British actor, Steve Oram, co-wrote and starred in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and has also featured in The Mighty Boosh, The World’s End, and Paddington. His new film Aaaaaaaah! – which he stars in, wrote and directed – is screening this week at The Lido Cinemas in Melbourne. The film, in which the actors only communicate through animalistic grunts, sees Smith (Oram) fall in love with Denise (Lucy Honigman), which pushes him to prove his dominance as the alpha male on the quiet suburban streets of England. The film also stars Noel Fielding, Julian Barratt, and pop singer/actor, Toyah Wilcox. FilmInk caught up with Steve Oram to talk about his unusual approach to storytelling.
You co-wrote Sightseers, and you have a number of other films under your belt. Was Aaaaaaaah! always at the back of your mind? “It’s an idea that I’d been mulling over for ages, because I found it so funny that we’re very similar to apes. Everything about us is so similar! We are primates, but no one references it. So, I had this idea for ages of speaking like apes but in a normal setting. It wasn’t until I got the right story that things started to take shape properly. The idea of doing a very straight, traditional, almost love story – Romeo and Juliet style – but in this brutal way really crystallised a lot of the ideas and themes within the film for me. I knew that I was onto something good when I started talking to people about it, and everyone was saying, ‘That sounds amazing! You’ve got to make it!’ I’ve always been very confident about it. I knew that getting the right cast would make it work. We did it on a shoestring budget, which meant that we had the freedom to do it exactly how we wanted to.”
It’s got a distinct documentary feel to it…you’re almost expecting David Attenborough to narrate the action… “It’s very much influenced by David Attenborough’s documentaries, and the unflinching way that nature documentaries in the ‘80s looked at their subjects. These days, it’s much more anthropomorphized, and there’s this weird music over the top. It’s like watching a drama about two penguins or something. But Attenborough never looked away. He’d just have a slow zoom in on this primate ape that was about to smash the brains in of another ape. It was really disturbing as a kid; I was fascinated by them. [Laughs] It stayed with me for days.”
It’s a very black and white universe in the film, with people brutally forcing their justice on others? “But then so is our culture anyway. When you strip away language, you actually are left with a very brutal culture. Language allows us to feel clever and above the creatures in nature, when we’re actually not at all. We’re just apes in clothes living in weird structures. We have rules and we’re able to kid ourselves that we’re superior. It’s true that anything in the film can actually happen in real life. Some of it is ever so slightly heightened, but it’s all real.”
In writing the film, which is all grunts and howls, you actually did come up with dialogue, didn’t you? Was that for the actors to understand their roles, or was it for your benefit? “It was a bit of both. I knew what the scenes were going to be, so I just wrote the dialogue to give the actors an idea of what they had to do in the scene. It was part of the process in learning the language, because there is a language in the film. It’s more like [grunts] instead of two sentences. There’s communication, but it’s just very basic. My original script had lots of boring dialogue, but we stripped it down. It was also part of the rehearsal process with the actors, and they responded to it really well. They loved it. It’s just what any actor wants, innit? To act like an ape.”
You’ve got Toyah Willcox, Julian Barrett, and Noel Fielding appearing in the film. Did you have a clear idea of who you wanted to be in it? “Most of the cast are friends of mine. I’ve been good friends with Noel and Julian for many years, and they were mad keen for it as soon as I told them the idea. I was very careful about asking people who I knew would be up for it, because you have to be really committed to this idea. Everyone has something embarrassing to do. Everyone has a horrible sex scene or has to shit on the floor. It’s important to get the right people, and my mates are all weirdo comedy performers, aren’t they? So they love doing all that shit! [Laughs] I had Julian Barrett in mind when I wrote it. I wanted him to be the soul of the film, and he really didn’t disappoint. He’s so sad and believable. Toyah Willcox I didn’t know, but I had an idea that she’d be up for it because she was in Derek Jarman’s films, like Jubilee. She read the script and got back to me the next day to ask, ‘Where do I sign up?’ She delivers an incredible performance. Not many women of her age or generation would do it. She’s a proper brilliant character. And it was through her that I met Robert Fripp [Willcox’s husband and the creative force behind British rock band, King Crimson], who provided the music for the film; all these King Crimson tracks. I didn’t see that coming. What a wonderful gift that was!”
And what’s it like directing yourself? “I hate it. I absolutely hate it with a vengeance. And I hated editing it. I edited the film all by myself, and I hated it because I’m not one of those actors who likes looking at their own face. I don’t enjoy watching work that I’ve done. When I was editing it, I had various people telling me, ‘You’ve got to put more of you in it.’ So I had to physically make myself do that. It’s not something that I’d do again. It was budgetary as well. Instead of paying another actor, I did it. But I enjoyed performing it…it was brilliant to perform.”
Do you feel like experimenting more with narrative and dialogue in the future? “My next project does have dialogue. Everyone speaks in an understandable language! [Laughs] It’s a period piece, set in a Victorian country house, that follows some very rebellious servant girls who cause chaos. It’s a very subversive period drama, which I’m really looking forward to.”
This Friday, Aaaaaaaah! is screening in Melbourne. Where else have you taken the film? “Aaaaaaaah! has been all over the world. We’ve been to the USA, and we’ve been to South America, Turkey and Europe. It’s had a really great run in many of the fantastic genre festivals. It translates to all cultures because it’s got no language. Everyone understands shitting and sex [Laughs]; they’re universal themes that we all have to enjoy in our lives.”
Is there a difference in the way that people react to it? “The humour has translated really well. I had an experience with Sightseers where I went all around Europe and no one got any of the jokes anywhere else apart from the UK. The jokes were quite verbal, and you lose something in the translation. But this film… I was in South America and it was one of the best showings. People were pissing themselves. I thought no one would get it, but it was brilliant! And in Istanbul, a Muslim country, I was really nervous, but there was no need to be. It appeals to a base instinct in people.”
Aaaaaaaah! is playing Melbourne’s Lido Cinemas on October 14. The event screening is part of Monster Fest’s Friday Fright Night programme, where the film will be preceded by a (very) special video intro from co-star, Noel Fielding (The Mighty Boosh), and followed by a Q&A with writer/director/star, Steve Oram (via Skype), and lead actress, Lucy Honigman, (live and in-person!). Tickets are available at the Lido website.