Interview with Barry J Gibb, Director of ‘The Gift’

We are at the dawn of a new year and January is heralding all its sparkling and freshly anticipated opportunities – but what if you knew that the only thing awaiting you was your final end? Barry J Gibb is an award-winning filmmaker with a beguiling background in molecular biology and neuroscience who has deftly turned his inquisitive and accomplished mind to the world of film, and in this case, documentary. ‘The Gift’ is a meditative exploration of the phenomenal life of the vibrant artist Barbara Bird as she lives through the contemplation and acceptance of her death.

An agonising yet heartwarming introspection into the strength and resilience of one woman portrayed in an unexpectedly beautiful way.

S.S: Where did the idea come from for such a compelling piece?

B.J.G: I’m sort of obsessed with time. Initially, I wanted to make a single film all about time – its measurement (as in watches), its very nature (as in the physics of it) and its perception (the human experience of it). The grand plan was to somehow weave these 3 threads together. I started by interviewing a physicist about the fabric of time. For research I read ‘A Brief History of Time’ so I at least had a grasp of the area and asked decent questions. I then interviewed Peter Whibberley at the NPL, the National Physics Laboratory, to chat about atomic clocks and time. All this was fascinating stuff – I tend to start with areas people feel comfortable with, then I ask more probing questions. It’s interesting, for instance, to ask a physicist about their first memories!

Once it got to the idea of exploring the perception of time, I had all these thoughts about, how does a monk perceive time, or a farmer, a prisoner, a refugee..? But then I wondered, what if you knew you were going to die – how would that affect your perception of time? Ultimately, I think, rather than exploring time, I decided that it was the preciousness of the time we have that was intriguing. Of life.

So I got in touch with Living Well Dying Well (LWDW) – I’d made a short video with them about being an End-of-Life doula, and asked for a little help. I wondered if they might be comfortable reaching out to see if there were any people prepared to talk to me – people who knew their time was limited, that they were dying. After an initial project with someone whom I first met in 2017, LWDW got in touch with me about a woman in Hastings, Barbara. I was surprised by how young she was. I just don’t imagine terminal cancer patients being so young, vigorous and funny. I also loved her Californian accent.

Sam Hill (left, Barbara’s end-of-life doula), Barry J Gibb and Barbara Bird in Hastings

That first interview was a challenge. Barbara cried throughout much of the hour-long chat and it was hard not to feel bad, that I was somehow dragging up unpleasant feelings and thoughts – several times I asked if she wanted to stop but she refused. I think it was cathartic. During the interview, Barbara mentioned wanting to leave her body to science at which point, my mind simply said, wow – imagine filming a single person before and after death…It actually took me more than a month to summon the courage to write to Barbara after that and ask her – and her husband, Mark – if they were cool with me filming them over an extended period of time which would also include her death and beyond. I mean, it’s not a normal ask, is it?!

We filmed over two years. I created a list of events it would be good to film and made sure Barbara kept me in the loop of anything that might be a good film opportunity. People are so guilty of thinking their life is boring, but to a filmmaker it can be gold. One morning an idea came to me as I was waking up that made far more, poetic sense, for the ending – and this is how the film now ends, with Barbara herself becoming an integral part of her collage

S.S: Are documentaries a mainstay for you and how do you feel they can be used to tell a story creatively?

B.J.G: Big Question! Yes, they’re what I live and breathe for. Primarily because I love the creative treatment of reality. Actually, this is tougher to answer than I thought! Let’s start at the beginning – I love reality – there’s nothing more pure, honest and important than the very moments in which we find ourselves. Ever since watching Albert Maysles docs (I met him in New York, which was awesome) and some of the early works by the founders of documentary, like Grierson, I’ve been entranced by the idea that every human, indeed everything that passes through time, has the potential to contain a story within it.

The creative part, for me, is the impressionistic treatment of that reality – not trying to change the reality of the story but trying to use editing as a means of enhancing and finding and playing with the emotional content and beats of the story. I suppose it’s a bit like music – there are the notes but it’s how you play them that alters the feeling of them. At heart, I’m a romantic, sympathetic heavyweight looking to tell the most emotional stories I can with what may appear to be the most normal of situations.

Barbara Bird

S.S: Do you think your background in science has an effect on the way you approach filming and if so how?

