In Conversation with Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay talks about her latest film, the current state of cinema, and the time Joaquin Phoenix punched an extra


Lynne Ramsay is a Scottish film director and screenwriter who specialises in visceral films with themes of guilt and death. She has been described as one of the best British filmmakers of her generation. Despite this lofty praise, Ramsay is one of the most down to Earth people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to.

Her latest work, You Were Never Really Here, is a gritty thriller based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. “A friend of mine is really into his genre films. He works with a lot of really interesting filmmakers like Jacques Audiard and so he sent me this novella. I read it in 85 minutes which is probably the same length as my movie. They didn’t have the rights to it so I started writing it on spec to see if it would work out.”

“I had a draft in about four weeks and I was getting into it but it’s a very pulpy, B-movie kind of novella. Ames wanted to make this dime novel but the character was unusual. We talked about the script but he was never prescriptive, the only thing he said to me was he wants it to have the feeling of a page turner and I wanted that too.”

From beginning to write the script purely as speculation to the finished film, there were many twists and surprises “It was strange for me with the script because there was a bidding war at Cannes and I was like what this isn’t even finished yet. Then Amazon bought it and then we were in Cannes the next year it was so fast.”

“Sometimes when you’re under the gun you have to kill your darlings a little bit. I knew I had 29 days to rewrite and prep, it was a nightmare. I don’t think I slept but I think that’s why it’s a bit of a hallucination. It was also super hot in New York, never shoot in summer in New York it’s totally brutal. There was something about going there when I had previously lived in a village with no cars, it was driving me mental. You shut your eyes and it’s just noise. I think that really went into the sound design. I hate to say it but some of the limitations actually brought around brainwaves when you have your back against the wall but it would be nice to have a bit longer time though.”

Part of what made it possible to prepare the script in under a month was the length of the book, at just 96 pages. “With my last film, We Need To Talk About Kevin it was a huge book and was armchair edited. In order to get the money and edit it, we had to cut huge parts of the book out and it was so forensic. For this one, it was about 70% from the original book though it is quite different. Obviously, I would never want to do a straight adaptation.”

The main performance in the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Joe. Phoenix was haunting in his role and ended up winning Best Actor at Cannes but his collaboration with Ramsay began quite unusually. “I think it was a first for both of us. I’ve never not met the actor before but I knew I wanted him to play Joe before I wrote the script that I didn’t even have the rights to. I think I was telepathically willing him to be in the movie because he’s quite choosy. He arrived as soon as we, the crew, arrived, and I was terrified. I had six weeks to look at 90 locations in New York which takes weeks and he was building up and becoming this beast. It was exciting how it evolved really.”

“No-one recognised Joaquin that much, which was great, they thought he was a construction worker or a bum. I remember someone throwing some coins at him when he was on the floor tying his shoe. That meant we could run and gun in a way, there wasn’t that crowd with iPhones or anything. I saw French Connection at this screening in LA and was blown away at how they shot it, without permits! It was just really inspiring because the car chase in that is one of the best car chases ever.”

During this time in New York, she found out her film was going to be in Cannes, just one year after her script was purchased by Amazon. “I got this call from this French company saying I have a meeting in London for four hours. I put two days aside in the schedule I had to shoot stuff in New York and I was just thinking ‘oh my god he’s not giving us the rest of the money to make the film’. He just said to me ‘it’s in Cannes’.”

“It was a lovely thing to hear but I had my head in my hands. Cannes is quite a brutal place and I was still only writing the script, it was kind of surreal, a bit like this film was telling us it was going to be crazy the whole way through. I edited this one in half the time of We Need To Talk About Kevin but it had the same frenetic energy that the prep and the shoot did. Sometimes a film tells you what it’s going to be and it just felt like a nervous breakdown the whole time in the coolest possible way.”

In order to convey the feeling of a nervous breakdown, Ramsay turned to sound. “The sound is like music. It’s subconscious. You don’t know why it works but it does. It stirs you or takes you into a dream. For me I worked on the sound really early, I never understand why some people only think about the sound at the end. With this is was very much the opposite, we’d do a cut and then do sound so that the sound could inform the cut.”

“After that, we’ll get a piece of music from Johnny Greenwood and it wasn’t like that’s the exact place you need to use it. You were looking at the pieces and it was a bit like a puzzle. Joe Bini, the editor, and I were getting all these pieces of music and they were amazing. We took them and put the right piece to the right part of the picture and then cut the picture to the music. It’s not a very conventional way of doing it but that works for me. If you ever watch a non-mixed film you instantly know, it’s a different experience. We were premixing ours the whole way through.”

With a runtime of 90 minutes, Ramsay keeps this film lean. As a result, it never drags, and just as Ames wished, it truly feels like a page-turner. That said, there were quite a few scenes that didn’t make the cut. “It was never really a long assembly but you could have made a Harold and Maude type film with the stuff with Joe and his mum. There was so much good stuff, some amazing scenes.”

“I was constantly thinking that it could be a different film, this hitman living with his mum, a totally different tone. Plus his takes were all so different, sometimes he’d do something funny and other times you’d just think what the hell was that. You just have to let this animal loose. Like in that scene with the drug dealer he really did punch that guy and we were all shocked. Luckily the extra was pretty cool about it. It’s the same improvisation with the scene where he’s singing on the floor of his house with the agent.”

Phoenix punching an extra isn’t the only problem Ramsay had with her extras in New York. “Well, there’s a thing called a tier system in New York. If you shoot something super low budget then you can use who you like but after a certain kind of budget, you have to use a union like SAG extras. You can’t even speak to them there’s this weird system where only the assistant director can. I had this experience with We Need To Talk About Kevin with SAG extras where the shot was down a street in New York and I was saying ‘why are these extras all walking so slowly’, it’s because they all wanted to be on camera for ages. So I was getting into trouble for telling these guys to hurry up.”

