Ben Miller - Huge respect for the nicest man at the EIFF
Edinburgh International Film Festival Blog
This article is from 2010.
Friday 18th June
It’s my first day at Edinburgh Film Festival 2010; the opening party is a thing of blurry half-memory and the real business of movie-watching has properly begun, but the atmosphere is a joyous one: the sun is shining, and the weather is sweet, yeah. With a couple of movies under my belt already, and a few tips on what I should be looking out for (Nénette, Nicolas ‘Etre et Avoir’ Philibert’s new documentary is the recommendation I keep hearing), I’m quietly confident that this is going to be a great year.
This morning I had the pleasure of chatting to Ben Miller, comedian and debuting film director, and genuine lovely bloke. He immediately moved himself to the top of my ‘favourite famous people’ list when, on hearing that I was from The List, his face lit up and he very nearly full-on man-hugged me. ‘The List!’ he declared, suddenly becoming misty-eyed, ‘is a legendary magazine! I’ve been coming to Edinburgh for 20 years, so me and The List go back a long way’. It was beautiful. Miller’s film Huge is getting its world premiere at Edinburgh’s Cineworld tonight, and if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he’s also one of the judges for this year’s Best International Feature Award, alongside Jason Isaacs and Lynda Myles. I began by asking him how one goes about becoming a juror at this kind of shindig: ‘You just get asked, really! It’s a great honour, but a huge responsibility as well, as it’s a big deal to win an international film competition.’ I attempted to find out his thoughts on the films he’d seen so far, but to no avail: ‘I’ve got to maintain my poker face for now, but I will say we’ve seen some fantastic films, it’s going to be tough to choose one. But it really frustrates me, from a filmmaker point of view, when a jury doesn’t pick one film and chooses to honour several, so I’ll be advocating strongly that we just choose and honour one film.’
Our conversation turned to Huge, a curious but endearing comedy about two stand-up comics (played by Noel Clarke and Johnny Harris) that Miller initially wrote and performed as an Edinburgh Fringe play with Jez Butterworth (‘a real beacon of international screenwriting’) almost 20 years ago. ‘All the original bells and smells of the play are in the film’, Miller said, ‘but we had to kind of break its bones and remake it for it to become a film. It was basically a discussion about comedy originally, but now it’s a full story’.
Perhaps it was the early hour of the day, or the distinct lack of sleep that Miller had had (‘until tonight’s premiere, all I have is free-floating anxiety seeking some kind of outlet’), or a bit of both, but Miller was in a particularly deep conversational mode, pursuing the film’s theme of the rights and wrongs of ambition: ‘There’s a universal thing of selling out or not. And on the one hand, we’ve all got to eat, but unless we really, really try and “unpack some of the stuff in our suitcase” we’re not going to experience life. And that balancing act is quite important in this story. Deciding to go for it is a really big decision.’ In his own life, he said, the decision to go for comedy was one he didn’t take easily; he had a whole other career lined up: ‘I was a physicist, and I had a huge passion for it, but I knew I was never gonna be world class. I needed to find something where I really had something to offer, and for me that was comedy. I decided to give it a go when I was 23, 24, and I’m glad I did, but it took me a good four or five years to get ‘in’, and the original play of Huge was born of that frustration. And it’s a similar frustration I felt a couple of years ago with the film business, just like no-one wanted to take a chance on me. And it reminded me of Huge and I thought, “maybe I could do that as a film”’.
I commented that Huge struck me as an incredibly optimistic film, considering the mixed nature of Miller’s own experiences, and he agreed: ‘I’m afraid I’m very optimistic, and moralistic. For me, one of the things art has to examine is how to live your life, and unless it’s doing that it doesn’t work for me. I get frustrated with films that entertain me but ultimately dodge a moral question about how you should try and live. I mean, my success at living a moral life is pretty terrible, but I still aspire to do it! I identify with the Johnny Cash thing that trying to live a good life and be a good person are not necessarily the same thing!”
Wishing Miller all the best for the premiere, I departed to get my first coffee of the day and reflect on his soul-searching wisdom. I’ve got quite a few interviews lined up for the fest, so I think I’m going to set this as the benchmark – I’m not going to be satisfied with anything less than reflections on art, morality and Johnny Cash from whomever I speak to. Do you hear me, Toy Story 3 animators? Get your thinking caps on, I’m coming for you.