Short Film Corner 2022
Brian + Karl
April 28, 2022
On a stifling summer night in 1814, as five women wait for the carriage that will take them to the last ball of the London Season, one wife's deepest fears are realised when rumours of her husband’s involvement in a notorious gay scandal bring her face to face with social destruction.
Hello Brian & Karl, it’s great to get to talk with you again, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been going on?
We were lucky to have Tommies to pour all our energy into - the pandemic hit just as we applied for BFI funding, and we found out we’d received it during the second lockdown, so it gave us a very definite goal to focus on through all the uncertainty. The silver lining of it all was that we never would have had the time and space to refine the script as thoroughly as we did were it not for the extreme situation we all found ourselves in.
The last time we spoke was in 2017 during Fringe! Queer Festival where you screened House of Air, what was that overall experience like for you?
It’s all a bit of a blur now and we only managed to catch the screening we were part of, but we remember it being a fun program of joyous and educational short films showing all sorts of queer people being very sexual!
Did you imagine House of Air would gain not only a cult following but also create such intense debate?
We knew it would get attention but we were surprised by how a lot of it played out. The debates within the gay world weren’t a surprise - what we weren’t expecting was how far it reached outside that particular echo chamber and how quickly it made it there. The reaction from the Alt-Right corners of the internet was intense and ugly, but it was a joy seeing how the video was embraced and widely shared by the queer community in Russia and surrounding countries. Most of our traffic still comes from that region.
How did the reaction to House of Air influence how you both moved forward with your filmmaking?
It was always going to be a tough act to follow, and in some ways House of Air represented the end of a phase for us. We’d been slogging away trying to crack the music video industry for some time, and making House of Air felt like a final burst of frustration at years of rejection. We started writing Tommies soon after House of Air dropped - although it’s a very different film, it lives in a world of mass outrage, homophobia, and moral panic, which was definitely influenced by our experiences at that time.
What does it mean for you both to be at the Cannes Short Film Corner with Tommies?
For us the SFC is mostly about creating a greater network for the short film and letting more people know about our work.
How important are platforms like Cannes SFC in continuing to champion and support the short film format?
It is always good to know that the industry recognises short films and creates an industry platform to have a conversation about them.
Do you think more can be done to bring short films to wider audiences outside of film festivals?
We feel like with platforms like Mubi coming into their own a change is starting on that front. But we think that film should always be primarily a shared experience in cinemas, so maybe there’s a world where we see more shorts in cinemas being played before feature films.
How did Tommies come about, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
We stumbled across a short mention of the Vere Street Coterie scandal of 1810 in a history book by Peter Ackroyd. We were taken by the absurdity and tragedy of the situation, and thought it would be an interesting starting point for a period drama. We were drawn to the spectacle of how these men were punished, and how it spoke to current conversations surrounding ritualised public shaming online.
In making a period piece, other than locations and costumes, what would you say had been the biggest challenge you faced bringing this to life?
The biggest challenge was definitely the script. There are five women on screen for most of the film all with very different journeys, and trying to chart that in a way that was naturalistic without falling into the trap of using stock expressions or linguistic cliches that you see in some other representations of the period was really tricky. There was also the challenge of writing dialogue that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jane Austen novel, say, but also had an edge to it that clearly speaks to the now.
How flexible with your screenplay do you allow yourself when you’re working on a short like Tommies, do you prefer to stick to what you’ve written or is there movement allowed for you and your cast?
The screenplay is very tightly constructed in Tommies, which didn’t leave much room for improvisation. The dialogue is fairly dense and the challenge in writing it was to maintain that careful balance of exposition, character, and historical context that keeps it hurtling to its conclusion. With Covid limitations we were only able to do a single Zoom read through before the shoot day, so we were incredibly lucky to have such experienced and intuitive actors who were able to so completely embody our characters as written.
Is it hard not to be discouraged when something doesn’t plan out the way you hoped?
Imposter syndrome is never far away. Sometimes the creative process can feel like failing upwards, especially in the early stages of a project, but it’s important never to give in to that fear. Tommies ultimately came out exactly as we’d hoped it would, but the journey to the finish line was riddled with rejections, dead-ends, collapses in confidence. We’re lucky we have each other to share the success and defeats with.
As co-writers and co-directors how do you balance these roles when working on a film like Tommies, since starting our have you developed a surefire way to deal with any disagreement you might have?
Our skills are largely complementary - Karl is more of a writer and Brian is more of an editor, but we obviously work intensely together throughout the process and it can be hard to know where one of us ends and the other begins. We generally don’t move forward with any idea unless we both love it, and if one of us isn’t able to convince the other then it probably wasn’t worth pursuing anyway.
"There are five women on screen for most of the film all with very different journeys, and trying to chart that in a way that was naturalistic without falling into the trap of using stock expressions or linguistic cliches that you see in some other representations of the period was really tricky."
What do you hope to take away from the experience of being at Cannes SFC?
We’ve never been to a film market before so not quite sure what to expect! Ultimately we’re looking at is as a way of getting the film out into the world and trying to generate conversations around it.
Looking back over your work to date what would you say this body of unique projects says about you both as filmmakers and creators?
We’re still figuring that out to be honest, we work very instinctively. We feel like we haven’t always made the most obvious or even wise choices on the face of things, but it usually makes sense after the fact. Ultimately most of our film ideas are crazy ones that won’t necessarily fit an existing box but we make them anyway.
Putting on the Dish was featured in Paul Baker’s stunning book Fabulosa!, would you ever consider revisiting any of your shorts or music videos and expanding them?
Probably not, we very much consider all of our films to be their own complete little things. Anyone watching Tommies after Putting on the Dish will probably be able to see how the former was developed out of things we attempted in the latter, but all our work has grown out of a particular time and place for us and in terms of feature films we’d rather create entirely new worlds.
And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from Tommies?
We’re definitely interested to see which characters resonate with people, perhaps even who they side with but we’re certainly not going to tell people what the film means or what they should make of how the characters behave. The film isn’t didactic, we’ve deliberately made something with lots of shades of grey so we’re curious to see how people react to those ambiguities.