The cult series has crept into surreal thrillers from Uncle John to Just Jim – why does it keep cropping up?
Craig Roberts’ character in 2010’s Submarine proclaimed a desire to make a biopic of his life. Now, at the ripe age of 24, Roberts has directed, written and starred in Just Jim, a disturbing comedy-horror loosely based on his childhood in Wales. Set in Roberts’ real hometown of Maesycwmmer (pronounced My-see-comer), the film is a surreal coming-of-age tale about adolescent insecurities that morphs into a paranoid psychological thriller.
Roberts casts himself as Jim, a loner whose world is solo Nintendo sessions and hiding from bullies at the cinema. For advice on how to impress a girl at school, Jim turns to his new American neighbour, Dean – portrayed by Emile Hirsch – as a James Dean figure who’s memorised the literary works of Neil Strauss. But when Dean’s psychopathic personality becomes apparent, Jim realises he’s the only sane soul in the neighbourhood.
From its Scorsese-esque tracking shots to the nightmarish underwater sequences, Just Jim indicates Roberts is already an accomplished director. Playing an influence is Twin Peaks, the cult show that blends dark humour, odd personalities and eerie dreamscapes in an isolated town haunted by evil spirits. I met with Roberts at a Dalston pub to discuss the influence of the show, and what it’s like being David Lynch, Mark Frost and Kyle MacLachlan all at once.
With Twin Peaks, the sound design is crucial, which I noticed in Just Jim. At the house party, the music gets woozy as Jim goes up the stairs, and every room has its own sound.
Craig Roberts: That’s in everything David Lynch does. One thing about the sound design I wanted was that Jim’s having a breakdown, so there’s a lot of voices in his head. It’s very subtle, but there’s whispers up until the part where he breaks down and Emile is introduced. But the house party, that’s very Lynch. The house party is all one shot. It’s a transition to hell and into Jim’s own nightmare. That’s why I wanted it to be one shot, because I didn’t want to cut around it or for there to be any way for him to escape. This train is about to be derailed.
Young actors who turn director tend to start off with visually boring indie dramedies, but you’ve really challenged yourself with how Just Jim looks and shifts genres.
Craig Roberts: That’s one thing I wanted to do. I love British film, but, especially with lo-fi British films, it’s hard to tell what’s a British film and what’s a BBC drama. Some of them look very boring, very grey. I wanted to make a movie that felt cinematic. There was thought behind everything. The colouring played a big part. It starts off very bright and sunny, even though the protagonist is down in the dumps. By the end, when he’s happy – or thinks he’s happy – the colour’s been drained from the movie. So he doesn’t know what’s right. Where he starts off is probably the best he’s ever going to get. Kind of like There Will Be Blood – it’s a slow transition to becoming a bastard.
How old were you when you saw Twin Peaks?
Craig Roberts: I was probably 19. It’s so unique. The characters are so well-written and relatable in such a heightened world. I recently saw Fire Walk With Me in the cinema.
You saw it at home first?
Craig Roberts: Yeah, I’d seen it before. The moment I really liked is the Michael Jackson move in the Red Room. And David Bowie pops up in it. Also, the fact it starts with David Lynch acting very badly. I just love it. It made me want to revisit Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks borders on what I feel is sometimes bad and sometimes good. It’s a fine line. It’s really good, but it’s good because it’s so slow. Obviously there’s the soap opera that plays inside it. It’s almost like that’s seeped into the brains of the people in Twin Peaks. That’s part of the appeal, the Lynchian tone. I’d like to live in the Red Room.
“Twin Peaks borders on what I feel is sometimes bad and sometimes good. It’s a fine line. It’s really good, but it’s good because it’s so slow. That’s part of the appeal, the Lynchian tone” – Craig Roberts
What do you want from season three?
Craig Roberts: I hope he shoots it on film.
I think he is.
Craig Roberts: I don’t want him to shoot it like Inland Empire. It’s so bad. There’s a short film of David Lynch cooking quinoa that’s really cool. Just black-and-white and him cooking. He’s so interesting. He’s obviously a phenomenal filmmaker, but it’s almost like Bill Murray; they don’t give a fuck and do whatever they want. His work is designed so you get a different experience every time you watch it. Every time I watch Eraserhead, I pick up on something else. I feel a different way every time I watch it. Same with Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. And even Rabbits; Rabbits is so fucking good.
Emile’s character reminds me of how Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet is the personification of evil.
Craig Roberts: The whole Frank Booth thing wasn’t intentional, but he’s definitely supposed to be some form of evil. He smokes cigarettes all the time. He’s constantly surrounded by smoke. There’s even a shot in Jim where he’s staring at the fire and Emile is surrounded by this weird smoke. He’s Satan, in a way. Jim makes a deal with the devil – which is never a good thing.
Weirdly, it all came from an Eminem lyric. There’s a lyric in the song “Lose Yourself” that goes, “Best believe somebody’s paying the Pied Piper.” I got fascinated with the Pied Piper – this guy coming into a town, doing something for somebody, getting rid of the rats, not getting rewarded for it, and then losing the plot and taking all these kids away. That’s where Dean, the American, came from. He came in; Jim’s surrounded by rats – the rats being the people that disrespect him. He makes Jim cool, but doesn’t get anything back in that way, so decides to go crazy.
Just Jim is out in UK cinemas today