Keira Knightley as Charlotte and Colin Farrell as Mitchell in LONDON BOULEVARD, directed by William Monahan. Photo © Laurie Sparham. An IFC Films Release.
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London Boulevard (2010/2011)
Opened: 11/11/2011 Limited
|IFC Center||11/11/2011 - 11/17/2011||7 days|
|Sunset 5/LA||11/18/2011 - 12/01/2011||14 days|
Trailer: Click for trailer
Genre: British Film Noir
The directorial debut from Oscar-winning screenwriter of THE DEPARTED, William Monahan, LONDON BOULEVARD stars Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley in a stylish gangster thriller about star-crossed lovers who run afoul of one of London's most vicious crime bosses.
After three years behind bars, Mitchel (Colin Farrell) emerges from Pentonville Prison with good intentions. But when his old friend Billy (Ben Chaplin), a low-level gangster who's looking for backup on a job, meets him upon release, Mitchel joins him in exchange for a place to live. While entangled in the past, Mitchel becomes involved with Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a movie star holed up in a Holland Park mansion against the paparazzi. Touched by her beauty and vulnerability, he quickly falls into the role of protector, fending off aggressive reporters and stalkers, as well as Billy's ploy to rob the house of its expensive art and vintage cars.
As the attraction between them grows and their relationship deepens, Mitchel and Charlotte make plans to start anew in Los Angeles. But Mitchel has already caught the eye of powerful and ruthless mob boss Gant (Ray Winstone), who sees him as a potentially valuable asset to his business. When Mitchel rebuffs a lucrative job offer, Gant sets out to ensnare him in a violent web of extortion and murder. As Gant's tactics become increasingly vicious and deadly, it becomes clear he would rather see the younger man dead than free. Knowing no one close to him is safe from Gant's wrath, including Charlotte and his troubled sister Briony (Anna Friel), Mitchel decides to take a drastic move to settle things between them once and for all.
About the Production
Snowed in at his Vermont home, Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan was reading his way through the noir crime novels of Ken Bruen, when one particular title captured his imagination: London Boulevard, a dark and disturbing fable set in the contrasting worlds of South London's seamy criminal underground and the up-market West London celebrity stratosphere.
Monahan reworked Bruen's premise, which was to some extent a pastiche of the classic Hollywood film Sunset Boulevard, into a contemporary thriller that includes a movie star pursued into seclusion by the voracious London paparazzi, creating a love story that would be played out by two of Hollywood's hottest stars, Keira Knightley and Colin Farrell.
Anything Monahan writes is a hot property, but he had bigger plans than just seeing the film produced. He wanted to direct it himself. "I knew I could cast it and it was a story I really wanted to tell and in a world I wanted to shoot," he explains. "I have a first-look deal with Graham King, and everything I come up with, I show to him first. Very happily, he wanted to do it."
Monahan first worked with producer Graham King of GK Films in 2007 on Martin Scorsese's multi-award-winning film The Departed, which, in addition to Monahan's Oscar, earned King an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. "Bill had London Boulevard in his head long before he sat down with me to discuss it," says King. "He wanted to direct this film from the get go, but didn't tell me until he knew I was interested. I was confident Bill had what it took to pull this off... Every hurdle he faced, he jumped right over."
Monahan's screenplay is faithful to the original in terms of tone and theme, while establishing its own identity. "Ken is a beloved thriller writer with a very distinctive style, but he knew from the very beginning that I was going to do my own thing," says Monahan. "I liked the premise. I liked certain of the characters and the situations. I saw other things that I could do. I was springing off the great British New Wave films of the '60s and '70s as much as I was off the novel."
Adds Curtis: "The more Bill wrote, the more it became his own. At this point, it's hard to remember which bits come from the book and which are from Bill's inventions ... It has these interesting shifts between being wildly funny at one moment, very violent at another and then very tender. That's very much central to Bill's writing. He's always surprising you."
The film accurately captures the raw, testosterone-fueled world of British crime syndicates, right down to the nuances of their accents, according to the U.K.-born King. "These are not mob crime bosses like they are in the U.S. They are all street-level, tongue-in-cheek, larger-than-life characters. Because Bill had totally done his homework, he was able to recreate that world in a remarkable way." At this point, Monahan has lived and worked in London "More," he says, "than I ever lived in Boston, which is funny to think about."
However wide-ranging the influences to his writing, Monahan says it all goes out the window once he gets to the set. As writer and director, he was able to make whatever changes on the fly. "You make the film on the floor no matter what the script says. When I'm making a picture, I'm the first one to hurl script pages across the room. It's a dynamic visual product, as much as it is a literary product. It's not like you're showing up to shoot the Bible. The important thing is to keep it moving, keep everybody happy, come in on time and under budget."
Casting London Boulevard
The extraordinary cast of London Boulevard is led by Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley, a pair of performers whose lights shine as brightly in Hollywood as they do on the other side of the Atlantic. Joining them are some of Britain's most acclaimed and best-known actors, including Ray Winstone, Ben Chaplin, David Thewlis, Anna Friel and Stephen Graham.
