5 Minutes with… Matthew Holness
When Moxie recently announced that they’d added Matthew Holness to their roster there was quite a bit of excitement in LBB HQ. The actor, writer and comedian is a bit of a favourite among the (proudly) nerdier elements of the team – his retro horror spoof Darkplace is packed with irresistibly silly humour and sharp writing… and lots more silliness. To our joy, it looks like we’ll be hearing a lot more from Matthew as he’s added commercials directing to his arsenal, kicking off with a fantastically funny Tango campaign. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to learn about his pulpy heroes, how he’s found the difference between TV and ads and why the genius of Darkplace lay in getting the very worst from his production team.
LBB> You started out your career in comedy – writing and performing – when did you first try your hand at directing?
MH> The first film I directed was ‘A Gun For George’ for Warp Films. I hadn’t really thought about directing until then, to be honest. In fact, Warp were really the ones who suggested I give it a go. I’m incredibly fortunate that they had sufficient faith in me to pull it off. I don’t think many production companies would have provided that level of support.
LBB> And I wonder, does your experience of playing all the various characters you have over your career help you when you jump behind the camera? Does it help you communicate better with the actors, do you think, or are you often tempted to act it out yourself?
MH> My own acting experience is fairly limited but it has helped me understand and manage more effectively the kind of pressure actors come under when performing in front of a camera. It’s a strangely isolating experience requiring a great deal of courage and self-confidence. Many actors have that, of course (and then some), but not the majority, I find. I certainly didn’t, and I think it’s vital to grant actors a license to fail when filming so that they don’t suffer undue pressure during takes. They’re the crucial element, after all. Relax them first, then bring out the baseball bat.
LBB> In the UK, you’re probably best known for Dark Place and Man to Man with Dean Learner (or maybe I’ve just watched and re-watched them so many times that I assume everyone else has?) – but how would you describe these shows to our international readers?
MH> Darkplace is probably best described as an affectionate parody/homage to 80s action TV. I still don’t know what ‘Man to Man’ is.
LBB> This is a bit nerdy, perhaps, but I’m kind of fascinated by the amount of comedy you and director Richard Ayoade managed to get from the deliberately dodgy camera work/directing/editing in Dark Place – I imagine that required quite a bit of research and attention to detail… Did you and Richard Ayoade have any particular sources of inspiration for that? And I wonder if, in some way, immersing yourself in the very worst aspects of filmmaking has helped you as a director on other projects?
MH> We’d grown up with all that stuff from childhood, so it was ingrained in our psyches. We did watch and read a lot of rubbish, but the truth is I’m immensely fond of rubbish, so never felt like truly attacking it. We did ask our various department heads to perform their jobs really badly, and (eventually) got a good deal of material from that, too. Then it was really a job of weighing up how much was too much or too little etc. We did make a pilot for the series that was far too serious and hardly felt like parody at all (just appallingly dull), so when we subsequently filmed the main series, we ended up making it a great deal sillier than we’d originally planned.
LBB> This is a question from the LBB office – we’ve got two brothers from Romford who want to know why Darkplace was set there? Bad experience at a hospital in Romford?
MH> Can’t really recall why we chose Romford. But the name sounds suitably prosaic when spoken aloud, which was perfect. I haven’t fallen ill in Romford (yet), so can’t comment on their facilities.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
MH> Too many to mention, but most of them are B-movie directors and pulp paperback hacks.
LBB> How did you come into contact with Moxie and why did you decide to sign with them?
MH> I was initially approached by 101, who put me in touch with Moxie. We embarked upon the Tango campaign as a joint (ad)venture and got on brilliantly. Again, they’re an incredibly supportive company and I couldn’t have hoped for a better team.
LBB> What sort of work are you hoping to do with them? And are you mainly focusing on comedy ads or are you looking for a broader range of projects?
MH> I think initial interest will inevitably focus on my previous work in comedy. However, long-term I’d prefer to move away from that and develop my skills in different areas.
LBB> And you recently made your commercials debut with the Tango campaign – what was it like making that transition? Do you find the world of making ads markedly different from TV (if so, how, if not, why not?)
MH> In some ways it was similar to TV and film production, and in others vastly different. There’s a degree of luxury in terms of budget compared to film and TV, which eases many of the everyday concerns a director must face. But then the pressure is more intense to produce work of immediate quality, so you can never really relax.
I think that working in ads certainly helps develop one’s skills in the areas of negotiation and diplomacy, which is extremely useful in all walks of life. There’s little room for being ‘precious’ when directing ads, so instead you learn to focus on working hard, efficiently and co-operatively.