The Limelight Index: Simon Wharf – Writer/Director
I encountered Simon’s (above) short film Pussy Cat at Leeds Film Festival and felt compelled to get in touch with the director and ask him a bit more about it and himself. The film is one the funniest dark humoured shorts I think I’ve ever seen – it had the whole audience at Leeds applauding wildly. Why? It’s simply a great, entertaining short. Here, Simon reveals some of the key ingredients to making a successful short film and getting started as a filmmaker.
When did you first get interested in filmmaking?
I grew up watching a lot of films with my two older brothers. They were six years older than me so I was exposed to a lot I shouldn’t have been! A lot of horror films and that kind of stuff, which kick-started my imagination. Me and my mate, Tom Hines used to get together every weekend and make short films, partly because we loved making them and partly because we hadn’t worked out how to talk to girls yet!
Tom has gone on to become a fantastic cinematographer and I’ve gone on to focus on my writing and directing. He was the cinematographer for Pussy Cat, my latest short film.
It must be nice to have such a great relationship with a cinematographer?
Definitely, cinematography is such an important and undervalued role. Few people remember who the cinematographer was on a film, yet it is such a massive input on the film. I recently went to a talk at Encounters film festival about cinematography, which was highly inspiring and enforced how important the cinematographer is on set. And Tom and me can talk very honestly about our vision, being such good friends.
Who are your influences?
I think Michael Haneke and Roman Polanski are brilliant filmmakers, The Coen Brothers were also a significant influence, in particular Fargo influenced Pussy Cat, in terms of the lead character being a forlorn introvert and hatching a plan that gets out of control. In terms of writing, I take a lot of inspiration from novelists. I love Franz Kafka, his novels The Castle and The Trial are major pieces that influence me. In some respects, I find it more interesting to take inspiration from non-filmic things. I find the longer process of reading a novel more inspirational and likely to spark off ideas in my mind.
Where did the idea initially come from for ‘Pussy Cat’?
Well… my girlfriend and I do have a cat and there were occasions when we’d be alone in the bedroom and the rest speaks for itself! This was the main source for inspiration. A cat is often in control and everything is done on their terms, so you could say that I have first hand experience in what you see when watching the film!
The film got into a festival in Italy and they paid for me to stay over there. After the screening Italians were coming up to me and saying ‘‘I have a cat and this is exactly what it’s like!” So, I think the film is something a lot of people can relate to.
What inclined you to shoot the film in Polish?
When I first started writing the script, it felt right that the couple wouldn’t be English. This wasn’t a conscious decision initially; it just felt better for it. As the script developed I started to realize that the fact they are a Polish couple living in England adds to the isolation of the man, he doesn’t have anyone to turn to. Whereas the wife has integrated better into the country. There is also a fairy tale element to the film which fits perfectly with the Eastern European element. I also like the texture it adds to the film.
How did you find such a large cat for the shoot?
I initially made inquiries with agencies who hire out cat actors, but it was hugely expensive – in order to get a cat to do something on screen you need two handlers which would have cost £750 a day! So luckily, a guy who I worked with had a friend with a massive cat. I needed a great big male cat to be a masculine presence on the bed – the alpha male in the house. I was worried at first, as obviously the cat wouldn’t be trained and there was a scene where we took the cat out into the woods. So, if it ran off we would have been stuffed! But, fortunately, the cat was as good as gold; in fact, the cat was the easiest element to deal with throughout the filming!
How did you go about choosing the festivals to submit Pussy Cat too?
The initial screening was at Bath film festival who then passed it on to their affiliates like Norwich, Cornwall, Aesthetica and Colchester film festivals. Apart from these festivals, we just started researching others. Each festival has a brief about the feel of films they’re looking for, so we picked out those that were suitable for Pussy Cat. However, you always want to aim at the big ones too, so we always send our stuff to Leeds, Encounters, Sundance and a few others. But, you do need to keep selective, as film festivals can be expensive, on average around 40 pounds; after a while you begin to think: ‘hang on, I could be using this money to actually make something!’
Do you have any other projects you’re currently working on?
I have a short film script that I’m aiming to put into production in the New Year. I originally wrote the script as a feature film, but for now I see it working best as a short. However, one day I would love to make it into a feature.
When I wrote Pussy Cat I was also making a TV pilot, which I’m currently trying to get off the ground. To start with, I wasn’t seriously into short films. However, since Pussy Cat the medium has really grown on me, I’ve seen so many great shorts, and I’m keen to make more! Shorts are great fun. So, I want to make a really good short first from my feature script.
The script is another dark comedy, I won’t say too much more, but it’s basically about a boys love for his mother.
Why do you love filmmaking?
I naturally have ideas for writing; you could call me a bit of a dreamer. I spend most of my days slightly detached from what’s going on around me. I’ve been writing scripts for a relatively long time, so I’m able to put my ideas into script form fairly quickly. So, writing is probably my favourite thing. Though, I do love the whole filmmaking process, being on set is great, as is the editing. However, writing stands out to be as the most rewarding and important part of the process.
Ultimately, filmmaking is just good fun! It would be my dream to be able to make films for a living. Everyone wants to get paid for doing what he or she loves.
Do you have advice for anyone starting out with filmmaking?
I would say that the most important thing is to start with a good script. It doesn’t have to be full of dialogue, quite the opposite actually; visual scripts are often the best. Secondly, you need to have good actors. A lot of people start out using friends and aren’t actually aware that it is possible to get in touch with professional actors. Actors, if they love the script, will work for a small budget, if not for free. Also, remember to rehearse with your actors. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical side of things but the interaction of the characters on screen is the most important thing; it’s ultimately what makes a film. So, first of all, get those two things nailed!
Finally, what makes a great short film?
It’s a difficult question because there are so many types of short films. Some are very artsy and abstract, which is cool, but they can be quickly forgotten. Your basically looking for something that stands out.
I went to the short film corner at Cannes, which I’d recommend for any short filmmaker, and saw so many brilliant shorts; it made me realize how much great stuff is being made. So, the only real advice is that you have to make it as great as you can make it; it has to stand out and be exceptional. There are a lot of good short films out there, there’s a lot of shite ones too, so make something amazing.
Watch the trailer for Pussy Cat below: