Adam Smith The Chemical Brothers

“Just make things, make things, make things”: Adam Smith on directing

From The Chemical Brothers to Little Dorrit, The Streets to Doctor Who, Adam Smith has had an eclectic and distinctive directing career. As his first feature film, Trespass Against Us, is released, we talk to him about working with Michael Fassbender, making the perfect concert visuals, and the importance of finding projects that speak to you.

In Trespass Against You, Adam Smith’s feature film debut, Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson are transformed into members of a travelling community in rural Gloucestershire, who get through life via a mix of criminality and extremely strong family ties. A comedy-drama, the story is based on a real-life family named the Johnsons whom Smith first heard about over a decade ago from the film’s writer, Alastair Siddons.

“He was trying to persuade me to do a documentary [about them],” says Smith. “At that point I’d just done a year of observational documentary and I wanted to do more drama and I’d just started to work with The Streets, Mike Skinner. I wanted to work with actors and tell more narrative stories. So I didn’t do the documentary but I said to him, ‘you’ve got to write down all the stories they tell you, all the stuff that can’t get in the documentary, and we’ll make a film about this one day’.”

Trespass Against Us Michael Fassbender
Top image: Clown from film for The Chemical Brothers, played by Adam Smith’s father Peter Smith; Above: Michael Fassbender in Trespass Against Us
Trespass Against Us
Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson in Trespass Against Us

And so, eventually, Trespass Against Us was born. Still rooted in the tale of the Johnsons (who are renamed as the Cutlers in the film) and their life on the fringes of society – including an almost love-hate relationship with the local police which features high-energy car chases and Fassbender at one point evading capture by hiding under a cow – the film also speaks of more universal themes of father-son competitiveness and the difficulties of escaping your upbringing and choosing a different path.

Not everyone has appreciated this combination. Critical reception has been mixed, with some reviewers frustrated that Trespass Against Us is neither a straight-up crime caper or a clear family drama. But what appealed to Smith was that the script contained both. “We talked right at the beginning about a heist film, and all the exciting chases and everything else, but felt it’s not that interesting unless it’s about family. It is about universal truths and it does allow you a way in. Not that everyone will find a way, I shouldn’t think.

“I love going to the cinema and being taken into a world you’ve never been in before but feeling like you understand it, and you’re there and being moved and relating – and that’s what I felt with that script,” he continues. “I’ve read quite a lot of scripts, and it was just so original. It was funny, but really touching and also exciting, and also this world that I thought most people hadn’t experienced.”

Fassbender was also drawn in by Siddons’ script. “Michael read it within two days [of receiving it],” recalls Smith. “He had a stack of other scripts from god knows who, but he read this, really because he heard it was set in the traveller community and he’d had some experience of that growing up in Ireland. He just loved the script – it really spoke to him.”

Trespass Against Us
Still image from Trespass Against Us
Trespass Against Us
Still image from Trespass Against Us

Known for his immersive approach, Fassbender intuitively got the characters from the start, according to Smith. “He was like, ‘I’ll go and see the family, and if they want me to fight them, then I’ll fight them’,” he says. “He didn’t, none of that happened. But he said it and I totally believed that he would. You believe him in that world, you believe that he’d have a tear up, you believed he’d drive really fast.”

Fassbender did in fact perform some, if not all, of the driving sequences in the film, and he also worked hard to get the distinctive Gloucestershire accent required of the character correct. “It was a bit weird, two Irish actors doing Gloucestershire accents but Michael was amazing on that, he just worked so hard,” says Smith. “He didn’t want a dialect coach, he wanted us to get a recording of the script by someone who was from that world…. Michael just studied that obsessively and just really got the accent. Because it’s quite specific – it’s not like the broad Gloucestershire accent, it’s a bit more clipped, and then it’s got this Traveller slang and Cheltenham back streets slang.”

The Chemical Brothers Adam Smith
Smith, left and Noah Clark (aka Vegetable Vision) with Tom Rowlands from The Chemical Brothers, centre

Working with Fassbender and Gleeson is all quite a long way from Smith’s first entry into directing which came via Vegetable Vision, the company he co-founded with Noah Clark as a teenager to make visuals for raves and clubs. It was at this early stage in his career that he began making visuals for The Chemical Brothers, who were then known as The Dust Brothers. This is a relationship that endures today, with Smith (and current collaborator Marcus Lyall) continuing to make ever-more elaborate and ambitious visuals for the band’s concerts around the world, and also completing a feature-length concert film titled Don’t Think for them in 2012.

