Summer in Paris

After four months of nonstop glorious weather, my DP Ashley Hughes has finally moved out to Paris. And with perfect timing, as we begin the edit on our short film La robe which we shot in the arrondissement in which I live back in July. The film was a delight to make, working alongside and making new friends with local business owners at beautiful cafe Bleu Olive and boutique Amelie along the way. Editing and scoring are about to commence, and we hope to have something to screen once the cafe re-opens from its summer break and Paris society reconvenes for the autumn.

I am looking forward to getting back to London for a short period in September. As well as the opportunity to catch up with friends I am really missing, find that perfect Old Fashioned (Paris – take note – you need to improve) and move some more of my library out of storage, I am excited to be making a brief return to digital filmmaking with a micro-short planned for the first few days of September.

Back in Paris, Ashley and I have used the break during which our Super8 rolls were in the lab productively, with a number of projects on the go. In terms of writing, I am currently working through drafts of Robert Armitage material I hope to develop into more short films soon, and am working on a TV pilot script at the same time. On the production front, we are starting preparatory work on our most ambitious short film to date, slated for February, and I look forward to having preliminary meetings in early September with our ideal candidates for producer, production designer and cast. Marking our fourth project to be shot on film, and with an almost entirely location-dependent script, this 12-minute project will be a worthwhile challenge and hopefully our best shot at festival places for 2019.

As ever, watch this space.

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Robert Armitage in Paris

After a hectic few months in which Ashley, Lily and I have managed to switch jobs and (in my case) move country despite the best efforts of the UK’s weather, it’s good to be settled and starting a new string of projects to carry us through 2018 and beyond.

The first is a new short, Robert Armitage is in Town, which Ashley is coming out next month to discuss before we proceed to shooting in July. A vignette that builds on the bar-worlds we learned to create for Red Ribbon | Blue Suit several years ago, Robert Armitage is a bringing-together of two bodies of work we’ve been interested in for a while. The first is the character, who I wanted to bring to the screen in this oblique, mysterious way after first writing about him when I was in China in 2013. Then, Robert Armitage could have been a spy, a drug runner, a petty hood, or a businessman or a diplomat or even just a washed-up American lost in a dive bar in Yangzhou. Now he’s back in my work and still elusive. The mystery works well given the second source of inspiration, which Ashley brought to the table last year – Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, which perfectly captures those bar-dwellers who might be full of stories and conflicts, but who are trying so hard to come across as nothing at all. We are drafting a script in earnest this month; watch this space for news of locations, plotlines and casting calls.

Beyond Robert Armitage, we are excited to be working in London’s Kew Gardens in the early autumn to shoot another project building on a Virginia Woolf short story, after the magic of producing The Beachcomber (inspired by Solid Objects) last year. It seems unbelievable that an entire year has gone past since Lily was standing knee-deep in the freezing Atlantic at sunrise, but it will be wonderful to return to the rich language and intricate visuals that Woolf’s work demands.

Both of these shorts are further stepping stones to help us master the skills we need for a significant project we have slated for the winter and into 2019. At the moment, we can’t say very much about what it involves (other than that it brings Lily, Ashley and I back together and is – by a long way – our most ambitious film yet), but as the year rolls on we’ll have plenty of news to share. Robert Armitage sees us working once again with Super8 film and synchronised dialogue, a new challenge but in the familiar and controllable environment of a quiet bar at night. Our Kew Gardens project will see us develop the same skills, but bringing 16mm film into the frame thereby massively expanding Ashley’s canvas and allowing us to move into one of the industry’s most popular film formats.

On the writing front, expect plenty of news as we all chip in regarding our latest reads, adaptations, reboots of old favourites, and more.

Every story tells a picture

by director and actor Lily Taylor

Every story tells a picture, every picture tells a story. My literary obsessions seem to work this way, with hard-edged moments glowing out from the pages and insisting that I return to them again and again. Solid objects hover in and around these moments, a pearl dropped and found (or unfound) in pale blades of grass, a smoothed shard of sea glass, ocean-green and softly grained, a gold chain nailed to a tree. More recently – an oval stone, rounded, almond-eyed, a human head, levitating, tapping at the skylight. A man, dead, ancient, lying on a beach and turning slowly into a tree. A leaf, full. A watch, removed from the wrist and flung, sideways, into a canal. The undoneness of the thing. The absolute not-doneness of it.

I chased that vision of sea glass, like John of ‘Solid Objects’, taking his role as he surrendered everything for the pursuit of fragments – the resulting film became another of these fragments, a short 5-minute piece of film, cut and stuck into sequence. Screening The Beachcomber for the first time in Oxford, in the company of my most wonderful friends, was one of the best things of the past year. In November, we screened it again at Picturehouse Central, which was another highlight of the year and of my move to London. With the addition of Jordan’s score – which is perfect – the film was properly whole and complete. (I think, or, at least, hope, that Woolf would have approved.) Thank you so much to all of my friends who came to see it twice!

With that moment deliberated and revised, translated, screened, and concluded, I’m ready to greet the next one. This time, the watch and the collage, the conversation by water. The challenge of dialogue and 16mm film. I’ve been warned of the difficulties of casting and 30-second takes (turns out it’s much easier when the only character is me and the most difficult direction is stepping painfully into pebble-churning, freezing waves in the early morning). I have a week at home to deliberate script cuts and tweaks, to ruminate on the best pictures for this particular story. For now, I don’t want to give away any more. But it is all very exciting – festooned in the additional excitement of Christmas as I travel home through solid, grey, Shropshire fog.

 

Lily starred in The Beachcomber, as well as directing James, appearing in London Time and acting as marketing director for Plenty. Read more from her blog here.

Scoring The Beachcomber

by composer Jordan Dobbins

I first encountered Andrew, Ashley and Lily’s The Beachcomber in Oxford, performing live pieces based around Woolf’s The Waves at its first screening. As with any creative endeavour, six months on I am both pleased and unsatisfied with the finished soundtrack. I thought I would write something for the blog about how I tried to navigate the subject matter which is at the heart of the film (which is best understood from reading the original Woolf short story). The following is the, probably misguided, methodology I went about in turning those ideas into a score that somehow mirrored Woolf’s prescient ideas and feelings that still speak to our 21st Century culture.

To me the film, and the Woolf material it stemmed from, was about navigating two integral human processes in a capitalist society: the search for meaning and the creation of value. I wanted the music to have a sense of searching at its core (derived from that most Woolfian of symbols – the sound of the waves) which is heard most prominently in the rhythm of the thicker textured sections that accompany the first visuals. This searching is complicated, for me, by the protagonist’s kleptomania: who owns these objects, and who instils them with meaning? That idea is further muddied and confused when overlaid with the concept of nostalgia which is present in the film (and which I was told was on the mind of the film makers as they created the piece) – do we view our understanding of innocence and the past as commodities of consciousness in an age where all things gave a ‘Return on Investment’? I hoped to capture the feeling that these questions left me with in the transitions between the filled out piano to the stripped back, more in focus, sections that are interspersed throughout. These sections were based on the old music hall tune ‘A Little of What you Fancy Does you Good’, which I felt chimed nicely with both Woolf’s context and the film’s subject matter. The manic collecting of the protagonist is mirrored in these sudden changes of tone; just as they cannot force these strange found objects to stand in lieu for intangible parts of our mental processes of remembering, so my appropriation of the music hall tune is unfitting and unwieldy.

Perhaps the thinking that was behind the music is more apt than the final piece itself, but I enjoy hearing people’s opinions and analysing my own feelings about the music (which change on the daily). It was a great project to be involved in and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to stretch my untrained creative muscles.

Picture lock on The Beachcomber

Ah, such a great weekend watching Ashley work his magic with the newly-scanned copy of The Beachcomber, which he picked up from our lab in Berlin last week.

The quality is superb and all the light and energy you get from an actual film projection has been lovingly restored in the digital environment. The process was smooth and again reflected the tremendous amount of effort and patience put into each shot as it went onto the film, making the cut painless and the retouching minimal. All a far cry from the long sessions of grading we did on Tantamount, where jarring yellow barriers and brooding grey skies posed great challenges for Final Cut’s presets. Now in a world where every colour can be honed individually (thank you DaVinci), every shot’s existence had been justified on set and where the depth of real film offers limitless scope for bokeh, softening and warmth, I feel like we are starting to become masters of the frames (at least the key ones) in our projects.

On this theme, our next short is going to be governed by rules on colour, framing and visual references just to push us even further. Once you start to see the world through not just a lens, but through a lens and onto a screen, I feel as though the whole filmmaking process becomes infinitely more immersive. We are planning to shoot throughout November and I’m already very excited!

On The Beachcomber, we are now into the final stretch after picture lock, with a copy going off to our new teammate and composer Jordan Dobbins for him to start putting together the score. I can’t say too much yet, but we have very exciting screening plans once the process is complete – watch this space…

As the summer rolls into autumn it’s easy to lose energy on the creative parts of our lives and I don’t think the shorter days help. (At least, I have always found sunshine to be far more conducive than rain to my writing – though my writing does almost always feature gloomy weather!) To this end, I’m looking forward to connecting with new people, and reconnecting with old friends, to being our new projects to life over the next few months. I’m off to Stockholm for a weekend with the aim of coming back to London refreshed and ready to dive in: with the London Film Festival coming up, a screenplay to finish, The Beachcomber to showcase and our new film to produce, we’re going to need all the help (and, in between all that, rest) we can get. Let’s see what happens.

Our new digital cut of The Beachcomber, starring Lily Taylor, screens in London the first weekend of November.

Developing a script

Ashley and I spent five hours in our favourite bar earlier this week thrashing out the plot and basic shot list for what will be our eighth film project together (more on that very soon). After it was over I saw the symmetry between this scripting session and many, many others before, and thought it would be interesting to talk about how we develop a project, partly as a sanity-checking exercise: I want to know that we’re not alone in working the way that we do.

Every film we have made started with some source material that wasn’t film-related. Tantamount was possibly the closest to being developed in the traditional way, growing out of a screenplay for an online video advert for a printing company that never got made. Red Ribbon | Blue Suit, Beauty and Acceptance and Dare I Say were all born of snippets of short stories I had written, the former based around an article I had read about urban architecture imposing ever more rigidly on the way in which we live our lives, and the others just musings on characters I liked. James, I suppose, was written as a script from the get-go, but drawn in spirit from a deep knowledge of and love for Ian Fleming’s novels. And The Beachcomber grew out of Virginia Woolf’s enchanted vision of the sea.

So every time we sit down with a new project in mind, we tend to have about ten or twenty lines of text at the most, and we are aiming to get to a rough list of scenes – or oftentimes a list of individual shots. It is an intense process – we are hard on each other. I take the view that arguing for or against every shot is important at this stage, when we can be at our most flexible with changes, in order to create a film in which every moment is justified. Doubtless the process would have to be different on a longer production, where I subscribe strongly to Darren Aronofsky’s view that your job as director is to give your creative team the world, and allow them to use their skills to fill it. But on a short film, where every single shot is a piece of story in itself, I like to know that we finish a planning session with complete faith in every frame – if we don’t, it will have been argued about for half an hour, and dropped.

Sometimes I like the idea that we should adopt a different working approach, that preproduction can all be about relaxed cocktails and coffees and that abstract ideas will coalesce into a tight shot list when you are confronted with a set and actors. But I know it isn’t true; Ashley is one of those great people who will fight for his moments just as strongly as I fight for mine, and that is why we enjoy writing together. What I am really excited about, and what I want to change for our next project (which we will be exploring in the spring, after a November shoot on our current film) is working with an outside writer, someone who has given us a complete film’s worth of material, where we can take the energy we currently spend on plotting and inject it all into direction, mood, design and style.

For now, I’m delighted we have pulled together a draft of something new, inspired by the wilderness and our fear of it, and I look forward to announcing it soon.

Take a look at Ashley’s work at www.ashleyhughesfilm.com.

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Screening The Beachcomber

by The Beachcomber actor Lily Taylor

Hello. My name has appeared on this site already, as I’ve worked on Plenty and James, and, most recently, The Beachcomber. A few weeks ago I organised a Virginia Woolf-inspired literary evening to accompany the Oxford film screening of The Beachcomber, which I’d like to talk about here.

During the past year I’ve been studying for a Masters degree in English (1900-Present Day) at Oxford. There were moments when I doubted my ability to finish the year (I blame B course – if you know what that is, I’m sorry that you had to suffer through it too). Of course, I did finish the year – I graduated last month, on what felt like the hottest day of the year, and we all enjoyed melting in our thick black embroidered gowns. It was inevitable that I would end up loving the year – bearing in mind that I am certifiably obsessed with Virginia Woolf and the course was (perhaps unfairly) biased towards Woolf and canonical conceptions of Modernism.

However, my time back in Oxford was made all the more unforgettable due to my English group, which was comprised of some of the loveliest and most interesting people I have ever met. We became obsessively good friends in a shockingly short amount of time, and have since started a newsletter, writing group, and podcast – with many more things to come, I’m sure. Another source of inspiration throughout the year was my insistence on punctuating each term with something creative. Even when time was short and deadlines looming, it was motivational and usefully distracting to have a completely different creative project on the horizon. In Michaelmas, this was a play, organised in two weeks with a budget of less than £50. In my final term, I was the assistant producer on another play, Infestation, in London. And in the Easter holiday, I acted in The Beachcomber, which brings me back to the subject of this post.

I don’t need to discuss further the details of the film’s creation – they have been covered here already. But I would like to say that I’d been thinking about this film for several years before it came into being. I read Virginia Woolf’s Solid Objects, on which the film is based, in my first year at university, and was struck by the cinematic qualities of its opening ‘scene’. I didn’t have the means to film it then, but, four years later, here it is, and I was very pleased to be involved in the final product as a windswept beach-wanderer and pebble-collector. Short, soundless, wordless – but it feels to me like a natural reading of the story (I hope Woolf would approve).

The film was not yet digitised, so couldn’t be shared online, which led to my plan to host a screening accompanied by other Woolf-related contributions in Oxford. The deadline for dissertations coincided with the completion of the film (processed, edited, and ready to be shown). I asked/coerced/harried my English group into creating their own pieces to share at the event, and though everyone was worn out after essay submissions, the quality of the contributions was astonishing. Pieces included short stories inspired by objects and the sea, poetry ruminating on spaces, and a musical deconstruction of the opening pages of The Waves. All accompanied by homemade vegan cakes and plenty of wine.

For the purposes of this event, we decided to play ‘Meeting Again’ from Woolf Works (which I could but mustn’t ramble about for many thousands of words). Played alongside the film, the music fit perfectly, mixing in with the sound of the projector. With more time and unlimited funds, it would be wonderful to commission an original soundtrack; that may have to wait for the next film now, or it may emerge during the course of the summer. I very much enjoyed working on The Beachcomber, and I’m so glad that we were able to screen it in Oxford, a place that will always be very important to me. As with any event, things can always run more smoothly, or be more polished. But it was so much fun to present creative work to a group of friends, and to draw thoughts, words, and ideas out of each other. I will certainly continue to organise events like this one, and am already planning another book-inspired project that I’m very excited about. In the meantime, thank you so much to everyone involved. I look forward to seeing you at the next one…

From marketing the successful Plenty to directing James, starring in both London Time and The Beachcomber, Lily is appearing in a special big-screen showing of The Beachcomber this summer before stepping into the role of producer for Radcliffe Camera’s next film project, to be announced soon. Check out Lily’s blog at www.lilyfreeahleoma.com.

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The Beachcomber: ready for screening

Monday night was spent drinking celebratory cocktails with my two favourite film-cutters: Vania Flaccomio (editor at Pink Banana) and Ashley Hughes (whose new portfolio showcases the best of his analogue film talents). Among other things, we were celebrating the fantastic news that The Beachcomber is ready for screening.

The final cut came after a long notes session several weeks ago, and several reviews of the shot list and paper edit over recent days as Ashley and I tried to marry competing themes, tensions and ideas in an order which was perfect. Cutting Super 8 stock is a delicate process: the negatives contained on 3-minute rolls are developed and printed positive onto a spool, which is then sliced into scenes and takes. Those raw slips of film are hung on a frame ready for the assembly process – you can see The Beachcomber uncut in the photo above. Ashley’s 5-hour task was then to identify the best of the shots and assemble them into order, shaving the transitions as he went, using a splicing machine which incorporates a light-box, rollers and a cutting tool. Special tape with sprockets is used to join the pieces together, making the final cut.

Running in tandem with the visual cutting process, I revisited the shoreline of Budleigh Salterton in making the soundscape. One evening after our day of shooting had wrapped, I had headed down to the edge of the waves with a DSLR and recorded seven minutes of rolling waves, which made a captivating sound: a peeling roar as they came in at an angle along the shingle towards where I was sat, and a sucking, rolling grind as they pulled back out to sea against the steep bank of pebbles. Pumped loud through a speaker amidst the audience, this soundscape literally immerses the viewer in the story of the film. The majesty of a Woolf soundtrack was really solidified on Friday night when I had the pleasure of joining Lily at Blenheim Palace to watch Max Richter, Ray Chen and the breathtaking Aurora Orchestra premiere Three Worlds, the soundtrack to ballet Woolf Works. That perfect summer night reminded me of the real power that a soundscape can have; collaborating with Max Richter now tops the list of dream projects.

We are excited to be hosting a preview screening of The Beachcomber at Canary Wharf on Saturday, following which the official premiere – as part of an evening of spoken word, rehearsed readings, excerpts of Woolf’s work, art and cocktails – will be taking place at Turl Street Kitchen in Oxford next Wednesday. This venue, which has relaxed leather-furniture scattered across warped wooden floorboards and beautiful views across historic Oxford, fits our Woolf/Bloomsbury theme well, and I hope The Beachcomber is the first of many screenings we can host there.

In the longer run, following these screenings the film reel will make its way back to the lab in Germany for a high-definition scan, and we look forward to being able to re-open the story with the use of digital editing techniques before launching the film online at the end of the summer. I can’t wait to share it.

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People of Everywhere

A recent effort to explain the distinction between political culture, social mentality and voting behaviour in the UK – particularly following the vote to leave the EU last summer that threw disparate attitudes into sharper relief – should serve as a reminder to all in the arts that we need to keep fighting to bring diversity to the eyes and ears of our audiences, even in a hyper-polarised world.

David Goodhart sought to clarify the position of those opposed to the EU in terms of their deeply-rooted cultural subscription to the nation. His book makes for excellent and nuanced reading; Prime Minister Theresa May’s adoption of it slightly less so. Of course, I hope she is correct in her assessment of her peers, and see no evidence to the contrary; further, she showed political astuteness not to describe her camp as patriots, a term prone to misuse. In order to set up this description as a distinction to the opposing group, she describes her clan as People of Somewhere, evoking the idea of Jerusalem (Butterworth, not Blake) that we are all intertwined with England, and the others as People of Anywhere, who lacked such a connection. In doing so she was not trying to be unfair; she was trying to set up an image of localism versus globalism. The nuance of Goodhart’s work has been slightly lost in its digestion, and more so in its application.

For all that it does to pithily capture a previously unexpressed difference in individual outlooks, May’s embracing of the Somewhere/Anywhere distinction mischaracterises those who do not think like her and shows, however unconsciously, the introspection of the Somewheres: the rest of us are not Anywheres, we are children of Everywhere. In other words, the Everywheres are not distinct from the Somewheres because they do not wish to subscribe to one particular identity. No, it is quite the opposite – if you want to find fault in an Everywhere, it is that we want to subscribe to too many.

The introspection of the Somewheres is especially problematic when it comes into contact with the creative industries. The government has recently introduced (and this week pledged to double) a levy on business who employ non-European workers, currently standing at £1000 per head, in an effort to reduce migration. It is unclear whether this will be extended further to EU nationals after 2019, but the rhetoric from those who drafted the policy suggests as much. The rationale is ostensibly clear: encourage those in industry to train locals and reinvest in British talent. But this is fundamentally flawed, not least because it is predicated on the introspective foundation of ‘British’ businesses (often heavy industry) where nationality didn’t matter. Indeed, in 1960 it made more sense to employ a local lad down the pit than to institute a global LinkedIn search. But take film, theatre, literature, publishing, journalism or music. We could (and can) of course encourage a new wave of British talent in those sectors. Yet the real point of the arts – a point that we as a global leader of the arts must uphold – is about exposure to diversity, plurality of ideas. I do not see how any government can claim to encourage such a thing when it charges every film company, publishing house, editing studio and theatre for every ounce of non-European culture it develops. In the interests of plurality and art, we must do everything we can to resist such plans.

This is a call-to-arms for the creatives, the artists, the producers, the presenters and the consumers of art alike. We need to keep working to capture the social, creative, entrepreneurial and cultural benefits of a seamless world, and remind the Somewheres that artistic cohesion is not theirs to hinder.

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The Beachcomber: editing begins

Moving an 8mm film projector and its soundproof case across town to Canary Wharf and installing it in my apartment was shown to be well worth the effort, following a fantastic weekend in which Ashley and I watched the rushes and completed the paper edit on The Beachcomber. The next stage of the process is a delicate one, as Ashley returns to the lightbox and splicing tools to produce a first rough cut from our positive prints.

We were lucky and sensible to shoot the project largely in order. Another major advantage came in the form of our limited resources: rather than the gargantuan effort of searching through dozens of takes on Tantamount or over 250 shots to begin putting together James, the assembly process on The Beachcomber is made cleaner by our 1-take rule on set. Moreover, we reversed the workflow that we had applied on previous digital projects: rather than spending little time planning angles and a lot of time in the pre-edit, we spent hours setting up every single frame during our long weekend on location in Budleigh Salterton, and it is paying dividends now.

After the paper edit, in which we watch the entire thing, note the excess shots we intend to cut, re-order any that were captured on spare film, and judged for general quality of each take, the rough assembly involves cutting the reel in the middle of the ‘dead space’ between shots and re-splicing it in order. It is a painstaking task for Ashley, though not as fragile as that coming next weekend: the fine cut involves many re-runs of the rough cut, notebooks in hand, and then the film is physically re-opened on the cutting board and a few frames here and there are moved and discarded.

Simultaneously, digital work is beginning this week on our soundscape. Captured live on location and designed to provide an immersive viewer experience in the very diverse settings of our London, Oxford and online screenings, refining an audio world separately from the visuals is a new and exciting step in exploring a more artistic side to production.

I look forward to posting again next weekend, when The Beachcomber will hopefully be ready for release!