The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
The headline on the press release describes Peter Collinson as "the man who came from nowhere and is on his way to somewhere."
"Just precisely where, they don't say," Collinson grinned. "I'm not one of these directors with his life-span all mapped out, and a deep ponderous philosophy to put into my films. All I want to do is make movies as well as they can be made. Period. No philosophy."
Collinson, at 28, has made two movies: "The Penthouse" and "Up the Junction." Neither has been commercially released yet, but "Penthouse" got a warm reception at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Although almost nobody outside the movie business has even heard of him, Collinson is probably the hottest young director in England right now. Stories of his working methods in "The Penthouse" are related by other directors with a touch of awe. He made it in 24 days for less then $100,000, and supplied his studio with a finished print two days after shooting ended.
"That makes you popular at the front office," Collinson said, "but it doesn't mean a thing if the movie's no good. I don't cut corners to save anybody money. But I don't fool around. A lot of directors will shoot a scene from every conceivable angle, tying up actors, wasting time, spending a fortune on salaries and overhead. Then they get into the editing room and try to figure out which angle looks best. Not me. I figure the shot out in my head and shoot it just once or twice. I edit in the camera, you might say, so when the shooting's over I have a movie."
Collinson, enthroned at a corner table in a favorite London pub, The White Elephant, looked strangely out of place. It was a posh joint, with waiters in tuxedos, and he wore a pink paisley shirt, a white corduroy jacket and slacks. If anything, he looked younger than 28.
His story is unusual. The son of itinerant provincial actors, he was an orphan at 8 and a "street urchin," by his own admission, at 10. Through a series of improbable chances, including acting experience at an orphanage for the children of theater people, he gradually worked himself into the theater and then into television as a BBC director.
He got into movies rather casually, buying all option on Nell Dunn's best-selling "Up the Junction" for $1,000 and then proposing himself as its director. He was given the low-budget "Penthouse" to do first, as a warm-up, and produced a shocking thriller with a bizarre surprise ending.
The story concerns a real estate agent and his mistress, held captive in a penthouse by two very peculiar men named Tom and Dick. Their cohort, Harry, lingers offstage until the final incredible scenes. It is a suspense movie, "a thriller" Collinson says. The audiences at Cannes and Berlin found a psychological message in it, but Collinson doesn't care.
"I make movies to entertain," he said. "This may sound funny, but I don't have any desire to communicate my own opinions to anybody. I think the director should be the medium by which the audience gets the story, and that's all. A good director is a good storyteller."
Collinson's next film will be "The Italian Job," starring Michael Caine. The budget is $2,800,000, and Collinson noted wryly: "My salary will be bigger than the total cost of 'Penthouse.' But my methods won't change. I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up. Audiences aren't as stupid as many people believe. Orson Welles knew that, and it damned him in Hollywood for years."
He smiled. "That could happen to me, too," he said. "But I think times have changed, and there's an audience for a thoughtful movie now. Still, if I bomb as a director I've still got some other things to do. I barnstormed the country as a teenager, playing in second-rate variety shows. I can still do a mean turn as the back legs of a calico horse."
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