17th British Shorts, Berlin
"Hannah Walter Russell, who plays Judy, did so much work developing her movements and learning to speak in tongues—which is deceptively hard!"
A sweatshop somewhere in England, 1987. Management is desperate to dispel the mysterious phenomenon spreading among the seamstresses: full-body possessions. When a failed attempt to cover up a vulnerable coworker's fits leaves would-be agitator Maggie unemployed, she must choose between swallowing her pride or taking a stand, until she realises what's been occurring isn't mass hysteria-it's a strike.
Hi Ruby, thank you for talking to TNC. Congratulations on Thread Tension being selected for the 17th British Shorts in Berlin, how does it feel to have your film be part of such an amazing line-up of short films?
When the programme was released, I immediately started pouring through to make a note of all the films I wanted to watch. Turns out it’s pretty much all of them. That’s an overwhelming line-up, in a good way. Not to be clichéd, but it’s an honour to be included amongst them.
Thread Tension was nominated for the Grand Prix at the Kyiv International Short Film Festival, what has it meant to you to see your film get such an amazing response?
It’s been a relief, honestly. I think every filmmaker probably spends a lot of nights awake staring at the ceiling wondering why am I doing this? Will anyone ever see this or am I wasting everyone’s time? At least, I do. So when we got the news from Kyiv, I could take a breath and be like, Ok, people will see it, and also it turns out they don’t hate it. I’m sleeping a little better now.
How important are festivals like British Shorts in creating a platform for short films?
Short films are such a distinct art form in and of themselves. I think a lot of festivals kind of treat them like afterthoughts, or like a sideshow to the main even. But some of the most brilliant and imaginative storytelling I’ve ever seen came from shorts, so it’s vital that festivals like British Shorts are around to put the medium front and centre.
What more can be done on a local/national level in the UK to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?
I came up in a really vibrant DIY community back in New York; at the time there were a ton of semi-legal venues like Shea Stadium or Silent Barn that hosted gigs and screenings and all sorts of weird things for at most $5 a ticket. Those kinds of independent, volunteer-run spaces seem to be rapidly going extinct in cities like NY and London in favour of more arts institutions and groups that rely on questionable corporate sponsorships or private wealth. When that type of money comes into play, I think you start to see really homogenous programming.
That being said, here in London I look to Deptford Cinema Club, the Are You Seeing This? screenings at MOTH Club, Mondo Nights, etc. as really exciting examples of small collectives or film enthusiasts creating these community spaces again.
As a filmmaker how important is it for you to use this platform to explore feminism and horror?
There’s a really rich tradition of feminist work dealing with horror and the abject. It’s a genre that gets explored by feminist art because it’s full of transgression and yet still has so many conservative trappings that are ripe for subversion. Look at possession narratives, for example, how they traditionally centre women and girls as vessels for spirits and demons. There’s obviously a very gender-essentialist aspect to that, since it equates possession with a form of penetration and the evil that results as being birthed into the world. I wasn’t interested in replicating that dynamic, so I kind of needed to reconfigure both the source and the site of the possession.
Feminist thought—especially Marxist feminist thought—was a really fruitful way to challenge the more regressive tropes of the genre. I think it shifted the Thread Tension from being about possession to being about repossession, in a sense.
"I tell stories about women working and struggling to get by because that’s who I grew up knowing, that’s who I’ve had to be."
Can you tell me how Thread Tension came about, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
It was a confluence of a lot of different things I had read over the years that suddenly all came together. One was this article I’d read years ago about a mass fainting epidemic in a Cambodian sweatshop; what had stuck with me about that article was the fact that a few years before, the women working there had attempted a failed protest against their conditions. And there’s a lot of similar accounts from different countries.
So this picture was starting to emerge about possessions as expressions of that which either can’t be expressed or won’t be listened to. And you have a jump from traditional forms of labour action—picket lines, strikes, marches—to this kind of spectacle of the abject. It sparked all these questions in my head, and the characters from Thread Tension just kind of emerged into response to them.
What as the trickiest scene for you to film?
We had to nail the bathroom scene for the rest of the film to work. Probably 90% of rehearsals was working on just that. Hannah Walter Russell, who plays Judy, did so much work developing her movements and learning to speak in tongues—which is deceptively hard! I sometimes felt guilty about how much I was asking of her, but she was so committed and delivered such a phenomenal and powerfully grotesque performance in the end.
It was also just a really tiny space to shoot in. Our cinematographer, Nizah Elias, was wedged into these really cramped, uncomfortable positions on the bathroom floor with her camera right in the actresses’ faces. There’s a picture floating around somewhere of me sitting on a toilet with my monitor in one of the stalls, which is very glamourous.
You have an incredible cast, how soon during your pre-production did you start casting you characters, had you already had some actors in mind?
We cast pretty early on, because I like to be able to have time to rehearse. As for the cast itself, it was pure luck. I probably go into auditions more nervous than the actors: it’s usually the first time I hear the script out loud and get to see how people are coming to it cold. But Abigail Richardson, who plays Maggie, was actually the very first audition we held, and she just got it. It’s such a gift as a director to be able to feel that from the start.
How much flexibility with your screenplay did you allow your actors once you started shooting?
I write dialogue very colloquially, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that I’m not British. Thankfully, my actors are really good at pointing out the Americanisms and suggesting alternatives. It’s a lifesaver; this film asks for enough suspension of disbelief without making the audience wonder why all the characters talk like they’re from North Jersey.
Beyond that, we might experiment with different ideas during rehearsals and pre-production, but once we get to set I tend to stick pretty close to the script.
Now you can be reflective what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from making Thread Tension?
Thread Tension is definitely my biggest, most ambitious project to date; I’m really proud of what the cast and crew were able to achieve. I came out with a much stronger trust in my instincts and with a really incredible group of collaborators. And I kind of feel like now that I’ve done it, I want to go small again. Shoot something messier and grainier and with a quarter of the budget. I know what excites me and engages me as a filmmaker, and I know what I can do. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m limited by the money I don’t have and, honestly, probably never will.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yeah, definitely. When I was a kid, we had this toy camera called the Digital Blue. It came with its own editing software and you could add these really primitive special effects like explosions or UFO landings. Obviously, I was obsessed. I’ve been chasing that creative high ever since.
How much has your approach to your writing and directing changed since your debut short?
This was actual my graduation film for my masters’, so I had spent the three years before just making back to back shorts for my program. I think, initially, I wanted to be really open to what was being taught to us about what makes stories work and how to write a script and to properly cover a scene, but the more I did that, the more disillusioned I became with the work I was churning out.
In a way, Thread Tension was a conscious return to my pre-film school approach. I made it for me. The writing process was instinctual, the camera-style was tight and dirty. I suppose the main difference I can see in my work over the years is I finally got my characters to talk less.
If writing and directing isn’t hard enough you also create the sound design for your shorts, what is the most difficult thing you encounter when working on the sound design for your films?
I work with my picture editor, Benjamin Sivó, specifically so I can get a sense of distance, maybe even some form of objectivity, from the film. Still, though, once it gets to sound design I get hyper-focused about details and touches—like, wasting a full day figuring out the right texture for a leather jacket rustle or what exactly the air in the room should sound like. And since I’m the director, there’s not really anyone left to reel me in. It’s great to lose your mind right before hitting the finish line with your film.
What does Thread Tension say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell?
I make films to deal with the issues and questions I have about myself, about the world around me. Thread Tension, a supernatural labour drama set about a decade before I was born, is an extremely personal film for me. I tell stories about women working and struggling to get by because that’s who I grew up knowing, that’s who I’ve had to be. That informs not only my storytelling but also my entire worldview and my feminism. I think it's vital that stories for, about, and by working class women are told on screen.
I also think—like Maggie—I’ve always been reluctant to give myself fully over to something, so I’m really drawn to probing the nature of belief. Belief in an ideology, a religion, a narrative, whatever. Where do other people draw their faith from? What do others know or feel that I can’t? And that absolutely goes hand in hand with my preoccupation with the paranormal; its something that lives in our social unconscious whether one believe in it or not, and I love bringing it to the surface.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone wanting to get into filmmaking or sound design?
Make a lot of really bad films and fail a lot, but do it around people who you trust with your life and who push you to keep going. Also, embrace delusion!
And finally, what do you hope you audiences will take away from Thread Tension?
I always wanted Thread Tension to be a cathartic experience, to feel like a sort of release or reclamation. Beyond that, what I would really hope for is that the audience starts to question the value we place in ‘rational’ behaviour and experiences over the ‘irrational’—or at least questions who we allow to make distinctions between the two.