James Card is an award winning short-film director who eventually gave into the burning desire to make a feature film and produced his brilliantly engaging, improvisation-based feature ‘Finally Nearly Getting There’. Inspired by the mumblecore subgenre of American independent film, ‘Finally Nearly Getting There’ takes us on an all-too-typical British meander through the countryside to a wedding in what was supposed to be a couple’s road trip. The conversation and atmosphere between our two forced-together protagonists develops from a deliciously British awkward start into a more complex and nuanced understanding of themselves and their futures. By writing his feature as a road trip movie, James was able to both keep his budget down and work intimately with his actors on the emotional beats he knew he wanted to hit through his script, and even though it wasn’t quite as easy as he intended, the whole film comes together with satisfying finesse. It is an incredibly relatable and enjoyable film which takes the audience down each road and into every uncomfortable moment.
“I wanted to put my own spin on it, to make a very British version of a U.S. mumblecore film, and to feature 100% improvised dialogue.”
Where did the inspiration come from to develop your first feature-length film?
I’d been wanting to build on my short-film making experience for years, trying to come up with an idea for my feature debut. All I knew was the style of film I wanted to make. I’m a huge fan of the American indie cinema style, an emphasis on character and dialogue over plot with a low-budget aesthetic. Even more so, the mumblecore movement made popular by filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers, Lyn Shelton that concentrate on very naturalistic acting and largely improvised dialogue. I’ve always loved that style of cinema, but I felt like it wasn’t really a model of filmmaking that was done in the UK. I wanted to put my own spin on it, to make a very British version of a U.S. mumblecore film, and to feature 100% improvised dialogue.
I knew that I’d have to make it on a tiny budget since I wouldn’t have a script, as such, to use to raise funding. So I decided that a road trip film might be a good starting point as I could just put two actors in a car and drive through the British countryside, using the natural beauty of the UK exteriors as our production design and lighting. It seemed to me that the interior of a car would be a very controllable environment, keeping things simple, safe, and cheap. It would turn out that setting a film largely inside a car wasn’t easy at all, trying to make room for actors, director, camera crew, and sound crew, and nor would making a road movie be cheap, since we would have to transport the entire cast and crew across the country… but you live and learn!
Planning to shoot with no pre-written dialogue meant I would need two actors that already had great chemistry and who I could trust to bring out the story and character elements I had devised. I turned to my good friends Roisin Rae and Brooks Livermore, who I have been working with on various projects for more than 15 years. I decided to bring them on early, to get them involved in the writing process, by developing the characters together and finding the driving force for our story as a trio. We spent about 6 months writing the story outline and from that, I wrote a scene-by-scene breakdown that would eventually be our shooting script.
Was the jump from making short films to a feature daunting?
It’s going to sound odd, but I actually found it a little easier. I think mostly because, over the course of four or five years, I’d directed six or seven shorts and each one had gotten more ambitious in some way than the last. The crews had got larger, the budgets had got bigger, and the equipment that we got to utilise had got more and more impressive with better cameras, better lighting and in one instance having an entire set built! They’d been quite high-concept and I really wanted to scale things down. This feature was a lot more stripped down. We had a tiny crew, a very small cast, and because of the manner in which we were shooting, very little kit. We felt like a little travelling gang, just sat in our hero car making our very modest film in the simplest way possible. It felt smaller than some of those shorts, which also made it a lot more fun, and took some of the pressure off.
As a fellow fan of mumblecore, I really feel you have achieved something special in giving it a brilliant British edge. How did you approach the initial planning stages to make it work for your vision?
“Like most films made in this style, a lot of it is determined by budget restraints but I think there’s something very visually specific about them too.”
Thank you – that’s a really lovely thing to hear. I usually tell people it’s a mumblecore film and they look back at me blankly, so it’s delightful to chat to someone who appreciates the genre. Like most films made in this style, a lot of it is determined by budget restraints but I think there’s something very visually specific about them too. I call them very “street level” films – no huge, sweeping cinematic shots with the camera on a jib or crane. It’s all very eye-level and intimate. That’s not to say there’s no wide shots – I couldn’t resist the opportunity to show off a few of our fantastic locations – but in planning the visual feel of the film, I knew I wanted to keep it all fairly tight and personal. When you’re asking your actors to keep their performances very small and real, you need the camera right in there to catch it. Although, completely contradicting myself here, it’s amazing what subtleties of performance the camera can capture even from a distance.
