TNC Interview 2021
Harry Is not OK
The New Current spoke with Manchester-based filmmaker Harry Sherriff about his latest short film HARRY IS NOT OK and his BAFTA Scholarship award to attend the Directing Fiction MA at the National Film & Television School London.
Hi Harry thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
I’ve been trying to stay busy through it all. The BFI commissioned a short film of mine during the first lockdown to promote a short film competition, I started planning a new web series called Harry’s Show, which I released a few shorts from and I started a podcast.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
I hope it doesn’t come across as overly dramatic when I say the last 18 months have probably been the most important in my life. I think many people must feel the same about their lives during this time period. I made what I could through 2020-2021 and it was life-changing especially because it culminated in getting into the NFTS with the support of BAFTA. My partner and I are currently looking for a place to live in Beaconsfield, which is daunting and exciting. It’s really hit home again how much sacrifice, not just on my behalf that has to be made in order to pursue filmmaking as a career.
Congratulations on your BAFTA Scholarship to study Directing Fiction at NFTS, what was the first thing that went through your mind when you found out you had gotten the Scholarship?
Well, to be honest I thought I had royally messed it up at first.
I spent a crazy amount of time on the application for the scholarship. An amount of time you probably wouldn’t believe if I told you. I’m talking days and days on the same six questions but then when I interviewed with BAFTA the interview was meant to be twenty minutes and they asked the exact same questions that were on the application, which really threw me.
I think the Zoom ended five minutes early and I just remember thinking “You’re an idiot, Harry. You’ve blown it.”
A few days later they emailed to say I had been awarded the scholarship and that still hasn’t sunk in. To have an organisation like BAFTA think I’m worth investing in as a filmmaker feels like a dream. It’s given me a real positive shot of motivation to get out there and prove them right!
What does it mean for you to get this incredible opportunity and are there any nerves or apprehensions before your start the course?
It means a great deal. Again, it sounds dramatic but it feels like a breakthrough of sorts. It’s going to allow me to develop as a filmmaker for two years and I’ll be able to tell stories on a much bigger canvas. I have zero nerves or apprehensions about the filmmaking. At the moment I’m worried about finding a place to live! Everyone knows about the school and its graduates. It’s one of the best in the World and if you get caught up in all of that it could get messy but I just love making films and this feels like the perfect transitional period where it becomes what I do for a living.
What was the experience for you like Premiering Harry is Not Okay at the Bolton Film Festival?
I loved it. I’m a big fan of Adrian and Zoe who run the festival. They have a great festival and it will continue to grow. It was the first time I had seen the film on the big screen and I’m normally hyper-critical but I was just very proud. Jim Embrey who shot the film and Chris Benningwood who edited and graded the film did such a great job. It made me realise how much the spirit that goes into making a film really translates. Everyone involved with the film was happy to be there and contributed in a way that if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have made the film we made.
I think a special mention should go to Adrian for putting on the festival this year because it would have been so much easier for him to just do it online and the festival was important to me and I’m sure many other filmmakers that got to see their work on the big screen after such uncertain times.
"If I could pass on a message to other filmmakers I would say you don’t live and die by the opinions of festival programmers or anyone for that matter."
Your next premiere is Online at Director's Notes, did you imagine you would get this type of reaction to your film?
I’m very happy and grateful a site like Directors Notes decided to premiere and write about the film. It means people who wouldn’t normally see the film will and that’s a nice thought.
In terms of reaction, you hope you will get into festivals and as many people as possible watch your latest thing but it’s all out of your hands. I’ll be honest, Harry Is Not Okay has not been accepted by a lot of festivals. 8 out of the 10 festivals we submitted to, for whatever reason, couldn’t find a place for it in their programme. However, the NFTS and BAFTA did like the film and thankfully so did Directors Notes. If I could pass on a message to other filmmakers I would say you don’t live and die by the opinions of festival programmers or anyone for that matter. You must make the next film.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Harry is Not Okay came about?
The film’s sole reason for existing was I wanted to apply for the Directing Course at the NFTS. My girlfriend basically told me to apply. I had interviewed at the school years earlier and I was hesitant about applying again but she gave me confidence and said “You need to apply again. You’ll get in. You’re ready.” It was a movie moment.
I knew I was making a film but I didn’t know what film. That’s when producer Adam Lavis who I’ll be forever grateful to got in touch. He said I needed to speak to a writer called Laurence Tratalos because he thought we’d get on. I read Laurence’s scripts and loved them. He’s an exciting talent and I can’t wait to read the next script he’s working on.
You co-wrote Harry is Not Okay with Laurence Tratalos, how important is this type of collaboration when working on a short film like this?
It’s crucial. I couldn’t have made this film without him. It’s what really got the ball rolling and with anything in life the start is often the most daunting intimidating part. As soon as we had an eleven page first draft on March 1st I knew we were going to be okay because the deadline was May 6th and so there was a fair bit of time to improve things and start pre-production.
