Cast: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt
Director: Uberto Pasolini
Running Time: 92 minutes
Synopsis: The award-winning new film from Uberto Pasolini (producer of worldwide smash The Full Monty), Still Life is a poignant and life-affirming drama that follows in the best tradition of humanist British cinema.
For 22 years, life for the calm and insular John May (the incomparable Eddie Marsan) has been his work for the local council in South London, finding the next of kin for those who have passed away alone. But in this age of -efficiency', John's meticulousness is no longer considered an asset. He's made redundant, and left with one final assignment: a search for the relatives of a neighbour, Billy Stoke.
John methodically pieces together fragments of Billy's life; a mix of mischief, misadventure, love and regret, most of all for an abandoned daughter, Kelly (Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey). John and Kelly are naturally drawn to each other, and as their friendship blossoms, his outlook opens imperceptibly to life's infinite possibilities…
Beautifully observed, profoundly affecting and laced with moments of Ealing-esque humour, Still Life is a celebration of dignity and personal connection.
Release Date: July 24th, 2014
Still Life is the second feature film directed by Uberto Pasolini. The successful producer of such films as The Full Monty and Palookaville, Uberto Pasolini's first foray into directing was the critically-lauded Machan, a feel good comedy about a group of Sri Lankans who masquerade as a handball team to gain entry to Germany when their visa applications are rejected. Machan enjoyed a long international festival life, garnering both jury and audience awards.
Still Life was also inspired by real people and events. When he read about the men and women whose job it is to organise funerals for people who leave no one behind when they die, Uberto Pasolini recognised something both profound and universal.
'I was struck by the thought of all those lonely graves and empty funeral services," he explains. 'It's a very powerful image. I began to think about loneliness and death and about what it means to be part of a community, and how neighbourliness has disappeared for many people. Writing the script I felt guilt at not knowing my neighbours and local community. For the first time I went to the local street party, wishing to participate in that small attempt to create a connection between neighbours."
This sense of lack of engagement with the community brought on deeper reflections of contemporary society. 'What are we saying about the value society places on individual lives? How can so many people be forgotten and die alone?" continues the filmmaker. 'The quality of our society is judged by the value it puts on its weakest members and who is weaker than the dead? The way we treat the dead is a reflection on how our society treats the living. And it seems to be very easy to forget how to honour the dead in western society. I feel very strongly that the acknowledgement of past lives is fundamental for a society that wants to call itself civilised."
Uberto Pasolini wove these ideas into a film about a middle-aged local council officer, John May, whose final task before he's made redundant is to organise the funeral of a man who has died a lonely death in a flat opposite his own. Determined to make his last job a success, John May travels around the country searching for the man's surviving family and friends. On the way, he meets the man's estranged daughter who offers the possibility of a future of love and companionship.
The strength of his passion for the story and its themes made it impossible for him to hand over the creative reins to another. So, like with Machan, he decided to direct the film as well as write it.
'With Still Life, I knew I wanted a film that was as still as the title suggests. My main visual references were Ozu's late films, with their quiet but immensely powerful images of everyday life."
Directing an English cast was a new experience. 'When I made Machan, I had an incredibly cast group of Sri Lankan actors who I directed through an interpreter, so I was largely working through tonality rather than language. With Still Life, not only did I have considerably less time with the actors to rehearse and a much shorter production schedule, but we were speaking the same language so I was more emotionally invested in the individual words. Thankfully, because of the brilliance of the actors I was working with, I managed to get out of the actors the same tones, inflections, emphases that I had in my head when I wrote the script."
His cast is headed up by Eddie Marsan, unarguably one of the UK's finest characters actors and one whose talent has been recognised by internationally acclaimed directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Mike Leigh and JJ Abrams.
Pasolini wrote John May, the meticulously conscientious council funeral officer who organises the funerals of the lonely dead, with Eddie Marsan in mind, absolutely convinced that he could bring out the character's complexities within the stillness of his work. 'John May's solitude is intrinsic to the film but he doesn't register loneliness, he doesn't see that there is another way of living" says Uberto Pasolini. 'We have a tendency to assume that if we think one way, then everyone thinks the same way and with loneliness and solitude, we project our own fears on those around us. There are people whose personal lives appear empty but who are emotionally self-sufficient and find fulfillment in other areas of their lives, for example their jobs. John May's life is in itself full; full of the forgotten lives he is dedicated to. And although we might not want to live ourselves a life of 'stillness", it is important that we don't feel alienated from him. And of course we still get a deal of enjoyment when he begins to open up in the film - he tries new food, travels to places he has never visited, shares a bottle with two homeless men. Eddie Marsan's skill and humanity managed to bring truth in the actions and small changes that mark John May's life."
For Eddit Marsan, it was the sensitivity of the screenplay that proved such a draw. 'This is such a fascinating and beautiful study of mortality and loneliness and importance of sharing your life," he says. 'Uberto Pasolini's screenplay is so heartfelt and poignant. It is based on honest themes of living and dying and of family and community; it's not a calculated or manipulating story. It's really from the heart, which makes it unique. That's why I wanted to do it."
