Film Producer Rob Speranza on the industry and South Yorkshire Filmmaker’s Network

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Rob Speranza is a film producer from Sheffield. He is one of the most proactive people I have ever come across and he is always looking to give something back by helping new people in this tough industry. Hence, Rob was happy to give me his time and chat about the terrain.

I first came across Rob’s work after a memorable sighting of his feature film Entity on board a long coach trip from Leeds to Amsterdam. It was 2 in the morning, the entire troop on board appeared to be sleeping, and I was sat up with a glowing laptop, in suspense, as on my screen, a rather foolhardy English TV crew crept ever deeper into an unwelcoming Siberian forest.

After enjoying the film and getting in touch with Rob, I realised that most of the team involved were local to Sheffield and that Rob also runs a highly educational and inspirational networking group for filmmakers, the South Yorkshire Filmmaker’s Network (SYFN). From masterclasses across the board to late evenings watching fresh shorts from across the county, SYFN have a really good thing going. I caught up with Rob, albeit at a frequently busy hour, and picked up a few relevant topics to talk about, shared in convulsions below.

As per usual, we started at the very beginning. Rob began in academia studying English literature to a PhD level at the University of Sheffield. Over a period of time, he befriended a filmmaker who opened up the craft to him. Step by step, “you meet people and you begin making films.” This is, of course, a very condensed version of what actually happened, but it is often as simple as meeting the like-minded people and fuelling the passions of one another. Rob talks enthusiastically about ideas coming from these meetings. It is essential to share your appetite and, in doing so, a network is bound to emerge. This is how SYFN emerged and how ideas like 2 Weeks To Make It (a music video competition) and other such motivations came about.

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Rob admits that he’d never really thought about producing until his friends urged him on and helped to unveil his talents for the craft. Rob was able to strike a relationship with Screen Yorkshire who soon began to perk him up with a number of wholesome commissions (of up to £21,000!) for short films and large event projects. As the steps increase, so do formalities, and in 2004 Rob ended up securing a nice set of offices in the Site Gallery, beside the Showroom in Sheffield city centre. He has been there ever since and the network, or what we could call Rob’s producing hub, is still growing and more emerging talent and filmmaking incentives continue to pop up around Sheffield and the expanse of Yorkshire and Humberside.

After talking about Rob’s own filmmaking, he highlighted that one needs a diverse skillset and the he frequently also works as a line producer. Yet, in independent film, it is often that the two can cross over and the producer will wind up lining up all the lines on a budget. The ranks can further blur if the production cannot afford a production manager, and then it is often the case that a line producer will produce the schedule too. Rob has experienced all of these commotions. Though, at the end of the day, “The cost is your jurisdiction. You are the boss of the cost”. Rob is a keen line producer, and I believe he has a sane reason for this: line producers may work across late prep-time and the shoot, likely to be around three months, but the producer could be tied up for three years or more. I think the producer must essentially be nuts, in the best way possible. Sorry Rob!

I tried to pin down the different factors that entice Rob into producing a project, to giving up three years of his life (“You’d better love it if you are going to tie it to your life…”), to quickly listing a whole slew of things that come knocking on realities door, it is clear that you need the whole package (director, cast, money, saleability and audience). It is all about putting together this PACKAGE. A film needs legwork and it needs to be organised, it needs the goals to keep it in the long haul. “Ask those questions.” In other words, we could also say, don’t be afraid and don’t be downhearted. It is “healthy” to produce films in the UK. Let’s not forget that %20 of your budget can be financed right now through the tax credit!

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I attempted to ask Rob if he could decipher an average correlation between prep, shoot and post times. Something Rob is adamant can only be tailored to each individual project. A couple of examples: during development, Arthur & Merlin went through four different writers and pre-production took approx. 5 months, whereas the shoot was only a month, and post was a fast-turnaround of six months. Most of the time was therefore spent in prep. Entity, on the other hand, no development hell, an even quicker shoot, but a lengthy post-production process, including three months spent on the sound design alone! Filmmaking is shape shifting. But, I don’t know how much I want to believe in this unknown destiny, can it really be impossible to meet strict timelines for a film production? To produce a method that can be sustained time and time again regardless of production and genre? I must be developing further ignorance, I need to produce a feature film myself before I can comment any further…

The importance of festivals spurred on a very conducive discussion. “I think they are the life-blood of where a film goes, how it is going to get seen, and how the market sees it.” Without these platforms for exhibition, audiences wouldn’t be able to indulge in seeing five great films every day for two weeks. A great way to fuel excitement around cinema, but also a great way to avoid “wading through all the crap.” Rob also has first-hand experience in film festivals – he is currently programming for Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASSF) – but he is not naïve to the subjectivity of different film festivals. He acknowledges having to make some very tough decisions – tough skin is required for this filmmaking business!

