Director James Rouse on new British comedy Downhill

Four old school friends remind one another why they’ve not caught up in more than 20 years in award-winning TV commercial director James Rouse’s hilarious feature debut, Downhill, in cinemas from 30 May and available on DVD from 16 June 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 19.20.09Gordon (Richard Lumsden, Sightseers) is determined that he and best friend Keith (Karl Theobald, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) will conquer Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.

He also believes that having his film student son document the adventure is the perfect way to commemorate their achievement, but when a stray conversation determines that old school friends Steve (Jeremy Swift, Downton Abbey) and Julian (Ned Dennehy, TV’s Luther) join them on the trip, best laid plans lead straight to multiple mid-life crises.

Flicks And The City caught up with director James Rouse to talk first features, British downpours, and life philosophy…

This is your first feature film. What were the ups and downs of making it?

We ate way too many terrible sandwiches. That gets to you after a while. I love a cheese and pickle sandwich at the best of times, but it stretches a little thin after three weeks on the trot.

The ups were the performances. I was terrified that the cast wouldn’t gel, or that I’d have a weak link. Neither happened, my cast were brilliant, across the board, so every day I’d wake up knowing I was going to get some great material. As a director, there’s almost nothing as reassuring and satisfying as that.

How did your background in commercials and viral videos help?

Shooting commercials is fantastic fun and it’s influenced me enormously. I started by directing viral films ten years ago, when viral films were a novelty rather than completely omnipresent like they are now (my first ones were a rather risqué set of films for Trojan Condoms – the sex Olympics!). Making viral films taught me to look after the audience first and the brand second, because without a receptive audience it doesn’t matter what the brand says. I’ve definitely taken this into my film-making. My ambition for Downhill was primarily to entertain people, without agendas. I want people to leave the cinema feeling good about life.

What was the genesis of this “road movie on foot”?

We wanted to make an English road movie, but because England isn’t really big enough, we decided to make it ‘a road movie, on foot’. So the four old friends set out to tackle the famous, spectacular and gruelling 192 mile Coast-to-Coast walk from St Bees in the west to Robin Hood’s Bay in the east.

I love the fact that it puts my characters into a pressure cooker environment, one that’s going to explore the best and worst parts of their characters. The line we have on our poster sums it up rather nicely “Four men, 192 miles, what could possibly go wrong?” The results are both very funny and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 19.20.09How much of a challenge was filming on location, especially given the unpredictable British weather? And what was your experience shooting in that part of the UK?

Ah yes. Good question. It’s not easy, directing with water pouring down your face. We shot the film in June 2012, a June noted for being the wettest for several decades. And we were shooting exteriors in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors, regions as famed for their extraordinary beauty as they are for their leaden skies. I remember waking up every morning, pulling back the curtains, thinking that ‘maybe today’ there would be some sun. There almost never was.

The solution was found in simply accepting and embracing it as part of the story. When I look back on it, the weather plays a such an important role in the story I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything, and it has the lovely side effect of being cinematically spectacular!

How did the cast come on board?

Slowly but surely! The casting process was incredibly rewarding and we were very lucky to end up with such a brilliant cast. Although we had a fantastic script by Torben Betts (a highly accomplished playwright), our team ambition was always to use it as a framework rather than something set in stone, improvising around it. This is something we explored heavily in the rehearsal process, both working on character back stories, as well as playing though specific scenes to work out where the opportunities lay.

Which of the characters do you identify with most?

I think there’s a bit of all of them in me actually, but something that resonates with me in particular is Gordon’s fear of not being able to provide for his family, and when Luke (his son) steps up in his defence, it really gets me. But like I say, one of my ambitions was to have a character that everyone could relate to in some way, either seeing themselves or someone like them. And everyone seems to know a Julian!

Striking the right balance between comedy and more poignant moments, as you do in Downhill, can be tough. What was your approach?

Maybe because I’m a sensitive soul with a mischievous sense of humour, finding a balance between humour and pathos has always been something that I’ve been keen to explore. One of the aspects of Downhill that I’m most proud about is that viewers can be a bit teary one minute and be laughing the next – it feels like it’s a good reflection on life.

What’s the most surprising or funny thing that happened during the shoot?

Like I said earlier it rained a lot. I can remember only two days of sunshine, and they coincided in our shooting schedule with exactly the time that the four guys meet up with and travel with some girls.  Almost as if the big man up there was sending us a message. As soon as the girls left the story, the heavens opened again. It was rather lovely.

We see the friends share their philosophies of life in the film, for example Gordon says ‘if you really believe in something, you’ve got to persevere’. What’s your life philosophy?
Ooooh. Good one. Hmmm….. “Be kind.” My dad told me that one and I think it works.

What’s next for you, feature film-wise?

I’ve got another film in the pipeline scheduled to shoot in 2015, called Monumental. It’s a wonderful story based on the slightly bizarre phenomenon in the Baltic states to erect statues to odd Hollywood heroes. It’s a lovely script, penned by the brilliant Greg Swartz. Like Downhill, it’s a story full of both comedy and pathos. I can’t wait to make it.

Downhill is in cinemas from 30 May, and available on DVD from 16 June 2014.