The Awkward Silence’s Extraordinary Rendition of The Mauritanian: Interview

The Awkward Silence’s Extraordinary Rendition of The Mauritanian is Ralph Jones’ fast-paced take on ‘the riveting and emotionally compelling true story of courage and survival against all odds’.

The spoof went on to win Best Male Actor – for both Ralph Jones and Vyvyan almond – and Best Writing.

We spoke to the duo about their experience.

How did you find out about the DAFTAS

Ralph: I think it was through the Comedy Crowd Newsletter, which is a newsletter about competitions and job offers and things like that. It seemed like a very approachable and accessible competition. Doing a parody of a BAFTA nominated film felt like an irresistible prospect. We waited a while to find out which film we would be given and then waited even longer to access the film. We thought it was probably a good idea to actually watch the film.

Vyvyan: We did agree on that one. The first I heard of it was you (Ralph) coming to me and telling me about it. There was a very serious period of us going away individually and watching the film. God, it was just terrible, because the first few scenes of the film are all in Arabic and quite intense. So, as soon as we started watching we were like “lets get ready for things that we can make fun of”…. Nope! None of this. Can’t touch that. Oh, it’s Guantanamo Bay now!

R: So we had to work quite hard to find our angle and be careful not to step into too dodgy territory with regards to people who people who have been unlawfully detained in Guantanamo Bay. That was the detail, but of course in general the whole process was fantastic. Going to watch the films in London and feeling part of that creative community, in what were extremely weird circumstances. I think that was the first time that we had seen each other in months, because it was around that time when you weren’t even allowed to leave your house without being shot. We were grateful to be out in the open air again. It’s not often that you have to meet such a specific brief, it was clear what was required of us, in a way that focuses the mind. When someone says here’s your film, you have 6 minutes to spoof it was refreshing.

Did you have a particular film that you wanted or were you hoping for the Mauritanian?

V: I’m embarrassed because I don’t even think I knew what was out at the time.

R: One of the lower films on the list was probably the Mauritanian. I thought we pulled quite a challenge. I would have liked to have done the Trial of the Chicago 7 because that was in a courtroom which would have been fun to play with the tripes and the stereotypes of that environment. There were loads of entries for Nomadland, which won Best Picture in the end. But no, we didn’t really mind and in the end I think the Mauritanian ended up being quite a good one to parody because it did take itself very seriously and there also lots of funny voices.

V: Yes, it did take itself very seriously to the point where you could start to poke fun at it purely for that. We thought we could probably make fun of the actual message of the film, can we tackle the film on its own terms. I wanted to push it to be a satire of American self-perception. Of course, Ralph reminded me not to overdo that as it was supposed to comedy.

Yes, you don’t want to toy too much with controversial topics. As for the patriotic aspect of the film you certainly played that up well.

V: Of the serious topics of the film that was definitely the safer one to go with. I think the crimes themselves would have been so hard to tackle, but the self-important ideals of American justice and the totally self-referential framework that they were working with. I think its in there, that was wrong with these actions was that they were against an imagined American code-of-conduct, that they were breaking their own rules. That seemed very open for satire.

You watch films, like Zero Dark Thirty which just seems a bit lacking in self-awareness or questioning. They’re relatively happy to watch films about how they are, fundamentally, great. And, you only really have questioning within that system. Americans can ask themselves, is our administration deviating from the path of true American ideals. I don’t know if they’re so happy having that done by third parties, or if they are open to being held to wider or more international idea of morality.

Do you think nowadays it’s more difficult to poke fun at controversial topics?

R: I think it’s kind of easier, arguably, because you’ve got more of a platform. There are less gate-keepers telling you that you can or can not broadcast something. You can of course still be held accountable, you could release something at your own expense which could be a very controversial video. There would now be an audience, whereas in the old days it would be much harder to broadcast that.

There would be some people wanting to ban the cinema release of it, for example. Nowadays, cinematic releases are probably less likely to be seen by more people than a popular youtube, so that raises lots of questions about how YouTube and things like that should be policed.

