Michael Fassbender v Brendan Gleeson: director Adam Smith on crime drama Trespass against Us

The director behind The Chemical Brothers’ Don’t Think live film turns to fiction with West Country crime saga Trespass against Us. Here he tells us what it was like working with two acting heavyweights: Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson.

3 March 2017

By Ann Lee

Trespass against Us (2016)

Child actor Georgie Smith had a rather novel way of getting cast in Trespass against Us. He kicked director Adam Smith – hard – in the shin when the filmmaker took the piss out of him during an acting workshop. If that wasn’t enough, he followed this up with another swift strike, this time in the direction of writer Alastair Siddons, who was by now doubled up with laughter. Both went home bruised and battered but convinced they had found their boy.

Georgie, who has also starred in BBC drama Cider with Rosie (2015), was promptly hired as Tyson, the youngest member of the Cutler clan, a family of travellers, in the gritty British crime drama.

“One of the criteria for the part was someone who could swear. Not something you always put on a casting call out for a child,” Smith says. “Georgie was amazing, and he was really mischievous. He had great charisma – he was the real deal.”

In the movie, Tyson’s dad, Chad (Michael Fassbender), is desperately trying to leave the steely clutches of his own domineering father, Colby (Brendan Gleeson). While he’s dispatched to take part in lucrative heists, he secretly hankers after a quieter life for his wife and kids. Family is at the heart of his film, Smith explains:

“It’s about the struggle to escape from the shackles of what you’ve been brought up to be. The dilemma that you have is you kind of love what you’ve been brought up to be as well.”

From The Godfather (1972) to Animal Kingdom (2010), movies about conflicted men attempting to break free from their criminal families are nothing new, but Smith brings a fresh, nervy energy to the genre. With compelling performances by both Fassbender and Gleeson, it’s a startling debut by the director, who cut his teeth making music videos for the likes of The Streets and The Chemical Brothers, along with directing TV shows Doctor Who and Skins.

Trespass against Us (2016)

How did you get involved with the project?

Alastair Siddons, the writer, was working on a documentary 12 years ago, which ended up being called Country Strife: Summer with the Johnsons (2005). He sent me some of the footage that he shot, and it was these amazing characters telling incredible stories.

He was trying to persuade me to direct the documentary, but at that point I was working with Mike Skinner from The Streets, making short films that were masquerading as music videos. I wanted to move into drama, so I said to him: “Look, write down all the stories. Let’s make a film about this one day.”

When he finished his documentary, he and I tried to write it together and that didn’t work. We spoke and met with many writers. Then Alistair went off and wrote it himself. I wasn’t very supportive at first. I said: “You’re supposed to be the producer and you’ve never written before.”

He took a year or so just writing it, because he loved the characters and loved the story. Then he got in touch with me several years later about directing.

How did you get Michael Fassbender on board?

I got the script in quite quickly because I know his agent, who has supported me since I was doing music videos. Michael read it in two days, despite the fact that he had a pile of scripts from the great and the good in the film business. He really loved it. We met, and he just got the character Chad on a very visceral level. He just understood who he was. I believe he grew up, when he was living in Ireland, near to a traveller site.

I just totally believed him as Chad. He has the same kind of swagger, charm and love of driving fast cars.

Was it as easy to cast Brendan Gleeson?

Once we had Michael, we needed someone who had gravitas so that you believed this character Chad just wouldn’t leave home and leave his dad. So we needed someone who had that strength. Actually, I was looking online at pictures of Michael – that sounds a bit wrong – of him with older actors, at award ceremonies or in social situations.

In some of the pictures I found, he had his arm around the older actor, but I came across this photo of him and Brendan. Brendan had his arm around Michael and was definitely the patriarch in that moment. That made me think subconsciously that there was a lot for them to play with in that.

Michael had looked up to Brendan since he was a young man wanting to be an actor. I think he saw him on stage when he was 16, so there was a great deal of admiration and respect there. Similarly, Brendan had a lot of respect and admiration for Michael. I think the main reason Brendan came on board was because of Michael.

Trespass against Us (2016)

What films did you take inspiration from?

For the driving scenes we ended up being influenced by 1970s American films that had driving sequences in them, like The Driver (1978), Vanishing Point (1971) and some Terrence Malick films.

How did your collaboration with The Chemical Brothers on the soundtrack come about?

We’ve worked together for 20 years – the longest relationship I’ve ever had. Definitely one of the longest jobs I’ve ever had. When I was thinking about music for the film – just the anarchic, free-form spirit of the film with huge emotional heart and its moments of real darkness – somehow it’s a good description of how The Chemical Brothers’ music is, so I asked Tom [Rowlands] if he’d do the soundtrack. He wrote a lot of music just straight off, but it sounded too much like Chemical Brothers songs, so we had to come up with this palette of instruments that wasn’t necessarily associated with the band.

Trespass against Us is backed with National Lottery funding through the BFI Film Fund.

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