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Russell Geoffrey Banks on ‘Who’s Watching Oliver’

Russell Geoffrey Banks is an English actor, whose fascination for movies started at a young age. Working a number of jobs, he attended acting classes on the side and wrote screenplays in his spare time. After a holiday to Thailand, where he met some people who worked in the film industry, he decided he could work his way into the industry through small acting jobs - learning from the likes of Bradley Cooper, Neal McDonough, James Van Der Beek and Chow Yun-fat.

He studied Method Acting in the UK under Sam Rumbelow. Over the years, Russell's characters have moved to the darker side... playing a scam artist, a mythological villain and a serial killer in Who's Watching Oliver. The double-sided horror thriller features a young man, whose deceptive first appearances make way for dark, twisted Jack the Ripper meets Norman Bates type slasher with a difference. Spling caught up with Banks to find out more about this challenging role and film...

How did you get involved with this project?

Originally, I knew I wanted to make a serial killer film, so after suggesting it to Richie we decided that we would write it together. Then at that point we decided to bring Raimund Huber into the project and the three of us came up with the script.

You’re playing a very challenging character with a disturbing history, how did you prepare for the mental and physical demands of playing Oliver?

Well, after we wrote the script we had a base to who Oliver was. Then Richie and I watched a lot of serial killer documentaries as well as really looking into the long-term affects of abuse. After that, I really tried to dig deep into my own psyche and memories to find the pain inside needed to take on the heaviness of who and what Oliver is.

Did you take inspiration from any other performances in getting to the quintessential Oliver?

Oh for sure, I'm a film fan, so I'm always in awe of other actor's work. Because Oliver is dealing with so many years of mental and physical abuse as well as maybe having some signs of autism... that all had to be taken into account. So I watched other actors who played roles where the character had these types of background, actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, even Ricky Gervais in Derek. Then I also looked at other actors, who live the pain in their roles like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini.

Oliver is a paradox and this informs the tone of the film... did you struggle to walk the Jekyll & Hyde line and were you able to shake the character off easily?

Quick answer... yes, I struggled and no, it was very hard to shake this role off. It really was hard to go so negative and dark for such a long time. It was also hard on me physically because I was constantly hunched over and I was speaking with an underbite. After the film finished, my head wasn't great. It has definitely been a struggle. Raimund and I have been doing all the marketing and that's been a full time job in itself... now I can finally move on.

Banks as Oliver in Who's Watching Oliver.

What was it like working with Richie Moore?

Richie was great. He has over 20 years experience in the business after working on so many films behind the camera like The Hangover 2, Mission Impossible 2, Marco Polo and more. He's a wild man with the camera so yeah, working with Richie was great. I look forward to watching his next movies.

I see you were credited as a screenwriter... what sort of influence did you have on the screenplay… was their room to adlib?

Yeah, I had a lot of influence being a co-creator of the story and certain scenes were ad-libbed. That said, we all took ownership over certain parts of the script. For instance, I have crazy vivid dreams, so the dream dialogue was all me. Whereas Momma was all Ray and Sara's background was Richie.

What did you find most challenging about making this film?

Honestly, two things... as with all film-makers surviving financially is hard. You're working for a a possible pay check two years down the line - it's tough on you mentally. Then, when you add your personal head-space of going to the darkest parts of your inner psyche... its tough man. I started to feel anxious while shooting and after shooting my panic attacks came back. When you put all your energy into such a dark and negative vibe it takes its toll. When you watch the film and see me crying or losing my mind... well, I felt that was as close to real as it could have been.

The film is grotesque, disturbing and difficult to watch at times - has there been much backlash in terms of the misogynistic undercurrent?

There really hasn't... other than a few reviewers and comments... much less then I thought there would be. That said, I always played Oliver as the victim who has been mentally and physically abused and I think that has a lot to do with how people look at him. There are some really tough scenes to stomach in this film but take them out and you dont understand who Oliver is.

What was a highlight or a special memory you’ll take away from Who’s Watching Oliver?

It was special working with Sara Malakul Lane... she was great. We have already worked together so it meant a lot to work with her again. Kelly Woodcock is a close friend so having her support as an actress in the toughest scene of my life meant a lot, Alex Boyesen was our sound on that film and seeing him do such an amazing job was also special. It was a tough film for everyone involved, so just getting through it was a highlight.

