AN INTERVIEW WITH GAS ATTACK PRODUCER SAM KINGSLEY
‘Well, in 1999 I went to Kosovo to make a film for the BBC about a British forensic team out in Kosovo collecting evidence for the war crimes tribunal in the Hague and we basically spent the summer exhuming mass graves – trying to find information about the massacres and war crimes there in Kosovo. I suppose after spending the summer with this forensic team which was made up of officers from the Met anti-terrorist branch we spent a lot of time discussing warfare and terrorism and what the Twenty-first Century would bring, looking at this horrible criminal activity masquerading as war and felt very angry about it. What had gone on in the former Yugoslavia was horrific genocide and we were just talking about what the twenty-first century was going to be about. . Was it going to be about world war, was it going to be about factions within Europe, was it going to be about individual acts of terrorism, state sponsored or otherwise and I suppose we were looking at worse scenarios for the near future and we decided to investigate what the threat was going to be – what were the issues.’ ’
Richard Marshall interviews Gas Attack Producer Sam Kingsley.
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: Tell us a little about the work you’ve been doing – Gas Attack obviously, but work you did with Nick Danzinger as well, for example.
SK: I was an English teacher in West London and in a very mixed ability school and I wanted to work in the media but I didn’t have any idea what that meant so I went and worked in Channel 4 and I met a lot of people working in the media, and I was very lucky to be able to do some programme making work with a company called Hart Ryan on various projects. I’d been given quite a few job offers and I’d been quite eager to leave for quite a while from Channel 4 because I wanted to make films rather than just work administrating them within a big organisation which was a bit boring – I started in the press office promoting programmes and then I worked in other areas but when John Willis came along and said Nick Danzinger’s making this film with Hart Ryan and we need someone, do you want to go and work on it I said yes, ok.
3AM: Now this was in Afghanistan wasn’t it?
SK: Yes. This was the film about Nick Danzinger the Anglo-American photo-journalist who decided he was going to pick up three kids from Afghanistan he’d known for some years – well, he’d known the two little girls for probably ten years – and they were like eleven and thirteen so he’d known them from when they were very little – over the years as a photo-journalist he’d been in and out of the country and always gone to see these two little girls and then he decided that he was going to adopt them – or at least in name adopt them because it was very unclear who – you know, there was no official adoption process in Afghanistan – and he had this little boy as well so there were three kids that he picked up. They were eleven, thirteen and fourteen and the two girls they’d been traumatised – one of them had watched her mother murder her father apparently and she spent her early years a prisoner and as what tends to happen to orphans in Afghanistan orphans get put into a mental asylum so that’s the place they were kept. So they spent their formative years in a mental asylum with very deeply disturbed adults and Nick quite rightly thought that this was atrocious and tried to build an orphanage so they’d have a better place to go. Eventually the girls were fostered by a woman who was looking after them . Danzinger decided that even though they were fostered and out of the asylum they’d be better off in the West and so he decided to take them out. That was the film that I made. How he got on with these three children who came from a very traumatic background and were going to be transplanted into the West, into a very privileged background, - - because Danzinger himself is very wealthy – and came from a wealthy family and lived in the nicest part of the West - Mum lived in Wiltshire, Dad worked in LA, and he’d grown up in Monte Carlo. The children ended up living in Monte Carlo where there were no other Afghanistanis and where they had to learn French. The children were very resilient and away from Kabul they made the most of it.
3AM: It was a very moving film, very powerful film. Looking back on it now, what do you feel about it?
SK: It’s an honest film. It could have gone any number of ways. You could have interpreted what was going on in a thousand different different ways and because we filmed over eighteen months, a long time, I got to know Nick very well and the children very well and I tried to make the most honest film I could. There were times when I felt that Nick was totally unsuitable to be a parent and there were times when I felt that the children were incredibly lucky to be getting out of Afghanistan. On balance I concluded that adopting anybody is a fucking difficult job and whoever tried to take on three pre-pubescent kids is asking for trouble. And Nick didn’t really have the experience to cope with that having never been in a long term relationship and he’d been brought up in a boarding school and didn’t have any experience of children. So the film just showed how difficult it is to adopt children who were teenagers. It shows the trauma they came from and the hardship Nick went through .
3AM: You moved on from that quite controversial thing now you’ve suddenly got honours for another controversial film, this time for TV. Glasgow almost banned it and you started winning awards at Edinburgh.
