Composer Jed Kurzel: “I’ve always been a fan of limitations.”

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.

Directed by Justin Kurzel and backed by Film4, True History of the Kelly Gang takes a riotous and revisionist approach to retelling the story of the infamous Australian outlaw. Starring 1917’s George MacKay as legendary Ned, the resulting film is at once mythic and startlingly contemporary.

We got in touch with the other Kurzel — composer and musician Jed — to talk about scoring his brother’s film, embracing happy accidents and using landscape to make music. As well as working on the likes of Slow West, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed.

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What was your path to becoming a film composer?

It was something I enthusiastically fell into. As a kid I was obsessed with music and film scores were a part of that. I was definitely one of those people who noticed the music in films and didn’t consider it a background thing. If I liked something I’d go out and find it. I’d been playing in bands and also making music for myself, which felt more in line with film music. Justin had heard a lot off of it over the years and when he began working on his first feature film Snowtown asked if I’d try making some music for it.

I thought it would be a one off thing…..I was wrong!

Where do you start when composing a score?

Great/interesting films know exactly what they want, they easily shrug off music that ‘sort of’ works and push you to look for something unexpected. They offer a lot of inspiring roads to go down. Sometimes the landscape or place of a film is enough of a launching off point, other times it might be an amazing performance. I also think some of the best scores have been written off picture, when a director embraces all the happy accidents and everything just works, there’s no need to question it.

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How do you and Justin work together? Does he express what he wants from the score?

We’ve developed a short hand over the years. I don’t think we ever have “meetings”. We’ll usually be talking about something completely unrelated to the film, if it’s Winter it’s probably Australian Rules Football, and eventually find ourselves on the topic of music.

We always listen to what the film wants in the edit. Filmmaking is such an ever-changing process from the script to the shooting to the edit that any pre-conceived ideas about the music usually become redundant by the time you get to the edit. I’ll start making music and send it to him and it becomes apparent pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t.

We’re very close and being brothers we’re afforded the luxury of being brutally honest with each other with minimal repercussions. It’s amazing how much time you save when you’re not tip-toeing around each other.

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Jed and Justin Kurzel (Photo: Kitty Gale for The Sydney Morning Herald)

The score for True History of the Kelly Gang resonates with menace but also playfulness, how did you go about achieving that balance?

I wanted some playfulness in the score to balance out the darker elements.

I’ve always been a fan of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings. They’re so ahead of their time and treat the folklore as comic and kind of ridiculous. Peter Carey’s book covers similar territory and I could also see elements of it in the film. I love Looney Tunes cartoons too, so I’m sure they went into the pot as well.

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“Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings [are] so ahead of their time and treat the folklore as comic and kind of ridiculous.” (National Gallery of Australia)

Listening to ‘The Hold-Up’ is a particularly tense and clamorous experience, can you talk me through composing this piece and adding in all these different textures?

Australia is a loud place, particularly in the bush but even in the cities the birds are raucous. It’s one one of the first things people notice when they arrive. I love it, I think it’s has a huge influence on the general character of the people and the place.

Australian films generally turn all of this noise down in the mix, like it’s a nuisance. Justin made it a feature of the film, so we wanted the score to feel a part of that. ‘The Hold Up’ is an extension of this idea, that the music is somehow a product of the landscape. I wanted the strings to whistle and squawk like Magpies and the percussive elements to feel like they were built with bark.

I particularly love when soundtracks have specific compositions for different characters. What palette of sounds did you employ for composing ‘Mary’ (played by Thomasin McKenzie) and what do you think this conveys about her character?

It’s mainly viola and vibraphone with a kind of angelic string drone. It was one of those pieces I’d written off picture, we put it against the scene where Ned first meets Mary and it worked. I guess it conveys a sense of innocence lost amongst a pretty brutal landscape.

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The film has taken quite a punk rock approach to the story, did that factor into your score at all?

It’s weird, punk rock has so many different connotations these days. I’ve never really heard it as a sound, it’s more a way of life, 100% free expression no matter what anyone thinks. I attempt to factor that into everything I do…With varying results.

I felt some similarities between True History and Slow West, although the latter takes a more minimalist approach, did they compare for you at all?

They are pretty different scores, similar instruments but a different approach. I loved doing Slow West, John wanted something melodic and bit more structured, something he could whistle, with THOTKG I wanted to make something a Magpie could whistle.

I’d also love to talk about Macbeth — what were the main themes or emotions you were looking to draw out in that score? And how do you weave in a sense of landscape? Macbeth’s score sounded like it had Scottish timbre, and is that also something you were looking to create with THOTKG (but with Australia)?

Macbeth was very much a response to the landscape. The music worked best again when it felt like a product of the landscape, the sound of a curse or something conjured up by the witches. THOTKG and Macbeth definitely feel like companion pieces. There’s a nod to Scottish music in Macbeth but it’s not overt, it’s in there enough to give you a sense of place but its main purpose was creating a tone and acting as a kind of poison in the fabric of the film.

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THOTKG was similar in terms of responding to the landscape. It’s such a vast and incredible place, it’s humbling and makes you feel very small at the best of times. It also feels somewhat cursed due to it violent history. I guess these kind of environments are impossible to ignore when you’re approaching them musically.

Does the process differ at all when you’re working on studio projects like Alien: Covenant and Assassin’s Creed?

The process always feels the same. Every film feels like another mountain to climb no matter what the budget and they all come with their own surprises. It’s fantastic to be able to make music knowing you have a budget to be able to do anything but I’ve always been a fan of limitations too. Boundaries can force you into really tricky/interesting corners.

The genres of these two films are also quite different from your previous work, did they allow greater scope for experimentation?

Absolutely. I was lucky enough to work with two directors who encouraged experimentation on a canvas that size. They’re the best kind of directors to work with, unafraid and collaborative. They value the process almost more than the result and their enthusiasm is infectious.

What do you enjoy most about the composition process?

Happy accidents. Approaching something one way, making a mistake and suddenly finding that the mistake is the kernel of an entirely different approach. You can’t force it to happen but hope that it will….before the deadline.

Filmmaker Cathy Brady on a fiery debut and a head-spinning year

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With her Film4-backed feature debut Wildfire showing at this year’s London Film Festival, we sat down with IFTA-winning writer-director Cathy Brady to discuss trauma, the Troubles and releasing a film in a turbulent 2020. By Nicole Davis.

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Nora-Jane Noone (left) and Nika McGuigan (right) star as two sisters who grew up on the fractious Irish border.

Wildfire began with a desire to unite two actors, with whom writer-director Cathy Brady had worked with separately in the past. Nora-Jane Noone had starred in Brady’s award-winning short film Small Change, whilst Nika McGuigan was a member of the cast for her darkly comic TV drama Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.

Having seen their talents independently, Brady wondered how they might interact with each other. “They both had incredible range and were able to capture something vulnerable but with a fierce sense of strength and I think there’s such a unique polarity in those abilities that I thought ‘what would happen if I put these two elements together?’”

The answer is an explosive chemistry and a bracing feature debut.

Set in the Borderlands of Northern Ireland, where Brady is from, the film is rooted in the notion of “unspoken history and the idea of having to move on for the sake of peace” and how that dynamic might manifest in a community or even a family. “It came from a personal place before it became political”, Brady admits.

