British director Joe Wright on his latest film “The Soloist”, which had a bunch of mentally ill and homeless people as part of the crew.

Waiting for Joe Wright to appear in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, it seems as if another British Invasion might be under way. There are probably as many English accents here today as there are American at Claridge’s hotel in London on an average Friday morning. Wright, director of “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement”, is just another Englishman in LA.

We’re here to talk about Wright’s latest movie, “The Soloist”, released in the U.S. earlier this year to middling-to-high critical praise and not a lot of box office. And it couldn’t be more American or less English than Wright’s previous features. It’s based on a memoir and a series of articles by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez who, some years ago, happened upon a strange-looking, dementedly talkative homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers — portrayed in the film by Jamie Foxx — playing a melody on a two-string wreck of a violin in an underpass beneath Grand Avenue.

Lopez and Ayers’ story unfolds in downtown Los Angeles, 20 miles from the beaches, which, with its little thicket of skyscrapers, is the only part of the city that looks like all other American cities. But Wright, who has been interested in mental illness for a long time, found a way to locate downtown’s true underbelly. He asked the mentally ill and homeless people of LA’s Hogarthian skid row — eight square blocks of tented-city, wide-open drug market, ruined lives and ululating crazies — to teach him how to tell their stories.

How it happened

“I went on a walk down skid row, and met these extraordinary people who’ve all been diagnosed with a mental illness and are in sheltered accommodation. And though I realised I didn’t have the proper authority to make a movie about their experience, they certainly did, and probably no one else was going to do it for them. I went back to the studio and said, ‘I’ll make the film on the condition that you allow me to employ 500 members of the homeless community,’ thinking it was fairly certain that they weren’t going to go for that, and then I could walk away from this job and feel really good about myself. But to my surprise, they said yes. They worked with us as extras and actors, crew members and consultants.

“I’d say to them all, ‘OK, this is a certain time of day, this is what’s happening, what would you all be doing?’ I’d ask the crowd, ‘OK, who’s a crackhead?’ And a load of hands would shoot up and those would be the crackheads and they would show me how to smoke crack — well, not literally, just how to show it. And I’d say, ‘Who are the smackheads?’ And more hands go up, or kind of half-up. So, literally I’d be shown by them how they lived, and we’d set up little love scenes or little stories and I’d point the camera and shoot them.”

Although he’s “intensely proud” of the movie he’s made, Wright considers it “a very exciting adjunct” to his British work than the start of a new phase in his career. Of Hollywood he says, “I find that here your job title is seen before your personality and that isn’t healthy for me. It’s not healthy if you’re successful and it’s not healthy if you’re not successful. So you can become either vain or bitter. And also it’s so much about the industry and not about the craft. And it costs so much here — twice as much as in the UK! $3.5m for parking the trucks alone!”

©Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009