"This is probably the best British cast that's been put together for ages," says Monahan. "With actors like that, you can do one take and you're done. But you do another one for Jesus, and then you move on."
"I always expected Bill to work well with actors," says Quentin Curtis. "He seems to speak the same language. There was a great collegial atmosphere on the set."
To play Mitchel, Monahan knew he needed an actor who encompassed both the icy brutality and tenderness of a contradictory character. The producers found what they were looking for in the Irish actor Colin Farrell. "When I met Colin, I knew instantly it was going to be him," says Monahan. "He does something in London Boulevard he hasn't done before. Colin is a kinetic actor, always in motion, and here he plays it very cool, very chill. You can always see the emotions boiling under the surface. It's an absolutely brilliant performance. The intensity of the man leaps out at you. He's gentle and he's also very, very violent."
Mitchel has just finished three years in Pentonville prison for Grievous Bodily Harm and is determined to leave his criminal past behind. "Colin brought so much to the role," says King. "You look at him and you feel for the character. Mitchel is a guy who doesn't say too much, but he has the audience rooting for him right from the beginning. When he comes out of prison, it's very clear that he wants to get out of that life. The question is how. I think that resonates with everyone who wants to make a big change in their lives, whether you are a nine-to-fiver or a gangster."
Thanks to Monahan's skill as a writer, says Farrell, everything he needed to find the character was in the script. "It was so rich. A good script is more than just a set of dots that need to be connected by the actors. This one was really fleshed out. Each character in the script is at some form of turning point in their lives, whether they're aware of it or not. Mitchel's idea is to get out of London, but he has literally no connections elsewhere, and no finances."
The story begins on Mitchel's last day in prison. He has made a decision to reinvent his life, but there is an army of ghosts waiting for him on the outside. "If you believe in karma and the idea of Olympians playing chess and using us as pawns, then Mitchel is a man who has made too many missteps to fully realize what he wishes for himself," Farrell says. "Mitchel is fairly bright, but he has a natural aptitude for violence. He started running with the wrong people when he was very young and a life of petty crime ensued. He keeps getting pulled back into that world of back alleys and vitriol and batons coming out."
Monahan's extensive preparation and research gave the cast complete confidence in their director, according to Farrell. "Bill knew the piece inside out and upside down. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and literature. I completely trusted him and he was a dream to work with. He knows what he wants and he knows when he gets it. And he's got a wicked sense of humor as well."
One of Monahan's boldest departures from Bruen's original story was to transform Charlotte from a Norma Desmond-esque faded star to a young actress fleeing the dark side of fame. "It's a much more contemporary idea," says Curtis. "Stars today are so scrutinized and beleaguered by the press that they have a very ambivalent attitude toward fame. For some it becomes unbearable."
The filmmakers were thrilled to cast Keira Knightley in the role of Charlotte, the reclusive young actress who falls in love with Mitchel. "There was fantastic chemistry between her and Colin from the start," says Monahan. "We did a table reading at Keira's house. They were just on it immediately."
Farrell sees the characters as similarly damaged souls. "They both have a fear of getting involved with anybody," he says. "Love is akin to violence in some ways. Once it is activated, it takes on a life of its own and it's very hard to control."
Charlotte is constantly hounded by the photographers that surround her home, making her a virtual prisoner. "The stress on celebrities can be quite intense," says Monahan. "Fame becomes a prison, especially in London, where the paparazzi are particularly ruthless. The paps will scream unbelievably vile things at young women in order to get a shot of them crying. I saw a paparazzo rip open a car door in order to try to get an upskirt shot of Lily Allen, who was pregnant at the time. It's easy to adopt a sort of a siege mentality."
Knightley has experienced some of the same intrusive behavior as her character. "I know what it's like to have a lot of eyes looking at you," she says. "This is a look at an aspect of celebrity culture that hasn't really been addressed in a film."
Working with a director as skilled at storytelling as Monahan was a treat for the actress. "A lot of directors now are coming from advertising or pop videos or things like that," she says. "Bill is a wonderful writer. It's quite rare and exciting from an acting point of view working with somebody that's so on the story. It's amazing how he manages to create such complete worlds with just a couple of scenes."
Knightley has nothing but praise for her co-star as well. "Colin is amazing because you completely believe that he has this hardness and yet this intense vulnerability at exactly the same time," she says. "There are a lot of actors who play the hard man and you never see any cracks. With Colin, you completely believe that he could be a criminal and yet you completely believe that he has a heart of gold. It's a Steve McQueen-type performance."
Mitchel's nemesis is Gant, a ruthless, old-school crime boss played by Ray Winstone. "Gant has gone through life like a psychotic alpha chimp," says Monahan. "One can assume Gant's involved in every possible type of criminal enterprise. His main interest is real estate, but he has a highly personal interest in mayhem. And he develops an interest in Mitchel."