Although it was “more of a sense of energy, than an idea at that stage”, she knew she wanted the story to explore sibling dynamics and began researching cases around shared psychosis. “It was so crucial that if we were telling this story we’d have to grind the truth of that. We wanted the characters to be complex, because if they weren’t they would just be seen as diagnoses of their illness and that’s not the case, it never is.”

It was during Brady’s research that she came across the term ‘transgenerational trauma’; the notion that trauma leaves a legacy and can be passed onto the next generation, “if it isn’t somehow dealt with.”

“We can see the devastating consequences of that in Northern Ireland”, Brady continues, “as it has one of the highest rates of antidepressant usage in the world,” stats which were published in a report for The Detail in 2014. Similarly, the generation nicknamed ‘Ceasefire Babies’ — those who were too young to directly experience the intense violence of the Troubles — have suffered from soaring suicide rates. “More people in Northern Ireland have died as a result of suicide than those killed in the Troubles”, Brady tells me.

“Why is that generation in so much difficulty?” This question became a fire in Brady’s belly and Wildfire became the medium through which she would explore it.

“Northern Ireland, in one sense, is quite a pathologically secretive place, because the truth has historically been dangerous.” The film grapples with that idea of secrets buried deep, and the kind of peace that emerges from unploughed ground.

“In some instances of psychosis, the past can become the present.” That jumbled, fragmented frame of mind is something that Wildfire captures with visceral intensity and the whole film pulsates with a menacing, spectral quality.

It makes sense when Brady starts to tell me how the world of the film came into being. “We used a lot of music and imagery to develop the tone, atmosphere and energy of the film.” Brady put together a playlist that became “a universal access point” for the film’s tonal and visual language.

In one of the early workshops with Noone and McGuigan, Brady played ‘Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer’ from Patti Smith’s album Horses, a primordial 9-minute track, whose energy Brady wanted her actors to match. The ensuing dance, improvised by Brady’s two actors, very closely mirrors a dance scene that occurs in the film — honed alongside identical twin sister choreographers Junk Ensemble — a moment crackling with tension and intended symmetry. It served as something on an ‘a-ha’ moment for everyone on set. Brady recalls shooting it in the second week of production and feeling palpable excitement.

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Brady worked with identical twin sister choreographers Junk Ensemble on a pivotal dance sequence.

The filmmaking process hasn’t been one of pure excitement however. During post-production, Nika McGuigan tragically passed away after battling cancer. “It was a rollercoaster of a year”, Brady sighs.

“There were the highs of making your debut [feature], but then losing Nika was incredibly difficult. She was like a sister to me.” The irony of editing a film about tackling grief, whilst experiencing “the biggest grief of my life” is not lost on Brady. “It was a head spin.” She admits that it’s hard to put into words what the Wildfire journey has meant to her. Like the history it deals with, it has been turbulent. “I’m proud of the fact we got through it and finished the film. It’s a testament to Nika.”

On the topic of bumpy rides, I’m curious as to what the experience of releasing a film in the savage year that is 2020 has been like. As for many of us, it’s been a period of uncertainty. “I thought the film might go into the deep freezer.”

In fact, Wildfire recently enjoyed its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a moment which Brady describes as “bittersweet” as the team were informed of the film’s acceptance on the anniversary of Nika’s death. “Unfortunately none of us were there, but equally that could’ve been too hard.”

“I feel ready to sit and watch the film with an audience.” Although Wildfire’s audience at the BFI’s London Film Festival — where the film has its next appearance — won’t be in the same room as Brady, I hold out hope that it will be feverishly embraced.

Morfydd Clark: “The wild scenes were actually quite a nice release!”

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With Rose Glass’ Film4-backed psychological thriller Saint Maud out now in UK cinemas, we spoke to its breakout lead actress Morfydd Clark about her divine performance…

Morfydd Clark is having something of a moment. Earlier this year she charmed audiences with her role as the dog-whispering love interest of Dev Patel’s David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s delicious Dickens adaptation. And now she can currently be seen in two films at UK cinemas; as Sally Hawkins’ younger self in Craig Robert’s audacious meditation on schizophrenia Eternal Beauty, and as religious live-in nurse Maud in the Rose Glass’ terrifying feature debut, Saint Maud.

We caught up with the actress to discuss the differences between period and contemporary drama, the importance of depicting mental health with sensitivity and why Florence Pugh ended up inspiring her performance as Maud…

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What was your initial reaction when reading the Saint Maud script? Was it an immediate ‘I have to do this’ moment?

Definitely. It was clear even before I read it that this was going to be something very special because my agent was so excited telling me about it. Then, when I read it, I was just engrossed. As a Dyslexic, I don’t find it easy to read long texts at once but I was so gripped by the story I couldn’t stop.

I immediately had a picture in my mind of this character and how I could portray her; often, you read a script and it’s brilliant but it’s just not yourself that you picture doing it. With Saint Maud, I thought that I had something to bring to the role, which is always a nice feeling! On the other hand, that comes with a lot of pressure on yourself not to mess up the audition!

I heard an interview where you mentioned Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth inspired your performance, what other films did Rose give you to watch to set the tone for Saint Maud?

Rose gave me a lot of films to watch, some of which were quite daunting as someone who can be a bit of a wimp! Generally, they were all films that put you inside the head of another character completely — so Repulsion, Prevenge, Taxi Driver. I think that’s where the connection with Lady Macbethcomes: the way that it’s shot and her performance just places you so completely in her world that the tension is almost unbearable when you watch it, even when nothing particularly sinister is happening. I think William Oldroyd said that Lady Macbeth was a film about boredom and the equivalent for Saint Maud is definitely loneliness.

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Florence Pugh in her breakout role as Katherine in BAFTA-nominated gothic drama Lady Macbeth

Does your process or preparation change when you’re cast in an ensemble drama like The Personal History of David Copperfield, compared with a leading role in Saint Maud?

I don’t think so, really, apart from the fact that there’s obviously a lot more pressure! I’ve never been someone who takes a ‘method’ approach to acting or does anything radical to get into character, I just spend time thinking about them and how they might respond to situations I’m in. I think that I was lucky with Saint Maud because there was a big gap between me getting the role and starting filming, so I had a lot of time to mull over the character and build a detailed portrait of her for myself. It would have been very daunting without that hiatus.

Having also worked on several period dramas, did the contemporary setting of this film free you up at all? And if so, in what ways?

It’s funny because the film does have a contemporary setting, but Maud’s sort of created her own period drama for herself! I wouldn’t say that I found the setting freeing exactly — though of course the costumes are much more comfortable! — but more that I was more immediately able to connect with this character.

I think that Saint Maud is a very millennial story. Our generation, though “having it easy” in some material aspects, are put under a lot of pressure and encouraged to be limitlessly ambitious from an early age. We’ve also grown up through war, recession and now a pandemic, all in the shadow of climate change, so there’s an uncertainty and dread that never really goes away. And we’re also pretty isolated, often growing up far from where our parents grew up, and then ending up somewhere else again as adults. I think Maud combines all of those elements and pushes them to the extreme. She shares that “productivity” drive that so many millennials have but to the point of needing a divine mission. She’s banished uncertainty by putting absolute faith in God. And then she’s isolated in such an extreme way that her closest relationship is with God. In that way, I suppose it was freeing not to have to imagine the world this character lives in and the pressures she’s under, but more to think about how someone else might react to those pressures in a very extreme way.

