We speak to writer/director Reg Traviss about his hard-hitting prison drama Screwed, based on the book by Ronnie Thompson.
Traviss tells us how he approached making a prison drama as seen from the other side of the bars, his influences, and what draws him to a project.
LOVEFiLM: How did the film come about – did the script or the book come to you first?
Reg Traviss: I read about the book when it first came out, then by coincidence, an actor who had been in my first film, Joy Division, knew Ronnie Thompson. Ronnie had seen Joy Division and really liked it, so we met up, and he asked me if I’d be interested in making a film of the book. A year later, Ronnie came back to me with a script he had written for Screwed: I read it, loved it.
LF: Screwed is a tough film, as was Joy Division. Is institutional brutality something you’re interested in?
RT: Yes, but it’s not the brutality itself that interests me so much as individuals getting caught up in a system, or on the front line of a war zone. With Screwed, it’s a prison film, but seen through the eyes of a prison officer. I can’t think of a prison film like that – except The Green Mile – but that is a different kettle of fish. What I liked about it was that you have this bloke who represents authority, but he is just as much at the mercy of authority as the convicts. Any brutality or violence is contextual, it’s more about the individuals and the situations they’re in.
LF: Tell us about the casting process for Sam, the lead character...
RT: There were the usual suspects whose names kept cropping up, but we thought that if we’re not careful with the lead actor, Screwed could appear to be just a gritty, testosterone-filled low-budget sort of film. So, we wanted to cast someone against type, and we felt that an actor of classically trained ilk might see something in our material that we hadn’t seen. We felt that someone like James D’Arcy may identify the layers in the material, and meet us halfway.
LF: It seemed that Sam was more affected by his prison job than by his active service. Would you agree with that?
RT: It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. He hasn’t had time to exorcise his demons from Iraq. He partially blames himself for the death of his friend in that opening scene. So he gets back and there’s no outlet to talk about it. His girlfriend has just given birth, that’s her focus. His friends on the street occupy a different world – they’re petty criminals – so he’s holding all of that, then he goes into this uniform job that’s high-stress and high-risk. Iraq is a heavy burden on his mind, and that’s part of the reason that the job gets to him.
LF: Did you approach the film as a way of criticising the prison system, or was it just a case of wanting to tell the story of a specific group of people in a specific place?
RT: The latter, really. That was one of my early questions to Ronnie when we started: are we making a critique here? I felt the answer was no, and he agreed. It’s based on a fictional prison which is an amalgamation of various prisons he’s worked in and this was what it was like. At times it goes into critique territory, but I think that’s more to do with the overall tone of the film, the sensibility of it.
LF: Did you have any influences that you drew on to direct Screwed?
RT: I couldn’t think of any other prison film that was written from the same perspective, but there are prison films that I like, such as McVicar, or A Sense of Freedom that are quite powerful, which were a kind of reference for me. At the same time I was aware that I had to create a different world, because this was the world of the screws. However, I was also trying to say that the screws and the cons are not a million miles apart. If at times it feels like the screws are also banged up, then that was intentional.
LF: Finally, what are your favourite films?
RT: Once Upon A Time In America, definitely. Quadrophenia, that’s a brilliant film, almost faultless. The Warriors, and Blow – the Johnny Depp film – I watch it every so often, it’s really underrated, it really works.