18th BFI Future Film Festival, 2024
"Mental health has been a big part of people who I love’s lives and I wanted to show an honest look at it, and to also explore these two characters and how the situation is affecting them."
ARE YOU OK?
After breaking down on an important journey, a brother and sister confront some dark truths.
Hi Jack, thank you for talking to TNC. How does it feel to have Are You Ok? part of this year's BFI Future Film Festival?
It feels amazing. I’m so glad the film is going to be screened at the festival, it’s a really special place and I can’t wait to go there again and see the talent on display.
What was the experience for you screening BUD at Future Film Festival back in 2022?
It was surreal to be honest. I couldn’t really believe it when we got picked as we made Bud on no money at all like we did with Are You Okay? It was such an amazing experience to see our film play at BFI Southbank, and to also meet amazing filmmakers and see their fantastic work.
As an award-winning filmmaker what has it meant to you to see your films get such an amazing response at festivals?
Honestly, it means the world. When you make a film, you’re in a small bubble, not knowing if people will like or take to it. So it can be incredibly nerve wracking when screening a film, but when the audience responds positively and if you’re lucky to get an award it makes it feel even more rewarding. But the biggest reward for me is, after the screening when people would come up to us and say “I can relate to that” or “That’s me”, those types of reactions are so precious and they give you the fire to keep creating work.
How important are festivals like Future Film Festival in creating a platform for short films and emerging filmmakers?
It’s incredibly important, especially the BFI FFF because they give young people a chance to get their work screened in the heart of the British Film Industry. They also have fantastic workshops with established filmmakers which give an insight into the industry, and they’re always very humbling and inspiring.
What more can be done on a local/national level in the UK to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?
I think more funding to be honest. Especially in Northern cities in the UK, like Liverpool where I come from. There’s so many unrepresented amazing filmmakers and storytellers out there who’s voices we need to hear, luckily though in recent years more work has been done to get these stories made, but there is still a lot more that needs to be offered in my opinion.
Can you tell me how Are You Ok? came about, what inspired your screenplay?
The screenplay came from an image I had of a brother and sister stranded on the side of the road. Then I started to wonder where they were going, what situation they were in, then came the idea that the brother would be struggling with his mental health and his sister was taking him to get help. Mental health has been a big part of people who I love’s lives and I wanted to show an honest look at it, and to also explore these two characters and how the situation is affecting them.
When writing a script like this did you already have in mind actors you wanted to play Leanne and Carl?
Yes, funnily enough I already had Sarah and Shaun in mind to play Leanne and Carl. I didn’t tell them this at the time, I went away and wrote the script and then sent it to Shaun and he replied saying he loved it, and suggested if he and Sarah could do it because they have alway wanted to work with each other. I smiled and said ‘Well, to be honest, I wrote it with you two in mind’. I always get nervous writing for specific actors, because if they can’t do it, you’ve got yourself boxed in and can’t see anyone else for the roles. So I was very lucky they both said yes.
"Some people have this idea of a Director as a dictator and I’ve seen that play out before in uni, and it’s completely the wrong way to go about it, because it creates a toxic atmosphere that trickles down and spreads throughout the entire crew."
What was the experience working with both Shaun Fagan and Sarah-Louise Chadwick on this short?
It was an utter joy, I love them both, not only are they great collaborators they’re close friends of mine. I had worked with them both previously, Shaun on Bud and Sarah on my feature film; Kate & Jake. They’re so talented and easy going, but are switched on and prepared to go for it at any given moment. For example, on the day of shooting they didn’t speak to each other beforehand. Shaun went off to get in the mindset of the character and isolated himself from everyone, and Sarah would speak to everyone as Leanne is a very sociable character, unlike Carl. So once we started rolling, you could feel the authenticity beaming off the monitor. Then when we wrapped Shaun became his happy self and talked to everyone. It was a special thing to witness, and I was grateful as a filmmaker they took it that seriously.
How much flexibility do you allow yourself and your actors with your screenplay once you started shooting?
