We are delighted to welcome the multi-talented Ali Cook to The Green Room, thanks so much for taking time out of your lockdown schedule to join us!
Ali: Great to have the opportunity!
Firstly, a huge congratulations on your wonderful film The Cunning Man! The script was wonderful, setting and style endearing and sound design captivating. When did you first decide to develop this tale into a short film?
Thank you. My collaborator Zoe Dobson said: “I have an image of a mysterious man, walking down a country lane, holding a dead dog… Why?” I instantly thought he could be a Cunning Man – a Cunning Man is an old English name for a local doctor who would use conventional medicine and folklore magic on both humans and animals.
I was inspired by a real-life surgeon and “cunning man” John Harries. Although he practiced modern medicine in Victorian Wales, he also used folklore magic and was feared just as much as he was he admired. This really interested me.
When it comes to writing do you have to go yourself into a certain mindset and place or can you just put pen to paper with ease?
Some days I find it really hard to write as though I’m searching for something but the truth is you can write about anything. I try to remind myself of that when I’m stuck and literally write about what’s on my mind.
However, I do read a lot about the history of magic, so it’s very easy for me to come up with ideas for fantasy stories.
For the production of The Cunning Man there was a small cast, had you considered more characters to be added or was four cast members always the intention?
The hardest part of a story for me is the plot – an original plot. I struggle to get there first and then I work backwards from the ending of the first draft.
From there, I usually eliminate characters. I’m a huge believer in as few characters as possible. It often serves the story better and allows you to flesh out the characters more easily. It also gives the actors more to work with.
We tend to meet with filmmakers, writers and creatives that also work as lawyers, lecturers, doctors etc... Your other career is comedy and magic. When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in cinema?
I have performed stand-up comedy for years and a young director (Andrew Saunders) saw me on stage. At the time he was studying with Stephen Frears and asked me to play a bully in his short. I loved the short we made and loved the process although I’ll be honest, at the time I had no idea I was being directed by Stephen Frears. It is the best thing I have ever done and snowballed from there.
I believe the British stand up circuit is the best in the world so to become a paid comic on the circuit means you have to be a half decent writer. The discipline of writing stand-up is hard so it was a good training ground to begin writing dialogue.
I'm a huge magic and comedy fan myself and have dabbled in tricks over the years. You're a familiar face to me beyond The Cunning Man and other on-screen projects. Tell me about your experience with Penn & Teller all those years ago with your chicken and duck?
I was the very first magician to appear on Penn & Teller Fool Us which was an honour. It has gone on to be a huge hit in the States and has run for ten years or so now.
They asked me to be on the show as they wanted a big stage item that also looked skilful – swapping the heads of chickens and ducks fulfilled that gap! Also, it’s a very old, rare piece of magic dating back to ancient Egypt but is rarely performed as let’s face it you need a chicken and duck. Luckily, I had great professional animal handlers to help me out.
Penn & Teller are great. I think you should tune into the new series, it looks like there’s going to be some cool stuff on there!!
Staying with magic and illusion but also cinema... The Prestige or The Illusionist?
Loved both but would edge towards The Prestige – I mean, Tesla; possibly the greatest magician of all time.
Do you think you'd ever look to develop a short or feature with a more obvious focus on magic and trickery?
I’ve written a feature film; a folk horror called The Grimoire – it’s about a mysterious and real book on witchcraft written in medieval England. It’s currently in pre-production with Stigma films and Harvest Pictures. I’ve learnt how to create wonder live on stage over the last twenty years, now I want to do the same on the big screen.
In 2014 you were cast in Kajaki a gritty, authentic and true story tale of war in Afghanistan. The camaraderie between the characters felt so real, did yourself and the rest of the cast do anything different to create this feeling?
The genius of Paul Katis was to put all the actors in real army training for a week with three ex paras. We bonded almost instantly and had to use our character names. It helped immensely and gave that authentic feeling.
How did you feel when you watched the film back for the first time after the final edit?
I was with the soldier I played when I watched the film at the premiere. It was a huge honour to be involved in a film that shows the shit times our soldiers go through for us. It’s still one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved in and was a real moment in my career.
Your latest project is set for a December release. What can you tell us about The Obscure life of the Grand Duke of Corisca?
I’m a huge fan of the director Daniel Graham – he’s a great dialogue writer and I got to play against Timothy Spall which was a dream come true.
It’s a beautifully written subtle comedy about a Duke (played by Peter Stormare) who hires a cantankerous yet genius architect (Spall) to build him a mausoleum before his imminent death. I play a smarmy town planner Josef who tries to placate Spall’s character in all the wrong ways.
It's a very competitive industry yet you seem to be making an impact and finding yourself in some great productions. Is it everything you'd hoped it would be now you are on the inside looking out?
I love acting and every opportunity that comes my way is usually a chance to really spread my wings and embrace a new character. However, my plan is to develop a franchise like the English version of The Conjuring – I’ve got the real- life stories, just working on the team.
And finally! What's next for you... Do you see yourself working on a quarantine-based script like the rest of the world or is something more wacky in the pipeline?
As well as The Grimoire, I’ve also written a comedy about a new age book centre and the colourful characters such places attract. I’m aiming to make this into a short film with a view to pitching it as a TV series.