Out, In, and Onscreen
The 19th Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival
The Natural: Jan Dunn on 'Gypo'
You still come across inspiring first-time filmmaking stories, but thrilling tales of blowing out your credit rating or mortgaging the family manse to make your no-budget, Quixotian dreams come true isn't quite as remarkable as it was back when Robert Rodriguez went under the needle to secure a pittance for El Mariachi's short ends.
Enter Jan Dunn, who, after working as an actress and making a half-dozen short films, decided to try her hand at a feature. It's called Gypo (derisive UK slang for Gypsy), and it was shot in 13 days with a spellbinding mix of name actors (Pauline McLynn, Paul McGann) and, in the film's pivotal role, newcomer Chloe Sirene. It's also the first official UK feature film true to Lars Von Trier's hyperreal filmmaking vow of chastity, Dogme 95. What's more, Gypo has secured a UK theatrical release, a feat near-unheard of in British indie cinema (what there is of it). And thanks to the resounding success of the film, Dunn and her producer have been guaranteed major financing on their next project. Oh, and one more thing: It's just been short-listed for a BAFTA, the UK equivalent of an Oscar.
Top that. I dare you.
Initially intentioned as something of a calling-card film for the benefit of Dunn and her producer, Gypo's gritty, emotionally jarring tale of familial disintegration, the plight of Romany refugees in the UK, and the primal power of love in the face of bitter ruin is, simply put, a stunner.
The Chronicle talked to Dunn by phone in the weeks leading up Gypo's festival screening.
Austin Chronicle: It's amazing how much has gone right for you in the creation of your first feature. Usually get to hear the horror stories, but in your case there don't seem to have been many.
Jan Dunn: The first one's always the hardest and I'd been trying to get my first feature film off the ground for two or three years and I was selected for this kind of local-talent initiative by my local UK film council here in the region I live in. It was a group of writers, directors, and producers who hadn't made their first film yet. I was one of eight people, and that's where I met my producer Elaine Wickham. She had seen a couple of my shorts and couldn't believe I'd made them for nothing and it was her idea to scrap our existing feature film ideas and come up with something we could use as a calling card. And eight weeks later we were shooting Gypo.
AC: Was it already in your mind to do a Dogme film?
JD: Well, Elaine and I knew that whatever we did it would have to be low-budget and we'd have to shoot local. At that time the refugee situation, particularly with Romany Czechs, was very prevalent, and particularly in this region, because we're right near Dover where the Channel Tunnel and the ferries from Europe are. Immigration was a major issue at that time the Czech Republic hadn't quite come into the EU yet and there were a lot of Romany Czechs comings specifically to this area, and I wanted that to be a major part of the story, along with it being a story about an older womanin her forties.
I knew I wanted to improvise the dialogue a bit, I knew I wanted it to be gritty, and I knew I wanted to use a hand-held camera. And so I began to think about shooting it under the Dogme rules. The word Dogme is not necessarily music to a producer's ears, so I very tentatively made the suggestion to Elaine, and when I did, this huge smile came across her face and she told me she loved the idea.
AC: Did you have to meet with Lars Von Trier at any point?
JD: We did go to Copenhagen and met with the guys at Nimbus and Zentropa, but not actually with Von Trier.
AC: It's 2006 now, so Dogme is no longer extant, officially, right?
JD: Right. At that point, when we shot it, we were still in the 10 years of Dogme. It wasn't until we went to Copenhagen that we realized there had been no British Dogme films before. There'd been a couple that for some bizarre reason the distributors had referred to as Dogme films, but there hadn't yet been an official Dogme film out of the UK.