Interview with Gary Sinyor
The director of Leon the Pig Farmer
It's almost ten years since Leon The Pig Farmer, the low-budget film about the North London Jewish estate agent who discovered his true paternal origins were on a farm in deepest Yorkshire, was released in UK cinemas.
A decade on, it's still the only contemporary Jewish comedy to have emerged from the UK for a long while - but as its director, Gary Sinyor, tells jewish.co.uk's Caroline Westbrook, very little has changed since its release. "Jewish men, for example, still wear blue jumpers and little round glasses," he says, indicating his own attire in self-depracating fashion, "and they're still estate agents. Actually, probably even more of them are."
Sinyor, whose post-Leon career includes British romantic comedy Solitaire For Two, period drama spoof Stiff Upper Lips and the Renee Zellweger/Chris O'Donnell romp The Bachelor, is busily promoting Leon's arrival on DVD, complete with director's commentary and his pre-Leon short film The Unkindest Cut. And he's hugely entertaining company, talking non-stop about the film, his future projects, his love of going to shul, and finding bacon sarnies in his flat.
Do you have fond memories of making Leon?
In as much as I have memories, they're only fond ones. During the course of time you tend to forget little things that happen, you remember other things that have happened in other films. The one difficult thing of course is that Mark (Frankel, who played Leon, and who sadly died in a motorbike accident in 1996) isn't here any more. But other than that, nothing but fond memories
When did you first come up with the idea for the film?
It came in two stages. The first part came when I was at film school, I think it was in Wales, and we had got a caravan stuck in the mud, and it was my job to go and negotiate with a farmer to get a tractor to enable us to drag the caravan out of the mud, and it turned out to be a pig farm, which I had never been on before. And the guy spent a long time negotiating with me in this barn, because he knew I was Jewish, and it was agony, because the stench was unlike anything I had ever come across. I was physically ill. And I thought it would be a nightmare to put myself in that sort of situation. The other thing came from the short film The Unkindest Cut, which was about a guy who wasn't sure where he stands Jewishly with his family and girlfriends. And I guess somehow or other they came together.
Leon was shot under a deferred payment scheme. Did everybody get paid in the end?
We have, yes, although not as much as the reputation of the film lends itself to. Also when the film found out it was made for very little money, they paid very little money for it. Those involved have been paid their deferments, and they continue to get paid, so the DVD release will bring us more money which will go out to the crew and the cast.
What was the original budget of the film?
Before we had to bring it down, it was £3 million. And we eventually brought it down to £150,000. Here, it took close to £1 million at the box office. For a British film, it did pretty well.
How much of your own Jewish upbringing did you bring to the film?
I didn't use all of it because I want to save something for my other films! There is a large element of what Leon says, does and goes through, which is through my eyes in some sense, and I think Mark took that on board, which is why he ended up wearing my jumpers, my cords, taking my watch, my Filofax. Sometimes it was budget, but sometimes he just took everything that belonged to me! There was a fair amount in terms of my approach to Judaism and family relationships, and the clash of cultures and what it's like being in a non-Jewish house. I have been in places and felt uncomfortable because they don't have locks on the bathroom door, and you wonder what to do and you end up piling up lots of things in front of the door! So a lot came out of my neuroses, or way of thinking.
Why do you think there hasn't been another significant Jewish-themed project since?
You know, I wish I could answer the question. I know now why at this particular moment in time if I were a Jewish writer I'd be concerned what I was writing about, because of the past couple of years, with Israel and the Intifada, and the fact we had to turn up in Trafalgar Square and support Israel. And you didn't have those things to worry about 10 years ago. But in the ensuing time I don't know why people haven't. It seems to me, for example, that the people who do Goodness Gracious Me are doing a very good job of representing their community in a humorous way. There are other cultures that are doing it, but then the Greek culture hasn't, or the Italian culture or the Japanese culture. It's not just the Jewish culture. Or it's possible that there are good scripts out there but people just aren't financing them as happened with Leon. Maybe they're just waiting for me to do Leon The Pig Farmer 2. I don't think it's going to happen somehow.
