Sci-Fi Comedy Brian and Charles: Director and Stars Interview

Brian (a man) and Charles (a robot) sit together.

Image: Focus Features

The world can be a dark and awful place. But as Brian and Charles so delightfully explores, the power of friendship can perform miracles, even when that friendship gets stormy at times—and even when that friendship is between a lonely inventor and the awkwardly bulky robot he crafts from random parts.

io9 has been a fan of these characters dating back to 2017, when we first posted director Jim Archer’s short film of the same name. Earlier this year, the feature adapted from that short debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. (Read io9’s review here.) This week, Brian and Charles is making its theatrical debut, and we got a chance to speak over video chat with Archer as well as scriptwriters David Earl (who plays Brian) and Chris Hayward (who plays Charles) ahead of its release. The trio became acquainted through what Archer describes as “the comedy TV world in the UK, it’s all very kind of close knit,” with Earl actually developing the Brian character on stage and on an internet radio show—where the character of Charles first appeared—well before the short film came to be.

“David knows Brian inside and out, even though this version of Brian is very different from the stage one,” Archer said, noting that the stage version of Brian was far more crude and abrasive. “This Brian is much softer, there’s much more kindness there, and we thought that was right for the film. And also just to suddenly make him an inventor and put him in Wales, his entire backstory changes.”

Image for article titled The Creators of Brian and Charles on Bringing Their Quirky Sci-Fi Comedy to the Big Screen

Image: Focus Features

The Brian and Charles short film follows just those two characters as they clumsily figure out the dynamics of their friendship; the feature adds in a few other faces, including Louise Brealy as Hazel, a potential love interest for Brian, and Jamie Michie as Eddie, the village bully who takes a worrisome interest in his neighbor’s curious new invention. But the relationship between the main duo still really propels the film; the fact that Earl and Hayward had so much experience playing the characters brings great depth to Brian and Charles’ simple story, and makes their relationship feel that much more authentic. That foundation was important as the pair puzzled over expanding their script from a 12-minute short into a full-length film.

“We knew what their relationship was,” Hayward said. “[The challenge was] trying to work out what the dramatic element would be. The comedy was quite easy to come up with. The dramatic element took a long time to develop and we spent a long time coming with all sorts of ideas that could work, and keeping what felt right and throwing away what felt bad. We tried to kind of match the tone of the [short] film while also telling an interesting story that would keep an audience engaged—because we’re always worried about if it was going to be too weird, people could switch off. So that was where the hard work came in, working out exactly what was going to happen to them.”

Added Earl, “And we wanted it to be really accessible to, you know, like my mum likes it and my five-year-old boy likes it, so that’s quite good.”

While the feature version of Brian and Charles expands the world of the short both visually and in terms of its story, one stylistic choice that remained the same is that both are styled as documentaries, with an unseen film crew following the characters around. “We did talk about [whether to keep the documentary style for the feature] a lot,” Hayward said. “I think initially, it was because it was just really funny having Brian talk straight into the lens, and it was quite an easy way to explain things.”

It also helped with character development in other ways, too. “We realized it’s so important to have Brian speak to the camera so that you could see the holes in his facade,” Archer said. “And you can’t really get that in any other way than him trying to explain himself—[but the audience can tell that] he’s essentially lying to us. In that first 10 minutes of the film where he’s [showing off his failed inventions] and [insisting] ‘It’s okay! This can fail, but it doesn’t matter. I’m fine!’ and everything you see is like, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not true.’ So that, you can’t really get from any [other filmmaking style].”

Image for article titled The Creators of Brian and Charles on Bringing Their Quirky Sci-Fi Comedy to the Big Screen

Image: Focus Features

Brian and Charles co-stars a robot, but Charles is about as lo-fi as a cinematic robot can get; it’s literally Hayward with his head and torso inside of a box (“It was fine for the first few days, but by the end of the shoot, I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” Hayward recalled). That approach extends to the rest of the movie, with Archer achieving most of the special effects using in-camera techniques.

“The only things that are VFX are like a bit of fire here, maybe some birds in the sky there, and the odd cabbage coming out of a cannon—spoiler alert! But I think everything needs to have a real kind of visceral feel, and also we didn’t have a budget to start building stuff from scratch. It just wouldn’t look right,” Archer said. “Having stuff in-camera, I think most people agree feels more real, more organic.”

io9 asked all three creators if they considered Brian and Charles to be a sci-fi story—and also what they hoped audiences would take away as the film’s main message.

If it was featured in a sci-fi festival, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Archer said. “But I guess to me, it’s a buddy comedy. It’s a coming of age film. It just happens to feature a robot… I think there’s a lot of things that Charles is an allegory for, so however you relate to him, like I almost wouldn’t want to say—but I know people do have specific responses [relating] their own or family life stuff to him. But really, I just like people to leave feeling uplifted. I think that’s kind of what we’d like from the film, and hopefully we’ve achieved that.”

Image for article titled The Creators of Brian and Charles on Bringing Their Quirky Sci-Fi Comedy to the Big Screen

Image: Focus Features

The writer-actors had a similar reaction. “I would say first and foremost, it’s a comedy, hopefully. I guess it’s slightly science fiction, but it’s not really set in the future. The tech is pretty low-tech when it comes to Charles—he’s hardly a high tech machine. So maybe it’s a bit of a hybrid, a comedy and sci-fi hybrid, certainly with a little pinch of drama,” Hayward said. “I think we set out just hoping that people would find it really entertaining and funny. We also kind of left it open to interpretation, really. Some people have reacted to it as, you know, as a comment on friendship and obviously we’ve got those themes in there. But I think initially we just wanted people to have a good time.”

Added Earl, “I sort of wanted people to just meet Charles and laugh at him. And that was it to begin with, wasn’t it? You just want to go check this bloke out.”

Brian and Charles opens in theaters June 17.


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