How do you reinvent the love story? It’s a well-worn format, and it’s where Welsh actor Tom Cullen, who cut his teeth in acclaimed Andrew Haigh romance Weekend (2011), makes his directorial debut with Pink Wall. Rather than following one linear thread, the film frames six moments across a six-year relationship between two people: Jenna, an ambitious, unafraid female producer played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black, The Vow, Destroyer) and Leon, a less go-getting DJ who meets Jenna after one of his sets, played by Jay Duplass (Transparent, The Mindy Project).
Pink Wall is raw and authentic, born from improvisation and a desire to create a movie less dictated by its narrative, more interested in clustered snapshots of emotion. We caught up with Cullen ahead of the film’s UK release to discuss romance, gender expectations and the greatest love stories of all time.
Why did you want to direct Pink Wall?
“I always wanted to direct, and became an actor to better understand the psychology of actors. My career took off, so I followed the current. The opportunity to direct had come up, but it hadn’t felt right. But then I was offered an acting job by Jamie [Adams, Pink Wall’s producer] and couldn’t do it. He was trying to convince me by mentioning the comedians Mark and Jay Duplass. I then had this idea for a film with Jay and Tatiana [Maslany, Cullen’s partner], and I accidentally pitched it to Jamie. He called me back, and got me a budget. So I just decided to put the fear in the bin and say ‘yes.'”
What made you cast Tatiana and Jay together?
“There was something about their energies that I felt would work well together. I knew the film would live and die on the performances – it’s very talky, almost like a play. I needed two actors who would be comfortable with improvisation, but who were also authentic. They’re both such skilled actors, very funny, but also very emotionally deep.”
What other films did you take inspiration from?
“The film I initially pitched was about a couple in the sixth year of their relationship who go to Wales for a weekend and thrash out their concerns. But I thought it felt like Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which I really love, so I wanted to do something different. I came up with the idea of making my film like memory – hence the non-linear structure. When we reflect on relationships, we juxtapose different moments to build our emotional landscape.”
Blue Valentine is also set over a long period – was that an influence?
“It’s impossible to not travel in the footsteps of films like Blue Valentine, because human beings are horribly boring and predictable. We keep making the same mistakes. But I think Pink Wall is specific, because I hadn’t necessarily seen a relationship drama tackling a millennial gender expectation. I was also interested in flipping gender archetypes, to have a woman who is ambitious, funny and a bit of a dick, but also alive but brooding. And a male character who wasn’t ambitious, who wants to have kids.”
How did your work on Weekend influence Pink Wall?
“If I could be half the filmmaker Andrew Haigh is, I’d be happy. I love the delicacy with which he tells stories. It’s definitely the best work I’ve ever done, and that’s down to him. Weekend is such a beautiful script about two people in love, that feels unique but also so universal. Weekend is really from Andrew’s gut, so that was something I really wanted to do – I didn’t want to bullshit myself. I wanted to work hard, to excavate all of the crap and all of the goodness from my own experience in relationships.”
What is your favourite love story in a film?
“E.T. It’s just the most wonderful story of acceptance. That moment when he realises that he has to let him go is so special. It’s obviously a film about divorce too, and about Elliott having to let go of his dad. It’s so tragic and beautiful, it makes me cry every time.”
What are you working on now?
“I am writing two films at the moment. One is about divorce from a kid’s perspective, and the other is about this strange epidemic of male suicide in the UK. I want to talk about what it is to be a man these days, and how the patriarchal system is not good for men either.”
Any acting jobs on the horizon?
“I did Castle in The Ground with Imogen Poots, Alex Wolff and Niamh Campbell, which is about the opioid crisis in America. And then Barbarians, which is a classic British film, about who we say we are versus who we really are. And finally, a British independent film called Zebra Girl. It’s an all-female cast, female director, director of photography and producers. I’m the only guy in it. It’s very tragic and very funny, about a woman suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. It was such a nice experience to work on such a female set. It’s so rare, I really enjoyed it.”
‘Pink Wall’ is in cinemas now