Interview: Hope

A highly original short deserves a highly original interview, or at least a semi-original one

Hope was among the most original shorts in this years festival and one of the best Zombie films I have watched in a long time. Directer Adam A. Losurdo took some time from his busy schedule to talk about his film and his plans for the future. Click here to read my review of Hope before progressing to the interview.

The premise to Hope, that the zombies don’t kill/eat human and instead just wander aimlessly, is refreshingly new and opposite to most films in the genre. The idea was different to begin with though as Adam told me, ‘The co-writer Chris Stival had a general idea of the zombie’s loss of hunger. Then, after finding love with another zombie would gain his blood thirst along with the girl starting up the zombie apocalypse once again.’

As the development progressed, the concept evolved as he continues, ‘we ended up changing the original idea and twisting it into the zombies never becoming hostile in the first place, but rather would just roam the world like stray dogs looking for something other than food. Well until…’

The current state of the zombie genre is something he feels need to change, ‘over the years zombie movies have been put on repeat with no real creativity or originality. I strive to bring fresh concepts and incorporate them with elements of the films that we all love.’ His short is an attempt at breaking the cycle and inspiring others to do the same.

On the topic of inspirations, Adam talked about several directors that influenced his work. ‘Quentin Tarantino is one for his raw stylised approach. He is a writing genius, and he also takes a lot of elements from older films and makes them into his own, which we all know works very well’ Another is David Fincher for ‘his versatility in filmmaking and his stylised gritty films like Fight Club and Seven.’ Finally, and especially relevant for Hope was John Carpenter ‘for his old-school style of horror and cheese factor. The 80’s horror films with all the practical scares and effects are the best’

Whilst making the film, Adam tried to include many pop culture and film references. ‘As far as direct inspiration, I was really inspired to take memorable shots from past movies and make them work within our story and style.’ One of those references in particular was from Titanic when Hope and Karl are in love, holding hands and spinning in the field. Another, more prominent reference was from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, towards the end of the film when Karl and the two young girls have ‘what we called on set, “The Mexican Standoff”.’ Fortunetely aside from a few minor scenes and shots here and there, no pop-culture references ended up being cut.

The main antagonists of the film, the aforementioned two young girls, was a curious choice by the writers. He explains that he ‘wanted to emphasise the zombie’s being innocent creatures with no knowledge of their surroundings. Young girls at that age are usually considered sweet and innocent but in Hope, we flipped the roles’. This change in expectation alongside the core concept of the zombies keep the viewers on their toes with constant surprises as the short progresses.

In a look to the future we discussed future projects and aspirations. ‘My goal is to continue writing, directing and producing my projects. I have some concepts I’m playing with at the moment and have some more shorts up my sleeve. I’m also developing two full-length feature screenplays for future productions.’ Continuing to develop his own style is something that is very important to him and he wants to share his visions with the world.

In a step towards the hypothetical, I asked what film he would make if given unlimited scope. ‘I would have to say a horror/thriller. I love classic horror slasher films and psychological thrillers so I’d want to combine the two creating an iconic film that will stand as a memorable piece of cinema.’

We ended the interview with his top 5 films. ‘That’s a hard question to answer. So many favourites. So many! I would have to say Halloween (1978) because it has been one of my favourites for so long, The Ninth Gate, Moon, Seven , and to mix it up Nacho Libre. The list goes on and on with films like Empire Strikes Back, The Abyss, Contact, Alien, Event Horizon, Inglorious Bastards, Kill Bill, Django, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Tropic Thunder and The Secret Window’

Interview: Found

An intriguing insight into my personal favourite film of the festival

One of the highlights of day two of Lift-Off was Found, a truly fantastic thriller about a man who spent ten years searching for his kidnapped daughter. I had the privilege of interviewing director Richard Hughes about his film, if you’d like to read a review of this short before progressing to the interview click here.

What makes the short worthy of even more praise is the fact the story is entirely original and not adapted from a book or real life events. ‘We took inspiration from films like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Man on Fire’ he told me. ‘Dave Christian and I actually wrote the film back in 2015, whilst on a road trip through Montana in the United States’.

