I was recently trawling the internet for bold, young and new film directors, as one does with their Saturday night, and came across an incredible film by a guy named Shady El-Hamus. The film is daring, stuffed with subtext and highly innovative. I felt as if I was watching the work of someone who had been working on their style for 20 years or so. The film reaches a depth of drama/conflict that is ever so rare for a short film and yet, it still manages to clarify any ambiguities or reservations we may have with the story. Suffice to say, one could credit a lot of great things about this film. I was gripped. Here it is:
I was recently lucky enough to see Ewan Stewart’s brilliant new short film Getting On (above) at Leeds Film Festival, it has since gone on to screen at a number of festivals and win the British Council Award for Best UK Short at London Shorts. I got in touch with the Scottish filmmaker to discuss his unique short and how he got started out in the industry.
When did you first get interested in filmmaking?
My parents are both writers, so I grew up around a lot stories and that basic fascination that I think we all have for film and cinema kind of took over. I was also very interested in the portrayal of Scottish culture in cinema. When I was growing up, there weren’t many films coming out of Scotland at first, but then films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and the work of Ken Loach, really gave me hope that it would be possible to become a filmmaker where I was from.
Are there any particular filmmakers who inspire you?
I’m inspired by a wide range of filmmakers, but I grew up watching a lot of independent American cinema from the 70s and 80s. As well as the films of the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, Malick, Lynch and Friedkin. I was also interested in European cinema, particularly French New Wave.
Am I right in thinking that you came into the film industry from TV?
Yes, I used to direct commercials before I started working in drama. Before this, I worked in various roles in TV from assistant director to editor.
Do you think that TV is a good route into the film industry?
It can be. The thing about filmmaking is that there are so many different ways that you can get into it. TV helped me to understand who does what and how everything works. I also gained a lot of contacts from the TV industry, so when I started making my own films I got help and support from people I’d worked with.
How did the idea come about for your latest award-winning short film ‘Getting On’?
It was actually based on a short story that my dad wrote. It was essentially a one-page character monologue and was based on a neighbour from his childhood. I felt that the story and voice of the character were very unique and that’s what attracted me to it.
Do you view the story as controversial in any way?
No, I don’t think it would divide audiences in any way. It’s not really about an issue as such; it’s more of a character piece about loneliness and isolation. My aim for the film was to make something that was both funny and poignant with a strong visual element to it.
What made you decide to shoot in monochrome?
I felt it definitely fitted the tone and the mundanity of the character’s everyday life and I also love black and white from an aesthetic point of view. Practically, as we shot quite quickly on a DSLR, I wanted to make sure the cinematography was consistent in the final film.
You have a lot of tight-angled and awkward shots that I imagine the use of a DSLR made more achievable. Are you pro DSLR in this sense?
The camera we used was definitely right for this particular film and I’m all for the DSLR cameras in general as they make filmmaking much more accessible. Some people say that the DSLR look is over used, but they do have a good quality to them, depending on how you use them. I wanted the very shallow depth of field look and the DSLR was great for this.
For those who haven’t seen your film, what other festivals is it screening at?
It will be showing at the Glasgow Shorts Film Festival this month and hopefully a few more in the coming months.
What is your take with online distribution?
I’m all for putting short films online, but I’d always do this after the film has finished its festival run. Obviously you can reach a larger audience online, which is a definite advantage.
Will you put ‘Getting On’ online?
I’m currently in the process of attaching the film to a distributor, so it’s unlikely that it will appear online any time soon I’m afraid.
Do you have any other projects in the works, a feature maybe?
I’m just finishing off another short at the moment for release later this year. After this, I have a couple of feature scripts I’m working on.
Will you be taking these projects online for funding?
I probably won’t be going down this route just yet as I’m hoping to get funding from more traditional methods through production companies. But getting funding is always tough, so it’s not something I would rule out.
Any advice for filmmakers starting out?
You really just have to keep making films and keep learning from your mistakes. It all helps. Before I started directing commercials and drama, I made a lot of corporate videos, which I’d shoot myself. Corporates are often dull in terms of subject matter, but everything you do helps to train your eye and give you a greater technical understanding of cameras and editing. They also can give you a chance to be creative whilst earning money at the same time.
Finally, what makes a great short film for you?
I always like to see fresh ideas or a new way of looking at a subject, whether stylistically or through a unique voice. However, I’d say that story is always the most important thing, whether in a short or feature.
Personally, I like short films with humour – there is often a tendency for filmmakers starting out to go for a rather bleak subject matter. With humour, you can instantly get a sense of whether an audience likes your work or not, purely through their reaction and this is definitely an attraction for me.
Watch the trailer for Getting On via the link below.
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: