Cannes Film Festival
Short Film Corner 2021
In this wryly observed piece, the filmmaker and his cranky father finally head to the neglected home where his grandparents once lived. Like the chalet itself, the men’s relationship is long untended. Sorting through the dusty relics proves to be an emotional task.
Hi Liam, thanks for talking to The New Current, how have you been keeping during these strange Covid times?
My bread and butter work has remained steady to my surprise, my health is intact and my home life is pretty comfortable I have so much to be thankful for, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t miss the spontaneity and the feeling of freedom. On the plus side, like a lot of people, I've spent a bit more time considering what is important in life.
Is this time offering you any new creative opportunities?
I’m very envious of the people that seemed to wake up on the first day of lockdown thinking “right then, time to write that screenplay”. I had lots of good intentions that I didn't stick to sadly, and feel like my mental health is much better when I'm moving around the physical world seeing faces and places, and feeding off the highs and lows of normal life rather than staring at a screen all day. That side of things can sometimes feel creatively paralyzing rather than nurturing. I’ve learned some new skills though and managed to finish off a couple of projects.
The reaction to Lochgoilhead Forever has been amazing, has it surprised you to get such a great reaction to your documentary?
Definitely. I screened it at a Sundance Co//ab event in London in February 2020 just before lockdown. I was considering not even going in person, partly due to the travel expense and partly feeling sceptical that anyone would be interested in a story so particular to me. I worried that the strange humour and observations in the film would just be too niche, but they translated very well even to a very diverse audience. I suppose a lot of people have fraught relationships with their parents! It was so encouraging to have Sundance people and even a sales agent complimenting the film and giving me contact details. It was a valuable lesson about showing work as well, people pay attention so differently, in a cinema, the facial expressions, the rhythm of the edit and the emotional cues are easier to see for a more subtle film I think.
Congratulations on having Lochgoilhead Forever part of this year's Short Film Corner, how does it feel to be able to present your short film at Cannes?
Thank you. It always feels like a valuable thing to get involved with large organizations or festivals, it can give you a much better insight into how the film world works and provide important learning opportunities. I'm hoping to see some other short docs too and meet some filmmakers.
Any nerves ahead of the festival?
I don't think there's anything to be nervous about, but I guess I'll find out.
"The edit was also quite challenging, and I think it boils down to trying to maintain that original spark that compelled you to make something in the first place."
How did Lochgoilhead Forever come and what was it about?
Lots of people have a moment post-adolescence when your parents no longer seem like robots who can't possibly understand you, and you realize that they are just flawed human beings with their own problems. I'd long fantasized about making a film where I challenged my dad and asked him about all the complicated stuff that we never talked about; anger, booze, divorce, all the stuff that made me distance myself from the family, but our relationship was mellowing as we both grew older. We don't speak all that often, but one day he just said matter of factly over the phone that he was going to hand back the keys to his parent's place (it was leased) after years of trying to justify hanging onto it even though he barely visited. It came as a huge surprise, as the place had become a bit of a symbol of unfinished business, unspoken pain, and an inability to move on. I felt I was presented with a physical thing that could represent aspects of our relationship, and an event that I could shoot in real-time to reveal some sort of truth about his character, warts and all. I never expected to see his grief for his parents, a past life, his homeland. It gave me a totally new perspective, to be honest, and left me feeling empathetic and like I wanted to change my own attitude rather than his.
When making a documentary what are some of the biggest challenges you face and looking back is there anything you would do differently?
Documentaries, particularly observational ones, require a heightened state of vigilance to your surroundings, and it can be a bit of a whirlwind of snap decisions. I didn't want to rely on interviews, or the re-telling of stories, I wanted to just allow the audience to see something a little bit mundane, but a little bit extraordinary. From the pressure of it, I had a panic attack the night before leaving and ended up sick with a bad cold the entire time I was shooting. I barely slept each night I was so worried about capturing everything and the ethics of something so personal. So I think just being present and receptive to what is going on is the biggest challenge for a film like this. It would be a lot simpler to have historical events and timelines to cover, but I wanted to capture the feeling, the experience, not tell people what to think.
If I did anything differently it would mainly be to waste less time getting beautiful shots that didn't serve the story, maybe have a few more tea breaks instead. The edit was also quite challenging, and I think it boils down to trying to maintain that original spark that compelled you to make something in the first place. It’s easy to forget that spark when you’re trawling through hours of footage. I remember at school if I was writing an essay I would go off on tangents and get caught up in ideas, following my nose, and teachers would always tell me: ‘keep re-reading the question!’ It’s like that, you need to constantly refer back to the heart of what you’re trying to do instead of getting wrapped up in new ideas or other potential avenues. Maybe I learned something at school after all!
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
A collection of ideas and themes through music, philosophy, literature, and psychology. At some point, I was working in high street shops and started to jot down loads of random thoughts in caffeinated frenzies on my lunch breaks, just fragments, and ideas. I wrote about family and places and little passages about inner experience. It must have been around that time I saw the feature doc 'The Story of the Weeping Camel', and I was totally taken aback. I had no idea films like it existed, particularly not documentaries, so I feel like a late bloomer in that sense and quite ignorant of a lot of film history. It shocked me to see so much normality, humour, and everyday magic with no narration and no explanation. It was about the experience and was so far from the factual content that a TV broadcaster might produce if they followed the same family of Mongolian nomads. I still feel it's an injustice that more people don't know about that type of observational filmmaking, or even more heavily directed docs that do not prioritize facts and events and timelines, but portray experience instead.
I agree with Werner Herzog when he says that if people really loved facts so much they would just read the phone book. The Joshua Oppenheimer film 'The Act of Killing' was another moment that totally blew my mind. Oppenheimer uses surreal and bizarre images to present mass murderers as the flawed, traumatised and broken people he believes them to be, and in doing so questions how we think about good and evil. It asks huge, important questions about what it is to be human and how we might make things better. More recently some narrative films shot in an observational style have also been a big influence, like Debra Granik’s ‘Leave no Trace’ which left me in shreds of confused emotion, and Chloé Zhao’s ‘Songs my Brother’s Taught Me’ and ‘Nomadland’. It’s satisfying to see her work get such critical acclaim recently.
How much does your background as a cinematographer help you direct your films?
It's a visual medium, and being familiar with shooting definitely helps you to think visually. I adore the idea that you can often say more through a long-held shot than you can by using words (though you need them too sometimes). For a film like Lochgoilhead Forever though, it's important not to get hung up on perfect images. I took lots of well-composed, picture postcard-type shots of Lochgoilhead, and a much wider variety of locations than made the final cut, but are now languishing on a hard drive because they just did nothing to help tell this story. That has been interesting to learn. I think whether you're shooting docs or narrative fiction, the cinematography is about moments, not about eye candy, everything needs motivation. The story is the master, and the visuals should be a slave to it.
Do you have any advice or tips to offer a fellow filmmaker?
The story is more important than ego. A niche can be better than broad. A flawed, finished film is better than a perfect film you never finish. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Be adaptable. If people like your work, cool, but do what you want not what you think other people want.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your Lochgoilhead Forever?
Acceptance. It isn't exactly a sexy Hollywood topic, but it has been a very liberating experience for me to let go of the things I cannot change whether that is people, the past, events, or deaths, and focus on empathy, openness, and acceptance of things as they are. I think it’s something we really don’t talk about enough.