The character of John May presented unique challenges for Eddie Marsan as an actor. 'I had an idea funeral officers existed but I didn't know how isolated or eccentric they can be," continues the actor. 'They work alone so it's quite an odd kind of work. But I felt that although John May is isolated, he is not lonely. John May is quite unusual, he doesn't express much, so it was more important that I show what he's thinking. It's very internal with him and that can be hard to play because you have to work out what he's feeling and then not express it. But that makes a good character – he's complex and real rather than someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. He is very conscientious - he feels reassurance and pleasure in being in charge of these dead people's affairs. He has a very structured life and when he loses his job, the refuge he takes in his work is removed and he is forced to experience life head on. And when he begins to research the life of the dead man who lived opposite him in his last job for the council, he begins to open up. Because the dead man is so close - he lived opposite him and his disordered flat is a mirror image of John May's flat just as his chaotic life is a mirror image of John's ordered existence - he becomes aware of his own mortality. His investigation into the dead man's life takes John May on a psychological as well as a geographical journey. And life gives him a slap in the face."
Playing opposite Eddie Marsan in the role of Kelly is Joanne Froggatt. Most famous now for her role as Anna in the smash television series Downton Abbey, Joanne Froggatt caught Pasolini's eye with her award-winning performance in the TV film In Our Name in which she plays a soldier struggling to return to civilian life.
'For the character of Kelly, the daughter of the dead man, I was looking for an actress who could combine a wounded vulnerability with a sense of optimism and hope," says Uberto Pasolini. 'With her brilliant performance in In Our Name, Joanne Froggatt managed to show strength and weakness in a completely believable character."
Joanne Froggatt saw Kelly as a nice, normal woman. 'She's been quite hurt in the past and has suffered from being abandoned by her father and her husband so she's built her life around dogs. She's a bit of a loner and then she meets John May and they start the beginnings of a friendship."
It was the originality of Uberto Pasolini's screenplay that grabbed Joanne Froggatt. 'It struck me as a very unusual story and those always attract me because they don't come along very often. It's a very sweet story with an interesting subject matter that I'd never thought about or read about. And when I knew Eddie Marsan was playing the lead, I was even more keen because I'm a big fan of his.
'The film touches on a multitude of themes but in essence it's really about life and how we relate to other people and the sadness of a lonely life," continues Joanne Froggatt. 'There's sadness in it but there's also real warmth - how strangers can connect with each other through mutual understandings and circumstances. You suspect Kelly and John would really support each other and that there is the start of a really good relationship there."
Joanne Froggatt is also a keen supporter of independent cinema. 'I'm very passionate that films like this are still being made," she explains. 'Uberto Pasolini wrote, directed and produced the film and he had the overall artistic vision and it was wonderful to work on a project with someone like that because they have such excitement and passion and that's infectious. Uberto has a great sense of the emotional story of the characters and great eye for design. These are the nicest jobs in some ways; it's a real labour of love."
Working with Eddie Marsan lived up to all Joanne Froggatt's expectations. 'Eddie Marsan is always brilliant," she says. 'He's one of the best British actors working today. He always brings something different to the project; he's got a real quirkiness and a real sense of the authentic. He's so interesting to watch; you're completely drawn into what he is doing. So I was very pleased to be working with him."
Uberto Pasolini found working with both Eddie Marsan and Joannae Froggatt a pleasure: 'There was a lot of fine-tuning on the set and that was possible because Eddie Marsan and Joanne Froggatt are such fine actors. And enormously patient!"
Having spent several months researching the background to the character of John May, which included visiting houses of the recently deceased with real council officers, Uberto Pasolini began shooting in May 2012 on locations throughout London and South East England. His team of behind the scenes collaborators comprised cinematographer Stefano Falivene, production designer Lisa Marie Hall, costume designer Pam Downe and editors Tracy Granger and Gavin Buckley.
'Shooting was very smooth," says Uberto Pasolini. 'I never had to compromise. For a relatively low budget film, it's quite complex - there are a lot of locations in different parts of the country. But the scale was achievable because we weren't asking for huge things. I had a great line producer and all my collaborators knew exactly how to make a film on a small budget."
His brief to cinematographer Stefano Falivene was clear - the camera would be still, the world ordered, and the world seen and felt from John May's point of view. 'I was keen not to have over the shoulder shots onto John May from any of the characters he interacts with because I wanted the audience to have as personal as possible a relationship with his character. So we would always be with him and never with someone else. We're only with someone else once he meets Kelly. In the scenes with Kelly we for the first time have complimentary over the shoulder shots and after Kelly you have a three shot with the two drunks outside the church. At that point he is linked photographically to other people in a way he has never been in the film before.
These are just subtle things but they helped me make a decision on where to place the camera."
With production designer Lisa Marie Hall and costume designer Pam Downe, Uberto Pasolinidecided on the film's colour palette. 'The film is in part a journey of the awakening of the senses so we talked about the film being de-saturated at the beginning and introducing the colours gradually. So at the beginning of the film there is very little colour – it's mostly pastel greys and blues and browns and monotones - and more colour comes in as the film progresses. And with the sets, there is a lot of symmetry in some of the houses he visits and his own - for example, the orderly lines of underwear and bottles in the house of the woman with the cat at the beginning of the film are similar to the straight lines and neatness of his own flat."
The film wrapped filming in late June. It was a tribute to the talents of both his creative collaborators and his cast that Uberto Pasolini was able to fulfill his creative ambitions. 'I am proudest of Eddie Marsan's performance," he says. 'Everyone knows he's an extraordinary actor but he hasn't really been used as a lead in a feature film. It makes me happy that I was able to do that."
Release Date: July 24th, 2014