‘Big Mouth’ dir. Henry Darke (2010)
Bud, 19, is profoundly deaf. His best friend is leaving town and soon he’ll have no one to talk to. He’s going to have to learn how to stand up for himself and fast.
10 Questions for Henry Darke
C8: ‘Big Mouth’ is honest, poignant, genuine and exciting – what inspired the story?
HD: Thank you. I had some interest from a producer at The Independent Film Company, Philip Herd, to make a short film after leaving film school and came up with a few different short film ideas, but when I met Paul and Toby, the leads in the film, ‘Big Mouth’ fast became the leading idea. Their friendship and different personalities were the inspiration for the film. And that’s what you see on the screen.
C8: The film pulls off the rare trick of covering a lot of emotional distance in a relatively short space of time, and taking a character on a really meaningful journey. You had a couple of experienced development folk working on this with you, along with co-writer Harry Wootliff – how long did it take to get the script nailed down?
HD: It takes a long time to write anything I find, a feature can take between 2-3 years, and a short 3-6 months. It’s a lot of hard work. Harry has a wealth of experience. The first film she ever made, ‘Nits’, won Rushes, TCM, Birds Eye View, was BAFTA nominated, got into Cannes. She understands people and writing better than anyone I know. I would also have regular script meetings with Philip Herd. We had certain specific things we wanted to do that he would reiterate at every meeting we had. About it being an emotional story; and about capturing the boys’ friendship and what makes it so unique; and also doing something original and subjective visually and with the sound. These thoughts really anchored us and took the script to final draft and into production.
C8: The performances are really strong from both leads, how did you go about casting the film?
HD: I met the boys through a friend of mine who runs a group taking deaf teenagers on days out to various places. So I met these boys on the beach, where we shot the film actually. I was immediately struck by the strength of their friendship and by how different their personalities are. They are both very funny, and open, and great performers in their own right, but quite different. In developing the script Harry and I were very careful to listen and watch them and tailor the script to who they really are, and the rehearsals really helped that. I rehearsed a lot with them, and so when we came to shoot we were very prepared. We had a translator there to smooth the process but most of the time I could communicate with both of them directly and quite easily. People think it must have been hard to direct two deaf boys but actually it was relatively easy and fast. They are very perceptive and get body language better than hearing people, and generally would understand and be able to do what I wanted immediately, faster than professional actors most of the time.
C8: What were the biggest challenges in getting ‘Big Mouth’ made and what did you learn from working on the project?
HD: The producers might be better people to ask about that as they found the funding. We made it independently for hardly any money and shot on 35mm, in Cornwall! So it was logistically quite hard, and because we were putting twenty people up and feeding them it meant we had a very short schedule. The one rule I had was that every location had to be within a one-mile radius of my house so that made the shoot a little easier to manage. There are always unforeseen things that happen on a film that are impossible to predict. The biggest challenge really was getting the film that was on the page onto the screen in a short shooting period, and hoping that we could achieve the creative ambitions I mentioned earlier. In the end it took a lot of hard work in the editing room, we had a fantastic editor – Tim Fulford – sound editor, and composer who really gave shape to the final film. I really enjoyed the process of making ‘Big Mouth’ and working with Paul and Toby. The Cinematographer Niels loved filming them, and was always saying that this would make a fantastic feature film, a story about Paul, the boy with the tattoos, growing up in Cornwall. As the shoot went on that idea fermented and I’ve been working on the feature since then.
C8: Does the feature cover the same thematic territory and what are the challenges in developing into a much longer story?
HD: Like the short it’s a coming of age story, and it’s partly inspired by the real life of Paul, the taller boy. But the feature is quite a departure from the short and says a lot more. It’s about family; loyalty; community; identity; and most importantly Cornwall, which is where I am from. Cornwall is more of a character in the feature, we get to really see both sides, the beautiful paradise people know, and the deprived side people never see. This is the first feature I’ve written and the main challenge has been keeping the story contained. What I do when I start writing, and I think this is quite common, is to chuck everything in, overload the story with lots of big events and plot, and characters, and the development of the story is really a process of being true to the world you have created, streamlining until you get to a point where you can look at it and go ‘yes, this is the story I wanted to write all those months ago, I got there!’ It’s a very hard, soul-destroying process to go through and anyone that says they have written a script in a couple of weeks is either a bad writer or a liar. There is no shortcut. Writing is by far the hardest part of the filmmaking process. The concepts of structure and story are the same for a short as they are for a feature but you can say a lot more, which can be a distraction. It’s quite hard to see the wood for the trees sometimes when you’ve been working on something for so long. Which is why you need a very good producer like Lisa Williams to keep reigning you in and saying “no this is what the story is, remember? This is what we want to say. Let’s go back to this” and not let yourself get carried away with distracting ideas.
C8: You were spotted for the project through your short film ‘Lobster Trap’, had a good festival run with ‘Big Mouth’ and have since graduated to a 25 minute short for Channel 4’s ‘Coming Up’ scheme. Do you think short film making is fundamental for filmmakers looking to hone their craft?
HD: Shorts have been the route for me so far, for someone else it could be theatre, acting, painting, assistant directing, photography. There are many ways into directing. TV celebrities and prize-winning artists seem to be in fashion at the moment in the UK. In the seventies golden era in the U.S. it was film school graduates. I think the most important thing is just getting your film made. As I said before, Harry Wootlif hit the ground running with her short film Nits. Her training, like many writers and directors, was as an actress. I think that is still one of the best ways in for a director, because you really learn what works and what doesn’t from performing. Ultimately the fundamental thing you need is a good, original, story; that’s what it always comes down to, and with that you should be able to get a strong creative team around you.
C8: Are there any common mistakes you see new filmmakers making in shorts that might be holding them back?
HD: The best advice I’ve ever been given as a filmmaker was to write about what you know, which I think is especially true for people starting out and just beginning to find their own voice. It’s a mistake to think you should be like a certain kind of filmmaker, and every few years there’s a new guy that everyone wants to be like – it was Tarantino, now it’s Nolan. Also, on a lot of shared media platforms there is a lot of content; thousands of people are out there making films on a Canon with nice lenses, but there is nothing to distinguish between them in terms of quality. Something can look amazing, and style is very important in whatever story you are telling, but if it isn’t saying something original then what’s the point? I think you have to be inspired by your own life when you’re starting out. ‘Big Mouth’ is about a deaf boy, but it deals with issues that go beyond being deaf. Really it’s about being a young man and growing up. I could relate to that so it was relatively easy to write. I’m developing a sci-fi idea at the moment and it’s quite out there, but there are elements that I can relate to that mean I have the authority to write it. You have to find an element, no matter how small, that has your stamp, your interests, and your identity. Otherwise it won’t be emotionally true, and it won’t get noticed.
C8: If you wish you’d been given one piece of advice when you were starting out, what would it be?
I can’t think of advice I should have been given, it’s all out there at your disposal to find out and you just need to look it up. I think young filmmakers are quite savvy. I would however question a young filmmaker’s motives. Do you really want to go into filmmaking? People say when you’re starting out that you have to have a thick skin and it’s hard, but nothing really prepares you for the reality of filmmaking and the amount of rejection you experience as a writer-director. And the hoops you have to jump through to maybe nearly one day get to make your film. It is nearly impossible to get a feature film made. It’s like hunting white tigers. You are lucky if you get one shot at it. And if you’re serious about it you need to go in for the right reason, because you have something original to say, not because you’ve seen Memento and want to be Christopher Nolan.
C8: What is the essence of a good collaboration?
HD: Having a vision of what you want to achieve and being able to communicate that clearly to your actors and creative team, and being able to listen to other people and accept their suggestions and not be so arrogant as to assume your ideas are always the best. The auteur theory is a myth and no director has ever achieved anything alone. Paul Schrader wrote ‘Taxi Driver’, he did the hard work. Al Ruban shot all of John Cassavattes films and was largely responsible for that distinctive look and energy. Alexandre Desplat scores all of Jacques Audiard’s films and gives them an emotional depth that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Hopefully if I am given the opportunity to grow as a filmmaker I will be able build a team and continue to work and collaborate with them. I’ll never be arrogant enough to assume that I am making every decision. It’s not like being a playwright or a novelist where you’re God. In film everyone from the gaffer to the AD to the post-production supervisor is a filmmaker so it’s not just the director, we all have a creative head and that’s why we do it.
C8: You’ve just been listed amongst the Screen International Stars of Tomorrow 2012 – so what does ‘tomorrow’ hold in store for Henry Darke?
HD: My producer Lisa Williams and I are very happy with the final draft of ‘Big Mouth’ the feature and are submitting to funders. I’m also working on an out-and-out comedy set in the Shoreditch bubble. And I’ve recently shot a few music videos for an exciting indie rock band about to take the world by storm, Only Pictures. Actually I’m the frontman of the band! I’m looking for representation with a commercials agency with my promos, so if there’s anyone out there you can take a look at them on my website.