Today’s entertainment industry is certainly a balancing act. Many people have to have different talents in order to get buy. Singers turn actors, actors turn directors, directors turn writers, and writers eat scraps of the table.
Jokes aside people can no longer have one bankable skill and must learn to work 25 hours a day to keep up with the speed of the industry.
That’s before you even factor in the technological advances that keep us connected to a world of internet and having to secure a loving online profile for our fans and producers.
So speaking with Ali Cook, a magician, actor, AND writer really solidifies the sentient of having many talents up his sleeve (and a handkerchief too.) To celebrate his performance in The Call Up, a British sci-fi thriller, we spoke with Ali about his upcoming role.
“It’s quite busy today,” says Ali a week before the release of this astonishing well-made thriller in which he plays Edward, a gamer called up to play a heavily realistic virtual reality game. “I have press and then I’m flying over to Cannes to do stand-up comedy.”
Oh yes, he’s a stand-up comic too. As a performer, Ali never thought he’d become an actor but he says that the script for The Call Upwas too tantalising to refuse. “It was a little bit like those eighties movies such as Tron or War Games that I watched as a kid. I have a soft spot for those films and a film about the world’s best game appealed to that.”
What’s more, the producers of the film had Cook hooked by showing him small teasers of the film which the actor says were fantastic. “It was sensational and unique with really fantastic special effects.”
As aforementioned, Cook plays Edward, a city type turned gaming pro called up to test this highly realistic game. “When people think of gamers, they tend to think of nerds who are madly into computers when there is actually this subsection of guys in suits, working in the city all day, and are then up to three in the morning playing ‘shoot em up games.’ Edward is a character offering an alternate to the stereotype. He’s well-educated, posh, and a city boy that I imagine working in law and very bright. He’s not in for the money. He’s purely in for the comrade.”
Despite playing the role of a gamer, Ali stresses that he isn’t into gaming himself. “I made a decision when I was 17 to move away from gaming because I couldn’t be good at it and be good at magic and comedy at the same time. So I stopped playing.”
The film itself presents so many complex themes including commentary on war and the realism of gaming. “It’s a double edged sword, many people love to it but from the safety of their sofa,” Cook explains as he delves deeper into The Call Up’s narrative. “If it were that realistic, you’d hate it. It brings to light the reality of war, if you really shot someone, and it felt completely real, would you do it?”
When talking about the technology aspect of The Call Up and our own advances, Alli mentions how he feels the conflict is more about the human aspect and how it impacts your morals. “That’s the idea, would you really want to play if it were so hyper-realistic? And I believe that people wouldn’t. Though it’s a cool how rapidly we progresses the same way 15 years ago, no one would believe you could talk over the phone like Star Trek. Films like the matrix seems so far away and so does the technology in the game. It could be less than ten years away – scary thought.”
Apart from wearing some fetching blue spandex, Ali Cook tells us that he had few difficulties in filming, particularly from the relentless schedule. “It was seven to seven, six days a week, and because it’s a computer game, everyone is in every scene. I’m certainly in the film at every possible moment. Sometimes you’d get a break but you are quickly back into filming.”
But this didn’t stop him from fitting in a gig during filming. “I performed in Amsterdam for a big company Christmas whilst I was there,” laughs Cook. It wasn’t just the schedule that was difficult. “We had to wear a thong and the helmets looked amazing but we’re highly uncomfortable.”
Ali Cook is not relaxing any time soon. He has two films lined up (though he can’t talk too much about them) and will be doing a period gangster film in the autumn, adding for variety to his life. For someone who didn’t initially get into acting, Ali is certainly brilliant at it. “I really enjoy it, and it’s great alongside the comedy world. Soon you are forced to write your own material and comes in very useful for role in a film and with dialogue. I like the idea of being the best you can be.”
It’s something that everyone has, perhaps more so than others. Finding an identity in the history of your people, your country, and defining elements of yourself by these surroundings. Culture can be used, manipulated, and abused but can also enhance who you are and the community that surrounds.
In the bustling heart of London, The Seventh Fire has a quiet release, screening at two cinemas over the course of a week – Curzon’s Bertha Dochouse and Picturehouse Central. In the heart of Britain’s film industry, surrounded by a vast array of cultures either living inside the London community or outside of it, it is very fitting that Jack Riccobono’s phenomenal and poignant documentary is screening – particularly as it’s about an American culture lesser known elsewhere.
“It was cool. It wasn’t really a press tour. I wanted to come over and I have friends in London. How often do you hav a movie opening in London?” says Riccobono over a shady Skype connection. The director, living in New York, is enthused with excitement about his evocative and poignant film. “My editor is British and he came up in the Soho film scene. It was really fun to be there with him. It was a really good trip.”
The Seventh Fire, despite opening in small theatres for a mere week, is sure to make a deep and impactful impression on those who attend it. “It has had a legitimate run during film festivals. There have been good write-ups and reviews with major publications such as a neat Sight & Sound review and four stars from Time Out London and the Evening Standard. It’s great to get that feedback.”
The positive reviews and influx of endearing responses have cheered the New York native. “Sometimes people don’t get the movie or put together the pieces and there’s a lot of pressure for reviewers on the festival circus and it’s kind of a circus. So it’s great to get these intricate pieces on the film.”
The Seventh Fire, a movie about crime within the Ojibwe community within the Minnesota reservation, is certainly an impressive feature that seers into your mind as you ruminate on scenes and the real life characters within. “That’s kind of the best response that you can get,” Riccobono says on his triumphant piece. “Especially in this culture that is now so disposable and so much stuff is coming at us every time. It’s nice to have that film that stays with viewers.”
The idea for the movie came from a previous short film that they had made on a similar subject – a special rise that this particular tribe eats and the prophecy called The Seventh Fire that moved the tribe to central US from the Northern Eastern shore. But the feature developed and Riccobono found himself exploring the troubling side of the Tribe. “My producing partner read this article on how gang culture was moving out of prisons and into inner cities and to these remote Native American communities. I was really interested in it and started to investigate further by taking the short film to the local Tribal College in 2010.”
As fate would have it, Rob Brown- our lead in the documentary – was sitting in the very same class and was more than willing to co-operate and share his experiences with the director.
“He came up to me like ‘You want to know about Native gangs?’ Let’s talk” says Riccobono and the rest, as they would say, is history. “We just hit it off in terms of personalities and had a good sense of humour and I proposed the possibility of coming back with the film crew. He was open to it and in January 2011, we did fourteen shoots over two and a half years!”
Naturally, entering a tight-knit culture and recording their crime habits and how it impacts the community is a daring and often dangerous premise for a filmmaker. Luckily, thanks to the connection with Rob, Jack was able to get access to the often unseen parts of Objiwe. “There is a lot of tension but at the same time, you are appealing to people’s ego and they are interested to be a part of the film, particularly at the beginning,” the young director states. “Rob was not looking to incriminate himself. He was smart and savvy, living the life of a gang member since he was a teenager. He saw the film as an opportunity and knew where it was heading. It was intriguing to go on this journey with him. H e was very smart and very intuitive – always wanting to get into the process of making a film.”
“Rob was able to take us to communities that make them comfortable with us being there. He’d help facilitate people as he had a certain stature in the community and had that power to let us in,” Jack muses about being able to explore hidden depth to the community.
But there were particular sticky situations in which Jack and his sound guy feared for their safety. “There was one time me and the sound guy were sitting outside in the car and we sent Rob into a house with a wireless microphone and they started talking about how they wanted to rob us. We had that decision whether or not to just leave right then but Rob had to subtly stir the conversation into letting us record and that happened on more than one occasion. We weren’t trying to be reckless in shooting, we weren’t trying to put ourselves in dangerous situations – we were trying to capture what life was like. Needless to say, we tried not stay in the reservation after dark too often.”
All though there were times where the filming took them to the twilight of the reservation and one of them produces a prevailing, intense, and brutal scene with in the movie. “Rob had to turn himself in before a three year sentence and we felt it was important to capture the last night in his community for the story. That night got really scary. It became out of control and there was a fight that broke out. It turned very quickly. You see all that in the film and ou feel that tension from the beginning of scene. By the end, it total turned into a pretty scary direction,”
Ribbocono definitely found an illuminating real-life subject with Rob and their professional relationship was stimulated with respect. Certainly, there is a sense that Rob opened up the film and documentary in impressive ways and helped shape the film. “When I met Rob, I definitely felt like ‘Here is a totally unique subject.’ He was someone with the depth and the ability to speak about his situation. His very thoughtful and reflective nature was still caught in the gang life. His physicality was big and imposing. He was very charismatic on camera. All those things definitely jumped out to me as someone who’d carry the feature and the audience would want to follow.
