I’ll admit to feeling a pang of excited pride when the shiny new Universal logo burst across the screen in the cosy cinema at York University’s Theatre, Film and Television department.
I’d had absolutely no hand in the making of the film but it was being made around the same time as my own feature Whoops! was filming in York, several of my crew (and one actor) had worked on it, and there was a genuine buzz that in terms of homegrown filmmakers, York was coming of age. Several features were being filmed in the city and they had the fierce ambition to be made, seen and heard.
Whoops! is another story but two years and much blood and toil later, The Knife That Killed Me is about to be seen, heard and most assuredly discussed. The film is quite the achievement; broad in vision, stylish in execution and quite unlike any British film you’ve seen before.
Shot entirely on green screen, with digital sets added later, the most obvious comparisons - in execution at least - are to Von Trier’s Dogville and Rodriguez’s Sin City. The former eschewed real sets for a sketched layout of the film’s geography, creating a kind of moving theatrical set, whereas the latter used green screen to create a living comic book feel. Other than those vague comparisons, TKTKM is its own beast.
Does it work? That’s a question that co-directors Kit Monkman and Marcus Romer (see our interview with them here) asked themselves all the way through to the final edit, since the first rough cut they got back was made of pieced-together, often separately shot performances they’d directed at Bubwith Studio’s Green Screen Productions. Does it work, or does the style detract from the film?
The reason for such a long preamble is that, by the filmmakers’ admission, the film was an experiment. The technique is part of the story, as Jack McMullen’s central character Paul finds himself at a new school, isolated, alienated and at the mercy of the school bully Roth (Jamie Shelton). Anthony McGowan’s bestselling book portrayed hauntingly well the strange misery of school life and this adaptation does a remarkable job of translating the story to a place that feels completely familiar and yet oddly disorienting.
Illustrator Stuart Ord’s stark, charcoal-esque drawings dominate the screen as both foreground clues and background landscapes, presenting hints that the audience can choose to regard if they wish, against an industrial, bleak setting; the half-remembered thoughts of Jack as he lies dying from the titular stab wound. Chalked scribblings, vulgar cartoons and graffiti float past the camera and catch our eye, adding to a depressing, compelling production design that immerses us in the world of half-madness that teenagers must endure.
As George Lucas once said, "A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing" and if he didn’t learn that lesson himself with the Star Wars prequels and their incessant green screenery, then the makers of The Knife That Killed Me certainly took heed. Monkman describes the tone of the film as "a kind of hyper-realism"; Romer describes it as, "an odd sense of stark isolation, so that rather than trying to pretend it’s a film, it tells the audience that it knows it’s something else."
Yet the style never feels like it doesn’t fit the story, which after all needs to draw us - and does - into a believably involving world of terrible school adventures with a tragic, inevitable twist. The young, talented cast, led by the spot-on McMullen, strut and fight and stand off in a theatrical style that would be out of place in a regular movie but which fit the deliberately stark, detached digital world they inhabit. Charles Mnene is a standout in the smaller role of the rival gang leader Goddo and Oliver Lee shines as the benevolent Shane; both key in Paul’s attempt to steer events away from tragedy.
The effect, after ninety minutes, is that you’ve been part of a "visual story" as Monkman puts it; moved enough by the plight of the characters yet spun left and right by the sheer uniqueness of the style. I emerged feeling like I’d experienced a real hybrid; both a particularly engaging night at the theatre - due in no small part to the directors’ long experience in that medium - and at the same time, a film as accomplished as it is experimental. If The Knife That Killed Me is merely the first in a run of productions from this studio, the future is bright. The future is green.
The film is due to be released in as unorthodox a way as it was made: see below for our other articles on how the film needs your help to be publicly shown, and for our interview with the directors.