17th British Shorts, Berlin
"The partnership between Iris Prize and Channel 4 does this brilliantly and there are great online streaming websites dedicated to shorts. "
Howard drives his partner Joseph from their farm to hospital to undergo high risk surgery. The unexpected discovery of an old mix tape in the glove compartment sees the masculinity of their forty-year relationship start to yield.
Hi Thom, thank you for talking to TNC. Congratulations on Ticker being at the 17th British Shorts in Berlin, how does it feel to be part of such an amazing line-up of short films?
Thanks so much. We’re really delighted to be screening at British Shorts and it’s a great excuse to pop over to Berlin. It’s a brilliant selection of films this year and so lovely to see that some of the other filmmakers I’ve met on the circuit will have their work shown too. It becomes a little community as we go from festival to festival and follow each other’s progress.
Ticker had a great festival run in 2023, being programmed at IRIS Prize and Holly Shorts, and as well as British Shorts in 2024 you’re heading to LSFF, MIFF & LQFF. What has it meant to you to get this type of response for your film?
We’ve been so pleased with the response so far. The world of film festivals is often unpredictable and can seem quite impenetrable for filmmakers. You never assume your work will get into festivals because programmers all have different tastes and are curating quite specific selections. It’s all about the fit. Behind the successes is a long list of rejections and I think it’s important to acknowledge this, especially for other filmmakers. It’s “Instagram versus reality”. If you keep plugging away though and stick to your guns with the type of work you want to create, it’ll find its way to the right festivals. I really believe that.
How important are festivals like British Shorts in creating a platform for short films?
I was recently with Ticker at This is England in Rouen, which curates a large selection of English language shorts each year. It has an amazing team and a very loyal audience. You learn something new from the responses to your work in another country, where the film references for that audience are different to your own. The discussions are always fascinating and it’s very humbling that there’s a strong appetite for British short films. I’m really looking forward to sitting with the audience in Berlin and discovering something new about Ticker.
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?
Short films often occupy quite an odd “industry” space and yet when people outside the world of filmmaking have watched Ticker or come along to short film screenings with me they’ve loved the compact story-telling and themes that can be explored. In literature short stories are well established and I think with the changes in the way we now consume material (often on phones, tablets and in shorter bursts) there’s a real chance to champion collections of short films and lure audiences in. The partnership between Iris Prize and Channel 4 does this brilliantly and there are great online streaming websites dedicated to shorts. We just need to learn to love short form screen work. It’s not on the radar for most people. If we can also be inventive about how we could it more commercially savvy then a few more pennies might flow back to filmmakers. Short films don’t make money but I don’t think it’s too naive to think it could be different. If we could channel even a modest income back to filmmakers then it goes a little way in allowing them to carry on and make more work.
"...when directing actors you just have to walk along side them in their process, and keep your overall vision of the project in your head."
Can you tell me how Ticker came about, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay? Had you always intended for Ticker to be a film that would showcase an older LGBTQ narratives?
I really wanted to make a film in the area that I grew up in (and recently moved back to). There isn’t much filmmaking around these parts but it’s a place that’s rich in landscapes and characters. It’s very traditional in many respects- farming is its backbone and it also contains a small community of LGBTQ people. I hadn’t seen these stories very often on screen, particularly older, rural queer characters. I wanted to make the fact that they were a gay couple incidental and see them going through a moment in life that could affect anyone. There are of course the additional layers of reticence about the public display of affection and going into hospital as a same sex couple. Fundamentally though it’s about a couple who have fallen into bad habits with each other but get nudged back on track just in time. It’s a micro change but sometimes it’s the small moments in life that can become very significant.
How did you go about casting Howard and Joseph? Because of the intimacy of your script and the closeness of the shoot, were you able to have much rehearsal time with Ian Gelder and Paul Copley?