SK: Well, in 1999 I went to Kosovo to make a film for the BBC about a British forensic team out in Kosovo collecting evidence for the war crimes tribunal in the Hague and we basically spent the summer exhuming mass graves – trying to find information about the massacres and war crimes there in Kosovo. I suppose after spending the summer with this forensic team which was made up of officers from the Met anti-terrorist branch we spent a lot of time discussing warfare and terrorism and what the twenty-first century would bring, looking at this horrible criminal activity masquerading as war and felt very angry about it. What had gone on in the former Yugoslavia was horrific genocide and we were just talking about what the twenty-first century was going to be about. Was it going to be about world war, was it going to be about factions within Europe, was it going to be about individual acts of terrorism, state sponsored or otherwise and I suppose we were looking at worse scenarios for the near future and we decided to investigate what the threat was going to be – what were the issues. We talked to a lot of people who were experts in this area and they said the threats were individual acts of terrorism, the Internet which allows fascist groups to coordinate and swap information, an unpoliceable network that’s just completely out of control and the government in Britain doesn’t do anything about it. In America the government there spends 250 million dollars a year in preparing for biological or chemical warfare, in Britain they spend zero. They don’t believe it’s a serious threat. So after speaking to these people we found this really interesting and asked what would happen if there was a biochemical attack. Then the sarin gas attack happened in Tokyo and then the nail bomber hit that summer focusing on the Asian and gay community and we thought Christ, what if that guy had had a chemical or biological weapon capability and really that was the beginning of what eventually was Gas Attack. So in the Autumn of 1999 we took the idea to Channel 4 and they thought about it and so in Spring 2000 they came back to us and said that they wanted us to make it. So we went looking for a writer. Couldn’t find anyone who had ever written anything like it and so we plumped for a very young guy who was just passionate about the ideas, Roland Joffe. We hired him and he did a brilliant job. He was just so interested in the ideas. Then we hired Kenny Cleman who was someone who worked with Tony Garnett of Word Productions.
And I really liked it because it had a very documentary feel to it and it dealt with very real issues and used a lot of non-actors, had a nice gritty feel to it, and it’s what I wanted. I wanted people to switch on, say half way through, and wonder if it was real or not. So Kenny was the director. We decided to make it in Glasgow because Hart Ryan had offices up there. Glasgow Council felt quite strongly that they were one of the main cities housing refugees in the governments dispersal project that this was a terribly delicate subject even before the trouble started in 2001. We decided we’d do it there and Glasgow film office was very supportive and we started interviewing members of the community in Glasgow and the more we talked to people in Glasgow the more we realised how delicate the situation was and the more interesting it became. Most of what’s in the script is based on what we gleaned from that 5 month casting period where we spent casting the local Kurds and the local Glaswegians who were interested in the subject. So the script was more or less formed by the organic process of casting members of the community. So in lots of ways it was like a grass roots community play which was what I thought was interesting about it.
3AM: It came out and got a very strong reaction didn’t it? Glasgow council wanted it banned but Edinburgh loved it.
SK: Was that to do with the Edinburgh/Glasgow rivalry? I don’t really understand the antagonism of the Glasgow Council towards the project because in the end they did allow it to be shown. There was some doubt as to whether a licence would be granted for it to be shown but because there was a murder of an asylum seeker and there was a lot of violence going on at the time they felt that a film showing asylum seekers being gassed might be an incendiary film. We argued that it was a very responsible film and that it explored issues and was so positively on the side of the asylum seekers that it wouldn’t exacerbate local problems but rather would give them a voice and we said to stop the film being shown would be to deprive local Glaswegian asylum seekers to talk about their experiences. Ultimately Glasgow city council said it was a film that should be shown. It was shown. There was a great deal of debate about it and we felt that it touched a lot of real issues.
3AM: It has won awards.
SK: Three so far. The Michael Powell Award for the best British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival. A very prestigious award which surprised us totally.
3AM: You want to do more drama film work?
SK: I’d like to do something on human slavery. It’s a big twenty first century issue. Now you know, the role of television is controversial these days. Some people go on about how it’s dumbing down and all that. I was completely gob-smacked when Channel 4 gave us the go-ahead for Gas Attack because after all it was a difficult bit of telly. I mean, my mum didn’t watch it. She just said she couldn’t. It would be too depressing. Now if the mother of the producer wouldn’t watch it then you wonder where you stand. On the other hand people like Tom Paulin said it was a great piece of TV. But my mum was probably more representative of the mass audience than Tom Paulin.