Going through the process of turning their idea into the finished product, they found the whole process raised very few issues. ‘We were confident in our script and found it was flowing well with the actors. As a result, we are able to shoot the film without any changes.’ The shoot was not without its problems though as he went on, ‘it was touch and go during the final scene when the house was set on fire. With wild winds on the way, the Fire Brigade we close to shutting down the filmset which would’ve resulted in a totally different ending to the script’.

Hughes demonstrates his fantastic ability to control tension throughout the film with it being a large factor in making it so gripping. He takes inspiration from directors such as the Coen Brothers and Denis Villeneuve who seem to have a deep understanding of tension. ‘A technique they have mastered is to introduce it during silence. This technique, along with visuals to play out tension and suspense is a film craft that I want to execute’

Alongside tension, Hughes also has great cinematographic skill extending past this short and covering all of his projects. ‘I think I’m a very visual director. I loved photography from a young age and always have a camera by my side. I love exploring the technique of ‘Mise en Scene’, or hidden meanings that may or may not be visible to everyone in the audience but can sway a viewers mind subliminally through framing, props and wardrobe. It can be powerful and used with boundaries.’

Away from the craft of the film, the cast deserves high praise for their performances. I asked if they two lead actors Richard Cawthorne and Shane Connor shared the vision or whether there were bumps along the way. ‘They did share the vision, both were extremely passionate about the film’ he said. ‘In particular I learnt a lot about directing performance with the lead Richard Cawthorne. He used a method approach, which is basically when an actor aspires complete emotional identification with the part.’ This, while a new experience for Hughes, lead to a great partnership. ‘Although emotionally taxing, we definitely connected on another level through the shoot. It felt as though we were inside our own intimate bubble, allowing us to break down his character’s motivations without influence’.

In a look to the future, I asked what film he would make, given free range and budget. ‘As a young child I was obsessed with cowboys and pirates. I have always had a dream to make a gutsy pirate film with no frills and true grit. An honest, dark and disturbing portrayal of how these fascinating barbarians rule the seas.’ For now though he is working on transitioning from short to feature film. ‘We have dreams of one day turning this film into a feature length. Currently we have a two feature scripts and we’re pursuing both. The other film is a modern day pirate film ‘Friday Freedom’. His dream of a pirate film may not be out of reach.

Finally, I ended by asking his top 5 films of all time and unsurprisingly the Coen Brothers and Villeneuve both feature in the form of No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski and Sicario. The rest of the top 5 is made up of Leon and The Truman Show.

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews

Manchester Film Festival 2017: Jury Select Panel

An honest insight into the inner workings of a film festival

Away from all the incredible feature-length and short films on display, there is a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Manchester Film Festival is organised and ran. The Jury Select Panel offered a unique insight for filmmakers and cinema goers alike and was chaired by film critic Tom Percival and featured festival co-ordinator Al Bailey as well as several of the jurors.

How do you decide which films go into the program? The key word is objectivity. We are trying to attract a wide range of people for all demographics. Something for everyone. There is a team of 6 who watch all the films to choose which will make it to the festival. It’s a very long process but we feel it is necessary to give every film a chance.

How do you plan the opening night? We want the people who come here to know they are in Manchester and know what we are all about so all the films have a North-West (of England) theme. A divisive set of films is key too, we want to start debate.

How do you go about selecting jurors? I absolutely hate the word alumni but I guess it’s the right word here. People who have come before and entered films are generally the right type of people. We want people that will get involved. The idea is to get a range of film industry roles such as writers, casting directors, actors etc. For each category we want jurors who have strengths in that area, animators in the animating category for example.

How many jurors are there and what is the process in choosing the winner of each category? There are 18 jurors altogether that are split into teams of 3, with each team getting the same set of 3. Each juror has their own method of critiquing. Some for example use a points system, breaking the films down into categories such as writing, structure, characters, direction, editing etc. We usually advise each film be watched more than once as different moods when watching can provoke a different reaction. Then when the individuals have voted we pool the results together to decide the winner.

What happens in the event of a tie? If a tie occurs then Gareth (head juror) would ultimately decide.

Is there any ‘X-Factor’ qualities you look for in the films? Usually we (jurors) have a gut instinct on the film within the first 10-15 minutes. From that we usually gather whether it will hold our full interest. There are 2 main factors that go into making a great film: script and performance. The best actors in the world can’t make a bad script good, and conversely the best script in the world won’t make bad actors good. More often that not a film will just do one well, or both mediocrely. A great film nails both. You also want to get immersed into the film, that’s a sign of quality.

Is there a difference between watching the films on a laptop where judging and on the big screen here? Oh definitely, this a major reason why we strike to have the jurors present at the festival rather than just watching them remotely. A film is always better on the big screen. The indie film scene is incredibly tough at the moment and getting distribution is so hard. So to see a small film on the big screen is really a big gift.

What is the run time limit on the short films? This question has been a bit of an issue for us over the past couple of years. This year the rule is anything under an hour but previously we weren’t sure how long was too long. A prime example of this was a 32 minute short that we received in year one. In the end we decided to include it and it was a great decision looking back as it ended up being nominated for an Oscar.

How many films are submitted? In year 1 we had 650, year 2 just under 1000. This year is over 1500 with around 75% of those being shorts. From May to November we wind down that number to the 92 you see in the festival.

How much does it cost to enter a film? There is an early bird which is around £30 and the last possible entry is around £100. As each filmmaker is paying considerable money to enter we make sure to watch every single film. From speaking to people at other film festivals I learned that they don’t watch all the films that the receive, opting to watch ones featuring acclaimed actors or directors. This is a completely dishonest way of running a film festival as some of the best films we see are by first time directors. For example we have an incredible debut student film that just wouldn’t have been watched let alone considered at other film festivals. At the Manchester Film Festival we try to be as transparent and honest as possible, something that we feel sets us apart from others.

In summary this was a surprisingly honest look at the inner workings of the the festival. Co-ordinator Al Bailey emphasised the need for transparency in what he called ‘the murky world of film festivals’. There was no doubt that everyone involved was driven by the intense passion that they shared for films and filmmaking, something that was conveyed not just at this panel but throughout the whole of the festival. It was a genuine pleasure to be involved with such a wonderful event and there was not a single negative moment to mention.

If you enjoyed this article click here for another on the Screenwriting Panel

Manchester Film Festival 2017: Across the River Review

A love story in a day

On day two of Manchester Film Festival it was an honour to witness the world premier of Across the River. A remarkable achievement in filmmaking given the micro budget the crew had, it goes to show that millions of pounds isn’t a requirement for making a heartwarming movie packing an emotional punch.

The story begins when Emma and Ryan bump into each other on the side of the River Thames. Emma, a highly regarded lawyer and Ryan, seen on a tiny stretch of beach making sand art. Director Warren Malone is quick to convey the stark differences between the two, while also illustrating the tangible chemistry that is present. On paper they shouldn’t possibly work yet we learn of a long passed relationship, ended when Ryan just left one day without a trace. Their feelings of love, hate, anger, inadequacy, happiness and the lack of are explored during the film. A process that would normally take weeks if not months is condensed into the single day the film takes place. This is due to a tube strike in London and Emma, desperately trying to get home for her daughter’s birthday which she missed through work, reluctantly enlists the help of Ryan as her travel guide.

Enough time has passed for Emma to find someone else, get married and have two kids but still her feelings towards Ryan remain. The thoughts of what used to be almost lead her into temptation, however each time she realises what she would lose. This is where Across the River sets itself apart from more fantastical romance films. Emma and Ryan don’t just get together and screw the consequences. You don’t spend years creating a life to just throw it away for an old romance after just one day. It’s this grounding that makes the film more accessible. Love isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, sometimes it’s regret and sorrow too.

A surprising fact to learn is that aside from the general story arc and a select few lines the entire dialogue was improvised. This is a brave decision that gives both positive and negative results. For instance the chemistry between the two characters feels human, through the laughs they share and the arguments that attempt to ruin the encounter. The process becomes more natural, allowing the cast to make the roles their own. That said it does present the very real issue of pacing. There is alternation between a sense of urgency and a need to relax and enjoy the present without any explanation as to why each is used at any given moment. Unfortunately a large number of viewers will be turned off by this, which really is a shame as the premise has lots of potential.

