Interview with Rishi Gandhi, Director of ‘MATER MORTIS’

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Stories close to our hearts, whatever emotions they evoke, can be the hardest to tell. An entire industry relies on people talking about their feelings and exploring various traumas in their lives, but what if there was a different channel for these explorations? No-one can claim to have the magic formula but director, writer and producer Rishi Gandhi has decided to use film to explore his upbringing. We asked Rishi about his inspirations and followed up with a collaborative interview to really explore the hurt, pain and horror we face in ‘MATER MORTIS’ .

“The film was inspired by my own family’s struggles with my mother’s mental illness when I was growing up. I decided to explore the themes around mental illness in families and the fallout in communication that happens between fathers and sons, in particular in South Asian homes.”

Rishi Gandhi

S.S: Have you always been attracted to the horror genre, and if not, what drew you in? 

R.G: As a child horror truly was not a genre I loved, because it could be genuinely terrifying. That being said, I was always drawn in. It consciously became a genre I loved when I was in college, and part of that was seeing films that drew from the horrors of our actual reality, whether it was consumerism in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, or mental health in the ‘Babadook’.

S.S: Did you struggle writing and directing a story with such personal origins, or do you think the personal side was beneficial? 

R.G: Creating a story from a personal place can be challenging. Sometimes ideas develop fairly easily and other times you have to really draw out aspects of yourself you didn’t really know existed. I think writing from a personal place is beneficial, but the process isn’t always easy.

S.S: What was your writing and storyboarding process, and how much does that change during the filming and then the edit? 

R.G: I initially wrote a short story about ten years before I considered making it into a short film. From the short, I created an outline with the beats and path I wanted the story to hit, and then I worked with my co-writer of the screenplay, Dexter John Scott, to hammer out a short script. From there we refined it in a back and forth process until we landed a finished screenplay. Normally you don’t want to bake in too much direction in the screenplay, but as I would be shooting my own script, we added some specific direction for particular shots. 

For storyboarding, I keep a sketchbook with me from where I thumbnail rough shots based on the locations. From there, I develop a comprehensive shot list. The shot list is what I use predominantly on set to track and make sure I not only have the desired shots, but enough coverage and alternate shots for the edit. As far as editing goes, in my day to day, I’m an editor, so that is perhaps the part of the process I’m most comfortable with. The edit is the final rewrite of the film, so I tend to go in with an open mind, aware that things usually have to change in order for the film to flow well. There were montages in the original script that I had to change for the edit, simply because they didn’t flow. However, this opened up an opportunity to lean into the protagonist’s trauma surrounding his mother, with cut aways to memories of the past, which I think enhanced the layers of the film.

S.S: Your story is so personal it poses the question how you came to work with the team you had and trusted their vision?

I met my main producing partner, Alex Armando Torres, with whom the film would not have been possible, at Yofi Fest 2018 in NY. We worked together on a few short projects in early 2019, which rapidly led to us working on pre-production for ‘MATER MORTIS’ from May 2019 all the way to wrapping our shoot in October of 2019. Without Alex, there would have been no crowdfunding campaign, no locations and most importantly no film, as he was the logistical heart of our entire production. 

I met my co-writer Dexter through my partner. He’s an excellent writer and collaborator who dealt with similar trauma as I did in my life, having a parent with mental illness. He was able to help me draw out these similar experiences and imbue the script with the feelings I was looking for. Finally, Renzo Adler. He’s my best friend and former roommate from college, and he encouraged me to take my original short story and turn it into a short film for ten years. Without his steadfast support and encouragement, I’d never have taken the step to make this film.

S.S: What advice would you give others trying to use crowdfunding to get their projects off the ground?

R.G: I would say do not rush into a crowdfunding campaign. As with a film you need solid prep time. You need to think through the logistics and make sure you can deliver everything before you ever start the campaign. It takes serious effort to do outreach and get people to back your project. Otherwise, you’re screaming into a void with no one caring. One of the reasons we chose Seed&Spark is because they’re oriented around indie films, and they have a training series that gets you started on all the finer points of making a sustainable crowdfunding campaign. This is especially helpful, as running a crowdfunding campaign is like having a second job.

S.S: You want this to be a film talking about your people, the South Asian community, how did this affect your casting process?

R.G: We worked with a casting director to get a lineup of South Asian actors. From there we reached out to the actors whose reels we loved and then rented a spot to carry out auditions for a few hours. Auditions for us were really fun, because it was our first chance to see incredibly talented people bring my characters to life.

S.S: The colouring of the film is very particular, especially the contrast to the present and to the flashback scenes, how was this realised?

R.G: My intention with the look was always to have a clear delineation between shots from the past and shots in the present. As I am also a DP and colorist by trade, I am always thinking about how the look drives the emotional throughline of a film. One of my color mentors, Dado Valentic, encouraged me to push the looks as far and as extreme as possible, which led to the sepia tinged looks of the past, and the desaturated looks of the present.

S.S: The piercing flashes of red and the zombie-like faces are jarring – how did you find the right balance of their inclusion? 

R.G: We were inspired a lot by the film ‘Moonlight’ and used the frightening cutaways of the protagonist’s mother in that film as a starting point. So the cut aways to a moaning, breathing figure were baked in, to show the protagonist’s trauma trying to break out. Where they fit in best really came down to the editing process.

S.S: The dialogue is minimal and the sound design very light. Why did you decide to go this way?

R.G: The sound design is focused on diegetic sound, and the script was light on dialogue as I wanted to focus on the protagonist, Rajan, and his struggle with communicating with his father. A lot of the awkward interactions come down to what’s not said. These strained interactions are heavily informed by things I have dealt with in my own life.

S.S: What is next for the film and its continued festival circuit? 

R.G: Mater Mortis will be on the festival circuit through at least 2022. We won an award for Best Short Horror at Show Low Film Festival, and I’m hoping we pick up a few more. In terms of what is next, I’m developing a different short with another writer/producer, and working on a feature script.

MATER MORTIS’ will screen at Whirled Cinema on Friday 5th November at 11pm

In Review: ‘MATER MORTIS’ by Rishi Gandhi

A short horror where an inexplicable disease becomes a metaphor for the trauma of dealing with the suffering of loved ones. 

From the moment ‘MATER MORTIS’ opens on your screen, your senses are stung by themes of familial trauma and you do not have to travel far to see the personal connection to this film.

A more unusual family gathering as depicted in “MATER MORTIS”

Rishi Gandhi has proudly and boldly broken into the world of narrative film with his incredibly personal short where we follow Rajan, deftly played by actor Leo Solomon, and are forced to endure his heartbreak and confusion in dealing with a mystery illness suffered by his mother. Solomon was recently awarded best actor for his work at the Awareness Film Festival and ‘MATER MORTIS’ has been collecting laurels along its journey in the festival circuit. With its UK premiere coming up as part of London Rocks Film Festival, it is our honour to review his work and also provide an in-depth article into Gandhi’s work.

A haunting soundtrack opens upon the flashback of a young child and then a jarring awakening jolts us into the suffering caused by a mysterious zombie-like virus (a common yet all the more horrific theme considering the reality we live in now). ‘MATER MORTIS’, shot in New York state, has all of the trademark notes of a horror film. Sudden and almost hypnotic flashes of a gruesome face, a newsreader describing the vile reality people are facing and the pained and suffered face of his mother, not to mention the ending – which you just have to wait to reveal itself. 

As previously mentioned (see our extended interview), the film is an exploration of trauma suffered by Gandhi with his own mother’s bi-polar disease and the subsequent struggle in handling a relationship with his father. The initial story was written in 2009, but not put into production until 2019. I have to congratulate Gandhi is his ability to look at his own very personal story and translate that into a film where you are drawn into the dark recesses of Rajan’s mind during flashbacks to a seemingly happier childhood. 

You are left cringing at his father’s treatment of what Rajan is going through, with his blasé dealings with this zombie rot, and then the ease in which we see him being able to move on with his life. You can cut the tension in his relationship with his father with a knife. I felt myself spitting venom towards his character yet at the same time, who are we to judge? Everyone reacts to trauma and to seismic life events in their own way and Siraj Huda, who plays the father, does an excellent job of being very nonchalant in the face of hell.

Gandhi stated that he hopes the film “inspires empathy, self-reflection and conversation”, all of which I can agree with, and very much hope to see audiences continue to deepen their comprehension of the film and the topics it deals with. 

MATER MORTIS’ will screen at Whirled Cinema on Friday 5th November at 11pm

Interview with Janin Stenzel and Lena Stamm, Directors of ‘Easy Said Up High’

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‘Easy Said Up High’ is a short drama filmed across three nations during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2021-22. Directors Janin Stenzel and Lena Stamm also act in the film, which follows the story of best friends Celia and Helen as they maintain a friendship over Zoom, battling all of the things that life threw at them during that weird, surreal time. Locked up in their own homes, Celia and Helen navigate career-changes, dating and exercising. ‘Easy Said Up High’ is an enchanting reminder of all of the things we learnt about ourselves in isolation, and the steps that we take – big and small – to live our lives to the fullest.

Lena Stamm as “Celia” (above) and Janin Stenzel as “Helen” (below)

How did you both meet and begin working together?

LENA: When I moved to London, a friend connected me with Janin to give me some tips, as she had been living in London previously. We went to the same university 4 years apart and apparently had met before, which I wasn’t aware of. We connected so well on the phone that we decided to do something together. I took the train to Paris and we started developing and shooting straight away. 

