It is 1965, two years before Britain decriminalises acts of male homosexuality. Matthews is a young gay man at odds with the world. In the backstreets and underground bars of Soho, Matthews will discover love, sex and a family.
Hi Thomas thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times?
I’m well thanks. In some way’s lockdown was kind on me, I wasn’t home-schooling kids and living in Brighton we have lots of open space to get out for walks.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
There were things in development before Covid hit that I’ve been able to focus my attention on.
Congratulations on having The Act selected for this year's Raindance Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing line-up of short films?
I’m thrilled The Act has been selected for Raindance. It’s such a brilliant festival, and I love that it’s a festival that really celebrates indie filmmakers – people who are finding creative ways to make films – whatever the budget and circumstance. I suspect we’ll need more indie filmmakers in the coming years.
This will be your European Premiere, does that add any additional pressure on you?
I come from a theatre background so premieres have traditionally come at a point where the work is still ongoing if that makes sense. What is lovely here is the film is locked, my work is finished. If people like it then I’m thrilled, if they don’t, I can’t change that. It takes the pressure off.
The Act was originally a play, when did you realise you wanted to turn it into a short film?
April last year. I wanted to make a period film with Queer characters, and it suddenly occurred to me that I already had the perfect story waiting to be adapted for screen, and it kind of snowballed from that initial thought.
"It was a bit of a dream, and having done this for twenty plus years I can say it is rare that projects come together as quickly or easily."
The Gay Stage said that The Act was " ...a brilliant example of well-executed gay theatre." did you imagine you would get such a welcome reception for your play?
Did they? How lovely. We were in the thick of it, trying to tell the story, and dealing with all the pressures that come with mounting a play so I wasn’t totally aware of the reviews at the time. I was thrilled that the audience seemed to connect with it every night. You can’t take your good reviews too seriously. If you do, you’d have to also take your bad reviews seriously and that way madness lies.
You have an amazing cast, how did you go about casting The Act?
We had a couple of great casting directors working with us. Some of the actors were people I’d worked with before, others I hadn’t. One thing that was key to us was that our version of 1960s London was a diverse view of London. With each character we explored how the story might change if the character was played by an actor of colour. I loved how Cyril Nri brought another layer of depth to his character when we cast him. He immediately saw a backstory to Edna May that fitted everything that was written and brought new nuances to the role.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Act the film came about?
Once we had the idea to adapt it for screen it all came together relatively easily. It was a bit of a dream, and having done this for twenty plus years I can say it is rare that projects come together as quickly or easily.
There was someone who had seen the play who was investing in LGBTQ+ projects, so we approached them and they agreed to back it, we were then able to bring together various fantastic collaborators- especially our producer (Elettra Pizzi) and our exec producer (Oliver Kent) who really drove the project forward and shaped it.
Does your screenplay differ much from your play?
We wanted a fresh pair of eyes, and someone to rethink the material who wasn’t too close to it so we asked Pete Lawson to adapt. We gave him freedom to do whatever he wanted and told him we weren’t precious. In the end he stayed very close to the original – reshaping for screen. What he did find which we had never managed, was a good ending. If you read the play (it’s published) and watch the film you can see they are the same story. The play is over an hour long. What Pete has done is really hone that story into 15(ish) minutes. It’s always harder to tell a short story than a long rambling one. He’s done a brilliant job.
For many within the gay community The Act represents a contemporary part of our history, which is either not spoken about or turned into theatre/film/literature. A many younger gay boys and men are still unaware of this history do you think films like yours will encourage wider discussions about this history and the effects it had on a generation of gay men?
I hope so. Pete and I sent the film to a couple of colleagues who are younger than us (in their twenties). I was interested in their reactions. They seemed to really engage with it, but also certain elements of the story were new to them. It was great that we were opening up elements of queer history. Stories are great for that – they’re not preachy, but get under your skin, so are a great way of exploring history.
"Short films are a very specific wonderful art form, and you need to embrace it."
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently on this film?
Oh loads of things – there always are. But they are usually tiny moments that are really all about the stresses and strains of the shoot. Overall, I’m proud of the film, and the things I would change are less about changing this film and more about learning and implementing when I make another film.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
When I was a teenager, I was terrible at science. One day our science teacher set us a project to investigate fossil fuels. I asked if I could do mine as a documentary film. My teacher said yes (probably to shut me up, and assuming I wouldn’t go through with it), but it was the one time I actually got good grades on a science project. I’ve always connected to subjects though story – whether that be on film or on stage.
Has your approach to your short film changed much since your debut?
Totally. Short films are a very specific wonderful art form, and you need to embrace it. My first film was over 20 mins long. Everyone makes their first short way too long. I’m learning about economical film making.
Should filmmakers continue to push their boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Do it, make mistakes, do it again, make new mistakes.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from The Act?
I hope they’ll enjoy it, that it will move them and make them laugh. I hope for those who lived through the period the film depicts it will bare witness to their experiences, and for those for whom the story is new I hope it unlocks a period of history for them.