10×10 Q&A: Director Suzi Ewing and producer Jason Maza discuss their triumph over the international box office and “the biggest blizzard you’ve ever seen”
Tight psychological thriller 10×10 sees British director Suzi Ewing make her feature debut. She and producer Jason Maza took to the stage at the Regent Street Cinema following the UK premiere of the film to talk about the making of the film and their views on its protagonists.
Making a directorial debut is in itself an impressive achievement, but perhaps especially so for a female filmmaker in such a traditionally male-dominated genre. Ewing spoke about the personal and professional growth the opportunity afforded her: “I feel more confident. I’ve made a film that’s made money with a great cast, great producers, and it’s out there. That changes everything. I’m now someone who’s no longer a risk. Before that happened – massive risk. No one knows whether you can deliver to schedule. You’re an unknown quantity. So it’s a big game-changer for me, definitely.” And that next project? “I guess it’s early days, films take such a long time to get off the ground but I’m working on ideas with different producers. The most concrete evidence of things moving forward is that I’m now having more meetings and at a different level than I was before.”
For those opportunities, though, it requires the people already in the industry to trust and believe in a new face. Producer Jason Maza spoke about the philosophy behind his and Noel’s company, Unstoppable: “We’re a massive advocate of new talent, diverse talent, and a big part of that is female talent. It is incredibly hard for directors to get a film off the ground even though there is so much talent out there – to find the opportunity is very, very difficult. Me and Noel always want to support the underdog and we always want to give people opportunities.” But Maza makes clear that they chose Ewing because she was right for the job, plain and simple. “Saying that, Suzi made it easy for us because she’s brilliant. One of her short films, Going Postal – if you haven’t seen it, I really recommend it – had lots of similarities with 10×10, a tense film in a small location. It was almost the perfect ‘look, I did this so I can do that.’ So it was an easy sell.” Suzi herself offers thanks to Noel: “He really believed in me and has given me the biggest opportunity of my career, so I’m eternally grateful.”
Ewing’s career and background aren’t necessarily typical for a feature filmmaker. “ I’m from art school, I didn’t go to film school. I made films at art school and the music to go with them. Then I studied photography at Goldsmiths so my background is working more in stills to begin with, before I moved on to short films.” Marrying this high-art aesthetic with an action film and limited budget can’t have been easy, but the director seems to have relished it. “It’s so difficult to make films that budget is sort of irrelevant, you get what you get, and you make a good story, you make it work, you use what you’ve got. We had Hollywood stars at the top of their game. The whole team put this together so that we got that. It never felt like it was a low-budget film to me.”
The film has an obviously international feel for such a British team behind the camera, and it seems this is no accident. Ewing notes that “from the get-go, it just felt like a story that needed to reach a large audience and this was our way of doing that.” Having never filmed in the US before, there were challenges too: “Half the film was shot in the UK and half in America, and the difference in scale is incredible. Noel kept saying to me, wait until we get to America, you’re gonna see and you’re gonna feel the difference. It was amazing to go there. The way subjects filled the frame, the change in the size of the sky, the light, everything just brought something very special to our story. It’s very, very different in feel.”
Some things don’t change when you leave Britain though; Maza talked about the crew’s struggle with inclement weather, which must at least have made them all feel very at home. “Essentially, we were filming in a glass box. Literally, the night before we started shooting, the biggest snow blizzard you’ve ever seen comes, and all through the night, we’re making frantic phone calls trying to get diggers in. You’re having crazy thoughts like, if it carries on snowing do I have to set the whole thing in snow? Am I gonna have to get snow machines in? We turn up, the whole thing is covered in snow. Everyone’s there but we can’t shoot anything. I did get a digger in, but all it did was take up the lawn of the most expensive garden ever. I don’t know how we did it, but we managed to clear enough so we could shoot through. In the ten days we shot at the house, the first three days were snow, day four to six were bright sun, seven to eight were rain. To be fair, when you watch the movie, you sort of get away with it, so yeah… we were lucky.”
