The Dark Recess: ‘Fighting insomnia, creative emptiness and haunted by her past, Charlie longs for a cure to her ailments. Maybe Jacob X, a radio psychologist Charlie picks up by chance on an old analogue signal, may hold those answers.’
I don’t want to overemphasise the fact but when people start out, in any avenue of this industry, they’ll do things for experience. They’ll collaborate to boost their show-reel and CV. Just be respectful and on the other side, when you give your services for collaboration, vet who you’re working with. Make sure if you’re working for free, it’s within reasonable parameters (if someone wants you to do a cliff jump for example, maybe reconsider) and with talented people. Always repay favours too. You get to know shysters. People who want something for nothing, and never repay the favour. That’s unavoidable, but every negative can be learned from. When something clicks, it’s worth it. Again, this is networking.
Coming to cast the film, I pretty much had the supporting cast in mind. Charlotte Chiew had previously auditioned for me on another film I made (Estranged, in post and due next year). Sometimes someone is great, you’re dying to cast them but there’s just someone that little bit more suitable (and when casting someone as sister of the lead, a facial similarity also came into it). So I’d always had in mind to give her a role (if she wanted it) in a future short. Thankfully she came on board. Then another role, Juno, I had written specifically for my friend (and co-producer on a feature next year) Leila Bartell. I wasn’t sure she would do it. The character was based on her (she’s the coolest mofo you’re likely to meet). I put a casting call out for it. I just couldn’t shake off this feeling though…’they’re good, but they’re not Leila.’ Still, she hopped on board and that was pleasing not least because she’s got screen presence to burn.
I then looked to cast the lead. Here’s one thing; The role was non-gender descript. I wanted to put out a completely open casting call to all and sundry between the ages of 20-40, but other than that, entirely open. What you find with casting calls – people love the pitch. They apply with great enthusiasm but then disappear. The response goes dead. So from several hundred you go down to maybe a hundred. You sift through reels. Eventually you get a shortlist and then if the God’s are willing you’ll get your first choice. I wanted to get video auditions where possible. Katie McKenna applies. She’s just starting out. There’s not much pre-existing footage, but her photos remind me a little of Jessica Chastain, and then I’m in the middle of a Bergman binge, and I see shades of Liv Ullman. She was quite local, so, as Oliver concurred, we asked for a video audition. She was the quickest to respond and get back with said video. Furthermore, she was the best. When you’re making a film sometimes you want a thunderbolt. You’re essentially resting on the power of your cast. This is all about psychological and emotional repression and complexity. Some actors can’t always show what’s underneath. They can’t do what Ullman for example does in Persona, or De Niro in Taxi Driver. It’s tough conveying complex emotion without dialogue. Katie could do it. She came onto the film without much experience but bundles of raw, natural ability and nailed it. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, because as of now, I’ve not seen the finished film, but from being on set and seeing someone elevating your work (and not just reciting it) there’s a part of you that is tipping your hat to the film Gods and thanking them. I do feel like The Dark Recess could one day be the subject of a future interview piece with Katie, ‘Do you remember this short film you did with a pair of oddballs when you first started?’
The shoot itself is where you need everything to go right. We shot quickly, over 4 days spread out. Oliver’s pretty much mapped it out in his head already, so there’s no head scratching ‘what do we do next?’. The film was entirely a two man crew throughout. There’s a freedom in being that minimal. That means there are less people who might potentially drop you in it, or turn up late, etc. Networking is great as you build trust in people of different disciplines, but regardless, it’s easier to match the schedules of four than it is for 10, 20, 30 (this is also why keeping cast numbers low is sensible too). That said, unless you have total self-assurance you can match the vision you want with two people, then you need to know the minimum number of crew you need. Can your camera operator also act as DP? Good. Can you use one on sound instead of two or three? You can shoot for nothing and you can shoot with the barest bones crew, but don’t sell your vision short. Ultimately we all want to make something good.
We opt to shoot the film wide. When you’re shooting on digital and on DSLR (predominantly stills cameras) we’ve found aiming to shoot your film in 2.35:1 will naturally give it a more cinematic look. Shooting with a single camera also has certain advantages. It takes away an option to shoot with two cameras simultaneously which can sometimes lead to unimaginative (flat master/wide) framing. That can result in giving you a kind of soap look, or look like a run of the mill student film. What you want is to capture inspired moments, with nice framing and in a way you are sure will cut together cleanly. You want to carefully consider how you shoot and not just look to ‘get it done.’ Oliver as a director, camera op and D.O.P is (as most of us are I guess) a big fan of Roger Deakins. He’s a key source of inspiration and a key remit Deakins tends to adhere to is to have everything largely shot and looking as he wants on the day. It ensures minimal need for grading, so you’re only putting a cursory little brush stroke over your work, rather than trying to completely capture your look in post (the difference is striking, and not least because the more you toy with an image, the more danger there is that you’ll lose detail, unless you’re lucky enough to shoot with absolute top end equipment). You can shoot something great looking on the duffest camera out there. By the same token you can have the top of the line, fresh off the production line ‘in’ camera in 18k, and shoot something flat and uninspiring. Get as much out of your equipment as you can, and if you’re blessed with the best, don’t expect it to do everything for you.
The last piece of the puzzle now is the score. We’re looking at John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream as key sources of inspiration. Originally I was going to score myself, but a slowly dying laptop and a lack of time (due to other writing commitments and real life things like a baby and house moves) put paid to that. That meant putting the call out to the composing community. I had hundreds back and every single one was really good. Almost all of them were capable of producing what we’d want, but in the end there was just this extra layer of inspiration in the work of our composer, Callum Donaldson (currently beavering away as we eagerly await to see what he produces). From then on, we’ll be pushing the film into appropriate festivals from early 19 into the spring before we eventually release it upon the world.
My message though, to all fellow film-makers is, don’t wait for a moment which may not come to see your film come to life. If you’re like me and get that urge to make something, then make it. If you have, or know someone with, a camera, then there is no excuse. Be sensible in what you wish to achieve without a budget, but at the same time, don’t settle for something you wouldn’t be proud to put out. As Bergman proved in Persona, stick two actresses in a single interior location for the majority of your film and you can still make something more effecting than a film shot for half a billion dollars that covers every corner of the Universe.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… http://tomjolliffe.wordpress.com/films/