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There are two sides to Maud which make her such an interesting character; one is this restrained shyness, she’s quite reclusive and almost fearful of other people and yet the other is this almost manic sense of imagination or delusion where she believes she’s on a morally or spiritually higher plane. Did you find one easier to access or portray than the other and how did you find balancing those two aspects of her personality?

I think the two go together really: her experience has taught her that people ignore and belittle her, but internally she has a certain arrogance and regard for herself (particularly in her religious convictions) and it’s the contradiction between those things that is really forcing her to breaking point. I think that actually quite a lot of women, especially teenage girls, can identify with that to some degree: it’s like the Mary Sue thing (the trope in fan fiction of people writing a seemingly average girl — presumably based on themselves — who turns out to be the one to save the day and have people falling in love with her left, right and centre). We all want to be special in some way, deep down, and we all want people to see us and know us. Maud, once again, takes that to an extreme — she is the Mary Sue in her own fan fiction with God and she’s living it, instead of writing it!

Was working on a horror film quite emotionally draining? How did you mentally psych yourself up the more “delusional” takes?

It was actually lovely! Rose, Oliver and Andrea (Kassman and Cornwell, the producers) created such a harmonious, supportive team that it was just a pleasure to shoot, even though the subject matter was so intense. For me, it was more of a strain portraying how contained and tense and focused Maud is all the time so the more wild scenes were actually quite a nice release!

Something I’ve always been interested in when it comes to acting, is the idea that you have to relinquish control of your performance to some extent — in the sense that you might not always know which take will end up in the final cut. Do you sometimes have a sense that you’ve given the ‘final edit’ performance, or do you just have to accept that when a director wants to move on they’ve got what they need, regardless if you feel like you’ve given everything?

I am constantly running away from responsibility and so this aspect of shooting suits me very well. I thought I’d be a control freak about it but it’s actually a relief to surrender the choices to someone else. I’m the worst judge of myself and would make a very bad film if I was in control.

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Left: in Craig Robert’s Eternal Beauty, Right: in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield with Dev Patel

Given that Maud is a character whose mental health is precarious, did you feel a certain responsibility when manifesting that?

Absolutely, it was something that I thought about a lot — I really wanted Maud to be a rounded, sympathetic character who could not be defined simply by one mental illness or another. She has specific character traits and experiences — positive and negative — that lead her down a particular path, she isn’t just doing things because she’s “mad”. I was really lucky to be filming Saint MaudThe Personal History of David Copperfield and Eternal Beauty at the same time, which all portray mental illness in such different ways. I think the three films together actually say something about support and care and how they interact with mental illness: in David Copperfield, Mr Dick is surrounded with love and care; in Eternal Beauty, Jane has some support in her networks, particularly from her sister and nephew, and some relationships which are less supportive; in Saint Maud, Maud has no one and I think that’s why she goes down the route she does. The “horror” in the film for me isn’t Maud or any mental illness, it’s loneliness.

The filmmakers behind Pompeii on the joys of going back to basics and collaborating with friends

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With Film4-backed short Pompeii now available to watch on Film4 on All4, we sat down with writers and directors Harry Lighton, Marco Alessi and Matthew Jacobs Morgan, as well as producer Sorcha Bacon to find out more about how they embraced iPhones, collaboration and chaos! By Nicole Davis.

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Pompeii was most recently shortlisted for Best British Short Film at the Iris Prize.

Where did the idea for this short film come from and why did you want to tell this story?

Matthew Jacobs Morgan: We were chatting at the London Film Festival a few years ago and agreed that we all wanted to work on something and from that point it was quite an organic process. Our friend Tam (Otamere Guobadia, who stars in the film) wrote an article that very much inspired the film. It was created in a very non-linear way, we kind of figured it out as we went along.

Harry Lighton: Tam’s article was making a very serious and valid point about divisions within the queer community and door club policies, but we thought it’d be fun to film something that didn’t require any of the usual apparatus of a film set, with our mates and a bunch of iPhones, but which was also fundamentally interesting and a bit different from other shorts out there.

Can you expand on the politics around the door club policy and the controversies that Pompeii explores?

Marco Alessi: Tam’s article in particular was criticising a specific venue in London which I think has now closed down, but is trying to re-open under the guise of being an inclusive place, when in fact it has a door policy that famously refuses entry to men that don’t appear masculine enough by their standards. That might be because you’re wearing a crop top, heels or excessive make-up.

It’s presenting itself as a queer space but has built up its clientele off the back of having a very narrow concept of what it means to be a gay man, and also what is sexually attractive in gay men. And that leads to femme-shaming and also the exclusion of trans people from queer spaces. It’s really sinister. That’s what we were channelling through his character.

You’re dealing with quite a complex, and at times heavy, topic, but there is a thread that runs throughout the film which celebrates queer expression and nightlife. How did you balance those two elements?

HL: What we set out to do was try and build that into the structure of the film, so it begins with a glimpse into the exuberance of going out with a group of mates, but progresses to that group splintering, and then people who are single — which I don’t think is exclusive to the queer community — are often left on their own, as people couple up or head to other venues to try and prolong the night. So the group is distilled down to two people, one of whom can very easily slide into this club which venerates macho, straight-acting guys and one of whom cannot, which allowed us to push it into that more sinister place.

How did having a triptych of directors work? Did you collaborate across all aspects of the filmmaking, or did you each write and direct segments?

Sorcha Bacon: It happened so organically. We made it in sections, so if we tried something out and it wasn’t quite working, we went with something different. Rather than writing a script, we all got involved in telling a story through action and playing around with different scenarios. It evolved as we were making it.

HL: We shot over three separate nights but across a six month timespan. That was probably the most liberating thing about shooting on iPhones, it’s almost budget-less, so it does enable you to shoot something, look at it all together, sit on it for a little bit, rewrite, discuss, argue, rewrite, reshoot, etc. That practical approach really enabled the collaboration.

MJM: One of the other reasons we had time on our side was that we just started making it ourselves, with barely any money. We were very lucky that Film4 came on board and helped us finish the film, but initially there was very little pressure.

On an aesthetic level, what were your influences and references? Did you look to other films that had been shot on iPhone? The obvious one being Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

HL: There’s a film called Cracked Screen (2016) by Trim (the first Snapchat-based film of its kind). Tangerine isn’t shot from the perspective of someone recording selfies, whereas Cracked Screen is told exclusively through a series of Snapchats captured by one individual character. So we saw that and thought it would be interesting to make a film that used multiple perspectives because that reflects how we use Instagram Stories; you’re zipping through lots of different experiences.

SB: We wanted to comment on our generation’s obsession with what you put on the Internet and how people decide what they choose to make public and what they keep to themselves.

MA: It was a massive headache as well to be honest. Everyone had their phones on this night out, and we paid for their entry to a club. We had a vague sense of the story, but within some very loose parameters we very much let them tell their own stories. The first edit we did had no centre and was pure chaos. And then once we started zoning in on Tam, the aesthetic emerged from that, we wanted to be true to the form of Instagram Stories. Julie Buckland, our editor, was incredibly patient with us!

