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Photo of Ciarán Hinds in a blue FIAT car

Film Interview: Stephen Warbeck on ‘The Man in the Hat’

Last year, when the live theatre scene was still fully operational, I saw the plays An Inspector Calls and Translations. The music for those productions was developed by Stephen Warbeck, who holds a distinguished and long career as a composer in theatre, film, and television. His feature film credits include Mrs. Brown (1997), Mystery Men (1999), Quills (2000), Billy Elliot (2000), and Shakespeare in Love (1998), for which he won an Academy Award.

Warbeck’s latest film, The Man in the Hat, is also his directorial and screenwriting debut. Set in the French countryside, the film is about a character referred to as The Man in the Hat (Ciarán Hinds) and the people he meets along his journey. He manages to elude five angry men pursuing him in a Citroën Dyane. Mr. Warbeck and I discussed the film in a recent call.

Did your movie get delayed by COVID-19?

I don’t think it did. There’s always a sense of anxiety. You never know when cinemas will close down again suddenly, or whether we’re going to go into another lockdown. At the moment, nothing has happened to delay it. Maybe it would have been released two weeks sooner. We actually finished our work before March when the lockdown started. We’ve been very lucky in that respect, that we’ve avoided being affected by it. Of course, all our lives are very different because of it. 

I read that you play the piano and the accordion. Do you play any other instruments?

I play the guitar very badly and clarinet extremely badly. I play lots of instruments very, very badly. 

Why did you delve into directing and co-writing a screenplay?

I always have a notebook like this with me [shows me]. The thing is, I’ve been writing music for films for a very long time. I suddenly think, well, I’d love to create something. I [had been] writing scenes for the film for a few years. I spoke to one of the producers. Well, he took six months to say yes, but he said, ‘Yes, I think we can make this into a film.’

I decided to collaborate with a friend, John-Paul Davidson. We’ve known each other since we were at university. He’s a very experienced director. We co-wrote the rest of the script and co-directed. I think if you work in films in whatever capacity, lots of ideas are always going through your head. I felt it was time to bring them to life and put them in a film. 

Photo of Stephen Warbeck directing two cast members on the set of The Man in the Hat
Stephen Warbeck behind the scenes of ‘The Man in the Hat’ (Credit: Ross Ferguson)

How long did it take to shoot?

It was 17 days of shooting over three weeks, which is very short for the amount of material we had to cover. On the other hand, that gives you a real impetus. Sometimes when I’ve written scores for films, I feel that when you have a short amount of time, sometimes you are more concentrated. You rush into your workroom to get going and you are more focused. Although it was tiring, and maybe for some scenes we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked in an ideal world. Because it was my first film I didn’t know any other way of doing it. It was very intense.

The Man in the Hat is described as a near silent film. Would you say the script was shorter in length than most modern films?

A lot of scripts that I get sent are probably 110 pages. I think this one was probably 60. But the pages are full of descriptions like ‘There’s a man sitting under a bridge in the river.’ All of that is written obviously in the script. But as you say, there’s very little dialogue. There’s the four women who speak and other than that, there’s almost nothing. Yes, it takes up less space on the page, but I think in terms of shooting it doesn’t take up less time to make the film. 

[That’s] because we still need to hear the breath. We still need to hear their reactions, vocalizing, and so on. They have microphones in the same way as a film with dialogue. I suppose it’s a bit different. It’s not a silent film though. 

Did the cast improvise on some scenes?

Yes! They came up with some very nice things. I suppose that comes back to your [other] question really: how long did we have to make the film. We were on a fairly tight schedule. We had to decide what people were doing. The constraints were quite narrow. They did have a chance to improvise. For example, when the blue Citroën is stopped by the police and they’re questioned, the dialogue which you only just hear in the background is improvised. The police check the car to see if the tires are all right. There’s a lot of improvisation in terms of how they perform and in the shape of their performances. But in terms of dialogue and movement, it was fairly controlled. 

Talk about the casting and what you felt the actors brought that was unique.

We had a fantastic range of people, mainly French and English but also from other countries. Once you’ve got the central character, which is Ciarán Hinds, the other people sort of slot in around him. Stephen Dillane who plays The Damp Man has a wonderful kind of victim sort of quality to him. It’s like everything in The Damp Man’s life has gone wrong. Wherever he sits, there’s drips landing on his head. His clothes are always wet. He’s not a happy person.

During the film, the story of Stephen Dillane’s character parallels Ciarán Hinds’ story in a way. Little by little, The Damp Man’s life starts to open up to when he sits in front of the little hotel with the woman who runs the hotel. She tells him the story of the chicken and suddenly you feel that he starts to soar. He starts to warm up and see the possibility of there being something between two humans. It makes him start to feel what happiness could be. 