I worked with a brilliant casting director Matt Sheppard who helped me approach Ian and Paul with the script. I chatted on the phone with both of them and they responded positively to the material so it was just a real stroke of luck and felt very easy. They’re both extremely experienced actors and brought a spirit of openness and exploration to everything even when we had limited rehearsal on a two day shoot. For the intimate moment they just sort of figured out between themselves and captured it more beautifully than I could have “directed”. I trained and work as an actor myself and I think that helps a lot. I hear a lot of early-career directors get anxious about “working with” or “talking to” actors but if you’re casting professional actors then they come with all the tools and do a huge amount of work and prep that you won’t see. We have to trust in that, and that trust itself gives them a sense of space and freedom.
How much flexibility do you allow yourself and your actors with your screenplay once you start shooting?
The whole screenplay and dialogue is fairly contained but I was absolutely open to the actors having the freedom to make it work for them. Sometimes the action you’ve written or a certain line simply doesn’t work on set or sit with the individual actor. There has to be flexibility. Ian and Paul offered some great ad libs and moments which lean into the naturalism and I hope give a sense of a broader life together for their characters.
Looking back what would you say was the most challenging scene for you to shoot?
The car sequence was the most challenging because we had rapidly changing weather (sunshine then cloud) and short shooting days in November. We actually had to come back to the car on day two and astonishingly the sun came out just when we needed it, so we were able to match Ian and Paul’s close ups as they sing along to the song. The films gods were truly on our side for about half an hour.
Do you think filmmakers should continue pushing the boundaries of the films/stories they want to tell?
Pushing boundaries is a tricky one. I think most filmmakers are generally trying to seek a new way of communicating but it has to be rooted in something that you feel connected to. I’m not saying you should limit filmmaking only to your own experiences, but pushing boundaries the sake of pushing boundaries has the risk of making your work feel disconnected and inauthentic. Simple things can sometimes be all it needs- Ticker doesn’t push the boundaries in any radical sense but it connected rural life with older LGBTQ characters and that seems to have chimed with people. That said, my next projects are looking to be quite different in tone but still rooted in rural life.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I think filmmaking started for me because I found that acting on its own wasn’t ticking all the creative boxes. Acting is one of the most challenging careers with so much rejection and very little control over your opportunities. Writing and directing gave me a chance to switch that up and I’ve very quickly fallen in love with it. It’s this magical combination of creativity and pragmatism/technical skills. You can never learn it all and you’ll always be evolving as a filmmaker which makes it thrilling.
How much does you background as an actor help to inform the way you write and direct your short films?
I love actors- they’re some of the best people in the world for their generosity, inquisitiveness and problem-solving skills. As an actor you approach scripts and characters in quite a forensic way and so when you’re writing you can sort of reverse engineer that. You understand what makes a character complex and interesting to play, so you can put the meat and bones of that into your writing. You learn about scenes and turning points. Actors have to play actions and intentions, not emotions or “style”. Understanding this helps you write with specificity and drive. And when directing actors you just have to walk along side them in their process, and keep your overall vision of the project in your head. Then it just comes down to a few nudges here and there. That’s the ideal anyway!
Any advice or tips for any fellow writers / directors?
That’s a tricky one. I guess I have a few thoughts but wouldn’t really dare to proffer advice. It’s a marathon. You’ll write lots of stuff that you end up not liking but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a valuable exercise. Writing is a muscle and needs exercising everyday if possible. It’s a people based industry so forging meaningful connections with like-minded people is really important. Maybe this is “networking”? But lots of what we call networking is a bit painful and probably not that helpful.
And finally, what do you hope you audiences will take away from Ticker?
I just hope it offers a brief window into a part of the world and type of relationship that they maybe have’t seen before. I wanted to show that mature LGBTQ people exist and that there’s still work to do in accommodating them and their needs. They have existed through very difficult times and still have deep apprehension about certain things. For Howard and Joseph there’s no knowing how they will be treated in hospital as a same sex couple. The jeopardy of Howard potentially losing Joseph is compounded by a rural, isolated existence with no children to support the survivor.