I like to allow a lot of flexibility with the actors, there’s often a few discussions beforehand. But once we’re rolling, we see what works and what doesn’t. I’m not too precious about the script, so if something isn’t working I’ll allow actors to improvise or if they want to try something I always let them. Whatever feels natural I tell them to go for it, and most if not all the time they are usually right. Because even though I wrote the film, they become the vessel for the character, they live and breathe what the character is feeling.
Now you can be reflective. What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from making Are You Ok?
When dealing with the topics the film deals with, the main thing is time and patience. Take the time to have them discussions because they will 100% affect the outcome of the film. Also, I would say you can never prep too much, so make sure the location is secure and everyone feels comfortable.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from and how much does a place like Liverpool influence your stories and filmmaking style?
I’ve always wanted to tell stories and was creative as a child, I would often draw my own comic books. At first I wanted to be an actor and did a lot of school plays, I still like to act as well. However, it wasn’t until I saw Slumdog Millionaire that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I had never seen a film like that and it felt like there was a voice behind the film, so when I looked up Danny Boyle and saw, not only was he the person who directed the film, but he was from the North like me. It felt achievable to create stories as a career.
From then on I started making my own short films when I was 12, began watching films and educating myself on cinema. My Dad is a fan of films and he introduced me to to some great films when I was in my teens like; The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, The Godfather and a lot of great British films like; Trainspotting, Naked, Kes, The Black Stuff to name a few but they were all educational from an aspiring filmmakers point of view.
Liverpool influences me so much, not only in my filmmaking life but in my personal life also, there’s no place like it. It’s really a city of storytellers, you could go anywhere and someone will probably end up telling you their life story and because it’s a multicultural city there's so much history and a wealth of talent there not only in film but in music, sport, poetry etc.
How much has your approach to your film projects changed since your debut short?
It’d say it’s changed a lot since I was a teen making films with my friends in my back garden. I love writing, but also working with actors. I'd say that’s what has changed the most as back when I was starting out, it was very much telling my friends what to do. Whereas now it’s a full collaboration, where anyone can contribute and ideas will be heard and tried out. If they work, great and if not, that’s fine too.
What does Are You Ok? say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell?
I just like to tell human stories, and very much character based. Wherein like real life people, they aren’t perfect, they make mistakes and amends. But ultimately, I try to keep them as three dimensional as possible and hope that audiences engage with them and the story.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone wanting to get into filmmaking and what has been the best advice you’ve been given as you started your own filmmaking journey?
I would say just go for it, when you’re starting out you have nothing to lose. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it’s ok. That’s how you learn, as long as you’re making something that’s what counts just don’t be afraid, even if you shoot it on an iPhone and use Movie Maker or iMovie that’s great because you’re doing it and you’ll learn things to take into the next film you do.
There’s two pieces of advice, one I’ve been given and one I watched on YouTube. The first one was. I remember Ben Wheatley saying to me, amongst many things; be nice. Not only is it a piece of advice for filmmaking, but also life. Just be nice to people, because they will respect you and more often than not, will want to work with you again. Some people have this idea of a Director as a dictator and I’ve seen that play out before in uni, and it’s completely the wrong way to go about it, because it creates a toxic atmosphere that trickles down and spreads throughout the entire crew. So just be nice. Confident, not cocky.
The second, I heard Lenny Abrahamson say in a talk he did on YouTube, which was; when you’re filming a scene, everyone has a job to do whilst that scene is being shot. Booms are focusing on actors, the camera is preparing to track, but you as the Director are physically doing nothing. What your job is, is to be the human being in the room. In between action and cut you have to be thinking ‘“Is what I’m seeing real?, does it feel real?” When I heard him say that, my mind was blown as it is so true.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Are You Ok?
I hope it starts a conversation around mental health to be honest, because there’s still people who don’t want to talk about it, so if it helps or contributes to a conversation that would be brilliant. Because ultimately, the film is a short window into these characters' lives and hopefully it can ignite something within the audience that stays with them long after they’ve watched the film.