Across the River delves into the idea of their love as the elephant in the room. An unspeakable bond they share regardless of how much time has passed. The elephant in the room for this film is that the substance just isn’t quite there to hold the audience for the whole duration. Complete improvisation is interesting as a concept but it requires perfect execution to create a truly great film, Malone falls short of great but his first feature length film is certainly a respectable effort.

Click here for a Q&A with the director and lead actress of Across the River

Manchester Film Festival 2017: Across the River Q&A

The director and lead actress answer questions about their film

Click here if you would like to read a review to Across the River before the Q&A.

After the exciting world premier of Across the River, the director Warren Malone and the lead actress Elizabeth Healey were open to a short Q&A session with the audience. This is a film that has taken years to reach this point and they both seemed both overjoyed and relieved to be here. Below are some of the questions asked.

What was the inspiration for the film? Originally it was based upon a real life story although it was altered slightly. In the real life version there was physical intimacy that affected their independent lives causing a messy situation. In the film version there was an effort to hint at what those issues would be without them becoming a reality.

Was the film scripted or were there some improvisation? Actually the film was entirely improvisation. Perhaps a couple of lines here and there were written and the general story arc was set but apart from that the cast were free to make their own way to the conclusions. This has caused some to criticise the film as slow but it is more real this way, more human.

Did you as the director ever want to intervene? If it was terrible or completely off track but that was rare. Usually we’d let it go on because there was always something we could use. Each scene isn’t one take. It’s the combination of lots of scenes spliced together to create the best film possible.

How was it for you as the lead actress in this situation? It was completely freeing. Knowing what the end result is, but being able to get there however we wanted. The ability to try things out is a luxury that isn’t always afforded, so having the opportunity to improvise the entire thing is something I couldn’t pass up on. There were also restrictions. One of the more interesting was surrounding how much of the story you reveal. You have to drop story elements throughout the film. Too many early on and it will drag, too many late on and people will have fallen asleep before they get there.

In the final scene, when we find out whether they kiss or not, was that the idea from the start? We never thought they’d be together. They were together when they were younger so they are revisiting that youthful feeling. That said there were versions of the script pre-production where the outcome was different, and discussions during production on whether we should change our decision. Ultimately though the decision we made was probably the right one.

Was the film difficult to shoot? Sometimes it was easy and sometimes it was hard. It all depended on how busy our locations were. We rarely got permission to film so occasionally we were moved on and would have to come back another day. In that situation we would usually send a crew member to distract them whilst we tried to get the footage we needed. Also something we didn’t anticipate is the fact that you have to pay to feature the London Eye in your film.

How long did filming take and how long was post-production? Well the main shoot was 12 maybe 13 days, with some extra pickups here or there. The post was years though. We too optimistically assumed people would invest in the film after we shot some of our footage. This was not the case and we had to be patient waiting for the money to pay people like the musicians. Some money was raised through crowdfunding which really helped too.

Having a Q&A after the showing really added to the community atmosphere of Manchester Film Festival and they were both incredibly charming, waiting outside the screen to answer any further questions the audience had.

Manchester Film Festival 2017: Screenwriting Panel

Elan Mastai charms the audience with his experiences as a screenwriter

The Manchester Film Festival is finally underway at the ODEON Cinema in The Printworks and one of the more anticipated non-film events is the Screenwriting Panel with Elan Mastai. Mastai, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for ‘The F Word’ at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards, evidently brought his effortless charisma with him, entertaining the audience through several minor technical difficulties.

As he began talking it quickly became evident that this would be far more than a traditional lecture type panel. Mastai was committed to making sure those who came received the most out of it that they possibly could, whether that be the writing side or the business side of the job. There were many interesting anecdotes and behind-the-scenes tidbits that were said and i’ll share some of those with you now.

One of the more striking points he made was in regard to studio interest on a screenplay, that not all interest is necessarily good interest. In particular this related to a couple of his earlier films. When starting out there was great eagerness to collaborate with any studio that came knocking, so much so that some of the ‘obvious red flags’ were missed. This resulted in a film that didn’t meet his initial vision. He described the process of turning his screenplay into a movie as ‘like walking through your own dreams’ but this was more akin to a nightmare. Even though he wasn’t personally proud of the end product, it was a learning process into the inner workings of the studio system and allowed him to be a bit more assertive in subsequent projects.