“I also remember with Kevin I had to get quite a few waivers because there was a kid that just hung out on set in a Halloween scene. There was a SAG guy who was telling me I can’t just pull someone in like I can do in the UK. I got fined by SAG that day for making a girl cry, but she loved it, she came up to me and went ‘that was the best experience of my life’. It was because I was telling her to really feel the emotion.”

At Cannes Ramsay also won Best Screenplay for her film and it drew comparisons to similar iconic films such as Taxi Driver and Léon: The Professional, something that meant a lot to her. “Just to be mentioned along with those films is amazing. What was great was when I was in Paris on the radio. They did a trailer that was dubbed and asked me about my film. Afterward they played an old clip of Paul Schrader talking about Taxi Driver saying almost the same things I did. It was weird was I thinking along the same lines as him?”

“I was talking to someone recently about the film Five Easy Pieces, a character study of Jack Nicholson. Maybe it’s a bit of a cliche but where are those movies these days, with the real conviction behind them. There’s such good television these days I think we need to elevate the movies. The cinema needs to be a spectacle and not just a marvel one.”

“The first time I went into the cinema and felt like I was in a complete other world. When I came out I was still in it for another couple of hours. That was with Blue Velvet when I was 15. I went with my boyfriend at the time and had to lie about my age because he was a bit older than me, but then he found my school bus pass. Half the audience walked out of that film because they didn’t get it, and they really didn’t. It’s quite a scary film. The way Lynch uses sound, like in Lost Highway, I think it’s very inspirational. You can only get that feeling by being in the cinema.”

Looking forward, Ramsay isn’t quite sure what her next film will be. “I’ve no idea, a comedy. I’ve been thinking of a few things for a while but you don’t finish a film when it’s finished anymore. It gets a release and then you have to go here and here and then talk about it and try to explain it. I’m used to being behind a camera not in front of one you know. I know people who have been doing screenings and such a year after. The thing that makes me feel the best as a human being is just creating stuff so it doesn’t feel that great talking about it, but I think it’s all a part of getting it out there.”

In Conversation with Neville Pierce

From student editor to film journalist for Empire, Neville Pierce is quite the chameleon

Having seen the marvelous short comedy “Ghosted” (review here) at this year’s Lift-Off film festival we approached director Neville Pierce. His career consists of many facets, from journalist to screenwriter to director, and shares with us some very interesting and honest insight into the world of film journalism.

It was during his time at Bournemouth University that Pierce first developed his interest in journalism, and more so in writing about film. Being naturally good at storytelling, “spoken or written”, it is this that drew him to the art of reporting. Whilst studying journalism more generally, Pierce religiously read the now extinct magazine Neon which led to him to pushing himself to try, based on the mere logic that “Someone has to write for movie magazines – so why not me?”.

Starting off as the logical next step as a part of his journalism degree, a week’s work experience turned into two months working at the North Devon Journal. He recalls that the journalists there “were mostly only recent graduates themselves, but at the time seemed much older and wiser (and sexier) than I could ever aspire to be”.

Having been editor of the fortnightly paper The Nerve for a year, it was a natural question to ask what were his best and worst experiences in that position. To this, Pierce’s answer was an event that was simultaneously both, as he remembers “being shouted at by a columnist for editing his work – but he subsequently apologised, accepted the edit and we remain close friends, 20 years later”. If he could give his student editor self some advice, it would be to “admit your mistakes – even if only to yourself. Everything is useful – even the failures. Everything can be shorter – from articles to meetings”.

A journalist before the explosion of internet in the 2000s, his experience of journalism was quite different to that of film critics or any journalists today, the main problem being that beforehand, “People paid to read things. So YOU got paid”. A result of the use of internet for film criticism was the development of aggregated review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which Pierce recognises as a useful tool “if you want a barometer of critical opinion, though inevitably reductive”. He also points out that percentages will never replace an actual film review, as he might watch something a critic has not liked, depending on their taste.

As for him and his incentive to review films, he sums it up as a combination of “ego, enjoyment and earning” which I think can be said for the majority of film critics, as his response to what he wished to achieve through creating artistic content: “Buying a house”. His process to reviewing films is a unique one (this was before he was directing them), advising to “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you just told them. I was told that at school, about public speaking, but it applies to that type of writing too I think. Sometimes you can be more playful, especially if you’re writing a long, lead review – you can give more career context or make a point about theme. I always try to judge a film on what it is trying to achieve, as well as whether it is personally to my taste”.

Even critics have favourite critics. Pierce gave me this response when posed the question: “David Thomson changed the way I looked at film writing, with Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles. His Biographical Dictionary of Film is wonderful, too. I can’t remember who said if you write about film then you get to write about everything, but that would apply to him. Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) maintains a remarkably high standard. Robbie Collin (The Telegraph) is eclectic and insightful. Guy Lodge (Variety) has a delightful turn of phrase”.

He continued: “I am in awe of the breadth and depth of Kim Newman’s knowledge. Others who are less critics – though they do write reviews – than general film journalists would be Damon Wise (Neon and Empire), who was a big influence who became a friend. Matt Mueller (Screen International) is a fine editor and a fine man. Ditto Dan Jolin, who gave me my first bit of paid work, back at Total Film. It’s a long list, really. I’m impressed by what Joe Utichi is doing with Deadline’s magazine Awardsline. Chris Hewitt and co are very good on the Empire podcast. Jamie Graham is a very fine interviewer and informed critic – I value his opinion highly. The best all-rounder, broadcast and print, is Mark Kermode, for my money. Entertaining, informed, fluent on paper or on screen or speaker – superb”.

Getting more and more influential in his work, Pierce went from a staff position editing Total Film to being a freelance journalist for Empire. The transition from one job to the other was a noticeable one. “I didn’t have to manage people, I just had to manage my time. I didn’t have as much influence on what went in the magazine, of course, but I did have more freedom”, which lead to an obvious change of pace for Pierce and a much better quality of life.

Less of a transition of sorts and more of a variation in that field of work, Pierce described his experience in both radio and print journalism as quite different ones. “Print generally allows more depth (though not always). It also allows you to edit yourself more effectively and hide your incoherence. Radio is merciless in that regard”.

Pierce managed to obtain exclusive access as a member of press to the film sets of Fincher’s Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “I had interviewed Fincher for a retrospective piece on Fight Club and we had got on, but when I emailed his assistant asking to visit the Zodiac set I expected to be told no – because he doesn’t generally allow journalists on set. So, really, I was incredibly surprised to be there. I also felt – and feel – he is one of the greats. So I was soaking up every bit of detail I could – for me, it’s like having the opportunity to go on set with Kubrick. I think the best set visit article – of the many I’ve written for Fincher films – was probably for Zodiac, because it was so fresh and exciting an experience for me”.

Now Pierce’s time is mostly taken up by screenwriting and directing, this did not happen over night and was a gradual shift in his career. The short version of why exactly he is in the filmmaking end of movies now is that he always “at least subconsciously, wanted to do it – and eventually the fear of failure was outweighed by the fear of not trying”.

In an industry where one’s work is constantly scrutinized, the fear of failure never dissipates. “Whether it’s articles or scripts or finished films, I don’t think you’re ever completely satisfied. You may look back years later and be able to say you think something was good – or, at least, close to what you had in your head”.

For my final question, I asked Pierce how he would describe the relationship between filmmaker and film critic. The answer was “carefully”. “I think Barry Norman probably said it best: ‘All critics are parasites – but parasites can be useful.’ So, yes, critics can’t exist without something to comment on. But great criticism can be beautiful – and definitely useful. Some critics are snide and ill-informed, of course, and that must be infuriating when you’ve worked hard to make a film (I’ve felt angry and frustrated upon reading ignorant reviews of the work of friends or filmmakers I admire), but a great many are dedicated, informed people who love cinema and work very hard for modest reward. I think I used to look down on film journalism, basically because I did it. Now I see its value much more. And it irritates the hell out of me when filmmakers are scornful of critics as a whole – especially filmmakers who are happy with critics when they love their work, then dismissive of them when they don’t. You have to take your lumps”.

You can find out more about his past, current and upcoming projects at

In Conversation with Kumail Nanjiani

Kumail Nanjiani talks about his new film, his inspirations, and an on stage disaster

It’s late on Thursday July 7th. Manchester is midway through a tight schedule of preview screenings and interviews, but Kumail and Emily show no signs of fatigue from their string of late nights and early starts. Nor have they lost any of their appetite, emerging from the lobby with the same enthusiasm as day one.

Just yesterday they were in London, at an event much larger than the one today. The host was Richard Curtis, CBE, veteran of the Rom-Com genre and personal inspiration of Kumail. From ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ to ‘Notting Hill’ Curtis has perfected a craft very few can replicate, creating ensemble cast films with well-rounded characters.

Oh look who dropped in

That evening, after the screening, Kumail was invited to dinner with Curtis. “I was trying so hard to keep it cool but I’m sure he saw right through me” Suddenly there was a knock at the door. I say suddenly, but Kumail said only he was surprised. Curtis just smiled, sauntered over the door, and revealed Hugh Grant — A little exposition is needed here. In his formative years, growing up in Pakistan, Kumail was fond of Hugh Grant. Mimicking his hairstyle and lack of smiling because Grant said in an interview that “smiling made him look fat” — For the remainder of the dinner he tried his best to play it cool and not embarrass himself in front of his idols, secretly taking pictures, posting them to Twitter the moment their backs were turned.

Beyond human inspirations, Kumail too found his fondness of film critical in shaping the comic he is today. Of course, elements from some will have seeped into his film, The Big Sick. In particular he mentions 1987’s Broadcast News and 82’s Tootsie. “I wanted to make a Rom-Com with real emotion and real laughs. Most just half-ass both”. The commentaries of both proved invaluable in making this film, based upon his story with his, then girlfriend, now wife. Rom-Com’s often suffer from clear-cut edges separating comedy and drama, but Kumail is weary of this. “I learned that at the peak of an emotional scene. That that moment is the perfect time for a joke. The drama and humour feed into each other”

That’s the movie you’re going to make

5 years ago, 5 years after the events of the film, Kumail and Emily decided the time was right to make their story into a screenplay. No longer raw enough to cause tears, their memory of the events was still fresh. Early on in the process they met with producer Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad). After hearing the story his vision was clear, telling the pair “your story is so unique no one could ever think of it”.

Apatow acted as a mentor during writing. They began building a skeleton of facts, each moment a bone in what would eventually become a living, breathing being. Not everything seen on the screen is true to life. A scene here, a character there, but for the most part, this is their story. With each draft they submitted, Apatow gave thousands of notes. “Each detail was important to him, every character needed depth, struggles and dreams”

Although an autobiographical film, Emily did not want to play the role and auditions took place after the three year writing process concluded. She decided against attending, not wanting the actresses to “feel weird look at who they would have to become”. The tapes were initially discouraging. Although there were many fantastic actresses, none encapsulated Emily, her sarcasm, her presence, her charm. That was, until Zoe Kazan. “She did something more than the others, she took the words on the paper and really made them her own”

He just shouted it out before I even finished asking the question

Before any financing was secured, the pair decided to keep the project a secret, especially from their families. “We didn’t want to have any awkward conversations before they were necessary, and we didn’t want to disappoint them if it didn’t come to fruition” When harvesting season came though, the fruits of a fully financed deal with FilmNation were ripe for the plucking. The Apatow name surely sweetening the deal, his name synonymous with box office success.

Shortly after Kumail approached his family to walk them through the script, pointing out the real moments from the artificial. “I remember approaching my dad to ask who he would like to play him. I’ve never seen him so sure of anything in his life. He was set on Anupam Kher. So we sent him the script and the very same day he said yes. I didn’t even expect a response. He told us it would be his 500th film. 500! I haven’t even seen 500 films”

With the cast and crew ready, leads Kumail and Zoe ready, there was just one problem niggling in the back of Kumail’s mind, the kissing scenes. “I told her (Emily) to not be on set for them as I didn’t feel comfortable making out with another girl while saying her name but they were both amazingly normal about it. Turning it on me saying it was weirder if she left. – I think most of the cut scenes were making out scenes though, so I guess in the end i must have just been real bad at it”

She told me she was gunna beat my ass

In the film, there is a scene where Kumail crashes and burns terribly in an show, his pent up feelings about a hospitalised Emily erupting, one of several heartbreaking moments. But this was not his worst experience on stage. “I got a call to do Lettermen so I quickly arranged some practice shows the next town over (Atlanta) a week before. During the set a drunk women started aggressively heckling me. Now, on stage you feel like a superhero, a confidence unlike anything you’d have normally, so I started aggressively heckling back. I thought I got the upper hand and it was over, but then she flicked her lit cigarette at me and tried to start a fight”

Fortunately the show did not descend into violence, with Kumail shining during his Letterman performance a week later. From Silicon Valley to Adventure Time, all his successes can be traced back to this, his big break. Back in present day his greatest success of all, The Big Sick, received wide acclaim during its premiere at Sundance. Shortly after, a bidding war for distribution rights took place, with Amazon Studios paying $12 million, the second largest deal of the entire festival. It will receive its full release on July 14th and I would eagerly recommend you do. It is a fantastic film and a great achievement for them both.

Interview: Enemies Within

A much needed look into the consequences of France’s colonial past

French director Selim Azzazi brought his captivating short “Enemies Within” to the Lift-Off film festival this year in Manchester. Over a run-time of 27 minutes the audience could very well be watching a play due to Azzazi’s attention to detail, sharp dialogue and use of only 2 lead characters in one space. These elements emphasize the multiple layers to this necessary short about the scars of France’s colonial past.

After asking Azzazi himself questions on the subject of “Enemies Within”, we begin to delve into these layers, and if you would like to read a review of the short click here.

enemies within

Beginning with the production process, Azzazi explained that it started in May 2015, gathering around €100 000 through the CNC’s financing (French National Centre for Cinema). This allowed them to pay every crew member and build a set. An important aspect this budget allowed them was to rehearse for two weeks with the two actors, “just like we would for a play”.

As the subject has such depth and the actors’ performances are so gripping, I could have imagined a full-length feature version being equally as powerful if it could hold the same high-standard throughout. But Azzazi had always imagined “Enemies Within” being a short film and was meant to remain that way, making it clear that he “never imagined or hoped on doing it a feature version”, and was always meant to be “only worked as a 20-30 minute intense duel”.

Despite only being a half hour long, the script took three years to write and to gather the financing, then taking ten months to produce entirely. This time was essential to the development and perfecting of details, such as the feeling of claustrophobia. Azzazi stated that “the sound was crucial in order to get that claustrophobic atmosphere”, turning the space into an anechoic chamber that absorbs sound instead of it reverberating.  To do so, they made use of “several huge velvet curtains” with which they surrounded the set, and hung large acoustic foams from the ceiling. The set’s location being in an unused government building, they managed to reduce the original cathedral like sound “to a very pure dry sound”. An important factor for Azzazi, in order to “enhance the feeling of claustrophobia for both the actors and the audience”.

en tournage shot

In an article published on the Qualia Films site, Azzazi mentioned rehearsing for a play that centred around the HUAC (House of Unamerican Activities Committee), and how he made the link between America’s despising of communism and their “enemies within” and France’s refusal to see Algerians as French, especially after the war of independence. I asked if he could go into more depth about how he felt the way HUAC dealt with communism in America was similar to how France dealt with Franco-Algerians, to which he replied:

“There are similarities in the way a society builds up the image of ‘an enemy from within’. In France for example it was the case after the 1870 war against Prussia after which many accused French-Jews to be responsible for the defeat. Antisemitism grew on that idea and it led to the Dreyfus case 1894. The same with the French -Muslims originating from North-Africa (mainly Algerians) especially when the independence war started in 1954. In the mind of many, every French-Muslim became a possible threat. So this idea that North-African people are a threat from within has been around for over 60 years now and it’s been very costly to our society (lack of integration, inequities, unemployment, riots, etc)”.

He also pointed out that it is easy to find the same mechanics in the Soviet system “with the ‘enemy of the people’ image”, in addition mentioning a British play he loves that deals with that called “Collaborators” by John Hodge.

Hassam Ghancy and Azzazi worked together as actors in an adaption of The Sunset Limited, of which the setting was also in a singular closed space. This was another source of inspiration for “Enemies Within”, with actors Hassam and Najib’s insight and feedback enhancing the quality of the script. On this subject, Azzazi responded that “great playwrights are always inspiring as they manage to bring characters to life from what they say/do or don’t say/do. So working as an actor was definitely crucial for me in order to grasp what writing was about. The same with working with Hassam: his feedback was very important to me because although he isn’t a writer, he could tell me when what he was reading didn’t feel right. He would say it with his own words, which would necessarily translate into answers for a writer, but which would point out problems to solve. It is very important when you have no experience to be able to trust the actors you work with. Both Hassam and Najib were dedicated to help me bring out the best of this script”.

