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17th British Shorts, Berlin

"I was there during shooting as a guide for the actors so I had to have already gone through this cathartic journey beforehand."

Fri 19.1. 19:00 / Acudkino 1

January 08, 2024  
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Brian's younger brother Jimmy goes missing after a fight at their father's wake.


Hi Scott, thank you for talking to TNC. Congratulations on The Bird Feeder being selected for the 17th British Shorts in Berlin, how does it feel to be part of such an amazing line-up of short films?


Yea it’s an honour to be a part of representing British short films in Berlin this year. It looks like there are a lot of great films being screened and I’m happy they selected The Bird Feeder as one of them. 


What has it meant to you to get this type of response for your film?


I think it always means a lot to filmmakers to have their work recognised, it helps keep us motivated and confident we’re on the right track so we can keep making new work. 


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


I think it’s amazing that festivals like British Shorts make an effort to showcase short films, especially in Berlin, as there are not a lot of places to screen short films. I think they are a unique and special form of filmmaking which should have a larger audience. Especially in this day and age of shorter format content like TikTok and YouTube, these films tend to hold deeper meaning and human insight.


What more can be done on a local/national level in the UK to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of film festivals?


Yea that’s a great follow up question, I follow Ruben Ostlund’s suggestion that we should change the format in which we screen films and make them more of an event like a touring concert instead of being “in theatres” for weeks at a time. When you go to the opening night of a film it might be packed but two weeks later you might only be seeing it with two or three people and that’s a completely different experience. If screenings toured like bands from theatre to theatre, city to city, it could be packed every single time. I think short film programmes could be shown in this same way. 1-1.5 hour short film screening segments sometimes even with an intermission to allow discussion and anticipation of the next films could be a good idea. So I think a change in the format in which the business around screening films is done would allow for more short films to be screened and accepted by the general public. I’m also a big believer in 1 hour long films and I think this touring format could also help support those as well.


What made you want to shoot in 16mm, did shooting on film mean you had to give your actors more time to rehearse?


Even before film school I had an affinity with dirtier looking visuals and I was fortunate enough to work with 16mm a lot in school. Pretty much every film I’ve made or produced has been shot on film. I had so many people tell me not to do it and although I believe they had my best interests at heart, I stuck to my vision and eventually those same people said they couldn’t see it any other way. I think that was a big lesson for me in trusting my instincts and not letting money or other factors stop me from making it the way I felt like it had to be made. Everyone else will catch up after you’ve done it. I think shooting on film gives you a filter where you go, now I’m watching a film, which is different than watching real life everyday. I want a veil which separates this world from the films world and 16mm is the perfect format for that. I even prefer it over 35mm which is so clean these days it basically looks like digital. Every scene was shot in one continuous handheld shot, so there were lots of blocking rehearsals which I found very challenging. The Dardenne Brothers were a huge influence on our shooting style but after attempting it myself, their work seems even more profound. It’s really hard to keep a scene alive and interesting the entire time without any dead space. It’s something I hope to continue to perfect in the future.

Can you tell me how The Bird Feeder came about, did you have any apprehensions about making a film that comes from such a personal place?


I planned on making my graduation film in April of 2020 but obviously that didn’t happen, so I helped produce fellow students projects during lockdown and graduated as a producer instead. I had already written about 6 short film scripts by that time but never felt like pulling the trigger on any of them. One day I was speaking to my brother on the 12th anniversary of his sobriety and as we were reminiscing about that time in our lives I remembered a strange cathartic moment I had at a bar in the middle of the afternoon soon after he got sober. I just broke down crying out of nowhere. I had been so angry with him for so long it was the first time my real feelings of sorrow and grief came to the surface. The funny thing is, when that happens to the character in the film, it wasn’t scripted. Lewis just improvised it and it was just my job to keep the camera rolling. I like to think it was the emotional journey I took him on with the rest of the script that brought him to that moment and being the talented actor that he is, he stayed in the moment and what happened to me in real life, happened to him. I think it was a combination of this powerful moment in my life and my close relationship with my brother which prompted me to write the script. We were far enough removed from that time that I could write the film without it feeling too close. The events in the film are completely fictional but the emotional journey the main character goes through is very true to real life. 

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"I think its very important to separate the writer in me from the director. I think if you put the proper work in on the script then you know you have something that works. I also love the collaborative process with the actors."

In the writing of your screenplay was it cathartic for you to be able to look back at your relationship with your brother?


I think I had gone through all the emotions and accepted what had happened years before writing the script so it wasn’t cathartic in the sense that I was experiencing these emotions all over again, but it did allow me to take a deeper more objective look at what each person in my family felt during that time and how we all dealt with it in our own way. I found that to be interesting. Ultimately I knew I was saying something that was true and I had no doubts about that because I lived it. So all the choices in the script were easy to make because I knew exactly what the character was going through. I think that’s the goal of any filmmaker, to find the truth, and when you’ve found it, to have the ability to put it on screen. That’s probably also the hardest part of filmmaking.


Though The Bird Feeder comes from your relationship with your brother where you conscious about how much of yourself/brother you wanted to put into your characters?


Like I said before I used our emotional journeys as a guide but the characters in the film are different from us in many ways. Different in the way we look, dress, where we lived, our jobs, and even our outcomes. But I stayed true to the underlying character traits that probably all addicts and family members of addicts have in the way we react to crisis or loved ones in danger. 


Though you shot the film in just 4 days, during the shoot did this time allow you to gain new insights/understanding about this period in your lives?


I think shooting is such a technical act, it’s more the actors themselves who might be discovering things while they play the characters. For me, I had done all this work already. I was there during shooting as a guide for the actors so I had to have already gone through this cathartic journey beforehand. For me, that happened when I was writing the script and in previous discussions with my brother. 


Did you always intend to shoot your short in Aberfeldy, Scotland. And what was the experience like for you coming back to a place that held such memories for you?


We’ve been visiting Aberfeldy since I was born. My grandparents on my mother’s side retired there and most of her siblings live there now. My brother and I would spend our summers there so the area is very special to us and most of the scripts I write end up taking place there. It’s a very special place and it feels like home. 


You have an amazing cast, how did you go about casting Jannett, Brian and Jimmy?


I found Lewis Gribben on spotlight and originally auditioned him for the role of the younger brother, Jimmy. When I met him in Glasgow though I had the idea during the audition to have him read for Brian and his vulnerability blew me away. I had naively envisioned Brian as a strong older brother archetype but when I met Lewis I realised the more interesting choice would be to cast someone who didn’t fit that mold but who still had to take on the responsibility of holding a family together. It’s always more interesting and truer to real life to see someone who might not have all the tools be forced to into an uncomfortable place. We’re not always ready when life comes calling but sometimes we just have to push through and make it work. We spent a weekend prior to shooting learning how to build a fence with my uncle and we were both pretty bad at it, which was perfect.


For Kate Dickie, I sent the script to her agent and honestly didn’t expect to hear anything back. To my shock and surprise her agent ended up sending her the script and emailed me to say Kate wanted to meet me for coffee the following day in Glasgow. Luckily I was already staying at my Papa’s house in Lenzie outside Glasgow and agreed to meet her. I was so nervous, but Kate was so wonderful and as soon as we sat down she told me I didn’t have to sell her on the film, that she wanted to do it. So we just spent the following 2 hours having coffee, talking about life and film in general. I was very lucky. 


For the role of Jimmy I actually had a local guy affectionately nicknamed “Sparky” in mind, who I grew up skateboarding with in Aberfeldy. After a few pints at our local he agreed to do it but a few days before filming he got cold feet and told me he couldn’t anymore. I didn’t want to force him but also ended up convincing him to play the part of Jimmy’s friend in the trailer (he’s the guy who opens the trailer door with all the tattoos). I loved his look and his tattoos and knew he needed to be part of the film. 2 days out from shooting I didn’t have a Jimmy. Then the same agency (Strangetown co.) who represented Lewis sent me the profile of the super talented Ruaridh Mollica who had just been in the BAFTA winning short, Too Rough. They told me he was really interested in doing it so I put him on the next train to Pitlochry near Aberfeldy and the rest is history. I got really lucky to have such an amazing cast and it was a pleasure to work with all of them. 


What was the experience like for you getting to work with Kate Dickie?


Working with Kate was a dream. She’s so down to earth and from our very first discussion I definitely felt a kindred spirit. We both come from working class backgrounds and have the same outlook when it comes to hard work. She works non-stop and doesn’t know how to take a holiday! Unfortunately, I didn’t have any rehearsal time with her like I did with Lewis, so there was definitely a feeling out process when we were shooting, but after a few adjustments on my side I think we got to a good point. Working with her was all too brief but I hope to work with her more in the future.


Did you allow much flexibility with your screenplay once you started shooting?


I think it’s very important to separate the writer in me from the director. I think if you put the proper work in on the script then you know you have something that works. I also love the collaborative process with the actors. At the end of the day it’s not important what’s on the page as long as it works in the room. I’m very open to making changes on the fly and although most of what was written was said, I shot the scenes strategically so that you couldn’t always see the actor’s mouths and therefore there were some lines in the script which were cut out of the final edit. This taught me a lot about creating silences when I was using words.


Now you can be reflective what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from making The Bird Feeder?


I think I learned a lot about blocking and keeping a single shot alive which I hope to improve on my next project. I also learned I’m not a huge fan of the post production process. I love writing and shooting but I found finishing the film quite slow and challenging. I had an amazing editor, Iacapo Calbrese, but he was only available on weekends because he was editing a tv show during the week. So I found waiting between sessions very difficult and mentally taxing. I think next time I’d love to get the editing, colour grading, and sound mixing done in two months maximum. 


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


Definitely. With The Bird Feeder I knew I wanted it to be alive and dynamic, that’s why I chose to shoot it all handheld. I was tired of seeing slow still frames in so many short films and I wanted something that excited the viewer. Ironically, I don’t think I fully achieved that but I intend on pushing that even further on my next project.


Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?


I think in a way I have. I’m not going to sit here and say I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 8 like Steven Spielberg, in fact my journey to becoming a filmmaker has been a very long and winding road. My brother and I would always reenact the films we would watch which were mainly war and gangster films. We even made a film called “Dirty Work” when we were 10 and 12 years old about gangsters and drug dealers where we used ketchup for blood, flour for cocaine, and a soundtrack by placing headphones blaring sum41 over the audio mics on our Hi8 camcorder. Then in my teens I made a lot of skate videos with my friends. In college I studied psychology and during the 2008 financial crisis I read a book by Richard Branson on entrepreneurship and switched my major to business. I worked for Merrill Lynch as a financial solutions advisor for 6 months but hated it, then watched Mad Men and thought advertising looked fun so I did that for 6 years but it was a solo trip around the world where I came back to my creativity and realised I wanted to spend the rest of my life telling stories. So in the last year of my 20’s I moved to London to attend film school and haven’t looked back since. I know this is what I want to do for the rest of my life regardless of the level of success, the goal is just to make a living. My time has always been more valuable to me than money and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it. 


How much did your previous film experience help prepare you for writing and directing this short?


I think my time in film school helped a lot. I realised I didn’t know anything about cinema before school and was introduced to the likes of Michael Haneke, Eric Rohmer, Gaspar Noe, Bruno Dumont, and countless others through my classmates and peers. I discovered a whole new language I didn’t even know existed and that has informed my filmmaking IQ and style immensely. Spending those 2 years completely dedicated to the craft and making lots and lots of mistakes definitely had everything to do with how I made this film. I feel like the older I get, the less I know. I know I still have a lot to learn and improve on but, I think that’s a good thing.

Any advice or tips for any fellow writer / directors?


Follow your instincts even if it doesn’t make complete sense to you at the time, hindsight is always 20/20. Question everything in your script and never shoot the first draft. Always stick it in a drawer and revisit it later. Ask yourself tough questions like, is this really how this would happen or would this character really do this? Is this a cliche? Have I seen this before? Be bold and push the boundaries, don’t make films to please programmers or festivals, tell true stories and be vigilant in your storytelling. Follow your instincts. 


And finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from The Bird Feeder?


I think I set out to make a film about dealing with my brothers addiction but it actually became a film about grief. I think the best films leave you with more questions than answers so I hope everyone takes something different away from the film or maybe nothing at all, that’s the beauty of cinema. 

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