Joe Ahearne is a British writer and director whose TV miniseries The Replacement was shown on the BBC in 2017 to a warm reception. I caught up with him to chat about this and his other project, the horror/thriller film called B&B (review).
Allan Lear: I was operating under the impression that B&B was inspired by the court case a few years ago where a gay couple sued a bed and breakfast for discrimination?
Joe Ahearne: Well, there was an incident a while ago where my husband and myself stayed in a hotel and were made to feel very unwelcome, the whole atmosphere was hostile. But there are also these cases you hear about going on around the world where people are trying to refuse gay couples hotel access, or the use of wedding receptions, or cakes. Something similar has happened, where a gay couple has been refused double beds. So it wasn’t inspired by any one case.
Allan: Do you find that there’s been a resurgence of that kind of prejudice recently?
Joe: No, it’s always been there. It’s just that the gay rights position has improved over the last ten or twenty years, really, and so there are religious people now who are demanding their rights to act in accordance with their conscience and their holy scripture, which means discriminating against gay people. One of the characters says in the film, “You can hate queers all you like in the privacy of your own home, but not when you’re running a business.” That’s the law. If you’re running a business that’s open to the public, if you’re providing a public service, then the law says you cannot discriminate on the basis of sexuality. That’s what these religious owners of small businesses are refusing to accept.
Allan: I found the characterisation in the film very intelligent, because everyone’s motivation is very fluid and unknown. How difficult is it to think yourself into the heads of these characters?
Joe: I think that’s the essential art of the dramatist, the ability to think yourselves into the heads of all the characters. I think it would be a very boring film if two gay guys who are complete angels turned up and had a fight with religious man who’s just a completely evil person. But those films do get made. There seems to be a thing with gay characters in movies – when they started out, the gay character was always either unsympathetic, total villains, or ancillary characters or comic relief. Now they’ve gone totally the other way, and in many films the gay characters are absolute saints. Gay characters should have the right to be annoying arseholes as much as any other person, and I wanted to do a film where the gay guys are… well, where some people could think they were pushing their luck a bit. I don’t think they are, from our point of view, but particularly the main character Marc, who is very firm and says “I’ve got my rights”… that’s my attitude, and that’s why he’s the hero. But, yes, he can be annoying, and he can be sarcastic, and he can be unpleasant, and the bigoted character who is the enemy can be charismatic, can be sympathetic, and can express love. I think that, particularly in the thriller, is what gives you a rewarding experience, that you’re constantly reassessing them.
Allan: You imagine that people like Rosa Parks and Emmeline Pankhurst and the character of Marc must be quite difficult to live with, because it’s that bullish obstinacy that makes them campaigners.
Joe: Yes, or if you’re talking about contemporary characters, Larry Kramer. You know, he had huge rows with his colleagues about how to prosecute the struggle and so on, and he’s an iconic figure now, but a lot of people considered him a troublemaker or difficult. But he was absolutely essential to the vanguard of the fight.
Allan: I watched a short film recently called Killer Friends (review), which an American called Zach Noe Towers had written, and he plays this awful, egregious person in it…and he said he wrote it because he was fed up with playing the gay best friend.
Joe: Well, there are a lot of gay best friends around. It’s a good part. But it’s not the only part, and we want to write and play every kind of character. Gay cinema is still seen as having a slightly narrow corridor of what we’re allowed to do, and people still have a fixed idea of what a gay film looks like. And they have a fixed idea of what a thriller looks like, and if you mix them up they get confused.
Allan: You’ve written The Replacement for the BBC, which was very much outside your personal experience, being about women and pregnancy. Did you consciously want to return to something a bit closer to home with B&B?
Joe: It was actually the other way around; I wrote B&B before The Replacement but it takes so long to get a film script to screen that you’re often working on contrasting ideas at the same time. As you say, with the experience of maternity in The Replacement, that’s as far away from my personal experience as you could possibly get, but I could relate to some of the psychological aspects like the workplace paranoia; you know, seeing someone else doing the same job and fearing that they might be better at it than you, that’s completely universal. But at the same time I was working on B&B, and from a working point of view it’s nice to have five or six different projects on the go at the same time. Because they’re not all going to get made, and it’s good to have something to jump back on. Then of course it would be dull to have similar things going on in all these projects, so you’re looking for contrasts.
So with B&B – I’d written gay characters before, but that was going back twenty years when I first wrote for TV, and so the gay characters had to be fairly minor. This was the first time I’d written something where I was determined that the gay guys were absolutely going to be the stars, and it was sort of a genre piece as well. I was definitely interesting in doing something that had some kind of fantasy or horror.
Allan: Both B&B and The Replacement are genre thrillers, but in two different moulds.
Joe: They’ve got a lot of the same insecurities driving the characters. And because there’s a definite cinematic grammar to thrillers, they’ve got a lot of the same directing tricks to them – lots of split screen sequences and dream sequences, stuff like that, so to me it’s evident that the classic thriller techniques were used in the both of them.
Allan: Did you find there was more difficulties in getting your vision accomplished in The Replacement, given that you weren’t working for yourself?
Joe: I wouldn’t say there were difficulties, but there were certainly more layers. There are more people who have to pass the scripts in television than there are in independent film. The most significant fact is that in both cases you have your script, and you’re changing it for the producer and the executive producer and the commissioning editor and the head of drama and they all have changes they want to make, but the difference is that in film you have to do the script notes before you get the money. You have to change things until people like it enough to give you that money. In television it’s generally the other way round; you get the commission, you know you’re making the show and a lot of the notes get made after that. So it’s the other way round, but other than that there’s not a huge amount of difference in the process.
Actually the big difference is in the subject matter. I don’t think you’d be able to make B&B in the way I’ve done it if you were making it for television. You can’t use that sensibility in television, which is why I wanted to make it as a film.
Allan: It’s about the inherent possibilities of the medium, I suppose?
Joe: Yes. But it’s also about the subject matter. With it being a straight thriller, and with those characters – there are no traces of the conventional television thriller.
Allan: And in B&B there’s a lot of atmospheric contrast between the cramped B&B and the world outside, which feels much bigger.
Joe: Well, I’m glad you got that feeling, because we deliberately chose to film it where we did in Wales to get that effect. You go from being in the B&B, which is a claustrophobic situation where the walls are all too small, and it’s all very small and people are just trading dialogue back and forth; then we go to the park and there’s no dialogue, and you’re surrounded by the bleak outside. It works better in a cinema than it would on television, but also these sorts of thrillers work better, because there’s less distraction than there is with television. TV uses a lot of close-ups to give it urgency, but with film you can sit back in wide shot a bit longer and get a much bigger scene.
Allan: Was it an early idea in the scripting stage not to have safe spaces, and just to move between claustrophobia and agoraphobia and back?
Joe: Yes, it was about those fears, but it was also to do with the restrictions of the budget. So I was making a virtue of that because we had these two locations, the very cramped and restrictive B&B which was scary because it’s claustrophobic, and then you’d go to the great dark woods and be scared in a different way.
Allan: A lot of low-budget films suffer from the quality of the acting that they’re able to employ, but there isn’t a single weak link in B&B. How did you go about casting?
Joe: Very much the same as TV, really. Once you know that you’re looking for a youngish character, you just put it out there. We had an excellent casting director, Colin Jones, who had some suggestions, and our producer had some ideas of her own, and then you look through their films – or shows, if they’ve only done TV – and see what they can do, and choose from that, really.
Allan: And how soon did you know that you wanted Paul McGann involved?
Joe: We got all the actors quite late on. The casting didn’t start until quite late on, and we got them all at much the same time. I knew Paul a little bit socially before I approached him, so there was that at least, and I was familiar with his work. That makes it easier for my job; it’s much harder to work with someone you’ve never seen and you don’t know how they’ll do it.
Allan: One of the things that really struck me was how realistic the central relationship was. How much of your own life experience went into writing that relationship?
Joe: Quite a lot. It was quite disconcerting how much everyone said they recognised me in the script. But I’ve been married for twenty years so, even without trying to, there was bound to be a lot of me and my relationship in it. In the beginning of the film they’ve gone back to basically celebrate their victory over this Christian B&B owner who’d discriminated against them a year ago, and Marc is absolutely determined that they’ll get a double bed, and he gets upstairs, sees they’ve got twin beds again, and goes back down to have a row. Going to hotels with my husband, I would book a double room, and sometimes you would get there and find two single beds. My husband, who’s a much nicer person than I am and better balanced, would say “for god’s sake, just push the beds together”, just like in the film, but I would go back down to reception and – not have a row, but just say that I would like what I ordered. In my relationship if my husband really wants me to do something, he’ll say “do it for me” and, you know, that’ll make me refuse to do it even more.
So there’s all that banter stuff… but clearly the film wouldn’t work if you didn’t believe that these two guys really love each other, but they are quite different, and there’s one guy who is quite challenging and one who – doesn’t exactly want an easier life, but is just a more personable, more approachable person. Then you get arguments about how to deal with particular situations. One of the difficulties of this type of film – and it’s not specific to gay characters – is that you don’t often see films with married couples because it’s difficult to set up the relationship. The actors have to work hard to portray a married couple from the first minute of the film, because there’s none of the drama inherent in two people meeting.
Allan: You’ve spoken before about the importance of writing drama, and you’ve referred to David Mamet’s famous memo to The Unit writers. That’s quite a tough brief to follow, isn’t it?
Joe: It’s my little Bible really. It’s only about two pages and, like any good religious text, it’s sort of impossible to follow; it’s a pinnacle of what you would aspire to. He talks about the litmus test, which is three questions you ask in every scene: who wants what, what happens if they don’t get it, and why now? All three questions have to be answered in every scene, and that’s kind of impossible; but that’s what you aspire to do. We cheat all the time. In the first draft and the second draft especially, you write all these needless scenes; and it is wonderful where you can write a film, or see a film, where you can do without that. Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson, is a wonderful film; it’s about an alien, and it’s basically the art film version of Species. There is no exposition in it. It’s a real departure from television, which is swamped with expositional scenes, and you’re almost required to write them, I suppose. Mamet’s absolutely right about that. He does exaggerate to make a case, when he says about the danger signs; you know, any scene where two characters sit down to talk about a third character, that scene is a crock of shit. That’s not true every time. But two people talking about a third person isn’t dramatic. One person wanting something and the other not wanting to give it, that’s drama.
