TNC Film 2023
THE NUN SLAYER
PREMIERE SCREENING JANUARY, 13, 2024
DEC 23, 2023
After new evidence proves his innocence, the wife of a notorious serial killer must come to terms with the fact that her husband is not the cold blooded murderer she fell in love with. When Ophelia collects her husband from the prison gates, Donald learns how far he will go for love, as the couple struggle to pick up the pieces of their imploding marriage.
Hello Ben, thank you for talking to TNC, how has your 2023 been going, you looking forward to the Holidays?
Hey, it’s my pleasure. This year has been very busy, but very rewarding. Lots of exciting projects on the horizon. I’ve just finished some new scripts that I’m anticipating jumping into production with next year. But for now I’m winding down for Christmas, looking forward to taking it easy for a little while, if that’s possible.
The trailer for The Nun Slayer was just released, and it looks brilliant, have you been taken aback by the reaction you’ve been getting for it?
It’s been a big sigh of relief. There is always a moment after you complete a film where you’re over the moon with it, admiring it like your very own newborn. With this film in particular it came out better than I had ever imagined, which is never guaranteed. Then you’re suddenly struck with the reality that other people are going to actually watch it and have their own thoughts and opinions about your baby and all the doubt and worry creeps back in. No one wants an ugly baby. But the trailer has had an amazing response, people seem intrigued and have been kind enough to reach out to me with nice things to say, so that stroked the old ego thoroughly. That’s all you can ask for really, for it to be connecting with people already is great.
Your previous shorts have been selected for a variety of film festivals around the world, what is the most exciting part about beginning a film festival campaign for your films?
It’s equal parts thrilling and nerve wracking. We’ve got the first critics' verdicts in; the mums, the girlfriends, the great aunts. All with the big thumbs up. But the festival circuit is quite the test of patience. We won’t hear back from the first festival until around February next year, so it’s a waiting game for now, but an exciting one. We’ve got all our fingers and toes crossed for this one.
I’m hoping to hit the road and attend lots of festivals next year. It would be great to meet the filmmakers I’ve been following online for so long, all those whose work I really admire, to potentially have ‘The Nun Slayer’ screen alongside their projects would be a dream. The thought of that is keeping me fired up while we wait.
What was your first film festival experience like?
My first festival experience was a pretty glamorous one actually and has been quite hard to top. Some may say we peaked too early and they might be right. Our student film ‘Dirty Little Rascals’ was selected for the Ca’ Foscari Film Festival in Venice. It’s run by the university there and they are kind enough to put you up in a hotel for the weekend. I couldn’t say no.
It was a student festival, but our film seemed to be playing alongside work from some of the top film schools from across Europe, so I was pretty intimidated. Especially as our film was essentially about a bin full of boob cut outs, a crude but true story from my own childhood. But I met some incredibly talented people and I will never forget that experience. I’d advise any student filmmaker to apply.
How important is crowdfunding still for filmmakers, particularly from a short film background?
Unfortunately, it’s crucial to most new filmmakers. Especially with your first few films. You could spend your whole life chasing public funding pots and get nowhere, even with a really standout script. There just isn’t enough funding to go around and the competition is pretty fierce. Which is also an amazing thing, we seem to be overflowing with film talent here in the U.K.The bastards!
Even while working and saving up your pennies for your own projects, short films cost a lot of money and we wouldn’t have been able to make any of our films without people believing in us and giving what they can. We’ve been incredibly lucky. Of course, the hope is that once you prove yourself as a filmmaker you can find those guardian angel private backers who see your potential and are willing to invest in you. With ‘The Nun Slayer’ it was a bit of both, which we are really grateful for.
"Finding an actor we could costume in this way wouldn’t necessarily be a hard task, but we took a long time researching actors for the right person to capture both sides to Donald’s character, the innocent and the guilty, until I stumbled upon Matthew Cottle’s work."
Can you tell me a little bit about The Nun Slayer, where did the inspiration come from for your screenplay?
‘The Nun Slayer’ is a love story, albeit a twisted one. It came out of the morbid obsession I have for true crime. I probably listen to a worrying amount of podcasts on the topic. It was because of this fanaticism that I became fascinated by the concept of Hybristophilia, the phenomenon whereby people fall in love with violent criminals. The catalyst that turned this curiosity into a script idea was actually an episode of Desperate Housewives I was watching with my girlfriend. Beth starts dating Paul, one of the villainous men on Wisteria Lane, while she plots her revenge upon him, in the belief that he murdered her aunty, but she is inevitably disappointed to learn that maybe he didn’t do it after all. That birthed the nugget of the idea. What if a notorious serial killer was proven innocent, throwing his marriage into disarray.
It got me thinking about what those serial killer couples must be like in the privacy of their homes, what their day to day is. The more I thought about it, I realised that surely they are just like any couple? They must bicker, they must harbour their pet peeves and they must experience all the joy and pain that love brings to any romantic partnership. I remember reading an article that said the police found Sonia Sutcliffe more intimidating than Peter Sutcliffe which seemed absurd if a little humorous. And so I became really interested in exploring that world. It seemed inherently funny to me that people whose hobby was murder might get as irritated about their partner eating a sausage in the car as they would if their partner fibbed about how many kittens they’d killed. But maybe I’m just a bit messed up.
How did you go about casting Ellie Nunn and Matthew Cottle in this film, did you have much of an idea who you wanted to play “Ophelia” and “Donald”?
The film is essentially a two-hander between our leads in the confined space of a car, so the casting was crucial. We were incredibly lucky to have Aisling Knight of CBA Casting on board to help with the process.
I always had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted the character of Donald to be. I feel like if you ask most people to picture a serial killer, nine times out of ten they’ll come up with the same image. A bespectacled, middle-aged man who looks pretty harmless at first glance but is hiding something incredibly sinister inside. Take Dennis Nilsen or Jeffrey Dahmer, for example. Finding an actor we could costume in this way wouldn’t necessarily be a hard task, but we took a long time researching actors for the right person to capture both sides to Donald’s character, the innocent and the guilty, until I stumbled upon Matthew Cottle’s work. As well as having superb comedy chops, Matthew is incredibly authentic, human, and sympathetic in his performances and it was very important that we somehow get the audience to be on the same side as this potentially horrendous villain for the film to work. Once we found Matthew it seemed obvious he was the person to pull it off and I’m glad to say he did.
We stumbled upon Ellie Nunn during quite an extensive casting process. Almost two thousand actors put themselves forward to audition which was mind boggling. I was much less certain of what I wanted Ophelia’s character to be, it could have gone a lot of different ways. But when Ellie came in and read for the part, she not only hit the laughs big time, but she really captured the hurt the character was feeling as her world fell apart. She brought something really unique to the role that none of us had expected. She’s both tender and terrifying. I think all of us in the room knew it had to be her.
As writer/director do you allow yourself, and your cast, some flexibility with your screenplay or do you prefer to stick to what you’ve written?
I’m not very precious about my scripts. I’m not the kind of director that needs the lines to be read exactly as they are written on the page. Unless it’s crucial information to the story. I feel like that can stifle a performance and I wouldn’t want to stop the actors coming up with brilliant lines that I can take all the credit for.
However, this film had certain logistical problems that meant we had to keep fairly close to the words on the page. We only had one day to capture all of the scenes in the car, about ten pages of dialogue. Thankfully we were able to rehearse before we got on set, and even more fortunately Matthew and Ellie have a wealth of theatre experience. This meant they had no problem reciting the full script in one go if we needed them to. If we had more time I would have loved the luxury to experiment more on the day, but you have to work with the time you’ve got.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when making a short film like The Nun Slayer?
Time and money. That’s probably the biggest problem of any film, but this was no different. A more creative challenge however, was filming a moving vehicle on a limited budget. I knew quite early on that doing this much dialogue using a low loader and a convoy of production vehicles was going to be a nightmare that I wanted to avoid. We did a lot of research and eventually found Ramaz Studios who partnered with us to provide their wonderful virtual production facilities.
What was initially merely a solution to a logistical problem turned into a creative goldmine when myself and Wouter Verheul, the Director of Photography, got thinking about what we could do with LED screen rear projection. The screens allowed us to seamlessly transition between locations, time and space. Like Doctor Who, but in a warehouse in Abbey Wood.
Do you have a favourite scene you shot on The Nun Slayer?
I have several, that’s a hard choice. As I mentioned before, using LED screens allowed us to pull off some really imaginative shots which were great fun to do and I’m very proud of. But my favourite scene has to be the final one of the film. No spoilers, but everything in the film is building to that moment and so was the shoot itself. We scheduled the final scene to be shot last and it required capturing the sun at golden hour in the perfect spot in the sky, all while pulling off a coordinated tracking camera move and sfx that we only really had one go at. Everyone was gathered around the monitor to watch it and I think I was visibly biting my nails like a cartoon character. When we got it on the first go everyone just erupted with joy and relief. I won’t be forgetting that moment anytime soon.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
Well that comes down to my parents really. My dad is an actor, he actually plays the petrol station attendant in ‘The Nun Slayer’. My mum was also a stage manager years ago and they met at a summer drama club in their teens. They both brought me up on a diet of great films and I couldn’t get enough.
One of my earliest memories is watching horrifically violent films like ‘Goodfellas’ with my dad when I was about eight or nine. Watching a gangster getting stabbed 20 times in the trunk of his car and seeing my dad wincing as he realised he is going to get in a lot of trouble for putting this on. Both my parents gave me my earliest film education and from a young age I was obsessed with films like ‘Raising Arizona’ and ‘Delicatessen’, all these weird dark comedies that have bled into all my work since.
At the time I wanted to be an actor like my dad. Then I saw myself on screen in a mates comedy sketch and that dream died a quick and painful death. I think when I saw ‘This is England’ for the first time that was when I got really interested in filmmaking and how it all worked, particularly how differently everyone did it. Shane Meadows' work remains a huge inspiration to me.
Your films have a quintessential British feel to them, something that really stands out in the trailer of The Nun Slayer, what is it that makes British films and filmmakers stand out so much?
I think the “Britishness” of films is an interesting subject as Britain itself is so diverse, with so many wildly different backgrounds and cultures together in the melting pot. To say a film feels “quintessentially British” almost feels like it would be impossible to pin it down to one thing.
However, at the same time I completely understand the association of my films to that feeling of “Britishness” and it’s probably something I strive towards. I think in the case of ‘The Nun Slayer’ it comes down to depicting that blend of the twee, overbearing politeness of the English middle classes, which is itself just a thin veil hiding what is quite a dark, anxious, neurotic side to us all. The fact is that we are all basically weirdos, just with a stiff upper lip.
It’s why I find films by people like Mike Leigh, Ben Wheatley and Chris Morris so appealing, because they act as a mirror showing us the very real, strange characters that we see everyday on our high streets or on our buses, we’re all just a bit odd and I love that.
So far ‘The Nun Slayer’ has been compared to some of Roald Dahl’s darker tales and also to Wallace and Gromit, you probably can’t get much more British than that, so I wear that as a badge of honour.
When working on your debut short what would you say was the most valuable lesson you took from the shoot?
You learn a thousand lessons on your first short film and I think everyone will take away something different. Personally, I learnt very quickly just how important lighting and sound are to your film. That may seem obvious, but so often the case is that everyone is so focussed on the camera angles and moves, that nearly every debut short has poor lighting and sound. My first short had the lighting of a hospital waiting room and it sounded like it was recorded on a hearing aid. Sound is half of your film and you need to be thinking about it just as much as you think of the visuals, the performances and the design. It probably took me too many films to properly learn that lesson, so hopefully someone reads this and gets it right the first time.
And how much has your approach to your films as a writer/director changed since you started out in the industry?
In terms of writing, I’ve learnt to take my time once you find the right story idea. Once you know you’re onto something, it is always worth reworking your script over and over until it’s perfect. Talk to creatives you know and admire about your script and hear their ideas, it can only make the script better. Everything relies on the script, so it’s important to make sure it’s up to scratch before you’re tempted to get the ball rolling with pre-production.
The most important and valuable thing I’ve learnt to do as a director is surround yourself with incredibly talented people that you trust. You don’t have to be an expert in everything and you don’t have to make every decision. Don’t place all the burdens on your own shoulders. If you do a good enough job of conveying your story's tone, world and vision to your collaborators, then you should be able to trust them with what they are experts in and allow them to do what they are there to do. I’m incredibly fortunate to have found a team of producers and other creatives I know I can rely on.
I have also found that the more preparation you do before a shoot the smoother it will go every time. Whether that’s with rehearsal or storyboarding or even doing an animatic. If you have the prep there you can always throw it away on the day, if you don’t you’ll have nothing to work with.
What advice would you offer someone wanting to get into filmmaking?
Write as much as you can, whenever you can. I used to spend so long waiting for the perfect idea before I would bother putting pen to paper. Now I realise that you should examine all your ideas, you’ll only figure out if there is something of real substance to them if you start scribbling. Even if the story doesn’t end up working, you’ll have worked that creative muscle and discovered something new in the process. And perhaps that something will work its way into the next thing you do and make that even better.
When it comes to filmmaking, make crap. Do anything on the cheap and see what works and what doesn't. The only way to learn it is to make mistakes and make bad films. And when you feel you are ready to make your first proper short which requires a bit more budget, make sure you really believe in the script you’re about to embark on, because they take a lot of time and effort and if you’re not completely sure that that’s the story you want to tell, it will be so much harder.
And most of all, be patient. Filmmaking is a long, collaborative process and every aspect of it takes time. I’m always jealous of artists like painters or photographers who can just do their own thing and have a finished product within the week. But that’s also the beauty of filmmaking, you get to work with so many different types of creatives and learn so much, it’s worth all the time and effort it takes.
Finally, what would you like your audiences to take away from The Nun Slayer?
My hope is that audience’s come away from this film and perhaps see a slither of their own “normal” relationships reflected back at them through this strange, twisted one. And maybe, just maybe have a laugh or two in the process.