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Interview with Antony Spina about The Programme

By: Darida Rose

We have the pleasure today to be speaking with Antony Spina, the writer, director and producer of The Programme. This film is a fictional documentary about a program to ‘cure’ inmates in the overcrowded and dangerous prisons of the near-future.

Darida Rose, Phoenix Journal (PJ): What inspired you to write this film?

Antony Spina (AS): The inspiration for the film came from having seen a few documentaries on prisons actually. Simply out the fact that I do love a good, gritty documentary. It was over the course of a year or so, and I never intended on watching any of them in the hopes of coming up with an idea for a story at all. That part just seemed to happen all on its own. In one of the first that I sat down to watch, and even though it wasn't the main focus of the documentary, I couldn't help but notice how bad the actual running of the prison was. This must have been something that stuck in my mind, because I was noticing the same issues popping up one after the other in every documentary. Whether it be: prison funding, lack of staff, lake of structure, overcrowding or anything else. Every one of the different prisons or jails I saw seemed to be suffering with at least some of the same general issues. I'm not sure exactly why it happened but from there my imagination just took over. And I suddenly started to imagine crazy 'What if?' situations in my head, based off of some of the bits I'd seen. Not long after that while I happened to be away on holiday, the next thing I knew, instead of being on the beach working on a tan I desperately needed, I was back at the apartment putting pen to paper and writing the script.

(PJ): Did you always intend for it to be a documentary style film?

(AS): Yes, I did. I knew right from the get-go that I never wanted it to be filmed any other way really. The idea came from watching documentaries, and I felt that the only way to do the film justice was to stick to that same theme. I don't think all fictional stories would necessarily suit being made in the documentary style, but as this one is based off an element of truth, I think it works really well and makes the whole story that much more gripping. Even right at the early stages before I'd actually written anything down, while my crazy imagination was doing what it does. I always pictured each scene playing out like a documentary and glad I stuck with it.

(PJ): I got the impression that you weren’t trying to condemn ‘the system’ in this film the way, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest or A Clockwork Orange seem to. Is that right? Were you trying to present a balanced case for ‘the program’? Or perhaps I’m mistaken.

(AS): That's exactly right. Because the film is played out in the documentary style as it is, I wanted to really stick to going down that road, and keep it as unbiased as possible. So even though I wrote the feelings and opinions of every character in the film, I tried to keep a broad spectrum of those characters wherever I could. Plus, the serious issues in the film, just happen to reflect the very real issues in today's prison systems around the western world. And I'm sure they're not the easiest problems to fix. I didn't want to simply lay the blame at just anyone's door, but thought it better to point out some of the problems that exist using in the extreme examples in the film. And from there let people mind's start turning on their own.

(PJ): Would you implement ‘the programme’ if you could?

(AS): Oooo - Now that's a tough one. I did a lot of research for this film before I really got my teeth stuck into it. But I reckon if I had to answer that question, I have to do a hell of lot more before I could give you even a semblance of a "YES" or "NO". I'd like to think 'The Programme' is an extreme example of what could happen in a future if we don't really start to think about these things now. Hopefully if enough people see it, then my film might get people to start looking at the issues at hand, and something as serious as 'The Programme' will never be needed.

(PJ): Do you think something like ‘the programme’ might be on the horizon?

(AS): I hope not, but yes, I think it could be a stark possibility for the future. If for example, for a moment we focus on only one point out of the many, and just for a second talk about the money side of things. Well prisons are expensive to run. And getting more and more expensive all the time. Whether you have prisons that do things the old school way or the more new-age, modern styles prisons with modern notions on reform. They still cost a hell of a lot, and that money has to come from somewhere. Usually tax. Obviously, there's lots of different opinions out there, and I'm not saying this is mine. But if you were to simplify it down, you could say there's an argument to be made that a lot of people don't really care how prisoners are treated. And just want them locked up somewhere and kept as quiet and as far away as possible. But those people who might feel like that, still have to pay through taxes to incarcerate the prisoners and essentially keep them. That's money coming out of the pockets of law-abiding citizens to make sure all those "bad" men and women, are all washed and fed. Given clothes and blankets and kept warm and safe. And that's before we look at the cost to reform and help any of them. And again, this is a generalisation but a lot of those people will want that tax to be as cheap as possible. If prisoners cause problems, damage things or each other. Or generally just run amuck, in the long run that's going to keep costs increasing more and more. And of course, people won't like that. Something extreme like the example in my film, would probably be designed with low costs in mind while being a long solution. If in the future something like 'The Programme' was ever to be suggested by a politician out there, it might come with the tag line "Let's do prisons the right way - and start saving you money". And something like that might be very appealing to the masses, and therefore could very much become a reality someday.

(PJ): What was the production process like? Did anything unexpected happen while you were shooting?

(AS): I didn't have much in the way of budget for this film as all the costs were coming out of my own pocket. So, knowing that this essentially meant I'd have to be wearing many hats and doing many different jobs, I tried to get ahead as best I could. This meant so much effort went into doing as much pre-planning and as many reckies as possible. And going over and over the planning again and again so I knew exactly how, where and when we were going to shoot whatever we were going to shoot. But still even with all the pre-planning many unexpected things happened on this project. Things from actors turning up not knowing one word of their lines, to DOP's cancelling the night before a shoot. To turning up first thing in the morning with a full cast and crew only to find we'd been locked out of the studio somehow. But it's when things go wrong like that that, that's when you learn firstly what sort of a director you really are, and secondly how to be even better at it. There were certainly some very crazy moments but a lot of fun ones too, and overall, I'm so, so proud of the result.

(PJ): One of the ‘prisoners’ spoke about the widespread availability of illegal drugs in prison. Were you trying to draw some sort of parallel between street drugs and ‘the program’?

(AS): In a manner of speaking yes. In all that research I did for this film, something I saw again and again in other documentaries, some older some a little newer, and from as far as South America to Europe, was just how wide spread drugs were within the prison system. Admittedly some worse than others but there nonetheless. One documentary that focused on a prison here in the UK really did catch site of a bunch of inmates smocking drugs on landings outside their cells in plain view of all. And when the documentary team confronted the guards about it, they admitted they simply didn't have the man power to do anything. Someone went as far as to say that taking the drugs away from them would in fact be a step in the wrong direction. They went on to explain that once any withdrawal symptoms set in, a lot of those inmates would systematically turn to violence, and cause even more problems. Whether drugs in prison are being used for recreational purposes or simply as currency between the inmates, clearly this is a big problem that leads to a serious lack of control and takes away any notion of a structured reform plan. So yes, I for one certainly think there is a parallel there.

(PJ): Could you tell us about any future projects you’re working on?

(AS): My next project is currently called 'Promises of Betrayal' and is a very different beast compared to both my last films, 'Sad Little Boy' and 'The Programme'. This one is a thriller about someone who's tricked into murder. It's actually an idea I came up with ages ago, and I've been working on bit by bit for a long while now. I won't say any more as I don't want to give too much away. But I will say I'm about 80% - 90% through the script now and so far, I'm absolutely loving it. Fingers crossed everyone else will too.



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