Being kneed in the nuts by The Guardian: film criticism from across the divide

Our feature film High Tide has been on release in cinemas for nearly a month now and we’ve been delighted by audiences’ responses to it. As explored in previous posts it is a profoundly terrifying process when you expose your work to the eyes of strangers; you spend years gestating a project, loving it, nurturing it, meeting its every need like a doting parent or soppy pet-owner and become increasingly flustered as the time necessarily approaches when your pride and joy, your vessel for all that affection and heed, must leave your care and confront its fate in the murky world of other people’s opinions. So it is with considerable delight to report that we’ve had a huge number of people sending us messages or coming to talk to us after Q and A appearances to tell us that the film moved them, that they enjoyed the performances and, in one case, immediately texted their Mum to tell her how much he loved her (this will make more sense if you’ve seen the film). There is clearly no better feeling than having your work received in such positive terms.

However, aside from these very welcome attestations of enjoyment from people we don’t know, we’ve also had our first introduction to the experience of being reviewed in print and online. And what an introduction it has been. When we first discovered that High Tide was going to get a limited cinemas release our immediate thought was wow, journalists with large followings are going to be writing about the film. How brilliant. And then we started getting emails from reviews editors asking for preview copies and RSVPs to the national press screening of the film and the excitement built further. We fantasised about the killer review in a national publication that would pluck our film from low-buget indie anonymity and thrust it into the shimmering spotlight of national or indeed international acclamation. I began wondering what I should wear for my inevitable saunter along the Croisette later in the year.

We still get a thrill looking at this.

We still get a thrill looking at this.

The first review arrived. I got wind of it late one Wednesday evening as I sat with my wife on the sofa watching the brilliant Engrenages (if you haven’t, you really should; although ignore Series 1 which is un peu merdique) and it appeared that Total Film magazine had given High Tide four stars. Joy unbounded. Leaping around the room. Rockstar poses. High-fiving imaginary well-wishers. And phoning Jimmy to tell him the news. Except that he was selfishly asleep and would not answer his phone.

The next morning dawned and Jimmy and I turned metaphorical cartwheels and phoned each other several times during the day just to extend this moment of joy and relief for as long as possible. Once the magazine was published we enthusiastically told Facebook the good news and our rag-taggle bunch of supporters and likers did the decent thing and pressed “like”. The red notification icon glowed red and numerous and we began planning the next stage in our forthcoming conquering of the entertainment industry.

A week or so elapsed and we had the utter pleasure of High Tide’s world premiere in Swansea; we dressed up in our finery, drank copiously from both glasses of prosecco and the audience’s reaction to the film and ended up middle-aged, drunk and elated in a late-night drinking establishment in the posh end of Wales’ second city. We’d done it. We’d made a film and everyone liked it.

Then the national reviews began being published. And in amongst the praise, for there was much, one particular review suggested that our house was actually made of straw and the BBC had forecast a gale. I am not going to link to the review because you are clearly capable of using Google but it is out there and my goodness did it sting when we read it. Now let’s be clear, I believe completely in the sanctity of free speech; journalists, indeed anyone, must be free to say whatever they like and the years of love, sweat and devotion that we’d ploughed into High Tide count for absolutely nothing when you are inviting the press to judge the film. You don’t have a Je Suis Charlie banner on your Facebook page if you expect exceptions just because you put in a lot of work. However, this was the Guardian. This was the newspaper that we’d both grown-up reading and feel an instinctive loyalty towards. The Guardian is our people; it’s the home crowd; it’s almost like family. So when its reviewer dismissed High Tide in the most searing fashion it did feel as if our own mother had taken a run-up, looked us in the eyes and then hopped, skipped and jumped towards us before launching a Doctor Marten boot full-force into our testicles.

No artist in any medium wants the word “atrocious” in a review of their work. For me the noun form “atrocity” is what happened in the darkest moments of the Bosnian war or during British imperial rule in Africa and so to have it applied to our film was desperately hard to take. To be fair, the reviewer used the word to describe only one aspect of the film and he did have some relatively pleasant things to say about some other moments but clearly it’s “atrocious” that sticks in the memory. Jimmy and I spent a brief phone call after this piece had been published just saying nothing; there was little to be said; our film had been castigated by a publication that we instinctively respect in front of a global audience. Ouch; ouch to the power of ten.

Friends and supporters rallied to our support; said the right things about it being only one opinion amongst many other positive ones and pointed to the fact that  the reviewer in question had a history of giving poor reviews to films, many of which we thought were excellent. And it is all just a matter of taste after all and we knew that High Tide was not going to please everyone; it deliberately takes it time and relies on its final few moments contextualising everything that has gone before and frankly, some people are not going to like it. However, we felt sick to our core, sad, tired and thoroughly fed-up of the whole crazy process of filmmaking.

The mood was dark a week later as we drove in the rain towards Cardiff for a BAFTA Wales-hosted screening of the film. When we arrived we were met by a lovely woman from BAFTA and we told her that we were happy to go ahead with the Q and A session as arranged but would probably not actually be in the cinema to see the film. She baulked slightly at this and very politely suggested that although we were of course free to do as we wished the sight of the two directors leaving the cinema before the film began probably did not send out the right message to members of the audience. Over a quick coffee we decided that there was good sense in this and so we took our seats reluctantly to watch High Tide for the first time since atrocious-gate.

And then something wonderful happened. We enjoyed the film. We enjoyed every second of it. We lived every shot, every line, every piece of music, every scene, processing that which we saw in the most profound fashion. At the Swansea premiere we’d had a few glasses of wine before we sat down and so the whole experience was emotional and almost dream-like but at this screening we were sober and still sore from what had happened. But as each minute ticked past it was as if we were reclaiming our own work, able to put negative reviews into context and just enjoy what we’d made. I’ve never been prouder of the film than at the moment it ended in Cardiff. This was not a two or a four star film, this was our film and it was really good. The Q and A session that followed was lively and fun and Melanie and Sam were on top form and then in the bar afterwards we had some excellent conversations with members of the audience, all of whom had good things to say about what they’d seen.