The loaded, but most necessary column of ADVICE. Just a quick one, Rob says this: “have a car… get hired on other people’s films… experience the set… get work experience in a production office… and learn from people better than yourself.” Finito.

And, a few final words with Rob about SYFN: They offer just about everything – advice, theory and practice on all from crew to locations, script development, festivals, screenings, networking events with Shooting People, masterclasses, equipment hire, moving-image resources, pitching projects, co-producing projects et al. “A multi-faceted and powerful entity in the city.”

NFTS graduate Daniel Montanarini on film school and becoming a FILM DIRECTOR

nftsFilm school or no film school? I won’t begin to give my own answers to this debate, and any answers are almost decadent after the spoken words of Paul Thomas Anderson: “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it.”

This is very true – we live in an age of information overload – but is this a good or bad thing? Hence ‘overload’! Can film schools not condense such information and give you a clear direction? Information to one side, the practice is probably the best thing you are likely to get out of film school, so let us look in more depth at the practice film school can offer.

I caught up with Dan Montanarini – who has consumed all of these experiences – and was fortunate enough to pick his brains on the subject of film school and filmmaking in general. Dan is a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, so this article will be outrageously bespoke towards the NFTS film school. First-hand apologies.

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Dan’s first short film The Guest, starring Olivia Williams, premiered at the Krakow International Film Festival and his graduate film Seahorse will be making the rounds later this year. Below is my (very particular) interpretation of this conversation with the very occasional quote from Dan thrown in to testify his presence.

From 14 Dan knew that he wanted to direct films, but what was the next step to be? There are two things to take into consideration when approaching such a mammoth task as film directing: how to crack the industry open and secondly, perhaps most importantly, how to ground yourself in the craft and the magnificent history that precedes you. Film is an “art form” – study the history and theory of storytelling and aesthetics. Dan expresses a hungry appetite for the world that film occupies, which means watching a lot of films and exploring film culture. You can’t get away without watching lots of films folks. This should be a task to relish in. Of course, a director should enjoy the physical elements of life on a film set, but equally essential as to finding your feet as a film director is being able to talk of your place in the surrounding culture.

Like anything in life that requires making something happen, it won’t transpire at the flick of a switch. Dan graduated in English literature and film from Warwick University and went on to find a full-time job. While earning his living, Dan produced and directed his aforementioned film The Guest on the side. And here is where film school comes in; it is a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once i.e. maintaining a ‘normal’ living. However, Dan had never planned on the film school route because he had the sense that if one needs £10,000 to spend on film school then why not make a film yourself? Along the lines of the old Rodriguez and Tarantino motto I believe. But isn’t this a restricting approach to the matter? As Dan explains, film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft then the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds at NFTS!

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Getting into NFTS is almost entirely based on your short film. It needs to be good. If it is good enough then you get an interview. Dan says that the interview was actually a very pleasant experience; NFTS looks for honesty in their applicants and play to a focused, yet relaxed environment. A quality any great director needs is surely to remain relaxed with an all-pervading sense of focus. Once at the school, you are free to explore your craft with great freedom. While the contact hours are very decent, Dan is sure to note that the tutors do not impose regulations. They do, however, provide detailed feedback and hold an intense reviewing process. From rushes to sound lock, every step of the phase is thought-out and given attention to detail. It looks like film school must do one thing well: harden you to feedback! When was the last time you received a fleshed out piece of feedback on your own film? Go to film school and you will never have to force someone to watch your film again!

But, how does one keep their own direction with all these opinions? Well, as Dan clarifies, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers, be honest and you will learn quickly. By staying flexible you will eventually be lead towards your goal – “Know that it is going to come, it is going to happen.” A director does not need to always provide the answers, they just need to be confident in what they do and don’t know. This sounds well, but what happens when a director says, “I don’t know?” Quite simply, remain open to an idea and take it on board sensibly. Directors are not super-humans, but super-talent does often surround them – use it!

