It’s suspiciously early on a Friday morning for me to be in the pub.
Across the pool table at the George in Bilton village, two friends in their mid-20s exchange a terse conversation. Stan has finished with his girlfriend, and is emotionally blackmailing his long-suffering mate, Brev, into a night of drinking. It seems an argument is brewing, until Brev gives in and shuffles exasperatedly to the bar.
But this is no intimate drinking session; a crowd of 16 stand silently watching, surrounded by professional camera, lighting and sound equipment.
Rugby-born writer-director Sami Abusamra, 29, is back in his home town to film It Won’t Be You, a short comedy about a man who tries to win back the woman he dumped after she wins the lottery. Sami left town five years ago to pursue his filmmaking career. Now, he has returned to transform this homely local pub into a movie set.
Sami describes his latest work, two years in the making, as “a weird mix of TV comedy - like Alan Partridge, The Office and Big Train - with dark arthouse European cinema.”
As the scene unfolds, the former Lawrence Sheriff pupil’s description comes into focus. The low-key deadpan interplay between the two characters brings to mind the naturalistic male buddies seen in the likes of Shaun Of The Dead or Peep Show. Sami is meticulous and funny as he directs his performers. Taking care that every gesture, reaction and expression is pitched for maximum comic effect, he raises giggles when he asks his leading man to act more like a “disappointed shark”.
“Working with Sami is good fun,” says actor Alistair Donegan, who stars as anti-hero Stan. “He wrote it and he’s a funny guy, so we’ve had lots of laughs while we’re working. It’s very rare that you find a short film that’s really funny, and this is one of the funniest scripts I’ve ever read.”
Co-star Stephen Leask (Brev) is equally full of praise. “He’s always really positive,” he tells me, “and he’s really taken on board ideas we’d have during rehearsals. It’s really great to work with someone who wants you involved in that creative process.”
So why did this up-and-coming London filmmaker choose the streets, pubs and homes of Rugby as the setting for his new project? Unlike other filming projects that have graced our town in recent years, such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays which made frequent use of William Butterfield’s opulent 19th century architecture, this film uses less obvious landmarks as its backdrop.
“I figured if we were coming to Rugby, we should make use of it’s unique features,” says Sami. “So we got a couple of really beautiful shots yesterday with the cement works behind Alistair as he’s roaming the streets.
“We used that weird wall on Railway Terrace with the five holes in it - it’s something you’ll have walked past a thousand times and maybe never noticed. But I wanted to use that because those empty holes made me think of lottery balls.
“And we will be at a house this afternoon on Shakespeare Gardens where we’re going to chuck a TV through a window, so that should be good!”
As producer Tibo Travers of Sweet Doh Productions explains, Rugby offers something that film locations in London do not.
“I was just amazed at the people here,” he says. “They were so friendly, and so welcoming to filmmakers. People are quite interested and curious. Whereas in London I think people are getting a bit tired of film crews, here there is a kind of excitement and buzz.”
The welcoming townsfolk have clearly been integral to the film. During the filming, the George’s locals huddle quietly at the far end of the bar. The producer’s polite requests for silence when filming is met with mock incredulousness and tongue-in-cheek requests for payment, but the pub falls respectfully silent when “action” is called.
Landlady Barbara Cripps looks slightly bemused but delighted that her pub has been chosen as a film set. “I’m just letting them get on with it, and staying out of the way,” she says.
The filmmakers’ gratitude to Barbara, and the town as a whole, is plentiful. “We couldn’t afford to do it without the personal favours,” Sami says earnestly. “So as a thank you, I’d really like to do a Rugby screening.”
It Won’t Be You is scheduled for completion between April and May, when it will be offered to film festivals worldwide.