Interview with Filmmakers Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe

It is many people’s dream to make a film, but in the majority of cases this is not something that is ever fulfilled. For most, the idea is dismissed as being too difficult or not financially viable, instead accepting the reality that they will never be the new Tarantino or Scorsese. However, for young filmmakers Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, the opposite seems to be the case. As their first feature film Black Pond hits cinemas this month, The Student caught up with the pair to ask them how they did it.

Having met at university, where they wrote and directed plays and comedy together, they both had a passion to make a film but struggled to fit in the time required around their current day jobs. Despite this hindrance, in 2009 they made a short called Gokiburi (Cockroach) which was set in Japan and made using only a script, reflector board and prosumer camera. As Sharpe recalls, “making the short film basically just showed us that the only way to learn how to make a film is to make a film.”

The short proved to be a success, with a production company offering them £50,000 to make a feature. Unfortunately, this fell through but didn’t deter the pair who decided to fund the film themselves. “Some of it was money we saved up from our day jobs, and the rest we raised by writing hundreds of letters and emails – trying to raise our target of £20,000. When we ended up going over budget by £5,000, we took time off during editing to do some paid work, and were able to cover the extra,” says Kingsley.

Evidently a lot of determination and hard work was required to get the project off the ground, yet this in turn opened up a considerable amount of possibilities that wouldn’t have been available had they received funds from a production company. As Kingsley notes, “it can be hard working with a small budget, but in a lot of ways it forced us to be more creative. Restrictions can be helpful. Also the more money you have to make a film, the less creative freedom you have. So although we had very little money, we had total creative freedom.”

Black Pond is loosely based on a play they wrote at university with a couple of friends, but had to be changed considerably due to its inclusion of burning castles and helicopters which would have been too expensive for a first feature. Sharpe, who wrote the screenplay, comments, “we decided to take the core characters from the play and to tell a story with a more manageable plot. What we ended up with was quite unexpected in a way. But it’s a funny thing because you don’t actually have very much control over how a story plays out. You need to have the discipline to throw away the ideas that are bad or unrealistic, but it’s not like you can force yourself to have a good idea. You kind of just have to wait for the ideas to arrive in their own time. It’s about getting yourself out the way I think.”

As a means of saving money, the pair have been distributing the film themselves, organising their own screenings and dealing with the cinemas directly. This way they have been able to make sure that every penny made from the release can go straight back to their investors. Surprisingly, this method has been working, as Kingsley comments, “we’ve never done anything like this before, but it seems to be going well so far. All of our London screenings sold out, and this week in Edinburgh is the second week on our tour of British cities.”

It seems clear that their success boils down to a strong desire to achieve what they want. They represent the average Joes who get to high places through sheer determination. As Sharpe aptly points out, “we only really broke into film by making a film. Neither of us went to film school, and we didn’t meet any filmmakers or get anywhere with proper film funding organisations.” For those willing to try and get into the movie industry, Kinsley’s advice is simple, “first find a job that leaves you some free time and then fill that free time by making films. Anyone can talk about being a filmmaker but the only way to prove you can do it is by showing people the films you’ve made. Equipment has never been so cheap. As long as you have good ideas and are motivated enough to make them happen, you’ll get there eventually.”

With the world’s first low budget epic comedy blockbuster in the making, it is clear that Sharpe and Kingsley are on their way up. Their passion is nothing short of admirable and the results they achieve impressive, it is surely only a matter of time before they become household British names.

Black Pond will be showing at the Cameo from November 25th – December 1st.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Nov 22nd 2011.

Interview with Screenwriter Paul Laverty

Paul Laverty isn’t your conventional screenwriter. With a degree in philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome and a career which began in human rights law, his transition to film is one that began after he witnessed countless atrocities whilst working in Nicaragua during the civil war. As he recalls, “I got sick and tired of writing human rights reports, talking to delegations, and in my innocence, I thought perhaps I’d like to try and right a fictional story informed by what I had seen.” The following result was Carla’s Song which marked the beginning of his long-term friendship with director Ken Loach.