JANIN:  Lena and I had first briefly met in 2006 at Film University Babelsberg in Germany. I had just started my acting studies and Lena had just finished hers. It wasn’t until 14 years later that our paths crossed again. Lena and I found out that we had a lot in common: we had both worked internationally, living in different cities and establishing our acting careers in countries where we’d had to learn new languages. We started having contact again in 2019 when Lena planned her move from Stockholm to London. Since I had spent 2 years in London I could share some of my experiences with her, to help start her new life in this great city. A few months later in January 2020 we decided to see each other in Paris, where I was living at that time. That’s when we started creating our story about two friends living in Paris and London.

How was it that you both became interested in film/theatre as a career?

LENA: For me it goes back as far as Kindergarden, my first role was a tree in a fairy tale – then came the princess and then the evil queen, and it just went on from there. I always knew I wanted to act, but still wanted to go about it the ‘proper’ way, as in, getting a good degree and then going to Drama School. The filmmaking came later – I thought for a long time, that acting is the thing I am good at, but now I love writing, filmmaking and producing as well. So much so that I now have my own production company Elbee Films.

JANIN: I had always enjoyed acting as a child – inventing characters and situations together with my little brother and my friends. In elementary school, I loved to recite poems and create little sketches in our English classes. I wanted to become an actress, singer or dancer. When I was a teenager I took dance classes, joined several choruses and bands, but my passion for acting grew much stronger. I started acting in drama classes at school and I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living.

How did the idea for ‘Easy Said Up High’ come about?

LENA: We thought we could use our real situation in life; me living in London, Janin in Paris, and develop a story around it. And it started with the location. Janin said, ‘hey, I have a friend who has access to a rooftop where you can see the whole of Paris and Montmartre, how about we let our characters talk there?’ What a fantastic setting it was and so much joy to start filming like that. 

JANIN: When Lena came to Paris, we created a scene between two friends. We got super excited and wanted to shoot that scene straight away. A friend of mine had an apartment with access to the rooftop at that time, and that was the perfect location for our scene. 

How did you manage to film ‘Easy Said Up High’ over three different countries during lockdown?

LENA: This was challenging at first, but once we made certain decisions it was a lot of fun. We decided to shoot from home, with our iPhones and the help of our partners. Yes, they were recruited as props manager, light designer, boom operator and DOPs. 🙂 Sometimes we shot together while connecting via video chat on one device while shooting, and sometimes one shot her part first and the other one came in later. We used the small windows when it was allowed to go outside or to meet people to shoot the scenes where other characters were involved. And when Janin was allowed to fly to Rio, she recruited her husband’s family to drive cars and help out with the equipment. It has been a journey for sure. 

JANIN: Lena and I met in Paris at the end of January in 2020, just before the pandemic started to get serious here in Europe. Then Lena went back to London, and I stayed in Paris. We started developing our story around the circumstances we found ourselves in. Lena kept filming in London, and I shot my scenes here in Paris. Our partners helped us a lot during this process. Luckily, we had just become good friends with our new neighbours, who made it possible for us to shoot the scene with Helen’s neighbour.

JANIN: We actually planned a different ending to our story which was supposed to happen in London with both friends reuniting, but travel restrictions and quarantine measurements made it very difficult for me to go to London. My husband and I planned to spend a few weeks in Brazil with his family so we decided that Rio would be the perfect place for Helen to end up in this story. I travelled on my own to Rio, as my husband managed to go to Brazil a few days earlier, and I had to find a way to shoot Helen’s scenes at the airport. In the early morning hours, I met a very nice man from Italy – Mauro – at the airport Charles de Gaulle. He had just ended his shift and was waiting for his train back to Paris. I asked him if he would like to help me shoot a scene for my short film and since he didn’t have anything else to do, he said yes. He was very sweet!

What provoked you to focus on a friendship rather than say, a romantic relationship?

LENA: That is a really good question. I think one reason was, that we have both been living in different countries for the past 10 years and we know how invaluable longtime friendships are, especially when you are in a new city. And the idea of Celia trying to date during lockdown, was hilarious and so real at the same time.

Arinder Sadhra as “Rameira” in an unforgettably hilarious lockdown dating scene

JANIN: The first idea of ‘Easy Said Up High’ was to tell a story about two friends, so we stuck to it. The pandemic also made it more complicated to shoot with other actors. We could have told more about Celia’s new relationship or Helen’s relationship with Peter and then Gabriel, but it would have become a different film and probably a longer one, too. 

What are your filmmaking influences?

LENA: Greta Gerwig, Hans- Christian Schmid, Tina Fey to name a few. And inspiring recent talks with colleagues, especially from the Women in Film and TV events here in the UK.

JANIN: There are many filmmakers and screen writers that I admire, like Pedro Almodóvar, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Wong Kar-War, for example.

What were some of the biggest obstacles during the production of your film?

LENA: We never knew when we’d be able to shoot certain scenes. There was one time where we hoped to finish the film together back on the rooftop in Paris, but the rules changed so quickly, as we all know, that we had to go in another direction to be able to finish the film at all. So, we are incredibly proud that after all this ,we got over 30 festival invitations worldwide so far. It seems we hit a nerve with our lockdown dramedy! 🙂

JANIN: A big challenge was finding the right time to shoot while being strictly quarantined. In Paris we had a hard lockdown for 8 weeks, when we could only leave our apartments for one hour during the day. My husband was working from home and our apartment at that time was only 36 squared metres. When Lena and I wanted to shoot a scene together, we had to find a time slot when both our partners would not be in any zoom conferences, working or busy with something else. For some shots we needed them as camera men and for others we just needed them to be really quiet (which can be quite challenging when living in 36 m2).

Nicola Peluso as “Veronica”, the nightmare Zoom boss

What message do you hope to spread with you work?

LENA: I would like to inspire people to just do try out their ideas. At first, I was so hesitant to shoot on my iPhone, because as an actress, I was used to being around high quality camera equipment, but not being able to get a proper camera in lockdown in two countries became suddenly very freeing. Buying some extra equipment and walking around London, Paris and Rio with your iPhone; it’s amazing what you can do with it. I wouldn’t want to shoot all my projects like that, but for this one, it was the best decision and made things so much easier under these circumstances.

JANIN: We’ve made this film during a time of uncertainties and worries. We didn’t know how long we’d be locked in our apartments and we wanted to keep working. It was a good moment for many of us artists to explore our creativity in a restricted space. Often, we create an idea, but we hesitate to realise a project due to circumstances – feeling like it’s imperfect or questioning the quality of our idea and procrastinating. Lena and I had many conversations about how we wanted certain things to be perfect or better, and we agreed that it is much more important to use what we have and make the best of it instead of waiting for the perfect equipment or the perfect circumstances and never to finish our film.

What can we expect to see form you both next?

LENA: I just finished shooting a historical film as an actress in Germany and can’t wait to see the result. As a filmmaker I am developing an anthology about a family from the Second World War to the present day, focusing on transgenerational trauma. It is a very personal story, and I am spending a lot of time talking to my parents and relatives and researching my family’s history. So, no light comedy this time. 🙂 The Swedish-English production I have been working on for a while with a wonderful team in Sweden will go into proper post-production soon, and is planned to come out in Spring 2022. 

JANIN: In Germany you can see me in the mini-series ‘Abgenabelt’ in the role of a midwife on Amazon Prime. This summer I shot a short film in Paris playing a mother during World War II, and I am excited to see the final version of the film. And as a filmmaker, I have a few ideas I am working on… Thank you so much Maisie and London Rocks Film Festival for inviting us to chat with you.

EASY SAID UP HIGH’ screens at Whirled Cinema on Friday 5th November 7 – 9 pm

Interview with Mickey Cornwell, director of ‘Court Number 5,’ and lead actors Maggie and Marie Cornwell

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Actors and TV Presenters Maggie and Marie Cornwell are both fourteen and in Year 10 at school. Their most recent acting roles are Anna and Bella in the short film, ‘Court Number 5,’ by their award-winning film director-father, Mickey Cornwell. Our interview takes place over zoom with a Christmas tree in the background that has a gigantic pile of presents underneath. The girls are in high spirits because they’ve just been to a West Ham vs. Tottenham match that West Ham won; Mickey Cornwell’s position as Vice President of West Ham Women’s Football Club is a cherished part of the family and a principal theme in his work as a writer and director. It was even how his first short film ‘Pretty Little Bubbles’ came about, as you’ll find out in this interview with the three Cornwells.

Hi Marie and Maggie, what are you studying at school?

Marie: I took Drama, Music, Film Studies and History.

Maggie: I took the same but instead of Drama, I do Art.

Have either of you had any formal acting training outside school?

Marie: We go to Pauline Quirke Academy. We’ve been there for six years, and we’ve just started out at Italia Conti Associates.

Do you have any other siblings?

Marie: Yeah loads. There’s seven of us. I’m the second to youngest.

How do you two get on in real life?

Maggie: We’re actually really close.

How similar are you guys to Anna and Bella?

Maggie: I would say in some points I’m similar to Anna, but not really.

Marie: Yeah, with Bella, I’m quite the opposite actually, because she keeps to herself, and I love talking about myself!

Marie Cornwell as “Bella” and Maggie Cornwell as “Anna”

Were the characters based on you?

Maggie: I don’t think so.

When did you first become interested in acting?

Maggie: About six years ago is when we started PQA (Pauline Quirke Academy).

Mickey: The first time they became interested in acting was when they came downstairs one day when they were about four or five years old, and they said we wanna do a show!

So, you started doing things in the kitchen at home for your parents?

Maggie: Yeah, we used to make up dances. I used to go gymnastics, so I was always doing that.

I don’t know if you can answer this well because he’s right behind you, but what’s it like working with your Dad and having him as your boss?

Maggie: It’s not that bad. There were a lot of sausage rolls on set and if we wanted more food, we could just ask, so it was pretty good actually!

Marie: They were so good!

How many days filming did you guys do?

Marie: Three.

Do you guys know where the script idea came from?

It was during lockdown, and we were on a walk and our dad came up with it. That’s the story.

Were you guys involved in the making of the storyline?

Maggie: We changed some of our own lines, but every actor does that a bit.

How did you manage to play these characters so well with it being such a delicate topic? Do you have friends or anything that had been through that?

Marie: Yes, and you see a lot of it on TV anyway, so you kind of get different sources and a lot of other people’s point of views on how to play that character.

Do you get nervous at all?

Maggie: I used to get very nervous. When you first get into the environment you feel comfortable, so there was no need to be nervous because everyone’s doing the same thing.

What it was like working with Jaime and Mark?

Marie: There were hilarious!

Maggie: They were lovely!

Marie: The whole cast were great to be around. It was a lot of fun.

Hi Mickey, can you expand on how the idea come about?

Mickey: We were playing with a few ideas for what film I wanted to do as my next film, and anything drama-wise the twins are going to be involved. The whole reason I’m doing this is for their careers – I’ve got a career anyway, so it’s always been more for them. Where I’d won awards in Italy for ‘Pretty Little Bubbles’, I think I wanted to involve the Italian side of things because I know they loved it over there. It was a shame that with ‘Court Number Five’ there were five Italian Festivals that I couldn’t attend because of Covid-19. With ‘Pretty Little Bubbles’ I was over there and enjoying it.

Mickey Cornwell, writer & director of ‘Court Number 5’

Which festivals have you been to?

Mickey: I’ve been abroad loads – I’ve been to Italy twice. My first film ‘Pretty Little Bubbles’, won about 35 awards worldwide and that was the first thing I’d ever done in film. The crew I used were wedding videographers. Now I’ve been to film school and learnt the trade, I see the mistake that they made. I can’t believe how well it did considering how it was made! But I cast it well and Lee Wakefield, a friend of mine, was really good in it.

What was the casting process like for ‘Court Number 5’?

Mickey: Jaime (Winstone) is a big West Ham fan and we’d done a documentary for the BBC called ‘Britain’s Youngest Football Boss’, that she narrated. Her Dad, Ray, is a big West Ham fan so he’s always at the stadium. Then Mac Bannerman is another friend – in London we all know each other and if I don’t know them, I’ll know someone who does! When I wrote the script, I actually wrote it for Marc Bannerman and had him in mind from the beginning. But for however long I’ve known him, I didn’t know he’s not Italian – he’s actually of Irish descent! He’s got nothing to do with Italy at all – so all those years playing an Italian on EastEnders – he isn’t even Italian – can’t speak a word of it!

Marc Bannerman as “Angelo”

I’d known Munir, who played the lawyer, since I was 15 – he went to school with one of my uncles. Louisa Johnson’s dad is in it – he’s the disgruntled guy in the court room. Natalie, the lady who plays the court usher, is one of the girls’ drama coaches – she’s a freelance drama instructor and she’s really good. She’s been in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and her husband’s also a big-time actor, he’s in the crowd. They’re all industry people. I’m a new director in this game, so you’ve got to use people who are known throughout; you’ve got to use industry people. I’ve just finished a true-crime documentary, and all my crew are industry people. My editor works for ‘Panorama’, he’s done tonnes and tonnes of documentaries – I think he’s got 80 credits to his name.

How about Sophia Leonie (social worker)?

Mickey: The only person I cast off mandy.com is Sophia. Samira from ‘Love Island’ was cast to play the social worker, but I had a message from Samira’s agent at 9 o’clock one morning (so it’s obviously in the top of the list of her things to do) saying Samira can’t do the shoot now – she’s working on something else, but what happened was … I had Jaime down to play the Mum, but I didn’t hear from her for a couple of weeks, so I thought she didn’t want it. I then cast Katie Jarvis from EastEnders… A couple of weeks passed, and then my mate messaged me at one o’clock in the morning saying, have you seen the news? The ‘Daily Mail’ had this whole story about Katie Jarvis being arrested for being drunk and racially abusive, and her kids with her at the time. It was the worst story that could ever happen, right? I had my head in my hands thinking, what do I do?

So, you had to let her down?

Mickey: Yes, not even gently, you can’t be acting like that… The twins are mixed heritage – their Mum is mixed race. I’m half Scottish! Anyway, I phoned Jaime back and said this is what’s happened, please can you come on board. She said she wanted to do it from the start. Luckily, she wasn’t booked for anything else and she was well happy to do it!

Jaime Winstone as “Laura”

In the future are you more interested in television or film?

Mickey: I’m building a big production company. I’m going to go across the board really. The twins want do theatre as well, so I might chuck my hat in the ring to do theatre production. With the true crime documentary, because I’m from East London, it’s the people I know, so it’s an easy job.

Is the premise quite top secret, or can you give any hints at what it’s going to involve?

Mickey: I can’t go into it too much at the moment, but Marcel, who did the soundtrack for ‘Court Number 5’ has scored my true crime documentary as well. He was a finalist on Love Island, and he was in the rap group called ‘Blazin’ Squad’. He’s one of my best friends from since we were young.

How did you get into film?

Mickey: Mum and Dad were both stage actors, so I grew up backstage and I hated it! Then once the girls got interested in it, when they went going to Pauline Quirke’s, I started getting a bit of a buzz for it. I was going to do an advert for West Ham, which the twins could be in and get a credit. I started writing the advert, but the ending really hit me in the stomach when I wrote it. I thought, this could be a lot bigger than what I intended it to be. And it was, it really blew up.

When we were filming, I knew the guys were making mistakes, but I couldn’t back myself up by saying, “listen, you’re doing that wrong, can we do it like this?”, because I hadn’t done the film school thing. That’s what was holding me back – I think ‘Pretty Little Bubbles’ could have been even bigger than it actually was. It’s a shame that the twins have grown up now because I could’ve done a remake! The script was so strong.

From there I took myself to Central Film School on Brick Lane and did a six-month intensive course – basically two years in six months – ‘Court Number 5’ was the final piece. I wrote the script for that and thought, you know what, this is good, so I got better actors and a better crew involved. As for the editor, the way I got him, I said look Andy, as soon as I’ve finished shooting this, I’m straight on the road doing this true crime documentary. That was a bit more up his street. I told him it’s going to be a series, and these are the actors I’ve got, but you’ve got to do this short film first, and we got him! He’s a big fish! He literally knows everyone in the industry. Having him has opened up so many other doors.

The biggest thing in the industry is it comes down to who you know, you’ve just got to network and make contacts. But what I’ve found is that everyone wants to help each other. 

‘COURT NUMBER 5’ screens at Whirled Cinema on Saturday 6th November, 4.30 – 7.30 pm

Interview with Micah Dahl, Director of ‘CLARENCE’

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You have a particular idea you want to develop, you want to work with someone who you have known for years and you happen to be attending a trade show in a certain city where everybody knows “what happens here, only happens here”. It is truly a delight to talk to a creator who knows his own mind and what he is aiming towards, but who is also making content that raises the issues we tend to shy away from. ‘CLARENCE’ written by Micah Dahl and Colin Monaghan is an existential short which explores death and the questions we ask ourselves in the darkest of moments. Dahl is an editor, cinematographer, and motion graphics artist among many other things, and London Rocks Festival is proud to showcase his film where the titular protagonist’s last moments of contemplation are laid bare as we follow the final snapshot of his life. 

A deliciously dark micro-budget short set in Las Vegas which leaves you wanting more.

S.S: How did you come together with Colin to write and direct ‘CLARENCE’?

M.D: I have known Colin, a filmmaker and writer in his own right, for years and even now, living across the pond from each other, we have continually talked about projects and pushed each other to write and create. I’ve found that I’ve continually made music videos over short films and wanted to move in a different direction creatively. Going back and forth with Colin on ideas and hoping to collaborate, he had sent an idea (titled Motel) that was more involved that what ‘CLARENCE’ ended up being but initially it was a possible music video collaboration that we were working towards, in the end, we took that script and changed changed it into ‘CLARENCE’.

The film came together rather quickly. I was working at an ad agency in Minneapolis called Broadhead and Cody worked at the MPLS agency colle+mcvoy. We were both headed to Vegas to go to NAB (trade show) and as we are good friends and not into gambling we thought, well we will be in a place where we could make some crazy video stuff, while then going to the trade show – why don’t we just make something once we are out of our sessions. So I threw the idea out, thinking maybe we can live inside a box and work it – meaning myself and Cody at a minimum doing the shoot – but Colin made it and his help was so needed! From getting our plane tickets to Sin City Colin and I went through a bunch of versions to craft ‘Motel’ into a script that became ‘CLARENCE’ and could live within the box that we would be in. When Colin showed up in Sin City I had just finished the boards – we shot it in 3 days, really nights because Cody and I were at NAB during the day and it really just all came together. 

