does have relevance but as a director you’re attracted to the story of the characters and then political considerations come in later. Ken Loach would start with a political viewpoint, but if you’re not that way inclined, and I’m certainly not … Still, I think there is resonance there, I mean, the whole issue of America and Iraq is very interesting, because America is a hugely inward looking country and yet it’s involved in the rest of the world. It’s sending out guys who are 17 or 18, who have never been out of the country before to these strange places to do something that they’re not even really sure why they’re doing it and I think that’s a very interesting problem for America. It’s a very complicated situation. In Iraq, when a body gets brought back, they don’t let the media film it. And America, because it’s a superpower, psychologically, it always has to win. It can’t deal with any sort of failure. I think that’s very dangerous if a superpower can’t admit to failure. It can’t admit that these people were horribly injured in Vietnam.
How do you feel about the comparisons that have been made between Guy X and Catch-22 and M*A*S*H*?
Well, I’m of the generation that thinks M*A*S*H* the TV series is better than the film! I didn’t really like the film. Catch-22 I’m a huge fan of. I think the fundamental difference is that any black comedy set in the army, especially the American army, you have no choice but to reference Catch-22, it’s just there. But I think the major difference is that Catch-22 and M*A*S*H* are about people facing the realities and horror of war and knowing they’re going to die a terrible, painful death. Whereas Guy X, there’s no war there, they’re trying to find out what they’re doing there in the first place. And in a funny way, the standard condition for an army is to not be at war, Buffalo Soldiers looked at this too. Relatively speaking armies aren’t at war that much anymore. I knew a guy who was in submarines and I asked him, well, what do you actually do all day? And he said “All we do is masturbate! And all we talk about is masturbating!” These guys go around the ocean for months masturbating and talking about it to each other! He said that at a certain point, they’re not even interested in having sex, they’ve just become obsessional with masturbating! It’s horrible but these are extreme conditions. I watched some documentary about Iraq and most of the time they’re not out on patrol, they’re in their compounds and they’re just the same as the compounds in Guy X. Soldiers have to create their own physical environment by getting stuff from home, pin ups and video games, things like that.
What was Jason Biggs like to work with? He’s called Guy X a departure from his “broader” comedies.
On a day to day basis, he’s an absolutely lovely guy. He was a child actor so he’s incredibly experienced and he’s been a stage actor, he did The Graduate for a couple of years and he’s worked with Woody Allen and was in Prozac Nation. He’s just a proper actor. He’s not some guy who struck lucky by being in a big Hollywood film as an idiot. I actually think he’s very good in American Pie because you believe he’s an idiot. But he’s not, and I think the reason he’s done this film is that it’s such an odd one, it’s not in the Hollywood system and he’s had very little to do with stuff like this. I think he enjoyed it, seeing what happened. I don’t think there was any pressure on him in that sense and that worked well for him. I admire his American acting too, he does this very minimal acting that Americans can do, they don’t do much and they’re very good at it. I enjoyed working with him and I’d do so again if we could find something together worth making.
If you’re so fond of American acting, why did you go for two Brits and a Canadian for the other leads?
I didn’t know Michael Ironside was a Canadian before I cast him! To get Jeremy to try something different was really … he’s an actor who’s done quite a few American films but he’s known for a certain type of upper-class Englishman. I remember for years they were talking about whether he’d be the next James Bond. It’s fun to work with someone who wants to do something different. Rather than getting someone who’s done it before, get someone who actually wants to do it and I think Jeremy wanted to do something with a totally different feel. And he’s a really good actor, he’s got a nice presence. He’s big and man-like in a way that Jason is small and boy-like and I think that works well in the story. For Natasha too, I think it was a really interesting film to make. If you look at her career, she’s done all sorts of odd, different things rather than repeating the same roles. She has a terrible fear of doing a really standard blockbuster film. She couldn’t do it, she couldn’t get out of bed to … she’d have no idea how to do it.
You’ve talked about the film having a mix of American and European humour. What do you mean by that?
