Monday 1 June 2020

Exit (UK 2020: Dir Michael Fausti) plus short interview with the director NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020

If anyone tells you that it's impossible to make a gripping low budget movie, just ask them to watch Michael Fausti's debut feature. If anyone tells you that it's impossible to make a low budget movie that remains simple while also functioning on a number of levels, well repeat the instruction. The director has previously impressed with his intelligently realised short films, including The Ingress Tapes (2017) and Dead Celebrities (2018), but Exit is something else altogether.

Essex couple Michelle (Leonarda Sahani) and Steve (Billy James Machin) arrive in London to rent a flat on occasion of their third anniversary. Sleazy letting agent Russell Bone (Tony Denham) shows them round, but their idyllic holiday stalls when they find out that the rental has been double booked: a French couple, Adrienne (Charlotte Gould) and Christophe (Christophe Delesques), have also turned up. Accident or design? Bone suggests that, as it's a two bedroom apartment, the four should stay the night, and accommodation will be sorted for one of the couples the day after. But we know that the whole thing has been pre-arranged by the 'Man on the Phone' (Fausti) who bides his time until the action begins, reading Euro stroke mags and commenting "Typical continentals - she's a nymphomanic and he can't keep his hands to himself."

Slowly the two couples get to know each other. Adrienne and Christophe are witty and sophisticated. They speak a number of languages and they know their wines. Michelle is won over by the couple, but Steve remains unconvinced, feeling threatened by their 'otherness' and annoyed that Michelle doesn't side with him. But as the evening progresses, the conversation turns to sex, Christophe suggesting to Steve that they should couple swap. He's not keen - to put it mildly - but a carefully applied Mickey Finn changes that. The morning after, Steve realises what's happened to both him and his girlfriend, and things turn ugly very quickly.

Michelle (Leonarda Sahani) in Exit
Based on this description, one might argue that Exit is just another thriller. Couple seduce another couple, violence ensues, credits roll. But it's how this story is told, and what we are shown, that elevates Mathew Bayliss's story from interesting to unmissable. For Fausti manages to give us a movie which is not only exciting, seductive and horrific: it's also a statement of the times in which we live and an elliptical time travel story with hints of the supernatural; which isn't bad for what is effectively a four hander. Christophe and Adrienne represent everything that the 'leave' contingent fear; they're - and it's a word that crops up a lot in this film - 'cosmopolitan.' They're all about the sex, the fine drinking, and the worldy wiseness. As Steve, Machin has the unenviable job of being a kind of 'Leave' everyman. When offered wine he responds that he's happy with beer and when offered a glass for the beer replies that he's happy with the can. He gets angry when Michelle observes the difference between her new friends and her boyfriend, sensing that their very sophistication exists merely to show up his lack of it. Historical elements, both characters and art on the apartment walls, suggest a further subtext of history repeating itself, and the flat becomes more constrained and claustrophobic as the drama progresses.

But then 'the foreigners' play to type and become the kind of dangerous predators dreamed up in the worst of Farrage's monologues. But are they like this because they're foreign? Or are they just crazy? But in case you might be thinking that Fausti's film serves to endorse these views, Exit is shot in the varied styles of Euro cinema: Argento's colour schemes and giallo stylings (Michelle's face glimpsed through a full wine glass is a startling shot), and Noe's editing are all possible reference points, as is a subtle supernatural end coda - and did I see a nod to Baise-Moi (2000) in there as well? With some rather startling historical flashback sequences, imaginative photography and Nick Burns' stunning score (how is this his first soundtrack?) Exit is a precocious and important calling card from a director to watch.

I also got to ask director Michael Fausti a few questions about the film.

DEoL: The inspiration for the film was fairly obvious and the film clearly taps in to the 'referendum' madness. Do you see the 'Steve' character an 'everyman' for 'leave' voters, or is he more complex than that?

 In all the films that I make, I always look to create characters and a world that is ambiguous in its morality. People and their motivations are complex. Whilst Steve’s character can be viewed as something of an Everyman figure, I’ve always seen him as being more representative of social class and a type of masculinity. His masculinity is threatened by the house, which has a strong feminine energy about it. With Exit I never wanted to come down on one side or the other of the Brexit debate. The insular nature of the house in Exit is a space that accelerates all of the characters' insecurities, their anger and weaknesses, as well as their desires.
Michael Fausti (left) and Nick Burns scoring Exit

DEoL: Cinematic Influences abound in the film. But can you tell me about the stories behind the art choices on the apartment walls?

MF: There is significance to the paintings in the apartment and I personally framed every one of those pictures and decided where they should be hung on set! Within the mis-en-scene of Exit there are signifiers to potential readings or interpretations of the film. I’ve always enjoyed the art direction and set dressing aspect of filmmaking. However, I want audiences to draw their own conclusions around meaning and connotations within Exit. Once explained, things tend to lose their mystery...

DEoL: The historic flashbacks were very unusual. Can you tell me something about the decision to include them and what you were trying to achieve there (not suggesting you didn't achieve it, I'm just interested).

MF: I’ve always enjoyed films where a character’s seemingly irrelevant story or anecdote anticipates future narrative events. The character of Napoleon makes several appearances throughout the film if you look really closely, and not just in the flashbacks. There is a cyclical aspect to Exit, a sense that characters have been through this before. The house is also a space in which the characters find themselves in each other’s reveries, memories and fantasies. The poisoning of Napoleon does have significance but again I’ll let the audience arrive at their own conclusions.

DEoL: There are many things to love about this film, and Nick Burns' score is up there. How did you find him and what was the scoring process like?

MF: I’ve known Nick for a number of years and he’s helped with sound on some of my earlier short films. Nick is a highly accomplished musician and producer. When I approached him about scoring Exit, he was really excited about the project. He was also on set, overseeing audio during filming. So from early on Nick knew the kind of tone and atmosphere I was aiming for. I wanted to convey a sense of the house having a past and being reactive to the characters. Nick and I had many discussions around the kind of sound design and music that would best achieve this. I think the score is incredible but so too is the sound design. It’s so layered and there are some real subtleties in there, designed to slowly build atmosphere and unsettle the audience. We literally sat side by side each other in his studio, going through every aspect of the audio. Nick just got straight away what I wanted to achieve and made it happen.

DEoL: How did you cast your movie? The casting is spot on and the actors absolutely believable.

The narrative of Exit is largely character driven and we really took our time to get the casting right. We planned for a seven day shoot. So we were looking for actors who’d be able to rise to the challenge of a tough shooting schedule. We posted ads on a casting platform for the characters and got a huge response. We then held auditions in North London. When casting actors, I always look to cast as a group, rather than simply for each role. I’m also looking for actors to take ownership of their characters. The relationship between director and actor should be a collaborative one. When casting you are essentially looking for people who will bring their own degree of creativity to a part. When we secured Tony Denham for the role of Russell Bone, I was confident that we had exactly the right cast to make it happen. I was familiar with Tony’s work in The Football Factory (2004) and In the Name of the Father (1994) and knew that he’d bring some authentic London grit to the role. All of our actors really went above and beyond on set with their performances and I’m really pleased with what they achieved.

DEoL: How pleased are you with the end result? 

Given the inevitable restraints of time and money, I’m really happy with Exit. I never intended to make a simplistic horror genre piece but rather looked to push the boundaries of genre and linear narrative. I wanted to explore dream logic and ideas around desire, culture, history and entrapment. I feel that we achieved this with Exit, in no small part down to the incredible cast and crew that we assembled for the project.

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