18th BFI Future Film Festival, 2024
"Making a film is a constant uphill battle against so many forces, and that can be very demoralising when you’re just starting out, even speaking as someone who is incredibly driven."
HOW TO BUILD A LIFE
Louis, a young man with Asperger's, talks candidly with his older brother about the bullying that nearly ended his life, and about finding hope through his new focus on Lego and his dog.
Hi Matthew, thank you for talking to TNC. How does it feel to have How to Build a Life part of this year’s BFI Future Film Festival?
As a British filmmaker who’s grown up seeing the prestigious BFI logo included in the credits of so many excellent home-grown films, to have my work recognised by that same institution feels like the ultimate thumbs-up. It’s the greatest honor of my career so far to have our film included among these outstanding films. I just feel overwhelming gratitude.
You’ve had a good festival run so far with How to Build a Life, what has it meant to you to see your film get such a great response for your film?
The response to the film has really been incredible and, with a story that’s so personal to my brother and I, to see it strike a chord in audiences the way that it has at festivals has just been phenomenal. To be able to stand aside after screenings as people rush to speak to my brother about his experiences; to tell him how much they related to his struggle and what that means to them is often enough to bring tears to my eyes. It makes the whole endeavour feel so worth it.
How important are festivals like Future Film Festival in creating a platform for short films and emerging filmmakers?
Festivals like BFI Future are invaluable to young, emerging filmmakers like myself. Making a film is a constant uphill battle against so many forces, and that can be very demoralising when you’re just starting out, even speaking as someone who is incredibly driven. That’s why it’s so important that there are opportunities for filmmakers to have their work showcased after completion. It’s a celebration of what’s been achieved and a reminder that this is possible, and that your voice has a place in the industry. Events like these inspire, nurture and help to usher in the next generation of filmmakers.
What more can be done on a local/national level to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?
I’m very inspired by the grassroots movements I see made on the local level to promote short films where filmmakers are taking matters into their own hands by building their own platforms to present their work. I think that is something which should be encouraged and supported on a local level. On the national level, I think it could look like bringing short films more into the mainstream. For the most part, I think it’s really only filmmakers that watch short films. But if there were more efforts made by the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, or even the BBC and Channel 4 to give a platform to short filmmakers, it would really do a lot to help bring the art form into the mainstream.
Did you have any apprehensions about making this film about your younger brother?
One hundred percent. With it being such a personal story for both of us, I had a lot of doubts about whether I would be able to tell the story honestly. I was concerned whether I would be able to look at things objectively enough, as opposed to telling a wholly subjective story. It was my dear friend and creative partner Callum Wilkins who pushed me to do it. Him and the lovely folks at Northern Heart Films who exec produced the film were instrumental in helping me find the confidence I needed to do it.
Can you tell me how How to Build a Life came about, how did you go about getting Louis to be part of the film?
I had already made a version of this film three years before but, since then Louis’ story had progressed a lot and in a way that felt ripe for a new telling of his story. I had developed a lot as a filmmaker too in that time and felt I was better placed to do the film justice. I had also developed my network and knew some outstanding talents who I wanted to bring on board to help elevate all aspects of the film. So I applied to the first iteration of the Northern Heart Doc fund and was so pleased to hear our project had been selected to receive a cash grant, mentorship and free post-production. All that was left was to ask Louis if he wanted to do it! He didn’t hesitate.
"As a filmmaker involved in fiction as well as non-fiction, this is definitely a mentality and an approach which I’m excited to bring to the rest of my work."
What has Louis reaction been like to the film?
The change I’ve seen in Louis over the course of the film’s festival circuit has been immeasurable. For so long, he felt so isolated and alone in his feelings but now, seeing how his story is being received by festivals and with the masses of people who have approached him afterwards has shown him that he is far from alone. People have volunteered deeply personal stories of struggle to Louis. Stories of how they, or someone they love, has gone through something similar. As the film started to build momentum, I saw Louis open up more and more of himself to people. Seeing him be vulnerable and brave like that stands in stark contrast to the young man he was five years ago.
What was the most challenging part of making this film been for you?
By far the most challenging part of making the film was deciding which version of the story to tell. Louis’s story is big, spanning over a decade and we filmed 8 hours of interviews with him. Cutting that down and making decisions on which threads of the narrative make it into the film in service of the story we’re telling and which don’t was incredibly difficult.
Now that you can be reflective, what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from making How to Build a Life?
I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned through making How to Build a Life is to be as open as possible. Go into every film you make, including documentary, with a plan. But you have to be ready to turn on a dime and reshape the story on the fly if you find it leads you somewhere you didn’t expect. As a filmmaker involved in fiction as well as non-fiction, this is definitely a mentality and an approach which I’m excited to bring to the rest of my work.
Where did you passion for filmmaking come from, and what is it about documentary filmmaking that connected with you so much?
I love evoking deep feelings in people. When I was much younger I used to be obsessed with magic. I would drive my family and friends up the wall, constantly showing them my latest and greatest tricks. I think even then it was about being able to create powerful feelings in people. In college I found that filmmaking had the same effect. One hundred people enter a dark room and watch the same two-hour film and all of them walk out having gone through a shared experience changed in some way. Sometimes it’s very subtle, but other times it’s drastic, possibly even life-changing. The power of documentary is particularly special because the stories aren’t just powerful, but true! Although I think even fiction is true in some deep sense.
Not many filmmakers get to direct their debut feature before their 21, what was the experience like for you co-writing and directing The Hanged with Callum Wilkins?
My experience directing The Hanged was where I learnt probably half of everything I know about filmmaking. After writing the script in just under a month, we crowdfunded a minuscule budget of £8k, which stretched to a measly six-and-a-half-day shoot window in our beautiful stately home location. Having such tight constraints forced us to get creative because we couldn’t just do whatever we wanted to. Add to this the fact that we were directing ten actors at a time for many of the scenes, as it was an ensemble cast with lots of fast-paced dialogue. Waking up at 5am each morning meant facing into 18 hours straight of constant decision making and having to justify each one to 30 people. It was a wild experience, but we rose to the challenge. The greatest gift of it all was not the final film, but the lessons learned and experience gained.
How much did this experience help shape how you’ve approached your film projects since?
In a lot of ways. Not least how important quality warm meals are to maintaining your own morale and that of your crew! Besides that, I think one of the main lessons was how to create efficient storytelling. Filming The Hanged, we never had enough time. I remember one week before the shoot, the DP and I sat down and had to slash the shot-list down from 1200 shots to 600, just to make it physically possible to shoot. We merged shots together using camera movement, cut anything that wasn’t absolutely driving the story forward. The other thing is that week of filming was like a crash course in directing actors. Seriously. A trial by fire. I made a lot of mistakes and learnt a lot about which techniques work, which don’t, and just generally how to talk and work with actors. It gave me a lot of confidence in that respect and certainly has helped me in projects since.
What does How to Build a Life say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell in the future?
I think what I realised in making How to Build a Life, and what I have continued to learn since, is that I most enjoy telling powerful true stories. I don’t just mean documentaries either. Stories that feel like they have real, deep truth to them which we can all connect with in some way through our own experiences, thoughts or feelings. Whether that’s through documentary and connecting with someone’s true story, or a totally fictional piece, but where the core of the story reveals something deeply truthful about our human experience. They are the stories I enjoy most and are the ones I want to tell. I think that’s where the real power of storytelling lies.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone wanting to get into filmmaking and what has been the best advice you’ve been given as you started your own filmmaking journey?
As someone who is constantly seeking the advice of others further down the path than me, I don’t want to give the impression of being someone who either knows it all or thinks he knows it all. I don’t – far from it. That being said, I think if I could offer my younger self one piece of advice, it would be that you have no idea what a little bit of hard work every day will snowball into. Keep making films, keep watching films and take every opportunity you can find. If you have a story to tell, tell it! If you don’t, it’s not that you don’t have something valuable to say. You do. It might just be that you lack confidence or aren’t feeling inspired. Get out there and seek new experiences, meet new people, learn and try new things. As you grow as a human being, you will also grow as an artist.
As for the best advice I’ve been given, I’d say it’s the idea of ‘one crappy page a day’. Nobody sits down and writes The Shawshank Redemption in an afternoon. Writing something, however bad it may be, is always better than writing nothing. ‘Writing is re-writing’. It’s far easier to improve something you’ve already written than it is to pull perfection out of thin air. Just sit down and write anything as often as you can. It’s something I still regularly struggle with, but it’s the effort that counts. Keep doing the thing, no matter what your inner critic tells you. And this doesn’t just apply to writing. It applies to all aspects. Just keep doing it, even if it means doing it “badly”. You will improve with time.
And finally, what do you hope you audiences will take away from How to Build a Life?
Louis and I both hope that people come away from watching the film with a feeling of empathy. Not sympathy or pity, but an acknowledgement that there are people out there in a lot of pain who are really, truly suffering. Often silently so. You never know where a person has come from or what they’re going through. You never know just how much effort it takes someone to make it through the day. You can always be kinder and more tolerant. If you are struggling, you are not alone. The first step is to speak up.