Did you always want to get into film directing?
Directing wasn't my thing, I wanted to produce. It was the moment I saw Midnight Express, that was the moment I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. Then I went off to university and did nothing related, and I applied to the BBC like everybody does and got nowhere. And then I got a job working in a production company in Manchester making very bad commercials. But then I got into the National Film School, where I discovered I was OK, that was my job. Up to then I was thinking it would be nice to be a filmmaker, but when I went to the National Film School and learnt that, I realised I could do this. It's an amazing medium, and it's an amazing experience to go into a cinema where a film that you have created is there.
How did you enjoy doing the DVD commentary for Leon?
It was difficult, because we made the film ten years ago, the fact that Mark was killed had a scarring effect on the lives of anyone who was that close to him, and also just talking about the film was difficult because they run it in real time. So you might have something to say about a part of the film and then two minutes later you're talking about something else. And then there are parts where you have nothing to say whatsoever.
What was your own Jewish upbringing?
Traditional, Sephardi, in Manchester. Kosher at home, non-kosher out, but not traife. If you're bringing it inside, you're not allowed to bring it into the house. We had a charcoal pit in the back garden and we could use that, but not in the house. On holiday, or out of the house, non-kosher meat but always chicken, lamb or beef. And no shellfish.
So never been tempted by a bacon sandwich?
The worst thing about filming is the first day that you turn up on location, I open the door and the smell wafts over me, and it's the smell of bacon being fried, and I can't stand it. You should see the list I provide the caterers when I'm on a film, there are so many things I don't like. I don't like food that's gone off, basically, like cheese. It's basically food that's gone off. So at some point I'd like to do a film about a guy who's massively fussy about food. It's very entertaining. And it's also a very Jewish thing.
Did you ever consider having a kosher caterer on Leon?
Well, we ended up shooting in my flat, which I didn't want at first because I knew it would create a mess, but we ended up there. And I then said, there was no bacon being allowed into my flat, all the sandwiches had to be eaten outside. But I think I found at one point I found a bacon sandwich in the flat and I was very upset. On the last film I did in the UK I thought it would be worthwhile to have some kosher meat, because you would go for weeks without even a piece of chicken, and that's unacceptable, I can't eat fish for that long. So we had this caterer who was meant to be flying in kosher meat from Manchester, and I was very proud of this. And it turned out he was lying. He wasn't flying in kosher meat at all. So we sacked him! I don't think I'll ever get to have a kosher caterer, although it would be nice to have Solly's to do catering on location. As long as the shwarma is full and not down to the last bit, that would be a nice thing to have.
How observant are you now?
I go to shul more or less every Saturday-ish. We've started going to Saatchi which I think has a really good atmosphere, and we've got friends there. In Los Angeles we went to Chabad, and before then a shul called Beth Jacob, which had a Rabbi there called Rabbi Weiss, who was amazing. He came over here for a while, to Marble Arch and now he's gone back to the States. We're also members of Kinloss, Untied Synagogue, but (whispers), we don't go that often. And there's also one in Wembley, a Sephardi synagogue which I haven't been to for a while. But I love going to synagogue, and I love Friday nights, it's the perfect time to have family and friends over, and it's just great! I love that ritual, and then Saturday I try to keep it from being a work day and a shopping day, and that sort of stuff. I think I'm like a three times a year man who goes to shul every week.
Would you like to see more Jewish characters on TV and in films?
There's definitely room for a Jewish version of Goodness Gracious Me, and the question is why it hasn't happened, whether it's that the talent isn't there, or whether they haven't let it happen. I'd only like to see more if they're not done by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.
What's your favourite Jewish festival?
Festival or holy day? Because I would say Yom Kippur on the grounds that it's my favourite Jewish day, but as festival I would say Passover. Yom Kippur's a milestone because you sit there on New Year and think about what you've achieved, and then you do the same thing on Yom Kippur - you sit there in shul, and I love staying in shul all day on Yom Kippur, it really focuses the mind. And Passover, it's happy, or should be. Having kids makes a big difference because now I'm starting to get back into Chanukah or Purim, we were never into those that much.