“The film is very character driven It’s really cinematic and would transport you to a place with a view you wouldn’t go yourself and experience in a very visceral way – one of a kind type of subject from the beginning – what journey from life would take”
Speaking of characters and stories core to The Seventh Fire juxtaposed against Rob’s mature and lengthy gang life, the other subject followed is Kevin. At time of filming, Kevin was just 17 years old and was following in the footsteps of Rob and others like him. “Kevin really emerged as an amazing counterpoint to Rob because he is so young and at a different phase of his life. When you meet him in the film, he is still pretty innocent and had only been in juvenile prison. He wasn’t an adult trying to figure out what to do with his life and you can feel the power Rob has over him as a larger than life mentor. You are able to see how these issues are trapped in this cycle like gangs, drugs, and violence. This way of life has been trickling through generation to generation.”
The Seventh Fire has had an impressive run and also some big names as supporters since production. Actress and campaigner Natalie Portman and director Terence Malick both helped nurture and grow the project. Still bemused by the pairing and support, Riccobono says, “Looking back. I could never have imagined this. We had a very difficult time raising financing for the film. There was a production company named Sundial Pictures and they had produced a pretty large range of narrative products like Gio Dreams of Susi. They became a production partner and gave us funding get it off the ground.
The funding situation is very difficult for independent films. Grants and public television weren’t able to raise any money at any point and it felt like hitting a wall. We were barely scraping basic costs and then we had to travel. We ended up sleeping on friend’s couches, borrowing equipment, and working round the clock to get everything done.”
Along the way, their footage already accrued was passed onto Natalie Portman who responded, giving the project a window and an opportunity. “Portman is very savvy about her celebrity and the causes she gets involved in, bringing attention to ones that need an extra boost. She came on board as an executive producer helped us develop, seeing cuts and telling us where to go.”
From their new relationship with Portman, they soon were in contact with Knight of Cups director Terrence Malick. “She (Portman) had collaborated with the director and they had a close relationship. He was responsive to the filmmaking style – this immersive cinematic visual piece – and he had a long standing interest into Native issues as they feature heavily in his films. He gave a really nice letter of support and when we were in post, we went back and shared it with him again. He agreed to come on board.”
“There was a group of very passionate people trying to carry on the project through the US and now we have a July release.” Riccobono excitably mentions, and heading to the big screen. “As a small documentary, it’s hard to get screen time these days. Everything is going towards streaming and digital viewing. But filmmakers still care about the theatrical so it’s brilliant to see it in cinemas.”
Jack Riccobono is hopefully winding down and relaxing from a ferocious and brilliant tour of his movie. However, the young bright director, with a clear strong career ahead; he’s working on a scripted series as well as producing another documentary.
For now, make sure you check out The Seventh Fire as soon as you can.
Director Jeremy Saulnier has followed up 2013’s hugely acclaimed revenge thriller Blue Ruin with Green Room, a tense, gruesome chiller starring Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots, about a punk band who find themselves at the mercy of a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads led by Patrick Stewart.
How did you get Patrick Stewart to play a neo-Nazi psychopath?
He’s up for an adventure – he was looking for something like this, something dark and unsettling. He really responded to the opportunity to step into a role that would require a downplayed, quiet authority, to be part of an ensemble, in contrast with this very young cast… just, I think, to take a break from studio franchises or TV shows and get his hands dirty on an independent film… it didn’t take much to convince him actually.
Did you have him in mind for the role?
I’m not that presumptuous… I certainly just wrote for authenticity for characters based on research or from my youth. A lot of the band is referring to real life friends I had growing up that were in the punk rock hardcore scene, but I definitely didn’t envision someone of Sir Patrick Stewart’s stature stooping so low as to be in our movie! So I was delighted and he had a really good time playing someone so nasty.
Was it all ‘Sir’ Patrick and bowing when he turned up?