3AM: So when you make stuff, is it the mass audience that matters to you, or the critics like Tom Paulin?
SK: I think you just have to do what you think is right and if your mum doesn’t like it then too bad. I felt very proud of Gas Attack and I felt in terms of television it was a very difficult piece. It was unlike any other drama I’d seen in a long time – it was like a piece of old fashioned agitprop Play For Today, an old fashioned play with a message – beautifully shot with quite an old fashioned structure, but I felt that the politics and the message were strong enough to hold it and I feel that in the future I’d want to do stuff that was equally uncompromised and I think you can do that if you have a broadcaster behind you. You’d never get it made as a feature film. In terms of telly there’s a polarisation going on. Either something has to be incredibly powerful in terms of creating a reputation for the broadcaster or winning lots of awards and accolades, being seen as a very very very good piece of work like an important piece of work – or it has to be very ratings driven and populist. I think even the broadcasters would admit that that polarisation is going on. In terms of running a business, making films for Channel 4 or the BBC, I don’t think there’s the same opportunities as there used to be because I don’t think there are as many high quality films being made but nevertheless they are made. Gas Attack had less than 1.5 million viewers which is not many but the fact is that they did make it and they did show it. That was good. Channel 4 never wavered at any point. They were always going to make this film. That’s good. I think on the whole though it's all very ratings driven which is a bit boring. You go for the lowest common denominator. If you have to make a programme that would appeal to me, in my mid thirties, my mum in her late fifties and my little brother in his early twenties then to attract all those people you have to go to something pretty mainstream and broad and that’s a bit boring. They also wanted it as TV not as film. People kept saying we should convert it for the big screen but it was a contemporary issue and we wanted it out with a sense of immediacy. So telly was better. It did get 1.4 million viewers and massive reviews and there was no way if we had put it out in the cinema it would have attracted such a large audience. Even though it’s a modest one in terms of TV. That’s brilliant. It was in everyone’s living rooms and it was discussed. People talked about it on buses and so on. I heard this. It was great.
3AM: How did 11th September affect things?
SK: It was a terrible event that drew people’s minds towards it.
3AM: So where do you go next?
SK: I’d like to either make films that make a real impact and if you could make a film about the West African slave trade – it’s an outrageous story to be told there – they’re saying now that the traffic in human beings is more lucrative than drugs worldwide – now that is an amazing story.
3AM: Is it a kind of World in Action sort of TV tradition you want to keep going somehow?
SK: I like doing it through drama – there’s all that talk about compassion fatigue so you have to find different ways of telling these stories, don’t get pinned down but don’t give up trying to get the stories out. There’s a complete and proper place for current affairs programmes to tell these stories, they need to tell these stories, but creatively and politically it's interesting to try and make films that would create a slightly wider audience that deals with difficult, dark areas. The whole idea of the Trojan Horse interests me, the idea that you can take a difficult subject and bring it to a mass audience by couching it in a certain way – now that’s what I want to do. Get people to watch them en mass. But I still want them to think about things. I don’t just want to entertain them but engage them with tough thoughts and ideas, move them on, not leave them in the same space, get them to think ‘Christ, I need to do something about that’ or ‘Jeez, I’ll never think about that situation again in the same way!” That’s interesting. People think telly is a conservative medium but it can be radical. I think the Trojan Horse analogy is interesting, that’s how I see it. If I can stay within the acceptable establishment of television I can actually make some interesting things and communicate with a large number of people which you can’t anywhere else. Not in radio, not in film, but TV is a democratic medium. Ok, so we don’t make the stuff we were making ten, twenty years ago but nevertheless I think if you’re smart and committed you can do interesting stuff. Like Gas Attack – it was shot like ER but the politics – there was nothing like it at all.
3AM: The Sinatra programme you made – you were again searching dangerous territory.
SK: What’s the point of perpetuating myths? What TV should be about is exploding myths and challenging people to look at things in a new way. Everything I do should present a new interpretation on something. I think you constantly re-evaluate people and situations and society because that’s what we’re like. As generations we see things differently than our parents, for example. My dad was a great fan of Sinatra not that I would ever denigrate that because I think Sinatra had an amazing charismatic persona, a wonderful voice and was very much loved. But he was also a complete thug, someone who was capable of murder, in my opinion, even if he never actually pulled the trigger and someone who was violent, vicious, venal, and generally repulsive, that has to be said as well. I think when you look at these idols you want to do something very tough on them because why just repeat what’s already been said? What’s the point of that?