Interview - Lost Angels director Thomas Napper

Posted on: 06 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

You've read the review, now meet Lost Angels director Thomas Napper

As Thomas reveals, this documentary gives the 'Row a proper hearing at last

Following Lost Angels' recent showing in London as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, director Thomas Napper very kindly answered some of our questions:

Thomas, please begin by introducing yourself.

Hello! This is funny to do, I'm not sure how to respond to that! I'm an English person. I'm a director. I've made a film about Skid Row in LA called Lost Angels and its showing tonight in London at the Ritzy in Brixton at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. I'm quite nervous because its Thursday night and my mum is coming to see it after two years in the making. 

How did you get involved in film-making?

I always thought I would be a painter like my dad and my brother, but i went to art school to study painting and my friend Mus Mehmet gave me a super 8 camera to play with, that was the end of painting and the beginning of my love affair with the moving image. 

I started directing music video's when I left St. Martin's and worked at that for a few years through Oil Factory Films. It was a great way to learn and get all the toys out of the box. I started doing commercials and then in 2004 started to work with my old friend Joe Wright on his first feature Pride & Prejudice. I have done 2nd unit on all his movies and still make commercials. Long answer – sorry!

Now let's discuss your documentary "Lost Angels" - why did you decide to make it?

I decided to make Lost Angels when we got to LA to shoot The Soloist in 2008. We were working with the community, and particularly LAMP, which is a mental health facility on Skid Row. We met all these amazing characters who were so full of life and experience, very free of bullshit. So when the movie finished I stayed on Skid Row and started to make the documentary. It became a two year journey into the lives of the homeless, homed, and mentally ill people that live on Skid Row, it was really quite a powerful experience. 

How did you go about making it?

Well initially raising the money, which was a bit of a process, so I won't go into it here. But once I had the funding, I found a producer who had done a lot of street docs in the US: Agi Orsi, who made "Dogtown and Z-Boys". She surrounded me with very experienced crew and personnel. Then the process was working out how to film on the streets of Skid Row which was pretty daunting and frankly quite scary. Excuse my spelling, it can be a bit emotional. We decided to be up front and just use a large HD camera that looked big and professional, which gave people a clear understanding that we were shooting. 

That was really the approach, but I was so worried about safety -both my own and my crew's - so we had a lot of skid row crew and point men all around us when we were shooting. The backbone and the heart of the film are the interviews which I did with the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted, the drug dealers, prostitutes, gang bangers, everyone was welcome and I was just trying to find my feet in a place that most people are terrified of even driving through. 

What's your personal take on the end product?

Well I'm very proud of making a film full stop, it's been the most extraordinary journey creatively and spiritually. I made the film for the people of Skid Row: It was their approval that I wanted, and so, very early in the edit process, I started to bring my friends from there into a screening room to see what was going on, and very quickly we realised that we were speaking for them in a way they liked... Well, actually, that's wrong - we were really giving a voice to the people that rarely get a chance to tell their stories or to be seen. 

That was very powerful and very humbling. My personal take on it is that we made a film that we are all proud of, it's a massive team effort and as a team I think we feel that we have done something worthwhile and that helps people understand mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness in a different way, and hopefully removes some of the stigma.

The gap in wealth throughout the US (and let's be honest, the UK) is growing. Do you think 'Lost Angels' represents the future of America?

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, I know that there are 40 million people living in America below the poverty line and that 3.5 million homeless is a staggering statistic. The average age of those homeless is 9. I will just say that poverty in America is very real and Skid Row represents a large amount of people.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Thank you very much for your time...

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Alexander Hay

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