Did all the Instagram Stories recreation happen in post-production?

MA: Yeah, we had an incredible motion graphics expert called James Malcolm and he whizzed it all up. Once we had finished the edit, we had to really lock it, because James then had to recreate the little bar at the top of Stories and we had to tell him when someone might have skipped the video or when they watched it to the end. It was really tricksy.

Were there any other limitations, or perhaps liberations, you encountered through working with the iPhone?

MJM: One of the liberations was that we had so much footage, so if something wasn’t quite working, we had a lot of other options. You don’t always have the luxury of that much coverage when you’re shooting in a more conventional way.

SB: On the other hand we had one roll of 16mm film to shoot almost a third of the film (for the scenes following Tam on his journey home from the club). We totally overshot on the phones because it’s such a democratic device that anyone can grab and go, but with 16mm it had to be super composed and you can’t mess it up.

HL: It’s also quite hard to film your self in a ‘selfie’ and remain in the moment whilst you’re acting, so it was nice to go back to 16mm and see what was going to be shot.

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The scenes following Tam’s journey home were shot on 16mm.

What did you learn from the experience of making this short?

SB: Working with your friends is really fun and making films should be joyful, which this was. It reignited a drive to make something with nothing. Yes we were lucky to have Film4 onboard, but we had to create something to the point where they wanted to come onboard. It was really exciting to go back to basics.

HL: I learnt about intimacy coordination. I’ve made a lot of films that have had weird sex scenes in them and growing up I had thought that the way to combat the awkwardness and get people into the moment was to narrow the thinking space around it. Like ‘you’ll come in, we’ll just do it without a rehearsal and GO!’ But it was amazing working with an intimacy co-ordinator for this and seeing how that methodical, choreographed process doesn’t suck out energy or vim from the performances, it just makes actor’s much more comfortable and means you can properly discuss those scenes rather than having an ‘ostrich in the sand’ moment.

MJM: It made me realise how much I love 16mm. We were so lucky to have it on this film, and what our DoP Molly Manning Walker shot is absolutely gorgeous. As Sorcha was saying, the process of shooting on 16mm does force you to distil exactly what you want from a shot. I also just love the texture of it and what you can do with colour. I hope it doesn’t fall to the wayside as a medium.

MA: My take home from Pompeii is to approach projects with greater looseness. I think I’ve always been quite rigid in terms of I wanted as a director, but some of the most exciting stuff in this film emerged from this looseness.

Speaking of take homes, is there something you hope audiences glean from their experience of watching the film?

MA: Part of what I love about Tam’s performance is that he’s so glittering and beautiful and loud and fun, and yet he’s still impacted by the various micro-aggressions that are directed towards him. So I hope we can make those more visible or recognisable, when they otherwise might go unnoticed, particularly in the chaos of a night out.

MJM: I guess I hope as well, that there are still inclusive spaces that exist and where people like Tam can be themselves.

SB: For me, I hope that people realise that divides exist in the LGBTQ+ community. It can be easy to put us under one banner but I hope it encourages people to think about nuance and that queer identity isn’t homogenous.

Behind-the-scenes of Luna Carmoon’s Shagbands

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

With Film4-backed short Shagbands now available to watch on Film4 on All4, we sat down with writer and director Luna Carmoon to find out more about the memories, mythology and mood boards that went into its making. By Nicole Davis.

Early on in our Zoom conversation, filmmaker Luna Carmoon admits a predilection — a fetish if you will — for collecting images. “I do a lot of image research jobs for people…Anyone will say I’ve got the most disgusting desktop.” As we discuss the process behind making her second short film Shagbands, which recently premiered at the BFI’s London Film Festival and can now be seen on Film4 on All4, the cultural references come in spades.

It occurred to me that the best way to frame this interview might be through those images, a sort of annotated scrapbook on how this fierce, surreal and visceral short came to life.

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Left: Frankie Box as Mona, Right: Ruby Stokes, Frankie Box, Leila Katia McCalla and Demi Butcher. Photo credit: Zora Kuettner

On the personal inspiration for the film

“Everything I write is based on real life.” One of the film’s most intense and claustrophobic scenes sees Frankie Box’s Mona folded up into a mattress, which actually happened to Luna growing up. Or as Luna describes it, “he sandwiched me up in the mattress and sat on me until I passed out.”

She describes the process of mining her own memories for material as “booky” and a bit “like trauma therapy”; a way to exorcise past experiences. “I think if it’s not that personal, why are you making the film?”

Set over one sizzling summer, during which four schoolgirls face strange sexual awakenings, Shagbands is very much a film made from blood, sweat and tears. The house that provided the location for some of the more intense scenes in the film was eerily similar to the one Luna had encountered in the past. “During one scene I was crying behind the monitor…I lived that.”

On the concept of shag bands

A strange playground phenomenon, like conkers or Pokémon trading cards, only laced with a perverse undertone, shag bands were essentially ‘sex bracelets’. As Hannah Ewens describes for Vice

They looked cheap, they didn’t match what you were wearing and there was nothing cool about them whatsoever. But they did have a non-aesthetic purpose: if someone snapped one off your wrist, it meant you had to shag them. Except you were probably 12, so no one was actually getting shagged.

For Luna the shag bands represented an odd “fake sexual vocality” that arose in this prepubescent phase, where innocence and adolescence start to chafe against one another. “I remember my mum buying me boob tubes.” She laughs about the memory of one falling down in a Sainsburys car park.

To Luna, the shag bands were “like a mythological law.” She was particularly interested in the assault cases that happened in their wake and the fact that boys would wear them as “a badge of honour.”

“It’s so weird that there was a physical object that embodies what it means to be policed and objectified as a young teenage girl.”

There was one point where older actors were considered to play the four schoolgirls, but Luna was determined to have them look around thirteen or fourteen to emphasise the brimming sense of danger.

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Photo credit: Zora Kuettner

On styling the early 00s

Luna cites her older sister as inspiration for the trends and fascinations of the early noughties. “She was super emo, but into UK garage and house…I used to snog her Pete Wentz poster until it got soggy.” She even sourced a Page 3 calendar from the era to adorn the walls of one character’s bedroom.

Luna delved back into a personal blog she has kept since the age of 11, unearthing images of “scene girls like Kiki Kannibal” who was famous for her raccoon tails.

“At the same time, I didn’t want it to be too over the top.” Luna praises Philippa Lowthorpe’s harrowing TV miniseries Three Girls for its on point encapsulation of the era. “She really captured how we dressed. It was so subtle, but so fantastic.”

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Left to right: MySpace influencer Kiki Kannibal; Philippa Lowthorpe’s Three Girls; Ruby Stokes and Frankie Box in Shagbands. Photo credit: Zora Kuettner.

On her creative process

Luna admits that her ideas come thick and fast, but that getting words on a page is more of a slow burn. “Usually I incubate something for a year”, hoarding materials and pictures and references until eventually it coagulates into something she’s willing to share with her producer Loran Dunn.

On her visual references

A self-described “mad freak” for images, Luna puts together slides for each Head of Department that serve as the basis for what she wants the film to look and feel like. She sent her lighting designer stills from Haley Wollens’ work, a stylist known for blending the ethereal with the provocative.

