Writer/ director Malachi Smyth told David Hennessy about The Score, his musical heist film with a cast that includes Will Poulter, Johnny Flynn and Naomi Ackie.
The Score, a musical heist film from Irish writer/ director Malachi Smyth, is in cinemas now.
The film, starring Will Poulter, Johnny Flynn and Naomie Ackie, won Best International Film at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Malachi told The Irish World that it wasn’t always the idea to make a musical heist drama but that the idea came to him while working on the script for his debut feature film and listening to the music of Johnny Flynn.
Malachi told The Irish World: “In the first place I just wanted to make a low budget film that I could direct myself as my directorial debut.
“And that’s a hard thing to do.
“You need to write something with that in mind: Few locations, few cast.
“I had this idea that I thought was an interesting idea: These two minor criminals going off to do a job and one of them has a life changing experience.
“It felt reasonably fresh but also within a kind of tradition.
“But then I was thinking, ‘Hold on a second, this is too much within the recognized tradition, what can I do for shake it up, to make it more interesting?’”
British musician and critically acclaimed actor Johnny Flynn is known for his leading role opposite Kerry’s Jessie Buckley in the BAFTA nominated psychological thriller, Beast.
He also played a young David Bowie in Stardust and shared the screen with Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen in Operation Mincemeat. His stage credits include being the original Mooney in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen and an Oliver Award-nominated role in Jerusalem.
“Just as I was writing the second draft, I was listening to Johnny’s latest album and it all just started to fall into place.
“In an uncanny way, there were lines that were echoing things that I was writing.
“There was a very tangible mood in a lot of his songs, it seemed to be the mood that I was going for, that had kind of a timelessness and sense of place but that’s not distinct.
“And all of this stuff just started gelling.
“There was even a song with a chorus that went ‘Gloria Gloria’ and I had written a character called Gloria.
“It just felt providential.
“Before I knew it, I had a heist musical.
“It’s very hard to know how to define it. I like that about it. Obviously other people struggle with that because everyone likes to know what box to put things in these days.
“But to me, it’s a strength.”
The film centres around two small time criminals, Mike and Troy, who are hoping their next deal, that they refer to as ‘the Score’ will change their lives for good.
Johnny Flynn, whose music is performed by him and other cast members, plays Mike while Troy is played by Will Poulter.
Since making his feature film debut in Son of Rambow in 2008, Will Poulter has established himself in Hollywood as well as independent British film.
His credits include Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
He has also appeared alongside Brad Pitt in War Machine and with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in The Revenant.
He also shared the screen with Jennifer Anniston and Jason Sudeikis in We’re the Millers.
Other film credits include the Irish film Glassland, Maze Runner and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
“It’s a dream come true,” Malachi says of having Will, who was a late addition to the cast, on board.
“We had the other two parts cast quite a long time beforehand.
“The way it is with independent film making, you have what you think is your cast assembled, and then you have to push back and then before you know it, you’ve just lost a cast member or a director of photography or whatever.
“You’re scrambling at the last minute to try and fill these spots so we found ourselves in that position: Looking around for who might do it and the casting director said, ‘Oh, Will Poulter is in town’.
“And he completely fills the role. I couldn’t really imagine anyone doing a better job.
“Will’s wonderful, a great guy and wonderful to work with.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him and everything that he brought.
“And he can sing!
“They’re all doing their own singing.
“There was a moment when we all got together to record the track and I had no idea whether they could or not. I knew Johnny Flynn could sing obviously, but I didn’t know if the other guys would be able to or not.
“It was quite funny going out to actors’ agents.
“The question was always asked, ‘Can they sing?’
“Ultimately, it didn’t matter. If we’d had a great actor, we wouldn’t have worried.
“We would have said it was part of the character.
“When they turned up and started singing, there were dropping all around the recording studio.”
While Mike and Troy wait at a roadside café for their ‘score’- Mike’s connection- to arrive, Troy falls for waitress Gloria who is waiting for ‘something better to come along’ and is played by Naomi Ackie.
Naomi has won a BAFTA for playing Bonnie in the second series of The End of the F***Ing World.
Her other credits include Lady Macbeth, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe.
Ackie has been selected by The Hollywood Reporter for their Next Generation portfolio, People magazine for their Ones to Watch, Elle magazine for their Hollywood Rising section and Total Film as their Next Big Thing.
She has also been selected amongst the prestigious list of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow.
Smyth was told to look no further for the role of Gloria.
“Johnny was immediately an obvious candidate because we were using his songs.
“When he agreed to also be in it, that was a wonderful and talent attracts talent, so once you’ve got someone like Johnny then it makes it that much easier to get other people.
“And then Naomi came very quickly.
“The casting agent said to me, ‘Don’t even look at anyone else, she’s going to be enormous’.”
Naomi Ackie will take on the role of the iconic late Whitney Houston in I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
“And now she’s about to be Whitney Houston in a big biopic.
“She is about to be enormous and she has every reason to be because she’s just great.”
A musical crime drama or musical heist movie probably shouldn’t work but somehow it does.
“I’m glad you say that. Thank you very much.
