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Genre or Die, Pt6 (1 of 2): Gangster

The lovely Anya asked about Gangster movies, so I thought now might be the time to catch up with writer, director and producer JK Amalou and ask him about his first feature, a gangster film called Hard Men. I’ll follow this up with my own thoughts on Gangster movies. Enjoy! Oh – and while we’re on the subject, DON’T search “Hard Men” on Google Images. Good. Lord. ; )

What’s the story behind HARD MEN? What was your inspiration for it?

HARD MEN was borne out of failure actually. I’d been working on another film. Twice we had a start date and the funding collapsed at the last minute. I even had Kristin Scott-Thomas attached. So I decided to write a gangster film because I love the genre and there hadn’t been a gangster film for a while at that time. I’d also decided that I would do it on a low budget. I’d also read Mad Frankie Fraser’s autobiography so I got in touch with the man himself, an ex-member of the Richardson and then the Krays’ gang. His nickname in the ‘business’ was ‘the dentist’. In fact, I hung out with him for about 4 months while I was writing the script. Through him, I met a gallery of ex-cons who told me their stories… I also went to a number of dives, dodgy pubs, etc. Places I never knew existed in London. Needless to say that it was all very inspiring! Mad Frankie even joked that I could become a supergrass. As it happened, Mad Frankie also appeared in my film as Pops Den, an underworld boss. The other actors are Vincent Regan (300), Lee Ross (Eastenders, Catherine Tate Show), Ross Boatman (London’s Burning).

Who did you have to kill/sleep with/blackmail to get funding to make it?

Because it was a low budget, the financing went smoothly. I drew up a budget of £1 million and told everyone I already had half of it in the bank (which was a white lie –that £500k was basically deferrals and services in kind, ie: stuff I did not have to pay for). With this, I got a TV pre-sale and a Sales Agent’s Minimum Guarantee for £500k which I used to make the film. But there was one problem: the money pledged by the TV company and the Sales Agent was only accessible on delivery of the film. In other words, I had to make the film first and THEN they’d give me the money. So without the cash upfront, there was no way I could make the film. Through a contact of mine, I managed to sweet-talk an old lady theatre producer to advance the money. So I made the film with her money. Once I finished and delivered the film, the TV company and the Sales Agent paid me and I paid back the old lady. Bless her soul! [Note that JK uses the word “sweet-talk” there, wonder what he REALLY had to do, lol – Lucy].

Then the film sold to Fox to $750,000. The deal made the front page of Screen International at the time. And it went on to sell all over the world. It was also shown at the London Film Festival. On a Saturday night, in a cinema on Leicester Square. We even had fun after the film during the Q&A session. A wanker in the audience accused me of being a man with no morals for employing an ex-gangster in my film. It was an accusation which was also repeated by The Guardian and The Sun newspapers. I told that wanker that I had no idea but I knew the man who could answer his question: Mad Frankie himself — he was also in the audience. Half the audience gasped in shock and crapped their pants in unison when Mad Frankie came up on stage.

UK distribution was more tricky. Lots of companies were circling around it but the problem was that, at the time, nobody believed there was a market for gangster films in the UK. Eventually Entertainment UK picked it up. They gave it a very poor cinema release. The budget for the theatrical release was a grand total of £70,000! Normally a distributor would spend a minimum of £250,000 for a tiny release. However, when the film was released on DVD/video, it came number 8 at the box office ahead of a Walt Disney film and Jack Nicholson film, ‘Blood and Wine’.

It’s said HARD MEN was the inspiration for LOCK, STOCK & TWO SMOKING BARRELS. Was it?

Yes, without a doubt. Guy Ritchie himself told me that he used my film as a reference, even though I doubt he’d say that in public! Also, you’ll find 4-5 moments in HARD MEN which are in LOCK STOCK. And yes, HARD MEN did open the way for LOCK STOCK. When HARD MEN hit it big on video/DVD, all UK distributors were looking for another ‘hip’ gagster film. LOCK STOCK had been languishing without a distributor for about year. It was picked up by Summit Entertainment and Polygram… and thanks to a £1.5 million P&A budget (instead of the pitiful £70,000 given to HARD MEN), it was given a proper release with a killer advertising campaign.

But no hard feelings! I am proud that my film opened up the way for LOCK STOCK and I am also very pleased for Guy Ritchie. Besides at that time, HARD MEN got me an agent in L.A. where I ended developing films for Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott who were both fans of HARD MEN.

What makes a “good” gangster film in your opinion?

What makes a good gangster film is a film that resonates with an audience. A film that an audience can relate to. Let me explain. In a script or a film, there are two main elements:

a) The emotional truth and b) the genre.

What made SCARFACE, GOODFELLAS or even WHITE HEAT (a black and white gangster film made in 1949) successful? The reason is because audiences were able to relate to the main character in a perverse way (that’s the Emotional Truth).

