Q&A: Director and writer Patrick Myles talks about The Overcoat

By Josh Morris

The Overcoat is a short film and an adaptation of a short story by Nikolai Gogol. It follows Christopher Cobbler, a low-level employee of an undisclosed government agency, from his complacent place of stability to his ultimate nightmarish demise after having his newly-purchased overcoat stolen. The film’s director and writer Patrick Myles was kind of enough to discuss it with Informer Media Group.

Informer Media Group: What inspired you to write/direct this adaptation?

Patrick Myles: I had seen a stage adaptation of “Diary of a Madman” and absolutely loved it, and that inspired me to read more of Gogol’s short stories, which are all wonderful (“The Nose” and “The Two Ivans” are particularly good), but when I read “The Overcoat” I knew instantly I wanted to make it into a film. It really spoke to me, I recognized myself in the lead character, [and] I felt that the themes of isolation and individuality especially were pertinent to me; basically, I could see the film in my head, so I immediately set about writing the script.

Informer Media Group: After some research, I discovered this story has been adapted a few times before; what specifically did you want to explore that hadn’t been explored yet?

Patrick Myles: I suppose when I started I wasn’t exactly looking to explore the source material in a way that hadn’t been explored before, it was more of a case of telling that story through a unique lens: my own. As with a lot of Gogol’s work, and in fact with most brilliant pieces of literature, what you think the story is about says more about you than it does about the story, and I think someone could read “The Overcoat” and decide it was a tale of bureaucracy crushing the soul of man; someone else could decide it was a story of knowing one’s place; another person would think it’s a story of righteous ghostly revenge. All could be right, but none would be absolutely right because like all great stories it’s not about just one easily identifiable thing. So to be perfectly honest I didn’t watch any other adaptation of it, because I wanted my own version to be a completely fresh and personal take on the story, unburdened by previous adaptations.

Informer Media Group: Quite so. How popular is this story in the UK and when did you first encounter it? Did you read it first, or watch a film version? I ask because I had never heard of “The Overcoat” before your film; I’m certain there are plenty of people in the U.S. who haven’t either …

Patrick Myles: I wouldn’t say it’s particularly well known in the UK or US, whereas I imagine most Russians or Ukrainians would know it. I first encountered it when I read it as part of a collection of Gogol short stories, inspired by watching the stage adaptation of “Diary of a Madman.” I think the fact that it’s not incredibly well known in the UK or US is an advantage for our film so that the audience can come it completely fresh, with no benchmarks or previously held opinions about the source material affecting their judgment or enjoyment.

Informer Media Group: Absolutely. That was certainly the case for me. I found your adaption particularly humorous, and I know it has won some Best Comedy Awards, but isn’t “The Overcoat” a tragedy ultimately?

Patrick Myles: Aha! You’ve hit the nail on the head. Whenever you enter film festivals you have to describe your film’s genre, some allow you to choose more than one, but sometimes you only get a single choice. I would describe the film as a tragi-comic fairytale, and the challenge for us was to achieve a tone in the film that would allow the audience to feel as if they can laugh at what’s happening, while still experiencing events that aren’t particularly humorous, like someone being mugged or bullied at work. This careful balance of tone, in my opinion, is present in Gogol’s writing, so we worked very hard to try and emulate that in the film, and it’s tricky to marry elements of absurdism, comedy, and tragedy all in the same 18 minutes while keeping the tone consistent throughout. Our job was made easier by having some wonderful actors in the film, and Jason Watkins’ performance in particular really gave the audience a deeply empathetic protagonist with whom they could sit back and enjoy the journey, even if it takes some dark twists and turns.

Informer Media Group: Well done on achieving that marriage of elements. IMDb describes this movie as dealing with “popularity” in life and death; that seems a bit on the surface to me…. Isn’t there something deeper?

Patrick Myles: I think so. For me, a lot of what Christopher goes through is quite universal – that need we all have to be accepted by the group and marrying that need with being our own person. The groups that Christopher encounters, and who bully him, are homogenous, interchangeable and have assimilated. Christopher is an eccentric, but he’s still an individual (it’s no coincidence that he’s the only character in the film who is named), and you could argue that the effect that the overcoat has on him is indeed a positive one because it brings him out of his shell, but while reveling in this new glow, he takes it too far and rejects a human connection in favor of his newfound social status. And it’s at that point of hubris that things start to go pear-shaped for him. But it’s good to remember that although I believe all the best films have deeper underlying themes and philosophies, I think it’s important that they exist below the surface so that they enter the audience’s minds subconsciously while they’re experiencing something superficially pleasing to their eyes and ears. Otherwise, it just becomes didactic and people switch off.

Informer Media Group: The story has supernatural elements, of course; I also found there was something spiritual about it: a failure of the material world (for example, your use of “Zadok the Priest” when he first wears the overcoat…. That “point of hubris,” as you say) was that intentional?

Patrick Myles: Yes, it was. There is something of the rebirth about that moment, so I wanted a piece of music that made us feel how triumphant this moment was for Christopher and the idea of a big, choral, religious piece normally reserved for the coronation of kings felt right, especially when the rest of the score so far had been relatively low-key. I love the music to the film, I think our composer Alex Baranowski did an incredible job, and I think the combination of his composition and existing tracks used for specific storytelling tentpole moments works well.

Informer Media Group: Going back to your comments on literature, the original short story seems a critique of “systems” whereas your adaptation feels more like a critique of “consumerism” per se…. am I right about that?

