‘I love making films,’ says Sara Sugarman. “I don’t get to do it that often, just because it’s so hard to make a film, and it breaks your heart. You fall in love with each project and they often don’t come to fruition. But when you get the privilege of shouting ‘Action’, it’s fantastic.”
It has been nine years since the Welsh film-maker’s last film, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, starring Lindsay Lohan. Now she is back with Vinyl, a lively comedy about the middle-aged members of a disbanded punk group who plot to use a younger band as a Trojan horse to smuggle a new song into the charts, after being told that they’re too old to have a hit. Incredibly, the film is based on a real-life hoax pulled off by Mike Peters and his band, The Alarm, in 2004.
“Mike, being Mike, wasn’t having it,” laughs Sugarman. “So he got four kids to mime the song and it went straight into the charts. Brilliant!”
Made with very little money, a lot of love, and a ton of goodwill, Vinyl took Sugarman back to her home town of Rhyl, north Wales, where, as a young teenager, she had played in a punk outfit called The Fractures. Peters, coincidentally, was their manager. Despite this personal connection, the film was not her idea, but the brainchild of writer Jim Cooper.
“I was the last man in,” admits Sugarman, revealing that she was one of 10 names sent to Peters when Vinyl was being set up. “They said: ‘This is our list of directors. Do you know any of these guys?’ And Mike went: ‘What? Sara Sugarman? She comes from my home town. We were in a band!’ So they brought me in.”
She took on co-writing as well as directing duties, “because it was my childhood. It was my rite of passage, that summer with The Fractures, just before I left home. So it was a no-brainer.”
The resulting film fizzes with energy and gentle humour, much like Sugarman herself. Sat at a table outside a pizza restaurant on the Portobello Road, she is warm, garrulous, and generous. There is a dark cloud, however. Her father passed away in February, and the loss is painfully present.
Fighting back tears at the beginning of the interview, she apologises (unnecessarily) for becoming emotional, and then picks herself up by relating the circumstances that had led to him having a funeral under Chabad-Lubavitch.
“Dad wasn’t religious,” she says. “He married Jewish and had the kids, and everything was as it should be. But then his second partner wasn’t Jewish. She said he would have turned in his grave to have an Orthodox funeral, but it turned out that it was fantastic.”
In return for their services, Sugarman and her brother had to promise to spend a Friday night with Chabad. She will never forget it. “We had the best time. They had 13 mad, wild kids there. They were, like, throwing themselves down the stairs. Oh my God, we had such a laugh.”
Sugarman has not yet explored her Jewish roots explicitly in her work but says that as she gets older, the artist in her “wants to be truer to my own soul”. If she ever decided to do her own Radio Days — Woody Allen’s nostalgic film memoir — she would not be short of memories to draw on.
Growing up in the Jewish wasteland of north Wales, her family were like a community unto themselves. Hebrew and Yiddish were spoken at home, while her grandfather ran a shul in a “tiny room” above a local branch of Lloyd’s Bank. “We just had a minyan,” she recalls, “and all the men had to make a concerted effort to make that happen.”
She talks affectionately about how her grandparents struggled to keep kosher during the war, and how when the parcels of kosher food supplied from Manchester each Friday shrank to almost nothing, her grandfather started koshering food himself.
“They all decided that if they said prayers over the food, God would forgive them and it would stay kosher.” By the time Sugarman was born, the practice had spread to the point where her grandfather, who wore tefillin every day, was even koshering bacon. “My dad’s sister used to say that, until she was about 10, she thought that knives and forks grew in the earth, because they were always rekoshering them.”
Sugarman’s father instilled in her a strong sense of pride in her roots, while encouraging her to assimilate and not make herself stand out. This was easier said than done, sometimes.
“Someone at school, a little kid, asked me when I was about nine: ‘Are you a monkey?’, because I looked so different. And I didn’t know if I was or not, but I knew I was different. I said: ‘Mum, am I a monkey? And where is Jewish Land?’ I couldn’t work it out. But I didn’t feel persecuted — I just felt special and different.”
Sugarman now lives in LA, where conversely, “everyone’s Jewish and they take it for granted. They don’t even like each other. We didn’t have that option in Wales. If you were a Jew, you were my best friend, because there was that tie that bound us. I feel really grateful for it because it created a stability.”
The same cannot be said of being a film-maker, as illustrated by the gaps between Sugarman’s movies. She recently handed in a draft of a script for another project, Stiff — based on an original screenplay by Dan Mazer, with Meg Ryan on board — which she says is “quite late in development”. So we won’t have to wait too long for the next one, hopefully.
One thing that is certain is that, however tough things get, Sugarman will always battle on. If Vinyl has one message — embodied by its lead character, Johnny Jones (Phil Daniels) — it is that you must keep going. “Do not give up your dreams,” says Sugarman. “Live. Celebrate. Because around the corner there is always hope.”