‘A Heap of Trouble’ dir. Steve Sullivan (2001)
The calm of a suburban street is rudely disturbed.
10 Questions for Steve Sullivan
C8: ‘A Heap of Trouble’ is as surprising as it is hilarious – talk us through the inspiration for the project.
SS: Probably the most common question I’m asked is ‘Where did the idea for ‘A Heap of Trouble’ come from?’ The simple answer is that I’d just wrapped on a previous short film, ‘The Debt’, which was quite a shattering experience. I went home for a hot bath before the wrap party, and laying there, my mind unravelling, I started to hear distant male voices, screaming, suburban panic and then that song, lyrics, tune and all. It kind of came out fully formed and needed very little rewriting.
C8: We’re presuming you had the whole area on lock-down for this! So what were the biggest challenges in getting it made?
SS: My brilliant producer Jane Dauncey leafleted the street and said what we were planning to do and to call if anyone had a problem with it. There weren’t any calls so we just went ahead. Being suburbia, most people were out at work anyway, so there weren’t any problems. I remember seeing a woman in one window with loads of cameras around her neck. The neighbours had told her “If it happens, take a picture for us”, so she just stood there clicking away for two days. There were quite a few disturbed BMW-driving executives that came home for their lunch, so we had to keep clearing the naked men out of their way so they didn’t get squashed. It’s hard to be discreet making a film like this but when the kids started arriving back from school we knew it was probably time to pack up for the day.
C8: Where did ‘A Heap of Trouble’ sit in your career – what had you previously done up to this point?
SS: It was my third short, so it sits somewhere near the middle of my short film work. I’d made my graduation film, ‘Fatted Calf’, which won Europe’s largest short film prize, the DM Davies Award. That in turn partly paid for my next film, ‘The Debt’, about a man who carries an ever increasing number of people. Then came ‘Heap’, and after that I made ‘A Quiet Man’, a music video about a broken-hearted Cyclops going on a caravanning holiday, some docs about Santas and Frank Sidebottom, and another short called ‘A Bit On The Side’ starring Dean Taylor, the ice cream man from ‘A Heap of Trouble’, as a man with an unhealthy drill obsession. I then produced Ken Russell’s last film, a cine-opera called ‘Boudica Bites Back’.
C8: The film secured you a Welsh BAFTA for best short film in 2001 and enjoyed a great festival run – has it been a springboard for your career?
SS: Yes and no really. It’s still the work I’m best known for and I have had some fantastic festival jaunts around the world with it, but in terms of people giving you what you really want, funding to make another film in my own style and voice, not so much really. A lot of the work I’ve done since has been pretty much homemade with talented friends. I’ve had offers to turn ‘A Heap of Trouble’ into a feature film (err, right), and a few people wanting me to ‘make another just like that’ (easier said than done). The festival run has been great though and it’s still picking up awards. Last year a box arrived from a German festival of erotic cinema. They’d sent me a bell labelled ‘Ring For Sex’. I keep ringing it but I’m not sure it’s working. I still get several enquiries a week for AHOT to show somewhere in the world which I guess isn’t bad for a ten year old bath time idea.
C8: What are the most common pitfalls for new filmmakers?
SS: I guess copying other people’s ideas would be the most common. Loving films is probably the number one reason people become a filmmaker, but take the originality of the work you love and use it to fire your own individuality. It’s too easy to say ‘I’ll take that bit from there, and that shot from there’. Other people have seen your influences too and it probably won’t impress anyone. It’s understandable and the instinct takes a lot of fighting, but believe in your own voice. It’s unique, develop it, no one else can think the things you do.
C8: What are your top tips for those starting out?
SS: Film is highly collaborative so rope in anyone you can who is willing to help and won’t let you down. If you’re lucky enough to have contacts, use them. If you surround yourself with enthusiastic people, even if they’re inexperienced, those networks grow over the years as they gain experience and contacts. Above all though, try and get experienced actors. Your mates are probably wooden in front of the camera, whereas local theatre actors will be champing at the bit for a chance and some of them will be brilliant. I used local theatre actors for my graduation film ‘Fatted Calf’, and they were fabulous. Dean Taylor, who played the father, has been in every one of my fiction films and is a great collaborator.
C8: Who are your filmmaking heroes and what is your favourite short?
SS: I tend to love people who are either underground or on the edge of the mainstream. Timothy Carey is one of my favourite actors, and his own feature as a writer/director The World’s Greatest Sinner is one of the great works of Outsider Cinema. Luis Buñuel is probably my all-time favourite director. A member of the Surrealists, he used to get up at dawn, walk the dogs for two hours, do a few hours work, drink heavily at lunchtime and then fire rifles inside his house all afternoon. What’s not to like? I also love silent comedy; Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Chaplin. There were no rules so they just wrote them. My favourite short is Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business, it’s pure anarchy and like AHOT it’s a situation that’s spiralling out of control.
C8: If you could work with anyone in the industry who would it be and why?
SS: The one thing I do really need is a dedicated producer. Most successful directors work regularly with one producer, I’ve just never found that person and often do the producing myself. It’s draining doing that extra work though, and takes your eye off directing. Buñuel had a producer called Serge Silberman who came to him one day and said he’d help him make any film he chose to make. Buñuel replied “Bring a cheque to my office tomorrow afternoon and then leave me alone”, and he did. Serge is dead now, so I’m not holding out any hopes.
C8: What’s the secret behind good collaboration?
SS: Collaboration is an art in itself and I’m still learning. Diplomacy is the most important thing, knowing which good ideas to turn down and how to do it without upsetting people. And create an atmosphere where people feel they can offer you their ideas. As the director yours is the main vision for the project and all ideas have to be channelled through you, but if you can communicate your vision clearly then the people around you will have great things to contribute. I’ve seen directors screaming at people on set and it doesn’t get the best out of anyone. Welcome every idea and just know how to pick and choose and thank people for their contributions.
C8: What’s next on the slate for Steve Sullivan?
SS: I’ve spent the last seven years making my first feature film, Happy Hours. It’s largely homemade, self-funded, and I’ve co-written and co-produced it with the actress Karin Diamond, who’s also in it. It’s a comedy about a fictitious self-help scheme and the chaos it causes three unhinged people desperate for friendship. We’ve got a great Ska soundtrack, some weird 3D without glasses and some crazy performances by some very funny actors. It’s been a long time in the making, but we’ve had so much help from friends in the industry, trainees, students, university film courses, everywhere really. It should be finished in summer and going out to a film festival near you soon. There’ll be a trailer and Facebook link on my website shortly; www.stevesullivan.co.uk After that I’m hoping to have a nice lay down in a darkened room. Or make a sequel.