Tom Edmunds spills on his first feature Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back)
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Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back) is a quirky British comedy about a suicidal young man who hires a hitman to take him out.
We spoke with first time director Tom Edmunds about tackling the topic with humour, and the best of British film.
How did you initially come up with such a unique idea?
My producers and I were looking for an idea for a feature film and I started playing with an idea about an assassin who was also a really nice guy - he was killing people but he was actually doing them a favour. I got a phrase stuck in my head - “I’m a one-man euthanasia clinic.” I told my producer Nick about it and he said ‘oh that’s funny because I’ve been thinking about someone who is suicidal but isn’t brave enough to do himself so he needs someone else to do it for him.’ We realised that these two things were looking at the same themes from different angles and could work in the same story. I like neat ideas and concepts so that ‘elevator pitch’ of “A young man outsources his suicide to an assassin” appealed to me.
Was there ever a worry about making light of such a serious issue being received badly?
Absolutely! You tell people that the main character is suicidal but it’s a comedy and there is plenty of worry! I was careful to do a lot of research and we consulted with The Samaritans about the project, which was enormously helpful. I was always confident in the story I wanted to tell and was clear that I wasn’t making light of William’s situation. For me, the film isn’t about suicide, in fact it’s about totally the opposite - it’s about people discovering purpose in their lives. I have quite dark ideas, but ultimately I’m an optimistic person. I wanted the film to be hopeful and uplifting. I wanted to make a film that was funny and entertaining, but was ultimately about something. Suicide particularly is a very taboo subject, but it really shouldn’t be. It’s the biggest killer of men under 40. We have to start talking about that if we want that statistic to change. I think comedy is a fantastic way of breaking the taboo. Nothing should be off limits, its just about finding the right way of looking at something. Comedy is a matter of perspective.
What was the casting process like?
Extremely painful. When you are a small film, made by a first-timer, there is very little incentive for actors (or more likely agents!) to get excited. You are just another script and you can sit on an actor’s desk for months! But every time you make an approach, no matter how ridiculously unlikely, you are daring yourself to dream.
Somehow you have to validate yourself in some way so that agents take you seriously. For us that was two-fold, firstly we got Gina Carter to Executive Produce the film through Sprout Pictures, her company with Stephen Fry, and then we managed to bring the wonderful Toby Whale on board as our Casting Director. Those two things were game-changing for us. Toby had just done the UK casting for Dunkirk and is extremely well-respected in the industry. If Toby sends an agent a script then it comes with a massive stamp of approval. I can’t underestimate how important Toby was - Tom Wilkinson came on board straight after Toby started with us. And Gina was like our fairy godmother, she knows everyone in the industry and was able to put in a good word for us.
What was it like working with legends like Tom Wilkinson and Christopher Eccleston?
The overwhelming feeling is excitement! I’d been wanting to direct a film for so long, and had been working so hard to make Dead in a Week happen, that getting onto set with such fantastic actors as Tom and Christopher was a dream come true. Sure, it’s a little daunting but I was confident I knew what I wanted and how to give them what they needed. The truth is that they are both so intelligent and skilful that they didn’t need a huge amount! Christopher was a total joy from the moment he stepped on to the set. He was brilliant with me. He’s a great actor and a fantastic, generous person. Tom can be quite intimidating. He questions your decisions all the time so you need to be well-prepared, but luckily I was. He is beyond anything I could’ve hoped for in the film. I think he is wonderful in it. And he must’ve thought it was an alright experience, he came to our wrap party! He shook my hand, told me that it was the first wrap party he’d been to in 25 years and then told me not to fuck it up in the edit!
What were some of the challenges you faced in making your first feature?
Where do I start? To be honest the challenge is less in making the film than in all the time you not making the film. The landscape for independent film in the UK is brutal at the moment and I don’t see it getting easier unfortunately. While we were making the film I said that I was so pleased I got to do this now because I wasn’t sure how much longer it would be possible. I don’t think I realised how true that was!
The key thing is getting the validation, especially as a first-timer. Everyone is so risk-averse that no one is prepared to stick their neck out until you look like a sure-fire hit, so you have do what you can to make yourself appear successful before you actually are successful. I keep coming back to two things - the classic William Goldman quote “Nobody knows anything,” and something that my boss and mentor, Anthony Minghella said “You’ve got to remember, no one actually wants to make a movie."
What are some of your favourite British films that may have influences Dead in a Week?
I’m a huge fan of the classic Ealing comedies and Ladykillers is a definite influence - especially in the threat and violence juxtaposed with twee suburbia! A Matter of Life & Death is one of my favourite films and I was definitely aspiring to make a film that was funny but also thoughtful (even philosophical) about death and the meaning of existence. Not at all ambitious then!
I also love Mike Leigh. Another Year was a reference for the relationship between Leslie and his wife Penny. I was so thrilled with Marion Bailey came on board to play Penny because not only is she a brilliant actor but is also a Mike Leigh stalwart! Similarly, being linked to a film like Shallow Grave through Christopher Eccleston was a definite thrill.
Obviously you don’t make a modern British comedy without Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy being an influence. Then I’m also a huge fan of Martin and Jon Michael McDonagh. If you’ve seen Dead in a Week I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that In Bruges is one of my favourites!
What is it do you think that makes British films unique?
Americans would probably say how grim they are! They have a phrase for it - ‘Brit grit’! I think those films have an incredible, unyielding, truth to them which is fantastic. It’s different in a comedy like Dead in a Week. In that case I would say it’s the tone that makes them unique - it’s riskier but there is also a wry charm that makes them warm. We do irony well and we’re very good at puncturing anything that takes itself too seriously!
Can you tease any upcoming projects?
The trouble with filmmaking is that these things are never straight roads! Actually everyone tells you to have 3 or 4 things on the go in the hope that one happens! So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve got a family Christmas film in development that I love - I really think it could be great. Then I’ve got a horror comedy, which is an unadulterated B movie joy. But the one that I think is the most likely is a midlife-crisis character comedy about a man who for the past 30 years has been the German voice of Tom Cruise. It’s called Ich Bin Tom Cruise. It’s such a weird but incredibly funny world! Unfortunately it has to be in German, which doesn’t make things any easier!
Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back) is in cinemas now.