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More about Human Traffic

The party's over

Everyone had a blast making Human Traffic, especially its director. Now, three years on, the team behind it are at war. Xan Brooks reports

Friday October 18, 2002
The Guardian


Human Traffic
Human Traffic
 
The marketing man from VCI is plugging his company's latest release: a video and DVD reissue of Human Traffic. The work of rookie director Justin Kerrigan, Human Traffic made quite a splash when it debuted back in 1999. But this "remixed" version offers a big artistic overhaul. Various scenes have been scrapped, and others retrieved from the cutting-room floor. The soundtrack has been "modernised" with contemporary tracks, and several sequences come augmented with state-of-the-art CGI. So does this mean Human Traffic Remixed is the official director's cut of the movie? "Er, no," he says. "Because it wasn't cut by the director. It was cut by the producer." So it's the producer's cut? "Yes."

And therein lies the controversy. Because not only did Justin Kerrigan have nothing to do with VCI's "remix", he only learned that it was happening two weeks ago. Nor, he says, does he stand to benefit financially from its appearance. "I joke about it," he says. "How I signed over the copyright for
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a pound and then never even saw the pound." Instead, Human Traffic is the artistic property of Kerrigan's producer, erstwhile film-school tutor and all-round "mentor", Allan Niblo.

Until now, Human Traffic has appeared to be a rare British success story, a personal statement, independently financed on a thrift-shop budget that broke big in the world at large. Its production history is film-geek fantasy made fact: how 24-year-old Kerrigan fare-dodged between his Cardiff home and his Newport film school, hooked up with a sympathetic tutor and made a film based on his own lost weekends on the Welsh rave scene. Sure, the finished product was a little slapdash at times, a mite toe-curling in its loved-up naivety. But that was part of the appeal. For all the film's noisy showboating and rampant chemical indulgences, there was something eminently charming about it.

Shot on a budget of £340,000, Human Traffic wound up wringing a healthy £2.5m from the UK box office. It scooped 11 international awards, was nominated for a Bafta and landed Kerrigan a big-shot agent in ICM chairman Duncan Heath. Heath went on to sell the US distribution rights to Miramax, where Harvey Weinstein hailed the director as "one of the most exciting film-makers of his generation". For Kerrigan, the whole thing was "a dream come true".

By contrast, he makes the ensuing three years sound like a prolonged hangover. Kerrigan had a hit movie to his name, but little cash in his pocket. "Making Human Traffic was a very special experience, and I didn't do it for the money," he says. "When I finished I was £25,000 in debt. I've never made a penny from the film."

Clearly he regards the pending "remix" as the final straw. He's enraged that he wasn't consulted on changes to what he regards as his "definitive" cut of the film. He's also irked by Niblo's persistent attempts to get a Human Traffic sequel off the ground, again without the involvement of its original writer-director. "Legally I don't have a leg to stand on," he admits. "But I signed the contract because I was very naive and very broke. Now I'm just broke."

One might expect Kerrigan's agent, Duncan Heath, to provide a more measured clarification of Kerrigan's charges. Instead, he seems even more outraged. "What Allan Niblo did is incorrigible," he says down the phone from LA. "He added scenes without even having the decency to consult the director. What makes it all the more unpleasant is that Niblo was Justin's mentor. He was there to look after him."

Another person unhappy with Human Traffic Remixed is its star, John Simm. At the time of shooting, Simm was one of the cast's few familiar faces, fresh out of the BBC drama The Lakes. Since then, he's gone on to play New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in last year's 24 Hour Party People and headline the recent TV adaptation of Crime and Punishment. But he regards Human Traffic with a special affection. "The only reason I did Human Traffic was because of Justin," he says. "It was his baby. He lived that movie for years, and almost had a breakdown at the end of it. I'm not interested in seeing a producer's cut of the film." So why is this happening now? "I think it's just cynical exploitation. Niblo's people are flogging this thing to death. Last year they sent me a script for a sequel, which I put straight in the bin. It was called Let's 'Ave It, spelt like that, with no H." He laughs. "The mad thing is that I've not even been paid for the first one. I mean, pay me for the first one before you come and ask me to do the sequel." Simm admits that he was paid a nominal fee ("couple of hundred a week") for acting in the film. But he's still awaiting a bigger pay-day.

One of the great things about Human Traffic was its happy marriage of form with content. It was a film about a gang of friends that looked as though it had been made by a gang of friends; a work of wing-and-a-prayer ingenuity, with its participants slaving long hours on the understanding that they'd be rewarded if the film went into profit. Had Human Traffic crashed and burned, nobody would have regretted the experience. But its success has left its employees feeling short-changed, and wondering where the money got to. "Deferred payment schemes are always a bad idea," says Jonathan Rawlinson, production manager on Human Traffic and now director of the First Film Foundation, which provides support for first-time directors. "People are always citing Human Traffic as a success, except that it didn't repay its cast and crew. Even given the large chunk that exhibitors take off the top, it's still made a lot of money. But nobody's ever seen it."

Allan Niblo would dispute that. The producer claims that "the investment is still unrecouped" and adds that Kerrigan has been sent numerous financial breakdowns explaining this. While the film was a modest hit in the UK, he says, it fared spectacularly badly overseas. He dismisses claims that Remixed is a cynical cash-in by pointing out that the DVD features 80 minutes of previously unseen footage. "It's not exploitative," he says. "It's a quality product." As to Kerrigan's contract, Niblo insists it was a standard contract for a first-time director ("I take great offence at any suggestion that it was a stitch-up"). On a personal level, too, he feels hurt by the fall-out. "I taught Justin for three years. I was a father figure to him. I looked after him. I personally raised the money for Human Traffic when everyone else turned it down." He says that their relationship broke down almost as soon as shooting got underway. Since then, he claims to have offered Kerrigan an involvement in possible spin-off projects (including a mooted TV series) only to be rebuffed. "He can be very difficult to work with."

When asked why, Niblo hints that Kerrigan's "personal problems" may play a part. For evidence, he points to the fact that the director has conspicuously failed to capitalise on the film's success. "Justin had a golden opportunity after Human Traffic, and a deal with Miramax that paid him a lot of money. And what has he come up with? Nothing."

Indeed, Kerrigan has kept an almost subterranean profile of late. The director describes his Miramax deal as providing "a life-saver" while he's toiled on the script for his second film (about his late father), which he hopes to shoot next year. Flushed with the acclaim from Human Traffic, Kerrigan moved to London. He is now preparing to return to his native Cardiff. "I can't afford to live here any more," he says.

If Kerrigan is to be believed, he stands as a cautionary lesson for all wannabe directors who want to retain control over their work. Duncan Heath recommends that all young film-makers seek independent advice before they embark on a movie, "Get everything up-front straight away. Deal with the tricky stuff first, and the enjoyable stuff later on. There's a tendency to think, 'Oh, let's not worry about this now. We're friends.' And then it all gets rather messy." But Heath adds one further suggestion. "Never trust a mentor," he says.

Human Traffic Remixed (VCI) is released on DVD and video on Monday.




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