“I really love doing that stuff,” says Smith. “It feels very natural…. The Chemical Brothers is where anything goes. It’s this world that we’re creating.” Watching the visuals go out live at concerts, Smith also knows immediately if their work is chiming with the audience. “You can always tell when there’s a good moment in the show, because all the phones come out,” he says.

“Adam is someone who really knows our music and really understands what we want a concert to feel like,” says The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands. “He’s been with us from the start and is a really key collaborator in our story. I love his pure response to music, he has a real enthusiasm for it that I find inspiring.

Adam Smith The Chemical Brothers
Peter Smith, Adam Smith’s father, on set for shoot for The Chemical Brothers

“One of the most exciting parts of the process is the realising of his ideas,” Rowlands continues. “I remember him talking about 30ft high tin robots shooting lasers out of their eyes and thinking that it sounds cool and exciting, but it probably won’t happen. And then we come to play our first show and there they are and they are not slick, futuristic robots but ones from a past imagining of the future – an important stylistic point which makes more sense to us. Visuals are always a feel thing, sometimes there are ideas that don’t work but mostly we trust him to come up with something great. I think he relishes the freedom and the ability to really stamp his creative vision on it, free from too many constraints.”

“The amazing thing with The Chemical Brothers, the gift, is that there’s no politics really,” Smith agrees. “Tom and Ed are the only two people who say yes or no to something. And it seems to work, people seem to like it. Because it hasn’t been filtered in any way.

“You make your worst work when you’re trying to please other people. All you’ve got is that creative feeling – which unfortunately is quite quiet. I guess with The Chemical Brothers there’s no one else shouting so that can just come out quite naturally and effortlessly. Whereas if you’re making a film, if you’re making a commercial, if you’re making TV, there’s a lot of other voices. You get a producer that’s protecting you from all that stuff, and you also have to protect yourself and just amplify your creative soul voice and keep fighting for that.”

Adam Smith The Streets
Shooting Blinded By The Lights for The Streets

Aside from his work with The Chemical Brothers, Smith made a conscious decision to move away from gig visuals when he felt that it was “killing my soul”. From there his career appears like a journey of both serendipity and wily decision making, with key moments of outside support. He cites his experiences with working with Mike Skinner, particularly his direction of his first narrative music video for Blinded By The Lights, as crucial for moving his work on, for example.

“I’ll always be grateful for that,” he says. “Blinded By The Lights really opened a load of stuff up…. It got me a lot of other videos and it ultimately got me Skins [for Channel 4].”

Adam Smith Goldie Lookin' Chain
On set for a video for Goldie Lookin’ Chain

Smith is modest about the decisions he’s made but he’s been savvy to avoid being typecast in his work and to bring his skills to bear in worlds that might not on the surface seem a natural fit. His direction of the BBC One production of Little Dorrit in 2009, for example, brought a fresh energy to Dickens and the wider period drama genre.

“Little Dorrit and Doctor Who landed on my desk, as it were,” he says now. “And it was like, ‘actually this is really interesting and I’d really [like to do it]’.

“You go to meetings with production companies and they ask ‘what sort of things do you want to make?’. And I’m like, ‘well, does it speak to me?’ Does it speak to me? And that changes as you get older.”

Smith is currently working on two more projects that couldn’t sound more contrasting. One is a new collaboration with Wiley, which sees the director reconnect with the grime artist over a decade on from creating his first film about the scene, while the other is a film based on a poem about three 18 year-olds who go to war in Afghanistan.

Adam Smith Little Dorrit
On Little Dorrit set
Adam Smith Doctor Who
Shooting Doctor Who

If he were to offer advice to filmmakers starting out now, it would be to take a similar all-in approach. “Just make things, make things, make things,” he says. “Fail, fail, fail again better, or whatever that Beckett quote is.

“I always used to put off – ‘oh, I can’t make that until I’ve got that camera, got that thing’,” he continues. “And it’s actually so much easier now than it was 25 years ago. But I think that’s the only way you really learn.

“I say that to myself now as well. I don’t do it enough. You can spend time waiting for that right thing – I still fall into exactly that same trap now…. Sometimes it’s like ‘just get on your flipping horse and ride it’. And fall off a couple of times.”

Trespass Against Is on general release across the UK from today. More info on Adam Smith is at rsafilms.com

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