Although drawn from the same world, the characters are as different as two men can be. "Gant is the opposite of Mitchel," says King. "Gant is going to get in your face and say whatever comes into his head straight away, whereas Mitchel is a lot more calculated. At one point, Mitchel turns it around and says, 'If I were to be a gangster, I wouldn't work for you. I'd kill you.' When Mitchel does go up against Gant, he's got to outwit him, not outmuscle him."
Winstone and Monahan have worked together on two previous films, The Departed and Edge of Darkness, both scripted by Monahan. "Ray knows those people, and he knows that world," says Monahan. "I was half expecting him to come in and say, 'We gotta change this. We gotta do this.' So I was happy when he said, 'No, that's exactly it.'"
That's high praise from Winstone, a product of one of the toughest neighborhoods in London's rough and tumble East End. "Bill is a top quality writer," says the actor. "He's written a gangster film set in London that is loads better than most I have read. When Americans write for English actors, it doesn't always translate. Billy gets it. He's captured the atmosphere down to the nitty-gritty."
Winstone was equally impressed by the ensemble Monahan had gathered. "Getting a cast like this together is an amazing accomplishment, but that just shows you the power of Bill's writing," Winstone adds. "And he's taken to directing like a fish to water."
David Thewlis plays Jordan, Charlotte's eccentric house manager and Mitchel's guide into her hidden world. The character is another of Monahan's ingenious inventions, morphed from the book's middle-European, bald butler. "David Thewlis and I have been friends for a long time," says Monahan. "I knew that he was going to be in the film as soon as I wrote the character. David is one of the finest actors ever to wake up in the morning and he's really astounding in the film."
Jordan has some of the film's most memorable moments. "He's completely original," says King. "There are scenes where you just laugh out loud. His dialogue is just tremendous. When he has his confrontation with the recently fired handyman, it comes out of nowhere. You realize, now it's a free-for-all. This is London. It's gangster time!"
Jordan introduces himself to Mitchel as a "polymath," a fancy way of saying a jack-of-all-trades. "He is a failed film producer, a failed actor, a musician, a solicitor, an agoraphobic, a pot-head, an alcoholic, a frustrated murderer with a nice taste in clothes and a full head of hair, and he lives in Charlotte's kitchen," says Thewlis. "It's never quite clear what their relationship is, but he is scared of the outside world, and he's settled here in this house with Charlotte, who's running from her own demons."
Having known Monahan since the days on the set of Ridley Scott's 2005 epic, Kingdom of Heaven, Thewlis was eager to work with his friend as a director. "Bill is quite a juggernaut when it comes to writing," he says. "It is spectacular that he had the opportunity to bring his script to life. He crafted something that he's very particular about. I don't think there's any other way for Bill. He's enormously prolific, enormously contentious, enormously passionate and a true visionary."
Mitchel is pulled back into the criminal world by his old friend Billy Norton, played by Ben Chaplin in a bravura performance. "Billy is a very amusing petty criminal," says Monahan. "He is imported directly from Ken Bruen's novel. He's the one who shows up with Mitchel's options and they turn out to be dreadful options--a precarious few days in a stolen flat and the criminal life. Ben is extraordinary and really funny."
Billy Norton fills a time-honored slot in the gangster world. "Peter Lorre played the Billies of many years ago," says King. "He's someone who ultimately is going to sacrifice anything to win the boss' heart, and to be up there with the big guv'nor. And Gant has him on a very short leash. Mitchel knows who he's dealing with and doesn't trust him at all."
Being chosen to play a man he describes as a "South London low-life with an inflated sense of his own importance" was a surprise to Chaplin. "I didn't know whether to take it as a compliment or not when they offered me the part," he admits. "Bill thought it would be a very easy one for me. It turned out to be a very lucky one for me."
When he heard who else was in the cast of London Boulevard, Chaplin was astonished. "It was almost amusing," he says. "Stephen Graham, excellent. Eddie Marsan, great. Ray Winstone, no way! Getting beaten up by Ray Winstone, I felt like I could retire. You're looking into those eyes you've seen on screen so many times and they're intense. He's a lovely bloke, very funny and charming, but you look in his eyes and it's pretty scary."
Chaplin says the script stood out when he read it, both in terms of style and subject matter. "Every character has a real individual voice. They're all unique and believable. It's not just about players and shooters. It's also about destiny. Mitchel is trying to pick his own path and fate doesn't allow it."
Mitchel's life is constantly being complicated by his unpredictable sister, Briony, played by Anna Friel. As desperately as Mitchel tries to protect her, Briony is incapable of keeping herself away from harm. Monahan never really considered anyone but Friel for the part. "She has mad energy on the screen," he says. "It is absolutely riveting. When Anna enters a room, you know she's there and she can dominate the screen just as easily."
"The cast shaped up amazingly," says Curtis. "The script was a feast for all these great character actors. Even in the relatively small roles, Bill has some of the best talent in the world, like Eddy Marsan and Jonathan Cullen and Alan Williams. They make their roles really memorable because they're extraordinary actors who bring something special to everything they do."