Boys Don’t Cry, the 1999 film for which Hilary Swank won her first Oscar, was likewise “a massive reference for lighting and colour. It’s got one of the most superb colour palettes and the lighting is just mental.”

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Haley Wollens’ is a freelance stylist and creative director.
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Stills from Kimberley Peirce’s 1999 film starring Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny Boys Don’t Cry.

Another useful reference in terms of how the film should sound was Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet. Luna was keen to portray her South London dialect accurately, like the fast-paced back and forths between Claire Skinner’s Natalie and Jane Horrocks’ Nicola. “Me and my sister are just like them. I do a really good impression.”

Really good is an understatement.

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Jane Horrocks (left) and Claire Skinner (right) in Mike Leigh’s intimate portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London

On what she learnt from making Shagbands…

Luna is steadfast about the fact that filmmaking should be inclusive. “You have to make opportunities for other people and open doors for them. I wouldn’t be in the industry if it wasn’t for shortFLIX (an initiative run by Creative England to give underrepresented talent the chance to make their first film).”

It sounds idealistic, but Luna wants each set of hers to feel like a family; a safe space to explore the weird and the wild. “I want every movie I make to feel like a school trip.” I start to sense that it might be Luna’s audience that has a lot to learn from her.

Director Bijan Sheibani on making a short film about motherhood and mental illness

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online

The director behind theatre’s The Arrival, Barber Shop Chronicles and The Brothers Size talks about writing and directing a viscerally powerful short film. By Nicole Davis.

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Writer and director Bijan Sheibani in rehearsal for his debut play The Arrival, which premiered at the Bush Theatre in early 2020.

Bijan Sheibani, a writer and director of theatre and film — perhaps best known for directing Dance Nation by Clare Barron for the Almeida, The Brothers Size by Tarell McCraney for the Young Vic, Barber Shop Chroniclesby Inua Ellams for the National Theatre and most recently his debut play The Arrival for the Bush Theatre — is not interested in making anything with an easy answer.

We’re talking over Zoom about his short film Morning Song, which he created with support from Film4 and is currently available to watch on All4, and centres on a young woman’s experience of motherhood and mental illness. “My ideas can start quite vague and as something that I’m figuring out or thinking about. The thing that often sustains my interest when I’m trying to write is the thing that I don’t get or understand. It can be quite frustrating as a process, but ultimately that’s what drives me to revisit it. I think if an idea is really good, you’ll never figure it out. And that’s why it needs to be turned into a piece of art, so that everybody can look at it together and wonder.”

Sheibani’s personal connection to the material is evident, his mother having had the illness shortly after he was born. To bring his experience into a contemporary context, he “started researching and meeting people” who had been affected by Postpartum Psychosis through the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP for short), imbuing the script with remarkable sensitivity and intimacy.

I’m intrigued as to where you even begin with distilling an idea as complex and misunderstood as mental illness into something with a 15 minute running time. “The short form is so challenging because you want it to have weight but not heaviness. I visited a hospital in Birmingham and coming away after that, I felt like that was the location for the film.” Most importantly for Sheibani, the hospital could be a symbol for hope and positivity, a starting point for this young woman’s journey to recovery.

“I’d done so many different drafts and attempts at telling this story” and then the version that went on to become Morning Song was actually a “swift” process, Sheibani admits abashedly, (“I hate it when people say they wrote it really quickly, it’s so not useful when I’m trying to write something”), as if he’d been incubating the idea for so long it just had to come to out.

The story unravels onscreen with the same kind of visceral intent. There is a thrilling uncertainty and disorientation to the opening sequence which arose from Sheibani trying to get “into this young woman’s head and her feeling paranoid and vulnerable and unable to trust the people closest to her.”

It plays like a heist movie, which is retrospectively fitting when you consider that this young woman’s mind has been hijacked. “I wasn’t trying to make it purposefully suspenseful”, Sheibani muses, but the fact the audience doesn’t know who the man driving the car is, or why the woman in passenger seat hatches a plan to make a run for it, situates us in a similarly confused headspace. Before we even discover that she’s returning to a mother and baby unit for women with postpartum psychosis, our thinking has aligned with hers. The brief moment of freedom she experiences as she bolts from the car is a freedom we very much want for her.

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Scarlett Brookes plays a young woman battling her own mind in Bijan Sheibani’s Morning Song.

The visual language for Morning Song is something that transpired after several conversations with his cinematographer Molly Manning Walker (who also shot another short film available on All4: Pompeii). Sheibani was inspired by directors like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Michael Haneke. “The way in which Ramsay and Arnold can evoke such tenderness and truth and the way that a character’s psychology is worn on their body is particularly incredible.”

“There’s a coldness there and a forensic eye that I find really compelling”, Sheibani says of Austrian director Haneke, known for provocative films such as Funny Games, Hidden and The White Ribbon. “I love the way he holds back information and is really careful about what he keeps offscreen. That’s something that’s very much in the language of theatre. It’s as much about what you’re imagining is happening, either offscreen or offstage.”

It provides the perfect segue to ask Sheibani how his extensive theatrical experience translated to directing a film. Did it feel like a natural step? “I have found it pretty comfortable. Having worked with lots of great playwrights my understanding of story structure and narrative lends itself really well to filmmaking. Likewise the experience that I’ve had with actors. In theatre you get a lot of time to rehearse, so you really come to understand what it means to direct an actor and what they find useful, or not.”

“The way you tell stories through image is completely different to the way you tell stories in theatre. Just the fact you can do a massive close-up in film opens up a completely different way of telling a story. This film was very much about trying to get as close to someone’s experience as possible.”

That experience is portrayed brilliantly by Scarlett Brookes, an actress whose credits include Othello and The Merchant of Venice at the RSC, as well as roles in TV series such as Kiri and Misfits. Sheibani sent her the research he’d done on postpartum psychosis and they talked through the script, but was equally in awe of “the speed at which she was able to take herself to these places”, ranging from determination, to confusion, to despair, to curiosity and beyond.

“I was keen for Scarlett to have freedom,” Sheibani continues. “That’s one of things I’ve tried to develop through my theatre work: you give the actor’s enough structure and enough of a framework, but ultimately you want them to have total freedom within that, because it’s only then that they can take the audience somewhere special.”

“The underbelly and the unconscious part is what I’m most interested in, finding a way of talking about the deeper and darker stuff and putting that out there. That’s what people like Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay do so well.”

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It feels almost cruel to ask Sheibani what he hopes audiences might take away from Morning Song, given how much he’s iterated his resistance to neat resolution or easily packaged answers. I reframe it to ask what he himself has gotten from the experience.

“I guess something about keeping going. It can be easy to tell yourself that your weird idea is insignificant, so I hope a boldness and bravery is what I can take from it, and continue to apply to my work.”

I suspect Sheibani has answered both questions at once. The concept of perseverance through any mental health experience, however shameful or lonely it might feel, is exactly what Morning Song gets to the heart of.

“I hope that people will feel like they know a little bit more about what it’s like to go through it.”

Morning Song is now showing on Film4 on All4.

***

Action on Postpartum Psychosis is a national charity to support women and families affected by Postpartum Psychosis. Their workshops, conferences and arts events enable women to articulate their experience of PP and develop information to help other women and families. They facilitate ground-breaking research into the causes of PP at the universities of Birmingham and Cardiff and produce ‘Insider Guides’ and other expert literature to support affected families and health professionals caring for those with PP.