Director Micah Dahl

S.S: What difficulties did you face moving into making this short from your work in music videos, did you have to adopt any different practices?

M.D: Each project I work on has its own difficulties and I don’t really approach short film work differently from music video work – they are both just film work.  With ‘CLARENCE’, timing was of the essence. As we were heading to Vegas for the tradeshow we needed to quickly format the script, figure out what EQ we would be able to bring and keep everything to a minimum.

Planning from afar was challenging as we didn’t know what any of our locations would look like so we were hoping for the hotel room, hallway and elevators to work with the vision of the film and they did!  Not knowing helped us think about what this film was about, at it’s core – it’s about the nano second before death and what might go on in one’s head about the life lived, or not. Quickly going back and forth on email with Colin on the script, and modifying it to the most minimal we could make it, one character, Cody working camera and myself as Clarence – the pre-production was fast and loose. Knowing that we were really pitted into a corner with what was possible but I think when you have to live inside a box of constraints it more than likely boosts the creative thought process.

S.S: Were there any creative differences between yourselves in the changing of the original material in ‘Motel’ to ‘CLARENCE’ and what difficulties did you face working over the pond?

M.D: Well, over the years, Colin and I have just kept sending ideas, thoughts, partial ideas and he’s such a great writer and I’ve been able to be productive in Minneapolis with music videos, other short films so we have always been in contact about ideas. As for difficulties with working across the pond from each other it’s been ok, email and the facetime/zoom hangs work but nothing beats being able to run down to the pub, have a pint and hash out ideas and really sort everything out.

I don’t feel there was any real creative differences overall (except in production I had ended up changing the script while we shot) and that posed a discussion about what ‘CLARENCE’ is answering “No” at the end of the film before he heads into the room. As for differences in the script – I don’t really feel that there was anything big – we knew what constraints we had so that helped set a tone for what was what we could feasibly craft.

Colin Monaghan: ‘Motel’ was a short, written with the intention of getting it into production a fair few years ago now, and therefore I had imposed a lot of constraints, cast and location wise – It took place in a single location (a motel, unsurprisingly) and had a small cast. It was about a man facing his past. Micah sent me the germ of an idea he wanted to develop about decisions made and consequences – fear of a future predicated on past decisions, that kind of thing. ‘Motel’ covered similar themes, so we stripped it back into something that we could make fast and I wrote a draft based on a man (the self, ID, brain etc.) trying to buy some time from his physical (dying) self, to run through past decisions, to see what he could have done differently to separate him from this physical death. It went very quickly from there.

S.S: It sounds like a very brief and intense movement from scripting to storyboarding – is this normally your way to approach work?

M.D: It kind of depends on the project. I just recently made a music video and we had a long pre-production process, shooting over a weekend and the post process was done by myself as editor but we had time and space, minus shooting but we planned for that.  So, it really depends on the project. I’m not out making some crazy bank on any of this so it really comes down to passion for the work. I’ve been involved in the music scene since I was 15 growing up in Moorhead, MN (basically Fargo, I usually say Fargo but no one wants to be from North Dakota).  Most of the music videos I make are with friends, of course that’s changed as I’ve worked with more and more newer people but it always comes pretty quick – overall I would say I try to keep a realistic time table from concept to storyboard to production to post.

S.S: I’m impressed you managed to find such empty spaces at the hotel during the conference in a city like Vegas. What advice do you have to other potential filmmakers looking to make a micro-budget short?

M.D: We didn’t ask for permission which maybe isn’t the best thing to advertise, but we were quite thoughtful about how we were shooting – how we set stuff up on the strip with the timelapse footage (which was pretty weird for me to sit there for 30 minutes still) but also setting up in the fast food place to keep logo’s out of the shots.  One thing for sure is we couldn’t have done it without Colin because he was on the phone with me going over the dialogue in real time and without that it just would have been very wonky – it was so helpful to have someone to respond to.

I come from a super DIY mentality – from music, art, film, whatever the medium. I grew up in Fargo-Moorhead and it was relatively small (100K population at that time max). A conservative place overall so the counter-culture that was being created had to really be innovative and supportive, which was huge. Growing up, there was so much support from what little percentage of the population we were, that we really just had this gung ho mentality.  So – with this, Cody (who I actually grew up with) and I were just like “fuck it, lets do this” which has just been a kind of mindset for myself and the people I’ve surrounded myself with. 

We want to “fuck shit up and make shit fucked up,” as Calvin Johnson said from the band Dub Narcotic. As for that attitude and the shoot, we lucked out with the hotel we were in, the windows looking onto the strip, the drab hallway and simple elevator. We shot pretty late at night, which might not make a difference in Sin City but we surprisingly didn’t have to wait around filming at the elevators or hallway. When we were on the strip or in the restaurant we just went in, not making it look like we were shooting anything, we set up like we were just hanging out and filmed. During the time lapse filming, I did have people come up to me or sit next to me but I just sat in character and didn’t react to what they were doing. It was pretty weird but again – what it comes down to is – are you in on this, well then fuck it, make it happen.  Other advice – don’t piss people off, roll with it and keep your head up.

S.S: You bombard the audience with flashbacks, close ups and timelapses – what feelings were you aiming to draw?

M.D: The main idea of the film is that it’s the moment when the brain finally gives up and lets go in death so Clarence is going through and questioning all of the things that have led him to his death point moment. We wanted these flashbacks, time lapses and close ups to really get into the mind of Clarence but ask more questions than answer. Making music videos helped because I wanted to make something abstract. We (as humans) don’t know what that death moment is, and we were trying to visualize what that closure of life could be. We really lucked out that Cody’s girlfriend had family 8mm footage that we used and it was so poignant.    

As for close ups – it’s about Clarence, realizing that nothing will change for him, no matter what he thinks, or remembers, since he’s having the conversation on the phone with himself –  he can’t change his past so I wanted to make sure we were in on Clarence, his reactions, his mind. So making sure that we were close in on him at open means that we are close on him at the end.

S.S: After such a collaborative and rapid production, how did you move into the post and decide on your final cut?

M.D: After we got back to Minneapolis, Cody and I are both editor/animators to make ends meet so I suggested we both edit a version for ourselves and then together show our versions to see how we both interpreted everything. I got a cut right away, and it was true to the script and storyboard but filled with a lot of overlays and glitch/film burn overlays. Cody is a much more methodical, creative person and took a long time to craft his edit. Once he was ready which was ages after we had gotten back and maybe with a little frustrated push from me he showed me his cut. 

He had switched out the middle and placed it at the opening. He was nervous about showing me but once I saw it, it made so much sense and I was so excited about it. After that I have to say it was the best post experience I’ve had because we really analyzed each second of the film, what the cuts really meant to the overall story and how they amplified or subdued what was being told. It was a real collaboration, as any film should be – but once he got that initial cut it was easy to get down to the brass tacks. Both Cody and I took our time to make the final cut and thought about each frame that’s being seen and what it means, a really good exercise for us in what we do for a living but what our passion brings us to.

S.S: Would you recommend working with such a small team in terms of the learning and the creative process?

M.D: The simple answer is yes. All of my work has been with a small team. I just want to make stuff, and as a filmmaker I’ve always just wanted/needed to make films. I told myself, I better know everything about it, from pre to post production and how it all works which I have also studied from a young age. I’ve just made work, regardless of anything and it really comes down to, what is your vision, what do you want to see, and what do you have to work with, anything, nothing?

I used to have parties where I would get friends to come over, we’d have some brews but I’d lay down certain items on my coffee table and say “ok, we have to make a short film and use this, and do this with a video camera and shooting/editing as we go. It all really comes down to what do you want to do, what do you want to see, how fulfilled are you with what you have made?  

I think it’s more of an attitude, do you want to make stuff, ok then how do you make it.  When you find those people that share a similar mindset it becomes easier because you are all working together to craft something that you all want to be proud of.

S.S: Coloring is always so important in films and ‘CLARENCE’ is a perfect example of how the colouring affects the mood of the film, how was this created?

M.D: Honestly it just came down to Cody and I knowing color work, having done it for so many projects and as post people we just have to have an understanding of a bit more than what we might want to know (software wise) – but it comes in handy when needed. So we made sure we were taking our time while shooting to make sure we were good with what we were getting, and then in post, it wasn’t so difficult to work the color work.

S.S: What are your plans for the film moving forward?

M.D: Continue to see if it can be shown in festivals. Colin and I (well, Colin has thought and I’ve listened) about breaking the film into two other pieces – we ask so many questions with this film, how can we solve or ask more questions about who Clarence is as a person? He died in Vegas, but with all of the pieces he puts down, how did he get there, why is he dead, is he murdered or did he end it himself? So we’ve talked about expanding on who Clarence is, but keeping with asking more questions than answering them.

S.S: What are you working on next?

M.D: Working on some film work and music videos. My great friend, Jacob Swogger makes custom guitars and he and I have worked for years on film stuff so I’m helping him with some video work to promote his SWEET guitars. I just worked on my good friend Adam Marx with his 3 LP masterpiece ‘Come to Life’. As a musician I have made a LP with my friend Pete Foss and it’s being pressed now so I am releasing a record and making a music video for that. I’m also working on a music video for a friend’s band called DUG, so what it comes down to is constantly working and trying to create. 

