Chicken – the brilliance of this British debut

Chicken_stillDirector: Joe Stephenson
Title: Chicken
Production: B Good Picture Company Ltd.

This film was screened in the official selection at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015.

Fiona is the chicken. She belongs to Richard (Scott Chambers) who lives in a caravan with his distressed elder brother Polly (Morgan Watkins). There is also a privileged girl who lives ‘next door’ called Annabell (Yasmin Paige), but she comes later. It is correct, Polly is a dude and the chicken has a name, but these are positively not the only measurements of individuality in the film. Richard has learning difficulties. I do not want to diagnose Richard, and the film is wise not to ask this of us. Richard is able to live out his life with the idiosyncrasy defined by his own actions, rather than any pre-described definition being attached to his being. This is perhaps the most beautiful thing about the film: its evenhanded approach and ability to make the audience live alongside Richard’s curious sensibility. We are able to laugh through the eyes of Richard and equally handle his heartfelt and enriching emotions.

Joe Stephenson, the debut director with a vision to behold, is effortlessly tailored towards the uncensored and picturesque world of Richard. Richard really has a stronghold over this picture. He is utterly compelling. The majority of this traction comes from his love-hate relationship with Polly. They are both victims of each other, victims of genetics (“born wrong” as Polly cries in a pivotal scene), and victims of their own poverty. Polly knows this and it frequently causes him to lose his cool and release the fire of a most austere temperament. He blames Richard for their world of monotony and is desperate for a new chapter in his life. Polly no longer wants to look after Richard, but the irony is that Richard does a very good job of looking after himself. He is seemingly content with very little: he has chickens, fields to play in, and baby tigers to catch!

Richard_chickenThe most touching scene in the film takes place between Richard and his unlikely new friend Annabell, a lively young lady with plenty of charm and pretty looks. They warm to each other as Richard shows her the forest where his adventurous imaginings of nature take place, hence the baby tigers and other similar conceptions. The relationship dynamics are reminiscent in spirit of Before Sunrise or The Spectacular Now, but unfortunately without the promise of love blooming. There is no denying Richard’s charm, but can he really fit into Annabell’s world? There is a harsh truth running under the surface, it fills the picture with incessant sadness.

The film does a powerful job of crosscutting between the innocent daily activities of Richard and the more corrupt habits of Polly, which include a sidesplitting attempt at stealing a motorbike from the local scrapyard. Unfortunately for Polly, he is not well versed in the art of manipulation and will land himself in frequent scenes of difficulty. While moments of laughter are allowed, the film is adamant not to shy away from the realities of such situations. It is a hard life and heartbreaking conclusions will be reached. Richard is merciful and Polly utterly merciless. A scene of impermeable strain shows the two brothers come head to head in a ferocious battle that is instantly a memorable piece of drama. At times, the dramatics can come close to overcooking, the theatrical context rather explicit, but the ingredients are just so fine and authentic that the latter can easily be forgiven.

Polly_chickenAdapted from a play of the same name by Freddie Machin and written for the screen by Chris New (known for his lead performance in Andrew Haigh’s breakout LGBT drama Weekend), the script is sealed impeccably with every beat pushing the audience deeper into the conflicts of its characters. The story is simple and almost too efficient in structure for its own good, but the many layers of intention and the inevitable complexity of such characters is munificent and suffice to say, enough to keep our thoughts alive and stirring. Regardless of formatting and any other rubric, Scott Chambers is so unreservedly unique in his performance as Richard that one feels he could hold the floor by himself without any direction whatsoever. A film made up of these observations could reap great reward, and the viewpoint of Stephenson’s filmmaking fits perfectly into this mold.

It is a formidable challenge for a play to be adapted onto the screen, retain its core in a plausible manner and still be original. Chicken goes beyond these expectations, everything from impulsive performances to bottomless shades of green are presented with the utmost distinction. It is an astonishing piece of work that stands all alone. The film has no companion piece and doesn’t aim to make comparisons. It treats cinema like gold dust and shares a rich profit. 5/5

Watch a clip from CHICKEN below:

Metaphysical Thoughts – Cinema and our fellow existence

stardust-memoriesDo you ever find it bizarre that we all exist in the same time and space? I am talking about the living, not the deceased. The deceased are much like cinema, but more on that in a later article.