“Enemies Within” is powerful because it’s topic is the much-ignored bloody colonial history of France, which led to questioning France’s trouble facing this past. Azzazi expressed disappointment and shame, observing that France’s political debates constantly overlook the subject. Azzazi does not mince words— “There is still a large amount of my fellow countrymen who refuse to acknowledge that the French military went into the undifferentiated slaughtering of a massive number of people in order to invade their land. You can call that however you’d like: the fact remains that the French army came to Africa and they burned, killed and expropriated. We have to live with this. Yes France also built cities, roads, railways and hospitals but it doesn’t wipe out the slaughtering. To get over this and happily live altogether with this common history will remain difficult if this isn’t at least acknowledged”.

This led to the government’s paranoia of enemies within the country, and looking at when this idea of enemies from within started. Azzazi located the French-Muslim target as a problem coming “at least from the Algerian independence war in the 50’s”. It is in fact from a book by French sociologist Mathieu Rigouste that covered this area called “L’ennemi intérieur”.

Whilst Azzazi could not divulge much about his future projects, he did say that he will “keep on writing about identity and the French colonial past but not only!”

His inspiration is fuelled by great plays and character driven stories, which led to me asking him which in particular touched him the most. Too many coming to mind, he settled for his three personal favourite playwrights: “Shakespeare – Ibsen – Pinter”.

Along the same lines but mostly just out of interest, I asked him for his personal top five films, responding “That’s very difficult to say. There are so many. All I can say is that my favourite films would involve Kurosawa, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Tarkovski, Lumet and The Monty Python!”.

“Enemies Within” is a rare window into the paranoia of the French government. Azzazi’s profound knowledge on the subject in addition to his background in theatre are very much what made this short such high quality.

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


In Conversation with Nicholas Connor

A nice and short, perhaps even brief chat with Nicholas Connor

Director Nicholas Conner came to Lift-Off on Day Two to present his film Northern Lights. Before the showing took place I managed to interview him about his film and his opinions on filmmaking in general. The ‘quick five minute’ interview ended up being a 43 minute conversation about his films, plans for the future and IMDb. If you would like to read my review of the film before reading our conversation then click here.

First of all congratulations for getting your film into lift-off, are you hoping to win an award here?

Thanks! Hopefully, I think it’s all off audience vote and if you do well you’ll go onto a ballot for the next one. We’ve got quite a good turn out so it’ll be nice to see the reactions. That is what it’s all about for me, see how the audience feels about it. The venue (Texture) is a really great space, I’ve not been here before and it’s a different experience to the typical film festival. I would love to have another screening here in the future, it’s perfect for my current film too because of the red brick. It is set in Manchester and all about retaining the traditional lifestyles.

The setup of the festival is really useful for filmmakers, the scorecard the audience fills out along with the notes section must be incredibly useful for you to learn from?

Yeah, it’s quite intimate as well. You don’t often get to sit this close to the audience and be able to see their reactions. I’ve not watched this film (Northern Lights) in a few months now, the last time was probably at the premiere.

So have you been trying to avoid it?

Well I have just finished my next one so the focus has really been on that. Northern Lights has been on the back burner for the moment as a result.

When you rewatch the film are there things you think ‘Oh I should have done that better?’ or vice versa?

Yeah I mean the budget was a lot lower than the film we just finished. So I’ve just been looking at it thinking ‘What could I have done with a bigger budget?’. That said I do like it as it is. There are little things there, things critics have picked up on that I actually really do appreciate that shows they understood the film. I have learnt a lot from this. There are so many things I wish I could have improved on from Northern Lights. Pacing is a problem I’m sure you’ll spot, the dialogue is also a little long at times. It’s nice because you don’t always expect that they will understand it. As well the audience seemed to understand it which is perfect for me. I’m happy with the feedback both positive and negative. All I want is a response, if people don’t know how they feel about it then I haven’t made a good film. There is nothing worse than a review that says absolutely nothing either way, it doesn’t help me to progress as a filmmaker.

I agree, a well-writen negative review is preferable over a neutral review as it help you understand what areas you need to work on.

Exactly and I think this (Lift-Off) is a really great platform for that purpose. It doesn’t feel too capitalised, rather it is audience centred which is nice.

I read that you went through over 20 rewrites of the script before you got to the final version, was that difficult for you or was it preferable as you could keep evolving it as you went along?

It was lovely because I got a sense of what I was making through so many drafts. There were characters that were cut. There were whole scenes that were shortened or lengthened. As a result of having such a long preproduction stage which we didn’t have with the film before it, I really benefitted from being able to analyse and make the dialogue richer with meaning. It’s something to learn from as well, similar to writing a novel actually because it was more about writing a story than writing a script. It took about 5/6 months to write the script so kind of a long time I suppose.

How long after the last draft was it before you began filming then?

I think the last draft was about a week before. I’m always in contact with my crew, not so much in my next film but in this one particularly because I was friends with the crew and knew them really well. I would just send them a draft and the communication would be very direct, no going through agents or anything like that. It was a friendly process. There wasn’t really a stress so much as we all want to make a good film with the very short time we had to shoot. I don’t think I’ve heard of a 55 minute film being short being shot in 6/7 days before. It was crazy.

Why did you choose 55 minutes as the runtime? It’s half way between a short and a feature length film. Was that purposeful or how it ended up being?

It ended up being that way. I am one of those people that just makes a film the length it should be rather than the length that festival would want. It’s not necessarily a good thing, I should probably be looking at festivals and going ‘this is the time restraint’ but Northern Lights shouldn’t have been any longer. If it had been longer it would have felt too pacy and it already is a little too long. In hindsight I would have cut 10 or so minutes. If I had made it longer it wouldn’t have been right for the narrative and if it was shorter I wouldn’t have been able to build up the characters.

I think that is preferable though, making it the length that is right for the story you are telling rather than needlessly adding or cutting from the film.

On other films I’ve had to cut like 37 pages to 30 pages just because of the shooting ratio which is so annoying. You don’t want to cut stuff that is precious. I like to film something anyway and then have the option to cut it in the edit. There has been times where we had to cut something on the set due to time constraints.

Is that painful for you as a director?

