Mark Herman has been responsible for some of the most iconic British films of the past 20 years. This Bridlington-born director and screenwriter’s work includes the moving Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, torchsong musical Little Voice and the much-loved Brassed Off, a story about pit closures and hope.
Later this month Herman will be one of the star turns at the inaugural Ilkley Film Festival (February 14-16) in West Yorkshire. Also on the festival’s line-up are Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, an extended edition of the German Sci-fi film Metropolis accompanied by acclaimed pianist Stephen Horne, and the band British Sea Power performing live alongside From the Sea to the Land Beyond by award-winning director Penny Woolcock.
The editor of Northern Soul caught up with Mark Herman to talk festivals, films and his Northern upbringing.
Northern Soul: How important is it to support new film festivals in Britain and the North of England like the Ilkley Film Festival?
Mark Herman: There was a time when you couldn’t move for film festivals in the UK, but I think that’s changed a bit the more people realize how hard they are to successfully organize. Ilkley’s different though. For a start, I’ve never been to a film festival where there’s no cinema. That is different. It would seem to be a bit of a drawback, but it’s actually what gives it its charm. And it’s new as well, so doubly interesting. I think what Martin Pilkington and his team have done is great, it shows great initiative and great determination and that’s why it deserves great support. I’ve done a lot of festivals, including all the major ones, but in my experience, the smaller, more intimate ones are by far the most enjoyable and I’ve absolutely no doubt that will be the case in Ilkley. Of course, another reason to support it this year is to help it happen again next year, and the next, and to enable it to keep growing.
NS: How has your Yorkshire upbringing informed your career?
MH: If I could just broaden that to ‘Northern’ rather than ‘Yorkshire’, then yes, it has, quite considerably. Brassed Off’ was set in Yorkshire, Little Voice was shot there but the original play was set in Lancashire, and Purely Belter was set on Tyneside. Certainly the writing process, the tones of humour, the rhythm and beats of dialogue are all heavily influenced by having had a Northern upbringing, having been surrounded by that very specific humour and those particular rhythms of language and turns of phrase. Writing other screenplays, like the ones I’ve done set in America or even war-time Germany, and one I’ve written recently set in Australia, finding the required rhythm and tone has always been a slightly tougher nut to crack, though obviously there weren’t that many laughs to be had anyway in war-time Germany.
Rightly or wrongly, Yorkshire people are often credited with being stubborn, but if it’s true then I’ve no doubt that’s helped me at different times and in different ways throughout my career. For anyone hoping to forge a career as a film director, the very first requisite is a bit of good old thick-skinned Yorkshire pig-headedness. Alternatively, that might not be anything to do with my Yorkshire upbringing, it might simply be that the film industry made me that way.
NS: It is nearly 20 years since Brassed Off came out. What do you think is its enduring appeal?
MH: Thanks for that. 20 years? I think it’s lasted so well simply because its themes are still relevant. Even when it came out, it was set in the past, so whether that’s by ten years or 30 it doesn’t make much difference. But there are always stories about disenfranchised people, destruction of communities, political chicanery and sadly there always will be, so films like that never really grow old. Also, although it was a very ‘local’ film, it was actually a surprisingly global subject. It was noticeable, as we released the film around the world, how it was the general scenario that was recognized and sympathized with, not the specifics of the time or place. It could have been any country, any industry, car manufacture in Detroit, steel industry somewhere else, everywhere we went it seemed to touch a local nerve. The trampling of community didn’t just happen in South Yorkshire in the 90s, it happens everywhere, and all the time, and I presume that’s one of the reasons for the film’s longevity.
NS: York Theatre Royal is about to perform a stage version of Brassed Off, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike. Do you think it will still prove relevant to younger audiences?
MH: It’s a common misconception that Brassed Off was about the miners’ strike, hence this 30th anniversary link, but it was actually about the closures some years later. I saw the play when it first opened at The Crucible in Sheffield at a time when you could stick a can of beans on stage with a label on it saying ‘Down With The Tories’ and it would get a standing ovation. I felt then that the play was, in a way, too close to the film screenplay, and I encouraged Paul Allen, who wrote the stage adaptation, to feel free to break away from it, not be shackled by the film, to make it more stage-friendly. I saw it again later and it felt much more its own animal, which I was very pleased about. I don’t know if it’s changed again for this current tour, but I’ll be interested to see. As for its relevance to younger audiences, I think both the film and the stage play have always been of interest to them. Less so than to an older audience, admittedly, but the text has been used in schools not just in the UK but all over Europe, so presumably there’s significant interest being shown by teens and younger, and not just on these shores.
NS: Your films have tackled very different subjects. What drives you when thinking about making a particular film?
MH: Usually there’s a keenness to get as far away from the last one as possible, I suppose never more so than following Hope Springs, a fluffy romantic comedy, with a Holocaust film. One of the lucky privileges of being a writer and director is that every new film offers an opportunity to delve into subjects you might not otherwise have learned anything about, or even been interested in. And while people are stuck in the same jobs for most of their lives, I’m aware of how fortunate I am that each film, every couple of years or so, feels like an entirely new job. While I’ve been dealing with the mining industry, torchsong singers, hard-up Geordies, New England culture, the Holocaust, Northern Soul, whatever, I’ve researched and learned about all those areas. So it’s exciting, when contemplating what’s next, to know that a whole new education is about to start in an area you might never have expected. But, as with all education in my experience, it’s not long before you’ve had enough of it. So the drive you ask about is simple: “Please, let it stop. Can I move on to something very different?”
NS: Of all the films you’ve been involved with, do you have a favourite?
MH: The next one? Actually, this changes with the wind. Much like when I’m asked about my favourite film in general, it depends on my mood at the time. And also, it’s difficult sometimes to separate the actual film from the experience of making it. It might not be my favourite (today) but I’m probably proudest of Brassed Off because, like I said earlier, I thought it might be of interest to a few people within a five mile radius of Barnsley but it seemed to connect with people all over the world. I was also very proud of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, but for different reasons: the challenge there was to tell a story that might pull kids in to want to learn more about the Holocaust. But by making the story accessible to kids, about kids, it had to be unrealistic, a fable even, and therefore upset quite a lot of people. But I didn’t mind how many people it upset, if it encouraged one single kid to learn more, it was worth it.
NS: What can people who come to your masterclass at the Ilkley Film Festival expect?
MH: Actually, I’m worried that it’s been called a ‘masterclass’. That implies that anybody that goes might learn something, or indeed that I have something to teach, neither of which I doubt will happen on the day. I think, I hope, it’s going to be a straightforward anecdotal Q&A, covering the ups and downs of my career, of working in the film industry, with opportunity for audience members to ask whatever they want. I’d hope therefore that the least they can expect is their money’s worth. At least those in on concessions.
Interview by Helen Nugent
For tickets for Mark Herman’s directing masterclass, click here: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/mark-herman-directing-masterclass-with-screening-tickets-10078810995?aff=rss. The hour long Q&A will be followed with a screening of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas with an introduction from Herman.