“It was an interesting thing.
“Because when I was showing the script around, everyone was saying, ‘This is wonderful. This is really fresh and different’.
“But then the second question was always, ‘Will it work?’
“There was really no way of knowing whether it would unless we made it.
“It was a leap in the dark.
“All credit to all of the cast for getting on board with that.
“It was really gratifying that these guys who have the pick of any project they want to do picked this one to do.”
The Score is Smyth’s directorial feature debut.
What was it like to have such a cast for his first one? “It was great. I loved it.
“And I very much want to direct more films.
“I think it helps enormously when you are the author of the piece because it means that you can always go back to the text.
“There’s a great comfort in that when an actor asks you a question because, as the writer, you know that thing better than anyone else.
“You know the piece of work inside out.
“You can have conversations with actors that are very rich about the characters and about the story without having to sort of hesitate and without any risk of getting it wrong, or giving a misstep or not appreciating something that’s in the script which some directors might miss.
“It’s great to be in that position, and be able to feel that confidence.
“I think that confidence then comes through to the actors.
“If they feel confident in you, then they’re able to bring their best and to trust you and deliver.
“It’s a very important thing, to have that confidence.”
With The Score being so different, Malachi feels not all reviewers have appreciated it for what it is.
“Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion but sometimes you read things and you think, ‘That’s just a bit mean spirited’, or, ‘That’s just not very well thought out’.
“It becomes frustrating because you want people to look at it on its own terms, not to try and put it in a box first and then discuss whether or not it fits in that box.
“And for me, obviously the first time I have a film that I’ve directed out there, it’s hard not to read all these reviews and take them slightly personally.
“But at the same time, I guess you’ve got to develop a thick because not everyone’s gonna like it and I get that because it’s a unique film.”
Born in Derry, Malachi did some of his growing up in London.
He says: “I was brought up very much Irish.
“I guess I think of myself as more London.
“I guess the London-Irish tradition here was very much what I was brought up in.
“We had a very nice review in the Irish Times today.
“It’s always the ones that are close to home that you particularly want to appreciate it.
“That’s why getting the award in Galway was particularly lovely, because I guess maybe my humour resonates among the Irish.
“We were at the BFI on Wednesday.
“We had a great evening with a full house again and a really nice reception.
“It’s funny because you’re there with a crowd like that just enjoying it so much, and then you get these reviews. ‘Doesn’t quite work’, some of them say.
“And you just think ‘Well, you should have been there on Wednesday, and you’d see how well it works’.
“It’s lovely to hear an audience laugh but what I enjoy almost more is the silence.
“Because when there’s one of those long scenes, and there’s one where basically it’s a nine minute scene of these two people at a table talking to each other.
“I think Will and Naomi are immensely good in that scene.
“And what I love is that you can show that long scene and there’s not a breath you can hear in the cinema with 400 people. There’s no coughing, there’s just silence as people enjoy these two actors living these parts, and for me is probably the most satisfying thing is when you can have those moments of just captivating an audience in that way.”
Smyth describes himself as a ‘third generation writer’ as his mother is the well known author Jennifer Johnston, writer of books such as How Many Miles to Babylon and The Old Jest.
This means his maternal grandparents were the playwright Denis Johnston whose plays helped to establish the international reputation of Dublin’s Gate Theatre and Shelah Richards who played Nora in the first ever production of The Plough and the Stars.
“I come from a family of writers.
“My mother was a fairly celebrated writer of her time and her father was Dennis Johnston who was a playwright in the 30s in Ireland particularly the Gate but also the Abbey.
“My grandmother was a very successful actress who was in the Abbey in the 20s and first productions of O’ Casey plays and things like that and then became a producer and a director in Ireland in the 30s and 40s and onwards.
“It’s a wonderful environment in which to grow up, to have a creative environment like that.”
Denis Johnston was a protégé of WB Yeats and Shaw and he had a stormy relationship with Sean O’Casey.
Errol Flynn, James Mason, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains, Barry Fitzgerald and James Coco are among the actors to star in his plays.
The late actresses Susan Fitzgerald and Geraldine Fitzgerald, Jennifer’s cousins, and Game of Thrones actress Tara Fitzgerald are also part of Malachi’s extended family tree.
Is Malachi proud to now be following in a family tradition although in a different medium? “Enormously.
“I mean, I’m very proud to be within that tradition, and to be trying to find my own place within it.
“And I realise there’s a long way to go before I can match the accomplishments of my forebears, but it feels like I’m beginning to find my place.
“It’s daunting when you say you want to be a writer and you have writers before you that have really made very strong marks, you’re putting yourself up against a very high bar.
“And that is a daunting thing to do and one I didn’t do lightly and maybe might have held me back at times as well.”
Malachi feels his ancestors would be proud of his debut film.
“It’s taken me a long time so it’s all the more precious for that.
“There were many times when I’ve almost given up on trying, so it’s very nice to get there and to get there with something that I’m very proud of and that I think that my ancestors would have enjoyed as well.”
The Score is in UK cinemas now.
For more information on where you can see it, click here.