New Renaissance Film Festival 2023
Carefree retired teacher Tom and his new partner Iona have run away to start a new life together in the South of France, but when Tom’s estranged son shows up unannounced with his girlfriend Adele, the past begins to catch up with them. Adele, who was raised in a cult where she was both worshipped and abused, allows her own emotional sacrifices to become the catalyst for others to heal.
Hi David, It’s really great to talk with you. Are you looking forward to the NFRR?
You too! Yeah, it’s going to be really great to be there and meet people.
What has it meant to you to have your debut feature film, Passing Through, open the 2023 NRFF in London?
Film festivals are really competitive, especially when you’re new to the film world and nobody’s heard of you. You have to submit to lots of them and hope that at least a few will be drawn to the work you’ve created. The ones who say no kind of fade off into the distance, but when you get selected, it’s an opportunity to meet the people behind the festival and understand what it was about the film that clicked with them and made them want to include it. Especially with a small festival, there’s a personal connection—something in the work will speak to the festival organisers. Jan and Massi from NRFF have been really positive about the film, and I hope people attending the festival will be too. Festivals all develop their own personalities, so I’m looking forward to seeing what else Jan and Massi have picked to sit alongside Passing Through. The line-up looks great.
Any nerves or pressure ahead of the festival?
Not really; I'm just looking forward to meeting with audiences and fellow filmmakers.
How important are film festivals like NRFF in being able to continue to platform indie films, and what more can be done to bring indie films and filmmakers to wider audiences outside of the festival circuit?
There are lots of little festivals happening around the country, serving niche genres or local interests, or just indie films made on low budgets outside of the mainstream. It’s part of the business for filmmakers. We’re trying to get our work seen, and we’re trying to get it out to audiences via distributors or streamers, and we want to get that next project funded, of course. People outside the industry should think of their local festival as a place to see the next big thing and to support emerging talent—something to get behind, because, yeah, it really means a lot to have random members of the public come to your screening. They’re the people I want to talk to afterwards. Not some producer or critic who’s seen 11 films in the last three days. People who just read about it and stroll in. I always want to know what made them come in and what they thought of it. We had a screening in Belfast, and a recently divorced couple had come to see Passing Through on their first night out as ‘just friends’. They’d planned to see something a bit less emotionally raw—divorce is a theme in Passing Through—but it was sold out or they were running late, so with a bit of apprehension, they saw my film instead. They came up to me afterwards, and we had a laugh about how dark it was, seeing a film about a family really damaged by divorce, and them standing there together smiling, trying to make the best of their own drama. That sort of contact with audiences is priceless.
There are loads of great indie films on streaming services, including on smaller services. You can find smaller, quirky indie films at places like Curzon Home Cinema or BFI Player. People should try to be curious and seek out those undiscovered gems, then geek about them to their friends!
How did Passing Through come about, and what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
Angela, who plays Iona in the film, and I were in a relationship at the time. She had an actor friend called Stephen [Connery Brown] and said she’d love to work with him on something. She just floated the idea that I write something with the two of them in it. I’d been visiting a town in the south of France called Agde almost every summer since I was 18. I went there on holiday, then to work for a summer, and then my family ended up buying a holiday home there, which I helped to renovate. It’s a fascinating place, and I wanted to write about the sort of people who lived there, especially the English-speaking people who had upped sticks to move there. So my starting point was Angela and Stephen in Agde. I thought, let’s make them a couple, and they’ve just moved there. Let’s give him a son, and the son can come to visit. Then, a little later, I thought, maybe the son needs a girlfriend. Obviously, that seems quite uninteresting in itself, but really, that’s how it is a lot of the time. The set-up gives you a way to explore the themes. It’s a kind of Petri dish. The working title became Second Chances. I realised all the characters wanted a second chance at something in life. The older couple had fallen in love and moved to a new country to put their pasts behind them. The father and son had become estranged through divorce and both wanted a second chance to bond, and the son’s girlfriend, Adele, was returning to France, the country she had runaway from at 14 after an abusive childhood, maybe hoping for a second chance to make peace with the country that still defined a huge part of her identity. At one point, she jokes about liking drinking wine: ‘I may be a freak, but I’m still French.’ She’s exploring who she is and who she might want to be. All the characters are, in a way.
On some meta level, maybe it’s an analogy for me, as a playwright, trying to reinvent myself as a filmmaker.
Did your philosophy and theatre background help prepare you for writing this film?
Theatre definitely. There are some long scenes in this, a few of which we trimmed a little in the edit. But there are twists and turns in conversations that lead us down unexpected paths. It’s a wordy script, and that’s something theatre writers are comfortable with, I think, but people who’ve only written for film tend to fear. There’s a sense among screenwriters that ‘we have to have some action so the audience doesn’t get bored.’ But I think I felt confident enough to just let those scenes run. With good actors, words are all you need. Those long dialogue scenes are quite thrilling to film. On set, it’s like watching a play; after ten minutes, you feel the whole crew being drawn in. It’s a lot more emotional than the norm of shooting for 60 seconds and cutting.
"Apart from being invited to a birthday party in the local gipsy community once, none of the events happened to me."
And philosophy—there's a religious theme in the film. I’m very much an atheist and have written plays in the past about non-belief, including about Jean Meslier, an 18th-century French Catholic priest who was a closet atheist. In Passing Through, you have a character, Adele, who was raised in a cult and abused, but also brought up to believe she was a reincarnated goddess. I think I have a fascination with religion, especially those sorts of extremes, if only because it shines a light on the rest of it. Spiritual feelings, a sense of wonderment or the divine, are a fundamental part of human nature, and we all respond to that in different ways, whether we believe or not, so that’s all in there too, I guess, brought out through that character’s relationship with her upbringing and her beliefs. Philosopher-me is definitely active in writing about those themes.
When writing your screenplay, was it hard not to inject some of your own personal feelings, emotions, and history into your characters?
People ask me, 'is it autobiographical?' And they’re sometimes surprised when I say no. I can find bits of myself in all of the characters, but I could also find bits of other people I know. I could probably find bits of you. There are four main characters, and I think I’m equally spread among them. Apart from being invited to a birthday party in the local gipsy community once, none of the events happened to me. But like I’ve said, there’s a lot about identity and reinvention. There are questions there that I’m drawn to.
As a writer/director, and with Passing Through being your debut feature, did you seek any advice from fellow filmmakers ahead of your shoot, and what was the most challenging aspect of making this film for you? Covid couldn’t have helped.
Let's talk about COVID, sure. There could be no good time for it to happen, but at least we had shot the film before it came, and we’d done the initial edit as well. My producers were based in Chicago, and I flew out there for that in late 2019. In the years that followed, everything ground to a halt. We did a second pass on the film and cut about 30 minutes from the length, but that took months, working remotely. We hadn’t recorded the score. We couldn’t really, because we wanted live musicians in a studio together. And everyone’s confidence dropped, and nobody knew what was happening to the industry or to festivals. It was a space where big studios could draw on their resources and plough forward, but for a small operation like ours, held together with pins and glue, everything fell apart. My producers and I had to make difficult decisions about priorities, and in the end they moved on to other projects and I finished post-production of the film, mostly in 2022.
I wish I’d had more advice from other filmmakers. I did a short course at NFTS with Col. Spector, which was really useful. But actually, my producers and my cinematographer were my best tutors. They understood that I had very little film experience but also respected that I’d written a very fleshed-out script and knew what I wanted the film to be like. So every day on set was a learning experience. Ditto for pre- and post-production.
Looking back at this production, what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken from the shoot?
Get a great team of people together who believe in the project. Pretty simple. And be patient. Good things don’t happen overnight.
You’ve got an impressive cast, including Mark Little; how did you go about casting Passing Through and getting someone like Mark involved in the project?
