Steven Knight on Serenity, Matthew McConaughey’s methods and Peaky Blinders

The director of McConaughey's new mind-f**k of a thriller spoke to loaded

How do you describe a film like Serenity?

The brainchild of writer Steven Knight, it marks the Peaky Blinders creator’s first film as a director since 2013’s critically-lauded Locke.

It also boasts a stellar cast featuring Matthew McConaughey on top mercurial form along with Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane and Jason Clarke.

Yet the biggest talking points of all are reserved for the film itself which, without giving too much away, proves just as unique and enthralling an experience as Knight’s Tom Hardy Tour de Force from six years back.

McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fishing boat captain with a mysterious past living out his days in a tropical paradise.

His idyllic pursuit of a prized tuna is disrupted, however, when his ex-wife (Hathaway) returns with a murderous proposition: kill her new, abusive husband and a handsome windfall will come his way.

But what starts as a modern twist on familiar film noir staples soon dissolves into something altogether more distinctive.

Something so distinctive Knight was determined to keep a firm grip on proceedings, which mean directing and well as writing.

“I do plenty of conventional stuff in the studio system,” he tells loaded.

“If I’m going to direct something, I don’t see the point in doing something that’s like everything else. I was thought that if I handed this idea over to another director they might try and change it.”

It didn’t take much to convince either of Hathaway or McConaughey to get onboard either.

“I hadn’t even finished writing the script before I got calls saying Matthew and Anne were in. They are interested in doing things that are different.”

Serenity has proven initially divisive with audiences and viewers so far – but that’s something Knight expected.

“Something like this, you know you are going to get howls of outrage,” he says. “With this, what I’ve found interesting is how, as the first few reviews have come out, people have started to cotton on to what it’s all about.

loaded: Where does an idea for a film like Serenity come from?

Steven: I had been fishing on a tuna boat out in St Lucia a few years ago and the captain was this nice, calm, fisherman…until he got a bite. Then he was mad, like a man possessed. I remember him taking the rod off me.

I started talking to a few other locals about him and they all said the same thing about this obsession he had in this paradise. How he was obsessed. It rang bells with Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and that tradition of the American archetype hero. The loner, that kind of high plains drifter. A person with secrets. A past. I wanted to create that archetype and a  story around him.

But I wanted to do something different. I had watched my kids playing computer games. The suspension of disbelief they experience when they play a game is more profound than when they watch a film. Because they’re in it. They are creating a reality that, for them at that time, is real.  You walk into a bar or café now and everyone is in another reality with smartphones as well as this reality.

I wanted to create a story that’s a bit uneasy, almost unreal. It feels like it’s a world referencing fiction, like literature or film, rather than reality.

There are these archetypes like the femme fatale walking into the bar – all of this stuff is put in there so that people are not quite comfortable with what they are seeing, it doesn’t seem right and then you start to strip all of that away.

loaded: Was Baker Dill written with Matthew McConaughey in mind?

Steven:Matthew was my first choice. I feel like he’s our Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum; someone that always grabs your attention. But he doesn’t let you in; he’s a locked door. That’s what is great about him as well as the fact he’s physical and dexterous. He looks good and he’s such a complex actor.

I remember while we were shooting, he had this double A5 sheet of paper where he had written every moment of Baker Dill’s progression to the moment of realisation about his reality. It gave him a guide so he could go into any scene in the film with a clear idea of where he was in his head. The idea I wanted to explore is that you take this very practical man, present him with an existential question: what is going on?

loaded: Did filming in the Mauritius present any unique challenges?

Steven:We were the first big film production to film in Mauritius. There was no infrastructure. It wasn’t inhabited until about 400 years ago. Then wave after wave of different cultures migrated there. So, when you pointed the camera you could be in the Caribbean, Africa, India, colonial France or colonial Britain. Everywhere. Turn the camera and you were somewhere else. It didn’t feel like a place you could locate.

loaded: Everyone is obsessed with Peaky Blinders right now – can you explain the appeal of the show?

Steven:It never ceases to amaze me.  I first realised this was something different when Snoop Dogg first came over to England and we spent three hours talking about how it reminded him of how he first got into gang culture.

Peaky Blinders is set in Birmingham in the 1920s, so I don’t know how that resonance happened. Just before Christmas A$AP Rocky visited the set, just because he wanted to talk to us about the show and his experience in Harlem and South Central.

It resonates with middle class audiences too. Apparently in Massachusetts its Netflix’s most-watched show. I think it’s to do with family aspect of the show. Hopefully it’s because of the quality but people are obsessed. They will dress like characters and get the haircuts. There’s even going to be a festival in London.

Charlotte Riley in Peaky Blinders.

loaded:Will there ever be a Peaky Blinders film?

Steven:Well, it’s like the way all the things to do with Peaky Blinders is decided. When we were shooting season four, we were standing around Charlie’s Yard in between takes and there’s me and one of the executive producers and Cillian Murphy and we’re saying ‘God this is going really well. Shall we do some more?’ Because we were going to stop after five series.

So, we were just like ‘Shall we do some more?’ and it was just like ‘yeah’  So, with the film it’s a conversation we have every now and again. I don’t want to let this go because it’s such a phenomenon so when we get to the end of season 7 we will talk about it then. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

loaded: What can fans expect from the new series of Peaky Blinders?

Steven: It starts in 1929, at the time of the Wall Street Crash. So that has a massive consequence for the Shelby family and a lot of their legitimate businesses fall apart. Tommy is now an MP and it’s around this time in 1930 that the first stirrings of fascism are happening in the House of Commons and across the country. So the question is: how does Tommy Sherby react?

loaded:Have you got anything else in the pipeline?

Steven: I’ve just finished an adaptation of Christmas Carol. The plan is to adapt another four or five Dickens novels over the next few days.

SERENITY will be in UK and Irish cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 1 March

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