I think people also nowadays want to generate as much interest as they can in quite a crowded market, and if that is going for a controversial topic. It’s just that sometimes they get it right and sometimes it’s quite the opposite. In making this film, as Vyvyan says, we were making fun of something, but it wasn’t for the sake of being outrageous it was finding the things that we could make fun of in a silly way. Such as the way that everything is redacted and no one can read anything, everything is blacked over with a marker pen. That felt very spoofable without being too dangerous. In terms of mocking powerful targets that was more getting people to question the narrative of the American characters in the film. If you tried to mock Mohamedou, or the idea of being tortured you would soon find that there was nothing there particularly amusing.

V: As comedians, we always talk about punching up versus punching down, don’t we? I think definitely going after the people behind the film and the perceptions of them was punching up. You couldn’t really punch down more than against victims of torture, could you? I do think Id like to shy away from the question as a group, because I don’t think we’ve ever made anything controversial these days. We have never suffered from not being able to put out controversial material because we tend to go for much more surreal and dafter stuff. As far as we can, our work won’t offend anyone. We’ve never really been satirical, except in the mildest possible way. We’ve got another project which is all set in a Catholic confessional, and we’ve really given the religion or any of the serious subjects there quite a wide berth. 

R: I think I’m probably getting less edgy as I increasibgly approach middle age. I think sketch comedy is certainly a great medium for tackling controversial subjects and maybe I wish I had tackled more of it. But it can feel quite strained, if you have to really fight to make a point that might overshadow the comedy. We always put the comedy first in our work, there is that phenomenon of people tackling serious topics and coming across as making a good serious point and then going back to doing the comedy. In other words, it can be difficult to make those points through comedy.

Sometimes, in stand-up you find that there’s actually a bit of a break while they make their point, but the laughs are not necessarily easy to come by. My favourite film of all time, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and because it’s so good on the organised religion mentality it makes you think how is it possible to do it better than that? Nevertheless, we are certainly not political sketch comedians however that could be a branch that we pursue as we become increasingly desperate for money!

Yes, anything done in good taste is alright. Your spoof is definitely not mortally offensive to anyone, I don’t think

R: Well it should be a little bit offensive to anyone in a senior position in the US military-industrial complex

V: Of course, those are the guys who are going to see our spoof! We’ve sent it to the Pentagon and to the White House. We’re hoping they’ll come back quite angry.

(L-R) Vyvyan Almond and Ralph Jones The Awkward Silence

Well you won Best Male Actor and Best Writing so they must have heard of you!

V: If they’re not following the DAFTAS, are they even alive? They just call themselves people.

You’ll get put on the blacklist soon

V: That is the hope. I would love to be banned from entering US, I would love to go of course but it would be more clout.

Exactly. Have you seen any of the BAFTAS longlist this year? No Time to Die is on there, as is Belfast and West Side Story.

V: West Side Story would be a lovely one to do. Everyone must have something up there sleeve with the old one which just got too old to do anything with. An update you could go to town on

R: This year sounds a lot better than last year. Bond, West Side Story are totally open. You want big, familiar understandable ideas for you to run away and have fun with. It’s difficult when you have small and domestic human dramas. There are fewer of those broad decisions to make fun of. Bond has obviously been parodied to death.

V: Bond was traditionally a parody of itself even! But something like Belfast, everyone loves to do an accent. Something like French Dispatch, whether its on there or not, again the Wes Anderson style is brilliant. The mood and attitude is so distinct it would be a lot of fun to play with

The Leo movie, Don’t Look Up is on there as well. That would be good to do.

R: Big ideas indeed. They feel very fertile. We should have entered this year.

If you could do any film, within the DAFTAS parameters of 2 days and 6 minutes, which would you choose?

R: This isn’t necessarily the Holy Grail but one that springs to mind because I saw it recently but something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy where you have very conscious stylistic decisions and also a very lovely sense of high-stakes drama and big characters. Very consequential subject matter. Guys meeting next to ponds and on park benches and in cold forests. All the language that comes with those spy films is delicious.

The suits and costumes would be fun to play with as well. Bond and stuff like that is actually quite difficult on a budget. There’s guns and actions scenes etc. You have to be quite confident in your choreography and your actions to do that. It’s not where we gravitate to naturally.

