Just Jim director Craig Roberts on still being a ‘nerd’

Craig Roberts in Just Jim, which riffs on Rebel Without A Cause. Picture: Contributed
Craig Roberts in Just Jim, which riffs on Rebel Without A Cause. Picture: Contributed
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CRAIG Roberts reveals why he draws on the more dismal aspects of growing up for his directorial debut

FOUR years ago, Craig Roberts surfaced in Submarine as an intense, duffel-coated teen in Richard Ayoade’s coming-of-age comedy. He was pegged as an overnight success, but Roberts had been acting since he was a child, encouraged by parents who wanted to wean him away from hours with his Xbox. “I was a bit of a geek and not very good at school, so they sent me to drama classes,” says Roberts, now a softly spoken 24-year-old. “Acting changed my life.”

Roberts revisits awkward adolescence with Just Jim, which he wrote, directed and stars in as an awkward teenager in a small town, befriended by the cooler, subversively hip American Dean, played by Emile Hirsch, star of Into The Wild.

Just Jim has been on Roberts’ mind for some time. A few years ago he started jotting down memories of growing up in Maesycwmmer in Caerphilly; the boredom, the school bully who liked to put victims in a headlock and force-feed them, the pretty local viaduct which people occasionally jumped off. “There’s not a lot happens in Maesycwmmer; we’ve got two Chinese takeaways and a charity shop. There’s not a lot going on, so in a Roy Andersson way, I thought there was some humour in this, as well as a dark side.”

He finally sat down and wrote his first draft of Just Jim in a week. “And it made no bloody sense, it was like a sequence from Twin Peaks. So I did a bunch more drafts on it.

“The hardest thing was showing the script to other people. I discovered you’ve got to be really choosy about who you show it to, because if it’s the wrong people then it can be a disaster. And if you show it to too many people that can be bad – because it’s your voice – and if too many people have a say then you’re not making the movie you wanted to make.”

Roberts’ observations on a place where “the people look miserable but sound happy” digs into autobiography, especially its dismal teenage birthday. “One year I threw a party in a community hall and just three people turned up – and not the three people I was hoping. After that I decided I was never celebrating a birthday again, I was so fed up.”

With his slight frame and huge eyes, Roberts still looks like he has just left school. “I get ID-ed wherever I go. And playing a 17-year-old was easy because I remember it all very well. It was very boring for me. I still feel very young, I don’t think I’ve progressed beyond 16. I’m still a nerd. I’m still not cool.”

Surely the difference between Jim and Roberts was that Roberts’ acting work could be viewed as an enviable line of work by his peers. “I was in children’s TV! I did Tracy Beaker and Young Dracula,” he sniggers. “Tracy Beaker? No, they were not impressed.”

Another surprise is that despite his acting background, Roberts came late to movies. Growing up, Kubrick and Hitchcock were the only names he was aware of, he says.

Now movies are a passion, and their influence is a recurrent theme in Just Jim, from the consolation of burrowing into a fleapit cinema, to scene setups that consciously recall Roberts’ favourite picture, The Conformist. And naturally the central relationship between James and Dean riffs on Rebel Without A Cause, down to the trademark red jacket.

“In a way it’s me putting my frustrations out there about films now,” says Roberts. “Movies like Taxi Driver don’t get made. Even epic movies like Shawshank Redemption don’t get made now, or Goodfellas. To me, the closest thing to any of Scorsese’s films is Nightcrawler, a really good film that was very close to King Of Comedy.”

The movie was shot on a budget of £300,000 in Maesycwmmer, with the producers staying with Roberts’ nan; “It felt right to base it here, although it was a bit surreal visiting all the old hangouts and film where I used to go as a kid. People gave us their houses for locations, and we shot in my old secondary school. It’s probably the happiest I’ve ever felt, I was so grateful that people were coming together to make this film.”

Although it’s his directorial debut, Roberts was able to draw from a wide experience of working under blockbuster and budget directors of adult and adolescent dramas. After Submarine he appeared in Channel 4’s Skins, and BBC’s Casualty before reuniting with Ayoade for The Double. He’s also moved into Hollywood’s casting list, with the comedies 22 Jump Street with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, and Bad Neighbours with Zac Efron and Jason Segel. His first American series, the comedy Red Oaks, is on Amazon, while Kill Your Friends, based on the John Niven book about the cut-throat music industry in the 1990s, is due to hit cinemas in November. “I’ve worked with some cool people and been able to observe and take stuff from them. David Gordon Green on Red Oaks was just a pleasure to watch because he keeps morale up all the time. He taught me that everyone needs to be happy and enjoy what they’re doing. Richard Ayoade has a completely different approach, he was quiet but he would get the work done. And I worked with Tim Burton for a brief time, and he was incredible, how excited he was. You could see how when he was excited on set, everybody else was excited.”

Gordon Green also helped Roberts bag Hollywood actor Hirsch, who had worked with Green on the well-received budget indie film, Prince Avalanche. “Davy said, ‘You should get the script to Emile,’ so I sent it over without really thinking anything would come of it. But then I got a call from Emile. He said that he liked the script but the one question he had was, ‘What camera are you shooting on?’

“Because he knew it was low budget but he didn’t know if we were doing some sort of VHS, really bad recording of a movie, so once I reassured him, he came over.

“He’s a great actor, definitely up for anything, and he was pretty much in character for most of it, I couldn’t tell when he was being himself.”

Other performances did not make it to the final film, including the debuts of Roberts’ sister and mother. “They were so ready for it,” he says, regretfully. “I had a scene for my mum where Emile basically tries to chat her up, and calls her ‘sugar tits’ – and then we didn’t get to shoot it. Mum was pretty gutted.” n

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• Just Jim is on selected release from Friday