‘CLARENCE’ will screen at Whirled Cinema on Saturday 6th November 9.30 pm – 12.30 am

In Review: ‘Give Me Light’ by JD Kelleher

Brighton Rocks Film Festival 2019’s Best Music Video Winner Returns . . .

Unapologetic sexual lease-of-life and gay icon JD Kelleher stars in and directs the music video for his new single release Give Me Light. The music video is a captivating cinematic piece with wide-angle shots of an Irish coastal landscape against the soft light of golden hour, with JD basking in the joyousness of the song’s message.

JD is an Irish LGBTQ+ actor, who alongside his acting career (that includes performing in a whole host of Ireland and the UK’s theatre venues) has a burgeoning career as a musician. His 2015 cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart featuring Peter M Smith topped the Irish Rock charts for the marriage equality referendum, landing him a nomination for Best Music Video at Dublin’s Short Film & Music Festival in 2017.

In 2019 he won Best Music Video at Brighton Rocks Film Festival for single Redeem’s music video, in which he is presented in handcuffs with bloody knuckles as the perpetrator of a crime of passion, eventually getting put behind bars. Wearing fifties-esque attire, driving a vintage car captured in stunning aerial shots, the film reaches its crescendo with JD firing a shotgun and getting beaten up himself, by prison guards. Grandeur is what JD does best, and it’s evident in the music video of Give Me Light.

Showing no sign of slowing down, JD’s recent audio-visual return with Give Me Light is shot on the idyllic beaches of Fanore, County Clare. The music video’s direction mirrors the vivacity of JD’s artistic output and individuality by rendering a truly mesmerising visual piece to sit beside the track. The song opens up with contemplative guitar chords that lead into JD Kelleher husky voice; the chorus pauses for an instrumental section with a howling electric guitar solo that continues into a riff acting as the counterpart to JD’s topline.

Described by JD as “…a cool, chilled, gay love song with lovely appropriate pronouns and everything,” the actor-singer is pictured pirouetting to a tranquil, scenic backdrop that flits between day and night, reflecting the transitory nature of falling in love. The fluctuation between the sense of unwaveringness and the anxiety of falling in love itself is what the song is, at its core, about.

The danger of committing to a romantic relationship is depicted in the second half of the music video with a scene that displays JD swinging a fireball while a solo guitar section prowls in the background, stepping up the intensity. Give Me Light and its music video demonstrates JD’s talent for uplifting and empowering his fans via his music and their music videos.

The naturalness of the location with the wind flowing through the satin texture of JD’s scarf indicates the at-oneness of JD’s romantic experience, while the protrusion of his trademark red tailored coat affirms his certainty, asserting his authority of the situation – be it an assuredness of unsureness. This is about having the trust to see something through and being content with not knowing how it will pan out. It’s about being alive.

‘GIVE ME THE LIGHT’ will screen 2 – 4.30 pm on 6 November 2021.

Interview with Alexander Roman, Director of ‘QUEER BLOOD’

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As I’m sure the majority of our readers may know, the world of short films is not one where you are going to make a quick buck. Nor are you likely to find a widespread audience, but this means that a filmmaker’s true intention and flair is allowed to flourish. Here at London Rocks Film Festival we embrace independent cinema and those who push boundaries. ‘QUEER BLOOD’ by Alexander Roman epitomises both the indie and the more unusual, and this director is a prime example of what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. Roman has drawn together influences such as the great Tarantino (who some might argue should be a category of films within itself) and set his short in a city synonymous with the U.S. film industry. He is a filmmaker who takes pride in who he is, and writes characters we might not expect to find in their particular settings. This is one to watch until the very end!

A purposeful film including stunning sets and the threads of violence and desire.

S.S: How did you go about the creation of ‘QUEER BLOOD’ and your characters within that world?

A.R: In November of 2019 I had just come back from filming another project and everything happened very quickly. That’s sometimes what’s interesting about my work, some of the ideas will come through very quickly and writing the script is fast with ideas just pouring out of me and other films can take me much longer. In regards to ‘QUEER BLOOD’, I often feel that artists in general are chanellers and I think we become vessels for ideas that flow and come to us and so. I think it’s always up to that artist when they get an idea if they want to paint it, if they want to write it, if they want to photograph it or film it. It really kind of depends on when you get that idea what you’re going to do with it. 

For ‘QUEER BLOOD’ everything happened, very quickly and very fast, it wasn’t something that I was doing over for a long time. I started having a vision of myself and another guy, both of us being bloodied up. Sometimes, you’ll get one idea or vibe or pick up on some kind of energy and that’s how a lot of my films start. I pick up a vibe or an energy which I want to create and then the story comes through and seeps through. For some people the story comes first, but for me as a filmmaker it’s kind of the reverse. 

This idea about creating a car mechanic who’s homosexual was an interesting dynamic to play because that’s something you often don’t see. A lot of my film work represents homosexual characters and gay story lines and I try to create films that place these characters in situations that maybe you don’t always see in films. 

Jesse Tayeh as “Reggie”

S.S: What do you think can be learnt from creating gay characters such as those within ‘QUEER BLOOD’? Do you feel there is an under-representation? 

A.R: Keep in mind, the amount of LGBTQ content prior to 2010 I would say (roughly speaking) has been limited in relation to other films & TV shows that represent heterosexuality (for lack of better words) so it’s nice to fill in the gaps by creating films & TV shows from previous time periods featuring gay characters & storylines, expanding the cinematic expression! 

Since the 2010s we’ve seen a lot more gay filmmaking and a larger acceptance of seeing homosexual characters in a much bigger and more dynamic way than in other time periods which has been great. Within my little efforts as a self-funded independent filmmaker, I’ve created my own little small niche of films that are artsy, experimental and often vintage in terms of the expression and the vibe that I want to create, I’m very old-school in terms of the type of films that I like to make. I don’t know if it necessarily speaks to the LGBTQ audience per se because I’m drawing on what inspires me and sometimes I’m not always sure that what I create is in alignment with the community, I just do my thing as an artist. I’ve completed four films this past year and the film process is very multi-layered and a big journey every time you take on a film. 

I think LGBTQ+ content has expanded a great deal and will continue to explore stories and characters that an audience member may not always see in a particular setting and/or environment. What can be learned from various gay characters is simply homosexuality exists within every part of society.

Director and actor Alexander Roman as “Nino”

S.S: You are quite a prolific filmmaker with at least 4 this year, how do you balance all of the ideas and “vibes” you have coming to you at once to channel into the various films?

A.R: Boy, that’s not an easy question to answer and honestly … I don’t know how I do it. I have a full time freelance job that pays for my indie filmmaking so it’s always a juggle for me in terms of coming up with the idea … story (screenplay) … vibe … setting and then doing my own scouting, travel coordinating, food, transportation, and many other details that come along with creating a film. I cut many corners and stretch every dollar I have to make it happen. The four films completed this past year in 2021 were all shot in different locations: San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, & New Orleans. How I was able to hop scotch to all of these places within a year roughly speaking with my last film “Cats of the Bayou” wrapping up shooting in New Orleans late January 2020 before the chaos of COVID 19 taking over the world. I can only thank God for keeping my engine running.

S.S: You talk of a vintage feel in your work, it’s a theme I love in ‘QUEER BLOOD’ why did you set the film in this time and how did you find the right sets to film in?

The look and style from various time periods prior to 2000 I find very appealing, and with ‘QUEER BLOOD’ I decided to create that whole montage sequence of combining stock footage shots of what Los Angeles looked like specifically the San Fernando Valley back in the 1940s that relates to the owners of the car repair shop and also to give people that vibe and the energy and that masculinity that’s often associated with people who repair cars. That sequence kind of birthed itself during the post-production process. And then that’s also where I decided to change the story and kind of structure it a little bit differently. 

The idea of the film was incorporating the car mechanic world which is a very hyper straight masculine world which is what I’m drawn to, then also creating the gangster world and showing the people that live under the grip of the underbelly of society. I think in that underground, underbelly of society you deal with extreme emotions and extreme extremities in human behavior and actions and so I thought it would also be very interesting to have my character struggle with these themes in a time where it was more hidden.

The car repair shop was owned by two guys, who worked in Hollywood and repaired picture cars for the movies, so the place comes with a lot of history and nostalgia and you could see that in the décor of the car repair place.

S.S: Tell us more about your casting and any challenges you find acting in your own films? Is it a hard line to cross?

A.R: I always feel I could do better as an actor.  As the editor for my movies, I’m always wanting more from my performance and wishing I could have played scenes better, however most actors feel that way when reviewing their work. I’m pretty hard on myself, but that’s also a good place to be because you’re always pushing yourself. 

The actor who played Sean, Kyle Williams did a great job. His audition really stood out from other performers. What I really liked about Kyle Williams is that I felt that we would have good chemistry and I felt that he brought a sense of danger and threat and that really came out in in his audition and that really stood out.  As the filmmaker, director and co-star I could visualize us having a good chemistry and contrasting each other very nicely. For the role of Reggie, which was initially written for an African-American, I auditioned several black actors, but Jesse Tayeh who ended up playing Reggie is Hispanic and he was another performer, very similar to Kyle, who just brought this sense of danger, a vibe and that boss energy that really stood out amongst the other auditions. This led me to going in another direction and it ended up going to Jesse because he really delivered that role and I think he did such a great job with creating that hip, tough guy who is tough enough to go up against  these criminals who live in LA and do things that are not necessarily law abiding. 

