Sundance drama-thriller Surge, starring Ben Whishaw, marks the feature debut of Brit filmmaker Aneil Karia. We sat down with the director to discuss his first movie, which he says “ebbed and flowed in early development for around five years”.
In Surge, Whishaw stars as a man trapped in a soulless job, living a life devoid of emotion and meaning. After an impulsive act of rebellion, he unleashes a wilder version of himself and is propelled on a reckless journey though London, ultimately experiencing what it feels like to be alive.
Produced by Julia Godzinskaya and Sophie Vickers of The Witch and The Other Lamb outfit Rooks Nest and co-produced by Scott O’Donnell, the film was financed by BBC Films and the BFI with Protagonist handling world sales.
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Karia recently shot the closing three episodes of Netflix series Top Boy. Before that, he directed the opening block of Pure, produced by Drama Republic for Channel 4, and in 2016 his short Work was BAFTA and BIFA-nominated.
Deadline: Aneil, why did you want to tell this particular story…
Aneil Karia: I discovered from my short filmmaking that the more I told something from the heart, the better I felt about the film. That encouraged me not to be too scientific or academic about how I went about coming up with the feature.
I’m not quite an anarchist, but I do often think about the kind of world we’ve created for ourselves. As a race, as a species we’ve had a lot of freedom to create whatever kind of society and world we wanted. And I often look at the one we did create and think we operate within a really narrow window, we’ve created a very specific and limited sphere of acceptable behaviour.
I find it interesting to think about how we’ve created a world which works us to the bone and pits us against each other to some extent, and which makes life really damn difficult. We’ve created a somewhat stark system which is antithetical to compassion.
It’s not like I go around thinking these specific ideas all the time. But living in a large, somewhat difficult city like London, it’s something I think about from time to time.
Deadline: To what extent did you want to convey a message about mental health? I felt watching the movie like it was something of a British social realist version of Joker. A kitchen sink drama-style Joker…
Karia: It’s funny, Joker has come up at some of the screenings we’ve done. I didn’t set out to say something specific about mental health and I don’t consider the lead character Joseph as having a specific mental health condition. I don’t think he’s ill. But I suppose the film is looking at a blurry space between mental illness as we know it scientifically, ie its labels, and a more universal numbness that I think everybody experiences.
I wanted to make a film outside of definitions, to inhabit spaces that don’t have labels. As his journey becomes more tragic and sad, he becomes alive and awake from numbness. Superficially there is something deranged about his journey, but he is starting to experience the world in a deeper way than before. So it’s commenting on our linear definitions of what is ‘well’ and what isn’t.
Deadline: What were the biggest challenges?
Karia: There are about 25 locations and we didn’t have the same budget as Joker [laughter]. Large hotels, airports, it was ambitious in terms of locations. I also wanted to go for a visceral and dynamic kind of camera style, so physically it was demanding.
More creatively, this film is kind of bonkers in many ways, in terms of the journey he goes on. But I wanted the bonkers to be rooted in a reality we could believe in. That was challenging.
Deadline: It’s such an intense and all-consuming performance from Ben Whishaw. Did he go method?
Karia: Ben is an incredibly intelligent, skilled, nuanced actor who doesn’t take short-cuts. My desire to make this journey feel rooted in something that you could actually believe was enormously helped by Ben playing Joseph. He made Joseph a human being. With regards to his method, his approach, he didn’t go fully method. There is a certain degree of method to him but we would converse as Ben and Aneil throughout the day. But Joseph was always there, under the surface. He kept the character close.
Deadline: It’s refreshing to talk to a young, British-Asian filmmaker with a movie at a major festival. What have you made of the recent #BAFTAsowhite furore and the lack of diversity within those nominations?
Karia: We don’t see enough young British Asian directors. There aren’t many British Asian or black HODs. I know there’s some support to an extent but it’s a sad situation. There needs to be big change at the roots level.
Projects like Top Boy are really good because they had a mentoring scheme. I was mentoring a younger director. Every department had training schemes for aspiring BAME [black, asian and ethnic minority] professionals. There were several crew members who went from not having any experience to having many months of experience.
At the same time, while I know an element of who I am is British Asian and I’m proud of that, I don’t want to be defined by that as a filmmaker.
Deadline: What’s next?
Karia: I’m having discussions about several films in their development stages and also some really interesting television. But equally, I’m keen to take some time off and work on a feature idea or two of my own.
Surge debuts on Sunday in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
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