Samaritan Director Talks to InQuire
Joe Regan talks to rising star, Max Hilton about his new film Samaritan and what it does and does not mean…
Considering recent mooted contentious cuts to Welfare, our polarised discourse around the role of the state would seem to be an apposite backdrop for Max Hilton’s ‘Social Drama’ Samaritan. Only running to a length of approximately 45 minutes, its depth is considerably more significant. Samaritan is the Norfolk writer/director’s submission for Easter Sunday’s KTV Festival (rather fitting given the title) in the ‘short’ category. The film’s bracketing as a ‘short’ is something he admits is rather a misnomer since the running time is about three times the duration of the typical short. Last year he made a film less than half as long, Her Mind Cries – a sensitive depiction of a young woman in meltdown that was nominated for the CUFF (Canterbury University Film Festival) “Best Film” Award. Hilton hopes, with the extended running time for his more ambitiously serious Samaritan, he has climbed to the next rung on the ladder towards a venture into feature film-making.
The importance of the humane themes of his new film crept up on Hilton, when asked whether he thinks of the film as a ‘Social Drama’ he hesitates, reticent to embrace this suggestion. ‘It’s a difficult one because the society in which Conall exists is a troubled one and certainly has problems that need addressing, specifically in relation to support for charities’, Hilton equivocates. His answer is non-committal at best, sceptical at worst. What originally interested him in the subject was the idea of Conall, his oddball protagonist. He is keen to stress that his film is first and foremost a character study, a portrait of how this man, as he becomes increasingly alienated during the drama.
Unusually for the work of such a young film-maker, the main character, Conall is at least double the age of a student. It is fantastic to see some diversity in student productions; an area that can too often be dominated by certain well-worn tropes such as House Parties. Hilton argues passionately that it is important to collaborate with ‘people from all the different age groups, even though we are student film-makers’. Hilton acknowledges that Conall was his entry-point to exploring the effect of the ‘Digital Age’ on those at the fringes of society, even if he is keen to temper any over-zealous socio-political readings. In the film, Conall’s life is turned upside-down after the charity he works for is taken over by American investors and they introduce the bubbly, dynamic Simon. ‘Simon is young and up-to-date with our social media oriented culture; this is a world that Conall doesn’t understand’ Hilton says, insisting that all ideas be presented in terms of how they affect his protagonist. ‘Tapping into the mind of an older man who feels so cut adrift, was a testing prospect for both the actor and I’, he continues.
Unlike on the question of the film’s social ethos, it is not hard to coax a reaction from Hilton on his lead, Hain Macsheoinin. He is unable to supress a wry smile of affection at the mere mention of his name. There is clearly a close bond between actor and director. Macsheoinin’s background in physical training helped him to embody the core of Conall’s character through his wiry posture. ‘Hain shares some similarities with the character he plays’, Hilton explains, ‘he likes to describe himself as ‘off-the grid’’. The former stunt man Macsheoinin is something of a non-conformist, choosing to collect his own water and live apart from mass culture. This self-conviction and willingness to play the role of the outsider is what fuels Conall’s righteous rage. The character’s unwavering certainty that the change of direction for the charity is wrong is what drives the film. Hilton is eager to qualify the comparison between his actor and his creation by drawing a contrast between their differing attitudes towards the world around them. He clarifies, ‘Conall is someone who doesn’t like change and becomes aggressive when the generational gap becomes too great; the actor understands the obstacles that come with being out of touch in his profession.’
Discussing Conall’s cynicism about the motives of the American company appears to provide an apt moment to steer the conversation back to the subject of Samaritan’s ‘social relevance’. The darkly comic example of David Cameron’s mum losing her volunteering job due to a change in the charity’s status is dangled in front of him as bait; Hilton chooses to reply in the most general terms. The nearest he treads to commenting on this incendiary issue is when he says: ‘it’s striking that volunteers are losing their jobs when it seems we need them the most.’ As the embers of an overt connection between the film and the contemporary malaise flare up, Hilton is quick to stamp them out. He asserts that for a while before we join Conall ‘he has become quite jaded and everyone has just been putting up with him. It is when he speaks out against the changes that he shoots himself in the foot.’
