Interview with Mark C. Hewitt, Director of ‘Les Coffrets: Boobs’

Inspiration can truly come from anywhere as shown by Mark C. Hewitt, a freelance playwright, poet and stage director, who launched into the writing of a surrealistic sequence of poems which he then decided to use for the basis of a series of stylised films all under 90 seconds. With the overarching title: ‘Les Coffrets’, Hewitt’s 8 ritzy and enigmatic micro films mimic the structure of his poems. The pieces have received audiences at festivals the world over, and Hastings Rocks International Film Festival is proud to be showing two of these: ‘Boobs’ & ‘Camp.’

We spoke to Mark about the beguiling ‘Boobs’. He tells us that the writing of the poems was challenging, “sort of a game, but a game with particular rules”. Whatever these rules are, they have led to a truly unique and innovative series of films, with each one standing alone in its own right . The artistic collaboration between Mark and filmmaker Matt Parsons seems to break with any conventional notion of directing and has pleasantly led to the extremely clever and enjoyable films inspired by the neo-noir vignettes of the 30s and 40s, with no conventional message. Who needs one?

Be driven by what you love.

What was the initial idea behind the films?

The films were conceived as the visual online counterpart to a quirky, slightly surrealistic sequence of poems which I had written, with the title ‘Les Coffrets’ (meaning ‘the boxes’) which comes from the shape of the texts on the page. Small boxes of thirteen and a half lines surrounded by a lot of white; each line approximately 34 characters long. There’s eight poems in the sequence and they have other particular features, most notably that the final phrase is something overheard. In the same spirit, the texts also use other chance elements, such as phrases seen on clothing or in ads.

How were you inspired in the writing and structure of the poems and then developing them into films?

The shape of the texts was influenced by something I thought I saw by Canadian poet Anne Carson, whose work I love. I was pushed by the desire to embrace chance and reject a rational authorial development of the texts. In 2019, I got a Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England which allowed me some budget for the project and the idea of making a few film poems alongside this collection was part of the Arts Council project. I finished working on the collection of texts around the end of 2019, and was drawn towards the sequence of ‘Les Coffrets’ as material for the video project, partly because they were very short and the idea of a collection of micro films appealed to me.

The works are intricately created together with filmmaker Matt Parsons, how did you two come to be working together?

I was already committed to working with artist filmmaker Matt Parsons because I’d worked with him once before on a performance project made with addicts in recovery and I like his cleverness with using text visually and treating footage etc. In early 2020 I had a few meetings with Matt and I’d already decided I didn’t want the moving image material to be ‘illustrational’ of the texts. Matt had tried a couple of things that didn’t really appeal and I realised these little poems are so off-the-wall that they don’t really suggest any clear visual counterpart. I have this personal maxim: ‘Be driven by what you love’. And in the end, we sort of followed that and allowed my artistic sensibility or personal aesthetic be the key that opened up the project. We talked about shadows and doorways and abstraction and I expressed my love of the textural qualities of old 30s/40s film noir. This led Matt to start exploring out-of-copyright black and white footage from that period, and being the meticulous artist that he is, sifting through hours and hours of footage to find images of shadows moving across walls and doors opening and closing etc, so sort of creating a bank of potential material we could use.

Not long after this, the pandemic went crazy and suddenly we were in the first long lockdown of 2020. We had made key basic decisions about how we would move forward with the films but Matt still wasn’t entirely sure about how I wanted him to use the footage. I referenced my love of early surrealist photography as one thing he could draw on, which I think helped free up his thinking in a narrative sense. I also sent him a list of keywords and suggestions that I felt related to each poem. For ‘Boobs’ I said to him: “baroque 18th century architectural features, opulence, statuettes, caryatids, scrolls, exoticism, pagan kitsch”.

Drawing on those aforementioned keywords was the particular inspiration beyond ‘Boobs’?

In my work as a theatre maker and stage director, I directed a one man show by Caribbean-British poet John Agard, called Roll Over Atlantic, which we toured fairly extensively in the UK. After a performance at Nottingham Literature Festival, we were taken to a nearby pub by the festival organisers. In this pub, I overheard a woman say: “It’s alright, I’ll get my boobs out, you’ll be alright.” So, of course, I wrote this down in my notebook. It became one of many overheard phrases that were available for me to use when it came to writing this sequence of poems and was sort of irresistible. With ‘Boobs’, the whole invented narrative was about making that one line work plausibly. It’s curious that when I put these works on Vimeo, ‘Boobs’ attracted way more interest than any of the others. (Can’t imagine why.)

What direction did you give for the voicing of the short

I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t want the pieces to be spoken in my own voice. Some, I realised, clearly asked to be spoken in a female voice. The first piece I asked an actor to voice the text for was ’Premium’ which I imagined might sound good in the voice of actress Melissa Sirol, a French performer with whom I’d worked on a previous theatre project. As soon as Matt and I heard Melissa’s rendition of the text, we knew it was right. Her European accent connected with the noirish black and white feel and it just somehow gelled. So I started thinking about each piece and asking other actors who I knew if they would consider voicing one of the texts. With ‘Boobs’ I first got a male actor to voice the text, then afterwards changed my mind and decided it should be female. I had involved Isabella McCarthy Sommerville in a bit of R&D once and felt her very cut-glass clear English diction would work well for the piece, which I think it does.

Film noir is beautifully apparent in the works, who and what types of film and work have inspired you to be making the material you are?

I do like the textural qualities of 30s/40s film noir. I was also influenced by early surrealist photography. There must be a whole complex of subtle influences and inspirations behind these works but I find it hard to identify in any clear way what they are. When I recently met with Matt he said he had re-watched them all again and liked that they were so weird and unapologetic and also felt that they seemed a bit Lynchean.

What do you hope for in your films?

After we’d finished, I had no particular idea of what I was going to do with the films apart from put them on Instagram. Normally I’m busy working on stage productions but in late June we were still in lockdown and that was not an option. I eventually started looking around at film festivals and discovered FilmFreeway. In due course, I started sending them out, one or two, here and there, and soon discovered that the best chances of getting them accepted was to focus mainly on festivals that have a super short or micro film category. They’ve now variously been shown at 35 film festivals in 18 countries, and the most successful of them, ‘Premium’, has been a category winner three times. I guess, for me, the important thing about this whole project is the way it’s opened up the possibility of working in film and putting stuff out digitally as a parallel to my other artistic activities. I’m now interested in seeing how my drama writing can work within a film context, maybe creating pieces that have both a live outcome and a digital/filmic outcome. So, it slightly changes the way I might conceive future projects. I have a monologue project with the working title ONESIES that I’m planning to develop in this way.

‘Les Coffrets’ is showing at 3.30pm on the 23rd of April at St Mary in the Castle as part of Hastings International Film Festival.

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