It painful but it’s the evolution of making a film. It is never going to go entirely smoothly. You sign up for that at the beginning and you have to understand that it will happen at some point.

The budget of Northern Lights is around £12,000, has the budget of your next film gotten larger as a result of the positive reception of this one?

Definitely! We wanted to step up the actors in terms of the weight behind their names I guess. Getting a great set of people involved and up the ante because we didn’t want restrictions this time. We did have restrictions in terms of days to shoot. I was privileged to have a really beautiful crew where they all understood what I was doing. There is nothing more painful than people not understanding or sharing your vision. It will be about £40 thousand including distribution for this one through the funding of Cherwell Productions which is based in Oldham. They have been funding me personally and I have been very very lucky with that.

If this film you have just finished gets the same positive reception, will you step it up again?

Well I’m currently writing a feature, which will be a feature, it won’t be a 55 minute film. I know that one is going ahead but it depends on the reception of this film how large the funding will be. The future of what I do will always depend on the how well the films do. I just love directing so hopefully with recognition from festivals like this one I can continue to make films. It’s hard to get good actors if they have never seen any of your previous work and when they have seen some of my films it really helps me to boost myself. The script isn’t always enough I don’t think to get someone to sign on.

Is your ultimate goal to become a blockbuster director or do you want to remain an independant film director?

I love making independant films, I don’t think I would ever go into Hollywood. British cinema is my thing. I could potentially see myself making a Hollywood film if it had heart to it. There is something lacking at the moment that I might be able to bring. At the moment I am just loving working with actors who aren’t say Leonardo di Caprio. British actors from the north (of England) is what I am about right now. Most of the actors I cast I’ve sort of nicked from Ken Loach. So like Crissy Rock or Kate Rutter. Great actors, they’re not Hollywood actors. I go for talent over the name power.

If you had the budget to make a biopic on any person of your choosing who would it be?

Can I say two?

You can say as many as you’d like

Well there are two biopics I have always wanted to do.

One is about Florence Lawrence. Not many people know about her. She was the first ever film star and the stardom killed her. She ended up committing suicide. There is a big story there about her and who she is as a person. It’s something I really want to do and it would be set in America in the early stages of Hollywood. It is interesting to look at someone like her and compare her to a modern day movie star and see how stardom begun.

The other biopic that I want to do is that of my Grandad who passed away before I would be able to understand who he was. He has a great war story, I don’t want to give too much away but it would be set in a prisoner-of-war camp and it’s a very touching story that I feel needs to be told. That would be the big budget one.

Touching on the first one, would you shoot that in black and white? Using only the filming technology from the era to make it as real to that period of time as possible?

That is a really great question that I haven’t actually considered. I’ve always wanted to shoot it on 35mm or 16mm, definitely some sort of celluloid. Not sure about black and white but I definitely want that grain structure. I love black and white and I love contrast so I may decide to go with that. I think strong reds come through that pre-depression, pre-Gatsby era. I think it would be interesting to film. But yeah that really is a great idea.

Thank you very much, I’ll be sure to ask for a little thank you in the credits when it is released.

With that film as well I think it would be an independant production. I don’t think I would want any big names…well I say that it would depend. It is definitely a great role for someone. She actually killed herself with ant poison and it was a very horrific event.

Still in the real of fantasy, if you had to pick one or more actor that you really wanted to work with who would it be?

Actor-wise I would probably say Michael Fassbender or Eddie Redmayne. I think both are very diverse and they are just strong yet fragile actors. One second you can see them weep and the next second they are just so strong. There is something really beautiful about that. For women I would say Alicia Vikander or Marion Cotillard.

Marion Cotillard is actually my favourite actress

That is amazing! I just think she is so powerful. The variety of roles she, and Alicia Vikander, can do is just so incredible. Like Rust and Bone is one of my favourite films. Also I didn’t mind her having a french accent in Lady Macbeth, I love that film too and just everything she does really. She is an artist of a actress and you don’t see that often. I’m glad you like her too. All of the actors I mentioned too are all European so maybe there is something currently going on in Europe that has a realistic edge in comparison to Hollywood.

Hollywood at the moment seems more mechanical, churning out very formulaic, similar films. This is the opposite of your films which feel a lot more real.

For me it’s about making real characters with real stories. Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose is almost like how I would do Florence Lawrence. It’s a great tragedy. Amy Winehouse as well is a great biopic to do. Her life is almost Shakespearian in ways. I also loved the Steve Jobs biopic.

Which one? As there was two

(Laughs) Not the Ashton Kutcher one. The Fassbender one. Aaron Sorkins way of writing is so Shakespearian, it’s all about fatal flaws. It sounds pretentious but I want to be like him in that way. I feel he’s actually quite European in his style. There is something to be said about realism in cinema. I strive towards realism but it’s a representation of realism. It’s not about filming a tree and letting the tree’s leaves fall, it’s about watching a tree and making it interesting. I feel as though I need to add a little bit of surreal into my films too to make it interesting for the audience. Full realism can tend to get quite boring unless done by someone who has mastery in that like Ken Loach. I would love to be Ken Loach and Fellini at the same time, merge them both together. Show real stories in new and interesting cinematic ways.

So what would be your top 3 or 5 favourite or most influential films? Would Ken Loach feature?

I would actually move away from Ken Loach. For starts I would say Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. There is something so beautiful about this film and Dolan’s cinema. Next I would have to say Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.

Isn’t there a poster for Cinema Paradiso in your film?

Yes! Also there is a poster for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, which is another of my favourite films.

I saw that as well on the IMDb connections page too. It is surprising how much detail there was about the film, was that done by you?

That was done by me. IMDb is actually one of the things that got me into film. I was honoured the other day to have met Col Needham the founder and I completely fanboy’d and went up to him saying ‘Can I show you how many films I have rated on your site?’.

How many may I ask?

