SXSW 2017 Interview: Writer/director Joe Martin on Us and Them

South by Southwest premiered the British crime thriller Us and Them. Jack Roth plays a working class Brit who turns the tables on a 1%er family. Us and Them is the first fiction film from writer/director Joe Martin who’d previously made documentary shorts and features. We spoke with Martin in Austin about the film’s issues and his surprising influences on Us and Them.

Nerd Report: How did you make the transition from documentary to narrative feature?

Joe Martin: I don’t know. It was a big jump because I wrote, directed and edited this. It was kind of all on me. I had done some docs in the past but I’d always wanted to get into fiction. So I was really excited, but I found it, not easy, but enjoyable.

NR: What came first, thinking about the 1% situation or the idea of a home invasion robbery?

JM: I come from a working class background and I work in film which tends to be more of a richer background. When I was moving between those two worlds, I started to feel a sense of divide and conflict. Off the back of that, I felt like I wanted to make a film that kind of touched on that. So we made the whole film and everything, but it all happened before Brexit and everything else. I guess it was the 1% inequality that was going on. The home invasion angle was more I guess budget limitation. There’s a whole tradition of plays and films that explore social issues in a confined space. It certainly helps to build tension and to be able to put together groups of people you wouldn’t necessarily find together in society normally. You need that to all happen in one place so it works as a dramatic conceit as well.

NR: 1% issues go back before 2016. Has it been as big an issue in England as it is here?

JM: Yeah, in England it’s a huge issue. For example, in the last year, the average house price has gone up more than the average wage. So someone who has a house and has done nothing can be effectively earning more money than someone who is working for a living. Those who have the house are getting ever richer and the poorer are just getting worse off. The inequality gap, I think we’re the worst country for it apart from America, or around the same level. So it’s a huge issue in England,

NR: Jack is great in the movie but is there an elephant in the room that his father was also in one of the great robbery gone wrong movies, Reservoir Dogs?

JM: No. There’s been a lot of comparisons being drawn to Tarantino which is interesting to me. I think that is because Jack looks like his dad. I guess I should’ve been more aware of that. I’ve had people say, “It’s very like Tarantino because it uses title cards.” My big inspiration for this film was Godard who was using title cards in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So I feel like cinema is constantly informing itself. A lot of the references that I’m taking are from the ‘70s but people will put the ‘90s on it anyway. In a weird way, I think you just have to accept that people are going to see in it what they want to see in it.

NR: What are your favorite Godard movies?

JM: So when I was at film school, I looked a lot at Godard. Obviously his French New Wave stuff, the early stuff like Breathless is great, Band Apart and stuff like that. What really interested me is that after May ’68, there was a kind of Marxist revolution, didn’t quite happen but there were huge protests, sit ins, a national television station was taken over. Godard turns his back on his big career at that point and made a political filmmaking group called the Dziga Vertov Group. They did these strange experimental films like British Sounds and Wind From The East and Pravda. It culminated in a film called Tout Va Bien. Tout Va Bien is this really kind of Brechtian film. The whole idea is a political modernist film about how do you make a political film politically. The big film that really influenced this was Tout Va Bien but also things like Masculin Feminin, that essay sort of style that I think you can see throughout the film with the way that time is played with. The narrative has an uncertain nature, whether or not it’s reliable.