Looking through Laverty’s filmography, much of what he has written illuminates various social and political issues by exploring real life incidents from a fictional point of view. Yet despite the powerful backdrop at which he sets many of his films, he is keen to mention, “Good issues don’t necessarily make for good films, but good stories do…You could have the most interesting landscape in the world and make a boring story out of it, and then other people can make shopping interesting if they’re skilful enough. It really depends on the skill of the story teller, but great issues in themselves don’t make for great stories. You have to find great stories.” Although he does mention, “if drama is well done, it has a great capacity to illuminate, raise questions, and to look at contradictions.”

A patron of the Take One Action Film Festival, which saw the UK première of his latest film Even the Rain last week, it is clear that Laverty recognises the importance of giving films that don’t necessarily appeal to the commercial market a voice. As he notes,“unfortunately the distribution of film is generally a capitalist endeavour where they want to make lots of money. Many of the films being shown at this festival would never get a screening in public if it wasn’t for organisations like this. People get a chance to see complex, difficult, and more controversial films that will not be shown on the commercial circuit and which are not just about special effects or sentimental love stories.”

"Drama has a great capacity to illuminate"

With their ninth feature film The Angel’s Share currently in the editing process and a number of award winning films under their belts, it is clear that Laverty and Loach have a unique bond which is rarely seen within the film industry. “We are very close friends,” says Laverty. “We share some sort of similar sensibility and also have very different skills. I write, Ken directs, and hopefully we meet in the middle as film-makers. It’s marvellous fun working with Ken, he’s a very demanding partner but also a very generous one .”

Laverty’s latest film, which sees him working with his wife, esteemed Spanish director Íciar Bollaín for the first time, has proven to be a particularly hard project to bring to life. “This has been a 10 year obsession,” says Laverty. “It’s been a very very difficult film to make and it’s a miracle how it actually ever got made because it is not commercial in any general sense and doesn’t fall into any particular genre.”

Following an idealistic director (Gael García Bernal) who is in Bolivia trying to make a film exposing Christopher Columbus as an imperialist who exploited and destroyed the indigenous population of South America, Even the Rain originally had a very different intention. Initially it was a historical drama that focused purely on the Columbus story but this concept never took off and so Laverty needed to change his idea considerably if the project was to succeed. “Many years later I decided to re-conceptualise it, and see if I could mix it with something much more modern and combine two time periods, modern and historical.”

He became fascinated by the Bolivian water wars in the year 2000 and so used the contemporary crisis as a backdrop to capture a parallel that can be seen between Columbus and the Cochabamban authorities. “You see the same indigenous communities with their own indigenous languages. It’s sticks and stones up against a modern army. 500 years ago they are fighting about gold and 500 years later they are having water being taken from them.”

A writer who seems drawn to the way humans interact and treat each other, often with no regard for the negative consequences that can follow, Laverty is not one to cite particular influences that have affected the way he creates a script as a whole. Yet he closes with a sentiment which is applicable to anyone regardless of their profession. “We are obviously creatures. We are like magpies I think, stealing and robbing from whatever source: from what we see, from what we imagine, and even subconsciously I think.”

Taken from The Student, published Tue Sep 27th 2011.

Interview with Muppets Producer Martin G. Baker

Within the film and television industry, there are a number of people who often go unrecognised by the general public. Whilst directors and actors get the lion’s share of the praise and recognition, it is the producers who are integral to a production’s success – but they often go unnoticed.

Martin G. Baker is one of those people. As a television and film producer, he has worked on a number of productions that have become loved by people both young and old. His affiliation with the Jim Henson Company  lasted 20 years, and he saw The Muppet Show rise to fame, received an Emmy for his work as a producer on The Muppets Tonight, produced three Muppet feature length films and was an associate producer for the feature film Labyrinth.

After introducing a number of the films he has worked on as part of a Jim Henson retrospective at the Filmhouse, I caught up with him to ask a few questions about the Muppets legacy and on working with such a unique creative force as Jim Henson.

Baker first met Henson in the ’60s, when working on a weekly variety show called the Tom Jones Show where he recalls, “One week we had an act called the Muppets, nobody knew who they were, nobody had a clue what they were about. Jim Henson and Frank Oz arrived with Rowlf the dog and that was my first introduction to the Muppets.”

But it wasn’t until 1974 and the creation of The Muppet Show that Baker, after working on various other variety shows, began directly working with Henson.

“This time I knew who Jim was,” he notes. “He asked me, along with a few of my other colleagues, to be a part of The Muppet Show production team. That’s how I got into the Henson world, and through that Jim went on to ask me to come and work for him as we came to the end of The Muppet Show in 1979. So I took the leap and went to work for Jim and I was there for 20-odd years.”

The atmosphere surrounding a studio run by Henson seems to have been an incredible experience to be a part of. “It was total madness,” Baker comments, “but it was the best time. Jim’s ethic was all about working hard but having fun whilst you’re doing it. He believed that if you’re not having fun, then we should call it a day and go home. This permeates to what you see on screen: when you watch those shows and today when you watch Muppet stuff, you’ve got to believe that people are having fun making it, because otherwise, I don’t think we could do it.”

Baker is currently involved in the first muppet film to be made since 2005, which finished production two months ago. Although he doesn’t want to reveal too much information about the upcoming release, he affirms, “It’s going to be a wonderful movie, with Jason Segal and Amy Adams as the stars. It takes place in Hollywood and we have a new character called Walter, who’s not a Muppet but a puppet character we created who’s Jason’s best friend. The story takes them from their small town USA into Hollywood and how they hook up with the Muppets.”Whilst Jim Henson is best know for his work with the Muppets, his feature films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, show that there were clearly two distinct sides to his work. But as Baker comments, “He was equally comfortable in both arenas. You couldn’t get two more distinct identities than The Dark Crystal and The Muppet Movie but they were very much a part of who Jim was, he was just such an amazing man creatively. He was able to span that spectrum from the esoteric fantasy world of Labyrinth to the warm and wonderful world of the muppets, but he had earned the ability to do that on the success of The Muppet Show and creatively he was given that freedom. Trying to make The Dark Crystal 20 years before, he most probably wouldn’t have got the money.”

When asked about the future of the Muppets, he remains positive: “Personally I’d love to see them back on television in a sustained presence, but it depends on how one thing does that leads to another thing.”

Clearly the possibility is there for more collaboration, and fans can but hope that Baker will remain a part of this much loved franchise.

The Muppets will be released in the UK on February 17.

Taken from The Student published Tue May 3rd 2011.

Interview with BAFTA Winning Animator Mikey Please

Having only completed an MA in animation from the Royal College of Art in London last year, Mikey Please is relatively new to the professional world of artistic filmmaking. However, this hasn’t stopped him from already gaining considerable respect amongst his peers – the pinnacle of his career so far being winning the award for Best Short Animation at this year’s BAFTAs.

His winning piece The Eagleman Stag which also served as his graduating film, is a dark cerebral comedy about a man who is obsessed with the quickening perception of time as one ages, and the extreme lengths he goes to in order to counter this effect.

An intriguing concept, it is one that has a certain resonance for Please himself; “It interests and bothers me in equal amounts. Making the film was a kind of cathartic process. Going back to childhood again, this is something that has always been in my thoughts; why a year now seems so much less than a year when I was four? Of course, a year when I was four was a whole quarter of my life, now it is but a mere twentysixth.”

An adaptation of a short story he wrote a few years ago, it was never intended to be made into a film, he notes, “I thought it would be impossible, but it was when I developed this graphical simple stopmotion method that I felt I might be able to do it justice.”

This use of stopmotion appears to be a fundamental element of Please’s style, featuring in much of his work to date. “I love the unflinching certainty that what you’re looking at is physically there.” However, it is evidently not always easy to get right, as he reminds us; “Of course for every happy accident there are several unhappy ones. But that’s one of my main attractions to working with real things, in that the opportunity for accident is so much bigger when there is all the chaos of the real world interfering with what I’m doing.”

