Interview with Em J. Gilbertson, director of ‘Requiem’

Forbidden love, systemic prejudice and senseless suffering are three themes deftly explored by NFTS graduate Director Em J. Gilbertson’s clever and nuanced depiction of a time where the imbalance of gender roles and expectations on women were patently absurd.

‘Requiem’ is set against the backdrop of the violent witch trials of the 1600s and centres around a rebellious and spirited minister’s daughter. The short film starts with a blazing fire and guttural scream of anguish delivered by actor Bella Ramsey, who plays alongside Safia Oakley-Green. We are then transported into the joy and beauty of shy young love which is unfairly weighed down by the insanities of the time.

Em has taken experiences from their own life growing up in Liverpool in a society where their queerness and selfhood weren’t readily accepted, as well as their own powerful, all-consuming experiences of first love, and transplanted them into their film with skill and a unique voice. Whilst ‘Requiem’ is undoubtedly a tale of heartbreak, the ending (plot spoiler) takes no prisoners as the oppressed women stand up for themselves and wreak revenge. 

Naturally a lot of conversations about our experiences as queer people fed into the script.

How did you come to be working with Laura Jayne Tunbridge on the script and how did you two form the project together?

Laura and I both studied at the National Film and Television School. As well as being a very talented writer, she is incredibly approachable. I pitched her a very loose idea: a girl watches another burn at the stake whilst her father holds her back. As well as a final image of a group of women burning down a church. I asked Laura if she would like to work on the project with me and she said yes.

One of our early aims was to create a project about the witch trials that centred around women/people assigned female at birth. One of the topics we explore in ‘Requiem’ is a fight for bodily autonomy which is still a very prevalent issue today. Gender roles are something I have explored in my previous work ‘Crashing Waves’ and I’ve always found them utterly absurd. Naturally a lot of conversations about our experiences as queer people fed into the script.

We sat down together and started to come up with scenes on index cards which we moved around. Originally the script was non-chronological but as we developed it became more linear. Our fantastic producer, Michelle Brøndum, came into the process around this time and offered up editorial notes. Michelle’s notes added production value by coming up with clever solutions that never compromised the story, only heightened it. 

As Laura began writing, I started researching. I would feedback what I had learnt in order to  inform the script. Research included the time period and films that dealt with similar themes. We had quite an experimental writing process: one draft was from the perspective of Minister Gilbert and there was even a draft inspired by a tarot card reading. Each draft would unlock something new. Eventually we had a script

It is a nuanced and subtle exploration of young love in a time where we rarely see this kind of representation. How did you work on maintaining the tensions and challenges of the time whilst building in their budding relationship?

My forte is creating a sense of longing on screen.

Falling in love for the first time is a very significant moment in all of our lives. It often crops up in my work. From the very offset, I wanted to explore an innocent young love being encroached upon by a cruel and violent world. I felt the softer their love the more it would juxtapose the brutality of the world. A lot of that work was done in the script by Laura, even when Evelyn and Mary do get their moments alone they always end up interrupted by the men of their village. 

My forte is creating a sense of longing on screen. I believe these scenes excel because of what characters do not say. The script has little dialogue and so it allows for more room to read into the subtext as well as helping to build suspense. 

Your locations are incredible. I read you filmed part of it at the Bromsgrove’s Avoncroft Museum, where else did you film to really create that authenticity?

I was keen to shoot this film as close to the National Film and Television School as possible. Our production designer Freddie Burrows has an immaculate eye for detail and is incredibly well researched. Freddie was adamant on using real locations and not doing a set build. We ended up finding a church about 20 minutes away from the school, St Mary Magdalene’s in Windsor. I felt the interior really worked and one of our challenges was shooting during the first wave of Covid and so we didn’t want a church that was too big. 

Bromsgrove’s Avoncroft is an open air museum, the buildings are all authentic from the time period and have been rebuilt on site. The interior was perfect but the exterior was more complicated as it meant we could only shoot directly at the house due to the fact there were buildings from other periods surrounding our set.  But we managed to find ways around this by creating foreground elements (Freddie built a fence) and making it feel like the house and church were next to each other. And hanging sheets on washing lines to block undesirable background elements. 

The location we found hardest to find was the field with a tree. A lot of locations we looked at were either next to a busy road, under a flight path or had pylons. This location was the last we went to after days of combing around fields. I’m so glad we searched for it because it really was worth it in the end. 

The performances by Bella Ramsey and Safia Oakely-Green are so delicate. How did you work in their performances and build those tender moments?

I think the most intimate moments often have a very pregnant subtext. Where you and the other person know exactly what the other is thinking. Even if you can’t say it loud. 

Both Bella Ramsey and Safia Oakley-Green are incredible actors. It was a real privilege to see them in action. I’m so proud of what they have gone on to achieve. Safia recently won a break through BIFA and Bella is currently in the Last of Us. It’s needless to say that they both brought a lot to their respective roles. 

My taste in performance is typically very naturalistic and nuanced. As an audience member I like looking for the clues that actors leave where characters reveal how they really feel about something. I’m naturally interested in the fragility of love and the intimacy of a quiet moment. I think the most intimate moments often have a very pregnant subtext. Where you and the other person know exactly what the other is thinking. Even if you can’t say it loud.  Both Bella and Safia excelled in comprehending this which is why I picked them. Typically, when I work with actors I just give them a little and hopefully enough confidence to allow them to run with it and make their own choices. Only nudging them when needed too. 

Your score and sound design are haunting and beautifully weave in the tension we know is coming. How was this approached?

I started having conversations with our composer, Madison Willing, early on in the process. Madison had come up with three themes that she wanted to explore when we were at script stage. A theme for the men, a theme for Mary and a theme for the women. Madison introduced smaller elements for each theme throughout until at the end it became a big epic piece of music. 

Chats with Miles Sullivan, our sound designer, surrounded making this a very subjective experience and so Miles would pick parts of the sound design to really highlight and bring out. An example being when Evelyn is in the church with her Father and meets Matthew, Miles really heightened the sound of the basket in order to put us in Evelyn’s experience. Both of their work really adds to the feeling of the film. 

The cinematography moves from light to dark, really immersing us in the story, and bringing us to the final burning. How was this planned out?

One of my favourite parts of the process was working with  our cinematographer Joseph Guy. We wanted to create something which felt naturalistic but with an ominous atmosphere.  One of the challenges that cropped up was limitations due to covid, it was something that we took into consideration early in the process and decided to create static and subjective frames. 

I think in terms of the film moving from light to dark, it’s actually a happy accident. We planned to shoot the pyre scene around blue hour but the day of the shoot there was a huge lighting storm. Which meant we were unable to start shooting until after sunset.  I think the night time works better, it makes the fire look more striking and the tone is weightier. The fact that it tells the story of going from light to dark is an added bonus. 

What are your hopes for the film?

I hope that the audience feels the highs and lows of the film, the injustice, the blossoming of love and the danger of the men lurking around every corner. 

I think the beauty of art is that it can be read in many different ways. I hope that however this film affects you that it creates a dialogue as I truly believe the only way to move forward is to have difficult conversations. 

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