1301 I think. It is such an amazing platform for filmmakers. I used it for casting mostly and showing the audience connections in my films that they may have missed. I literally almost cried when I met him and he’s from Manchester too it’s crazy. Sorry for going on another tangent but I just love IMDb.

On the topic of IMDb, I’ll keep it over here, the page for Northern Lights mentions two goofs. One was a visible microphone and the other was a script on the bed. How do you feel about those mistakes?

I think it is very hard not to have mistakes in a film. The general audience can’t tell that it’s a script on the bed but I can tell it is. As it was a rushed filming period these things will happen, it’s part of my journey as a filmmaker. I have learned to be careful. Even in major films like The Godfather I think you can see the DoP’s (director of photography) eyes reflected in a scene. I love mistakes like that, it reminds the viewer that this is a film. I don’t think any film should be perfect, too crisp digital annoys me, I like to soften my images a bit. For the film I just finished I shot a scene on 35mm which I was very lucky to do.

What is your next film about?

So it is called Cotton Wool and it’s about this young boy who’s mother suffers a stroke and he has no help caring for her especially from his older sister who should be helping him. He has to take the role of a child carer at the age of seven. The actor, Max Vento is fantastic. He questions everything and he is only seven. it’s an emotional film with a heartbreaking story inspired by lots of real life stories. We had a wonderful crew too including a BAFTA winning cinematographer shooting the film. It was a big step up from Northern Lights and I will never forget the people that got me who helped me on this film. It was such a group effort to make it.

What are some of the difficulties working with an actor who is only seven?

I don’t mind it, in fact I loved it. There is a little bit of me inside which is still a child so I can relate to why he says some things or worried about some things. I find easier working with child actors sometimes because they do question things and they ask stupid questions. Stupid questions usually cover the things that matter though. I worked with another child actor on Northern Lights called Megan Grady who was also fantastic. It’s a comedic role for the most part but at the end of the film she cries her heart out in a tragic scene. She was just so diverse. Sorry I went off on a tangent again, I love tangents.

What is the length of the new film?

It is about 30 minutes, so a normal short’s length. We are trying to put it into BAFTA qualifying because Leanne Best’s performance as the mother is in my opinion Oscar worthy. That isn’t anything to do with my directing I want to make that clear she was just phenomenal. That’s why we are trying to push it. We also made the film in relation with the Stroke Association to make it as accurate as possible. Child carers is a topic that isn’t really seen on film which is surprising as there are around 250,000 child carers in the UK. I’m hoping it will get onto television at some point. Festivals first of course, would love to come back to Lift-Off and have another screening here.

Going back to the hypothetical, what is your dream festival to be accepted into?

I love Edinburgh, went there once and it was beautiful. BFI of course. I do love Cannes. What is the one I keep aiming for? Oh Leeds. I got into Leeds Young Film Festival.

I saw you won an award there in your IMDb biography section.

I think it’s quite important to push myself in that way to get myself out there and known. I haven’t written everything about myself and my films but most I have.

I think you know you’ve become popular when other people begin to write about you.

It’s weird that with critics. When you didn’t know that they have written a review or an article about you. I love critics even if they are horrible.

What current film critic would you like to review your films? Whether they would like it or not

I would say Mark Kermode, I really respect his opinion. There is a youtube called Grace or Beyond The Trailer who I like a lot too. I do like Robbie Collin and Peter Bradshaw as well. Mark Cousins is kind of a critic and he gave me a short opinion on Northern Lights and he was my idol.

Was it positive?

Yeah it was. He said ‘Touching and Moving’, something like that. We used that on one of the advertising poster.

Taking it back to Northern Lights, what is the meaning behind the title? Obviously it’s set in the north so that is part of it

Chris Cyprus is a pretty well known painter and he paints the north using the orange glow of streetlights. They’ve recently changed to LED’s now which is a sterile colour. He used the orange glow of the old style to give light his paintings and called it the Northern Lights. He inspired me to use that in my film. It’s a play on words a little bit. Some people have come up to me and said the northern lights, aurora borealis, are boring. I tell them they should look at the streetlights in Manchester. It’s a film about the mundane, everyday life and people. About looking at something you wouldn’t even consider and making it magical. That’s what I love about cinema.

Well we should probably wrap it up there as your film is about to start but thank you very much for this and I can’t wait to watch this film and Cotton Wool as well.

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

Interview: The Botanist

Maude Plante-Husaruk opens up about her fantastic documentary short The Botanist

This was my favourite documentary of the four at the festival. Surrounding a former botanist turned part time teacher in rural Tajikistan, we watch as he shows us the inventions that have helped make his life, and the lives of those around him, better. His ever-positive attitude makes this a wholesome watch and I can’t recommend it enough. To read my review of this documentary before progressing to the interview click here.


How did you initially hear of Raimberdi and his story?

Raïmberdi had been interviewed for a short French TV program about Central Asia. We only saw him briefly on screen but thought he was a very interesting man and that there was definitely more to his story. We were planning a trip to Central Asia and Iran that year (And always reserach interesting subjects to document beforehand) so as soon as we arrived in Tajikistan, we started inquiring about the « old Kyrgyz man who had built his own hydro electric power station ». Eventually, we got lucky and met a German researcher who knew him and he pointed us in the right direction. His village was 2 full days of driving away from us at that moment and we didn’t know if he was going to be home at that time or how to reach him, but we decided to do the trip anyways. We felt it was worth trying!

Once you decided to make this short, did you meet him before you began filming?

Before going to Shaymak (his village), we arrived in Murghab, the most populated village in the area. The locals we were staying with had some relatives in Shaymak, so they made a few calls a within minutes we were able to get in touch with Raïmberdi and let him know that we were interested in doing a documentary about him. He seemed enthusiastic and even offered us to stay at his home. In the following hours, we arranged for a translator/driver and the next day we left for Shaymak.