A technique that is increasingly used less and less given the advances in technology that has cultivated a huge scope of digital alternatives, it seems to retain a certain degree of appeal for Please: “I think working with physical things, in a predominantly digital age, isn’t a form of Luddism or a nostalgic attachment to a bygone era, but a feeling that to work with tangible materials, as frustrating as they can be, can not only add something indefinable to the aesthetic, but assist in the actual structural development of the content itself.”

The choice of creating the film all in white comes across both as incredibly different and yet reminiscent of the Japanese art of origami. Having confirmed that no origami was in fact used, he does stress that the decision to film in this hue was important: “I was looking for a way to distance the look of the film from being a straight forward representation of reality, and something about the white on white fitted perfectly with that kind of dream or memory of real life I was going for.”

It is clear that Please is still coming to terms with his success at the BAFTAs as he recalls how he felt when his name was announced; “Mildly confused, then a deep, resounding fear worked its way from my belly to my head, kicking in when I was half way through my acceptance speech, leading to me doing a Napoleon Dynamite dash from the stage.”

With subsequent works already in the pipeline including directing a music video for TV on the Radio and a lengthy film entitled Zero-Greg that’s slowly taking form, it won’t be long before Please becomes a household name. Yet somewhat reassuringly, he stresses that his success is just as possible for any budding animator so long as enough ambition is retained and they remember to “get some sleep, get some sunshine and eat some fruit”.

The Eagleman Stag is available on DVD as part of the RCA 2010 Animation Showreel.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Mar 22nd 2011.

5 Quick Questions – Craig Roberts

1) What was it like working with Richard Ayoade as a director?

It was awesome. Richard is incredibly talented and we had a lot of fun.

2) Are there any parallels between yourself and the character of Oliver Tate?

Yeah I’m pretty much a loner too. And I spy on my neighbours.

3) Did you draw any inspiration from any other characters/actors/films when performing the role?

Yeah, Richard sent me a few DVD’s like Rushmore, Harold and Maude and The Graduate. They really helped, especially The Graduate. I love Dustin Hoffman in it. He is amazing at just acting with his eyes.

4) I have heard you have been likened to a young Dustin Hoffman, how does this make you feel?

It’s weird, but cool. The guy is a legend so I suppose its a pretty cool thing.

5) Do you have any television or film work lined up in the near future?

Yeah I just finished a film called Comes a Bright Day; that was really cool. Also, I start filming on a war film with Cillian Murphy in a couple of weeks so I’m excited for that.

This article was originally supposed to feature in The Student but was never published.

Interview with Director Jim Loach and Screenwriter Rona Munro at GFF

The friendly reception with which I am met in the press room of the Glasgow Film Theatre, gives rise to an unexpected feeling of equality between interviewer and interviewees that doesn’t appear justly deserved. It seems strange that I should be of any interest given that I am just a student. However, Loach, who initially had aspirations to become a print journalist, recalls being a film reviewer for his student newspaper where he was constantly criticised for never giving a film a good review, whilst Munro recounts how her first ever interview was conducted by a student.

Despite Glasgow not having the glitz and glamour of other film festivals, for Munro, it seems to be somewhat special, as she notes, “It’s funny but you care more.” It seems evident that for her, releasing a film on home ground creates far more apprehension than to a foreign audience.

Loach’s debut feature, Oranges and Sunshine, which has Munro as its screenwriter, tells the true story of social worker Margaret Humphries, a woman who exposed the abuse of more than 100,000 children who were forcibly relocated to Australia from 1869 up until the 1970s with the promise of a better life in the underpopulated colony.

A project lasting almost a decade, it began after Loach read Humphries’ book Empty Cradles which lead to numerous meetings involving lots of tea and talking, “She just talked and talked and I found what she was saying completely inspirational.” However, it was only through the help of Munro that he was able to transfer this unbelievable story to the big screen, “Rona unlocked it as a narrative, the question was always: it’s a brilliant story but how would you tell it?”

