Tom Cullen is known for his work in front of the camera, from a beautiful turn as Anthony in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) to recurring roles in Prime-time television such as Downton Abbey. Now, he is turning his hand to directing with his debut feature Pink Wall, a film that steps into the lives of Jenna (Tatiana Maslany) and Leon (Jay Duplass) as they navigate their relationship over the course of six years.
Outtake sat down with Tom Cullen to talk about his experience making Pink Wall, as well as reflecting on Weekend and the potential reuniting of those characters in the future.
What made Pink Wall the right choice for your directorial debut, and where did the original idea come from?
Tom: I was really interested in exploring my successes and failures in relationships, I guess in an almost cathartic way. But the way the film came about was completely by accident. I’d been offered an acting job by this producer, which I couldn’t do because of a scheduling conflict. They called me up trying to convince me to do it. He said that the Duplass brothers would potentially be involved and I’d just been watching Transparent, which stars Jay Duplass. I told him I’d had an idea for a film with Jay and Tatiana Maslany, which I then pitched to him over the phone. He liked the idea, so came back to me with a small budget and told me I had to shoot in three months. So, it happened very organically – and rather frantically.
Do you think these organic beginnings contributed towards the naturalistic feeling you captured within the film?
Yes, I think so. We shot it in only nine days as well! The energy comes from the fear and the instinct to just go with it. You’re running on gas. And I’d developed this process for the actors that I would want to work in as an actor, which is a kind of semi-improvisational technique. I think the energy of that, coupled with the frenetic energy of the shoot gives the film this feeling. The circumstances of the film coming together also meant I could cast a lot of my family. My dad plays the drug dealer in it.
What drew you towards Jay Duplass and Tatiana Maslany for the leads?
Tatiana and I were in a relationship at the time and we loved working together. I wanted to write a part for her that she wanted to play. And then with Jay, I was a fanboy of his work and I instinctually felt that they would have really good chemistry together. And I was right. I think they are by far the best thing about the film.
There is a melding of American and British Indie sensibilities here, which is interesting given how different they are. Was there a conscious decision to approach the film in this way?
No, But I think you’re right. I really love American independent cinema. And I love British independent cinema. I didn’t go into it trying to emulate anybody. The only moments I stole from other people was in the process. During the shoot I was throwing stuff against the wall. The film is made up of six different scenes over six years with each scene having its own visual cinematic language, which as a first-time filmmaker was very much an experiment. Any kind of influence, even if it’s not conscious, exists in some capacity. So, I guess I must have been very influenced by both to perhaps meld the two in this way.
Was the flipping of the film’s chronology planned from the get-go or something that came naturally in the process?
It happened in the process. As I had such a short period time to write it, I had to go away and really think about what I wanted to make. And I kind of stuck on the idea of it being a bit more experiential rather than a linear narrative. I was more interested in fostering discussion and so I came up with this idea of it being a bit like memory. The non-linear structure feeling like fragments of their relationship. In reflecting on relationships, I don’t think memory is linear. I think it’s expansive. I think we juxtapose different moments to build the emotional landscape of what happened. I wanted to achieve that with the film. I wanted to take this opportunity to try out new things, which I think in some places is a little bumpy, but that’s kind of the joy of it.
Did you find the process of making your first film quite freeing, rather than feeling you have something to prove?
I think I’ve been really dictated by fear a lot in my life. I grew up in a fairly working-class area and went to an inner-city school in Cardiff where we weren’t necessarily told we could achieve anything we wanted to. That really stuck with me. Confidence is still a thing that I really struggle with. I let fear dictate me way too much. Saying yes to this film in the first place was like me trying to face up to this fear. I decided I wasn’t going to take the easy road at any point. I’m always going to push myself and do the stuff that scares me. I’d rather make a film that was experimental and bold which everyone hated than something safe and middling. There is a real liberating free-ness in that.
There is an honest and authentic intimacy at work in Pink Wall which is reminiscent of Weekend. Did your mind go back to that film often during the process?
Oh, my God, yeah! Andrew Haigh is the biggest influence on my career. The reason I wanted to become a film director is because of him. I loved his process so much as an actor, and I haven’t necessarily found that again. And so I figured, if I can’t find it for myself, I’ll make it for somebody else. Or at least my version of it. Weekend is the film I am still most proud of. So yes, it was a huge influence on me. Massive.
Would you like to work with Andrew again?
Oh yeah, but whether he’d like to work with me is a different question! Although we have been e-mailing a bit about making a follow up to Weekend, perhaps in a similar fashion to the Before trilogy. But it has to be the absolute right story. I often wonder where they are. Chris New and I bumped into each other at the train station recently and it was so good to see him, I hadn’t seen him in years. And we still had a really nice, fizzy chemistry. So yeah, I’d love to go back and do that again.
What is next for you? Would you like to do more writing and directing?
I’d love to. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I really enjoyed making Pink Wall and can’t wait to do it again. I’m writing a couple of films that I’m pretty happy with, so I’m always reluctant to talk about it, but one is about toxic masculinity and exploring this really strange epidemic of male suicide that’s happening in the UK at the moment. Ultimately, I want to make films that mean something to me and hopefully will then mean something to other people.
Do you think you’d be looking to direct your own material again?
Because you wouldn’t want to hand it over to someone else?
Because I’m an egomaniac… No, no, it’s just because I love directing. I love working with actors and getting good performances. I love collaboration.
Pink Wall releases in UK cinemas on December 13th. More information here.