‘Genre with something else’
There is little better phrase to warm the cockles of my heart, and if my conversation with him made anything clear, it is that Hadi Hajaig has made that phrase his watchword. He is a self-avowed ‘commercial’ storyteller. He likes fun cinema: action, heists, gangsters. But he is not content to simply churn out mindless genre fare. As his latest film, Cleanskin, indicates this is no cookiecutter director.
Cleanskin is the definition of an ambitious movie. It is mostly a straightforward action thriller that takes as its subject matter homegrown terrorism. A subject chosen because, unlike the US, where the guns can come out over any little thing, in the UK it requires something a little more to get the bullets flying.
But Cleanskin evolved from there into a truly ‘big script’ movie: multiple locations and a large cast of characters, employed in the pursuit of two narrative threads wherein terrorist and the intelligence operative hunting him receive full backstories. It also has a fair amount of fighting. All, of this was accomplished on a budget of £2 million. As you might imagine, and Hajaig made clear, time was tight, and so he couldn’t indulge in much directorial stylisation.
Despite that, it is impossible for Hajaig to not leave his mark on a production, being at once a writer, producer, director and editor. His films are his, from beginning to end. This is not to say that Hajaig is not a collaborator. Indeed, as he was keen to point out, he could not live without his core production team. Wearing as many hats as he does, he cannot be as involved in the nitty gritty as he is on the main stage.
Hajaig depicts his style as managerial. He plans (he does the storyboards) and decides: others execute. It is a style born of indie necessity (Hajaig doesn’t have to pay for writers or editors). But it also reflects how invested he is in his material. When I expressed my surprise at the fact that he edits his material, Hajaig made clear he couldn’t have it any other way. He finds the concept of leaving the pacing and emphasis of scenes in the hands of another completely alien.
Hajaig then truly cares about his stories. But it is not just a simple ‘my material, my way’ investment. He has goals for his material. He is a commercial filmmaker, not out of desire for money, but because he wants to make films for people to watch. He himself prefers to watch films amidst a cinema audience. But he is no Michael Bay. As said above his mantra is ‘genre with something else’. He wants his films to be fun, sure, but he also wants them to have depth. In our interview Hajaig often called back to the Coen Brothers (who are also writer/director/producer/editors) and the directors of 70s America, particularly Scorsese and Coppola. These are the influences that shape his directorial ambitions.
However for his current project, Blue Iguana, Hajaig has taken more inspiration from the 80s than 70s. When I asked about this latest film, he was quick to rattle off a list of titles: three films either directed by or starring Jonathan Demi (Something Wild, Miami Blues, Married to the Mob), Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and pulp adventure Buckaroo Banzai. His plan is to recreate the playful energy possessed by these films. But, as with Beetlejuice, he does not plan to shy away from darkness. Instead he wants to incorporate it into the ride, give this heist film a similar emotional twinge to the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Fargo. His feeling is that this film, being a simpler enterprise than the twisting multifaceted Cleanskin, will give him the opportunity for the stylisation he couldn’t employ before.
In the end, Hajaig is a true visual storyteller. He is a comics fan (Alan Moore and Frank Miller in particular), who as a youth went from trying to draw cityscapes to capturing them on camera. But he has not lost that adult comic sensibility. Like Moore in particular, he is a man interested in entertainment, in action and pulp. But he is also interested in deeper matters, and refuses to let limited means get in the way of his ambitious goals. The filmmaking industry of the modern world is one predisposed to genre clones: to stagnancy and the rehash. Its saving grace is people like Hadi Hajaig.
After all, audiences might watch a film for the genre. But they keep watching for the something else.