The Britishness of the film and how it sets itself apart from the more familiar American movies of this style is in many ways down to the humour, and the awkwardness of that faux politeness we do so well in this country. Our lead characters, Dan and Alice, clearly have issues with each other right from the start, but they do that very English passive aggressive thing of getting a dig in at each other from behind a smile. I knew I wanted that, and fed that into the story as we were creating the outline. Visually, of course, I planned to make use of exteriors as much as possible. We’re used to the visual language of US set road movies and for me, as familiar as they are, there’s still something quite exotic about their locations. I planned to show off as much of the beauty of the UK it’s green fields, it’s rivers and it’s coastline and transfer a very familiar genre in to a less familiar setting.
As you have no written dialogue, can you tell us more about how you planned the storyline and the scenes?
It’s really not a lot different than writing a regular screenplay, with the exception that you’re kind of skipping what a sensible person would say is the most important element, the dialogue. When I do write a full screenplay, and I imagine this is the same for anyone, I start by mapping out a rough idea of plot and characters, maybe a few key scenes, and then I expand those ideas with some character backstory and then break down the beats of the story into a scene by scene outline. Once you have that, that’s the moment that most people will begin to turn that into a full screenplay, writing the dialogue and actions. For Finally Nearly, I just ignored that final stage, instead handing out copies of the scene by scene breakdown to our cast and crew. It included the emotional beats that I wanted to hit, and maybe the thoughts that our characters might have been having in that moment, but then it would be up to the cast to live those moments. That outline would be the script that the crew would work from when planning location and shots, just like a regular screenplay.
How did this translate into the production and the shoot?
“I would let the takes run for sometimes six or seven minutes to see where the improv took us, and then steer the cast back on track between takes if need be.”
Since the dialogue was improvised, I realised that we needed to shoot the film in sequence as much as possible. We knew the in point of each scene and the out point we were trying to get to with the improv, but if we shot it too out of order, it’d be impossible for our characters to refer to events or conversations in earlier scenes, and their relationship wouldn’t grow in a believable way. It also meant that Roisin and Brooks could relax into those characters and their situation more and more as the story progressed, which was perfect. Being a road movie also made shooting in sequence a lot easier. We weren’t ever going to be returning to any locations at different points in the plot, so no need to shoot out of sequence based on location.
It was a multi-camera shoot, too, it had to be. With the cast improvising the dialogue, every take was different to the previous one, so it would have been impossible to match up alternate takes in the edit. I would let the takes run for sometimes six or seven minutes to see where the improv took us, and then steer the cast back on track between takes if need be. Maybe highlighting a particular moment that they devised which I felt worked, and asking them to push that element further, while dropping other lines that didn’t serve the narrative. We shot everything with at least 2 cameras, sometimes 3, which allowed us to have multiple angles of the same dialogue to work from. It also made that space in the car even tighter! In many ways, the post-production period was then when we really wrote the film. Editing together multiple alternate versions of a scene into something that told our story in the best, most efficient way possible. We had so much good stuff, that I think the first cut of the film was about two and a half hours. I still weep at the loss of a lot of scenes and moments, but I felt the film had to keep under 90 minutes to keep buzzing along at an interesting and entertaining pace.
That moment at the waterfalls feels so integral to the film and the growing relationship between Dan & Alice. Why did you write this into the story outline?
The picnic at the falls comes at a time in the story when Dan and Alice are just starting to drop their guard with each other a little, and it was important to literally and figuratively put the breaks on their journey for a quieter moment between them. This is a scene where Alice shows her vulnerability and a side of her personality we haven’t yet seen. Although we also see that from Dan, too, in a later scene I thought it was important to see Alice’s earlier. Up until this point in the story, you could argue that Alice has actually been quite antagonistic, and we see Dan’s frustration with her grow. It’s a fun dynamic between them for a while, but we essentially need both of our characters to be likeable if we’re going to ask an audience to spend such a concentrated amount of time with them. Placing this scene into the story, learning why the spot is so important to Alice, suddenly we understand why she has been so insistent on making the journey, and with plenty of time to spend there. It’s funny, but it’s also quite moving.
The delightful awkwardness between Dan & Alice never entirely disappears even as they warm up to each other. How did you keep that in their performances the whole way through?