In his other books he also talks about the proper purpose of drama, which is not to stroke the liberal sensibility. Which I agree with. You know, if B&B were about two gay guys who go to get their rights and they’re absolutely right and everyone else is totally wrong, that’s not really a drama. He says if you watch a film like that, you’ve forgotten it ten minutes later. That’s true. The films you remember are the films that have unsettled you in ways you can’t define. You called B&B a horror / thriller, and I’m not sure if I would exactly classify it as a horror… my definition of a horror is that it’s got to have extreme violence in it or something supernatural. I think the other useful definition of horror is when the opponent cannot be negotiated with, and is a force of nature, and religious faith of that nature is a sort of horror for gay people because you can’t negotiate your way out of it. It wants to deny you your existence, so in that sense it is a horror film.
Allan: You were talking about the difference between drama and propaganda – the example that sprang to mind was American History X, in which Edward Norton’s racist character is extremely articulate and persuasive, even though you know everything he stands for is appalling.
Joe: What you want to do in a film is give the lead character the most difficult challenge you can. That’s what I was doing with The Replacement… the antagonist is a person who’s trying to take your job away, but she’s also a pleasant person and she’s enthusiastic and everyone likes her, and that creates a real difficulty for the main character, because it’s difficult to dislike her. Paul McGann does the same thing in the film… we might disagree with his thoughts in which he wishes to deny gay people their rights, but the way he expresses those thoughts is, I hope, quite funny and quite charming and he’s very invested. That confrontation is what makes it difficult for the characters but also interesting for the audience, and without wanting to you come to the point where you think, well, maybe he does have a point, and you see him as a human being.
One of the interesting things is that those religious people now find themselves in the position I was in when I was growing up: keep your homosexuality to yourself, don’t announce it in public, and maybe we’ll tolerate you, that was the vibe. Now the religious people are in that position, in cities at least. Where we are now was almost unimaginable to me when I was growing up in the seventies; you could not imagine the representation of a gay couple in the way they are in this film. And when you can’t see it in the culture around you, be it in life or in fiction, it’s impossible to imagine it for yourself. That’s very different now.
Allan: Do you think people find it easier to come to terms with their own sexuality now that there are more depictions of homosexuality available?
Joe: I think that’s true. I hope that’s true. It’s inevitable that the vast majority of gay people are going to be born to heterosexual parents, and I think straight parents these days are more clued-up about being gay not necessarily being a problem or a choice. I think in that way society is better.
Allan: You’ve spoken a lot in the past about being influenced as a director by Hitchcock…
Joe: Yes. One of the things about this shoot was that the script all takes place at night. So we were filming over twenty-four days, I think it was, and we were trying to squeeze as much night out of that time as possible. One of the tricks that you use, if you need extra night, is just to shoot in the day with the curtains closed, and I hate doing that. I prefer to use the windows to add depth to a scene, but obviously you can’t do that in the day with people and cars going past. There are a lot of scenes where you see things through the windows to things that are happening in the distance, and you can’t really see what’s going on. That’s a very Hitchockian technique, where you can see their lips moving and are absolutely fascinated to know what they’re talking about, but you can’t quite make it out. What I want in a film is for the audience to be telling the story to themselves. That’s what I love, and I think that’s what they love. And you’re trying to shoot the effect of a thing, rather than the thing itself; I think that’s more powerful. The obvious comparison is Jaws, which somehow makes you frightened just of a shot of the water. So you try to get shots of things that mean other things.
Allan: You worked on ‘Dalek’, an episode of Doctor Who, which was written by Robert Shearman, a well-established horror writer in his own right. Did you learn anything from working with him that you could put towards B&B?
Joe: Well, I loved the script and the way he made it a story about one Dalek rather than a hundred Daleks. Who would have imagined that you could characterise or sympathise with a Dalek? I don’t know if anyone had ever tried. But it was a blinding concept. And the other thing is that, although it does have all the soldiers and the shooting and running around, at heart it’s a chamber piece where you just have the Dalek and the Doctor in one room and they’re just going at each other, and it’s wonderful. It’s a two- or three-hander with an absolutely terrifying villain, but he somehow makes it interesting. So I learned a lot on that show.
Allan: And just to wrap things up: what horror films would you, as a director and writer, recommend as must-see?
Joe: Well, the obvious ones I suppose. Alien (review), Carrie (review), The Exorcist, Psycho, those are my types of horror. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (review) is very good as well, the original one. Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining. Have I missed any? The Silence of the Lambs.
Allan: Again, these are all films where the villains are incapable of reason – they’re all insane or forces of nature.
Joe: I think ‘beyond reason’ is a good definition of it, actually. Don’t they say that horror is fear of the unknown whereas terror is fear of the known? That’s something unknowable about most horror, I think, and that’s why people say that it’s quite a reactionary genre, because it invites you to fear the other and fear what you don’t understand. Maybe we can’t help it. It’s in our nature, isn’t it?