Interview: Joe Martin Discusses Us and Them
With the political and economic unrest felt by the majority of the world, it is timely that Joe Martin’s debut feature film, Us and Them, had its World Premiere at SXSW in the Narrative Spotlight section this year. The film follows Danny, angry and frustrated, as he takes aim at the 1% to kick start a revolution by turning the tables on the establishment with a deadly game of chance. Although the film was inspired by Brexit, it certainly resonates to an American audience dealing with the 99% versus the 1%. Like his film, Joe was supposed to work on the railways like the rest of his family, but avoided getting a proper job and went to film school instead. The young writer/director has won awards from the Royal Television Society, been named a ‘hotshot’ by UK trade paper Broadcast and screened in competition at Tribeca.
The film’s nonlinear style and approach to the political issues throughout the film keep the viewer questioning the truth every step of the way and interacting with the story. Joe Martin shares about his inspiration for the film and why he chose to have the story unfold in a non-linear fashion.
Q: What is your background in writing and filmmaking?
Joe: I came from a normal working class background. I started making stuff on my computer. I did some documentaries and short films at film school. Eventually I got into fiction, which is where I always wanted to end up.
Q: At film school, did you specialize in a specific track?
Joe: Yeah, I was specializing as a director. But I really love screenwriting. It’s very hard for me to write very good dialogue and prose. Screenwriting is the perfect form for visual ideas that you want to get out.
Q: Why did you choose to do the film in a nonlinear style?
Joe: Since we had a small budget, we knew that we had to set it in one location. That’s the focus on lower budget films. The idea we could take subjects in a small space, then we could explore more spaces and get out. We didn’t want to feel like it was in this place; there’s a lot more scope to it. So that was really a big part of it. Kinetically what is going on is so crazy, we wanted to that to fit in to the craziness of the film. Throughout the film, whenever there’s a flashback, it re-contextualizes what you’re seeing. It’s constantly trying to help you to see what you’ve seen in a different light. And politically, sometimes what you think you’re seeing is not what you’re seeing.
Q: The nonlinear also seemed to help the lead character Danny’s storyline making him appear schizophrenic. Do you agree?
Joe: I think that’s cool. One of the big things about the film is the energy. And I wanted to get this real tension built up. Everything about the way it’s cut and shot is trying to get that energy about it. And even playing with the nonlinear does that as well. It affirms that nervous tension. I think what it does is this: when you have linearity to the story, it gives the protagonist a lot more control over it. When you feel like it’s all over, it throws the protagonist off as well. Because younger audiences are so exposed to so much. We watch content so much quicker. It has to be so much quicker. So much so, that we don’t experience the world in a linear way anymore. If we watch TV, we’re watching while also reading about what our friends are saying about it. The world we experience is much more fractured. How often are you watching something while tweeting or texting or whatever at the same time? You’re never doing one thing anymore. It felt more like modern life. It’s overwhelming and chaotic. So that’s why we chose the nonlinear.
Q: How is this related to the political and economic hardships we’re experiencing?
Joe: It’s funny, I’ve been told this film is too Right-Wing and it’s too Left-Wing. Which to me is perfect because it’s like, “Good, so you’re both annoyed.” And that’s what I wanted to do. People come with their own agenda. In London, the day after Brexit, people were like, “What do we do?” No one knew what to do. I feel like some people did that the day after Trump. Everyone’s like, “Well, what now?” And I kind of feel like that chaos in the moment is what the film captures. Everything’s chaos from the way it’s shot to the way it’s acted to the music choices. The screenwriting is also the biggest part of it. We do something where we use dialogue that goes to voiceover and then it comes back to dialogue again. You never quite know what you’re watching. And I had idea that the film itself and Danny should almost be like an unreliable narrator. We do that with playing around with what to tell you, is it ever true? Is the linearity to the audience seem true? Especially at the beginning, you’re not actually watching the beginning. It’s an entirely different thing. It’s constantly playing with that. You can’t trust it. That’s what the whole point is for the film. You can’t trust it.
Q: Why did you choose to have the ending where it feels everyone is out for themselves?
Joe: For me, if more of us would have stuck together, it’s so much easier to improve conditions. It’s because it’s so easy to pick people off with self-interest, that’s what makes it difficult. It’s easy to pick off individuals. And we’ve seen it time and time again with bribes, tax breaks that improves certain areas. And everyone wants to say we need to do this with healthcare because that’s what is going to be good for everyone. I wanted the ending to have that feeling. Danny doesn’t want to get involved in money, the other two do want to get involved for money. And ultimately, even though they’ve gone in there to achieve something, it’s hard to achieve anything worthwhile because at some point, self-interest takes over. In terms of writing, The Alchemist was one of the biggest inspiration of the ending.
Q: Talk about the character development of Danny and the others?
Joe: In our film, no one’s perfect. Conrad’s clearly not the nicest guy; but he’s trying to protect his family. Danny’s quite a nice guy, but not a nice guy at the same time because he’s doing some not good things. He has a message. These other guys, they’re going off self-interest. But they’re trying to help their friend. They all think Danny’s crazy, but they’re all tired and beaten up. They kind of understand Danny’s reasoning. But in order to have a perfect tragedy, every character has to believe their doing the right thing. Conrad feels he’s doing right by his family. Danny feels like he’s doing something pure. Tommy feels like he’s doing something to get them out of there and away from their crappy lives.
Q: What’s a piece of advice that you would like to pass along?
Joe: Be yourself. I know that sounds crazy. But write what you are passionate about. Passion shines through and is infectious. I think people try to write stuff that will sell or get the job and that’s cool as well. For me, I’ve just focused on what I’m passionate about because in a weird way, if it doesn’t go anywhere, that was still cool, right? You still have a script that you like. I think the worst in the world is when you write something you don’t really like that much but you think other people will like. And if it doesn’t go anywhere, that’s so unrewarding. But if you can be passionate and just get that mad rush again, at least you’re getting something beneficial from it. If it goes somewhere, great.
Us and Them is a produced by In to the Woods and distribution through Parkland Pictures.