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 was recently in touch with Side Films duo Carlos Puertolas & Rani Naamani from San Francisco. They make incredibly punchy and high-octane short films. However, as well as making their own films, the pair are also fantastic animators working on feature films from Shrek The Third to How To Train Your Dragon 2. You may have come across their latest short film Call Back which has been a tremendous hit online across Vimeo and Short of the Week. Here, the two give some concrete advice and insight into the art of filmmaking.
When did you guys first get interested in filmmaking?
We both got interested in filmmaking from a very young age. Unfortunately there were no good cheap SLR’s back then, so we created little films with the family camcorders, from little segments to the use of cutting to create “magic tricks” and illusions. Animation was also a huge influence on us; we are both huge fans of Tex Avery, and the Looney Tunes. It was a like free animation school for us; these shows had great comedic timing and I think watching enough of those as kids got that sensibility embedded in our brains!
Being animators, does this affect how you approach filmmaking?
Yes! Great question. It totally does. As animators, we really appreciate pantomime and simplicity, partially because it’s aesthetically appealing, but also because it has been proven time and time again that this is the most efficient way to communicate ideas. This mentality applies to everything from composition to ideas to lighting to sound and dialogue. Less is more.
Your short films are very dark and astute, how do you come up with your ideas?
A lot of these ideas start with an image, and then we go from there. In some cases, the ideas are formed from notions we had for a premise. So really it varies. The ideas can come from anywhere. We quite often have brainstorming sessions, where we sit down and discuss things that might have popped into our heads that week. It’s interesting you mentioning that our ideas are always dark, our theory is that after so many years working in the animation business where everything is colorful and fun we need to express our darker instincts somewhere… so we use Side Films!
Your latest short film, ‘Call Back’ is incredibly concentrated, smart and wonderfully shot. How challenging was the process of making this film?
Very challenging. We really didn’t have a big budget for this short. So we had to plan every detail meticulously because the margin for error was almost non-existent. We did a lot of pre-visualization before hand to figure out every single shot that we wanted to shoot. We planned what lenses we had to rent, what equipment we needed, we had to find a place that will permit us to film there and had to shoot the entire thing in 4 days. All that planning and the day still went by fast, the sun was no longer were we needed it, and we had to improvise and find ways to re-frame and light our subject so that it looked like day time even when it was dark outside. The weather was also a factor, it rained during our shoot, so we had to stop and wait for the clouds to clear, thankfully they did!
‘Call Back’ has done exceedingly well online. Did the film have a successful festival run too?
We haven’t had the chance to submit it to that many festivals just yet. We’re hoping to send it to some in the next few months!
What can we expect from Side Films in the future, any features?
That is definitely the goal. We have a few feature film ideas, when one of them gets ripe, we can begin pre-production. In the end, we want to make sure that whichever one we go for has a good story, great characters, and if possible a fresh concept.
What do you guys enjoy most about filmmaking?
We both love directing, but if we had to narrow it down, editing & sound are definitely among our favorites. Mainly because that’s when things start to come together and give you instant gratification for all the planning you’ve been doing up to this point.
Finally, do you have any critical advice you’d like to give filmmakers starting out?
Yes, if you want to learn how to make films, just go out and film something. Experience is the best teacher. No matter how many books on film theory you read and study, nothing comes close to you just trying it first hand. Reading a couple of books is okay, but at some point you need to stop preparing for life and just do it.
Watch Call Back here:
Visit their website Side Films
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:
I recently met up with Tom Van Avermaet, Belgian film director, who has been over in the UK with his new Oscar nominated short film, Death of a Shadow (Dood van een schaduw). He is an incredibly passionate filmmaker who has put life and soul into this film, it was an absolute pleasure to hear what he had to say.
When did you first get interested in filmmaking?
Even from an early age, I’ve always been fascinated by film. I used to be a regular at the local video rental place (when these still existed) and devoured as many films as my pocket money would allow. This passion for film always remained and I always felt that I needed to be involved with cinema in one capacity or another. As I also had this great love for storytelling, I felt that either being a screenwriter or a director would be the best fit and I enrolled in film school on the directing side (as in the end this is still the function most prevalent in the making/shaping of a film). I ended my film school with a thesis film called Dreamtime, which then went on to do numerous festivals and gained awards worldwide. One of these awards helped me finance the next short film, which ended up being Death of a Shadow, my first professional short film.
Who are the filmmakers you look up to?
It’s always hard to pick one or two, as there are so many filmmakers I love. Even if I don’t enjoy their whole oeuvre, I at least am passionate, I at least enjoy, a few films of theirs. Stanley Kubrick, like with any visual director, has always been a great inspiration, but I particularly am drawn towards the great imaginative surrealists of world cinema, people like Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry and Darren Arronofsky. Darren Aronosky’s second film (Requiem for a Dream), which I watched in the theatre the first time I saw it, impressed me so much that it really solidified my desire to wanting to be a director (as it really inspired me to see how big an impact a 90 min film could make on an audience emotionally).
I’m also drawn to filmmakers from the early stages of cinema, people like Fritz Lang, Murnau, Carl Theodore Dreyer, people who really made their film with the essence of visual storytelling.
How did the idea for Death of a Shadow come about?
As a writer and director I’ve always been fascinated by metaphysical and symbolic figures and with Death of a shadow I wanted to give my own interpretation of ‘Death’. It was important for me to find a way to make this an interpretation that I felt would be original. So I thought, why can’t Death be like an art collector, but instead of gathering paintings or sculptures, this figure collects moments of death, with his own esthetic view of what is a good death and what is a bad death, what is an ugly and what is a beautiful death.