So is Conall, the man who rallies against this external influence on his charity, even broadly a sympathetic character? When this question is posed, Hilton pauses and then definitively shakes his head, amused by the thought, ‘No!’ He seeks to emphatically distance his film from the current conversation about the ethics of the Conservative government’s proposed budget savings: ‘(in) Samaritan the scenario is a much happier one.’ ‘A charity is finally receiving the recognition and resources it so desperately needs’, he expands. Conall is thus inadvertently a barrier to the charity’s progress.
The device of an unsympathetic protagonist is employed by only the boldest and most brazen English-Language film-makers such as the Coens. It can foster an arch and abrasive mood that more populist directors are inclined to avoid: a brave move then from a student film-maker. Samaritan certainly has quite a mannered style; the exacting Wes Anderson serves as an aesthetic inspiration for the director, there are also moments of absurdist serio-comedy. There is a more immediate tonal comparison, in the director’s mind, however Richard Ayoade – someone whose work has itself been described as owing a debt to the American film-maker. Hilton says that ‘a film that is very similar (to Samaritan) is The Double (IQ: Ayoade’s 2014 Dostoyevsky adaptation) in which a guy works in an office and is isolated.’ He describes how his admiration for the British director’s film became the cornerstone for creating Samaritan’s narrative. In both scripts someone being introduced into the protagonist’s life precipitates an existential crisis. Again, however, Hilton wants to add a crucial caveat with this comparison, ‘His (Ayoade’s protagonist’s) Double is a refraction of himself, whereas in Samaritan it is quite clear what the difference is between Simon and Conall’. Hilton is an independent thinker and he knows it.
As one might expect from a film student, Hilton is an ardent cinephile, with a tremendously impressive bank of knowledge on world cinema. After a certain amount of prodding, Hilton zeroes in on a thematic touchstone for the film, if one is adamant on seeing it through the lens of this putative taxonomy of ‘Social Drama’. He cites the “Indie” drama starring Brie Larson, Short Term 12, about an American foster-care facility as a reference point. Hilton praises how it treats characters who are ‘dealing with typical problems that are faced by troubled teens along with their struggles’. This is the underlying absurdity that propels Samaritan; ‘I loved the irony of the man who is supposed to be helping people being in need of support’. As Conall, Macsheoinin delivers a beautiful line in the film that concerns explicitly this question: ‘I could walk down the street and people would smile and wave but that would be all – nobody really cares, who cares for the carer?’ It is heartening to find a student film conceived with such compassion for those neglected individuals who can fall through the cracks in a community.
Finally, after an hour and a half of near stalemate on the notion of Samaritan as ‘Social Drama’, the film-maker begins to open up in exactly the sort of way that is a feature writer’s dream. ‘Conall’s chief concern is that the American organisation, who are investing in the charity, are purely preoccupied with making a profit… this reflects widespread suspicions and fears’, Hilton reveals. Is this all part of social fragmentation, after all? What of the real Conall’s disaffected by the rapid changes to their world? These people who feel left behind by the dissolution of national borders towards a truly global economy. ‘They rant for the sake of ranting to vent their anger’, Hilton says; ‘deep down Conall knows that this investment is going to be a positive thing but he uses it as a tool to attack the establishment’.
He remains faintly dubious of this critical term, ‘Social Drama’, however. ‘I still think it’s a stretch to compare some depressed loner going on about his egg sandwiches with Donald Trump’, Hilton sighs. Perhaps the point is not that Samaritan some sort of rabid political diatribe. Instead, in being so empathetic in its portrayal of the desiccated turned embittered Conall, the film eerily captures our prevailing mood of uncertainty and distrust of authority. As Hilton is tying his scarf to leave, he comes as close as he will to accepting this divisive tag ‘Important’ tag for Samaritan. Ruefully, he reflects ‘maybe there’s more there than I think’. Yes, with Samaritan, maybe there’s more there than you think.
Samaritan debuts on the 27th March at the 2016 KTV Festival; it will be available from the KTV Youtube channel shortly afterwards