B.J.G: Absolutely. Part of doing a PhD is learning to be self-sufficient. You design your own experiments, learn new experimental techniques, interpret your results and move forward. Filming is the same. It never even occurred to me to go to film school – while still working in a lab, I got a Mac, a camera and taught myself how to film, edit and capture sound. I used to practice editing by downloading movies from and creating remixes, using editing to usurp the original purpose of a film, find the humour in it… I love collaborating on ideas and sometimes in the edit, but I work largely alone. The initial idea for a film can be like a hypothesis, the footage I capture is like the raw experimental data, the edit becomes the real experiment where you attempt to see if the hypothesis was correct or – even better – you discover something entirely new.

Today, 90% of my client work is science based – working with scientific institutions to help tell their stories. My past training helps me understand what they want, allows me to easily communicate with the scientists being interviewed and helps me edit and tell their stories in a way that’s relatively simple, clear and uncomplicated.

S.S: Interviews can be challenging at the best of times, so what sort of questions did you ask Barbara in order to gain insight into her person/character and her intimate journey?

B.J.G: I love interviewing people. I had no idea I was reasonably good at it until clients started commenting on it. Perhaps aided by the fact I work alone, when I interview someone, it’s pretty clear, this is just about them – I am interested, I am listening. I care. With Barbara, the initial interview was trying to cover a lot – her attitude to life, time, death. In a situation like that, you have to tread respectfully – you’d never start with question 1, tell me how you feel about death! The way I structure interviews is much like I’d imagine getting to know a friend – start light and gradually (as you build trust and rapport) start getting emotionally deeper. Barbara and myself touched on her childhood, her mental wellbeing, her first memories, her diagnosis, how she started to prepare for death and, of course, how all this has affected her feelings about the time of her life.

S.S: The music featured alongside this heady subject matter really melds – how did you come to create the soundtrack?

B.J.G: All the sound and music is created using Logic Pro. I’d always wanted to learn how to use that software and the combination of ‘The Gift’ and lockdowns allowed me to do an online course to learn it (very crudely) and then use it to create the sort of feelings and sound I was after. I work with music libraries all the time and I know they are brilliant. But whenever I stood at the edit, this film felt like it needed something of its own – maybe not music, as such, but more a sound that would guide the emotional landscape and help provide story beats as the viewer went through it. I saw the film again recently and I couldn’t really remember coming up with some of the musical beats and pieces but they still felt like they were working (so that was a relief!). I also noticed there’s a sort of religious, choral feel to a lot of the sound – born more of reverence for the subject matter than anything to do with religion. I guess I wanted people to feel they were watching something vital, important – a person’s life passing.

S.S: You spoke about filming over a 2 year period. Do you struggle with such a long league time?

B.J.G: With docs, I think it’s pretty easy to just keep filming and convince yourself you have a film. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity Barbara and myself were sharing – this journey we were on – so I was pretty strict with myself. A list was created of ‘things I’d like to film’, aspects of Barbara’s life and death that I felt would help. When thinking about a doc, I tend to think there are at least two aspects to the story – what the film is about, and what the film is really about. For ‘The Gift’, at a simple level, this is a chronological journey that follows a woman to her death. But for me – and hopefully a viewer – it’s about far more.

S.S: What do you want audiences to take from ‘The Gift’

B.J.G: The film is Barbara’s literal gift to the audience. A viewer may be passively watching her story but at the end, Barbara flips the script and starts to talk about you, the viewer – that your life is like a collage and that means you can change it. So, I hope that people come away from the film inspired by the honesty of Barbara’s journey and also motivated to make the most of the life they have, realising they still have agency to change it, to shape it the way they’d like it to be. I want people to watch ‘The Gift’ and come away more able to cherish every moment on Earth they have.

S.S: What is next for you?

B.J.G: This pandemic has been awful for the world. As a person who thrives on documentary, on being in the room and filming a person’s world, it’s been hard. For personal films like ‘The Gift’, getting access has been harder – most people have barely seen their friends, let alone allowed a filmmaker into their home! That said, there’s something bubbling away about grief. I realise as I write this I must sound like such a downer – what is it with this guy, films about death, films about grief?! But, having looked into the area a little, I think it’s possible to tell an emotionally powerful and uplifting story about humans and what we do with grief, how we survive it and find happiness again.

In Review: ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ by Helen Browning

Helen Browning, director of ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’

‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ is a documentary that takes a spellbinding look at contemporary druidry and witchcraft in Australia. It shines light on a world you may not know existed and will invite you to contemplate nothing less than the eternal mysteries of sex, life and death.