We exist and we are often very concerned and consumed by this existence. Consequently, our burgeoning thoughts might be entirely self-centered. Yet, there are billions of other people equally wrapped up in similar thoughts at precisely the same moment in time. What does this mean? I have absolutely no idea.

But, do you ever ponder what another person is doing as you ponder it? They could be living their life in any shape or circumstance imaginable. You will never know, but you will always know that something is happening. I can’t work out if this is a freedom or an absolute affliction. How can it be that other people seem so free, yet, as individuals, we are wholly stuck with ourselves? I am not saying that we should all be Siamese twins. Rather, one of the many reasons is surely that our mind cannot belong to anybody else; I am focused on mind, not body. Our mind is a sole benefactor of our own being that can never ever, ever, ever be accurately distilled, or shared, by another individual. A sad truth, it seems.

This is where cinema comes in. I am not saying that cinema has the power to distill far away cognitions with unqualified accuracy, but actually I am, because cinema has no life in reality to tell us otherwise. In other words, the cinema (the character up on the screen) can’t turn back around at everyone in the auditorium and say, “Hey, actually that isn’t how I was feeling, you inconsiderate bastard!” Instead, we are free to interpret cinema by our own choosing. Yes, the arts really are liberal.

purple_roseForgetting this psychological insight, I want to return to my opening concern regarding time and space and suggest that cinema breaks apart our existence amidst this cosmic conundrum. When we watch characters on the screen, they do no longer exist in the same time and space as us (unlike our imaginary friend on the other side of the world) because they exist in a space of non-existence – the silver screen. We can think about these characters long after the show and know that they do no longer exist parallel to us, but that their effect can still be felt. Their effect might even be felt more than those, in reality, who exist as our friends and neighbours. These characters always exist in a completely altered reality of time and space. This is a profound magic trick that the cinema has been employing since its birth and one that has been interpreted in many ways through the history of film studies.

However, I want you to look at the trick from the bizarre perspective of why people in our real lives are all exactly in accordance with our own time. Don’t take this too scientifically (the laws of the universe can easily explain this), but looks at it more critically from a philosophical perspective. We are all living in the same moment. Being (a Martin Heidegger term for the universe – apologies for my painful simplification) can never escape from being (our own self), and vice versa. As this is the case for indefinitely ever after, we can begin to see cinema as it prevails to a utopian status! A simple conclusion: cinema is far more important, and more metaphysically demanding, than we may believe.

Written by Charlie Bury

A couple of film recommendations that shed light on some of these thoughts:

 – Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985).

Thinking seriously about short films

“For me there’s no greater art form than the short film.”

Peter Mullan is a prolific Scottish actor and director whose short film Fridge (1996) was considered a masterpiece in the form. The above quote is from Mullan and leads me into an enquiry exploring the artistic nature of the short film and its many advantages and disadvantages over the longer form we all know so well – the feature.

There is no greater art form than film itself. Film captures all the arts under one lens: the light and colour of the brush, the composition of the photographer, the performance of an actor, the design of an architect, and the music of a great composer. There is a simple answer for this, film’s principle triumph is in being able to reproduce something close to reality, and thereby capturing the essence of what all art seeks to model: an experience reborn. James Ryan seizes the importance of film when he says, “I believe people come to the movies for the same reason they read a novel or attend a play, to have their emotions aroused, mind engaged, and spirit exalted” (2000: 4).

The short film is a condensed structure of the industry standard “commercial” feature film, typically running from a few minutes to half an hour in length. The short film is therefore distinctly different in narrative scope to the feature film, even if it does come under the same artistry of the audio-visual medium. I want to explore those differences. A short film is still a film by form; “the two forms rely on visual action for exposition and characterization, as well as on the visual medium” (Cooper, Dancygen, 2012: 10).

Short films are often used to capture a more pressing and unique artistic expression. For example, Roman Polanski’s film Two Men and a Wardrobe is a remarkably absurd fable that captures the essence of innocence and growth. We witness two men coming out from the sea bearing a huge wardrobe and beginning a series of surrealist encounters with the local community. The idea of experimenting like this with the short film was no new feature of the art form. For example, Un Chien Andalou, a film created by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali in 1929, paints a unique and disturbing portrait that stubbornly refuses to hold a definite meaning. While the film isn’t easy going, it certainly “cemented a relationship between film and the visual arts and ideas closely tied to art” (2012: 64), such as surrealism and cubism. From 1929 the short film most definitely became an expressive art form.