Take Montana in SCARFACE — his emotional need was simple: as a poor immigrant, he wants to become ‘somebody’. He wants money, success, women. That emotional need is something that any audience around the world could understand or, better, relate to.

Take Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS. His opening line: “Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to be a gangster”. What was his emotional need? To get away from a poor family and a physically abusive father. Again this is something that any audience could relate to or understand.

Same with Cody in WHITE HEAT. His last words were: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”. Here is a man who wants his mother’s approval.

How you dress this ’emotional need’ — I call it ‘Emotional Truth’ because these are true emotions, emotions any audience can empathize with — becomes the ‘genre’. Tony Montana, Henry Hill, Cody could have fulfilled this emotional need in a different way. Tony Montana could have done it by courting and marrying a rich woman (the genre would be a love story/romantic comedy). Henry Hill could have done it by becoming a social worker, working with young, troubled men with abusive fathers (genre? Drama.) Cody could have got his mother’s approval by becoming a great chef (genre? Comedy.)

I did the same with HARD MEN. 3 best friends. One of them decides to stop seeing his mates because he’s become a dad and it’s time to grow up, be responsible. I believed — maybe wrongly — that that was something a lot of us could relate to or, at least, empathize with. A lot of men have been in that situation: they want to settle down but their mates do everything to dissuade them (“Come on, mate! We’re having fun here and you want to get married and have kids?! You mad or what?!”) That is the emotional truth. A situation any audience could relate to or empathize. Even older people could get it: “Look, son, you’re too young to settle down. You need to live first.”

Then I dressed up this ’emotional truth’ in the gangster genre. Obviously, like in the films cited above, this situation is all the more dangerous because we’re talking about a world where violence is common currency.

Britain’s got a long history of gangster movies. Which are your personal favourites -worldwide – and why?

My favourite British gangster is BRIGHTON ROCK. Very creepy and horribly oppressive. Oh and, before you ask about the emotional truth, this is about a man doing everything to protect his world. He’s a gangster but he could have been a family guy protecting his kids from bullies, a businessman trying to save his business from predatory rivals, etc. etc.

Worldwide’s favourite gangster film? Has to be ONCE UPON TIME IN AMERICA. It’s sprawling, grotesque, sentimental. A monster of a movie at four hours! Wouldn’t advise anybody to write a film like this one! Again the emotional truth is there: it’s about friendships screwed up by betrayals.

Gangster movies seem to come back into “fashion” cyclically: from the likes of the “old school” Brit gangster movies, to the American Martin Scorsese ones, biopics, the return of the Brit gangsters of the 90s, now again with the likes of the Scott brothers (American Gangster) and Act of Grace and Shottas Paradise. Why do you suppose this is a backdrop that won’t go away?

I don’t think it’s just gangster films that are cyclical. ALL genres are cyclical. The raft of horror movies on our screens is a throwback of what was going on in the 70s (ie: the Carpenter films, Friday the 13th, Terror Train, Texas Chainsaw massacre). The Judd Apatow comedies of today? Look up Bachelor Party, Lemon Popsicle, Animal House, etc. The big comic-strip blockbusters of today? Well, look up ET, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, etc.

No genre really goes away, they simply evolve.

What are you working on at the moment?

A gangster film! I’ve just finished a page 1 rewrite of an $18 million film for an Oscar winning producer. The original script was horribly messy. So my first step was to find the emotional truth. And I found it. I rebuilt the story around the main character, Stan, a man who idolizes his older brother. Stan’s older brother is a respected, successful Russian oligarch so when he is murdered, Stan succeeds him and tries to emulate him But he fails miserably and it all goes horribly wrong. Lots of people can relate to that: most of us have idolized and tried to emulate successful people. Could be pop stars, footballers, our dads or mums, etc. etc. Needless to say that my producer was very happy and, after 2 years in limbo, my version of the script is now out to top actors.

Last but by no means least: why did you choose a title for HARD MEN that makes it sound like a porn film??

Oooooo er, matron! Was just trying to get the pervs in really. When you make a low budget film, you do everything to get the punters in. I am sure the pervs were terribly disappointed when they saw my film but none of them have asked for their money back so maybe they enjoyed the film after all. KIDDING.

FYI: JK Amalou’s latest film THE MAN WHO WOULD BE QUEEN, a black comedy, has just been picked up by international sales agent Visual Factory and will debut in the Cannes Film Market next month. He’s available for script consultations and can be contacted via me or jksc”at”msn”dot”com.

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3 thoughts on “Genre or Die, Pt6 (1 of 2): Gangster”

  1. That’s a long one!

    Ooo er matron, yourself.

    Love Hard Men, it’s hilarious. Particularly the end when the main guy is in the wardrobe. Classic.

  2. Love, that’s not even vaguely the actual end. Just funny. Left the best bits out for sure. And there’s plenty of ’em!

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