In fine documentary tradition, you will learn lots of new things from watching this film. Did you know that Yule is the pagan celebration that predated Christmas? That “awen” is the Celtic word for inspiration, also meaning “flowing spirit, the essence of life”? The Egyptian god Thoth is synonymous with eloquence, and Nut (or Nuit in Crowley’s Thelema) is goddess of the sky? Most forms of witchcraft date only from the 1950s? These facts emerge from the adepts’ passionate conversations while they are busy with various aspects of pagan life.

‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ is not primarily about facts. It offers us, rather, a stimulating portrayal of a broad cross-section of contemporary paganism, one that entirely dispels – pun intended – mass media’s crass hyperbolic reporting. One might expect a documentary on paganism to have lurid content, and no doubt the made-for-TV version would frame its subjects as oh-so-Australian weirdos. Yes, we encounter nudity in the rituals and meet, don’t laugh, a surfing druid. But the colossal strength of this film is its refusal to sensationalise its subject matter and to demonstrate beyond doubt that paganism is a serious subculture worthy of attention.

From the outset, we learn that pagan culture in Australia has deep respect for Aboriginal communities with their own rich tradition of spiritual rituals. Bilawara, a Larrakia Elder who is famed internationally as a healer and teacher of ancient wisdom, has been involved in many pagan events over the years. She is quick to counter the idea that her rites involve any kind of anarchistic licentiousness. “There are laws,” she insists.” If you are going to conduct your rituals or ceremonies, get permission from the custodians of that particular area.” She is not terribly keen on nudity in rituals as a rule, although this is also possible with consent.

Professor Douglas Ezzy and Bilawara Lee

Douglas Ezzy, Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania, provides a lively commentary throughout the film. He informs us that rituals, with masquerade and theatrics, “provide deep, profound, moving, wrenching, amazing experiences” and can be seen as a healthy response to Western culture’s “lost sense of transcendence.” Ritual also has a therapeutic value – “a way of working with those parts of ourselves that we find it hard to change.” It is good to see that Ezzy is not just a theorist but a practitioner too. When asked about whether a parent should be worried if their daughter has joined a local coven, he says no more or less so “than if she’d joined the local Catholic church.” Paganism doesn’t do morality in the same way as religion – but that doesn’t mean it is unethical. It is, in Nietzsche’s term, beyond good and evil.

The diversity of topics tackled by ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ shows how deeply eclectic esotericism is in Australia. The film also looks at how different traditions interpret Aleister Crowley’s cryptic concept of magick. The different strands of paganism, which include new age groups, new witchcraft, folklore, as well as artists and musicians, are all brought together by the desire to be at one with nature. A druid ritual can be as simple as taking a walk in the bush or yes, surfing. The community is engaged in environmentalism in a big way, supporting rallies against the destruction of the forests and effects of climate change, clearly seen in the scorched woodland of New South Wales.

Julie Brett, a practising druid
A wicker man at the English Ale Festival held in the Adelaide Hills

Could the documentary have been more critical about whether the many strands of paganism (Aboriginal, European, Latin, Ancient Greek etc.) truly fit together as a united collective? Perhaps. But the film does extremely important work in challenging misconceptions about pagan worship and, even more powerfully, any crude stereotype that modern Australians are bereft of culture and spirituality. At the outset of the film, we are reminded that “the English brought their calendar customs with them, but they didn’t ever think to be in touch with the land they were on.” Maypole dances, wicker men and Jack in the Green festivities are still widely celebrated in English towns such as Hastings. ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ shows how the pagan communities Down Under have reappropriated and reimagined these hand-me-down traditions and forged a new kind of spirituality – one that is strangely suited to the 21st century. Kudos to Helen Browning and her excellent film for turning long-held prejudices upside down.

‘UNDER A PAGAN’ sky will screen at Hastings Rocks International Film Festival, 24-26 April 2022.

In Review: ‘QUEER BLOOD’ by Alexander Roman

Appearances can be deceptive and ‘QUEER BLOOD’ is a striking example of a film where nothing is quite as it seems. An indie neo-noir set in North Hollywood, this drama features characters whose wants and desires are hidden by their own internal struggles and locations so authentically brought to life and meticulously put together you can’t help but be drawn in.

Nino, played by Roman himself, is brought to us as an affable, gentle and long-suffering soul who merely wants to be left in peace to work. His macho, swaggering boss Reggie, played by Jesse Tayeh, seems to accept him for who he is, and as we see later on in the film, actually cares for him very deeply. However, he is unable to protect him from the continued close-minded mentality and quite frankly disgusting views held by some, in particular a man whose voice we only ever hear – Mr Vega. 

Nino, played by Alexander Roman

A tale as old as time plays out on our screens where we witness Nino being persecuted for merely being who he is at the hands of an aggressive gun-for-hire, Sean, deftly played by Kyle Williams who performs his Neanderthal-like duties with gusto. The violence is truncated by a phone call from someone we might not expect your typical hitman to answer to, and the film unexpectedly takes us into the warm embrace of a fabulously kitsch 70s setting. Grandma, whose character confirms that a woman’s intuition is always right, is played superbly by Holgie Forrester and our formerly imposing hitman’s resolve is downtrodden by someone who knows him best.

Holgie Forrester as Grandma

Nobody wants an ending ruined for them and ‘QUEER BLOOD’ needs to be watched all the way through for the individualities to be wholly revealed and the sweet relief of acceptance to wash over. Roman pays homage to the city where his film is beautifully set as it opens with a glorious montage of times gone by, and his talents as a location scout are fully on display in the iconic garage where the film starts. 

The dialogue is not subtle, as we can listen to in Reggie’s conversation with a guy trying to get stolen cars fixed and Grandma’s frank and revelatory chat with Sean, but these words and personas are merely fronts to the relationships we see blossom before us. The drama could easily be extended to be a feature-length movie, but quite honestly, it is refreshing to see so much packed into 22 minutes and for a world to open up and do a total 180 in that time. I have no doubt Roman will continue to do what he loves and bring more of his individual and earnest content to our screens as he succeeded so well in doing with ‘QUEER BLOOD’.

Interview with Sam Seccombe, Director of ‘LESSONS’

* * *

LESSONS’ won best LGBTQ+ drama at London Rocks 2021. Deservedly so. It begins with an awkward Dan and a nonchalant Tommy the morning after a one-night stand. Tommy picks up on Dan’s nerves, wondering if he hasn’t properly come out. “Are you a virgin?” he asks, half in gest. But after some protracted banter and a much-delayed breakfast, we discover that Tommy has his fair share of issues, having yet to deal with a painful breakup. Gay or straight, the universality of their story hits home, and it is incredibly refreshing to watch a drama that dares to talk in such raw terms about love and loss.

Writer-director Sam Seccombe works in the film industry while aspiring to “truth and beauty in his work and future storytelling.” We interviewed this talented filmmaker to see what lessons we could learn . . .

.JR: How and when did you first get started on ‘LESSONS’?

SS: It was during the first lockdown and I was trying to spend as much time on writing as I could. I had several scripts and concepts on the go, but as soon as I got started with ‘LESSONS’ I knew that it was going to become something. It was an early challenge turning what, at first, was very much a conversation between two people, into an actual short film. Using details like different rooms and various props to explain what was originally just spoken word. With a lot of editing, advice and creative focus, I was able to bring the story to life.

JR: The dialogue and situation are very relatable, as if we are in the room with Dan and Tommy. How did you achieve this sense of realism?

SS: It was important for me that the boys felt like they had their own influence over the script. We workshopped and rehearsed to make sure everything felt natural. The last line of the film was actually improved by Guy Remmers, a demonstration of just how in touch the boys were with their characters. As the film discusses very relevant topics like sexuality and relationships, I wanted to present it in a way that allows the audience to project themselves into the scene. The sense of realism is so prevalent because anyone, however they identify, will be able to find something true and relevant in the film.

Ashley Byam as “Tommy” (left) and Guy Remmers as “Dan” (right) facing up to some home truths

JR: Both actors are fantastic, with Ashley Byam (Tommy) naturally confident and Guy Remmers (Dan) realistically nervy. How did you coax these great performances?

SS: In order to develop Dan and Tommy I wrote up a lot of information on their lives; hobbies, families, starsigns, taste in music / fashion and career paths / ambitions. I knew these fictional boys so well, which meant when it came to casting I was determined to find people who could bring them to life. Incredibly, I managed to find the two perfect actors. Ashley and Guy both recognised many things about their characters that paralleled their own lives and they worked hard to create that connection. It was this thorough preparation and deep understanding of their roles (as well as their acting capabilities) that made working with them such a pleasure and allowed for such impressive performances.

JR: Despite Dan’s protests (that he has dealt with coming out), is this drama, in truth, still about coming out?

SS: I think Dan’s journey in understanding himself is far from over. Everyone is different, so it makes sense that every ‘coming out’ story is different. Dan isn’t struggling to ‘come out’, that is to say, his sexuality isn’t a secret. His struggles lie in his reflections on his past and the complications and influences that led to the delay in his realisation and understanding of himself. He is afraid of what the future holds and concerned about the permanent affects of suppressing his sexuality. Coming out is a part, but not the entirety of what Dan is struggling with. His demons are many-headed.

JR: Tommy exudes confidence, but we come to realise he is brushing thorny issues under the carpet. Dan appears on edge and a little lost, faced with the question of how to be himself. Does one worldview win out over the other?

SS: It’s difficult to know if one individual is in a worse position than the other, as we are only hearing of their hardships from them. One of the issues that both characters struggle with is wallowing in self-pity. Tommy has progressed further than Dan at overcoming this, which is evident in the most heated part of the film. Quantifying emotional pain is impossible, and as their experiences are so different you couldn’t pit either against the other. The film does not aim to do this, but quite the opposite.

‘LESSONS’ is about realising what you need to learn. It shows how we can unite with others, and by owning our painful truths, we can hope to move forward to a better place, somewhere we hope both these boys can get to.

JR: Which part of their dialogue do you think resonates the most with audiences?

SS: There is so much going on in both these characters’ lives, the dialogue covers such a wide range of topics and painful experiences. One of the challenges I had in writing was actually pulling back and making sure there wasn’t a tidal wave of information which would become lost by the overwhelmed viewer. I think different aspects of the film will resonate with different people dependent on the perspective from which you are watching, as well as your own personal experience. You could say that the main theme of the film is voiced by Tommy in his line, “As long as you learn the lessons, otherwise what’s the point of all the pain?” Which basically means that we must not let our hardships defeat us but help us grow. No matter what a person has been through we must try to find the lesson.

JR: Do you agree that we don’t see enough of talk about love and life (aka “philosophy”) in UK drama?

SS: I think the superficial nature of love and life can often dominate our screens. Deeper, in depth, analysis of what love is and what it means to be in love are essential in our understanding of one another. Certainly, there are shows that do a great job of capturing these truths and struggles. Normal People, for example, was a huge inspiration for me while writing the script. I studied its beautiful portrayal of emotion and the way it bewitched audiences without being forthcoming.

JR: Will Tommy and Dan see each other again? Is there a follow-up in the works?

SS: The final scene was actually the first thing I came up with. I always knew it would end with their exchange out the window, echoing the beginning of this strange relationship. I think the only way these boys could be so vulnerable was that they were completely anonymous; they were removed from the consequences of their honesty. It wouldn’t be fair to give Tommy and Dan a “happy” ending because it wouldn’t be what is best for them. What they’ve gained from one another will benefit them far more than a romantic relationship. I wanted to play off the irony that to sleep with someone is so physically intimate, and yet it is actually far more ominous for many people to be emotionally intimate.

Sam Seccombe accepting the award for Best LGBTQ+ Film at London Rocks Film Festival 2021

JR: How has ‘LESSONS’ been received by friends, critics and festivals?

SS: I have been incredibly lucky to receive the support I have. I was very nervous to share the script with anyone, there were moments when I thought it might exist only as a draft, hidden on my computer, or that Tommy and Dan would exist only in my messy scribbles that make up my notebook. I sent it to a friend who immediately responded with excitement and it was her encouragement and analysis that pushed me to make the film. I’m indebted to my film crew who worked so hard. The film has been a way for me to start conversations and discussions that I never would have before. It’s had positive feedback from festivals and this affirmation and success is a blessing. Like I said, I’m very lucky to have the support that surrounds me, and I hope that the level of work I do will only grow and improve with time.

JR: Please tell us about your current and upcoming projects.

SS: I’m constantly working on ideas and have so many concepts on the go and in development I lose track of them with each new plan. There isn’t anything official in the works but my main energy recently has gone into expanding my knowledge of the industry and the aspects of filmmaking I want to improve on. I work professionally in location management for film and high-end television, which keeps me very busy, but is the perfect platform for experience, education and building a strong network in the industry. I look forward to being on set again, where I can sit in a director’s chair and watch my work brought to life.

‘LESSONS’ won Best LGBTQ+ Film at London Rocks Film Festival 2021

In Review: ‘KEITH’ by AF Webb

Alex Webb’s latest work, ‘KEITH’, presents a mycology-infused film about how a man named Keith Eldred and his wife, Margot, came to acquire a declassified site in Norfolk from the Ministry of Defence in 1966. Shot against the secluded backdrop of RAF Barnham 94 MU, the film skilfully merges an array of visual styles that bring together an unnerving sense of British landscape unease, anecdotal storytelling and artefact as archive in a creatively abundant experimental documentary.

Alex Webb (b. 1991) is a British photographer born in London who studied photography at the University of Brighton. His photographic talent is evident in the opening of ‘KEITH’ with a split-screen displaying lush, overgrown shrubs dotted with red berries hazily seen through a camera viewfinder. Setting up the dexterous editing format, the viewer is subjected to rapid-fire analogue montages as the film progresses. Alex’s background as an independent art book publisher is also discernible in the stark red and white diagrammatic title sequence, a reference to nuclear infomercials of the latter half of the twentieth century and the site once used to house Britain’s first nuclear weapons.

Introducing the film is the voice of Keith Eldred himself, layered over black and white landscapes of the sparse compound, reading aloud the classic nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb. The poem, which is of Massachusetts origin, has an echo of the British pastoral tradition while also alluding to the film’s promise to eschew linear space and time, in keeping with the rhyme. Keith’s life plays out in sequential segments, with Keith playing his younger self alongside Tom MacQueen in supporting roles. The pair take us through an eventful life, from reaching rock bottom, playing in first division football, national service, land development and romance in Hong Kong, mushroom grower, and the eventual purchase of RAF Barnham (in that order).

As a subject, Keith is a regular fellow in many ways, but he is able to locate and celebrate his inner anarchist through Alex’s photographic eye. The film’s richness is foraged by beauty represented by colour, black and white, Super 8 and abstract image. The audience sways between a prism; a myriad of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dialecticism that harkens the stark naturalism of war-time Britain, 60s psychedelia and the world in a grain of sand. The finest moments within the film are Hong Kong and Mushrooms, during which the sequences wreak mesmeric havoc on visual expectations, unspooling personal and social history.

“Keep an eye on it… I’m not sure about this nitrogen sample… barbed-wire spools, concrete wall, earth traverse, outer picket post, vehicle storage, RAF picket post, fire shed, football pitch, mess, kennels, fissile storage hutch, plutonium core, Blue Danube, small boy, mushroom cloud…”

Keith Eldred

Thomas Ross Fitzsimons’s score is resplendent throughout ‘KEITH’ oscillating between a powerful sense of dread in line with the nuclear undercurrent of the territory, shoegaze dream pop and sustained synth-minimalism that resounds conjunctively with transistor radio bleeping. Richard Vossgatter’s sound design is also excellent, adding a layer of diegetic sound that carries the film brilliantly throughout its narrative highs and lows, similar to This Heat’s 1979 self-titled avant-garde album that foretells Cold War paranoia.

An obvious analogy with the content and form of ‘KEITH’ is Paul Wright’s Arcadia, which tracks Britain’s complex relationship with its land. Whilst Arcadia is constructed entirely with compiled footage from the BFI’s archive collection, Webb utilises RAF Barnham as its set, exploring one individual’s relationship to his most extraordinary lot. There’s something wilfully industrious in a hand tracing the scars of an outer concrete wall against the lush rolling woodlands shot in transit. Other references that come to mind are Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously, Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

‘KEITH’ exists as an original experimental film-poem. It is formidably dense in its image layering, creating a nuanced portrait of man and land. Abstract but not arbitrary, it’s possible to envision Alex picturing the subject of Keith as a photography publication before realising it as a film. As an artist committed to the enduring topic of place and its multitudinous meanings, I am sincerely looking forward to seeing where his lens goes next and what he might uncover beneath and beyond our strange, dreadful and enduring British landscape.

No.94 (special edition book) coinciding with the release of KEITH can be purchased through Alex’s website:

‘KEITH’ was awarded Best Experimental Film at London Rocks Film Festival 2021.

Interview with Rishi Gandhi, Director of ‘MATER MORTIS’

* * *

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’

* * *

‘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

* * *

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 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’

* * *

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