In hindsight, the crucial aspect on this project was everyone was there from the beginning to the end. Laurence was on set every day and Jim Embrey went above and beyond the role of a cinematographer but on a short like this that’s what is required. I’m just glad and fortunate everyone wanted to be that involved.
Having written Harry is Not Okay and shot it in April 2021 what were some of the challenges you faced bringing this film to the screen?
We were a very small crew and for two of the three days we only had about five people on set. We wore masks and had tests so thankfully Covid wasn’t an issue the way it would have been if the crew was 4-5 times bigger or the story required extras.
Locations could have been a major stumbling block but Jim remembered a house he shot a music video in years back and it was perfect. I’ve got into the habit of reverse engineering a lot of things so if it had to be another house we would have made it work but I’m glad we didn’t have to do that.
We had very little time & money and Covid was of course an issue to think about but we only had two locations and a van so in that respect we helped ourselves make it easier. Laurence and I were very mindful of this when writing.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I never went to the cinema as a child. I was sports mad and films just weren’t on my radar. The film that really opened my eyes to cinema was The Godfather, which I saw when I was sixteen. I watched it again recently after not seeing it for about a decade and it’s just phenomenal in every department. Sixteen was the formative age. In the space of about three months I also watched The 400 Blows and possibly my favourite film of all time, Taxi Driver. There is a reason these three films are often cited as being life changing by numerous filmmakers.
The beautiful thing about filmmaking for me is that over the years my passion hasn’t waned. I love it even more now than ever.
Is there any particular film genre you are most looking forward to exploring?
I love comedy and I want to keep developing my voice in that genre but I also love the idea of mixing genres like in Harry Is Not Okay. In the last year I’ve thought more about genre in terms of starting and maintaining a career in the film industry.
At the moment for example I’m writing a neo-noir comedy thriller because it feels right for what is on my mind. Some of my favourite filmmakers write and make films about their life. I’m a big fan of Noah Baumbach and one of his best films Squid and the Whale is about his parents divorce and another of his, Marriage Story, is about his own divorce but imagine pitching those films!
Coming from Manchester do you think Northern narratives and locations will continue to feature in the work you create?
In the immediate future unfortunately not. I’m moving to Beaconsfield in January so the films will be made down there for obvious reasons. I’m looking forward to using sets and working with production designers and an art department for the first time. I’ve spent my whole life living in the North though so it’s time for a change and one that I think will give me an outsider/observer’s perspective, which is always useful for a writer-director.
Being Northern is such a big part of my identity though and if I hadn’t got into the school my plan in 2022 was to make a 75- min comedy with the same team as Harry Is Not Okay. Laurence Tratalos and I always talk about how we don’t see stories that excite us or speak to us set in the North. The plan is to develop a few TV projects whilst I’m at the school. Shows we can pitch when I graduate.
For any fellow emerging filmmaker do you have any advice or tips you'd offer them?
I have so many things but I’m going to keep it to three. I also want to mention the 26 episodes of the podcast I recorded. You can find it on my website. There’s loads in those episodes because it’s just me figuring loads out in real-time and takes you from May 2020 to sending out the film for feedback so a whole year.
So my quick three tips would be:
1: Start small. I could talk at length about this but essentially I meet so many filmmakers and they tell me the project they’re working on and it’s a science-fiction film with car chases and it’s 18 pages long. Start with three pages in one room and set a deadline to get it done in a month. That’s plenty of time!
2: Build a team. Filmmaking is a collaboration. Not only does this make the work better but it gives you an impetus to get things done because you have people waiting on you. I think this is a big aspect that separates happy, productive filmmakers and the ones that struggle. It’s a hard racket and if you’re on your own it feels like an impossible slog but if you have a co- writer that you meet up with each week and a cinematographer who is excited to receive a script you’re in a much better place. I’m fortunate to have met Ryan McMurray when I did back in 2013. He’s a brilliant sound man, mixer and designer who has worked on Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire amongst other accomplished work. He’s been integral to everything I’ve done and he’s not just interested in sound, he’s a filmmaker. To tell you the truth I’ve probably taken for granted how important these collaborations are. You’re lucky if someone gets involved truly creatively on one of your projects let alone several.
3: Get your life right. This could also be renamed sort your shit out. I’ve been guilty in the past of being too obsessed with the filmmaking part of my life to the detriment of everything else and I learned late that everything else I avoided or perceived to be a hindrance actually wasn’t, it helped the filmmaking and strengthened my chance of doing this for a living. I’m sorry if this is too abstract so again I’ll give an example. The work/life balance is an issue for 95% of filmmakers. Almost every filmmaker I meet has an issue with this and it obviously impacts everything else. It can be crippling and it leads to all kinds of bad stuff. I can’t put it better than Stephen King who said: “Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Harry is Not Okay?
When we started the project and throughout the making I didn’t really consider the reaction or what audiences would take away apart from I wanted to make a thought-provoking comedy. I hope people laugh and enjoy having to think about it in a way that I believe is quite rare for a 14-minute film. The aspect of the Directors Notes article I was most proud of was when they said it demanded multiple viewings because I’m flattered when people want to watch my work at all, let alone repeatedly.