Welsh filmmaker Ryan Andrew Hooper has finally made his debut feature after starting his directorial career with short films like The Shirt and Ambition. Hooper has collaborated with screenwriter Matt Redd on The Toll, having worked together on the development of the idea for years and the feature film is a bright start.
Starring Michael Smiley as a toll booth operator in the middle of nowhere, The Toll builds on the legacy of legends like John Ford and the Coen brothers. Described as the first West Walian Western, the film takes us on a wild journey where nothing is as it seems and it just takes a split second for everything to devolve into absurdity.
Some big names are attached to Hooper’s project, ranging from veteran actors like Smiley and Julian Glover to promising stars like Iwan Rheon and Annes Elwy among others. Set in Pembrokeshire, The Toll attempts to paint a complex socio-cultural portrait of its physical as well as psychological landscape.
We spoke to Hooper on August 16, prior to the theatrical release of The Toll, in order to gain some valuable insights about the production process as well as the artistic sensibilities of the promising filmmaker.
You directed a short in 2018 called Ambition and The Toll has become an extension of that cinematic universe. Screenwriter Matt Redd mentioned that you had been working on it since as far back as 2014. How was the journey so far?
“Long. Been very, very long. Yeah, I think Matt and I started working on a slightly different project about seven or eight years ago. And then we came up with the idea for The Toll after I was sort of stuck on… a bridge that leads into Wales from England. And something a bit of a grumble about being stuck in a tollbooth because it used to be big queues, you have to pay to get back into Wales. And it was a bit frustrating. My girlfriend said, ‘Why don’t you do? Why don’t you do a feature film set in a toll booth?’
So I mentioned it to him. He liked it and then we sort of developed it from that. And the feature actually came first. The short film came from us looking to try and create a sort of proof of concept of the film. So that’s where that came out. It was slightly different because it wasn’t a short film that we expanded; it was a short that came out of the feature already existed. So yeah, so that was sort of many steps on a long journey, which I think a lot of filmmakers understand. Trying to get a low budget film made is not easy.”
Ambition is much more surreal. I think you described it as ‘Lynchian’. How did the change in the cinematic vision come about?
“Just a disclaimer: it’s hubris to compare myself to David Lynch. So I’m not doing that. But yeah, I think it came from… the atmosphere of the feature. [It] was always going to be sort of a black comedy and a Western. The short, as we were working on it and Matt wrote it, it just didn’t feel quite the same. We were filming in a studio and everything was blacked out. There was a lot of smoke and the colours are quite sort of ‘neon-y’. I think sometimes you have to respond to what you have in front of you a little bit. It’s just how it felt, it just felt sort of odd. And then there’s this character of The Bride that comes out of the mist in the middle of nowhere.
The shoot had this strange atmosphere of feeling quite surreal and some of the actors were asking me: ‘Oh, what’s it about?’ One of them was like, ‘I know what this is. This is purgatory. You know, they’re all dead. It’s a bit like Charon and the River Styx. I was like, ‘No, no, no, he’s just a guy in this toll booth’… I’m not keen to be pigeonholed. The short I did before that was different to The Toll and Ambition. I’d like to be able to try different things so I didn’t want to be bound by the feature too much… I tried to treat each thing separately and then have fun and experiment. If you can’t experiment, particularly when you’re using other people’s money, you’re never going to be able to do it.”
I watched Ambition first and I was kind of taken aback by how different The Toll was. John Edward Williams’ Stoner is continuously alluded to in the film and is described as a novel of inaction. On the contrary, The Toll seems to be about a man whose life is so absurdly action-packed that he fantasises about inaction and peace. Was that a deliberate contradiction?
“Yeah, definitely. When we were working on the script for The Toll, I had read Stoner and I was trying to describe to Matt how good a book it was. But it was like, ‘nothing happens!’ [laughs] It’s about a man who lives a very underwhelming life. I thought that is sort of people’s perceptions, possibly, of our main character. Somebody who works in a toll booth in the middle of nowhere for 20 plus years. They must think, ‘Oh, he’s got a very inactive life’ or a life that’s not rich. I thought it reminds me so much of Stoner, [there are] nice parallels there.
Like you said, with The Toll, we were just sort of like, ‘we might never make another movie.’ Because most first-time film directors never make another one. I’m hoping to make more but that’s the reality of the situation. So I thought, ‘let’s just having as much fun and goals and just swing for the rafters and really go for it.’ That was sort of like a happy, oxymoronic relationship with the book because nothing happens [there] but in our film, everything happens all in one go. If anyone hasn’t read it, you should read it. It’s a brilliant book. I can’t explain to you why. But it is a brilliant book.”
Michael Smiley’s character reminds me of Michael Ehrmantraut from Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, who was played by Jonathan Banks. A man with a mysterious past who hides from life in a tiny booth before things inevitably flare up. Was it a conscious decision to leave his past under wraps?
“[We] got a little bit of, not criticism but people [asked] ‘What was his past?’ And you sort of want the audience to engage with what’s going on. But I think the way I sort of answered this in the past is that what has happened in his past isn’t important. What’s important to his character, is how he deals with that, because his currency is information. That is what is his stock-in-trade. That’s all he gets from being in the toll booth. He has information on everyone in that town, and he knows. He has pressure points on people, and he doesn’t need to be firing guns and shooting people.
I know he does, because we wanted to show what his background was at some point but he doesn’t need to do that sort of stuff. He can trade in information and that is what is important to him. The fact that he doesn’t disclose his past says more about him as a character… Anything that we came up with wouldn’t be as satisfying as sort of maybe what you imagine. What he did isn’t as important as the actions after it and that’s what this film is about.”