It’s got an American looseness of story, in that it’s a bit on the edge. But the sheer black cynicism is a European trait and to enjoy characters who are losers is a very British thing. I also think it’s very Jewish as well, which appeals to me. It’s like Joseph Heller where you enjoy disasters happening, having losers where you laugh at them and with them at the same time. It doesn’t feel like a strictly European film, insofar as it’s about Americans. But then most of them are Canadians, most Canadian actors of course make their living playing Americans. Michael Ironside I was thrilled to have because I’m a huge fan. Just having the guy from Scanners and the guy from American Pie in a scene together, you want to do that at least once in your career!
From the interviews you’ve given, you seem to prefer American independent cinema to British …
Yeah, I do but in a way, Late Night Shopping, even though it’s shot along an American model, is a very British film. I think that all filmmakers at some point have to deal with America because of its dominant cultural position. Of course we’re more brought up on American cinema than British – I don’t think anyone sees more British films than American – so you have to engage with it. I think the great American film of the 1980s is RoboCop, because it says a lot about America and it’s made by a Dutchman [Paul Verhoeven]. It’s very American but it requires that European distance to make the satire work. And likewise, I think the great American film of the 90s is The Ice Storm, which is a Taiwanese-born but American director [Ang Lee]. It’s the distance that makes it a little bit clouded and gives it an analytical view of America. I’ve spent a lot of time in the States and it’s a privileged position to be part of it and not part of it all.
In Guy X’s production notes, you talk about the film’s tone shifting in the second half. Can you explain what you mean?
I just didn’t want to do a standard story arc like a Hollywood film, because I’ve got bored of a certain kind of Hollywood film. Like Ransom with Mel Gibson. His kid gets kidnapped and very early on you realise that sooner or later Mel Gibson will have a hand-to-hand battle with the kidnapper. Because you just know that’s the structure with an action hero in the lead. It just leads to this terrible feeling where your body loses the will to live. Do I have to sit through this till Mel smacks the guy in the head? There’s definitely an audience who are a little bored always knowing how the film will end, which is provocation enough to try something that throws them, though of course, that runs the risk of alienating some people. Predictable films have their place, but I just wanted to make something that pulled the rug from under you.
You’ve had very little formal training as a director. Would you describe your style as instinctive?
To be honest, I’ve seen a lot of films and I’ve read a lot of theory and I always thought I was a very analytical kind of director. I always thought I was more academic than film student in a way, but that’s a peculiarity of mine. I trained as an architect and I think that gives you a very analytical system of doing things. But this was an experience where I just had to go for it and in that respect it was much more instinctive. I think learning to make films is relatively easy, in that you just watch a lot of films, go and see how a film’s made, then you just try it yourself. The only way to learn is by doing it. There’s nothing complicated in that sense. It’s not magic.
Apparently you’re planning to reunite with Late Night Shopping scriptwriter Jack Lothian on a film about airports. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Airports and Hotels Etc. It’s an out and out comedy as opposed to a black comedy. I think it’s got a very interesting central idea, which is that everywhere across the world is beginning to look the same. To me, it’s a very modern idea of globalisation, where everything becomes a Starbucks or a Holiday Inn, I don’t think films have explored that too much and I think it’s a very modern condition, I think people go to places and find the same things as the places they’ve just been. There’s a lot of comedy to be drawn from it because there’s a loss of perspective on the world. There are people who travel and when they get to their hotel rooms, they already know where the soap is, the exact servings of shampoo and which number to dial for room service because it’s the same everywhere. And I think that’s a comedy I haven’t really seen yet. I would really like to make that film, partly because it’s such a good gag to have a film set around the world only shot in two or three locations and just change the dressing and the extras. Half of Guy X was filmed in Montreal and I discovered a huge airport there that never worked and I think we could just film there.
And finally, do you have any other projects lined up?
Yes, another film I’m looking to make is an adaptation of this book, The Prince of West End Avenue, which is a story set in a Jewish old people’s home in New York on the Upper West Side. It’s kind of nuts. It’s a thriller and I can’t explain it but it’s very funny. That one might take a while to get made …
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