Director William Stefan Smith on making a short comedy about loneliness with Daniel Kaluuya

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.

With his Film4-backed short film Two Single Beds now on All4, we sat down with director William Stefan Smith to find out how his career got started, what he finds funny and what he’s learned from Armando Iannucci. By Nicole Davis.

Smith’s career began “with a passion for comedy.” He used to perform stand-up when he was an undergraduate, before touring the student comedy circuit. It was only during a BBC production trainee scheme that he became aware of producing, and later directing. “I had no access to it. I didn’t know it existed.”

That changed when he met Armando Iannucci in 2009 on the set of The Thick of It. “When I saw him direct, I began to think I’d love to do something like that.”

He went to NYU to study a Masters in Film Directing, at which point Smith realised he was “going for this.” Still, it was no guarantee of success. “I didn’t have much idea of what would happen after.” He followed his curiosity rather than a preordained plan.

That’s not to imply that it didn’t take graft and commitment. Smith recalls sending dozens of cold emails asking for opportunities to shadow directors. “I had no tact or etiquette, I’d ask straight out.” In his time off from work he would observe directors on set, absorbing the different ways they operated.

Iannucci left a particular impression. “He’s the collaboration king. He’s very good at identifying strengths in individuals and bringing them together to create something even better.”

Smith also admired his lack of preciousness about ideas. Iannucci would just “go with the best”, irrespective of if he had come up with it. “He’s not threatened and he always keeps his cool.” Particularly impressive was his ability to maintain a sense of calm on fast-paced political satire Veep. “It makes everyone around him think he’s got it together. He’s a genius.”

With those wisdoms in his back pocket, Smith got to directing his own material. Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out, Sicario and Widows fame, approached Smith with an idea to make a short film set in the world of stand-up comedy. The incentive was to make something that would appeal to their peers, rather than tour film festivals. “That was the dream.”

The premise boils down to an encounter between two stand-up comedians who find refuge in a shared night away from home. It stemmed from a desire to tell a story that’s not often told about “two individuals navigating their way through a predominantly white space, that we could both identify with.”

How does one make the world of stand-up comedy cinematic I wonder? “Visually it was about supporting the emotional state of the two leads. They both feel like islands, for different reasons, but are going about it in different ways.” Two Single Beds is ultimately about the struggle, and risk, of being vulnerable with another person.

It makes sense that Smith referenced the paintings of Edward Hopper, an artist well-known for his melancholic depictions of isolation. “They’re both struggling with different things and we’re just capturing the moment when it erupts.” The liminality of the hotel room becomes the perfect arena for their transgressions to play out.

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Seraphina Beh stars as stand-up comedian June, opposite Daniel Kaluuya’s Jay

Starring opposite Kaluuya, as a fellow comedian, is Seraphina Beh, who more than holds her own against the Oscar-nominated actor, and now screenwriter. Shaheen Baig, the casting director who discovered Florence Pugh, Tom Holland and Juno Temple among others, was responsible for recommending Seraphina to the team.

“She just felt confident. She caught our eye,” recalls Smith of Seraphina’s read-through. Two Single Beds is particularly good at allowing its female lead to encompass many different emotional states. She’s tough and stern, funny and insecure. And if the film does nothing else but allow a young black woman that moment of truth, it will have achieved something.

“Everyone’s going to take something different away, I just hope there’s an emotional shift”, says Smith of what he hopes the audience get from watching his short film. During a year where we could all do well to have greater empathy, particularly for what it might be like to feel lonely, Two Single Beds is a welcome addition to the conversation.

Given that audiences might be in need of a laugh, I wonder what some of Smith’s favourite comedic films are. “I love the Coen brothers. Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the references for Two Single BedsHappiness by Todd Solondz. I wouldn’t recommend it to my Mum but I love films where they feel authored. Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America. Chris Morris’ Four Lions. Ice Cube’s Friday. And Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin deserves an honourable mention.”

On the topic of authorship and having a voice, it seems pertinent to ask whether Smith has found his. At what point did he feel like he had something to say? “The reason I quit stand-up was because I wasn’t sure I had anything new to say. When I watch good comedy, I feel like that person has got so much to tell the world.”

As a director, Smith is more sure of his taste and looks for projects that he can identify with on a personal level. “This year has been good for the fact I have read a lot of scripts and watched a lot films and reminded myself of what I’m interested in and what I like. Your voice comes from just trying things out for size.”

Two Single Beds was “a space for discovery”, says Smith. You could say he’s made his bed and now you can lie in it.

Daniel Kaluuya on his new short film Two Single Beds

Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.

With short film Two Single Beds — which Daniel Kaluuya wrote and stars in — available on Film4 on All4, we spoke to the Oscar-nominated actor about learning experiences, pressure and the freedom of making short films. By Nicole Davis.

Two Single Beds was born of a desire to just make something.

As a man without a shred of pretension, it tracks that Daniel Kaluuya’s first foray into writing a short film would be about the learning experience. “I used to make online sketches and I think that the sharpness I have is because of those kinds of things, and those kind of shoots, so I want to keep doing them to grow.”

He presented director William Stefan Smith, a long-time friend, with the idea of two stand-up comedians who share an encounter away from home and whose loneliness forces them to “seek solace and comfort and intimacy”. The creative life can be an isolating one, where those living it search for “intense dopamine hits in order to feel something different.” That notion of watching a spark or a potential ‘hit’ unravel piqued Kaluuya’s interest.

“I also liked the idea of two black people from London in England [the film is set in Doncaster], but not in London.” As an actor who has been vocal about the deficit of roles for black actors in England, Two Single Beds is something of a corrective. Though it certainly doesn’t have that air. It’s charming and real.

Kaluuya admits to being tempted by stand-up but “didn’t want to bomb in Doncaster.” He has a deep respect for it the as “a narrative art form” and cites Josie Long as someone who he watched as a teenager and could elevate it to that status with her gift for storytelling. He’s possessed of the same gift.

The script went through some changes. Kaluuya corrects himself, “it grew”. It was just part of the process, he says, “you can’t remember how tall you was at four.” The growing just happens without cause for notice. He’s quick to attribute that growth and the film’s many “layers” to the creative team that came onboard, alongside Film4.

Scriptwriting itself isn’t entirely new to Kaluuya, who wrote episodes for the generation-defining TV show Skins, of which he was also a member of the cast. But he admits that writing a short film is “a difficult art form”, more so “than people realise.”

“In order for it to resonate you have to put the same amount of headspace” and heart into the project, as if it were a feature. It’s still deserving of consideration and feeling. And Kaluuya isn’t the type of artist who does anything by half measures.

Writing for and acting in Skins, whilst also going to school prepared Kaluuya to graft and get things done whilst short on time. Nowadays, he’s busier than ever, so he has to be “aggressive” with the time he forks out to work on projects such as Two Single Beds. At one point he churned out a new draft every day. “I wanted to get it moving.”

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Kaluuya rejects the idea of creative pursuit. For him, writing isn’t about making the transition to screenwriting, or being seen in a different light. He’s a “creative being” and however he can best serve a story, whether as a writer, producer [he executive produced last year’s Queen & Slim] or actor, is how he wants to “be used”. Ultimately he wants good art “to exist.” If he has an idea, that someone else executes he’s just happy that’s it’s now in the world. It doesn’t have to have come from the Kaluuya factory.

