Q&A: Stewart Alexander, director of Common People shot entirely in Tooting Bec Common

A screenshot from Common People

A screenshot from Common People

First published in What's On by , Senior Reporter

Stewart Alexander is the director of film Common People, which was filmed entirely on Tooting Bec Common.  The film is set to be screened in Clapham Picturehouse. Alexandra Rucki spoke to him about the film.

Alexandra Rucki: What happens in Common People?

Stewart Alexander: The film brings together six stories of different characters whose lives become intertwined when they encounter an escaped parrot on a London common. It’s a bittersweet comic tale filled with romance, conflict and adventure and hopefully the combination of stories will make you think, laugh, shed a tear or two, and ultimately fall in love with London, its commons and its people.

AR: How did the idea of the film come about?

SA: My co-director Kerry and I live around the corner from Tooting Common where the film was shot, and we’ve been walking there for years. One day we saw a poster for a missing parrot, offering a reward, and giving a number where you could report sightings. A few weeks later, a new poster appeared reporting the parrot had been found, and thanking everyone on the common who had helped to locate and rescue her. So that was our inspiration. To tell an uplifting story about how communities come together in times of need.

AR: Who stars in the film?

SA: The most recognisable actors would be Sam Kelly, who has appeared in Allo, Allo, Porridge and a number of Mike Leigh films, and Josh Herdman who played Gregory Goyle in all the Harry Potter films. But we couldn’t single out one person as the star. It’s very much an ensemble film featuring more than 30 actors, 11 of them children, plus five dogs, and a parrot.

AR: Did many people apply to become extras after advertising in the Wandsworth Guardian? Any future stars spotted?

SA: Many of the extras came via the feature in the Wandsworth Guardian, and one of the star discoveries was Gracie, the African Grey Parrot who plays Princess Parroty.  Her owners run a parrot sanctuary called Hotel Polly. They saw your article and wrote to us. In the end, they trained Gracie to escape from her cage, and she got it in one take. It’s the opening shot of the film, and she’s just fantastic.

AR: What difficulties did you face shooting it entirely in Tooting Bec Common?

SA: Shooting the whole film outdoors, our biggest difficulty was definitely the British weather. April 2012 ended up being described by the met office as “the wettest April since records began”. We were scheduled for an 18-day shoot, but in the end I think we shot it in 12. We spent a lot of time standing under umbrellas, knee-deep in mud, waiting for the clouds to clear. But as soon as it did, we were out there shooting. You wouldn’t know it to see the finished film, though. It’s actually a very bright and sunny movie.

AR: How did it feel when you were awarded the Independent Spirit Award in Arizona?

SA: First of all, it was amazing to watch this quintessentially British film with an American audience. We really weren’t sure they’d understand all the humour and local references, but they loved it. They identified with the characters, and loved their stories. But winning the award took us completely by surprise. There were a lot of great films there, and a couple of Hollywood ones with much bigger budgets, so we were absolutely flabbergasted when they honoured us with an award.

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