Interview with online magazine What The Dickens

This is an interview I did with Sandy East of What The Dickens Magazine – which I’ve reprinted here on the blog.

Marcus Markou had a story he needed to tell, a film that he needed to make, and a lot to learn. So he went and did just that. And then some. Meet the writer and director of the hotly-anticipated Papadopoulos and Sons, a comedy drama that slowly and ever so very surely is making itself known, and prepare to make notes. And the occasional ‘That makes so much sense…’, ‘Blimey, he’s on to something there…’, Wow!’ type declaration. This is a man with a big heart and a big message to deliver. Comfy chair? Check. Pen and paper? Check. Listening ears on? Check. Let the Markou masterclass begin.

Marcus, you’ve written, directed, and now seem to be on a non-stop tour of festivals and screenings for your first feature-length film, Papadopoulos and Sons. Tell us about the film and the process of developing it from an idea to now, finally, sharing it with audiences. And do you think you should maybe have a nap?

Yes, you are right. I should stop and I have been forced to stop. My three year old boy broke his leg rather badly recently and it forced us all to stop because he was put in a Spica plaster – from his chest to his feet. We all had to learn some patience. He’s just come out of plaster now and I’m already looking back at the time of hunkering down at home for the last six weeks as a happy time. Money, status, ego, our selfish desires are all illusions. The love of family is real. And yes, this is at the very heart of Papadopoulos and Sons. I sort of lived the message of the film in the last few weeks. Part of me thinks I wrote this film to learn this lesson. In terms of the process of film making, I only know what I experienced. And for me, the entire process was driven by a story that I’d been working on since my teens. I am the son of immigrants and I wanted to explore the idea of what is lost when an immigrant family become established in a host country. I needed to get a family back to their roots and I used a fictional economic crash as a device to force a wealthy family back to an old fish and chip shop. This device is now proving to be very relevant because the real economic crisis is forcing us all to do something similar. We are all questioning what is important now.

In terms of theme, story, background, the collaborative process, and the casting of Stephen and Frank Dillane, and the way in which the cast and crew worked together as a whole, it seems that this is a film that is, and has been, very much a family affair in every possible sense…

Yes, one of the themes of the film is that it is the family business, the small business – what they call the Mom and Pop store in the States – that can provide sustainability in a time of crisis. These are my own values. I believe in self-sufficiency and the family business is a model for that. And of course, we ran the set like that too – inclusive, democratic and family friendly.

The key message to the film is only when you lose everything, do you find it all… and it’s one that resonates strongly with our society today given the economic climate and the fact that so many people have experienced just that. Recently we discussed the idea that if you create a film or any form of art out of love then can you really put a price on it or expect to prosper financially from it? The discussion was left open but what I’d like to know is did you go into making Papadopoulos and Sons with your focus purely on ‘I’m making this film because I have to and I want to’ and decide to ‘lose’ financial expectations from the start? If yes, do you think that freed you up to make a richer film emotionally?  

No one can really plan for financial success in films. Some films tick all the marketing boxes, they have the right stars, the right director and what seems like a good story. But once released it dies in front of an audience. Other films don’t tick any of the film marketing boxes and they become sensational hits. You cannot plan for success. I am quite hopeful for Papadopoulos and Sons because at the outset every distributor in the UK said that the film wasn’t commercial and it didn’t tick any marketing boxes!  But whether they are right or wrong means very little. The truth is, you can only make the very best film you can. And for me it was a story that I needed to tell. I needed to make this film. If I could have written the story in a novel or made it into a play, I would have gladly done that. And I did try writing this story as a novel and as a play but it just didn’t work for me. When I came to write the film script it seemed a much easier process. The story lent itself to being a film script – quite naturally – but you still have to put in all the structural work you would do for a novel and you need those characters to be as real and alive as they would need to be in a stage play. Now that the film has been made I simply cannot control its future. It’s a contradiction. I had 100% control in the making of this film. However, now that it is made the film goes on its own journey without me.

One might say that the beauty to be found in times like these it’s that they encourage people to be more resourceful and committed to creating the projects they want to make without relying on big-wigs and that it’s a prime time for independent creatives. Given your experience as a writer, director, actor and businessman, it seems to me that your transition to independent film-maker is a natural progression for you – do you agree? 

