Director Niall Johnson tells Mike Davies why he owes a lot to his local roots...
I'm just wrapping up my interview with writer-director Niall Johnson when he asks if I could do him a favour and mention his old school in the feature because they've got in a bid for arts specialist status and every little helps.
Interviews usually refer to Johnson getting his Film and Drama degree from Bristol University, but he says he owes his real debt to The Arthur Terry School in Sutton Coldfield.
"When I was ten I realised I wanted to direct and at 14 I started my own youth theatre, COY.
"The school was so supportive because they adopted us and treated what we did as official productions. They even asked me to direct the school play.
"When I think back, if I hadn't had that support from the school and the headmaster at the time, then things might have gone very differently for me and I've never had the chance to thank them."
Certainly the school can feel proud of its old boy's achievements.
Last January, paranormal thriller White Noise, his second feature film as writer-director, became not only one of the UK's highest grossing releases but made an impressive debut at No 1 in the US box office.
Now, 11 months later, he's back in decidedly different mode for Keeping Mum, a droll black comedy about a village vicar, his family and a serial killer housekeeper that he rewrote from an original screenplay by award-winning American novelist Richard Russo.
A big fan of Russo, Johnson (who it has to be said bears an uncanny resemblance to Matt Damon) was originally approached by the producers (for whom he'd written an as yet to be filmed William Tell script) to adapt the screenplay for the British market
"What they actually said was would I rewrite it but there was no money to pay me," he reveals.
"I was about to tell them what they could do when they then added and would I like to direct it too!"
Johnson, who at that time had yet to go behind the camera for White Noise, leapt at the chance. But, with just one small scale independent film (The Big Swap) and a family TV movie (The Ghost of Greville Lodge) to his name, confesses to having felt very nervous about proving himself as a director.
"I was confident about the writing but based on what I'd done before it was obvious funding was going to be attracted by the acting talent involved rather than me and I knew that because of that luck of the draw scenario I had to sell myself to the cast as a director."
However, he received a vote of confidence boost from Rowan Atkinson who'd seen his previous films and, more importantly, felt in safe hands with someone who, as the writer, clearly felt a responsibility to the characters.
Johnson got down work, enjoying the luxuries of working with a budget that meant that, for once, he could just concentrate on making the movie.
"It was nice not having to do so many other roles this time," he laughs. "It was fantastic not to be running round making sure where everything and everyone was and being able to sit and ponder shots or discuss ideas with people instead. It was a real pleasure to have the lighting you wanted and to get someone else to make the tea!"
However, while he was able to persuade Kristin Scott Thomas, Atkinson and Maggie Smith to come on board, he owns up to almost blowing it with Patrick Swayze who plays the sleazy golf pro with whom Walter's frustrated wife is having a fling.
"I spoke to him on the phone and explained why the others were doing it and about playing against type, then I said 'and you're playing a guy who thinks he's Patrick Swayze but fails'. And he didn't initially get what I was trying to say.
"Then I explained how cheesy this guy was and he said that that was exactly the sort of parts he wanted now.
"He was fascinating because he insists on going through this whole process of analysing the character and delving into their past so he has a reality to call on if he needs it.
"Even the thong scene had him writing pages of thought process."
The image of Swayze in a glittering red posing pouch is one likely to stick in the mind, but the film also deserves to be remembered for being the first to show Atkinson as a serious actor rather than the silly funnyman character he usually plays.
Tellingly, Atkinson's on record as saying Walter's the closest he's ever come to being his own self on screen.
There's a wonderful moment when, prompted by Grace, Maggie Smith's character, Walter reads from the Song Of Solomon.
Realising it's not addressed to God but to a lover, she finds the deep sexual passion of the writing.
It's a movingly tender sequence but, like the whole notion that using murder to help bring a fractured family back together might be part of God's plan, one suspects likely to upset religious conservatives.
"I'd be very disappointed if it didn't," he laughs.
"That wasn't in Russo's original. Instead she opens the Bible to the page and leaves it by his bed, but I wanted Grace to suggest the sex to him and to show his reaction so you would see the developments rather than the result.
"Originally that scene was intercut with Walter's wife having sex with her lover, but when it was so tender it was obvious it had to stand on its own.
"I wouldn't say Walter was a straight man per se, because he has his moments of comedy and Rowan brings them to life.
"But when I met Rowan for the first time, I only knew him from his screen persona.
"Instead, I found somebody very different and I think Walter is a gentler version of the things you know and love about Rowan and his screen characters. I think it will surprise a lot of people."
* Keeping Mum is on general release