A deeply moving tale, especially given the fact that it is founded on truth, seems to have slowly developed a certain sentimentality and connection with the subject for Loach, “Objectively, I saw it as a fascinating contradictory story centred around a woman who demonstrated incredible courage in the face of huge odds. As the years went by and we wrote the script and met the real people, through that process, becoming completely immersed in it, you don’t see it objectively and instead feel very much part of it and inside the story.”

One of the difficulties in exploring such a sensitive topic is how to convey the story without it appearing distasteful. Loach seemed to stress the importance that it was not an ‘issue’ film as the themes play for everyone. Having had Humphries watch the film, he remarks that she felt it was a faithful representation, whilst those whose pasts had been effected by the history saw it is a fair portrayal.

Featuring a strong cast, the choice of Emily Watson to play Humphries seemed obvious, “She has a very special combination of compassion without any sense of sentimentality. She is also a very determined woman, very intelligent and takes no prisoners.” This is exactly what the role requires as it features one woman against everybody else, making Watson the perfect person for the role.

Facing the inherent difficult of having an esteemed director for a father in the form of Ken Loach, making films seems to be something that the younger Loach has sidestepped for a while, “I walked around it for a very long time. You have an idea that your first film has to be perfect but until you start doing anything, it is perfect, because it’s in your head and it’s completely untarnished.” He does, however, stress that for him, having a famous dad wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, “We were just brought up to be very inquisitive, read voraciously and be open-minded and I was very lucky in that respect. But it’s not that hard having my dad as my dad because he’s just my dad. To me it’s really not that big a deal.”

In terms of the effect his father has had on his work he mentions “We talk all the time: He helps, we swap ideas” and on the subject of inspiration, merely remarks “I think all fathers are an inspiration to their children.”

It is interesting to see who both cite as their influences. For Loach, the cinéma vérité of John Cassavetes seems to have made an indelible impression from an early age. In particular, A Woman Under The Influence providing the motivation for one of the scenes of the film.

For Munro, her influences seem difficult to pinpoint, as she mentions, “the films I love, tend to be different from the films I write.” She does, however, point out the role Loach played in shaping her style, “Ken was a huge influence on the way I write because that was my first experience of writing (in Ladybird, Ladybird) a feature film and learning what the difference is between doing that and doing TV, radio or theatre.”

With work in progress for another film, part set in Glasgow, Munro and Loach look set to become a productive pairing, particularly in light of the reception that Oranges and Sunshine has already received.

 Oranges and Sunshine will be released 1 April.

Taken from The Student published Tue Mar 1st 2011.

GFF – A few wise words from Richard Ayoade

I tried relentlessly to get a one-on-one interview with director Richard Ayoade but to know avail. The best I could manage was to throw some questions at him following the screening of Submarine at the Glasgow Film Festival. The resulting article is a combination of the answers given to my questions and those of others:

If you were to take Ayoade’s gawky bespectacled character from the British sitcom The IT Crowd as an indicator to his real life persona, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. As he takes a seat in front of the packed room at the Glasgow Film Theatre, he seems hesitant to speak, casually mumbling into his microphone and refusing to make contact with any of the eager eyes set on him. It is clear that the idea of a room full of people puts him on edge, as he announces, “I will slowly elevate my eyes as I reach an accepted level of comfort.”

As he begins to relax and is asked why he made the film, his answer is somewhat abrupt, “Why? Is a good question, which I won’t answer.” However, he does expand on this, “It’s not the story I wished to end my life with. Initially it was trying to make something from what is a very internal novel that is all first person in its testimony, and to see whether it was transferable to film, otherwise it would all be like the title sequence of Fight Club, just synaptic twinges, which for 90 minutes might be tough. But who knows, maybe that would have been less tough than what you have seen.”