Because I’ve always loved to work with light and shadow I’m am a big fan of expressionistic lighting, I felt that a shadow would be an ideal element to portray this visual and thus had the collector amass shadows of people at the moment that they died, pinning them down like butterflies. A shadow also felt like the right element to use, as in many stories and myths it’s been seen as something connected to the soul. A shadow is something that’s always with us, a reflection of ourselves. Separating body from shadow seemed like a very drastic thing to do.
In this world of the collector, I didn’t feel like he himself would actually go out and gather these deaths and shadows, I felt like he would use someone already in the collection and offer him/her a second chance at life, if they give him one life for every day that they would have lived. That’s how the vast story of Nathan Rijckx, the deceased WWI soldier, came into being.
Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. How did the festival journey begin?
We were lucky enough to begin our festival journey by immediately winning our Oscar Qualifier, a prize entitling you to be considered for Oscar nomination. We won this prize at a festival in Los Angeles called LA Shortfest. This came very early in our festival run, which is quite unusual and after that we were fortunate enough to get on the shortlist and finally be part of the nomination for the 2012/2013 edition of the Academy Awards. We were also very fortunate to have won a European Film Award nomination the month after in Valladolid, Spain, making us the only film up for both prestigious awards in 2013 (the latter will be announced the 7th of December). And now we’re very glad to be part of the Mélies D’Or nominations as well by winning the Silver Mélies, something very special for me as this is a prize specifically for fantastic shorts and I really consider the people supporting the fantastic genre as my core audience.
The set design is exquisite, who designed this and how did you find the locations?
The design process was collaborative between me and the French art director ‘Erwan Le Flo’ch’. The locations and setting are very important to me as a filmmaker, I almost try to make them another character in my film, so a lot of research and thought was given to them. The locations were all found in the French region ‘Champagne-Ardennes’, who were also supporting the film financially. However, the process of finding the right ones wasn’t easy; I went down with the location scouts to explore the region myself, but in the end we managed to find everything we needed for the film. As a short film maker you don’t have a lot of money to really build stuff, so you have to really work at finding the right locations and props and depend on ‘the kindness of strangers’.
The machine in the entry hall in the film for instance, was designed by a Dutch artist named Jos De Vink, who designs steam powered works of art and who had made a steampunk time machine, an element just like the one we were looking for. Sometimes you have to be lucky in making a film.
Your film has done incredibly well here at Leeds. What has been your favourite short film in the programme?
I think the level of the short film programming was very high. I was fortunate to be both part of one competition and judging four others. I have really enjoyed watching all the incredible works. To pick a favorite would be difficult (we picked our winners as a jury, so these films are definitely my favorites too), but the selection was so diverse and interesting that it would be unfair of me to name one or another.
What advice would you give to likeminded people starting out?
Don’t give up. Our film took quite a long time to make, five years in total, and at certain points it really felt as if the film was never going to happen. At those times it’s very easy to just say, enough is enough and give up. I think a lot of great films don’t get made because people abandon them when things get tough. What separates people from making films and talking about making them is definitely that drive and passion you have to have for a project. If you want to be a filmmaker you have to be prepared to fight tooth and nail, to suffer blood sweat and tears for your film, because in the end it’s only you who really cares if the film gets made or not (you might have partners who support you equally in this of course, but it’s still most important to you). So I would definitely tell them not to give up and if you have something you believe in and you have an objective view of its potential, then do everything to get it made, even if it takes a long time.
For you, what makes a great short film?
It’s hard to define this as there are so many different styles and genres, but I always look for something that grabs me, something that touches me, something that I’ll remember, be the film 5 minutes or 30. This can be the performance of the actors, the interesting story, the visual aesthetic, or a combination of all those things. I personally veer most towards the narrative films, but I do think that films in any genre can really be great as long as they move or intrigue an audience.
Watch the trailer:
Watch Tom talk about his short film here:
Follow him on Twitter
My favourite films watched in week 44:
Short – La Cruz (Alberto Evangelio)
Feature – XXY (Lucia Puenzo)
In Theatres – Turbo (David Soren)
La Cruz (The Cross) is a phenomenal short film. It manages to blend horror and drama like I’ve never quite seen before. Most short films of this kind lack the capacity to convey anything truly compelling and rememberable. However, La Cruz has stuck to me like glue, the suspense has only just begun to melt away. What starts out as very mundane – a father is teaching his daughter to drive – soon becomes chaos. Watch it below:
XXY is the debut feature form Argentinian director Lucia Puenzo, which premiered at Cannes in 2007. The film tells the remarkable tale of an adolescent 15 year old, Alex, who is neither a man in a woman’s body, nor a woman in a man’s body, but both. She is, however, a highly spirited tomboy who wants to make a change to her life; she stops using hormones to subdue her male characteristics. Lucia doesn’t exploit Alex, rather she uses a sensitive and honest approach, whilst subtly observing Alex’s sexual ambiguity. The film is a poignant human drama with deeply personal performances, alongside beautifully composed filmmaking. Watch the trailer below:
In Theatres (UK):
Turbo is an easy recommendation, a treat for a family who likes comedy and ambition. The film at first seemed unbelievably silly, but by the end, the traditional story arc fell into place to create an ambitious and entertaining work of animation. You can expect the story to be loaded with stereotyped characters of a Dreamwork’s nature: the villain, the whinning relative, the magical donor (super power), the helpers and, of course, the scary outside real-world. You can even expect a death toll; there’s a few surprising accounts of snails being nipped up by crows. Surely, this can’t be intended for the child’s humour? All in all, the film is good fun for the family and any other folk who sees the appeal of an animated world. Watch the trailer below: