Liam, a young gay Brit in Berlin, experiences the unexpected death of his partner. Following a night out, he finds himself the victim of a cruel system which denies his existence and throws him into oblivion.
Hi Dean thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times?
It’s been a challenge! I had to cancel my planned trips back to the UK and my other work was cancelled. I’ll finally be working again next week! Fortunately, we shot Next of Kin in Berlin in February 2020, just before the restrictions and lockdown came into force. This meant that for the first few months of lockdown I was able to dedicate a lot of time to editing and working on the post-production, which I completed in May.
Has this time offered you any creative inspiration?
It’s given me plenty of time to reflect, focus and collect my thoughts about subjects that I would like to address in future projects. I also have an ongoing feature film project, based on my graduation short, Stolen, which I have been able to spend some time working on. As it takes place between 1950-2010, with action in 3 countries, and in 3 languages, the research and character development is intense.
Congratulations on having Next of Kin selected for this year's Raindance Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing lineup of short films?
As a British national, to have the World Premiere of Next of Kin at London’s Raindance Film Festival alongside such an incredible selection of short films from around the world is incredible. Everyone involved is thrilled. Of course, the purpose of making any film is for it to reach as wide an audience as possible and, by doing so, hopefully, have some kind of impact on the audience and create a discussion.
Next of Kin won Best Screenplay at Waterford Film Festival, did you imagine you would get this type of recognition for your film?
After writing Next of Kin I wanted to have some feedback on the script before taking it further. I searched for established film festivals which offered a category for short film scripts. I needed to ensure that they were credible, and the Waterford Film Festival was one of the few festivals which ticked all of the boxes during the timeframe I was looking at. In addition, as both a British and Irish national, with a short screenplay in English, it seemed fitting to apply to a festival in the UK or Ireland for this purpose. I was stunned to win, as this was the first time that I had entered a screenplay competition. It effectively gave me the green light and confidence I needed to go into production.
Can you tell me a little bit about Next of Kin, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
It’s a little complicated. Last year, my mum died of a brain tumour, which came as a shock. My mum survived the initial seizure but sadly died a few months later. This time was particularly challenging. I spent a lot of time at the hospital and the hospice with my mum. As my mum was a widow, my sister and I were next of kin. Fortunately, my mum had put Power of Attorneys in place for us, which made everything much easier. As a result of this experience and speaking with medical staff, I realised how vulnerable I was in my own relationship: a gay man, having been with my partner for over 20 years, but not married or in any legally-recognised relationship. I began to think ‘What if this were to happen to either of us? How would we be treated? Legally, we don’t exist.’ And so I researched this issue thoroughly and discovered the complexity of the next of kin. Of course, this doesn’t just affect same-sex relationships, but any relationship between two people without legal standing. Even same-sex marriage has limited effectiveness as it not recognised in many countries, so should this happen whilst overseas, couples may be vulnerable. I was of the opinion that a discussion needed to be had around this to at least raise awareness.
"Every person I meet, every incident I observe, is catalogued in my mind, for future reference."
This film deals with a very salient issue that many LGBTQ couples will, and have, encountered, but is a subject that isn't spoken about as much within the community. Why do you think we don't talk about this as much?
There are still many issues which members of the LGBTQ community don’t like to talk about for various reasons, but fortunately, organisations such as Stonewall UK voice these issues on our behalf. That is why Next of Kin is in support of Stonewall. When I asked them to look at the script, their response about the subject matter was very positive and they were very encouraging. We need to remember that, although many members of our community are now able, and willing, to live more openly, many still live in fear and struggle to come to terms with who they are for a variety of reasons. This makes addressing the issues somewhat difficult. In Next of Kin, we discover that Ben isn’t out to his family. This adds a layer of complication to the situation which arises and further isolates his partner, Liam, in such tragic circumstances.
As a filmmaker do you ever draw from your own experiences or become inspired by people you meet?