Patrick Myles: How interesting. I’m not sure I would be as binary as that in terms of what our film sets out to do, but fascinating that you make that distinction. I feel that the way the world was designed, as some sort of parallel universe Soviet-Dickensian industrialist post-war metropolis (this was seriously the phrase that was in the treatment…), we definitely wanted to make the point that the ‘system’ of this world was one of oppression and order (hence the CCTV cameras in a lot of shots), and therefore the color palette of the office and the office workers were drab and non-descript, so I think we did work hard to create a system that our eccentric protagonist could live in, and therefore stand out as an individual – possibly causing his targeting by the office bullies. I suppose for me the overcoat is less a symbol of excess consumerism and more a device that Christopher chooses to facilitate his new chosen path (like Robert Johnson’s guitar at the crossroads for example), and it’s the importance that Christopher places on this piece of clothing, rather than accepting and feeling strong in his own individuality, that ultimately causes his downfall.

Informer Media Group: Yes, can you tell me a little more about the blend of specific elements you chose? The time period, for example. The time lapses; the animation; the nods to spy thrillers … Why do you choose these elements?

Patrick Myles: The time period was intentionally non-specific, and we wanted a mixture of analog and digital, whereby modern CCTV cameras exist alongside typewriters to give the idea of some kind of world whereby technology has not advanced as quickly as our own for the majority of the population. I felt that since this was an adaptation of a story set in Imperialist Russia, I needed to create a world that would give us the same storytelling elements (bureaucracy, strict social order, etc) but that was a little closer to home. Saying that, I didn’t want to just set it in modern day London, I wanted to build a unique world for the story and tell the audience straight away (in the second shot to be precise): don’t worry about historical accuracy or when/where this is set – just sit back and enjoy. So alongside the production designer Melanie Jane Brookes we sat down and were very specific about this world so that we could create it realistically on screen, but I didn’t want to spend time during the film explaining what the world was, I just wanted to get on with the story. The time lapse was something the DoP Tom Turley and I experimented with before the shoot, as we wanted a sequence whereby we could show Christopher being completely overwhelmed by this new social setting that he’s been invited into, and as a consequence drinks too much to try and keep up with the others, ultimately ending in his mugging in the alleyway. But also I wanted to show that while Christopher was ostensibly present there, he still felt outside the action and not quite in time with his peers – hence the idea of a two-speed time lapse whereby all the colleagues would exist in one speed and Christopher would exist in a different speed. That allied with the music (by the Icelandic band Ljótu hálfvitarnir) gave us a real sense of Christopher being completely overwhelmed by this new experience. As for the animation, what better way to depict a nightmarish dream sequence than by clay stop motion animation? I knew of Gustavo Artaega’s work from before and wanted to work with him on something, and I thought that it would be visually very exciting to have this sequence done in that way. The nods to spy thrillers was more of a visual reference (The Third Man, etc) in the way Christopher walked through the alleyways in the dead of night, as we wanted that same shadowy feel, where characters could lose themselves in the anonymous darkness of a metropolis. 

Informer Media Group: Fascinating. And why the after-credits scene? Why not add that in?

Patrick Myles: I knew I wanted the final shot of the film proper to be the narrator’s face looking straight down the barrel, in an exact mirror of the opening shot of the film, which was Christopher’s face, and as the final scene is all one shot, I didn’t want to cut there. But I thought if someone’s sat through the credits, they can at least get a glimpse of what the ghostly Christopher looks like, so I suppose it’s a flourish to the film that wasn’t necessary to the story, but that we all liked and therefore put in.

Informer Media Group: Christopher Cobbler goes through quite the ordeal in this story…. Where do people turn when they’re misunderstood? When they’re oppressed? When the system ignores them? How do we NOT go insane as Christopher does?

Patrick Myles: Who knows? That is probably the great fundamental question. Faced with a lack of inherent meaning and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, how do we summon up the courage to create our own subjective meaning and enjoyment in life and keep going? Unsurprisingly, I don’t have the answer to that, except to say that one thing that for me the film touches on, and that is relevant and universal to all of us, no matter where we live or when is balancing the needs of a social animal (which is what humans have evolved to be) and that of a unique individual with their own consciousness. Perhaps that’s Christopher’s tragedy, that he was too far on the spectrum of one or the other, rather than seeking a balance between his own eccentric individuality, which should not be ignored or suppressed as it’s what makes him unique, and engaging with fellow human beings within a social context without becoming just another drone. Perhaps this balance would allow him to deal with the everyday oppression he and everyone suffer at the hands of the unbalanced system of this world, and keep his sanity, and, perhaps, works towards some kind of change for the better through tiny everyday acts. Kubrick once said, and I’ve attached the whole quote below* because I think it’s a wonderful sentiment, that ‘However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.’

Informer Media Group: Indeed! Well said. So, what’s next for you?

Patrick Myles: I’m currently working on the script for what I hope will be my first feature, a heist comedy. I’ve also got a couple more ideas bubbling away that are not quite scripts yet, but for now, my main focus is getting this feature script ready.

Informer Media Group: I hope that works out for you. Where can people go to find out more about you/ your projects?

Patrick Myles: Well, I purposefully don’t have a website and I’m not great on social media, so I suppose I’ll just have to make another film so I’ve got something to shout about. 

Watch the trailer for The Overcoat here.

For more information, click here.

*Full Stanley Kubrick quote:

“The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder. A capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf. But as they grow older the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere around him and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong and lucky he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. But if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however, the mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness we must supply our own light.”

 

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