Film Scouts Interviews

Benjamin Ross on "The Young Poisoner's Handbook"

by Henri Béhar

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EDITOR'S NOTE: In the late 1960's and early 70's, an English schoolboy from North London named Graham Young acquired quite a reputation as a mass-murderer. Obsessed with chemistry and the "science experiments" he conducted in the family house's basement, he first poisoned his stepmother (with antimony), then, coming out "cured" from England's top-security mental asylum, eight of his co-workers (with thallium-laced tea). In 1991, a young British filmmaker named Benjamin Ross who had studied at New York's Columbia University, decided to make his first feature film about Young. Co-written with actor Jeff Rawle, it's not a light-hearted comedy, not a thriller, not a horror film--just all of the above, a black and bleak comedy, the darker the merrier. In a time-warp, the man who made and the man who inspired "Young Poisoner's Notebook" could be neighbors.

BENJAMIN ROSS: Graham Young lived about two or three miles from our house. We talked about him a little bit at home. I'd read about him in the paper, we often drove past where he lived. His home sat opposite a park with a big reservoir, which we feature in the film, in fact. I used to play there as a kid.

-- Was he a local hero?

B. ROSS: Certainly a local folklore figure. He was from Neasden where fame is a rather rare occurrence. Very few people who have become famous have emerged from there.
The only one I know of--other than Graham Young--is Twiggy, the famous model from the sixties. They may even have gone to the same school. He was a little older than her but not much. She was in her late teens when she was emerging in the 60's and Graham went in to Broadmoor (the psychiatric ward) at age 14.
So under different circumstances maybe Graham and Twiggy could have met and fallen in love as teenagers. It's a lovely thought. Maybe for the sequel...

EDITOR'S NOTE: Released in North America around the end of February 1996, "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" stars Hugh O'Connor who, in virtual symbiosis with Daniel Day-Lewis, played young Christy Brown in "My Left Foot". A dark social satire about middle-class British life, it is, as Ben Ross puts it, "a feel-bad movie" that makes us root for the villain.

B. ROSS: That was the point! It was actually the first decision we made.

-- Just to make it more difficult?

B. ROSS: More *challenging*. When you make a decision to tell the story from the murderer's point of view, you immediately rob yourself of all your dramatic tension. Were Hitchcock to tell the story of a young poisoner, he would make the central character the protagonist, the sister, and the killer would have been the outsider.

In doing the exact opposite of that, we had to look elsewhere for those dramatic springs to the story. Which is a good thing: it makes the film less generic than it would have been. It's not just another psychotic thriller. I didn't want to do either a "Hitchcockian-genre" film or a "liberal/humane investigation of madness" from the view of the psychiatrist, make Anthony Sher be the main character and tell things through the process of his disillusionment or his relationship.

-- Does that imply one must immediately go for a "simpatico" actor for the part?

B. ROSS: No. I believe the actor has to develop *from* the part. What made me go for Hugh O'Connor was really just realizing that after writing the piece the character really had a certain kind of dangerous innocence, which is quite terrifying because it's appealing in its simplicity and singleness of purpose in what he perceives as his goal. And Hugh got it (snap) like that!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Before working on "The Young Poisoner's Handbook," Benjamin Ross studied English at Oxford, then switching to movies, made a Super-8 film called "Rent Boy," a faux documentary about a male prostitute in Piccadilly Circus.]

B. ROSS: Nobody's ever seen it. (laughs) It's terrible, actually. Most of my early films were very bad.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Be that as it may, in 1988, "Rent Boy" won Mr. Ross a scholarship from Columbia University's film school where he studied with the Bosnian director Emir Kusturica. It is while living in "Columbia digs", in New York's Upper West Side, that he wrote the first draft of "Young Poisoner's Notebook." He still sort of commutes between the US and the UK.

B. ROSS: I always wanted to leave England. I did. I did, one day when I was incredibly depressed and I was very gloomy. Unfortunately I find that it's good for my work. The subjects that I'm interested in tend to come out from England. And my relationship to it is ambivalent. There's a lot of things about it that I love too. But I'm always running away, in a certain way.

-- No strong film industry?

B. ROSS: Partly that, partly the weather and the food (laughs) There's a lot of things that I love there, though. I love New York and I have many friends there, but it's not quite as good for my work. I'm not sure that they want the films I could make here. So I went back to England.
But coming here was very good for making me realize what stories I could tell that would distinguish me as a filmmaker, or that I could reasonably ask people to pay money to go and see. I would love to make a film in America but it would have to be on a topic that I could do. I get offered stories that perhaps an American director could do much better. But you have to come here to find out the subjects that a non-American could do in America. And that would be the best way to work in America. But you need a lot of time to do that, and a lot of clout.

-- Aren't you scared off by what you read about Hollywood?

B. ROSS: Oh, sure! But I'm not going to Hollywood. Last year we had the option of taking money from some big so-called independent company, seed money for a thing that I'm writing now

-- Ah-ha!

B. ROSS: ...which I'm not going to talk about!

-- Darn.

B. ROSS: But the most important point is that it's an English historical story. When you start thinking, "He's going to pay money for this", you're actually fighting about more than just money: you're fighting about cultural terms.

If the American's are paying for it, you're getting a very different story than if say the Germans, or the English or the French or a combination of them are. "Poisoner's Handbook" was made (for $2 million) with funds raised from British Screen, Eurimages, and Bavarian television. It could never have been made in America: the sensibility just doesn't exist.
But it can be sold here and shown here. And people are interested in it because it's an artifact from another culture.

So, the question of "Who's going to pay for the next story?" was an important decision to make. We decided to try and finance things outside of America. Because we'd be getting into strange discussions! Like, "How attractive is the character?" and "How sexy are they?" And these are things that are not relevant.

-- Not to mention the A-, B- C- lists of stars that your budget and producers, allow you to approach.

B. ROSS: Welllll.... About a year ago, I was having a discussion about this new project, and I said that it could be quite exciting to use a very famous English star. One of the things I want to do with the main character, however, is to rot him over the course of the film. He's a kind of a gangster character, and then he has maybe syphilis, and bits of him keep dropping off, he loses his hair, he loses a bit of his nose, there are all these things that come out...It's kind of slightly comic and it's horrible at the same time. And at the end, he's just a bit of worm, really.
And I thought that it was quite good having a star doing it because if you do have a star in that role, people will be attracted and they'll go see him. And you can push him--and the audience--into more extreme situations. Of course if it's somebody beautiful whom they love, are attracted to or want to identify with, you have it even more. That to me seems a creative use of a star. Like putting a big plaster on Jack Nicholson's nose [which Roman Polanski did in "Chinatown"]... The great know how to get away with that and that's what makes them stars.

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