Photo of Stephen Dillane and Ciarán Hinds in The Man in the Hat
Stephen Dillane and Ciarán Hinds in ‘The Man in the Hat’

Brigitte Roüan, who plays that character, is a very wonderful and experienced French actor. I’ve worked with her. She’s also a French film director. There was a moment when she might not have been able to because she hurt her leg. She got better in time.

Maïwenn is an established French director who I’ve worked with on three films as a composer. She read the script and immediately accepted. 

They’re accepting to be in a film – not that it’s important – that was very low budget. It’s a real privilege to work with those actors. In a way we were very lucky with the casting. It feels as though all of the people we wanted were free and accepted. It wasn’t like ‘Oh he doesn’t want to do it, so we have to find [someone else].’ It was a thrilling experience. One of the actor’s agents read the script and they said, ‘I don’t care if there’s no money. I’ll do anything to help you make it happen.’

I’m not saying it’s totally original. There are lots of films without much speaking in them. I think it was the fact that it was slightly out of the ordinary made people think they’d like to be involved in that. The casting was perhaps easier that it might [have been]. 

I was thinking earlier about the scene where the the main character loses his shoe. What jumped out to me was that in spite of his less than happy day, he was a good person and he helped a lady passing by. 

The losing of the shoe was based on something that happened to me. I was in France and I sat on a wall overlooking a canal and my shoe fell off! Of course, you can’t buy one shoe, can you? But in the film, he can buy one shoe, because it means he has a spare shoe to give to the woman outside the shop. 

I love the fact that you say he’s a good person. I think that’s the point. You feel his warmth and lots of that is down to Ciaran’s performance. But you feel like he’s affected and warmed up by his relationships with other people. He’s sympathetic to them. After the sandwich scene, he gives The Damp Man a lift to the hotel in his car. He’s a warm human being. 

Do you have a favorite scene?

I do. It used to be about 25 minutes long. It was hard for me to cut it down. It’s the scene where he’s with the farmers and they’re having a meal. The two farmers are sitting opposite at the table and he’s sitting at the end. I don’t know why – you asked me if there’s improvisation – that was quite a lot of improvisation from the farmers just in terms of how they eat and when he has the boiled egg and all of that. That scene went on and on and on. The producers and John-Paul Davidson the co-director said, “You’ve got to shorten that scene.” 

Photo of Ciarán Hinds in the film The Man in the Hat
Ciarán Hinds in ‘The Man in the Hat’

You said this was mostly sticking to the script, but was there anything that while you were shooting, you said let’s incorporate that?

I think there was stuff that we said that, and then we couldn’t get it. There are also some scenes that we shot and we couldn’t include because of time or they didn’t suit the rhythm of the film. What would happen more would be that you’d look at the hills and say, ‘Oh, let’s have a shot of that.’ You’d see different things in the landscape and take a different approach. I don’t think we invited any completely new material during the shoot.

I suppose if I get a chance to do it again, I’d love to be able to have time where you say, Now we know The Damp Man and a bit about his character. We’d love to do a scene where he walks down the river and unwraps a sandwich or whatever it is. We didn’t have time to add extra things. We had to be scrupulous in sticking to it.

You answered my next question about having a do-over. Moving on, what were some influences you brought into making this film?

I don’t know if you know a French filmmaker called Jacques Tati? Yes, well, the man who played the priest is Jeremy Herrin, a theatre director. He also loves Jacques Tati. We sat together for ages before the film was made, fantasizing about making a Jacques Tati-like film with a very very tall man in a very very small car. It’s almost like an innocent facing the world and being surprised by all the things he sees…[There’s] a Peter Sellers film where it’s the idea of a person who is quite warm and wonderful and innocent being put in an unlikely situation. Jacques Tati definitely influenced me. 

Then a general sense of Italian and French cinema where there’s a warmth to the music, the idea being someone gets pleasure from simple things. It’s not a very sophisticated way. 

I was thinking of Tati. Also, there’s Silvio Soldini’s Bread & Tulips with Bruno Ganz. It has a similar warmth. 

What’s the one Bruno Ganz is in where he plays the angel?

Wings of Desire

That would be really close to my heart and a big influence, although this film isn’t like it. It’s kind of madness and humanity at the same time really. Bruno Ganz was phenomenal actor, wasn’t he? 

I agree. He was. Good luck with promoting your new film.

Thank you.

Kaleidoscope Entertainment presents The Man in the Hat in selected UK cinemas from September 18 and available on digital platforms from October 19, 2020.

Follow the film:

Twitter @TheManInTheHat6 and @UKKaleidoscope; Instagram @TheManInTheHatFilm and @UKKaleidoscope; Facebook @TheManInTheHatFilm and @KaleidoscopeHomeEntertainment.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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