Comedies don’t come any more British than Eaten By Lions. It’s the tale of a multicultural, dysfunctional family and it’s set in the seaside resort of Blackpool. Writer-director Jason Wingard, expanding his own short film Going to Mecca, has crafted a heartfelt tale of a young man (Antonio Aakeel) searching for his identity in the world, as well as his biological father.
The film had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival last week and, to mark the occasion, I got on the phone with Jason (JW) and Antonio (AA) to discuss everything from how the film got made to the cast full of British comedy legends and, of course, the Sunday Sport‘s crucial role in the movie.
JW: It’s nice and sunny in Edinburgh. Where are you?
I’m down in London and I was going to ask whether it’s as bloody hot as it is down here.
JW: It is and you get really excited because Scotland looks really nice in the sunshine. It looks better than it does when it’s overcast. [laughs] Well, now we’ve had to come inside for an interview. Have you seen the film by the way?
I have. I saw it at a screening on Monday night, while the England vs. Tunisia match was on.
AA: That’s commitment for you.
JW: Well, as long as you watched the first 10 minutes of the match, you were alright. Sorry mate!
That’s alright! I really enjoyed the film. Sometimes you watch a British film and you go “oh, this is a British film” and sometimes you start watching a film and the title card comes from the Sunday Sport and you go “no, this is a British film”.
JW: [laughs] That’s right! We actually had a mate of ours at the Sunday Sport who helped us do that, so we’re indebted to the Sunday Sport. How many people can say that? On page two, it said ‘woman gets pregnant over rowdy chicken’.
Jason, I was wondering if you could tell me about how this project got going, from the short film through to the feature?
JW: It started as an iFeatures pitch initially. Me and David put it in. We won Virgin Media Shorts and used the money from that to make a short film, which was Going to Mecca, in 2014. It was the week after Britain’s Got Talent, so we just found Jack Carroll then. We went and met him and realised that he was one of us – a 45-year-old man trapped in a 13-year-old’s body. Then he started phoning us at the weekend, so we were like “yes, we’ve definitely got to make a film with this guy”. And that was it. We just pushed it forward from there and we raised some money to make the film. Everyone was a little bit older and we decided to recast Omar and brought in Antonio.
With that in mind, Antonio, how did the chemistry develop between you and Jack? How important was that in making the film work?
AA: Well, Jack and I had met about four years ago on another job, where Jack, Johnny [Vegas] and I were working together, so Jack and I already had a natural chemistry from then on. Then, when they were recasting for the role and I was coming in and auditioning, that natural chemistry just played out and I think that’s what Jason picked up on.
JW: Yeah, the chemistry was always going to be really integral to this film, along with the cameos. We knew it was going to be like a road trip movie with lots of cameos, and there were people we had in mind for those cameos as well. So it’s pretty faithful to what we set out to do in the first place.
AA: And they were also looking for someone who looked like Jack, so that’s why I got cast.
[laughs] Absolutely the natural choice there.
AA: Yeah, they wanted someone who could believably play his brother. [laughs]
JW: Put a pair of National Health glasses on him and they’re practically identical.
You alluded to the cameos earlier and, when I was watching the film, every time a supporting character appears you’re like “oh, it’s them off that thing”. From Kevin Eldon to Johnny Vegas, Vicki Pepperdine, all of these amazing people. How did you put that cast together?
JW: Some of them I knew and some of them I just sent the script and said “would you do it?” so we went out for certain people. I’m a big comedy fan and a big fan of Vicki and Kevin, so we sent the stuff out to them. Asim Chaudhry, as well, we had been watching on People Just Do Nothing and loved Asim. Johnny Vegas, I’d worked with up North and I knew him from the stand-up circuit. The same with Tom Binns and Peter Slater. So it was quite easy to get the comedians involved, I think. The rest of the cast came together from a mixture of casting and going out to people.
With a cast like that in place, how much of what was said was down to your script and how much was improvised?
AA: He said “do not change a word!”
JW: You’re never allowed to change a word! Not really, I like to improvise. I always like to see what’s going to happen on set. Obviously, I’m not going to go and tell Johnny Vegas how to be funny. We did have lots of different takes and lots of different things.
AA: But as an actor, that’s really rare actually to get a director who allows you to literally throw away their script and just have fun. I have never worked on another job where we’ve had that.
JW: That’s it, you never will.
AA: I’ve peaked!
You can keep Tomb Raider. This is as good as it gets.
JW: [laughs] Exactly! Now you’re going back to the workhouse boy. Learn your lines!
AA: Back to the sweatshop.
There’s something really beautiful about this film in the way it approaches the two main themes, for me. It’s a love letter to multicultural Britain as it is today and it’s also a love letter to crap seaside towns. And I think for people outside of the UK, that sounds like an insult, but it’s actually far from it.
JW: Well, you know what, I think when you go to those seaside towns you go with a child’s eye or you can remember what it was like to go when you were a child. And although they’re crap, they don’t seem that way when you’re four years old, they seem amazing and there’s lots of fun and adventure there. Then you go back when you’re 30 and you realise it’s full of heroin addicts.
AA: But that’s quintessentially British, isn’t it? Crackheads on a beach!
JW: We tried to do it and shoot it through that child’s eye. We romanticised Blackpool and we tried to make it look really nice on screen.
Could you talk more about the multiculturalism element and how that plays into the very non-nuclear family at the centre of this story?
JW: It was a deliberate choice. With race and disability, I always thought that you can see it, so you don’t need to draw any more attention to it than that. I am baffled by why, in 2018, lots of things aren’t taken as a matter of fact. That’s the way we treated all the characters in it. The characters are important and those other things are just incidental really.
The last thing I wanted to ask is that, particularly with Jack on board, there’s some pretty near-the-knuckle, near-the-edge humour in the film. How did you pitch that and where did you find the line?
JW: I think it’s a personal thing, isn’t it? You never know where people’s boundaries are, but if you’re not really pushing them with comedy then you’re doing something wrong, I think. I think that most people will watch this and know that it’s coming from a well-intentioned place.
AA: And all of the lines that Jack crossed were cut out, obviously. [laughs] If you think this is bad, you should see the unedited stuff.
Somewhere, there’s a three-hour cut of Eaten By Lions which is just Jack Carroll.
JW: [laughs] Yeah, there’s an Alf Garnett cut. But it’s a personal thing, isn’t it? What we tried to do was represent and put on screen the people that we know and the people that we see. It’s going to be interesting and it will be nice to see it with a full audience tonight. Comedy is intended to be seen with a crowd, isn’t it? This film is a lot of fun and so hopefully the audience will respond to it in that way.
Well, I hope the premiere goes well and that you both enjoy sunny Edinburgh. Thank you so much.
Eaten By Lions celebrated its world premiere on June 21 at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 and is playing in London as part of the London Indian Film Festival on June 25 and June 27.