THE MARTINSMovie Feature by Kris Griffiths
PHASE9 catches up with director Tony Grounds and stars Lee Evans and Kathy Burke
Everyone knows people like the Martins. They're the kind of family whose backyard is full of junk, who wear tacky hand-me-down shell-suits, who do things just to annoy their stuck-up neighbours, who make you laugh out loud with their ludicrous behaviour but make you nervous too, who won't disappear quietly into the background like you feel they should, whose kids sum up the words 'dysfunctional upbringing'. But do you really know these people? Perhaps they aren't exactly what they seem. Perhaps there's more to people like the Martins than meets the eye.
Tony Grounds certainly thought there was when he began mulling ideas for his feature film debut. He had already established a reputation as one of Britain's most successful new writers thanks to his acclaimed television productions BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS and OUR BOY.
"I wanted to write a love story about a family" he says. "I wanted to create a family that everyone assumes is the ultimate dysfunctional family - the unemployable father who's on social security, the pregnant teenage daughter, the underachieving son, the run-down house - and reveal that they have as much, if not more, love as any other 'normal' family."
"The family is not based on anyone I know," he continues. "Robert is a mishmash of people I know or knew when I was growing up, but he's an exaggerated version of all of them. He's extreme, he's a mass of contradictions, he's a keg of frustrated anger. That's what makes him funny but it also makes him a very poignant person. There are a lot of broad laughs in the film but it's also a very moving portrait of one man who knows he's let his family and the wife he loves down."
Robert Martin would become the first leading role for Lee Evans. It was, perhaps, an unusual choice. Evans is one of Britain's best-loved stand-up comics, whose extraordinarily physical performances make him unique on the comedy circuit. But although Evans had already made a mark on the big screen, first in Peter Chelsom's acclaimed FUNNY BONES, then in hit children's film MOUSE HUNT, and more recently in Peter and Bobby Farrelly's international smash THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, THE MARTINS would mark his first step into serious acting.
"As soon as I met Lee, I knew he would be right," recalls Grounds. "I found out that we grew up within a mile of each other, went to neighbouring schools and knew some of the same people. He completely understood the world I was creating and the character of Robert. Lee has a natural ability to make people laugh but what is less obvious is what an extraordinary actor he is."
For Evans, the character of Robert Martin was hard to resist.
"Robert's in his mid-thirties and all his life he's been surrounded by people who seem to be having a great time and seem to have everything and he has nothing. He's failed at everything. He's also about to become a granddad so it's a bit of a mid-life crisis for him. He wants more for his son, Little Bob, and tries to teach him the right thing to do but he usually fails at that too."
It was also a chance for Evans to revisit his childhood.
"I know these people very well, they were the kind of people who lived on the estate I grew up on. When you've got nothing, you're fighting constantly to gain anything and it's a long, hard fight because when you've got nothing, people don't really give you much of a chance."
That Evans had to rein in his natural comedy instincts while in character meant his clowning would burst out of the straitjacket between takes.
"With a lot of the work I do," he explains, "it's 'Walk into the room and do something funny with the lamp'. This was a great learning experience for me. Working with Kathy Burke and Linda Bassett taught me so much about acting. Tony told me to keep it real and that's a challenge for someone like me who's used to hamming it up. My natural instinct is to do something physical like pulling faces and I had to really restrain myself. In the same way, Robert is restraining himself from letting rip and letting his frustration take him over."
With Evans in place, the rest of the cast soon came together. For Robert's long-suffering wife Angie, the filmmakers approached Kathy Burke. At home both with broad comedy (the stroppy sex-obsessed adolescent boy in KEVIN AND PERRY GO LARGE) and serious drama (the abused wife in Gary Oldman's NIL BY MOUTH, for which she won the Best Actress Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival), Burke is one of England's finest character actresses and one of its funniest.
"Angie is a very loving mum and daughter who has to put up with a madman of a husband and a tyrant of a mother," says Burke. "She's just a good soul who knows that her family hasn't got much but is content with what she's got. She blames herself a lot of the time rather than blaming her husband or her mother. She's been in love with the same person since she was a kid and has never wanted anyone else. The challenge was playing someone quite normal, who's in a loving relationship, who isn't fucked up and who isn't a boy."
What did she think of director Tony Grounds?
"I tend to have run-ins with the director because I'm always thinking of the writer, who is often farthest from the thoughts of the director, so I get on best with writer-directors because we've got the same interests at heart - protecting the vision of the writer. As a director, Tony managed to get the balance between freedom and control - he's happy to let you go with your instinct because he knows you're playing a truth because he's written it."
And what did she first think of Lee Evans?
"I thought he was a funny little fucker!"