That being said he recognises that his name can get certain projects “over the line” and that sometimes you have to “position yourself career-wise” for that passion project to exist at all. There’s a quiet savvy to Kaluuya. You feel wiser just for having spoken with him.

You have to wonder, given that he has ‘currency’, whether writing a short film was about getting something out of his system before the expectation and pressure descended. I’m quickly shot down. “I don’t feel pressure.” He pauses. “I can’t internalise people that have an opinion of me, but who don’t know who I am.” It starts to feel like I should be paying for this.

That sense of calm comes from following an instinct about what feels good and what “makes sense”. Again, it’s not strategic. “Other people might say ‘he’s trying to do this’, but they haven’t chatted to me to make those conclusions.” To Kaluuya, it’s about what feels honest at any given “moment in time.”

Kaluuya has acted in over ten short films since the beginning of his career. He clearly doesn’t need to make them, so why does he keep returning to that medium? “There’s a level of freedom. There’s less hubbub.” It’s a playground for experimentation and a possibility for learning. “I use every job as a learning process.”

I ask what Kaluuya learnt about himself from making Two Single Beds? “The importance of planning ahead. I can be impulsive and present, which is a privilege as an actor, but you have to be forward-planning” to make a film. Whose to say what Kaluuya’s plans are, but have no doubt, that it will make sense at the time.

Getting to know… Mia Hansen-Løve

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Can you separate a person from their art? Or is it imperative to know the mind behind the matter? And if so, where do you start? Here are eight entry points for exploring the work of…

…philosophical filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve.

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Atmosphere and place are important to Hansen-Løve as a filmmaker.

During an interview for Seventh Art, she speaks about places having a soul and a reliance on, or alliance with place providing a framework for her narratives. “I don’t even know what’s going to be in the scenes, I just know I want them to be here, and it gives me a frame, and inside that I feel totally free. And I feel also confident that once they are put together it will make the story — I don’t need to ‘tell’ the story, that the story is being told from itself by following the different moments in different locations.”

She has also cited Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumière as an ongoing inspiration. When selecting the film to show at a series for the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, she wrote “the wonder that I felt while viewing this film is expressed in its evocative title: the poetry of places, the staging of light. Simplicity, clarity, and openness define a point of view that I can relate to, from across oceans and cultures.”

Her films often grapple with existential questions.

Which makes sense when you consider that both her parents were philosophy teachers. During an interview with Film at Lincoln Center, she commented that her “films are portraits of people who are looking for a meaning to their existence. The question of what gives sense to our lives is one that obsesses me, I always come back to it.”

It was an upbringing for which she is grateful, later in the same interview expressing her fortune at being “raised under the idea that we must seek beauty and good, to value the importance of love and be faithful to it, without necessarily having the answers to those questions. I was raised with the idea that what’s important in life is not to earn more money and to be in a particular place in the social scale, but to strive for truth and beauty. My parents chose a path of intellectual and spiritual questions, which isn’t a particularly easy one and doesn’t necessarily constitute the best model. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but what they have passed on to me is to assume and to put these questions at the centre of my existence.”

In Things To Come, Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy teacher, which was important to Hansen-Løve for two reasons. “Even though there are films of course that I love, that depict intellectuals, I felt there was not really a film that would show it just the way it was for me. So it was like a challenge: Make it more relevant, more authentic. And the fact that it’s a woman, of course is important. Because I’m not sure there are so many women philosophy teachers in films.”

There is an autobiographical undercurrent to her films.

It’s well-known that Paul, the DJ-ing protagonist of her club culture drama Eden is based closely on her brother Sven Hansen-Løve, himself a former DJ, who also co-wrote the film with her. She has also turned the lens on herself, with 2012’s Goodbye First Love exploring her own ill-fated teenage romance. She sees this impulse as a way to “to harvest [her] own memories. With all my films, with all their weakness, they are true testimonies of who I was and what my concerns were.”

She finds her characters in everyday moments.

Some directors like to flesh out entire biographies for their characters before shooting a film, and can be strict about making sure everyone is on the same page. Quentin Tarantino reportedly fired an extra for not knowing his character’s backstory on the set of Inglorious Basterds, for instance. Hansen-Løve takes a different stance, preferring instead to focus on the micro, rather than the macro.

I don’t really believe in psychological explanations. I always had a hard time believing that knowing a lot of things about a character would help an actor play it better. I’ve always believed, and this is the experience I’ve had with the actors I’ve worked with, that the truth of the characters is to be found in the concrete things of the everyday — in the way they talk, in their rhythm, in the way they move — rather than in the information on their resume.”

Choosing a subject matter often comes down to her emotional strength.

It’s an often heard refrain in the filmmaking world that whatever project you choose next has to be something you can live with. Imagine being quarantined with your protagonist — that is the level of intimacy and investment required of writers and directors in bringing their stories to life. Likewise, Hansen-Løve has acknowledged that whatever her film is about, it affects her.

“If it’s sad, it makes you sad. I’m really like a child with that, and I guess many artists are. You’ve got to live with it for the two next years, you’ve got to talk about it, it’s going to be part of your life. It exists in the most real way. So when I start working on a film I’ve got to be sure I’m strong enough, that I have what I need in order to face whatever the film is about.”

She is partnered to fellow film director Olivier Assayas.

She acted in two of his films Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies, before transitioning to a career as a director, which she considers as something of a deliverance. I feel like becoming a filmmaker kind of saved my life. [It] was a way to transform brutal melancholy into active melancholy.”

She also credits Assayas with introducing a certain element of risk, or daring to her work. “His influence comes through in many ways, but one of them is opening myself up to trying so much. In terms of production, storytelling, he experiments in many different directions. Watching him being so daring helped me a lot to be daring.”

He is also the first person to whom she shows her scripts. “From my first film, he was always the one I gave the script to and showed the first edit. He never shows up during shooting and I never show up during the shooting of his films. But then, when I edit, I could not show the film to anybody before I show it to him.”

Her acting career is not something she likes to talk about.

No doubt Hansen-Løve would object to it even being called a career. But her experience, however picayune has allowed her a certain amount of empathy or intuition when it comes to directing actors.

“My experience as an actor is really so small that I feel almost ashamed to comment on it. I went to theatre school for a few years and I’ve had only small parts in a few films, so I feel I don’t have the legitimacy to speak to being a former actress. That said, having physically embodied a character and having learned what is natural and what is not has helped me to have an instinctive relationship to the actors. I’d never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do myself, and I never feel like I’m on the other side from them.”

Her editing choices could be summed up as ‘arriving late to the party’.

Hansen-Løve has worked with the same editor — Marion Monnier — for all of her films (Monnier also collaborates closely with Assayas, having edited Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria) and together they have developed a consistent way of working.

On their partnership, Hansen-Løve has said “my editor and I were very keen on trying to edit films so that when we get into the scene, it feels like the scene had already started. And when we get out of the scene, it feels like we have not let the scene end. It has to do with this idea of having the film literally jump into a scene. There is an expression in French, which actually François Truffaut said about films, which is ‘prendre un train en marche’. It means ‘go on a train while the train is already moving’. And that’s how I try to write and edit my films. To always be jumping in a train that’s already moving.

