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An Interview with Ali Cook, Writer and Star of The Cunning Man

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2019

Ali Cook on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie The Cunning Man - in a few words, what is it about?

 

The film tells the story of an elderly and mysterious farmer who drifts through the Welsh valleys collecting dead animals. Nobody knows why or what he is up toÖ

 

The Cunning Man is inspired by real-life physician and "cunning man" John Harries - so what can you tell us about him, and what attracted you to his story in the first place?

 

Although he was a healer and used modern medicine, he also used folklore magic and so was feared just as much as he was admired. This really interested me.

 

Other sources of inspiration when writing The Cunning Man?

 

The film poses the question: should animals be a regarded as a commodity? In the ritual scene where Afran recites an incantation from his book of spells in Welsh, he is in fact reciting the five key rights of animals as laid out in the EU Lisbon Treaty.

 

How much research did you do on the magical side of your movie?

 

My hobby is the history of magic so I guess Iíve spent about thirty years reading about mystery!

 

How did the project come together in the first place?

 

My collaborator ZoŽ Dobson [ZoŽ Dobson interview - click here] said ĎI have an image of a mysterious man, walking down a country lane, holding a dead dog... Why?í It really just snowballed from there.

 

What were the challenges of bringing The Cunning Man to the screen from a producer's point of view?

 

By far the hardest aspect was assembling a pile of taxidermy animals. You soon find out that stuffed sheep cost a lot more than Britainís premiere acting talent!

 

You also play one of the leads in The Cunning Man - so what can you tell us about your character, and have you written the Knackerman with yourself in mind from the get-go?

 

The Knackerman deals in, and profits from, death; collecting carcasses to take to government-approved incinerators. To him, all animals have a price on their backs. After I finished the second draft I thought I could embody the Knackerman so from there I tweaked him with my own quirks in mind, although he was loosely based on a real Knackerman that ZoŽ knows.

 

Do talk about the rest of your cast, and as writer and producer, did you have any say in terms of your co-stars?

 

Due to time constraints, I called every agent I knew and pretty much cast the film. The barmaid played by Charlotte Jo Hanbury is a great comedy actress who I have known for several years so I knew she would perform her lines exquisitely. As for Ian Kelly who plays the Inspector and Simon Armstrong who plays the Cunning Man, I saw self- tapes and immediately knew they were perfect.

 

What can you tell us about your director ZoŽ Dobson [ZoŽ Dobson interview - click here], and what was your collaboration with her like?

 

ZoŽ is a friend of mine. We have known each other for maybe twenty years but never really worked together (although I once presented a kidís TV pilot for her) She works in factual TV and with my own background it was a great mix of different skills. She was excellent in the edit. Her hobby is visiting art galleries which gives her films a strong visual look inspired by her favourite artists.

 

A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

We were sponsored by Arri and Pinewood Studios for lighting and were allowed the kit for two days. This meant we had to be super-organised - we were after all shooting with live sheep, pigs and chickens! As a result, we had a solid shot list which meant no one was stressed at all. In fact, Simon who played Afran said it was his favourite shoot of all time.

 

The $64-question of course, where can The Cunning Man be seen?

 

Itís doing really well on the festival circuit and can be seen at various upcoming film festivals including Norwich Film Festival (UK), Abertoir Film Festival (UK), and will be having its Australian premiere at Melbourne Lift Off Film Festival

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of The Cunning Man?

 

So far, the reception has been fantastic having won 8 or so awards and a series of five-star reviews. One thing I am particularly proud of is we have appealed to both genre festivals and art house drama festivals as the film highlights the bleak reality of being a farmer and poses the questions about the rights of animals.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

Iíve written a feature film, a folk horror called The Grimoire Ė itís about a mysterious and real book on witchcraft written in medieval England.

Also, in a slightly different direction, Iíve written a comedy about a new age book centre and the colourful characters such places attract. Iím aiming to make this into a short film with a view to pitching it as a TV series.

 

From what I know, before you've started out as an actor you were a professional magician - so what can you tell us about that aspect of your career, and to what extent does your being a magician influence your acting (and vice versa)?

 

Iíve been a professional magician for twenty years and when a magic show is done really well, it gives the audience a sense of astonishment and a real feeling of wonder. I like to try and transfer that feeling of wonder from a live show on to film.

 

What got you into acting eventually, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

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. It is the best thing I have ever done. Since then I have studied with Dee Cannon, the

Head of Drama at RADA.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to The Cunning Man?

 

I am probably best known for my role as Sgt Paul McMellon in the BAFTA nominated and BIFA award winning Kajaki. I was recently in the political satire How to Fake a War alongside Katherine Parkinson and Once Upon a Time in London which is currently streaming on Netflix in the UK.

 

How would you describe yourself as an actor, and some of your techniques to bring your characters to life?

 

As an actor, I just try and leave the stage with some dignity!

 

Actors (and indeed actresses) who inspire you?

 

My main inspiration is Steve Martin, he started out working in a magic shop in Disneyland and ended up becoming a movie star.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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I grew up watching a lot of David Lynch so I love the idea of keeping the audience unnerved and on edge.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Maybe Frozen - I love the film but my daughters watch it over and over again. Theyíre always singing Ďlet it go, let it go.í Iím like ĎWhy donít you let it go?í

 

Your/your website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

Website: alicook.com

Instagram: ali_cook

Twitter: ali_cook

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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