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Saul Dibb • Director

“We should never take peace for granted”


- We sat down with British director Saul Dibb to discuss his creative approach to adapting the WWI classic Journey’s End, which is screening at London

Saul Dibb  • Director

Saul Dibb has adapted RC Sherriff’s classic World War I play Journey’s End [+see also:
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interview: Saul Dibb
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for the big screen, and it is getting a Gala screening at the 61st BFI London Film Festival. Cineuropa had a chance to talk to the British filmmaker about his creative approach to an adaptation, his visual aesthetics and his “time travelling” as a director.

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Cineuropa: Why did you decide to adapt RC Sherriff’s play, and why now?
Saul Dibb: The first thing to say is that the film is not strictly an adaptation of the play; it is an adaptation of Sherriff’s recently rediscovered novelisation of the play, which offers far more dramatic and visual possibilities.

For the “why now?” question, there are the obvious reasons – it’s coming up to 100 years since the battle that the film depicts, and it’s one of the greatest British works about war, which has only been adapted for film once (90 years ago). But for me, there were other, more compelling motivations. I was incredibly taken by just how honest, real and truthful an account of war it felt – no doubt because it was written from Sherriff’s personal experience – and that made it stand out from other, more action-based or hero-centred war films. It also struck me that, as some of our short-sighted, opportunistic politicians seek to undermine important allegiances forged after a first half of the 20th century defined by world wars that wiped out whole generations, it is an important reminder that we should never take peace for granted.

Does an adaptation of a classic play limit your creativity? Did you feel constrained by following this narrative path?
Adapting a play per se doesn’t have to limit your creativity at all, and the fact that it’s seen as a “classic” shouldn’t either. In fact, I consciously made a point of not seeing the play, nor reading it, to try and ensure that I would only approach it as a piece of cinema with as little baggage as possible. I also found it very useful to think of it the other way around – to approach the film as if we were recreating the very real events that Sherriff was inspired by, with the camera standing in for him observing these characters for the first time.

The storytelling method we employed was liberating, rather than constricting. The bomb is under the bed right from the start – the audience knows an enormous attack is coming and that this regiment is going to be there when it does. So, the question becomes when, rather than if, and creates a huge sense of dread and tension right from the start.

Was it also difficult to follow this narration along with the character development?
I guess what I said before goes some way to answering that – setting out what’s going to happen and then waiting for it to happen creates a lot of space to examine each individual character and their interdynamics with each other. And because the writing is so good, and the characters are so clearly delineated and nuanced, that allowed each actor to come at them from completely different angles and really inhabit their roles as specific individuals. And we were also, of course, incredibly lucky to have a cast of such talented actors who would then run with that.

Everything takes place in a claustrophobic environment that also intensifies the emotional impact of the drama. Why did you choose this visual aspect?
I wanted to embrace what might be perceived as a weakness – the tight confines and claustrophobic spaces – and turn that into a strength, much like films such as Das Boot and Alien did so brilliantly in their single locations. I then went further and decided to limit our field of vision so that the audience never sees more than the characters do. In a trench situation, this means never looking out over the top, for instance, until three-quarters of the way into the film, when they go out to no-man’s land for a raid and we see it for the very first time in the impressionistic way that they do. I hope this will help the audience experience the claustrophobia the soldiers are feeling, and the sense of fear that comes from imagining what is out there – which is often greater than actually seeing it.

Over the course of your filmography, you have skipped between different historical eras; what fascinates you about this “time travel”?
On the surface, I suppose they do all feel very different, and it’s certainly exciting and challenging to be setting stories in contrasting times and places each time I make a film. But what unites them is a very strong sense of reality (often they have been based on real stories – or the fiction hovers very closely over the reality), and how the time and environment their characters find themselves in dictate their outlook, their opportunities in life and society’s expectations.

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