V: No, we tend to focus on the bits of dialogue and what’s happened off screen. I don’t know, but I’d like to do a Marvel cinematic universe having just seen the last Avengers having not seen any of the films that lead up to it and therefore not understanding any of it, and being incredibly hungover. I’d like to spoof a beloved franchise from the perspective of someone who doesn’t really understand it or is into it in that way. I’d like to do a film just entirely of cameos of characters that audience have never seen before and that I’ve just made up! And everyone is supposed to think they’re fantastic.

R: I think with parody its really difficult, because there are many things that feel very tempting to parody and you would gravitate to straight away. But of course that tends to be what millions of people think. What was so good about the DAFTAS brief is that instead of doing a style of film, it got rid of stabs at certain genres and it was better for the comedy.

V: Everyone would have just done Film Noir!

R: A lot of these films have been parodied so many times, that it’s difficult to stand out. Like alongside Austin Powers, which of course did amazingly well, but there would have been just tons of people making Bond parodies, hoping to get a cinematic release but failing because it was just not unique.

V: Imagine how bad they would have had to be to lose out to Austin Powers?

R: How dare you!

Austin Powers is great! Just logistically, how easy was it to fit a full length feature into just 6 minutes.

V: The film made it easy for us by including lots of things that we couldn’t go near. At first we just went though and sorted out the bits that we could make fun of and what we could not, and then just trying to fit them into the time available. How long did we need to spend on those ideas to get our point across. Logistics wise, we were thinking about which of the locations did we have access to and would offer the best and biggest range in relation to the scenes we were trying to film. In the end it was basically my house, as like lots of London the architecture is very diverse in my area. 

R: Yeah, we had barbed wire around there, which was already about 100 yards away. It looked a dead-ringer for us. One thing on the style we chose is that we basically made a 6 minute trailer for the film. We didn’t try to make a linear story for our film, unlike a lot of the other films. We wanted to prioritise the gags and the parody, and isolating those moments to try and pack in as many jokes as we could.

We started with Mohamedou entering Gitmo and then ended with him being released, but really we weren’t trying to tell a new version of the story. We wanted to retell the story with a comic tone of voice. I think it intentionally came across as a trailer. We haven’t really mentioned Rob, who was the director. It was the first time we had worked with him on anything, and we all ended up winning these awards! It was a very satisfying first expedition I think.

V: He was really keen on the idea of a trailer format. Having him editing it was crucial. It really helped with pace and style of the film.

R: Rob is probably more of a movie buff than either of us two. His sense of pace and understanding of film was superior.

V: We’re just the idea people. But he knows what people that makes them look that way and what you need to copy to achieve the same effect.

How did you guys film it, some people used iPhones and others proper cameras?

V: We had a professional involved and were able to use Rob’s cameras which were quite high-end. We filmed independently on the 2nd day so used our phones then. I would recommend a tripod for that, it was very useful.

R: I think the camera Rob used was a Sony A7iii, with all the shots that looked really cool. At home I was using an iPad which was actually really good, its picture quality is very good. It was a combination of a few devices which made a nice tapestry in the end.

Did you feel a bit squeezed in the 2-day parameters?

V: Yes, it was tight. There was some stuff that we had to drop, partly because it wasn’t going to make the cut but also because it just wouldn’t be feasible in the time that we had. 

R: I was running around my house wearing various dresses and scarves and necklaces. It was definitely a tight window to do it in. I’m a fan of that sort of thing, it forces you to make something concrete by the end of it and to focus the mind. It was in the middle of Summer I believe and I was sweating a hell of a lot.

V: It makes you keep it simple as well. If you have too much time you end up trying to achieve absurd things. But, when you know that won’t be possible you stop worrying about that and it can be quite freeing. 

Do you guys have any upcoming projects? 

R: We have a sketch-comedy act called The Awkward Silence. We’ve been shortlisted for a few awards, including a Writers’ Guild Award, but we don’t go on about it. We’re currently working on a musical (The Awkward Silence’s Big Break), as well as an online series and a podcast called Mea Culpa.

Anything you wanted to add, or shall we wrap it up?

V: Nothing much to add except it was a really fun thing to be involved in. I would also like to compliment someone on the production value of the trophies at some point. They were really nicely produced!

Words by: Louis Inglis

Photos: © The Awkward Silence

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