Her aesthetic could be described as a ‘cinema of freedom.’

When it comes to directing Hansen-Løve has stated a preference for a discrete style that’s almost transparent, “not calling attention to itself…A cinema that is free in the sense that it gets rid of the intentions that films are often charged with.” But more so than just an aesthetic raison d’être, freedom is a topic that her films consistently grapple with. In an interview for Lenny Letter, Hansen-Løve spoke about this recurrence:

“I think the passing of time is very scary. You cannot resist that, you cannot fight against it. It’s like a big river, time, and it’s just more powerful than we are. Once you’ve accepted that movement and the fact that you cannot swim against it, you can find some pleasure. You can actually reinvent freedom, and find some fulfilment in that movement. I think my films are really about it.”

Behind the doors of Number 9 with producer Elizabeth Karlsen

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Elizabeth Karlsen is a British film producer who co-founded Number 9 Films in 2002 with production partner and husband Stephen Woolley. Speaking on the phone from her London office, she tells Film4 Online’s Nicole Davis about an accolade-heavy CV (Carol, Colette, Their Finest, Made in Dagenham, Hyena and Youth are just a handful of the films they have coached into cinemas in the past decade) — and why she’s at her happiest when making other people’s cinematic visions come true.

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Number 9 Films’ Elizabeth Karlsen.

It started with studying biology. It might be a stretch to posit that an interest in microorganisms and molecules would be a good foundation for a career in producing, but at its simplest, the role of a producer is to coalesce lots of different cells to create a living, breathing film.

Her cinematic appetite, however, was whetted much earlier. “Being brought up in the States where so much of the fabric of the culture is cinema, we went all the time as a family,” Karlsen says. Although it is her English “film buff” mother whom Karlsen cites as the real inspiration, “she was always watching films.”

It was while doing a postgraduate degree, after having studied English, with “a brilliant woman called Jacqueline Rose” (a renowned feminist scholar) that Karlsen found herself immersed in “feminism, representations in cinema and a lot of critical theory around film.”

It gave her enough of a sense of what she wanted to pursue that upon returning to New York she got a job as an intern on a film set. “I got on really well with the director and when he was editing the film he got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to help,” she says. He was fantastic and sort of propelled me onto that path.”

The film was Parting Glances, starring Steve Buscemi, and the director was Bill Sherwood, who clearly had a good eye for discovering talent. The other person credited as an Assistant Editor on the film alongside Karlsen is Christine Vachon who went on to found Killer Films and produce — among many others — Carol and Colette with Number 9 Films.

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(Left); Karlsen got her break working on Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, (Right); with regular collaborator, fellow producer and friend Christine Vachon.

Considering she spent much of her time in the editing room, I ask Karlsen why the role of producer, in particular, stood out to her.“I just walked onto that set and I didn’t really know what producing was, but I just got this sense that you could bring all these creative people together and make a film and I thought ‘that’s what I want to do’…I remember very strongly that someone had to orchestrate it and make it happen and that really appealed to me.”

The radicalism of Parting Glances — now considered something of a milestone in queer cinema — would set the tone for Karlsen’s own career, telling “stories from the sidelines.” Although she credits her political family and the coterie of liberals (“outsiders and misfits”) around whom she was brought up as the fuel to that fire.

It was another “six or seven years” before Karlsen co-produced The Crying Game alongside her now-husband and producing partner Stephen Woolley, during which time she had roles as Production Manager, Second Assistant Director and Production Supervisor. Karlsen readily admits that “it was a long and arduous path.”

But it was quite the film with which to establish herself. The 1992 thriller about an unlikely friendship between a British soldier and an IRA volunteer earned six Oscar® nominations, including a win for Best Screenplay, and seven BAFTA nominations, including a win for Best British Film.

It would be a taste of the success to come.

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Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game

Karlsen describes herself as a creative producer; an approach that is very much baked into how Number 9 operates. They are purposefully small, hands-on and often generate their own material. For them it’s about seeing the film through its entire biological life cycle, from development to distribution. “I see it as my role to support a director and [their] vision the best way I possibly can, so that they have the best chance of realising it.”

And where does the material that they generate come from? “We look in the margins…bestsellers don’t always make the best films and books that no one’s heard of can make phenomenal films”, says Karlsen.

It was writer Phyllis Nagy who came to Karlsen with the idea to make Carol in 2005after they’d worked together on a project called Mrs. Harris — an HBO TV movie starring Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley. But the rights were tied up with another producer and it would take a decade before they became free.

The publishers were reluctant to sell the rights to another independent producer, but Karlsen pleaded her case, with the involvement of Film4’s Tessa Ross. They closed the deal in 2011. But by that point Nagy had wearied and her enthusiasm for the project wavered. Karlsen held firm, and eventually Nagy was in. What sounds like a stressful experience would turn out to be a good omen.

“The things that have gone on to huge critical success or awards success are the ones that were hardest to get funded at the time…With something like Carol, once the right team were onboard it really propelled forward at a fast pace.”

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Todd Haynes’ Carol

Karlsen credits the partnership she has with Woolley as being integral to her ability to withstand the ups and downs of a producer’s life. “It’s a rollercoaster ride of a business that can turn on a dime…You can feel like you’re banging your head against a wall and if you have creative doubt or despondency, it’s important to have a partner…to help you pick up the pieces and validate your choices. And also to share your successes. It’s been wonderful to share the limelight together.”

“It’s rare we have strong diverse responses” says Karlsen, when I ask whether they have distinct tastes. “Typically we like the same kinds of films.” Certainly something appears to be working. Number 9 has produced almost a film a year for the past decade.

“When I saw that, I was like ‘wow, that’s pretty good’,” laughs Karlsen.

“We only really have six to eight project that we’re developing on the slate at any one time and they can take anywhere from two to ten years, which generally works quite well as a conversion rate.”

How does their creative input vary, I wonder, when it comes to working with an established director like Todd Haynes as opposed to filmmakers for whom it’s their first feature outing? “With someone like Todd, who is an extremely talented auteur, you’re just making sure he has the tools he needs to deliver on that. A first-time filmmaker will need different kinds of help. They might not fully know how to use the camera, or tell that story, and so you might think a bit more about who to team them with in terms of a cinematographer or editor, and you’d take a different approach. You just need to be fully supportive to allow them to believe that their inexperience might be their greatest asset and that they absolutely have the ability they need to carry it off.”

It’s a cheering thought, that perfection isn’t a requirement, particularly in the competitive environs of the film industry. “The worst combination is ignorance with arrogance”, Karlsen continues. Ultimately it’s about listening to, and leaning on other members of the team who do have the knowledge, be that the producers or anyone else on set. It comes back to that notion of collaboration that is the lifeblood of Number 9 Films.

“We’ve been really lucky with the relationships we’ve established over the years with financiers and distributors, one of them being Film4, who’ve been there right from the beginning. That’s been a very crucial and satisfying relationship for us, and I hope we can continue to make Film4 proud to be a part of our team.”

A relationship is the beating heart of Number 9 Films, and as Karlsen puts it, “relationships are absolutely crucial to us.” I sense their success has far more to do with this emphasis on collaboration, a lack of ego and lots of hard work, than luck.