The modesty at which Ayoade answers each question is surprising. For a man who is no stranger to success, he seems very concerned about how people will react to his directorial debut. One woman suggests the idea that his work has the propensity to be considered Cult, and his reaction is simply, “I think unpopular is the word”. This lack of certainty about his work comes across as endearing and you can’t help but immediately warm to him. He appears unsure about what will follow from this project as he awkwardly jokes, “I didn’t want to announce my retirement, but yeh, that’s it.” He seems genuinely concerned when he says, “I hope I’m not unemployable as a result of it, but who knows? Every time you finish something, you feel you will never work again, which has been true for periods after I had done things in the past. You never imagine that you will get to make something else.”

It is evident, however, that this was never an endeavour about making money and so he had focused on the artistic creativity of the film, without a thought of whether or not this would appeal to a mass audience. Again he jokes, “Sure, I look poor currently,” but he is trying to get across a very clear notion that that this is not a film revolved around commercial success. “That was in no way the intention at all. There is a likelihood that it will be more popular than some things I have done simply because they have been so unpopular. Just by law of averages, if I released camera phone footage of me eating muesli, it might be more successful than some of the things I have done. You have no expectations that it will even be released when you make it, certainly with my track record.”

Surprisingly, Ayoade didn’t approach Warp films with a plan to make the film and instead it was them who came to him. “They did approach me because the book hadn’t been published, so I literally couldn’t have approached them; I would have had to have been in the future.” It was, however, a no brainer, and after reading the book (written by Joe Dunthorne) he didn’t have any doubts about wanting to make it into a feature film. “I just really loved it and so I was pleased to have the chance to try and adapt it.”

Filmed entirely in the South of Wales, Submarine was made in a relatively short amount of time, as Ayoade recalls, “It was seven weeks and then the crew got smaller – not just because they were fleeing – the idea was that the last couple of weeks would just be Craig and Yasmin with a much smaller crew which was great. So slowly we had less and less money as we went along; it was just me and the camera man by the end.”

When asked about how Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige were cast and what what he was looking for, he replies instantly, “Them really. You want people who are as good as them.” He goes on to make a very valid point, “You don’t really know when you start, you just hope that you will find people who are good and who you feel an audience can watch. He then jokingly adds, “They both read for Oliver but Yasmin felt more suited to Jordana.”

2010 Toronto International Film Festival

The character of Oliver Tate is one whom Ayoade feels differs to his own teenage self as he jokes, “I didn’t really speak to anyone until I was in my twenties.” However, he does add that despite the majority of the character’s persona arising from how he was described in the book, it was inevitable that as a director some of his own input affected the way in which Craig Roberts performed the part.

In terms of influences, Ayoade cites Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans le Metro; a film which has become something of an obsession for the director since he first watched it when he was younger. He also emphasises the role Taxi Driver played in the making of the film. “Taxi Driver is very internal and the idea is he would see his life very dramatically and it would be through his eyes.” To a certain extent this is true in the case of Submarine as well. “The film is directed like Oliver had directed it; that’s how he would want to be seen, as this great existential figure.”

One of the many surprising features of the film is that Ben Stiller acted as an executive producer. When questioned about the role that Stiller played in the production of the film, Ayoade jests, “Catering. We fired the first caterer and you know, he cooked us a meal and it was acceptable. Even in the last few weeks, he was pretty good.” His refusal to then provide a sensible answer again iterates his awkwardness and inability to take the Q&A seriously. This is continued when asked whether there is something he always wanted to do and think may now be possible given the opportunities that have opened up for him following the making of the film. Presumably this question was a reference to film or TV projects but the answer he actually provides is superb, “Welding. I have always had this thing about joining metal, you know, with the sparks flying. Also, I always wanted to take my top off.”

As a filmmaker, Ayoade has an incredibly modest and shy nature about him. His decision not to give himself a role in the film resided in the fact that he wanted to be able to watch it back and he has no idea what sort of reaction the film has been producing, as he runs away as soon as any screening he is attending starts. It is, however, this modesty that makes Submarine such a brilliant film. The way it deals with teenage angst and sensibility is dealt with in a way that is hilarious yet endearing. For a first feature film, it is an undeniable success, we can only hope that he wasn’t joking when he said this film would be his last.