The atmosphere on the journey home could not have been more different to that which had choked us on our approach to the cinema. Something had changed, we were now assured in our work, delighted in what we’d achieved and able to treat the twin imposters of praise and criticism with a equable dose of cynicism; after all, after everything, they are just opinions to be read, respected and then forgotten. We’d made a film and it was playing in cinemas. We’d achieved everything that we wanted. 

High Tide is still being screened around the country. More showings are being added all of the time so for the latest list please visit our website.

A Guardian critic filing his review of "Morte D'Arthur III:  It's Gawain to be personal (in 3D)".

A Guardian critic filing his review of “Morte D’Arthur III: It’s Gawain to be personal (in 3D)”.

Four stars and two walk-outs: The world premiere of High Tide

Last Friday night saw the world premiere of our feature film High Tide at Taliesin, Swansea. It was an incredible night: we had live music (from the shimmering and wonderful Circe’s Diner), free drinks, a stringent dress code and of course we showed the finished film to an audience for the very first time. And this was as terrifying, bewildering, and ultimately as joyous as we ever hoped it would be.

After a year of some pretty difficult, dark moments for both Jimmy and myself, I must admit that I was holding back the tears when the BBFC certificate flashed on to the screen at the beginning of the film; a mixture of pride, relief and the realisation that this really could be the start of the next chapter, if you’ll forgive the clunking cliche, of our lives. I wish I could be more eloquent than I’m currently being about all of this but the night ended up at an after-hours drinking establishment in the posh end of Swansea and my increasingly middle-aged constitution is only just beginning to recover. I don’t think I have been up at 3.45am for about twenty years (having not first gone to bed) and it may be another twenty more before I am physically able to do it again.

We recorded some audience vox-pops just as people were leaving the cinema in a deliberate attempt to garner more publicity for the film. They were then shared with the small part of the world that is interested in all things Long Arm and we’ll be hammering them further this week as we build towards the cinema release. I do realise that this was the homiest of home crowds but people’s reaction to High Tide seemed to be overwhelmingly positive (and not just because we’d given them free booze before the film began) and as such I’ve embedded the video below if you want to have a look.  Do watch out for some particularly high praise from Hollywood’s Robert Pugh.

As the evening progressed and things got a little fuzzier I was asked by several people how I was feeling to which the obvious answer was that I was feeling pretty amazing (and a little drunk) but thinking about it now it does feel that the premiere was something of an inflection point in this whole process. After several years of micro-managing the entire project, from the early ignorant days when we managed to inadvertently upset a lot of important people with our clumsy amateurism right up until Friday afternoon when we were pushing a trolley of drink into the venue (something that I am sure Scorcese does before all of his premieres), it was time to let High Tide stand alone and be judged by its audience  with the two of us reduced to the status of cowering, powerless bystanders.

I’ve written before about the moment that a writer, metaphorically, slaps his or her new work on the table and says to the crowds, right, judge me on this. It is a terrifying and essential moment and one that the novelist David Mitchell likened to lying on your back, handing the audience a sharpened stake and egging them on to take their best shot. This is what we did on Friday night and very quickly we were afforded a lesson in the brutal process of judgement. There was a heady warmth to the early part of the evening as the free drink flowed and friends were reunited after many months absence (I hadn’t seen several of the cast and crew since the end of the shoot); Jimmy and I introduced the film from the stage, we thanked lots of the people that had helped us reach this far, there was generous amounts of applause. Everything felt wonderful.

Then the film began and after about ten minutes a woman got up out of her seat. Well, she must have been off to the toilet after quaffing too much prosecco on an empty stomach. So we thought. But a few moments later her husband likewise lifted himself from his seat and, with an air of some embarrassment, slid himself out of the row and mumbled that the film “really wasn’t our cup of tea”. I don’t know who this couple were; those invited to the premiere had some connection to the film so they weren’t complete strangers. Maybe they’d given us money (and presumably therefore now think that their donation had been squandered for which I can only apologise a little insincerely) or maybe they were friends or relatives of the cast, who knows?, but whatever their connection they disliked the opening of the film sufficiently to stand up and walk out in full view of everyone in the cinema.

I don’t mind at all that they did, in fact I am glad that they did. Art is always going to be divisive; one person’s David is another person’s big block of borderline pornographic marble which would be better served on their kitchen worktop rather than as one humanity’s finest ever artistic achievements. There are also some, deeply troubled and unhappy, people who don’t like Zoolander. High Tide is deliberately slow in its opening twenty minutes; we ask a lot of patience from our audience and then reward this patience in the second half of the film. But frankly, it is not to everyone’s tastes. And that’s fine. That’s good.

Perhaps, more than the BBFC certificate, more than the TV crews, the dinner suits and ballgowns, the sparkle and the fizz, two punters walking out of the premiere is proof that as filmmakers we have reached the level of professionalism that we’ve worked so damn hard over these past few years to achieve.

Either that or we should try to make better films.

Some people, however, have liked High Tide very much; who wouldn’t want to receive a review like this?  Or indeed a four star review in this month’s Total Film?

But let me end this entry with a piece of music that was playing as we arrived at Mozart’s in Swansea for a night of merriment after the premiere. The Breeders’ Cannonball is a stonewall early 90s classic and I dedicate it to star of High Tide and all-round superstar Mr Sam Davies who I bored with my thoughts on this song for a lot longer than was polite.