What were the logistical challenges you faced getting to the isolated location?

Transport is an issue, there are very few means to get around in the Pamir and hiring a private driver can be quite expensive. Moving from one place to the next takes some time because roads are not developed nor paved and the terrain is difficult. It took us half a day to get from Murghab to Shaymak even though we were only about 100 km away.

Was the language barrier difficult whilst filming?

The language barrier was definitely a challenge. Our interpreter only had a very basic understanding of english. Knowing this, we had made sure to write our questions in advance and had them translated by an english teacher in Murghab before going to Shaymak. Also, there are other ways than words you can communicate. We’re all human beings and have other ways of understanding each other. Sign language, laughs, smiles, voice intonations. We also knew a few Kyrgyz and Russian words that were quite helpful. However, since our translator had not been able to translate Raïmberdi’s answers very well on the spot, we definitely had a few interesting surprises when we had the film translated afterwards. Thankfully, they were mostly very good surprises.

Raimberdi appears as an incredibly humble and generous person, is there any other qualities that didn’t come across on film?

Raïmberdi has a wisdom that seems to go beyond the boundaries of his own education, age and culture. He is one of a kind and that’s what inspired us to make the film in the first place!

We went back to Tajikistan last summer to show the film to Raïmberdi (The Botanist). We posted this update earlier this year:

“Last July, we decided to go back to Murghab, Tajikistan to show our film to Raimberdi, the botanist himself. We organized transportation so he could come visit us from his recluse village in the Pamir, and organized a small projection event with a few Kyrgyz students. 2 years had passed since we had first met him. He had inspired us with his ingenuity, sense of humour, curiosity and sensibility and it was truly touching to see him again after all this time. When we noticed the tears in his eyes as he was watching the story of his life unfold before him, we knew our mission was accomplished!
The fact of having foreigners coming from the other side of the world, taking interest in his story, his environment and his small daily gestures rooted in a rural lifestyle, inspired him to start a conversation with the students that were present. He discussed the importance of their ancestral practices, of self-sufficiency and of having knowledge of the fauna and flora on which they’re entirely dependent. We have been inspired by Raimberdi’s story and we’re happy to see that he continues to inspire a young generation of Kyrgyz that will have to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world.”

Did you have any moments that you missed as the camera wasn’t rolling? Or you wish you included?

We are happy with the footage we captured while we were there, but there is definitely more to Raïmberdi’s story. We had a very interesting 2 hour interview we had to cut down for the 20 minute film.

Was the narrative style of your short predetermined or was it a result of going over the footage afterwards?

Being with Raïmberdi and his family in Shaymak was very inspiring for us. We remember having the idea of the chapters while we were shooting, right after he showed us his beautiful herbariums and explained each plant’s part’s benefits. We already had an idea of what story we wanted to tell but a lot of the storytelling structure came about while we were editing the film.

The animations you used were very beautiful, how did you decide to add that to separate the narrative?

The titles are a way to draw a parallel between his passion for plants and the different stages of his life. The plants that are displayed in the titles are all plants that you can find in the Pamir and each one of them has attributes pertaining to the specific part of the plant the chapter is metaphorically presenting.

Are you currently working on another project?

We are now working on a short project we filmed in Nepal last year.

Do you see yourself/yourselves progressing to a feature length documentary?

We’re discussing it, we’ll see!

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Interview: Cabby

Documentary filmmaker Daniel Watts discusses his film Cabby and his creative process

Cabby’s showing at Lift-Off was perfect given it’s Manchester setting. It contained shots of many locations that would be familiar such as Fifth nightclub during freshers week. Giving an interesting insight to the people who aren’t often noticed, I’m sure it’ll spark more people to chat to their taxi drivers on their next night out. If you’d like to read my review of Cabby before progressing to the interview click here.


Your film was also shown at Manchester International Film Festival in 2015, why was there such a gap between that and Lift-Off this year?

I made the film whilst at University and after I left I decided to set up my own production company. Since then I have just been doing corporate work for companies like Speedo, with the intention of becoming a documentary filmmaker and hopefully one day doing a feature film. It’s been two years since we filmed Cabby and it just makes me reflect, giving me motivation to make more films.

When you do reflect on Cabby are there things you see now and think ‘if only I didn’t include that’ or vice-versa?

I’m a massive perfectionist, so when I’m watching it I just shake my head at all the mistakes. In the development of making the film I spoke to at least 70 taxi drivers and they can be quite flakey and hard to track down at times. There was one in particular who dropped out last minute which was a shame as they had some really interesting stories.

Was Cabby your first attempt at a documentary?

I’ve done a few documentaries before, for example one about the street art in Manchester. Cabby was my final project though. I love meeting people and always had experiences of going on nights out chatting to taxi drivers and just having random conversations. It’s because of this that I wanted to document the characters.

As you progress through your career, what are the shorts you’d really like to make given free range?

Personally I really like obscure cultures and scenes. The different ways that people act that are unique. In the same way I’m a big fan of Louis Theroux’s social commentary documentaries.

Do you watch lots of films or do you concentrate on documentaries like Theroux’s to get filmmaking ideas?

We are starting to see more and more documentaries incorporating a cinematic style which is taken from films. I love both and watch a diverse range of things in order to learn about different styles I could use. I can only see myself making documentaries though. The stripped back feel, just getting to know people and learning about their life experiences. There are lots of topics which have already been done so I try to find the more out-there people.

Are you working on another film? Or have plans for the next one?

Not currently. I want to be a filmmaker but I want to make a living being a filmmaker and sometimes you have to compromise in order to make the films that you want to make. As I said I’m such a perfectionist and once I meet person or subculture I’ll immediately know. Wherever I go I’m always on the lookout for my next topic. Everybody I meet I try to read them and suss them out to try and see if they are short worthy. There is a gut feeling I get when I know I’ve found the right thing.

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