The film centres around abuse... is this a message movie, and if so, what message do you think it’ll leave with audiences?

I think we see that Oliver is a product of abuse and his actions are horrific, but there are also some nicer moments coinciding in this movie. Like all of life, this film is about relationships between humans good, bad, upsetting and horrific, so I guess it's all up to the individual, what they walk away with after watching.

How did this film measure up to roles in other films such as Pernicious, Cam2Cam and Ghost House? Which of your performances are you most proud of?

For sure, I'm most proud of this one and I loved being a part of the other films. But this film the story is about my character so I lived and breathed the role over a long period of time. Whereas the other films I am a part of another character's story. I am extremely proud of this film and that such a low budget film won all the awards we did, then made it onto platforms that are available to watch in most people's houses. I am also extremely grateful to the whole horror community who has supported us, such as you guys, it's been really amazing to receive so much love for such a dark film.

3 Gambling Films You've Probably Never Seen

Las Vegas and Hollywood are almost synonymous when it comes to fancy suits, flash, boulevards and big lights - making films about casinos and nightlife a perfect fit with the glitz and glam of Tinseltown. It’s not surprising that almost everyone has heard about films like Casino Royale, Casino, 21, Ocean's Eleven and The Gambler.

When it comes to drama, what better way can you leverage high stakes plots than by putting characters in situations where they can literally change their lives overnight. They’ve got the limelight sure, but what about the gambling films that slip between the cracks? Here are three films you may not have heard of, which are with watching if you enjoy the genre.

Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1996)

This is neo-noir crime thriller is a feature film debut for Paul Thomas Anderson, who is best known for There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love, Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights. The film stars some big names in Philip Baker Hall, John C. Riley, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L Jackson. The plot centres around a professional gambler named Sydney who finds a lost soul in John, a young man, sitting outside a diner. After making his acquaintance, he soon discovers John has to pay $6,000 for his mother's funeral.

He offers to take John to Las Vegas and teach him how to make money for a living by gambling. The two grow closer as John becomes a protégé but complications arise over several years of friendship as John falls for Clementine. Compelling characters, understated performances and true originality underpin this moody drama. Hard Eight serves as one of the acclaimed director's first films.

Owning Mahowny (2003)

This Canadian drama directed by Richard Kwietniowski stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver and John Hurt, based on a novel and Canada’s largest one-man bank fraud. The gambling drama follows a Toronto bank employee Dan Mahowny, played by Seymour Hoffman, who rises up within the bank getting access to bigger and bigger accounts - soon gaining access to millions of dollars.

Unbeknownst to his colleagues, he makes weekly trips to Atlantic City, where he uses money he’s skimmed to gamble. Treated like royalty by the casino manager, his undercover dealings soon catch up with him. This character study centres around Mahowny, his relationship with Belinda and leans on an incredible turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman whose unkempt and earnest performance as an unhinged bank clerk drives this film set in the 1980s.

Even Money (2006)

Even Money follows the story of three complete strangers: Carolyn - a published author, Walter - a has-been magician and Clyde - a man in deep debt, whose lives intertwine in the world of gambling. The film stars Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta and Kelsey Grammer, rounding off a sharp cast under the direction of Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, The Long Goodbye).

Tense, tightly scripted, this independent crime drama gives you a strong dose of reality offering an ensemble drama with the same ambitions as Traffic, Syriana and Crash. A modern film noir we flit between each of the character's scenarios as the drama intensifies.

'The Three Wells' Podcast featuring Corne van Rooyen

The Three Wells podcast is based on the principles expressed in Matthew Kalil's book, The Three Wells of Screenwriting. Working screenwriters, film professors, first-time screenwriters, adaptation writers, TV writers, commissioned writers, script editors, playwrights, novelists, songwriters, journalists, documentary writers... anyone looking to break into their next idea or overcome writer's block can benefit from this practical screenwriting aid.

With Spling as the host of The Three Wells podcast, Matthew gets to the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a writer, how to find inspiration and how to apply The Three Wells of Screenwriting methodology through the lens of the films, TV shows and novels of screenwriters and authors.

Corne van Rooyen, the screenwriter behind Vaselinetjie, Hollywood in my Huis and a number of popular South African TV dramas, joins us in studio for our latest podcast.

Pivoting around the metaphor of a well and finding your deep sources of inspiration, the concept deals with the External Sources well, the Imagination well and the Memory well. Kalil discusses how one digs into each of these wells in terms of what's been gleaned from pop culture, what the mind can fathom and how our experiences can be leveraged in the writing process.

An extension of the book, Kalil uses the podcast as a platform to discuss the writing process with renowned screenwriters and authors to unpack how they've come to rely on each of these wells in their writing journeys. Speaking about each of these wells and finding out how these screenwriters operate, you'll be able to get a better understanding of the core principles at play in The Three Wells of Screenwriting and hopefully be inspired by some of the ideas and concepts for your own projects.

Here's a review of Matthew Kalil's book, which will give you a much greater understanding and a veritable treasure trove of honest advice that has helped him and is worth revisiting.

This The Three Wells podcast was recorded at Fine Music Radio's recording studio at the Artscape in Cape Town, South Africa.

Christia Visser on 'The Recce'

Christia Visser is a natural, who has quietly ratcheted up an impressive collection of performances with lead roles in Hollywood in my Huis, Tess, Girl from Nowhere and supporting roles in Ballade vir 'n Enkeling, Alison, Last Ones Out and now The Recce. Having seen most of her feature films, one can be forgiven for thinking you know her, testament to her terrific ability to bring you alongside her characters.

Her latest film, a war drama called The Recce (opens nationwide 28 September), directed by Ferdinand Van Zyl, finds her playing Nicola Viljoen, a wife struggling with the idea that her combatant husband may not return home. Spling caught up with Visser to find out more...

How did you come to be involved in this project?

I auditioned.

Can you tell us a bit about your character - was there any resonance for you?

I play the role of Nicola Viljoen, the wife of the recce, Henk. There was a lot of resonance for me. Nicola is an incredibly strong woman, she has her own opinions about the war, she's not oblivious at all... she fights for her husband and unborn child, for love. She is so many women that I know.

The Recce - Nicola Viljoen

How did you prepare for the role?

That is always a difficult question as I don't have a recipe. For Nicola, I used the unknown to fuel her fear, everything she does not know about the war and exactly what happens there... like me, she's only heard stories.

What did you learn from your time shooting The Recce? Would you be interested in doing more war films of this nature, why?

I think every time you shoot on a different project, you work with new people, you push yourself a little further and you learn... I don't think it's something you can necessarily pinpoint or put into words. I have to say that The Recce was a beautiful experience for me, it's amazing to work with a group of people you admire and trust.

Yes, all stories deserve to be told and no one is ever exactly like the other.

It looks like a labour of love involving blood, sweat, mud and tears - what was the most challenging aspect of your performance?

Most challenging for me personally was playing a pregnant woman, I've never been pregnant, so I had to remind myself constantly that there's life inside me... I had to learn to move differently and feel different... the extra weight helped for the most part.

The Recce - Nicola Viljoen

What is your most cherished memory from ‘The Recce’?

Playing in a sprinkler with Greg Kriek... we had so much fun doing the flashback scenes, we got to drink lemonade and chase each other around the yard, like kids!

What do you think audiences will take away from the experience?

I think it'll bring a deeper sense of understanding. The film jumps into the deep emotional side of war, a side we try to overlook as humans. I may never know what my family members went through... I can only try my utmost to understand.

You've undertaken a number of challenging roles... do you feel that these performances help you grow as a person?

Definitely... I get to go to places Christia would never go... it gives me a better understanding of myself and others... I get to test my limits every time.

You seem to live and breathe through your characters, how do you shake off some of the more intense ones?

Sometimes it takes time to shake it off, but for me, the trick is to let it be what it is, don't force it out, live it out... I am also extremely fortunate to have incredibly supportive family and friends, they always remind me who I really am and they are patient with me.

What's next for Christia Visser?

There are some exciting new ventures happening later this year... I can't share details yet, but all in good time.

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