So, I wrote Mark’s part for a different actor. Stephen, whom I mentioned earlier, pulled out a little while before we were due to begin filming in 2018, which in the end never happened. He had a theatre tour booked that was going ahead and was going to pay more anyway. I had to find a replacement in a hurry. The character was Australian and of a particular age. I wanted someone based in the UK, so I got on Spotlight [the casting directory] and put those parameters in. It wasn’t until I saw Mark’s name in the search results that my eyes lit up, and I realised it had to be him. He’s not the same as Stephen at all, actually, but then neither is the character I’d written. I know Stephen would have done an incredible job, but it would have been a different film. Like a lot of people, I knew Mark from Neighbours and from other TV shows he’s done since then. I didn’t think of myself as having been much of a Neighbours fan, but I honestly had quite a lucid flashback to being on the sofa as a child and watching Mark as Joe Mangel. It was like Slumdog Millionaire. I think I watched more than I realised. My producers, being American, had never heard of him, so I had to explain to them his pop-cultural significance. As to how I got him involved, I just emailed his agent and sent the script. Mark and I had coffee somewhere in Wood Green, and we got along well, so he decided to say yes.
You worked with PY Films and got a lot of support from the local gipsy community on this project. How essential were these creative and community-based collaborations for you in allowing you to realise your vision for this film?
The local gipsies were great, especially with the big street party scene that comes in the middle of the film, but really the credit goes to one man. Thierry Patrac, who also acts in the film, is listed as 'a local fixer’ in the credits, but basically, we couldn’t have made it without him. He’s a community worker, an actor, and an impressario. He’s just put on a flamenco festival in Agde, which I wish I could have been at. Gipsies in the south of France are often demonised, and he works really hard to share their culture and build bridges with the wider population. In films, you see them cast as criminals or gangsters. In our film, they’re shown as open and welcoming, and their music and culture are celebrated, so it was just the kind of thing Thierry wanted to be involved in.
Have you always had a desire for filmmaking?
I always wanted to write. I got into writing for theatre while I was at university and felt that was my thing; that was my track. I had ideas of making films one day, maybe, but I thought, 'No, I’ve got to win an Olivier Award first, then the film offers will come to me!’ If I have any regrets, the big one is that I didn’t get into film sooner, because as much as I love theatre, I feel so at home with film as a medium and the culture around it. I have theatre projects in mind for the future, but I love the process of filmmaking, and I’m hoping to stick at it for now.
What’s next for you on your filmmaking journey? Are there any film genres you’re looking forward to exploring with future projects?
I have two feature screenplays ready to go, which I’ve written since we filmed Passing Through. I’m looking for producers for both. One, I suppose, is similar in tone to Passing Through. It’s a love story, but it’s about family and relationships, like Passing Through is. The other is much darker. I call it a thriller because there’s a murder at the start, but maybe it’s horror because it’s about a woman falling in love with a psychopath, and she has no idea what she’s getting into. It isn’t supernatural. It’s meant to be frighteningly real. What it has in common with the other two and, in fact, with almost everything I’ve written, is that it’s about relationships. It’s about what we want from each other, what we need, and the stupid things we do to try to get it.
Now that you can be reflective having completed your debut feature, what advice would you offer a fellow filmmaker?
I think it’s a great skill to be able to take feedback well, which means to take it with a pinch of salt while trusting your own judgement, to not be offended, and to value it all even if you don’t intend to follow it. Different people will tell you a mess of contradictory things if you ask them their opinion. An actor might say they’ve got an idea for a scene that isn’t what you had in mind. An insecure filmmaker would shut them down, or maybe feel the need to please them and say yes. A mature filmmaker will listen and treat the idea with as much value as one of their own, then confidently say yes or no, based on whether it will enhance the scene or diminish it. The same goes for feedback on a script or an edit. You have to learn to listen, but ultimately, you have to have confidence in your own judgement.
Finally, what message do you want your audiences to take away from Passing Through?
That we all get second chances in life.