The film’s international element has certainly helped its success. “I believe we’ve sold every territory in the world”, Maza explains. “We’re one of the last people to get it here actually, which is weird.” In fact, the film was pre-sold to get it funded and off the ground at all: “we used a sales agent called Altitude who managed to pre-sell the movie because of the amazing cast that we had, and the script. But a key person [in terms of securing funding] is producer Maggie Montieth, who is in the room today. Maggie’s a powerhouse. Couldn’t have done it without her. Part-private finance, part-international sales, UK tax credit, and that was our film done, so we’re very lucky.”
It is indeed an all-star cast, featuring Kelly Reilly (True Detective, Sherlock Holmes) and Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train, Fast and Furious 8). Ewing and Maza were both effusive in their praise for the pair and talked about how they influenced the script and the final work. “The discussions were always there,” the former explains. “This is obviously a two-hander so most of the discussions were with Kelly, Luke and Noel. You’re working all the time to understand your character, otherwise it becomes a dot-to-dot of narrative plot points that for me are meaningless. It has to be a reaction to a real emotional event for it to be a real authentic way of playing a character.”
“In my experience”, Maza chimes in, “when you’re working with the talent of Luke and Kelly – and I’ve seen it in several situations – they are bringing a lot to the table. They bring so much gold and so much insight. As a fellow actor, the level of work that those guys put in was so inspiring – workshopping every single line and every single scene with Suzi, [figuring out] what’s my journey at the start of the scene and the end of the scene. There’s a reason why these guys are where they are.”
Maza is both actor and producer in the feature, a balancing act that he seems perfectly comfortable with. “This film was easy! I was in for like one scene! But obviously, I have produced stuff where I’ve been much more the main focus, which is tough. But I think both me and Noel are both quite naturally good at switching our hats, and I’m really passionate about movies; I love film. Producing for me was a great way to create cinema. And if I can put myself in it as well…” he adds with a smirk.
If Maza is comfortable in his role though, the movie asks uncomfortable questions about morality and the justifiability of violence and revenge. The filmmakers have clearly wrestled with these, and Ewing’s view on the ethics at the heart of the picture is fascinating. “For me it was always really important that there were no winners in the film. I can be sympathetic and understand both of them fully in their motivations, but to me, it was really important that in no way did Luke Evans’s character come across as someone to be celebrated because he’d kidnapped a woman and that’s not great (obviously!). So, for me, they were both as guilty as each other. But for me, what was more interesting and propelled me to make the film was to find the triggers that make them react the way they do.” Pushed on the motivations of Kathy (Kelly Reilly), Ewing dips behind the curtain, revealing the actor and director’s thinking: “Working with Kelly we decided that the only way someone could behave in this way – she is kind of ‘M… A… D’ with quotation marks – is if she played the character like a religious fundamentalist, and that’s what would drive Kathy to do this.”
Diving deeper into the technical aspects of the piece, Ewing discusses the choreography of the feature, which essentially plays out as a long, almost balletic, fight scene. “At the beginning and the end of the film, the two characters reverse and become one another. So we knew that was the starting point, that they would change places in this race for survival. It was just a case of at what point they would start to swap positions, and there was a sense of choreography in that. Through understanding the characters and what brings them to this position and what secrets they have, we were able to construct and sculpt a kind of dance to reveal the information. Interestingly, the feeling of the film was based on a dance by Pina Bausch where the mood is one of organised confusion.”
The director also explains the “narrow palette” of the film, which is clearly very important to her. “Because it’s such a violent journey for two people, I wanted it to be really beautiful. There’s a Rousseau painting of two people fighting in the jungle and that was the inspiration for the [colour scheme and interior of the] home. When it comes to the palette, it was very important to me that it was a neutral, not too pretty, not too ugly but a very narrow bandwidth of colour. Also, I had to take the red out of everything so that when you saw the blood for the first time it had an impact.
10×10’s soundtrack is absolutely crucial in a piece of cinema where dialogue is fractious and sparse. It turns out to have an interesting origin story of its own. Ewing is clearly very happy with how it came to be, and how it turned out: “A very exciting thing happened! When the film was announced, a number of different composers got in contact. One of them was Trent Reznor’s assistant, living in America – I’ve never actually met him but had some lovely conversations over Skype. He put together a whole selection of things that he’d previously worked on as an assistant, and some stuff that he’s composed himself. I absolutely loved what he did with the music, it was a fantastic opportunity to work with someone like that, and I think he brought something very special to the film!”
10×10 does not have a UK release date yet.