He was like anyone else, he just showed up on set, did his work, came prepared, asked all the right questions. Very much on the same page. I vet all my cast by enthusiasm too – I just want to make sure that everyone on set wants to be there because that creates this wonderful energy, that’s just supportive. You know, we’re all very vulnerable making movies and oftentimes it’s just exhausting, so when you’re surrounded by people who actually want to be there you feed off that collective energy – it’s great. And Patrick Stewart was one of the ensemble, and also at the same time commanded so much respect it translated to his character, and all his skinhead underlings were really sort of impacted by his presence in a perfect way – which achieved the dynamic I was looking for.
After Blue Ruin’s tremendous critical acclaim did you have actors queuing up to be in your next film?
It certainly helped having Blue Ruin as a reference, as actors can see how much I care about performance, how much weight I put on their shoulders. Blue Ruin is very bare bones, it’s so much based on Macon Blair’s central performance. They say there is a certain amount of loving care that goes into the movies I make… and you can’t do that having a toxic relationship with an actor. I guess you can but I don’t want to do that. Blue Ruin also served a very important purpose for Green Room, which is a tonal reference – because if you read Green Room on the page and you don’t quite get what I’m going for, this could be discarded as a typical horror/slasher movie. But having Blue Ruin really helped actors understand what I was going for. They felt a lot safer going in.
What was the thinking making your heroes a punk band – it’s not a typical thing is it?
For me it is – I was in a hardcore band in my youth, I was around a lot of punk music, heavy metal… so these are the kids I knew growing up. The key was to not get too bogged down in punk ideology and what have you, but to pull from experiences. They’re scavengers, like kids out of a Mad Max movie – the busted van, trying to siphon gas from parking lots. It has nice on-the-road, almost Road Warrior feel to it, of course downscaled into the real world – but I thought aesthetically it would be perfect. And I wanted to archive the music, for me and my buddies growing up.
By the end of the film you feel like you’ve been put through the mill – but was it one of those films that it was great fun to make?
The cast and crew had a blast. I think it was exhausting for the cast because of the physical nature of the performances, but as soon as we called cut and wrapped our days it was a lot of fun. Everyone loved each other. Having to do twenty days of non stop crying and mayhem and action – but we all genuinely liked each other, which is very rare, from what I hear… we benefitted from having a tough shoot but with very like-minded, invested individuals who made it more an insulated comfort zone.
You’ve got Blue Ruin, Green Room… is this going to be your Three Colours trilogy?
It is not. I’ve got no more colours in me right now.
So what is next for you?
I’m waiting to hear on a project that will be an amazing step up for me, visually and tonally. It’s in the process of casting, which will trigger off the money. I’m flying to LA tomorrow to have a meeting about a studio movie, and eventually I’ll write something for myself. I think it’s good to keep writing because I need a insurance policy to have my own script that I control. Because for so many reasons films fall through at any step in the process.
Do you have any particular films you watch before you start a project to inspire you?
I certainly watch movies before I start writing movies… because it’s hard, I have three kids and a busy life and I’m always doing so many things, and it’s had to get back into that headspace where your brain and your creative juices are aligned and it’s quiet enough to actually write. I’ll definitely binge on a few movies, more to get excited about cinema, to remember why I make films, to get these feelings back circulating in my system. For Green Room. I watched Straw Dogs and Robocop. I watched a bunch of cool Seventies and Eighties movies that had a lot of texture and grit to them. Some Coen Brothers’ movies. For the next one I write, it might not start for two years, who knows… It’ll be more of an adventure movie I think.
Both your films seem very unique – often reviews just say ‘it’s this film meets this film meets this film’ – and with your films it’s not so easy to do that.
The intention is certainly not to just mash a bunch of films together. When I write there’s no intentional references – other than the atmosphere and feeling some of my favourite films create. It’s never trying to do this typical Hollywood pitch: X movie meets Y movie.
Have you got a favourite punk movie?
Ahh man – Repo Man. Because it doesn’t try too hard to be punk. It’s just in there. It’s really cool and it’s bizarre and irreverent and lovely.
By the way, the bit with the box cutter in Green Room is one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen, in a film.
[Laughs] Well, you’re welcome.
Green Room is released in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday 13th May
Read our review!