It was this assertion which gave Mastai the opportunity to be more than just the screenwriter for his films. When signing later movie deals he added a clause stating that he also had to be given the role of producer. This meant that only the studios that were truly committed to making his film would make offers and also that it gave him more creative input during the production period.

The interesting topic of screenplay rights versus novel rights was brought up during the Q&A session. For a screenplay, the writers ownership ends at the moment he, or she, signs the movie deal. When the movie is released, although he wrote the screenplay, it is for all intents and purposes not his. This is contrasted heavily with a novel. For his debut novel, Mastai retains the full rights and the publishing company simply licences it. This allows the author to retain the rights to the film unless they choose to sell the rights giving more control over their intellectual property.

While here mostly to talk about screenwriting, he did also discuss his debut novel ‘All Our Wrong Todays’. An interesting take on science fiction, it is set in 2016. A different 2016. One that people in the 1950’s expected us to have, with flying cars, robot maids and teleportation. The protagonist, through the use of an experimental time machine, ends up in our 2016. What we think is totally normal seems dystopian for him. The book follows this mishap and his journey trying to get back to his universe.

Overall this was a wonderful event for the festival with Mastai charming the crowd with his stories and jokes.

Review: A Monster Calls

A powerful adaptation of Patrick Ness’s highly acclaimed novel

Our minds have the ability to create things of incredible beauty, encompassing a wide range of emotions. Unfortunately that ability is used far too often as an escape, to hide away from the real world. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is an emotionally stirring film about an all too familiar situation, one where cancer takes away our loved ones without a second thought.

What sets this film apart from others in the crowded coming-of-age genre is the extensive but not exhaustive use of fantastical elements and art. This is made obvious from the offset with a visually stunning opening credits sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones except including a breathtaking watercolour finish. The three tales told by The Monster during the film were similarly given the watercolour treatment and once again these segments seemed familiar, this time bearing close resemblance to ‘The Three Brothers’ story from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. Placed equally through the film, the use of these distractions permit the story to not be too grounded in its dark themes and instead allow Conor, and by extension the audience, to escape into another world.

Collaborating once more with cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Impossible, The Imitation Game), director J.A.Bayona masterfully captures both the emotions of the characters and the massive scale of The Monster. In some of the most evocative scenes, the camera stays still. Keeping all aspects of the shot stationary besides the actors emphasises every word said and every change in facial expression. Consequently the feelings conveyed grow, and the bond created between characters appears stronger.

Throughout the film, Fernando Velazquez’ score often feels like another cast member. An ever-present entity whose role is to change sentiment to sound. There are two very distinct aspects to the score, separated by the two predominant moods, sadness and anger. For the sad scenes Velazquez opts for solo piano, and the result is wonderful in its simplicity yet powerful nonetheless. By contrast, the scenes where protagonist Conor’s anger is plainly visible, a rousing orchestra is used. At the climax of the film, as both emotions come together, so do the score elements complementing the on-screen action perfectly. The score is never underwhelming, nor is it ever overwhelming, it is precisely what it must be in that moment.

In a film where the small background details give major clues to the plot, it surprises me that one of the major characters, Toby Kebbell as Conor’s dad, seemed underdeveloped at best and unnecessary at worst. Although Kebbell’s acting was convincing and at times moving, his character’s storyline did not have as much purpose as others and seemed out of place. Perhaps additional scenes involving him were removed to reduce the run-time. The only other issues I found were incredibly minor. For example the 16mm film of King Kong threaded in the projector was colour, yet what we, and they saw was black and white. In addition towards the end of the film in the hospital empty coffee cups were used in place of full ones which, incredibly insignificant it may be, temporarily detracted from my immersion.

What makes A Monsters Calls such an impressive film is its capacity to be approachable regardless of age, situation or gender. At some point we all must learn to grieve, it’s an inescapable truth of life and one which Bayona illustrates candidly. The finale of the film is similarly inescapable, we know how the story must end, but it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when it does.