Absolutely. I initially trained as an actor at East 15 Acting School in London. As part of the character-development process you learn to draw on and use you own experiences in order to connect with the role you are playing. You also become a fervent observer of others. Every person I meet, every incident I observe, is catalogued in my mind, for future reference.
What would you say has been the most valuable lessons you have taken from making this film?
Have patience. As I am new to the film-making world, routes for funding were very limited, so I funded the project personally using some of my inheritance from my mum. Therefore, I needed to find ways to make my budget go as far as possible, whilst still trying to be fair to everyone involved. This involved waiting a little bit longer than expected for locations, but it worked out well.
How important is the collaborative process?
Very. I conducted all the auditions and selected the actors to invite. I was open to the look of the characters, but knew that I would know when the actors connected with my vision. I really hate telling an actor what to do and resist this as much as possible. If an actor has some freedom, they will be true to the character and offer up something special. I like raw, ugly cinema, not airbrushed or highly manipulated. Similarly, on the technical side, I had a very small crew, but a crew that shared my vision, knew their craft and were passionate professionals driven to make the best short film possible with the budget we had. I knew that I could rely on them. Good communication with the DOP, Julian Voltmann, was key. We discussed everything very thoroughly, and I knew that I could count on him to be honest, open and flexible in every situation.
Do you like to be flexible once a film is shooting or do you prefer to stick to your script as it is?
It depends. I am flexible with many aspects of the performance, within the technical limits. If an actor goes off script a little during a take, I like to see what happens, and so long as all actors stay in character and committed to the scene, magic might happen in that moment. However, it needs to be remembered that the dialogue, the specific words have often been chosen for a reason. This is why before the shoot, I like to go through the script with the actors individually. I don’t like rehearsal for scenes, especially when they are highly emotional. I want an actor to deliver an honest performance in the moment, not something highly staged.
"...but I want to be me and tell my stories how I want to tell them."
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
My background is very much theatre. As a child I spent most of my time in the theatre. I especially thrived on improvised and devised theatre, and also taught acting classes to both adults and teenagers, with a focus on improvisation. I began using film as part of the development process and subsequently, was asked to teach a film-making course, which really ignited the film-making passion. Hence, my decision to train at MetFilm school in Berlin.
Has your style/approach to your films changed much since your debut short?
I guess to most people Next of Kin is my debut short, as it’s the first short I’ve made since graduating from MetFilm school. The style is very different to my graduation short, which was more cinematic, with steady, smooth images. It was appropriate to the subject matter and the story that I wanted to tell which was in German and Spanish. Next of Kin needed more grit, more of the ugly, social context that British cinema and TV has the reputation for. I’ve always been inspired by the work of Ken Loach and the recent ‘I Am’ series by Dominic Savage for Channel 4 in the UK caught my attention too. This is what I wanted for Next of Kin. Nothing too clean, handheld camera but not shaky cam, no constant soundtrack to manipulate the audience at every beat and accentuate every emotion. I didn’t want the actors airbrushed. They are real people. They wear a little powder but no other make-up, other than what they would wear naturally.
Should filmmakers push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Isn’t that the purpose of making films? For me, I don’t want to be a mirror image of another film maker. I can learn from what others have done, be inspired by them, use techniques which I like, but I want to be me and tell my stories how I want to tell them. If the final result reminds the viewer of someone else’s style, so be it. Not everyone will like it. But if I make an impact, somehow, somewhere, I would have achieved an objective and my work would be worthwhile
Are there any tips or pieces of wisdom you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Listen to the feedback and advice of others. Be open to suggestions. But remember at the end of the day, you have a story to tell, so tell it how it needs to be told.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Next of Kin?
There are many aspects of Next of Kin, which I hope provoke reflection. However, the feedback I’ve had from third parties when reading the script is that this is an issue that could affect anyone. Next of Kin tells the story of a gay couple, but the situation is not exclusive to the LGBTQ community. Therefore, we all need to talk about the issues faced by Liam, raise awareness and simplify how we can put in place the necessary legal protections, which may in some small way help make the unbearable a little more bearable.