17th British Shorts, Berlin
"Some of the lessons I learned and managed to exercise with Crusts were to spend time with your cast in advance, have rehearsals." - Alfie Dale
January 20, 2024
A month after the death of her husband, a Northern Irish widow gathers her family around his grave to mark the occasion with a picnic. But as words and sandwiches are shared, what is left unsaid threatens to boil over.
Hi Ben & Alfie, thank you for talking to TNC. How does it feel to be at the 17th British Shorts with your latest short film Crusts?
BEN: Thanks for having us! We’ve been buzzing to get to Berlin since finding out we had been selected. Alfie has done the rounds a few times before with his films, but for me it’s the first festival I’ve ever attended in person before so I’m delighted I get to experience it in such a great city.
Crusts was my debut short as a screenwriter and as someone who has spent years on the other side of the industry in development, it feels surreal to be on the same programme as filmmakers whose work I’ve spent time following and admiring like Yero Timi-Biu and Phoebe Arnstein.
ALFIE: Super excited! It’s a great festival with a really strong selection, and really we’re happy to be here in person - I’ve heard really great things from people who’ve attended in the past.
You had an incredible festival run with MY BROTHER IS A MERMAID winning multiple awards at the IRIS Prize, what did it mean to you get get such recognition for your film?
ALFIE: It was a brilliant experience, Berwyn and everyone who runs Iris were amazing, I had a blast that week, watching the films and meeting the filmmakers. It’s a special festival. I was chuffed to be attending and really didn’t predict how well the film would go down, it was the first festival the film played at. MY BROTHER IS A MERMAID was a tough film to make, so getting a response like that was an incredible relief… it had all been worth it! It gave me the confidence and belief to write the feature (the script for which is now nearly done).
Did that add any additional pressure on you as you started working on your next short?
ALFIE: No, not really. After MBIAM I had a clear idea of the areas I believed I needed to improve as a filmmaker, and CRUSTS gave me a chance to put what I’d learned into action. MBIAM is what made Ben want to collaborate with me, it helped us get the funding and attract a strong team. So it’s been a massive asset.
How important are festivals like British Shorts in creating a platform for short films and filmmakers?
BEN: They’re incredibly important. There isn’t a huge number of avenues for getting shorts seen and so having festivals with reputations for programming great films and fostering fun environments for filmmakers and audiences is crucial. Not to mention they’re a great way to meet people who maybe one day you end up collaborating with!
What more can be done to make short films more visible to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?
BEN: I think traditional broadcasters and streamers are starting to appreciate that there is an appetite for short films, especially as TV episodes and films seem to get ever longer each year. The BBC and Channel 4 have in recent years started airing popular shorts on TV, like An Irish Goodbye and the winning films of the IRIS prize. Turn on Netflix today and you’ll see shorts from big name filmmakers like Wes Anderson topping the charts.
This kind of endorsement from more established media outlets and filmmakers is really important and I hope it continues so that a lot more talented people can end up finding a home for their short and sharing it with wider audiences.
What were some of the lessons you took away from making your debut short film and how did these impact your approach to making your follow up films?
ALFIE: My first proper short was stupidly ambitious, it was a 30 minute period drama. A 6 day shoot (3 more days of pickups) with about 50 extras, children, animals, a huge set on an alpaca farm, fire, night shoots, and fight sequences. The lesson I learned was ‘that’s a terrible idea’. Though My Brother Is A Mermaid was still pretty ambitious, so maybe I didn’t learn all that much! Crusts was much more reasonable in it’s ambition - single location, 2 day shoot… that’s how a short should be!
Some of the lessons I learned and managed to exercise with Crusts were to spend time with your cast in advance, have rehearsals. Make sure you find the right crew for the working environment you want to create. Making sure you have a pro 1st AD (hats off to Brendan who did a cracking job on Crusts). Manage your time properly, and always have contingency plans. Oh and good quality catering makes life much better for everyone.
"When you have a good relationship with the director, serving as a writer-producer actually ends up being much more efficient than I initially made it sound." - Ben Ferrity
Can you tell me how Crusts came about, and what was it about Ben Ferrity’s screenplay that connected with you so much?