What’s the best method for working with actors? Give them the script, understand their interpretation, let them rehearse it and then work with them towards your vision. There is no right way to do this, the environment, the story, and personality of the actor will inform this. This is Dan’s view and he goes on to talk about other directors, including a screening he attended of 12 Years a Slave with Steve McQueen who gave some miraculous advice: “I am a director and not an illustrator”. I.e. you cannot be too rigid on a film set; rather you should work with what you have, in the moment, so to speak. A film director needs to direct on the day, not everything can be done before (unless you are Hitchcock). Every director has his or her own way of working, which must be a paramount reason for the source of beauty and wonder that comes with this craft. Each director is unique – an art form, indeed.

 

Here’s an interesting method of directing that Dan picks upon, but, let’s be clear, does not salute to himself: letting the actor working it out for themselves until they inevitably reach a point were they become desperate for direction. Who else would play these psychological games but Lars Von Trier, or so it is rumoured. But, have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? More likely, the answer is to be a blistering performance of harrowing proportions – a very good thing for drama! Film directing is a form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. There is some honesty in this approach however, not least in the opportunity to wholly understand what your actor can bring to the scene in his or her own capacity. Nevertheless, it is up to each director to eventually find their own way.

Dan continues to talk about his love of movies and directors, moving on to the one and only Martin Scorsese – an obvious choice, but a choice that makes sense for a first-love. Hearing Scorsese talk about the movies is like spreading jam on toast or taking a close shave with a clued-up razor. It raises cinephiles to an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend on hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema – but, if you aspire to be like Paul Thomas Anderson then make sure you stay equipped with John Sturges also!

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Perhaps the next step to reignite your imagination with dreams, memories, and alternate realities would be to stop in with Fellini. Dan talks about his first experience as akin to being “stabbed.” Not quite spreadable, but an experience far closer to reality, as Dan explains the mixture of memories and textures of reality on display are for more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – undeniably, a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curious and sometimes laborious cinema will serve well.

Can you think of ten minutes that changed your life? This question was asked to Dan during his time at NFTS and is a great way to connect with your beliefs and potentially re-write your past. Film directors must find something personal in the material that they work with. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they must understand the nuts and bolts of their own lives and the various transformations occurring within. You might be thinking why ten minutes and not, more likely, a split-second (a tragedy) or a few months (a romance), but ten minutes of change and we have a movie scene! Give this one some thought.

What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt (bear in mind NFTS has super scholarships for British citizens) and geared to rev any film production to full virtuoso, you must, quite simply, just keep going. You may find yourself in the position of Lars Von Trier’s actors: you have no idea what is going on, but you eventually find yourself acclimatising and succeeding with sheer greatness – trivial, but somewhat true. A director can only keep developing their ideas, stories and writing. A director must be ready to present their greatness. Think beyond your present moment (even if Eckhart Tolle tells you not to); be aware of the past, present and future. Where are you from? Write about this. Where do you want to be? Write about that journey. Who was your first love? Write about that. These are all ideas that Dan wants to inspire and he reminds me that we are all living and, therefore, we all have telling stories to tell. We mean, all of us.

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To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS specifics:

  • Film school may be a fantasy factory, but it also requires serious hard work:
  • Rigorous review processes include showcasing each step of a films maternity to the entire school of students and professors for merciless feedback:
  • Confidence building. Tougher skin. Objectively shrewd.
  • You can find your own voice: teachers will adapt to each individual while keeping the student open to new experiences and ideas.
  • On set: “you have all these talented people around you, why would you not want them to contribute?” Enough said.
  • Actors – discover first what you are working with. Points highlighted from Steve McQueen and Lars Von Trier.
  • Scorsese will make you fall in love with cinema. His conviction is infectious.
  • Be confident even if you don’t know the answer – it is okay not to know everything! Enjoy directing!

In the best sense, watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.

 

Visit Dan’s website here.

You can also join him on Twitter.

 

 

Hello BAFTA? CHICKEN and the brilliance of this brilliant 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.

CINEMA THINKS – Cinema and the Philosophical Project of Alain Badiou.

France - "Vous aurez le dernier mot" - TV Set“There is something interesting in cinema because we cannot reduce it to a conceptual definition.”

The above quote from renowned contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou opens up a world of theoretical enquiry into cinema as an art form and where it might be heading. However, as always, targeting the specifics of this interesting ‘something’ is not an easy task. This article will break down Badiou’s thought on cinema and hopefully open a way for more exciting thought on the cinema and appreciation of such art works.

We begin by asking the interminable question “What is Cinema?” It is an everlasting question because there is no definite answer. If cinema is an art form, then why can’t it be conceptually defined like all other arts? If not defined, then what is the special ingredient? For example, poetry is an attempt to say what cannot be said, theatre is a battle to form an external relationship between human beings and an audience, and painting aims to create the visible from the invisible – these are the fundamental ideas that promote and invoke these arts. There will always be further ideas on such a quest, but it is clear that cinema holds no such distinction. I always like to argue that cinema is a collective of all these ideas and that’s what makes its individuality eternal, it is never shaped by a definition, and therefore there can be a positive infinity in cinema production.

However, as Badiou makes clear from my previous assumption, cinema itself is a very complex question and therefore cinema as an art must also be a very complex question. It is rather simple really: cinema is complex, so hence anything we wish to attribute to cinema (philosophy, art, psychology, archaeology etc.) will also become complex. A philosophy of the cinema is a complex idea; we can never really know what cinema is. Badiou even attempts to postulate cinema as the “history of complexification of itself.” These layers inherent to cinema form a unique relationship whereby the spectator falls under the spell, or inside the cinema according to Badiou, but without knowing its real signification. Cinema is essential in the collective existence of today’s world and yet it continues to be something that we have no firm notion off – certainly from a theoretical standpoint, but arguably by way of practice also. Is this not a very dangerous idea?

Badiou_Cinema

 

Whenever we are considering the thing of something, or the what is, we need to retrace our passage back to some custom of historical antiquity. Plato is a good denominator to begin with, especially for cinema. With philosophy we are on a search for truth in life, or a true life, something that is pure and in accordance with our entire make up. How does cinema impact this quest? Can cinema be true to life? These questions are inscribed into every film, and it often comes back down to the spectator’s ability to suspend their disbelief: to give themselves whole-heartedly over to the sequence of images and sounds on the screen. If they can do this then the images they witness are true, at least true to themselves. Even so, this it too general, we need to look beyond the spectator and take the films at face value. What makes a good film? How can we identify good film with art and philosophy?

If Plato were alive today, he would probably be feeling very ill. We cannot escape images today. The famous cave allegory was a false reality for Plato, but it is the founding movement of cinema: moving shadows cast themselves across the walls of the cave once backlit from a great beam of light. This was a conviction of truth: the composition is an illusion! Illusions cannot be so! Here is the answer: cinema does not claim to be such a false reality, cinema knows very well that it paints a grand composition of illusion, and its images are no substitute for contamination, they are didactic images that speak off new formations and new bonds of knowledge! In other words, cinema is an answer for finding the truth in irreality; cinema knows that it lies, but it is a lie of edification.

Cinema is alive and speaking to us. Cinema has possibility, it is an art of possibility perhaps, and this is why it must have a relationship to philosophy and vice versa. Because cinema is so alive, it is constantly in battle, a fight between art and non-art. It is here that Badiou can draw out his belief that “cinema thinks”. By way of this vision in which a contemporary world battles with art through film, we are able to distinguish the good films from the bad. If, permitting to Hegel also, art is something of the past and cinema takes on a contemporaneous position as the ‘impure art’, then through constructing a successful conflict of images one has created a good film. This conflict is within the images themselves as well as the audience because the images require contemplation and are often ‘vulgar’ or disruptive. Cinema is therefore not a peaceful art and furthermore, this aforementioned fight between art and non-art is allowed to erupt between its fences. We can then resolve, in line with Badiou’s claims, that the more impure the artwork/the film, the greater the present battle is within the image itself and the better the film!

MelancholiaWhile this is all very metaphysical and might seem dismissible to most audiences, Badiou has targeted the underlying causes for our connection with the image from a strong philosophical standpoint. The point of most significant is this totalisation of cinema: cinema as the non-essential but all-permitting feature of new possibilities and limitlessness. Cinema creates new evaluations and new participations in dialectics. For example, great music can be given a new education in films. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia features music from the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music is played at different points throughout the film and at each instance is inscribing new meanings onto the image. There is battle with the image and the music is forced to engage in new directions. The range of possibility is astonishing. It is here that cinema takes a form of judgment on all the other arts.

Badiou is telling us to “go to the cave.” We must approach cinema as a means and become involved in the democratic dialectics of our modern education. If none of this speaks to your way of thinking, then you must focus on the idea of possibility: the search for possibility. Cinema makes the search possible.

 

Author: Charlie Bury

 

You can watch the full video that inspired this thought below.