State of Transformation

British director Aneil Karia was nominated for a BAFTA for his 2017 short film Work and this year won a British Independent Film Award for Best British Short for The Long Goodbye. He makes his feature debut with Surge, starring Ben Whishaw as Joseph, an airport security guard who undergoes a life-changing 24-hour odyssey.

ASFF: You made a short film, 2013’s Beat, with Ben Whishaw. Did Surge grow out of this?
AK: Surge definitely wasn’t a feature version of the film, or a proof of concept. But if you look at it, you’d see that it’s definitely exploring similar themes. And Surge was the launch pad, I suppose, for the feature. That was the first time Ben and I met. And we both really got a lot out of making that short film. Even though he was starting to do enormous films – I think he’d just become Q and done Cloud Atlas – such is his nature, he really is just about the material. The development period was quite slow at first, and then it sped up a bit, over the course of many years. And even though Ben wasn’t at meetings, we’d always meet up and I talked to him about where it was and he read many different incarnations of the script and he would feed in and it was quite a personal journey in a way. I guess this is true of many people making their first film but it was a really wonderful feeling when we finally were on set making it because it had been a long time coming.

ASFF: What themes did you bring from Beat into Surge?
I think the thing Beat was exploring that I wanted to explore in a bigger way with Surge was this unwritten social contract that we’ve maybe unwittingly signed up to over the decades: how we are supposed to behave within society, how we are supposed to move and use our bodies and how we’re supposed to interact with people and how we’re supposed to repress instincts and mould ourselves into this way of being? And it seems to me that we’ve dramatically repressed a lot of the primal animal instincts about how we behave. You don’t have to be an anthropologist, I suppose, to know that we’ve come a long way from tribal living. And the city seems to be the crystallisation of that chasm between how we were and how we are. I just wanted to make a film about somebody where that was weighing very heavily on them. And what it looked like for somebody to start scratching underneath that and start slowly tearing up the contract and giving into impulses and using that body in the way that they wanted to.

ASFF: Ben’s performance is remarkable. Can you talk about how much he gave for the role?
I think emotionally and also physically, he gives everything and that’s why I feel – without being glib – so lucky to have an actor like that. He completely relished the way we went about it. There were certain lo-fi things about how we made this film, but he was buzzing off those rather than them being a hindrance. He gave everything and it is about a character being stripped bare and rebuilding themselves again. And he went there, he really did. From him and the DoP, I think physically, it was a massive endurance test.

ASFF: A lot of critics have compared your work to the Safdie brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems. Can you see the comparisons?
There’s definitely been a lot of Safdie mentions in reviews, for better and worse. They weren’t inspirations, as such, because I saw them way, way, way down the line. To an extent, I’ve always just been driven towards this kind of energetic way of shooting and trying to capture energy and tension. So I love those films. I absolutely love them. I didn’t see Uncut Gems until more recently, but I had seen Good Time.

ASFF: One scene in particular shows Joseph visiting his parents, a very sterile environment. What was your thinking there?

AK: I thought it was really important to literally see where this person has come from. There is something deeply tragic about how Joseph begins this film. It’s a very isolated existence that seems to be fizzing with unease, in how he in his body and how he lives in the world and operates at his workplace. And, actually, this lonely, anxiety-ridden existence is not extreme at all. I think there’s hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world living this invisible, inwardly bound experience. But I wanted to investigate what formed that and loosely, I wanted to see a family home that was, in a sense, barren of emotional openness – a very kind of emotionally closed place.

Surge is available in cinemas and on demand from 28 May. For more details click here.

Words: James Mottram