ALFIE: We met through Centerframe, an online community of filmmakers. We applied and were introduced through their ‘Get It Made’ competition, where they teamed up filmmakers to pitch projects and funded the winners. I had to read about 30 scripts and Crusts stood out to me from the outset. I liked the unusual structure and the perspective shift, I loved the tone, I connected strongly with the themes and issues. But above all I loved the characters, I thought they were brilliantly written in a really short space of time.
What inspired your screenplay?
BEN: I guess there’s two elements. I first got the idea honestly when I was walking through a graveyard eating one of those shitty sandwiches you pick up from the shop in a hurry. As I was eating and staring at all the graves, I started thinking about all of the food I’d ever eaten at funerals. I have a very big extended family (those bloody Irish!) and so unfortunately by the time I was a teenager I’d already been to more funerals than I’d care to admit. But strangely, I always found it difficult to remember the actual funerals but I had these really vivid memories of eating tiny egg and cress sandwiches or holding a cup of watery vegetable broth in dingy pubs afterwards while trying to get out of conversations with relatives I didn’t know. Something about those memories I found really funny and sad at the same time and I thought that it might be a good way to explore themes of family and grief.
The other element is suicide. I’m from Northern Ireland which has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. Speak to most people there and no doubt they’ll have been touched by it in some way. It’s something that both Alfie and I have experience with in our own families and so I found myself very loosely drawing on certain personalities and events in my own life to help build the dynamics of the characters and the backstories I imagined for them. We ended up working with a brilliant charity in Belfast called Lighthouse who were a great help to us, especially given that it’s a fine line between comedy-drama and being inappropriate when dealing with such a sensitive topic. Having their experience to ensure everything in the script was done in a way that could maybe help people engage with suicide more easily rather than it feel like a taboo subject that no one should talk about was really crucial to getting the tone of the film right.
When writing and producing a short like Crusts how vital is the creative relationship between you and your director?
BEN: It’s interesting being a writer-producer. I feel writer-directors are more common and have full control over the creative aspects of the film and then the producer comes in to burst all hopes and dreams! For me it was an odd experience going from having the freedom to write whatever story I wanted, to having a director come in with their own interpretation, to then having the buck passed back to me to practically implement those creative ideas. That process sounds like it could very easily be a nightmare and cause lots of friction and so finding someone who you click with creatively was really crucial.
Luckily Alfie and I got on like a house on fire from day one. As a writer that meant listening to his ideas and being open to having my own image of what the film was going to look like change. I’d seen Alfie’s previous short MY BROTHER IS A MERMAID which I loved, especially his sensitive direction of the younger actors and so I knew he was a great fit for the drama elements within Crusts which allowed me to place a lot of trust in him to helm a very personal project. Most of his work was in the drama space, but we’d gone for drinks and hung out a few times before we really started working together and in those moments I realised we had a very similar sense of what we thought was funny which resulted in a really productive working relationship in terms of the comedy. We spent a good 20 minutes laughing about how awful recorders sound when kids are forced to play them and lo and behold we ended up crafting the film’s opening around that!
As a producer, I really wanted to take a lot of the logistical pressures off Alfie and just let him get on with the directing. When you have a good relationship with the director, serving as a writer-producer actually ends up being much more efficient than I initially made it sound. You’re already on the same page creatively so when it comes to producing the film there’s less knocking heads which is great for creating a fun, positive atmosphere on set.
What was the biggest challenges you faced bringing Crusts to the big screen?
ALFIE: The weather? It was pretty low stress and drama free as short filmmaking goes. But seeing as we were shooting in Northern Ireland we were expecting a cold grey day… It turned out to be a scorcher and non-stop sunshine. A few days before the shoot we had to change the costumes and come up with an emergency plan for managing the bright sunlight moving through the day. Luckily we had an incredible costume designer, (Ciana), and gaffer (Archie), who saved the day. Also there was a bit of an underestimation of the number of sandwiches we’d need… Ben’s mum came to the rescue and ended up making something like 105 sandwiches in the end!
