BFI London Film Festival, 2020
UK Focus
Tommy Gillard

SHUTTLECOCK

7-18 October

tommygillard.com

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Carl is forced to confront his idea of masculinity when an obsession with a mysterious new member of his badminton club spirals out of control.

Hi Tommy thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times?

Thanks for having me! I'm doing okay. It's been a strange and sad few months. I lost someone to Coronavirus very early on, and that was a big reality check of the whole situation. But it's great to see things are changing for the better and we're moving forward into the 'new normal'.

Do you think this time has offered you some new creative inspiration?

I'd love to think so. It's been a visceral time, and something I'm sure will inspire me once I've processed it all. I've loved seeing how creative people have been in lockdown, shooting socially distanced films and forging new ways to create art. It's riveting, and it'll change the way we make films forever. I've been binge-watching 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' and 'Modern Family'. No regrets.

Congratulations on having Shuttlecock selected for this year's BFI London Film Festival, what does it mean to you to have Shuttlecock part of such an amazing lineup of short films?

I live down in Devon, and so the London Film Festival is a pilgrimage I make every year with my friends. I love it. It's my favourite festival, so when LFF asked 'Shuttlecock' to be part of their Official Selection, I was genuinely mind-blown. Producer Simeon Costello and I were sceptical about it being a scam at first. Fortunately, no one from the BFI has asked me to take a shipment of 100 tonnes of gold...yet.

Every year the line up is exceptional, but to be amongst some of the UK's best up and coming filmmakers is an honour. There are shorts from Luna Carmoon and co-South West creative, Paul Holbrook, which I'm excited to see. And of course, a short written and starring the talented Daniel Kaluuya, which looks great. Brandon Cronenberg's 'Possessor' and Caroline Catz's 'Delia Derbyshire' are unmissable features too. 'Shuttlecock' feels like the weird cousin in a family portrait next to all of these accomplished filmmakers. But I quite like that.

Shuttlecock won the Audience Choice Award when it Premiered at Two Shot Nights, did you imagine your film would become so well received by audiences?

Because of the tight turnaround between shooting and screening, Two Short Nights was the first time I had watched the film with an audience, an audience which contained some of the cast, the crew, and my parents. I was bricking it. So when the laughs started to roll in, it was a relief. The film deals with a divisive theme in a stylistically weird way, so it's hard to know how it'll land. I haven't had any feedback from actual badminton players yet. That'll be interesting.

"I'd love for people to come away thinking about how they see masculinity, but laughing while doing so."

Can you tell me a little bit about Shuttlecock, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?

'Shuttlecock' is the story of Carl, a macho king of the badminton court. Carl is forced to question his idea of masculinity when an obsession with a mysterious new member of his badminton club spirals out of control. I wanted to make a tongue in cheek exploration of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

I don't enjoy sports films at all. So naturally, I had to make my own. I pitched 'Shuttlecock' initially as a 'sport-noir' which I thought would be a fun genre mash. As I developed it, the genre elements got stripped out, but I just couldn't let go of the antagonist's name - Morgan Silk. The film drastically changed while I was writing it, so much so that the initial inspiration feels a million miles away. But I love where it ended up.

When you are writing a screenplay do you ever draw from you over experiences or people you have met?

Hah! Definitely. It's hard not to. With experiences, I rarely would directly translate something that happened to me onto the screen. However, I've certainly taken the feelings that come with experiences to try and articulate them in a new way. Most of my characters are crude caricatures of someone I know, or maybe even someone I see at a shop or a pub, filling in their backstory with my own. 

It's a little different with 'Shuttlecock' because the two main characters are two sides of my personality that I've dialled up to 11. This approach does change when the actors get cast. I like to let them build the characters in their way and, I have to let go a bit here.

There are many sports you could have picked, where did the idea come from to choose badminton?

I initially picked badminton because it's something I hadn't seen on film before. Learning more about it, I've got a newfound respect for the sport, and it seemed to fit the film's theme perfectly. In the western world, badminton has a bit of a reputation for not being a manly sport. That view is mad because it's hardcore. It's fast, savage and heart-racing. But badminton isn't a sport where power and speed are everything - accuracy, technique, and an occasional soft touch can be integral to winning. It also looks beautiful on film, and opened me and Sound Designer, James Morgan, up to so many unique sounds; squeaking shoes, smashing shuttlecocks and piercing whistles for example. I'd like to see badminton become more popular.