This was actually one of the hardest things to achieve. Brooks and Roisin had known each other for years before we shot the film, and the three of us had worked so often together. They have an existing chemistry, and existing shorthand with each other, and they would naturally fall in to that fun friendship. I do think that having to improvise the dialogue helped them not fully relax into the scenes – they never quite knew what they were going to get from each other. For my part, I would often remind them that they don’t have to say as much as they instinctively wanted to. A lot of actors think that, if you’re asking them to improvise, it means they have to come up with lots of dialogue and constantly talk – but often the opposite is true.
In truth the real success of their performances comes down to Roisin and Brooks themselves. They’re good actors, REALLY good. My job as a director is to cast well and find actors that I can trust to understand their characters and really live in the moment. A gentle reminder from me here and there, a little nudge in a certain direction, and then just sit back and let them do what they’re good at. It honestly was an absolute pleasure getting to see Roisin and Brooks inhabit those roles, they often took me by surprise, and it was wonderful.
Liam adds the perfect element of annoyance, frustration and pace to the film right when we needed it. How did Chris come in and work with the well-established pace you had set with Brooks and Roisin?
I love Chris! He’s fantastic. So much of what he improvised sadly ended up being trimmed out of the edit because he just gave us so much! In my mind there’s a wonderful companion piece to this film that follows Liam’s journey from start to finish and features Dan and Alice as side characters. That would be fun. I do think Chris was a little worried about coming in and trying to find the tone and energy of the piece at a point when we had already completed half the shoot. I just told him to go in hard and to try not to let Roisin or Brooks get a word in. I didn’t tell them that, but I wanted him to try and put them on the back foot, to make them feel uncomfortable and to actually make them feel like they were catching up with him in his film. Chris definitely took that on board and absolutely ran with it! He dominates those scenes, which I think was really necessary an hour into a film that has essentially just been a two-hander by that point. Chris is also a very experienced screenwriter and definitely understood his place in the narrative.
I can only imagine the daunting prospect of your edit. Did the film change or evolve during this process from your initial ideas, and if so how?
We definitely could have had a film with twice the running time, and the edit was absolutely brutal. The film changed a lot even as we were shooting it. Improvisations would go in an unexpected direction, and if we thought it was better that way, we would go with it. But it definitely changed and developed a lot during the edit. There are minor things, like rearranging the order of some dialogue so that what had been the start of a conversation actually became the end point, and vice versa, but that’s really the same as you would do had a script been written and you were going through edits and rewrites. We just did that after having shot the footage, rather than before.
We lost a lot of secondary characters, too, which still pains me. There are now really only 3 on-screen speaking roles, but we shot with several other characters too – including brilliant performances from actors playing the partners of Alice and Dan. As the edit progressed we realised that, as wonderful as they were, their scenes weren’t contributing to the story in the way that I had imagined they would when developing the outline. That was through no fault of their performances and improvisations, they both had some of my favourite moments, but I began to realise we just didn’t need them to tell our story, and those elements just slowed down the narrative really kicking in. Similarly, without wanting to give too much away, there is a destination that Alice and Dan are headed to in the film that was supposed to be the location for the final scenes. We shot them with a large number of small roles and background artists. But again in the edit, we began to realise that the focus of the narrative in those scenes was actually not really on our lead characters, and as such added nothing to the story we were telling. It was a terrifying decision to remove all those scenes from the end of the film, but they were nothing more than an unnecessary epilogue, and ultimately it was the right decision.
I think one of the biggest changes that took me by surprise was the focus of Dan and Alice’s relationship and inner journeys. I’d originally envisaged a more traditional romantic element, and how the story would show them slowly falling for each other. But as the improvisations progressed and the edit came together, that angle seemed more and more cliché. It became more apparent that this, instead, was a story about two people, both struggling to find their own personal happiness, helping each other find new confidence, new direction, and leaving them feeling much more hopeful about the possibilities in front of them. I always intended an open-ending, where the audience will hopefully decide for themselves what they think is next for Dan and Alice, but the point at which we end, the place they find themselves geographically and emotionally, is very different than I’d imagined.
What do you hope for the film?
More than anything, I hope the film finds an audience. It was a labour of love, for sure, but I think everyone that worked on it did an incredible job, and their work deserves to be seen. I’d like it to find an audience that – like me – hugely enjoy this style of film. To achieve a small indie cinema release, even just for one week, would seem an unachievable goal… but making this film often felt like an unachievable goal in itself, so who knows?!