Short Film Corner 2022
May 10th, 2022
Frank, an academic, requests permission from his mother, Philippa, to leave home. It's time for him to join his wife, Catherine, and their infant son. However, permission is not forthcoming. Catherine arrives, and the two women clash bitterly. Frank, overwhelmed, withers and regresses into infancy.
Hello Charlie, it’s great to get to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening?
And it’s my pleasure to be talking with you too!
Thanks for asking — at the risk of seeming somewhat anaesthetised by the events of the last two years, I’m doing very well. The pandemic affected millions of people in ways that are really not fun to reflect on, and I’m grateful that me and my family seem to have avoided the worst of it.
Have you been able to remain positive and creative at least?
I know I’m not alone in being someone for whom isolation, whether forced or self-imposed, brings about a sudden upsurge in creativity. For me, it was sort of both; I spent the first summer 2020 lockdown alone in Edinburgh, where I did almost nothing but think up and then write the Out of Our Hands anthology. On reflection, I think that experience of isolation was partly responsible for the confined atmosphere of the films — the events of all three unfold in just one room.
It was then during the second January lockdown of 2021 that my co-director Meg and I started collaborating on The Bird, where we both experienced that initial living reverie of excitement that accompanies the start of any creative endeavour. So to answer your question about positivity and creativity; thankfully, yes.
The Bird recently won Best Family Short at the Hollywood International Golden Age Festival, did you imagine you would get this type of reaction to your film?
We did always hope that we could one day get The Bird onto the festival circuit. However, my energy during the script-editing process, and certainly on set, was not directed towards pondering on what might please the festival juries, but simply bringing the script to life. I’m not sure that thinking in terms of laurels is the best strategy when you haven’t yet clapped scene one, or you’re engulfed in the stress and heat of the set! Having said that, of course, it’s wonderful to be acknowledged.
What does it mean for you to be in the Cannes Short Film Corner with The Bird and what do you hope to take away from this experience?
Well, Meg and I are both reasonably new to all of this, which means two things: first, that taking part in an established event like the Short Film Corner carries with it an extra few increments of excitement; and second, that we have a lot more to learn. So the plan is to imbibe the thrill, culture, and (most importantly) the knowledge that will be there in abundance.
How vital are platforms like Cannes SFC in championing and supporting the short film format?
Grafting on three short films for a period of over a year, as Meg and I were, is a meticulous and often lonely business. It can be difficult to feel like a member of community, outside the intimate circle of your production team and cast. When you finally peel your eyes away from the microscope you’ve been peering through for so long, and become aware of events like the Cannes SFC, you realise that there are many others like you, from all corners of the globe, who’ve just been on precisely the same journey as you have — and I can’t wait to meet them! Where the financial incentives are comparatively small or, as in our case, nonexistent, the value of community and mutual encouragement cannot be overstated. That actually turned out to be a far more encouraging and motivational realisation than I was expecting, and it will carry Meg and I, as I imagine it will others, on to our next projects, keeping the short film format alive.
The Bird is part of the Our of Our Hands short film series, how did you get involved in this and how did The Bird fit into the series themes?
Indeed, "The Bird" is the third film in the Out of Our Hands anthology; the other two being “The Rat” and “The Whip”. I originally wrote them as three-parter for the stage; but when the theatres took longer than expected to open, Meg, with her infectious and inspiring courage and single-mindedness, approached me and suggested we set to work adapting The Bird for the screen. That was last January. By September, we’d adapted, crowdfunded and shot all three twenty minute films.
The anthology deals with the themes of guilt, truth and free will, with the action framed by the assumptions of absurdist philosophy, much as in some of my favourite works of absurd theatre. My aim was to tell stories with as little contextual background noise as possible in order to foreground some of the insoluble questions raised by these themes, with a view to hopefully prompting some universal insights in the viewer. That was certainly our goal with the Bird.
What was the experience like making The Bird, and what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you have taken from this experience?
I have no hesitation in saying that the experience was unambiguously fantastic! By the time we started filming The Bird, the whole crew had already spent many hours together and were very well acquainted with each other’s working methods; so the bumps we inevitably encountered along the way didn’t feel like ominous death knells, and were dealt with efficiently, and with smiling faces. I think it highlighted to everyone just how crucial cohesion and teamwork is to effective execution. Don’t underestimate the value of a smile!
As a co-director, how important was the collaborative nature of your filmmaking process when making this film and would you collaborate again?
Please do not think me platitudinous when I say I could not have done it without Meg — it’s true! Coming from a background in practical filmmaking and directing, she taught me almost all of the practical knowledge I needed before getting on set for The Rat. But, beyond that, both in preproduction and on set, she would constantly think of new perspectives that many hours alone with my characters had necessarily hidden from me. I’m a big fan of her perspective and I’m sure we’ll work together again one day, when the time is right.
When working on The Bird, and being a co-director, how flexible did you allow yourself to be with your screenplay?
I’m not convinced that an exception-less prohibition against ad-libbing is a useful rule to live by as a director or writer. For example, when working on “The Rat”, I gave Dylan Baldwin, who played our tyrannical head chef, a bit more free rein to fly off the handle and see what would happen, and to me, the results were pretty authentic.
In preparation for “The Bird”, I sat down with each actor for hours over zoom, and we had some very constructive discussions about specific lines — particularly with Jane Goddard, who stars as the termagant Philippa. As long as I know that the intention behind the line isn’t obscured by changing a word here or there, then I’m all for it. I don’t want my actors to be stumbling over syntax which feels stilted or unnatural to them, at the expense of them focussing on embodying the character in the moment. This also meant that we headed into shooting in complete agreement as to what the lines were, and why.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced bringing all this to life?
It seemed like we’d fallen at the first hurdle in June when I came down with COVID after having shot just one day of The Rat, tipping our finely-poised operation into chaos. Not only did I feel like I’d let everyone down after so much hard work, we also had no idea if we were going to have the cast and crew availability or the funds to continue, and the future of the entire anthology was in doubt. Luckily, while I was miserably shaking my fist at the gods, my amazing producer Lotte Thomas was co-ordinating the entire team and launched an appeal to recoup the lost budget. In two and a half weeks, everyone was back on location in Edinburgh. That woman is an organisational colossus.
"My aim was to tell stories with as little contextual background noise as possible in order to foreground some of the insoluble questions raised by these themes, with a view to hopefully prompting some universal insights in the viewer."
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I don’t imagine that many filmmakers will answer this one with a no, but in the interest of honesty, I will have to. My background has always been in writing, and that is something I absolutely intend to pursue — but I always felt like something was missing. I’m now certain that I’ve discovered what that was — the untold satisfaction of having others share and realise your vision with you. I distinctly remember deciding when I was thirteen, upon a quick Google, that filmmaking was never going to be a possibility — movie talk just seemed to be written in another language. Thankfully fate pin-balled me into contact with people who showed me that if you want to make a film, you can make a film.
Are there any tips or advice you wish you had been able to give before you started this film?
Whenever you think it’s time to shout “Cut!”.... just give it another 10 seconds. It won’t hurt.
What themes are you looking forward to exploring with future films?
Out of Our Hands really deals with how things ultimately are; it’s about communicating a particular, broad philosophical conception about human life in general. While I’ll always believe in the power of film to be a vehicle for those sorts of insights, I’m excited to write something about people who are ensconced in some form of local community, and more integrated into the world around them. I also think there’s potentially scope for a little more hope in my message!
And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from The Bird?
Resist, if you can, those who would weaponise your guilt and shame. Even the strongest intellects will wither in the face of both.