A very accurate fact is that short films cost less money to make. This can allow the director to have more creative freedom, which can allow for more courageous motifs and autership over the medium. For example, the film Beast, by Danish writer, Lars Pederson, is a hard-hitting depiction of domestic abuse that tackles the nature of violence. It is a very simple storyline – the mother and daughter escape the abusive father – but significant attention to detail, character and props, drive this scenario to tipping point, a point of explosion. This would not be sustainable in feature form, as there would need to be three acts, yet this simple tale has most impact when told in one act. Short films are often a one-act structure, much like a one-act play, a short story, a poem or even a photograph; all these art forms can be incorporated into the short film, which can make for a very rich audience experience.

The audience has a very different experience watching a short film. They don’t expect to wait hours for a climax; they expect a new experience, something that is immediately shocking, funny or eye opening. Sean Penn comments “we have become a cinema of impression rather than a cinema of expression” (cited in Ryan, 2000: 7). No such remark retains of the short film, which always seeks new expressions. The audience release any preconceptions about genre and method and allow their minds to focus on something that is different, and the filmmaker realises this, which gives them the comfort to explore uncharted waters. There is no reason for the audience to hold expectations when they are only giving ten minutes of their time and most likely not paying for it, as they would be for the feature film experience.

Often audiences do not want feature films to be different; they want a code, a genre and a method of storytelling that engages with the status quo because they know that this method will entertain them; it has been adopted in storytelling for 100’s of years. As Christopher Vogler claims of the ‘Hero’s Journey’: “all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies” (2007: xxvii). However, short films can get away with avoiding a ‘universal structure’, audiences are happy for something different, another reason for this might simply be because there is less time for an audience to become passive in ten minutes. This point largely applies only to the Hollywood audience, but unfortunately this is very considerably the majority.

Doodlebug and The Big Shave, both short films by now world famous directors Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese, are experimental, perhaps even prosaic ideas, but executed with technical diligence and cinematic virtuoso all in the space of five minutes. If these films ran any longer they could quite easily lose their steam. Nolan and Scorsese now make films running nearly three hours long: Casino (178 minutes), The Wolf of Wall Street (180 minutes), The Dark Knight Rises (165 minutes), Interstellar (169 minutes). One reason they are able to tackle these grand narratives is because they have matured as filmmakers from the short film. This is another advantage, it is a place in which filmmakers can practice and hone their craft to seek a voice true to themselves as individuals before running up the feature bill. You might wonder what Doodlebug has anything to do with the themes in Nolan’s films, when in fact all his recurrent ideas of a psychological nature – seen from Memento to Inception (dreams, visions, magic, new-life, power, the art of possibility etc.) – rest under the surface of this three-minute short film.

The mechanics of filmmaking are not simple, and filmmakers are fortunate enough to have a small canvas to practice with – the short. This is not just unique to film as an art form: writer’s write short stories, painter’s sketch, performers do one-act, and so on; one always has to start small and grow. However, as Peter Mullan makes clear, the short film is not just a building block or a step in one’s career, it can in fact be the highlight, or the greatest art form to explore one’s needs as a storyteller. In today’s cinematic landscape, the short form is used more and more by experienced filmmakers to tell new stories that otherwise wouldn’t be commissioned or even suit the longer form.

When Mullan directed Fridge, he made a very conscious choice of using the short film with formidable effects. The film shows the harsh landscape of a poor Glaswegian neighbourhood and the consequences of such conditions for a local boy who becomes a victim of aggression. It has a clear message and, in a short space of time, it shows the audience the effects of urban hostility. It’s also worth noting that short films don’t have censorship restrictions, so filmmakers are further encouraged not to shy away from courageous material. Soft, a similar film in substance by Simon Ellis, captures the aggression of youths in suburban London. These films might not have the same impact if they were longer because the short form allows them to run directly on point and raise the appropriate awareness. Fish Tank is a memorable feature film from a comparable context, however it is not as easy to reprocess in our minds as Soft because the latter has a more distinct and specific target, it has to because it only runs 15 minutes. It is not so easy to forget a single act.