Kyle Williams as “Sean” & Holgie Forrester as “Grandma”

For the actress who played grandma, that was incredibly serendipitous. Holgie Forrester had auditioned for me for a film that I shot back in 2018 called ‘Blackmail’ and I ended up not casting her but when she submitted her picture and resume for my film, I called her up fairly quickly and spoke about her previous audition for me. I knew how she worked as an actress and asked how she would interpret the character. She was the first person I selected for grandma and the first person I cast because it was so immediate and that often happens with me with my projects. I’ll have actors audition for me I may not cast them or have the time to reach out to them, but you know if they follow up on another project that I’m in or if I happen to think of them or remember them, I will definitely reach out and oftentimes I really don’t need to audition them again because I already have that gut feeling that they’re gonna do a great job. When I’m casting my films, I visualize and I feel the chemistry because I don’t often have the time to bring in actors to do chemistry reads and so it has to go based on how I feel and so it all just kind of came together very quickly.

S.S: To delve into your sound a bit more –  where did you find those old sound effects and how were they mixed in?

A.R: The sound effects in the opening montage sequence incorporated effects from the 1930’s thru 1940’s to go against the vintage archival footage of Los Angeles that plays into the history of the car repair shop as well as representing LA’s past while exploring this masculine world of car mechanics. Finding the sound effects is a combination of libraries and doing my own recordings. My incredible sound editor and re-recording mixer Chris Orsi did a great job cleaning up the dialogue and adding wonderful sound effects we worked on together. He goes down the rabbit hole of detail when it comes to sound effects & design, he may answer that question better than I in terms of how it’s all mixed together. It’s a back and forth process with making various changes and tweaks. 

In the past, I didn’t pay as much attention to sound effects & design until I wanted to start incorporating ASMR into my film work, opening up a whole new world for me. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work with Chris on these projects. Each film we do has a different touch … approach … flavor … it’s not cookie cutter style … but I must say I really do give all the credit to Chris because he takes all my ideas yet still makes it his own. With each pass of the sound mix, he always goes deeper … richer with his interpretation along with taking in my notes and suggestions.  It’s always a big treat for me to hear:) what Chris will come up with next leading up to the final mix. When we were working on ‘QUEER BLOOD’ he added in other details that I didn’t even provide or think about. Chris added mood and enhanced the storytelling. Finding the right music for the film that created the kind of the vibe and the energy, that also takes some time. I’ve worked with composers in the past. But the past couple of years I’ve just sourced out music to license, which makes it a little bit easier on my end. I hope to at some point maybe work with a composer once again. But we’ll see what happens. 

S.S: What are your end goals for your films and how do you want to develop your work?

What’s my end goal … to reach completion and thanking God that I made it. Indie filmmaking is rough, it’s a very crowded playing field with endless content from everyone and I do mean EVERYONE so it’s difficult to build an audience in our hyper critical social media world especially when you’re artsy experimental and don’t fall into a commercial category. The amount of time it takes to promote and get one’s content out there is exhausting. There’re only so many hours in the day, especially for indie artists who often have other jobs to pay for their artistic expression, and receiving monies back from the art is a long road especially if a streaming platform is only offering 1 cent for every hour your content is watched minus other “factors” they use to determine final compensation, so I work hard for every penny I get and operate on a low scale.

S.S: What are you working on next?

I do have my irons in the fire … I don’t like to give too much away … but it will be something along the lines of spies, a birthday wish, AI, a different shade of spooks & chills during Halloween, and a disappearance in New York City.

Interview with Giulio Melani and Nicola Gurrieri, creators of ‘Black Fish’

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‘Black Fish’ is the most genre-defying, evocative and charming film of this year’s LRIFF selections. It is part documentary, music video, experimental film, sci-fi, adventure, drama, and work of poetic realism. It is shot on an aesthetic 16mm black and white. We caught up with its creators Giulio Melani and Nicola Gurrieri to learn more about their extraordinary odyssey.

J.R:  We hear that you made ‘Black Fish’ while in artistic isolation on a boat off the coast of Tuscany. Was the shoot largely improvised?

G.M. & N.G:  In the summer of 2020, we escaped in the city during the pandemic and spent a few days on a little boat with the idea of shooting a short film around the theme of isolation from society. We had in mind this figure of an alien, coming down to earth looking for a place that he expected to find, but could not. There was no written script to it, so improvisation was definitely part of the creative process. We drew inspiration from the places and atmospheres we were living in. What we experienced in the moment became our work, impressed on film.

Nicola Gurrieri (AKA singer/song-writer Giugno)

J.R:  Your film is wonderfully playful, yet serious, surreal, yet real. How did you impart these contradictory ideas?

G.M. & N.G:  We liked playing with contradictions. These came up spontaneously while working on the film. The places we were discovering were intricately and utterly contradictory themselves: abandoned, monstrous factories in the middle of beautiful natural landscapes next to the seaside. We decided to take this further by juxtaposing different images, to add another level of surreality to the film.

J.R:  The first minute of ‘Black Fish’ has a narrator talking about his impressions of the sea’s colours, how it evokes in him notions of Atlantis, etc. Is it possible for the viewers to say, definitively, what ‘Black Fish’ is about?

G.M. & N.G:  We wanted to leave the viewers space to imagine and interpret the story, which could be understood in different ways and on multiple levels. The narrator is a tool to set the story back into a real place. Through his first-person, real-life narration, he describes a set of observations of events, contrasting with the more surreal, mythological or emotional aspects that are evoked or connected with it. We asked the narrator, Nicola’s uncle, to talk about this one place on the Tuscan coast, Piombino, from the point of view of a local. We turned the microphone on and let him talk without interruptions, perhaps something close to cinema verité. We liked the spontaneous character of this oral document and put the more evocative, poetic parts together as an intro, intermezzo and outro to the film.

Giulio Melani

J.R:  The song ‘Black Fish’ is catchy and happy, an unusual (if pleasing) accompaniment to the visuals. Can you tell us more about this song?

G.M. & N.G:  Nicola (Giugno) wrote the song a few years ago, after moving to Milano. The lyrics describe the feelings of someone coming to a new place, looking for directions, trying to find orientation. It is also about loneliness and the feeling of being a small creature within a bigger whole, someone who, momentarily, manages to blend into the chaos of the modern city. The music is part melancholic, part happy, creating a contrasting atmosphere. The song was recorded in Berlin in a studio on Hauptstrasse. From its windows one could see the building where David Bowie and Iggy Pop would live, and we believe that this proximity influenced the music in some ways.

J.R:  That’s very cool indeed. We suspected that your protagonist, the androgynous, binocular-clad alien, was inspired by Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” a film that has a lot to say about otherness and the act of looking. Was that your aim too?

G.M. & N.G:  Our protagonist inspects the landscape that is foreign to him, analyses it and observes it through the lenses of binoculars. Thanks to this instrument, he is able to take part in a new world that he needs to understand. Disappointed by what he has been able to discover, he eventually returns to the abyss from which he probably emerged. The optical element physically separates the eye of the solitary alien from the earth’s realm. By using this device, this filter, the protagonist consciously defines himself as “different”, from a reality that he cannot interpret except through the use of a specific instrument. In a similar way, the author or cinematographer produces his/her works. He/she estranges him/herself from the world and looks at “the other”. Perhaps is it necessary to become alien in order to try to clarify the confusion that surrounds us?

J.R:  Your cinematography juxtaposes the grandeur of ancient architecture with the industrial wastelands of the present. Can we find beauty in modern ugliness?

G.M. & N.G:  Beauty can be found everywhere. A shack in the favelas or an abandoned factory can be as exciting as a baroque palace or a modern villa. It depends on the viewer’s sensibility and aim. In our film, we did not judge or glorify the architecture that we found. We decided to portray the ruins of modern industry or the wind turbines because they raised some interest in us. We were fascinated by the way things can acquire a different aura around them when extracted from their usual context and put in an environment that might feel wrong. We found beauty in the feeling of estrangement. This works for many forms of art. Juxtaposing images of ancient Greek columns with modern-day industrial chimneys was a formal technique to create a narration through time, a tool for the alien protagonist to travel to another dimension, creating tension between different eras and spaces.

J.R:  You cite the influence of Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luigi Comencini and Alice Rohrwacher. It also made us think of Godard (Le Mépris), in your framing of Greek statue; a sense of nostalgia for the ancient world, and wonder mixed with horror at the industrial modern landscape.

G.M. & N.G:  Some great cinema authors certainly had a big influence on us: particularly those deep, black and white movies, realist or magic, that leave a lot of space to imagination even when they portray very simple life scenes. We are quite nostalgic and longing for these old-fashioned, poetic ways of making cinema. One of the references that was in our heads while shooting our short was the “Pinocchio” by Comencini. It is a six-episode miniseries produced by Italian national television (RAI) in 1972, when high-quality cultural production was still possible on TV. The movie is rough, real, moving, and its characters are genuine and tragic. The scene in our film when the protagonist grows a fish fin on his back, and then jumps in the water is in a way a tribute to Geppetto, the father of Pinocchio, who dramatically leaps into the stormy sea, without being able to swim, to seek his lost son.

J.R:  I’d definitely like to watch that. As part of that nostalgia, we noticed that you rejected digital, in part, to make a stand against the medium’s ‘instantaneity’. Is digital all bad, and how was your experience of shooting in 16mm?

G.M. & N.G:  We do not reject digital per se. We of course live in our present times, where digital technologies are a big part of everyday life and work at all levels. For such artistic projects, however, we decided to use the medium of 16mm film for different reasons. Film is less accessible for economic and technical reasons. Through its value, one is confronted more responsibly with the medium. There is some kind of mutual respect and more of a physical relationship between the film and the filmmaker. You do not want to waste material, so shots are often thought through and prepared more carefully. Nevertheless, we shot this project with a Bolex camera, with a more free-hand, almost documentary-style approach, capturing moments and scenes as found. Our experience with filming on 16mm was overall very exciting, with all kinds of technical difficulties, unforeseen events and unexpected results, that made the work even more special and unique in the end. Having almost no control on the medium might seem a limit at first, yet we see it ultimately as an added value to the creative process.

J.R:  Will you pursue your collaboration? What are your next artistic projects?

G.M. & N.G:  We definitely want to and will pursue our collaboration further. So far, we have been working on a few music videos together. Giulio is responsible for the visual part of the music project called Giugno, which is Nicola’s creative outlet as a musician and songwriter. We are currently working on two new short movies, a documentary and a fiction. Giulio was directing, while Nicola starred as actor and curated the soundtracks. We are excited to show them and send them to festivals next year as soon as they are completed.


Interview with Cory DeMeyers, Director of ‘DANNY BOY’

How much do our backgrounds influence who we are and what we do? Whilst few of us are lucky enough to realise our childhood dreams, a personal youthful desire to be a marine biologist was rudely shaken from me upon my realisation that my brain doesn’t work well towards maths and science. The trajectory our lives can take is often a direct result of what we have done, combine that with a dream and the know how to, and a perfect fire of creativity is born. London Rocks Festival has the privilege of showcasing Cory DeMeyers, a man with a career many will be enviable of as an award-winning stuntman, a professional athlete, a producer for various sports-based content and co-direction of a documentary ‘From Here To There’. He has worked for directors revered by most of us and we are proud to introduce his first narrative short ‘DANNY BOY’.

A Los Angeles based heist film with dark and enticing visuals, jarring dialogue and a delightful unexpected turn.

S.S: Where did the inspiration stem from for this hard-hitting first narrative short?

C.D: The thing that set it all off for us was the fact that both myself and writer Sammy Horowitz are stuntmen. We had been looking for a creative project to do together to showcase other skills we possess outside the department that we have been working in for years. Sammy had started writing a lot and wanted to shoot one of the concepts and I had been shooting action sports as well as an action previs on features for the stunt department, but I wanted to challenge myself with dialogue and working with actors in non action oriented scenes, the story then flowed from there. 

We wanted a simple setting to highlight the dialogue and relationship of our characters. I wanted something that felt real raw, the shit two guys in this world might talk about on their way to a heist, and for the pacing and style we both thought it should emulate the royale with cheese conversation from ‘Pulp Fiction’ but also be its own thing. I think we achieved that and as we continued the plot thickened, surprising twists were developed and both characters became very unique individuals.

The shoot itself came together in what was 48 or 72 hours. I called a DP & Camera Op I have been friends with and worked with for years, they were both down to come out and play. One of them had a route that would look great and we could drive relatively unbothered, we had no permits and some lights and other camera gear we could use. I decided to use my old stunt cop car that I had given to Actor Jett Jansen Fernandez, who plays Danny. We felt that was a fun look, the criminals were driving an old detective car as cover, then we brought on Brian Perez for sound who I had done a few events and promos with. We got the cast together in an AirBnB I was renting in LA along with Associate Producer Sari Sanchez, who by the way is a killer actress herself. We rehearsed one night for a few hours until the actors were off book and had breathed their own life into the characters, then I ran around for a few hours before the shoot and bought the last few props and wardrobe items we needed and we were as ready as we were going to be!

Jett Jansen as “Danny’ & Sammy Horowitz playing ‘Francis’

S.S: You have shot various sports related films and obviously with your incredible background, what were the challenges moving into narrative form?

C.D: Because of my position in the parkour and freerunning world I had shot several cinematic sports videos that then lead into shooting mountain biking & pro wrestling. Being a movement artist and having an interest in filmmaking meant I had an intuition that was fine tuned for understanding movement, so we could dance with the camera and counter the action to make things fun and exciting. Rarely did we shoot dialogue on its own, if we did it was in the moment because it was a docu-style piece or it was a simple sit down interview with 1 or 2 camera coverage so this is where I really struggled with the directing of ‘Danny Boy’ as I have grown accustomed to having very dynamic camera movement in my sports pieces.

Thankfully with this short the two went hand in hand and we kept the coverage very simple and mostly static locked off over the hood in a wide two shot or single, we didn’t need trick shots to keep things interesting as the dialogue is enough to draw you in but we did make sure that the edit matched the pacing of the story so you were never bored sitting in one shot to long. 

Keeping it simple with our camera angles helped dramatically because it gave more attention to the movement in camera. For example, in the car, the camera does a slow push in immediately after the jarring twist occurs, this now has emphasis and meaning.

S.S: How much influence have the numerous big names you have worked for had on you?

C.D: I think they have all influenced me in one way or another, whether it is how they select shots, the styles in which they work and collaborate with the actors on their team or even the little tricks they use while trying to command their sets and keep things moving. When I have these opportunities to be on set with the masters, I usually find a place out of the way so as to not interfere and sit back quietly observing. I think in this way you can see the big picture and analyze the work being done. There is always something to learn, sometimes it is what to do, other times it is what you may not want to do when it is your turn in that position, but either way I consider it a win if at the end of day I have learned something I didn’t know when I showed up that morning.

Director Cory DeMeyers

S.S: I love your dialogue, I’m currently re-watching the Sopranos (I won’t tell you how many times i’ve seen it all) and I felt those motifs within your characters and their chat. Talk me through the line you drew between what you had originally scripted and the actors breathing their own lives into the characters.

C.D: It’s funny you mention the Sopranos because that is one of Sammy Horowitz’ favorite shows. I’m sure there was a bit of influence there, but also I know Sam draws from the people he’s come into contact with over the years which keeps the characters a little more grounded. I trust Sammy and his writing so much, therefore I never really wanted to change too much, as the words that are written have meaning and there is a reason they are on the page. That being said, during rehearsal I noticed two things. Firstly, Danny’s character needed a secret, he needed to also be hiding something from Francis as Francis was hiding something rather large from him. This led us to explore the idea of Danny not only being a defender of the people and modern ideals, but also carrying the burden of hiding the fact that he doesn’t live a lifestyle that his partner in crime would approve of. That’s the beauty of having a team that you trust, things move a little faster. Secondly, there was a line at the end of the film, a call back to the earlier about the donut. Once we watched the actors perform in rehearsal I felt that the line had to go, but Sam felt that it would stay. He felt it was a strong punctuation and from the perspective of the writer it was a nice bookend that brought it home. We trust each other so I told Sammy that we would shoot it the way it was written and then I would get an ALT without the line as back up, we could then try both in the edit and go with whichever felt right. Ultimately, the delivery of that line always felt a little too funny to me and although there are some dark comedic moments in the film, overall it is a drama. We decided that the line would go and it was a more powerful ending if Danny just really said nothing at all.

S.S: Sammy is brilliant in his portrayal of Francis, how did you come to cast Jett Jansen for Danny did you not fancy featuring yourself?

C.D: Sammy really is brilliant, he has a great look for Francis, he knows the story intimately and he is larger than life. I felt like Jett was a great contrast to Sammy, not only would his subtle style of acting work great against Sam’s big characterization, physically he is smaller, Sammy was going clean cut and hair slicked back, Jett was leaving it long and is a stocky hairy guy. I felt like they really could be each other’s yin & yang on camera and I think we got it right. On top of all that, Jett comes with a more classical style and stage experience so I felt like he could handle the material and be off book quick which was very important for this project.

I love acting but I have never actively pursued it. I have done a decent amount over the years, but I would rather focus on directing and let someone more talented than me bring the characters to life. I like sitting outside, seeing the big picture and guiding it from that perspective. For ‘Danny Boy’ my ultimate goal was producing and directing, I didn’t have a good look for the character or the pseudo period that we implied through our wardrobe and dialogue and at the end of the day Jett was the perfect choice. I must say though, Sammy’s characters speak to me and I often act out while reading these characters. We have discussed me playing one of his characters down the line so I think it will happen, but It has to be right.

S.S: Why did you think it was important to talk about the taboo in certain worlds towards LGBTQ norms that are so prevalent these days? 

C.D: I’m not an activist by any means, but I am a human being with a very wide array of life experience and to answer your question in its simplest form, I think it is important to reflect life in cinema. What I enjoyed and think is important was allowing a character to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community in our film but never talking about it until we had to, to me that is real. People largely do not just go around shouting their sexual preference out and making it the topic of conversation, they are going about their day and making their ways through life just like any other human being sharing this experience. I think in making the choices we did with Danny as a character we actually were lending to his authenticity, he became more real and relatable. We want to tell a fictional story, but the more you can connect with the individuals and sympathise with them the more invested you become. This gave Danny heart, it gave him layers and in a sense made him more human.

