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British Short Berlin 2023


A teenage boy struggles to accept that he is the victim of a brutal and humiliating attack.


Hi Toby, it’s great to get to talk with you again, how has everything been going?


Things are good, thanks! Nice to be talking film straight off the back of a Christmas break. 


Congratulations on Held at the British Shorts 2023, how does it feel to be part of such an incredible line-up of short films?


It’s great to be included in such a strong programme of films, a number of which I’ve already seen and loved. British Shorts is a really exciting festival and Berlin is the one city in the world I find myself visiting time and time again.


How important are festivals like British Shorts in creating a platform for short films?


They are essential. Without a good few festivals embracing your film it can be hard to gain legitimacy as a filmmaker. But for me, the most important part of a festival run is having the opportunity to watch your film with a live audience. After months of production and post it can be hard to see the wood from the trees and know what film you’re left with. Seeing it at a festival can be incredibly energising and reminds you why you made the thing in the first place. Sitting with an audience and seeing how it impacts them is such a special experience. I’d also say it‘s essential for your own learning and development. And of course, festivals provide the best possible environments to meet other director’s, potential collaborators and film lovers alike.


Can you tell me how Held came about?


 Held originates from an incident that happened to me at 17, when I was randomly attacked and stabbed in my local area. For well over a decade, I felt a deep sense of embarrassment about what had happened to me and wasn’t able to speak openly about it. I couldn’t accept that I hadn’t been able to fight back and defend myself. Essentially, Held is about the shame of victimhood


Did you have any apprehensions about making a film that comes from such a personal place?


I really didn’t. For me, every film needs to come from a personal place, I don’t think I could write any other way. I think writing in itself is exposing, and the stronger my connection with the material, the more confident I am about the story I’m telling. Also, the further I got in development, the more I forgot that the film was coming from a lived experience. I was just excited about the usual things you get wrapped up in: visual language, locations, casting etc…


Has it been cathartic in a way being able to uniquely look back at this period in your life?


I think it has, which in a way contradicts my above answer! The catharsis has been subtle, but I’m definitely aware of it. Making this film has given me many opportunities, like even now, to speak about and what happened to me. I think that’s led to a deeper sense of calm about what happened, the attack itself and how I perceived my role within it. I remember just before the cast and crew screening, feeling really positive about the fact I’d taken this shitty, traumatic experience and turned it into a creative endeavour. That was empowering.


What was the biggest challenge you faced making this film?


Probably the fact that almost every location was exterior and we were often filming in highly populated areas. There was a lot of disruption! But I think a little bit of chaos can be good, it keeps you on your toes and forces you to be that extra bit focused. And if you’re lucky, you might capture some unexpected gems that weren’t written in the script. Oh and the weather… We were telling the story of a situation that would last no more than forty five minutes, so the weather needed to be consistent. It was the one thing we had no control of, so managing that anxiety was a challenge in itself. Especially when there isn’t the budget for pick up days.


How much flexibility did you allow yourself and your actors once you started shooting?


I think we had a good balance. There was a lot of flexibility on the day, but that was only on top of a strong foundation. I spent a lot of time with the actors during prep, discussing character and relationship dynamics, as well as getting their input on dialogue. I wanted the actors to take ownership of their roles and the words they were speaking. By the time we came to shoot, they were strongly connected to the material and with one another, so I knew they’d be able to improvise without going too far off piste

Looking back at the process of making Held what would you say have been the most valuable lessons you’ve taken from the experience?


My biggest takeaway is in regards to the visual language. I’ve always known that it’s in the world of social realism where I feel most at home and making Held has allowed me to really grapple with that language as well as pushing against its boundaries. I now have a better understanding and greater appreciation for the power of simplicity and sparseness in filmmaking. And making a film requires such stamina and keeping faith! Knowing that I got through it can only help when it comes to the next one.


Do you think filmmakers should continue to push the boundaries of the films/stories they want to tell?


I do. And it’s something I keep reminding myself of. That doesn’t mean you need to do something dazzlingly different with each film, I think you can push boundaries in more subtle ways, such as tackling more challenging subject matter, or giving yourself practical limitations that will help you be more creative and specific in your choices. But yeah, a dose of the unknown is the only way to grow. David Bowie said it best: “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?


I’ve always loved films and found great comfort in them. I remember watching black and whites with my mum, then going upstairs to my room and spending hours building my own film sets out of lego and bricks. So far, my experience of making film has mostly been as an actor. But even then, I was always curious about the process as a whole. Maybe if I’d grown up in a time where you could make something on a phone and immediately share it online, I’d have got into production a lot sooner.


How much has your background in theatre helped you in your filmmaking process?


Probably similar to my acting background. I’ve developed a strong instinct for dialogue, knowing when it feels real and knowing when it sounds over written. I also think it’s given me a good sense of rhythm and pacing, something I’m constantly thinking about from the writing stages all the way through to the edit. And of course, I feel very comfortable working with actors.


Would you ever consider turning your critically acclaimed play FOG into a short of feature film?


Hmm… I’ve considered it a number of times and from all sorts of angles. There’s something I’ve not been able to unlock, even though I can see a film there. Co-writing and performing in that play was really special and feels precious in some way. Maybe I’m nervous about the dangers of trying to repeat myself. Or maybe my gut is telling me it’s okay to move on, trust that there are other stories that need telling.

"I remember watching black and whites with my mum, then going upstairs to my room and spending hours building my own film sets out of lego and bricks."

You are currently working on your third short as well as your debut feature, are you able to tell me anything about these?


It’s a bit early to talk about the feature, but my next short is another slice of life story. It’s a quiet and contained drama, with only a cast of two. The subject matter is challenging and delicate, with a lot of grey areas. This is where I am just a bit out of my depth, which brings the usual nerves but mostly feels exciting. And the film is set at a seaside location, so I’m looking forward to shooting outside of London for the first time.


For any emerging filmmakers, writers, directors what would your top three tips you would offer them?


Find your people. If you’re like me, and think of  ‘networking’ as a dirty word you need to get over that. It’s important to start developing strong collaborations in the short form world, that you can hopefully take into your first feature.


Remember that filmmaking is teamwork, that creative and practical solutions can be found together. It’s okay not to know all the answers.


If you find yourself feeling dejected by the inevitable number of rejections your film is getting from festivals, try to ask yourself – ‘Do I like this film? Am I happy (enough) with it? Can I see my own development in this work? If yes to at least two of these, then great. That’s what matters most. And remember that everyone else, at all levels, is dealing with the same uncertainty. Keep the faith.


And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from Held?


I hope they empathise with every character in the film, even the perpetrators of the attack, who are themselves victims. And I hope they recognise that what our young, male protagonist is going through, the shame he feels of being a victim, can be experienced by anyone, anywhere. And I hope they enjoy it! 

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