British Shorts Berlin 2019
Gordon J. Napier
Festival Screening / Plus: Announcement & Screening Jury Award Winner
Comedy / Animation / Drama
Sun 20.1. 20:00 / Sputnik Kino 1
Two young black slaves escape into the wilds of 18th century Scotland and must use all of their courage and strength to survive, unite, and stay free.
Hi Gordon, thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for British Shorts 2019?
You’re very welcome. Yes, looking forward to hearing how it goes, I hope the audience connect with the film.
Do you ever get any nerves ahead of a festival screening?
Oh yeah for sure, but it’s all part of the experience. I usually sit up the very back and watch the audience reaction from there. I put a lot of me, my feelings and outlook on life into what I make, so it feels quite exposing to share it sometimes, especially if there’s a Q&A. But that’s also what’s so exciting about it, nerves just mean it’s important, so I try to see them as a good thing.
How does it feel to be at the festival with 1745?
I’m really looking forward to it! I’m fortunate enough to have travelled a lot with the film and every opportunity to share it with an audience in a new place is a real privilege. I’m really thankful to the guys at British Shorts for programming it.
The response to 1745 has been incredible, what has it meant for you to get the reaction you've gotten for your film?
It’s meant a great deal that the film has made the impact that it has, it’s such a great thing for the careers of everyone involved who gave up so much of their time to make it. It’s also wonderful speaking to people after the screenings who loved it and previously had no idea that slavery played such a pivotal role in Scottish and indeed British history. It’s a humbling feeling making something that raises awareness and shines a light in some small way on that horrific chapter of our national history and for it to be so well received is a source of great pride. Hopefully it will inspire more stories and more people tell them.
Tell me a little bit about 1745 how did this film come about?
It was commissioned and developed through the Scottish Film Talent Network (SFTN) New Talent development programme. I was taking part in their workshops shortly after completing my MFA and was looking for a project to direct. I was pitched the original concept for the film, which at the time was The Atkin Sisters, which was a Twilight-meets-Outlander magical fantasy genre piece about two runaway enslaved sisters who were “supernatural hybrids” and had powers of some kind which they struggled to control as they were hunted down. I watched the promotional trailer that had been made and wasn’t interested in making a magical fantasy piece like that at the time, but I could see the real potential of making a survival thriller about slavery set in Scotland which had never been done before. So, I pitched back to the group a more reverential, naturalistic version inspired by films like The Revenant, Come And See and Dersu Uzala where instead of magical fantasy the characters’ physical survival becomes a transformative, internal and spiritual journey through the natural wilderness. We then developed this idea with the writer over a number of months with the support of SFTN into what is now 1745. It was quite a long and intense development process but ultimately very rewarding.
What was the inspiration behind this film?
The writer happened across old newspaper articles from the 18th century placed by slave owners whose slaves had run away. They were fascinating reading because although they weren’t very long, in some cases these were the only record of these enslaved people existing, giving basic descriptions of their appearance and instruction on what to do if they were found. The mind really wanders imagining the circumstances which lead them to take their freedom into their own hands in a foreign and, what would be to them, a largely hostile new land. Although not religious myself, I’ve always been interested in people’s relationship with the natural world and how this overlaps with their spiritual beliefs, so I was really excited about the potential of looking at Scotland from the perspective of African characters with a very different spiritual belief structure.
What was it about Morayo Akandé screenplay that interested you so much?
The raw development potential. The magical fantasy concept The Atkin Sisters, although hugely different from the final piece, nonetheless had at its core a compelling juxtaposition of character and place which touched on a fascinating, shocking and largely forgotten period in Scotland’s history. It was also set in the wilderness and being born and bred in the Highlands I saw the potential of shooting it around Glencoe and Glen Nevis where I grew up. It’s such an awe-inspiring place to shoot.
What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing 1745 to life?
Each project brings with it its own set of unique challenges, but with this one it was probably the development process leading up to the actual shoot. It was important to ground the film in solid historical research and make sure, especially considering the subject matter, that the script resonated with truth and authenticity. A lot of people think it would be the actual shooting in the wilderness and being exposed to the elements, but coming from up that way I and many of the crew were very used to it, so once we were underway it was great fun seeing what nature would throw at us and how we could make the most of it. As the wise and great Billy Connolly says, “...there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong jacket!”
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
Yes, in one way or another I’ve always been passionate about film from a very early age and an avid cinema goer. But it wasn’t until my mid 20’s after helping shoot a charity documentary trekking through the Mongolian Gobi Desert that I decided to bite the bullet and leave my job to go and study Film and Photography in Edinburgh. Before that I worked in sales and then as a head-hunter for the financial services industry and had never considered film as a career. It was soul crushing work at times but it gave me a very entrepreneurial and producorial skillset which has proven invaluable in getting things made. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life and wonder why on earth it took me so long to start down this path!
What is it about filmmaking that interests you so much?
That’s a hard one, there are so many things I love about it. I suppose I’ve always been a bit plagued by the age-old existential question of what we’re all doing here and why, and watching great filmmakers wrestle with this and the enormity of the human experience in their work on a subjective, often subtle level is amazing and inspiring to see done well. For me, film making is an opportunity to interrogate how I see the world around me and try to communicate it in a way which feels personal to me but resonates universally with other people regardless of gender and skin colour. It’s giving people a peek behind the curtain of who you are and what makes you tick at the same time you’re finding it out for yourself, and inviting them to join you on your bandwagon of uncertainty! Haha. It’s a really fascinating way to spend your time.
As a filmmaker how important is the collaborative process for you?
It’s hugely important to every stage. Without the right cinema-literate collaborators who really understand their role and yours, you’re in for an arduous uphill struggle to make anything of quality.
How much has your approach to your work changed since your debut short film?
Because of the really positive response to the film, I would say I have a lot more faith in myself as a director now which has made me a more decisive and confident filmmaker. Over and above being nominated for a BIFA and BAFTA it also won Best Short Film at the Africa International Film Festival which was a particular boost to my confidence given the subject matter. I made a number of bold creative choices which I had to fight my corner on in the edit, and as a white Scottish director making a film about slavery, having the film do so well in Africa was a great boost which has taught me to trust my directorial instincts more.
Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow filmmaker?
Stick to your guns and be careful whose advice you listen to because everyone has an opinion, but you’re the director. Make sure you put the work into the research and script, doing so will resonate positively across all departments and really take the pressure off your other collaborators. Keep fighting for what you believe is right and proper and you’ll be proud looking back on whatever you make, regardless of how it turns out or how well it’s received.
What are you currently working on?
I’m in development on four different features both here in the UK and over in the U.S. On the back of 1745 I was fortunate enough to be scouted and signed by Independent Talent here in the UK and CAA and Management 360 over in LA, so that’s opened up a huge number of exciting new doors for me with different producers. I’ve also made a step into commercials in Scotland, so it has been great fun spending more time on set which can feel like a rarity for a writer-director between shoots.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your film?
The film was never just about skin colour and pointing fingers for me. I hope people take away that the message in the film, although rooted in the transatlantic slave trade, transcends skin colour, gender or borders. Freedom is a universal human right and it’s important that we tell stories which celebrate the pursuit of it and shine a light on those people and places who have deprived it of others. I’d also like people to take away that the transatlantic triangular trade wasn’t just an American and African chapter of history which is surprisingly widely believed. Scotland and the UK participated fully and we should embrace that more in our national narrative.