BEN: Yeah the weather was a real wild card. We filmed on the North Coast of Ireland in Ballintoy where the weather can change in an instant. The whole film takes place outside and so we were slightly at the mercy of the conditions in terms of continuity. On the first day of shooting the weather was so bright and sunny, then on the second day we arrived down in the morning to fog so thick you couldn’t see a few feet in front of you! It was a nightmare so we tried to film what we thought we could get away with and then luckily within about half an hour we were back to crystal blue skies and sunshine. That’s Northern Ireland for you!
Is there anything you would have done different on this film?
ALFIE: A few things… But I’m not going to point out the film’s flaws to you, you’ll have to watch and discover them for yourself!
You always see the flaws when you look back on your work, for me that’s an essential part of learning and improving and upping your game for the next project. I expect that’ll go on for every project I ever make, you should always be evolving and learning. Overall though I’m really happy with how the film turned out.
BEN: It’s hard to say. There are times when I wonder whether the location we chose was more effort than it was worth. It’s really remote, quite far from where any of the cast or crew lived, and came with some logistical challenges but in the end I think it was worth it to set the story against such a stunning landscape with so much character.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
ALFIE: I had more of a passion for acting growing up. Then when I was 14 I remember doing film analysis in school, studying ‘The Sixth Sense’, and my mind was blown, I loved it. I didn’t get to make a film till I was around 17, and from then I knew it’s what I wanted to do.
BEN: I was always into writing, particularly comedy. I started off writing sketches when I was a student and performing them on stage in comedy groups at things like the Edinburgh Fringe. I always loved hearing an audience's reaction to a joke while on stage (though they didn’t always laugh!) but over time I started writing more comedy skits that wouldn’t work in a live performance and so with a few friends we decided to start filming them instead and putting them online.
It was a great way to learn the basics of filmmaking and I was so hooked that I eventually made it my career, first in documentaries and then in dramas. I’d never really written drama before so for me Crusts was a great way into the genre without abandoning the more comedic style I was more comfortable with.
Who are some of the filmmakers that have/do inspire you?
ALFIE: Guillermo Del Toro, Taika Wahiti, Nadine Labaki, Niki Caro, Shane Meadows, Martin Scorsese, Deniz Gamze Ergüven have all made films that have blown me away.
BEN: I love oddness in films, especially when it manages to blend moods and genres together so effectively and ends up creating such a distinct tone in a film. People like The Daniels, Yorgos Lanthimos, and the Cohen Brothers are of course so brilliant at this. I also just love the work of writers and directors like Dennis Kelly, Martin McDonagh, Hiro Murai, Kayleigh Llewellyn, and Lucy Prebble for similar reasons.
What does Crusts say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell in the future?
ALFIE: That’s for the audience to decide! (Yes I’m sidestepping that question!)
BEN: I think I’ve always been interested in very dark and taboo subjects but I sometimes don’t think pure heavy drama is always the best way to engage with them in a meaningful way. I’d like to do more dark comedy-drama going forward, especially surrounding topics like mental health. I guess my hope is that Crusts demonstrates my belief that comedy-drama is more than just a blend of genres, but that it can be a very powerful tool - one that helps us confront issues that would otherwise be too painful to face.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone wanting to get into filmmaking?
ALFIE: Start making stuff as early as you can and don’t expect anything to come of it. Just do it to practice, and to work out what you enjoy and what sort of stories excite you.
BEN: Don’t be afraid to reach out to people out of the blue! Filmmaking can be an absolute minefield to navigate, whether you're making your own films or working in the industry. Often it’s hard to find the advice online and it would be much simpler to have someone experienced talk you through it. Email people you admire or who work at companies whose films you like. You’ll be surprised at how generous many will be with their time.
And finally, what message would you like audiences to take away from Crusts?
ALFIE: If you believe in your dreams anything can happen. No wait, that’s not it. Ben what’s this film about again? Sandwiches and crying?
BEN: Yes, when you’re feeling down, sometimes all you need is a sandwich to cry on.