Don’t let the title fool you. Director Paul Cotter’s debut feature film Bomber — ostensibly about an elderly English man who wants to apologize for his role in levelling a German village during World War II — is less about ambiguous wartime morals than it is about the dynamics between a slacker and his aging parents.
A self–described road film, shot on location in northern Germany, Bomber tells the story of Alistair, the eponymous former aviator played by Benjamin Whitrow, his quietly frustrated wife Valerie (Eileen Nicholas) and his well–meaning but adrift son Ross (Shane Taylor of Band of Brothers fame on HBO.)
While technically a so–called “microbudget film,” i.e. made for well under a million dollars, Bomber has a big budget look, with crisp, gorgeous cinematography to go along with the striking performances of the three principal actors, particular Taylor’s sensitive and humorous portrayal. A finely crafted, slow–developing film, Bomber is a quiet pleasure — make sure to stay through the end for the hilarious payoff.
We spoke with director Paul Cotter about the film last week.
You used “found” talent in this film, using local Germans in local German settings. Did this improvisational feel extend to the script, too?
Paul Cotter: We only used three actors, which are the three main characters. Everyone else was from the village we were shooting in. It’s actually a very tight script. There were some things that changed but it was surprisingly close.
I think that comes down to several facts. The whole premise was that this was a small budget film. I had a tiny pool of money to work with. I said OK, I’ll get a crew of seven including myself and three actors. The idea was to go to Germany and shoot this script, immerse ourselves in this environment, not to plan and control everything to the nth degree like you do with a normal shoot.
So what that meant technically is we had some flexibility about locations. We talked about it and said, right, if it rains on the day the scene becomes a rain scene. The cool thing about the actors is they were all into it. What they liked about the idea was for the lack of resources they all had really long screen time. For the older actors that’s a big deal, because usually they only get cast as moms and dads for a scene or two.
Benjamin was the alpha male within the group. His first job in acting was being chosen by Laurence Olivier to work with the National Theatre in the ’60s. He’s very old school, so to him the script is the script — you don’t deviate. I would tell them, let’s do three or four takes and if I’m happy with what we have, we then can do more takes. If you want you can improvise a bit and see where it goes, as long as you stay within the needs of the character.
Ben wasn’t going for that. Improvisation to him is anathema to the actor’s craft. And he kind of had the loudest voice. In the end they all listened to Dad!
This does have a certain comradely type of theatrical, ensemble feel.
Paul Cotter: Yes, they also liked the idea that this was kind of like theater. They controlled their own wardrobe, they controlled their own makeup if there was any. I said we’re going to go over there and rent two houses, one for the cast and one for the crew. Everything is supplied, we’ll fill up your fridge. But you make your own breakfast and make your own dinner. We’ll provide lunch while we shoot. They really enjoyed that sense of responsibility, because I think it reminded them of repertory theatre like back in England.
Shane Taylor’s work is magnificent.
Paul Cotter: I’m really happy you noticed that, because Shane is really the linchpin. He’s an actor who kind of had a bit of fame in 1999–2000. He was the medic character in Band of Brothers. He had a whole episode to himself where he was the featured soldier.
He came out to Hollywood and did the whole junket with that series, and had the LA agent and everything, and I think he just got a little burned by that experience. He’s in acting because he likes the craft. Suddenly it’s all this badaboom–badabing kind of stuff in Hollywood. He ended up taking a seven–eight year break where he went away and got married and started raising a family.
When I started casting this I thought, God who do I want to get here? Typical casting would be, OK we’ve got this son who’s a bit of a loser. So we cast someone who looks like a loser, who has a goofy look.
I didn’t want that at all. I wanted to work against that and have someone who, the first moment you see him, you think oh, a good–looking, together guy. And I wanted to see that character disintegrate. In the back of my head I thought, what would it be like to take James Bond and put him in the back of the car with his parents for several days? He would lose it!
And I love that premise.
How did you track Shane down for this?
Paul Cotter: I saw Shane in Band of Brothers, and to be honest with you the only reason I looked at him in that was my younger sister fancied him (laughs). She said, oh, I really fancy the medic in Band of Brothers. It kind of stuck in the back of my head.
So when I was looking for characters I said where’s this guy Shane Taylor? They said he’s quit acting. But Jeremy Zimmerman in London had his cell number from the Band of Brothers days. And he called it, and Shane came in and read for me. His role is a tough one too, because he doesn’t have the most obvious change.
Your film reminds me of Hitchcock’s classic term “McGuffin,” a plot device which really only serves as a catalyst. Really, your film isn’t about a man going back to Germany to apologize for World War II. It’s about something else.
Paul Cotter: The way I think of a McGuffin is like this: in stories I like and respond to, there’s an A story and a B story. The A story is the big overall thing that gets the characters doing something, whether it’s to win the war in Japan or find the lost Ark of the Covenant. It’s important, because that’s what gets the characters out of their normal environments.
So the A story here is an old man goes back to Germany to apologize to the village he accidentally bombed. It’s a legimtiate part of the story, but the real story is always in that B story. Where what it’s really about is a man goes back to have a reckoning with the past and ends up having a reckoning with his family.
This is a gorgeously shot film, which it didn’t necessarily have to be. You and your DP, Rick Siegel, obviously made a conscious choice to make this a good–looking, classically composed film.
Paul Cotter: I chose a wider screen format mainly because I knew the movie was about three people on the road. And they’re all really essentially at the beginning not talking, not communicating. They might be talking, but they’re not really connected.
I knew I would have a lot of isolated closeups. When you have a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, if you frame a closeup there’s a lot of negative space to the side. It gives this sense of isolation and being lost.
I knew the environment where we’d be shooting in Northern Germany is very flat. So I thought that what would really work well is if you have these people who are in their individual frames and they’ve got flat negative space that goes off into the horizon.
I don’t want to sound too artsy fartsy, but these are the thoughts I was having. I think it’s worked. cs
Bomber screens 11:30 a.m. Nov. 1 at the Trustees Theater, and Nov. 4 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre. Paul Cotter will attend both screenings.
Tickets: $5 public, $3 students, seniors, and military, free with SCAD ID.