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SIVES, JAMIE: WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF

HOW JAMIE - FINALLY - MET LONE 
In Jamie Sives’ first leading role, he plays the suicidal Wilbur, in Lone Scherfig’s quirky romantic comedy set in Glasgow, about two brothers and a young woman who changes their lives. But Sives had to criss-cross Europe to meet up with Scherfig and land the role, he explains to Andrew L. Urban.


It was to be his first leading role in a feature film, playing the title role of Wilbur, but at first it looked like fate was conspiring against young Scottish actor Jamie Sives. Although his casting agent offered to pay for the trip to Copenhagen to meet the film’s writer/director, Lone Scherfig, Sives had to abandon the trip as Scherfig was called away from Copenhagen. Sives was living in Madrid at the time (more on that later) but his casting director (Des Hamilton) was in England – and still keen to set up a meeting. 

“We rearranged things so we’d meet in London, and I got there, but something went wrong again; I thought I was going to lose the chance of the job, actually,” he says with that unmistakable Scottish brogue, acquired from his native Edinburgh. 

“So I read a bit from the script on camera, with Des, and they sent that tape over to Lone. When she got it she said OK, let’s get this meeting happening, I’m in Copenhagen now…and staying here for a couple of hours, so get him over here.” Sives laughs. In the meantime he had gone back to Madrid, but jumped on the next plane to Copenhagen. It had been almost three weeks since the first attempt to meet in Copenhagen.

"a touch of shyness or reserve"

Sives (pronounced a bit like the plural of the cooking implement, sieves; originally a French name), is an amiable lad, relaxed but with a touch of shyness or reserve. He leans back on the small lounge inside the Sydney nerve centre of Icon Distribution which handles Wilbur in Australia and shares space with the talent-heavy agency, Shanahans. The room is clearly set up for casting sessions, serviced by a large TV and associated video and DVD players, the smart lounge (not a casting couch), armchairs and a coffee table. 

There is no mention of jet lag from Sives, even though he is passing through Australia in just a matter of days. “I was coming here on a private visit,” he says, “and they asked me to do some publicity for Wilbur…”

If Sives sounds like a gypsy, he’s perfectly happy to wear the label. He had moved to Madrid “just because I’d had enough of London…I’d been in London for seven years and needed a break.” A bit more probing and he reveals that apart from being a fan of Spanish life – “Madrid in particular is great” - he is also a very keen follower of soccer, which also explains Madrid. Now, he’s back home in Edinburgh, which he refers to as ‘the sunshine coast’. Everything is relative. “You don’t get horizontal rain there, like you do in Glasgow,” he adds with a grin.

Lone Scherfig’s original and engaging film Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is a subtle and surprisingly amusing story about two brothers: the incurably suicidal Wilbur (Sives) and his optimistic older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins). They shuffle through their life as they shuffle through the Glasgow bookshop they inherited from their father. Harbour urges Wilbur to move in with him at the flat above the shop, and find a girlfriend in the hope of snapping his brother out of his tendency. But when a customer, Alice (Shirley Henderson) and her little daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay), snuggle into their lives, a new momentum begins to alter their destinies, in ways none of them could have foreseen.

"Why does Danish filmmaker make an English language film, and why set in Scotland?"

Scherfig’s previous film, Italian For Beginners, was a totally different piece of work, made under the Dogme rules of filmmaking. Here, she abandons Dogme but retained – indeed, enhanced – the melancholy tone. Why does Danish filmmaker make an English language film, and why set in Scotland? Scherfig told Screen International it was because she believes “it is unavoidable that more and more films will be made in English. Though I do get some English language scripts and read them all, it has to be exceptionally good for me to go abroad. Working in Denmark is perfect. I have a freedom and a competence [of crew] that I couldn’t get anywhere else and if I can make an international film here in English, why should I sign off my good, warm bed, my final cut and my right to be both writer and director.” (Scherfig co-wrote Wilbur with Anders Thomas Jensen.)

Sives developed a strong professional bond with Scherfig. “She’s a lovely person, very caring and into family [she is married and has a young daughter]. We just sort of hit it off. She’s great to be around, over and above the business. She’s a very clever filmmaker; she knows what she’s doing. She’s very open to ideas – while she has a vision, nothing is carved in stone. Consequently, doing Wilbur was like nothing else I’d done; it was a really creative process, rather like theatre work. So we were always discovering things and trying things.”

Sives was also impressed with Scherfig’s ability to shield the cast and crew from pressures exerted on her by producers and financiers. “The buck stops with her, so the atmosphere was always positive.”

What appealed to Sives at first glance of the script was that while it was set in Glasgow, “it had this Scandinavian quirkiness . . . things are often left unsaid. Or something is mentioned but it goes no further. There’s nothing overtly Scottish about it – it’s certainly not a slice of Glasgow life.”

"Wilbur’s suicidal tendencies are a story device"

And Sives is keen to point out that suicide is not the film’s theme; if anything, it’s a quirky romantic comedy, and Wilbur’s suicidal tendencies are a story device. “I didn’t want to tackle that huge desperate subject that is suicide, probably for fear of putting myself in the position of having to talk about it all the time. I have a couple of late friends who have in fact committed suicide and it’s just not area I want to go into.” Sives says this by way of explaining why he steered away from playing the role for all it’s worth in dramatic terms. Which in turn explains why the film is unexpectedley warm, funny and resonant with humanity, not depression.

Published July 31, 2003

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