If you have watched any British television or cinema over the last two decades, you will have definitely seen the incredible talents of Neil Maskell. The cult favorite actor certainly keeps himself busy, headlining indie thrillers such as Bull and Kill List as well as appearing in hit TV shows including Peaky Blinders and recently Hijack. Seriously though, his IMDb page is stacked! The charismatic performer always makes an impression whenever he’s on screen, often playing fascinating, complex tough guys that draw audiences in. Now, Maskell hopes to capture our attention with his directorial debut Klokkenluider, with his attention turning to being behind the camera.
Not that he ever really had any intention of doing so during the early stages of coming up with the story. However, one day it all clicked into place, as he explained to GamesRadar+: “I was spending a long weekend in the countryside of East Flanders with friends, where the landscape, the location, and the house we were staying in suggested a setting for a story. People looked so small standing against the vast countryside, like they were trapped, and it set off voices in my head. By the time we left after three days I had a rough outline of what the film might be like, with some snatches of dialogue from characters, but I didn’t really know who they were back then.
“Over the next few years I was working on other things as an actor, but I tinkered with it, allowing myself to enjoy it, not even thinking I’ll ever get to make it as it was so fucking weird. But it just evolved and then something clicked! I don’t want to give the game away but I realised something I didn’t when writing the first draft, so I had to go back and basically rewrite the whole thing. But it was a wonderful, creative experience.”
Trust no one
As Maskell teases there, his film Klokkenluider is shrouded in mystery, an intriguing black comedy that has had tongues wagging since its public premiere at last year’s London Film Festival. It follows Ewan (Amit Shah), a government whistleblower who is sent to a remote house in the Belgian countryside with his wife Silke (Sure Dohnke) where they await the arrival of a journalist (Jenna Coleman) who is interested in what secrets he has to reveal. Events take a turn when a pair of security guards, Chris (Tom Burke) and Glynn (Roger Evans), turn up to keep an eye on everything. But can they really be trusted?
The theme of trust is at the heart of the movie, as the couple wonder who they can share their secrets with. A sense of paranoia haunts the characters throughout, as they try to navigate the complex world of whistleblowing. The title itself, Klokkenludier, is the Dutch work for ‘whistleblower’, translating to ‘bellringer’ in the language. But what spurred Maskell to make this story inspired by his trip to the countryside about a whistleblower?
As he told us, it came from his own fears surrounding surveillance and security: “At that time the Snowden revelations had just come out and then Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour. That was after I had started writing it and I was amazed by how much of it chimed. It gave me a clear delineation between the film’s protagonists and Edward Snowden – he understood all the capabilities of the state, but my characters didn’t know any of that, which made me feel more aligned with them. Hey, I can barely navigate a big shop at times! The decisions the characters make is their undoing really – whilst they are clever, they are also naive. With the internet and all this instantly accessible knowledge, we are all smarter but more naive.”
Maskell’s frustrations regarding this particularly come out in a scene featuring a fiery Coleman, where she drops numerous harsh truth bombs on the couple about our society and the role the media plays within that. It’s a striking moment that is certainly a highlight and interestingly all of the anger in that scene is directed towards Maskell himself, as he explained to us: “It comes from my frustration and disappointment in myself. I’ve read Snowden’s revelations, I’ve followed the reportings on Cambridge Analytica, and I’m a keen newshound but whenever I go on my phone and it asks me about cookies, I accept them all every time like I’m the fucking cookie monster. These people risked so much for us, but I’m just not conscious of it moment to moment in the way I should be. They sacrificed so much but their endeavours are wasted on me and I’m ashamed about that. I wanted to look at that and address it for myself through this.”
Whilst Klokkenludier does explore these weighty topics, it also delivers plenty of quick wit and dark humour, making for a thoroughly entertaining watch. Maskell tells us much of that came through improvisation from the cast, which is something that was inspired by fellow filmmaker and frequent collaborator Ben Wheatley, who he has worked with several times: “We shot it all one on and then one off, which is something I always did with Ben. It meant I could get snatches of dialogues and little moments which would sometimes replace the scenes I had planned – that happened with the opening one about seagulls which said so much more about their relationship early on. There was a lot of improvisation whilst filming it.”
That improvisational approach wasn’t the only thing Maskell brought to his set that was inspired by his work with the many brilliant British filmmakers he has previously collaborated with. In fact, those experiences really shaped how he directed Klokkenluider: “The biggest takeaway is that it’s always fruitful working with people who want to collaborate – actors and crew members who turn up with ideas, rather than the directorial micromanaging you sometimes get. Maybe some big directors with huge budgets work like that, like Wes Anderson, but for me – particularly working in independent cinema – it needs to be collaborative, playful, and improvisational for everyone for it to be effective. For Paul Andrew Williams (Bull), Ben Wheatley (Kill List), and Steve McQueen (Small Axe), that is common to them and is the biggest thing I tried to apply as an ethos.”
It’s an approach that clearly works as Klokkenluider is an impressive debut – we can only hope that Maskell will have more directorial efforts in the works soon. The film will certainly have people talking, especially since the secret the whistleblower is uncovering is never explicitly revealed to the audience. We have our theories of course but does Maskell himself have an exact answer? “Sort of! I’ve got silly answers for that question but when I wrote it, I was nervous of being pretentious so I put the secret in, made it generic, revealing it halfway through the film so the audience could go ‘ooohh’, realising the film isn’t what they thought it was. But during the shoot and edit, I realised that I think the film earns some weight by that point – it can have a vast, serious secret and meaning at the centre, and if we don’t hear it, it feels bigger and world-altering. So, I very quickly made the choice not to show it – but I had written something down, which ultimately felt like a cop out.”
Klokkenluider may not reveal all its secrets, but the film is all the better for holding its cards close to its chest. After all, who doesn’t love a mystery? Let’s hope it’s not long before Maskell steps behind the camera once more.
Klokkenluider releases in UK cinemas on Friday 1st September. For more upcoming movies to look out for, check out our recommendations.