Speaking of Michael Smiley, the cast for The Toll is stellar, to say the least, featuring veteran actors as well as rising stars like Annes Elwy and Iwan Rheon. Was it a learning experience for you as well?
“I think there’s a scene at the end of the stand-off where I think almost the entire cast was there. I remember thinking there will probably be other directors will see that scene and think of trying to cope with all of those actors. Like you’ve got Evelyn [Mok], the Elvis Impersonator who never really acted before in this sort of mean role. And then you’ve got Julian Glover who has literally been in everything – Indiana Jones, Harry Potter. He’s done it all, He’s seen the whole breadth of everything.
I remember looking at them all at the location and thinking ‘there’s just so many spinning plates – how you deal with people individually and deal with different things.’ It was a lot of fun and I learned loads. But I think you have to learn to adapt yourself to different people and different ways of working. So you soak all that in like a sponge and it becomes a lot of fun. Because you can bounce from one person to another and you have to sort of change the way that you’re working with them. It keeps you on your toes and that was my favourite part of the film. There was like a mad energy. It was dark. It was windy. It was on the west coast of Wales and the weather was mental and yeah, it was brilliant. You play make-believe and people are paying you. Not very well but people are paying you to do it. And it’s like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.'”
You have described The Toll as the first West Walian Western. Do you think this transposition will spawn more neo-westerns set in Wales? How did the idea for a West Walian Western come about?
“I hope so. I hope people will look at it and think that they can be a second West Walian Western and we can spawn a whole genre. When the script came through, it just felt to me like a Western – an old gunslinger type thing. Growing up, I loved John Wayne movies and John Ford movies and Butch Cassidy and all the spaghetti westerns. I think it’s a goal of many directors to make a Western and the tagline – ‘the first West Walian Western’ is alliterative so it works quite nicely but I think it was just the feel of it.
When you don’t have a lot of money but you do have the landscape of Wales, that is our production value that is our bang for our buck. That’s the one thing that maybe can’t be replicated elsewhere. It is this place and this area, I think I’ve said before is that it is quite out of the way. They do their own thing, people in West Wales. They’ve sort of got their own way of dealing with things and it does feel a bit wild at times. In its bones, it felt like a Western to me.”
Annes Elwy mentioned that she was quite surprised by how sunny the film looked. Did the weather conditions make the production process difficult?
“Yes! That is the reality of filming in Wales and that bit of Wales juts out like the leg of a turtle. It catches all of the crappy weather from the ocean. It’s hard to describe what it was like, it was raining sideways. We almost became like a little army troop type, the cast bonded really, really quickly in adversity. You don’t want to do it over again, it is just rain and wind. But it does create this sort of level of adversity that makes you bond together better.
We were able fortunately to capture the moments when it wasn’t quite as insane, We did catch, give us the opportunity to sort of showcase how beautiful our area can be. We had the low winter sun as well so we’ve got that type of look that came through. We were very lucky with being able to work around the weather, but it isn’t something I would recommend doing.”
You have already cited the likes of John Ford, the McDonagh brothers as well as the Coen Brothers as primary influences for the film. Since you mentioned that you don’t want to be pigeonholed, what other filmmakers or literary influences have you had that have helped you along your journey as a filmmaker?
“That’s a really good question. My tastes are pretty broad, I just love movies. Well, I’d love to be as good a director as like Hitchcock. Not a person, it seems like he may or may not have been a pretty terrible person. I love his films but then if I could be as good as anyone living, I would want to be as good as Lynn Ramsay. She might be the top director, in my opinion, at the moment. You can maybe see from The Toll that we wear our influences on our sleeves.
I think the only film that I loved that we didn’t reference is The Goonies. There’s stuff in there from Star Wars, Shawshank and Butch Cassidy. I think people want to pigeonhole you pretty quickly and they have expectations about what it is they want you to make. And I’m hoping that I can get away from that a little bit. People see Steve Oram or Michael Smiley and a bit of violence and they think of Ben Wheatley. We’ve had that a few times, obvious comparisons with lots of Tarantino type films and Guy Ritchie type films. And I do love Tarantino. So I’m sure that’s in my bones. I’m not as big a fan of Guy Ritchie. Those influences kind of seep into your DNA without you even realising it at times.”
The influence of Tarantino is pretty evident from your use of the soundtrack. Finally, I would like to ask you about your next project, which is The Life and Death of Daniel Dee, if I’m not wrong. It was described as a cinematic extension of The Toll’s world with similar sensibilities. Can you tell us more about it?
“It’s about a life insurance salesman who wants to fake his own death and he finds people who are the best at making you disappear which is a mother and daughter team. It turns out that the reason they’re the best is that they kill their clients. Everyone who they help disappear, they never come back because they never come back. [laughs] We’re currently [working on casting] at the moment. Some people are reading it, we’re sort of hoping to try and shoot next year [with a] bigger budget.
It won’t be quite the same as The Toll in terms of the approach, it’s going to be a little bit stricter. There’s still a sensibility, me and Matt are keen to try and forge an identity. Like Ireland has its particular identity of cinema, and even Scotland, to a certain extent has its own identity, whereas Wales doesn’t. Recently, we’ve got The Feast and Censor’s come out which I know is not based in Wales but he’s a Welsh filmmaker. I think that is more of a groundswell of people coming through at the moment and we [would] like to add to that mix. A lot of films are shot in Wales but not many films are about Wales.”
The Toll is in cinemas and on digital 27 August.