Making Tupilak

Almost two years to the day since we wrapped The Beachcomber on a windy beach in Devon, Ashley, Lily and I were back on location — this time in Snowdonia, to shoot our most ambitious short film to date, Tupilak. We were joined on set by Alex Newton, one of the creators behind Citric Acid, and together spent five days hiking up the mountains of the Idwal Valley laden with iron pans, spears, fish and furs to create a settlement for the last of the Norse Greenlanders, Saga, as she struggled to come to terms with her people’s disappearance.

We had been inspired by an article from the amazing Ernest journal about the mysterious spiritual totems carved by the Inuit people of Greenland to ward off foes, and the disappearance around 1500 AD of the seemingly stable community of Norse Greenlanders. Lily led our deeper research into their unexplained disappearance without trace after a history of rich storytelling and crafting, which was invaluable in pinning our abstract script into reality, the mythology and the remaining artefacts that are all we have left of the Greenlanders.

Shooting in a remote location (and for the purposes of filmmaking, I’d say remote is anywhere that isn’t an urban centre) creates additional challenges, and doing so at dusk even more so. There were a lot of snap decisions to make; the vast majority of them I am happy with, some (as always) I awaited nervously in the edit, but I owe an awful lot to the whole team for their input in the month before and on every long day of the shoot, and to the very long lead-in process with Ashley which has been absolutely lifesaving. Ashley and I first talked about a tupilak-oriented film very shortly after wrapping The Beachcomber (I think we discussed the article which inspired it while setting up for our first London preview in my apartment at the time) and subsequently spent the better part of a year on drafts of the script, and a further six months on the shot list and other logistical points. Not only did this mean the same film existed in both of our heads, but that we had already worked through many of the issues that we expected the location to throw at us, so when indeed we were confronted with difficulties we had already discussed the compromises that would be available.

Shooting digitally on a serious project has brought with it a new workflow. While I loved the experience and discipline of shooting on film (as we did on The Beachcomber), if I am honest I preferred being able to see the frame in real-time, while keeping as much of the restraint and long-take approach that we had learned from 8mm. It shows in the cut: watching the rushes back, we could already see that we had the material we had envisioned when preparing the shot list, rather than buckets of footage we had shot because it looked good. The lesson learned back on James was that over-shooting feels liberating, but it makes the edit very challenging. Once we had the footage up on the screen, I felt the familiar sense (which never gets old) of rediscovering the film from scratch. Assembly was first done remotely between London and Paris, a tricky process in itself, but I hope this gave Ashley the space he needed to take a fresh and radical approach to editing. When we were reunited in London, we finished the loose ends and the trickiest scenes together, and even three weeks out from screening were still tinkering on sequences that finally came together as what we had intended.

This was my first film project featuring serious costume, and I learned a valuable lesson: that costume is essential, even if your project is contemporary and your characters relatable to your own lives. Why settle for ‘wear whatever you normally do’, when as you can make a valuable directorial decision about a character that also gives the actor space to distinguish between themselves and their role? And no post on this film would be complete without discussing our fantastic props and giving a huge thank you to Rebecca Taylor for sourcing an amazing array of antique material in a very short space of time. We definitely invested more energy into production design for this project than any other, partly again because of the period, but we quickly learned that obtaining vintage daggers, iron cooking tools and rusting lanterns was not going to be easy.

Acquiring a tupilak carved by a Greenland-based craftsperson was one of the key artistic decisions we made for the production. I thought it was important to have a daily reminder on location of the powerful history and wicked intent that was bound up in these objects, echoing the RSC’s use of a real skull in its traditional Hamlet stagings. We had previously stumbled across an Inuit art gallery on Paris’ Right Bank which sold a range of carved figures including replica tupilaks, but although we certainly hope that ours is no more real in the ominous sense, I felt that getting one from Greenland was important. In an age of lazy cultural appropriation, I thought the very least we could do was strive to work with authentic source material.

Bringing Saga’s story to life was a saga indeed, but it was one of the most rewarding projects I have worked on, and I’m delighted with what the team has built. I couldn’t be more proud to have directed it.