Yes, it has been very straightforward for me because I had a story I personally connected with. It made me feel alive when writing it. I’ve pushed on doors that just would not open. We all have. We push and push and push. But they are meant to be shut. And part of that reason is because it’s our ego pushing on the door not our true self. So the door remains shut to us. To protect us. For example, I was not meant to be an actor. Yet I was meant to excel at drama school. How can that be? In hindsight, you would say I got enough from being at drama school to serve what I needed. And what the world needed as well. The world didn’t need me to be an actor. That’s a very tough thing to accept. But what I didn’t know back then was that I needed to be a drama school, to excel as an actor, believing that this would be my life in order to make a film like Papadopoulos and Sons later. I’m very comfortable around actors as a result. I’ve been one. I’m very comfortable around money and balancing the books because I’ve run a business. But does that mean I now have to go make another film? Now that I have all the tools to make films? And now more experience? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know yet. I only know that we all need to keep moving forward. It’s really hard because your ego wants to say… “Yes, I’m now a film maker – I’ve arrived – and I can go to parties and festivals and wear the robes of a ‘film maker'” But the truth is I’m also a teacher and because I made this film outside the system perhaps my job will be to teach others to do the same. I don’t know yet. I would like to make another film but I would need to feel as if I had to make it, not because I could make it. And there is a danger of falling into a system that churns out films that can be made, not need to be made.

As with everything in life, our previous experiences feed into the art that we create and you’ve mentioned before how your experiences have undoubtedly served you well in making Papadopoulos and Sons. What I’m interested to find out is how much did you learn from making your short film, The Last Temptation of Chris, and in what ways did that prepare you and influence the choices you made in making a full-length film?

I enrolled on a short part time film making course at Met Film School in West London. I wanted to see whether I could grasp the technicalities of film making. I was writing plays but not having much success. I was still learning to write. I just didn’t understand structure – or its importance. So the short film came out of being at Met Film School. At first, I was not going to direct it. I saw myself as a writer and a producer but not a director. So I started looking around to hire a director and my teacher at film school said that this was a mistake. She pointed out that I was more than capable of directing it. I guess I was frightened, petrified of the idea. I remember walking towards the set for the first time as a director and I said to myself, I will know by the end of today whether I am cut out for this or not. I will just know. Of course, it was the best day of filming you could hope for. Everything went smoothly and we had great luck too. We were shooting in February on the South Bank and we needed one shot of Ed Stoppard looking out towards St Pauls. When we turned the camera around to get this shot, the grey London clouds broke apart and the sun hit St Pauls. It felt magical. We were all like kids. Everyone got very excited. The cameraman couldn’t believe it and kept saying that I had what all good directors and football managers needed to succeed – good luck! That day left me on a big high because everyone kept saying that it was one of their best days ever on a film set. It flowed and there was good banter and everyone and the weather was in sync. I thought… “Okay, this is definitely for me… I like it! I want more!”

If you could suggest an ideal or a general training guide of sorts for someone wanting to go into film-making what would be on it? What do you feel they need to know and need to be aware of? What’s the best advice you can offer?

You just have to follow your heart. It’s really hard to do because your heart might suggest something else. I really wanted to be an actor and I followed as much advice as I could – read the books, sent off my CV, pushed and pushed and pushed. And then one day a friend suggested that if I loved acting so much, did I really need it to be a career? Why didn’t I just do amateur dramatics. I was filled with dread at the idea but she was right. It was about acting, not about outward success as an actor. And so I joined an Impro Theatre Company in London called Fluxx. I discovered that you didn’t need to be a paid actor to truly love acting. And I probably learned more from being in a 45 minute improvised drama on stage than I would have learned being in a run of a professional play. It helped me become  a better writer because when you are improvising you don’t have time to think and so you are often making creative choices that would normally be booted into touch by the mechanical brain. So the advice I give is simple. Follow your heart. Do the things you enjoy. If you enjoy telling stories with a camera and actors, you have no excuse not to do it because you can do that simply now and you can put your films on the internet too. And you will learn so much more by doing that than getting a job in the photocopying department at Paramount.

Who have been and who still are your biggest influences in terms of films, plays, directors, actors, and writers and why?

There are so many but I’ve always been drawn to the writer/directors such as Powell/Pressburger, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen. I’ve always loved comedy drama in film and TV. For plays, I’ve always been drawn to the poetic and abstract – John Whiting, Pinter, Beckett but also the comic like Dario Fo (I got to play the Maniac in a school production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist when I was 14). I’m a fan of most actors. You’d have to press me hard about an actor I didn’t actually like. But my favourites are those that get away with being larger than life because you can see them take risks without any fear of consequences. This is what made Marlon Brando so good. And of course, I probably learned more about acting method watching Stephen Dillane and Georges Corraface at work than I ever did at drama school. I would forget I was making the film sometimes because I just struck by the detail of what they were doing.

You’ve said before that you do all of this because you ‘love stories’ – what are the nuts and bolts of a great story for you?

A good story is seeing how someone grows – positively or negatively – as a result of the circumstances they find themselves in. But make sure that: (1) The ‘someone’ is an interesting ‘someone’ (2) That the growth is big (either big negative or big positive) (3) That the circumstances the ‘someone’ finds themselves in arise because of their desire for something that is intricately linked to who they are or think they are.

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