As far as the importance of talking about the taboo towards LGBTQ+ individuals, I have several friends in these communities and for me it is fun to break convention in the crime drama and introduce a character you may not think of typically working in this world, representation does matter, and the way that we highlight that and talk about it in the film is one that is unique and fun in the context of film. I think it really highlights how wild and silly that school of thinking that Francis subscribes to is. Furthermore you could frame several ideologies here and they would all be highlighted as equally absurd. The truth is it does exist, and in cinema Guy Richi had done it with Tom Hardy’s character in Rockn’ Rolla, but they took a more comedic angle that helped to drive the narrative. We are happy with the choices we made & proud of what ‘Danny Boy’ and Danny stand for.

S.S: The production value is so streamlined and high end, do you think this was because of your connections in the industry and do you think you could have made ‘Danny Boy’ without those?

C.D: We shot on RED Gemini and RED Monstro digital cinema cameras with Kowa anamorphic lenses. The monstro and lenses belong to my friend George who is an awesome filmmaker and directs music videos & commercials in LA. He is always down to come out and help me in any capacity on my projects, the other camera is one I own for stunt previs. The vintage Japanese lenses we used really lended a beautiful touch of nostalgia to the piece, it really was just what we needed. 

As far as anything else, I think you will be surprised to know that we shot the entire project in 4 1/2 hrs in 1 night and when it was all said and done post production and photography came out to around $4,600 USD!

I would absolutely contribute the production value to my connections in the industry as well as my relentless spirit for perfection. I could not have created ‘Danny Boy’ in the same way without having kept great relationships over the years, but to tell you the truth, if I couldn’t make it the way we had, I wouldn’t have made it at all. 

I know the level of quality I am capable of and if I can not line up the pieces and put my absolute best foot forward I won’t do it at all, it can be both a blessing and a curse. I know just getting out there and making things is important and I truly believe in that, but I think since I am already established in the industry as a stunt performer and coordinator, there is a level of expectation set if you are trying to cross over. That internal dialogue is what makes me strive for only the highest quality even if our budget is limited.

S.S: Your shoot and entirety of the project was phenomenally fast – how long did you work on the edit and how did that go?

C.D: We were able to shoot fast because the actors were off book and well rehearsed, that prep was key. Not only that, we started with the wide master of the two of them in the car, once we had that the rest of the coverage was really easy. As far as the post goes, we started the edit at the end of February with Jeff McEvoy, whom I met during the production of ‘Project Power’ for Netflix. Jeff had not only edited Power, he had also done ‘Nerve’ & ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ so I knew he would do a great job with ‘Danny Boy’. I learned a ton from him during this process an he really was a great collaborator and cheerleader for the team. The edit, VFX, tile design, color and finally sound design and the post mix took us up to the end of May, beginning of June. Once it was locked we started submitting it to festivals. I love the post process, and really have a lot of experience here so I stepped in as the post supervisor and managed the entire process.

S.S: What do you hope for the film moving forward and what are you working on next?

C.D: I hope that the film will continue to be well received by audiences and spark conversations, that’s all we can really ask for, for the film to be viewed and appreciated for what it is. As individuals, I hope it gives us a platform to launch others from. I hope it becomes something for Sammy to stand on as a writer and actor and I hope as a director/producer it gives me a calling card to start other conversations with individuals we haven’t worked with before in order to continue growing and creating. But, It’s a wild industry and honestly I’m just trying to enjoy this ride.

In the future, I’d love to do a few more shorts and we do have some in the works, more crime and drama, but also some action and sci-fi. Currently, I am developing a feature with Sammy and his writing partner Adam Pasen titled ‘Musket & The Rat’. We just finished shooting a proof of concept for that so getting into post now, but features can take years so hopefully I get to perform and coordinate in the stunt department a bit more this year, I still love that and am very passionate about it. Any opportunity to continue contributing and creating in the film space is welcome by me!

Danny Boy’ is screening at London Rocks Film Festival on Friday 5th November at 11 pm

Interview with Kyle Dunbar, director of ‘Mute’ and lead actor Andrew Bee

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DR JAMES ROWLINS, LONDON ROCKS CO-DIRECTOR: ‘Mute’ is a gripping adaptation of a Stephen King short story from the ‘Just After Sunset’ collection. It is a slow-burn mystery that begins when a lapsed middle-aged Catholic visits a local priest for confession. We interviewed director Kyle Dunbar and actor Andrew Bee to get the insider take. How did you decide upon this particular story to adapt? And how did you approach getting the rights to a Stephen King story?

KYLE DUNBAR: The hitchhiker element was definitely the biggest factor for me. I haven’t seen many films that use hitchhikers these days, and this one really used it as a big part of the story. I adapted ‘Mute’ through the Stephen King Dollar Baby Program, where for a dollar you can get the rights to one of his selected short stories. This was something I had wanted to do for a while and in August 2020 I pursued getting the rights to make the film.

Kyle Dunbar, director of ‘Mute’

J.R: ‘MUTE’ is a reminiscent of some great old-school mystery horror classics, in the style of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, etc. What do you feel about the more contemporary trend for mystery/horrors, i.e., ‘wham bam’ gore and guts?

KYLE DUNBAR: I have an appreciation for them, but they seem to take up 90% of what we think horror movies are and need to be. If used well (‘Evil Dead’, ‘Green Room’, ‘Haunt’) and it is justified to the story, it can be really effective. It is more of a challenge to sit the audience down and get them psychologically terrified than it is to get them disgusted or to get them with a jump-scare. 

ANDREW BEE: The most important thing for me will always be story. I have watched a ton of bad movies in the last couple of years to learn about what not to do. And I have seen many, many gimmicks used to cover bad stories. Quick cuts, camera angles, slow motion, blood and guts and music score can’t make up for it.

J.R: The use of the Catholic confessional, as well as a mute interlocuter, are powerful narrative techniques. Did you take any inspiration from other films that use these tropes?

KYLE DUNBAR: During preproduction I had really played with the idea of paying homage to ‘The Sentinel’, ‘Exorcist III’ or ‘The Omen’, and then with hitchhiking, there’s ‘The Hitcher’ with Rutger Hauer. I had all of these in the back of my mind, but I didn’t want to bring them to the forefront. ‘Mute’ seems to take a little slice of stories that inspired it and does its own thing. If some audience members see connections, great, but it’s certainly not the goal.  

J.R: You mainly use two sets for your entire film (the priest’s home and the car journey), to great effect. Could you tell us more about this choice?

KYLE DUNBAR: I love the dual-confessionals; one set is more civil and cosy, whereas the other is colder, darker and more abrasive. It allowed us to flash back to the past and to see how the main character reflects on the episode from the present. The main character tells a story on two separate occasions about a similar subject that ultimately led to opposite outcomes, because time and place is everything and so is state of mind.

J.R: ‘Mute’ is driven as much by dialogue as its visuals. What techniques do you use to keep the audience captivated?

KYLE DUNBAR: I think it was combinations of Stephen King’s gift of having his characters say the most fitting lines, and being fortunate enough to work with a cast who loves heavy dialogue. The cast also studied the original story and were able to take in the characters’ internal moments that King puts in his work. I could see the passion and energy each actor was bringing to their character and we see their quirks slowly come out and the characters get meatier.

J.R: Your lead actor, Andrew Bee, is a veteran performer. How did you approach directing, and what did you take away from the experience?

KYLE DUNBAR: Andrew and I have worked together for many years, so the experiences only get better. While working on the script I knew that I wanted to work with Andrew as the lead role, and the words seemed to suit him perfectly. The more you work together the more you are able to challenge one another and I couldn’t be happier with his performance in the film.

J.R: The maligned, unfaithful wife is only alluded to, which is a staple of film noir, though increasingly unusual in the modern era. Could or should the wife have some redress in this tale?

KYLE DUNBAR: I had no intention of making the main character likeable; I wanted him as the villain as much as the victim. When I read the story I felt like I was being forced to side with him, something that was unusual and it certainly added to the dark nature of the story, because usually we want to root for main characters. So I wanted to see about getting that across, and to do that, I only painted the picture with Monette’s paintbrush, which now lacks the colours of his wife.

Andree Bee as ‘Monette’

ANDREW BEE: I never tell a story from a “should” perspective. This is an adaption of a short story, and it was important to us to honour the original content.

J.R: We have a lingering feeling that Monette is not an entirely truthful narrator. Is he as innocent as he claims?

KYLE DUNBAR: My lips are sealed.

J.R: How has ‘Mute’ been received by friends, critics, festivals etc.?

ANDREW BEE: I have received excellent feedback and we have had some very good reviews, one in particular from Indie Mac User:

“Andrew Bee is required to essentially carry the film and he manages to find different levels to his character that keep us hooked and intrigued”

“Director Kyle Dunbar mostly allows the story and performances to speak for themselves; making only simple, yet elegant visual choices.”

J.R: Please tell us about your current and upcoming projects?

ANDREW BEE: I am working on a couple of short films that are very, very dark and not politically correct. In the time we are living now, with Twitter and Instagram arbitrarily cancelling accounts they deem inappropriate, as an artist, I won’t give into the fear of offending someone. I spend a lot of time on social media, out of necessity, and when I see how terrified people are of saying anything “wrong” and the disclaimers they put in their posts, I feel very sad that this is where we are in society.

KYLE DUNBAR: I am developing an anthology film called ‘Trepid Hour’ as well as an online horror series for social media platforms. More details can be found on Instagram (pendle_films) Twitter (@PendleFilms) and pendlefilms.com

‘MUTE’ is streaming from 1 – 7 November 20201 as part of London Rocks Film Festival at the Rocks Screening Room