Despite these great virtues of the short film, there are significant limitations, as there tends to be with anything classed as ‘short’. It is evident that the short film is not a commercially viable product in relation to the feature, but, more importantly for the artist, it can limit narrative developments and, therefore, a certain depth. A television series may run for five seasons, which is likely to be over fifty hours of character development, sub-plot, and other narrative techniques. The audience will become very well shaped with the story and probably feel like the character’s are their friends. Narrow this down to an hour and a half and it takes a great effort to create the same structure and connection. The short film is even harder: one must create strong characters and a narrative arc in a very short space of screen time.

Narrative constraints are likely to be an excuse as to why many short films drop the storytelling conventions and reach for something more experimental, a fixed moment in time perhaps (i.e. a single scene), or an extended-montage sequence. Likeness and Quicksand are two examples of this. In Likeness we see a girl with an eating disorder navigate the landscape of a party, the film is shot through her eyes and becomes a very unique experience. Quicksand is a collection of memories from a man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and features scattered imagery that would not be possible in a feature, again using the short film as a unique form. In both of these cases, the short form is the message (the “medium is the message”, as Marshall McLuhan would say), the medium allows the content to exist in the way that it does, and does so successfully.

During the process of writing my own short screenplays, I prefer not to take an experimental approach. I am not after originality in the form, but rather I want well-developed characters with powerful feelings. “The story is the outcome of a writer trying to give clarity and meaning to intense feelings and experiences” (Ryan, 2000: 5), this quote rings true with what I like to aim for. With less room to explore, one has to make a character’s actions more explicit, to make their philosophy momentous and therefore draw attention straight into the heart of who they really are. The best way I find to achieve this, is to continue writing until you feel like you have found the characters, regardless of how much consecutive waffling might occur. Consequently, you might end up with 40 pages of material for a 15-page script. But, this means dialogue can be sharpened and time can be spent doing lots of re-drafts (because re-drafts are apparently very good)!

The old lesson from Strasser rings true: “producing shorts teaches one to eliminate non-essentials, and to condense one’s story into the smallest possible space” (1990: 7). Often in a longer script, one can introduce ‘foil characters’, another character that can create a sub-plot for the protagonist and often aid them in their journey. There is not the time or space to develop these sub-plots in a short film, a reason why short films often focus on a singular theme. Personally, I find this is the most challenging task in storytelling, to focus on a defined theme that can resonate with the audience. However, writing a short film is a great way to develop this skill; it will take you deeper than you ever could have expected.

The process of writing a short script spurs a desire to expand on your character’s lives, to make them live and breathe for another sixty pages and see where life takes them. But, in essence, this is what makes the short form so exciting; you take a snippet from a life and extract meaning from it. You are confined to this space. The disadvantages of the short film – principally limited time and space – become the advantages; they also help to define its specific character. In fact, it is often the limitations of the filmmaking process – regardless of the form – that create unexpected and innovative results, even when it comes to budgetary constraints. The limits of our world are the boundaries of another i.e. they can be broken by thinking outside of the line.

Also, creating a sense of urgency in what you are writing will find its way into your characters, which, in turn, will help bring them to life. A short film creates this sense of urgency. Thinking about short films, it is not only the exhibition of the form that is exciting – the audience experiences a courageous tale in a short space of time – but also the process of creating a short film that creates more fresh ways of seeing than first meets the eye.

Written by Charlie Bury

 

References

Cooper, Patricia. Dancyger, Ken (2012). Writing The Short Film. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Gates, Tudor (2002). Scenario: The Craft of Screenwriting. London: Wallflower Press.

Ryan, James (2000). Screenwriting From The Heart: Character-Driven Screenplay. London: Billboard Books.

Vogler, Christopher (2007). The Writer’s Journey. 3rd ed. New York: Michael Weise Productions.

Films Cited

Beast (2012). Super8 Production, Belgium.

The Big Shave (1967). Tisch School of the Arts, US.

Un Chien Andalou (1929). Les Grands Films Classiques, French.

Doodlebug (1997). Cinema16: European Short Films, UK.

Fish Tank (2009). BBC Films, UK.

Fridge (1995). Cinema16: European Short Films, UK.

Likeness (2013). Candescent Films, US.

Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Polish Film Academy, Poland.

Quicksand (2012). Lance Oppenheim, US.

Soft (2007). Perfume Films, UK.