As a writer/director do you allow for changes to what you have written or do you prefer to stick to what has been written?

I love improvisation on set. When you've been living and breathing a script for a long time, improvisation can be a breath of fresh air. I'm always pushing the cast to make the screenplay and the characters their own. Part of the joy of filmmaking for me is that it's a truly collaborative art form. However, it's always a balance between not being precious about the script but ensuring you keep steering the ship in the right direction. Ben Wheatley, director of 'Free Fire' and Netflix's 'Rebecca', shoots a take verbatim, then improvised, then somewhere in the middle. It's something I've adopted that works for me, and helps me uncover any bad dialogue I've written!

How important is it for filmmakers to push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?

There's nothing more important than stepping out of your comfort zone, especially if you're making short films. I was very nervous the whole time I was making 'Shuttlecock'. I felt a bit out of my depth, wondering if I was the right person to write this film. But I think the thing to remember is that everyone has a unique perspective on something, and if you're passionate about a story you have the right to tell it in the way that you want to. Short films can be a great way to experiment with stuff, especially if you can do it cheaply. Shorts don't need to be prim and polished - I'd much rather see something innovative but rough and ready. I think people respond to that.

What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you have taken away from making Shuttlecock?

To not be afraid to get weird. And to indulge in expressive sound design, which is an area I haven't paid enough attention to before.

Is there any advice you would offer someone a fellow filmmaker?  

I'm by no means an oracle of wisdom, but I've found that delusional enthusiasm for your film is infectious. You need to believe in your film, believe in what it has to say, and that'll get people excited. Excited to work with you, excited to watch it, excited to talk about it. If you can use this to surround yourself with people you trust, listen to them. Don't put your blinkers up to protect your vision - filmmaking is a collaboration, and not honouring that will come back to bite you. But always trust your gut when you're making big decisions. And finally, own up to your mistakes. If you can hold your hands up at the time instead of doubling down, you'll save yourself a lot of heartaches.  Oh, and get a 'fix it in post' jar on set. Every time anyone says it they owe you £1. You'll make the budget back in no time.

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Shuttlecock?

Hopefully, 'Shuttlecock' can facilitate conversations about 21st-century masculinity. Tom Greaves, who plays the lead Carl, spoke about how the film champions softness, delicacy and grace, and how they can be male qualities too. I'd love for people to come away thinking about how they see masculinity, but laughing while doing so. And if we get some people onto the badminton court, that'll be a bonus. I don't think there's any right or wrong way to be a man, just like there's no right or wrong way to play badminton. But maybe don't follow Carl's example on either.

You also edited Shuttlecock, how do you balance all these creative roles on a short film like this and not go crazy?

Oh, I go a little crazy. I listen to the Nintendo Wii menu music on a 10-hour loop when I'm very stressed. With the way I work, the writing, directing and editing are synonymous. I understand the value in having a separate editor, but end-to-end control works for me as I'm thinking about the way I'll edit something while writing the script. In 'Shuttlecock' there are lots of match cuts, specific sound cuts that I was able to write into the screenplay because I was thinking like an editor. It helps everyone get a clearer picture of how I want the final film to feel, which can only be a good thing. So rather than a balance, I like to see the writing, directing and editing as all one role.

Where did your passion for filmmaking come from and how your style/approach to your films changed much since your debut short?

When I was younger, I was obsessed with watching behind-the-scenes footage of films. But my passion for making films came out of a love of graphic design. I wanted to be a graphic designer for film and TV, but living in Devon with no industry contacts means it's hard to know where to start. So I began writing shorts so I could make the props, which is an elaborate way to go about it. I found that I loved writing and directing more than designing. The great thing is about the budgets that I work with is that we can't afford to hire a graphic designer - so I still get to do it all!

My style and approach to filmmaking changed when I met Director of Photography Boris Hallvig. Before working with him, my priority would be to shoot everything handheld and naturalistic. Boris comes from a photography background, and he's also a cine-literate genius with the most incredible visual brain. So when we started working together, he got me thinking about films in a completely different way and drastically changed my tastes.

We have quite an unconventional Director/DP relationship. I'll send Boris the first draft of a new script and get his thoughts, so he'll see the development of a film right from the beginning. As I'm developing the screenplay, he'll be thinking about the visual style too. When we step on to set, the film has been marinating in our brains for so long it's second nature to us both.

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