The story of the criminal family trying to go straight is a classic. The Godfather is arguably the best-known example of it, which puts Trespass Against Us in esteemed company, although to compare the two any further might be a stretch—director Adam Smith’s debut feature is chaotic, irreverent and vital as they come. The film follows Chad Cutler, an illiterate man who lives with his extended family and associates in a set of traveller-style caravans in the Gloucestershire countryside. Chad resolves to escape the criminal lifestyle of his devout father Colby, to educate his children and settle into a home rather than live an itinerant existence, as urged by his wife. Starring Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson and Lyndsey Marshal, the film flits between the touching and the adrenaline-fuelled, with a score to match by Tom Rowlands, one half of The Chemical Brothers.
Smith, who is best known for working with the electronic music duo on their live shows, as well as directing music videos, documentaries and episodes of TV shows including Skins and Doctor Who, was keen to capture a “truthfulness” in the film, he says. Realism, and evoking a particular world, was a central aim. He is, however, quick to outline how specific a reality that was – namely, the story of a single family rather than the entire traveller community. “We were just trying to stay truthful to what the story was inspired and based on, which is a real family called the Johnsons. Alastair Siddons, the writer, worked on a documentary and then he remained friends with the family, and then he went off and wrote a very personal script.”
Does Smith think the conflicts between generations seen in the film—over things like education, lifestyle and religion—are more prevalent in the traveller community?
“In a way, part of that was a dramatic device, but there is, if you speak to people, some truth in that. Less and less, people are travelling, and people are moving into settled sites, or into houses. But this film isn’t meant to be a portrayal of the traveller community; it’s one particular family, and they’re kind of on the outskirts of that community.
“I wouldn’t want to answer for them—I can’t speak for the traveller community; and the family it’s based on, I can’t speak for them, but I can say that I think we were as truthful as we could be for them.”
He adds that the family saw the film at “a really raucous screening at the BFI’s offices” and that they were impressed. “That’s the best compliment. A reviewer or journalist in America might not think that that’s truthful but actually, the people it’s based on do.”
Trespass Against Us does indeed seem like a very distinctively British film. Set in the soft landscape of the Cotswolds, the Cutler family have strong West-Country accents. Having worked on Skins and with The Streets, is Smith interested in the irreverent, edgier side of British—or English—society?
He pauses. “I guess I’m always interested in material where people are looking for some sort of freedom, and to be able to express themselves. If you were an amateur psychiatrist you might think, maybe, there’s something in me that’s looking for that freedom. I made a documentary called Ghetto On Sea about a pirate radio station, which is the inspiration for People Just Do Nothing [BBC Three’s mockumentary about pirate radio]. So there are definitely different sides to our culture. I like going to the cinema and being taken into worlds that you haven’t experienced yourself, necessarily.”
A notable part of the world that Smith aimed to build in the film is how in tune with nature it is. In one scene, Chad and his young son Tyson climb a tree and sit in it to escape the police; in another, Chad hides from a thermal camera on a helicopter by crouching under a cow. The very opening scene of the film sees Chad and Tyson driving a Subaru at high speed across a field, chasing a hare, with the child steering.
“We tried where we could to bring in some joy and some laughter,” he says. “We didn’t want it to be a film where it was all just misery and social realism; because actually, that’s not true of life: whatever’s happening, there’s still a few laughs to be had.
“It was really good fun [to film]. In the first scene that’s really Georgie [Smith, who plays Tyson] sitting on Michael’s lap and driving, and that’s why he’s so happy. Some of the other members of the cast weren’t so happy—they were sitting in the back—but it was a lot of fun to shoot.”—Thomas Barrie
Trespass Against Us is in cinemas from March 3
Image credit: Lionsgate UK.