‘College Romance – The Musical’ dir. Isabelle Sieb

This comedy musical follows the heartbreaking yet hilarious story of Penny through a catchy song that takes audiences on a journey through British college life.

Director-Producer: Isabelle Sieb
DOP: Adam Etherington
Production Manager:  Jesus Santaeularia
Key Cast: Jessica Swallow


C8: Where did the idea for College Romance – The Musical come from and how long did it take to develop?

IS: As incredibly random as it sounds, the idea for College Romance came to me while staying in the Negev desert to build mud huts for an eco village. It was my summer break between Year Two and Three at university and I knew had to come up with a short film idea for my upcoming semester. Maybe it was the immense heat that made me think that putting together a big musical all by myself for my first short film would be a great idea!

I didn’t have very long to develop it, as everything had to be done from start to finish within a three-months-long semester, so I think I had about three to four weeks to get the script into a shape that everyone was happy with. I do remember my teachers not quite getting what I was trying to do, but I had been a decent enough student up until then so they decided to trust me and let me go with it.

C8: How did you go about creating the musical numbers for the film? Did you record them in a studio?

IS: I had already had a good and trusting working relationship with my composer, Stephanie Taylor, and she was the first person I spoke to about my idea because I knew there was no way I could have made this film without her. We talked about references and what kind of structure I wanted for the film and song and then she went off and composed the track. Once that was done, I wrote the lyrics and melodies (which were a major part of the script) and because I can’t write in music notes, I had to basically sing the song at my cast so they could learn it. So that was quite funny and I’m very glad there are no recordings of it anywhere! We then went into a recording studio to record the track with the lead cast’s vocals on it and once the track was finished, we could use it for all dance rehearsals with the rest of the cast.

We had a four week rehearsal period, which for a five minute film is quite incredible and it was only possible because the entire cast were students at my university, so we could meet up after class and use the facilities to rehearse (and shoot the film).

C8: What was the most challenging part of production and why?

IS: The most challenging part for me was the size of the production (we had about 20 cast members and 20 crew members) and never having made a short film on a “professional” level before. So I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into until we were on set. I didn’t have an AD because I didn’t think I’d need one, so while directing, I was also the one keeping track of the schedule and yelling all across the university backyard to get the actors in their first positions after each take.

C8: You produced and directed the film. Did you find it difficult wearing both hats on set?

IS: I definitely found it difficult and that’s a mistake I will never make again. Thankfully I had the most wonderful Production Manager, the great Jesus Santaeularia, who basically took care of everything I couldn’t take care of in the days before shooting and on set, which was a major relief and I’m not sure I would have survived the production otherwise.

C8: If you could go back and change anything what would it be?

IS: It’s funny because this is actually a film I can now enjoy watching and appreciate for what it is, while knowing that I didn’t know very much about directing when I made it. So if there is anything I could change, apart from getting a Producer and an AD on board, it would be just learning more about film language in advance. At the time all I knew was that I should probably get wides, medium shots and close ups for each scene and that was about it. Thankfully my DOP knew a whole lot more and shooting the entire film on steadicam also made a massive difference to the look and visual style of the film.

C8: The film had a good run on the festival circuit. Why do you think the film proved to be so popular?

IS: I think that even though the premise of the film is quite silly and unrealistic (as all musicals are), at its core the film is about embracing your imperfections and that is something that resonated well with audiences because it’s an experience everyone goes through at some point in their life. Plus, Jessica Swallow’s central performance was just really endearing and enjoyable to watch.

C8: Do you think that film festivals are still the best place for filmmakers to showcase their work?

IS: Not necessarily. I think it completely depends on your project and what your goals are for it. If you’ve got a short film that you want to use as a pilot for your feature project, then festivals are still an excellent platform because your audience will be other filmmakers and possibly some quite powerful industry people whose radars it would be good to get on. Plus, if a festival screens your short they are likely to screen your feature too (if it’s any good!)

The major downside is that you have to keep your film away from the public for several years sometimes, while it’s on its festival run. And for many films these days I think it’s actually a better option to just “get it out there” and share it with the worldwide audience that is the Internet. Get it published by a platform like Film of the Week at Hunger TV, get a Vimeo Staff Pick if you’re lucky, and your audience will be much bigger than the audience a festival could offer you.

C8: What had you done in your career up until this point and what have you done since?

IS: I had made a few short documentaries in South Africa up to that point, some of which were broadcast by National Geographic and the Swiss TV channel SF, but I had not made a “proper” short film before and I was still at university, so it was very much my first actual attempt at making a fiction piece.

Since then quite a lot has happened actually. I graduated six months later (summer 2013) and made a short film called Mannequins right after, which I am now developing into a feature through Northern Film & Media’s RISE feature development scheme. I also got selected for Creative England’s, BigTalk’s and Babycow Productions’ short film scheme “Funny Girls” and have just completed my latest short film called Three Women Wait For Death, which was written by BAFTA nominated writer Nat Luurtsema. I was on the Edinburgh International Film Festival Talent Lab last year and I am currently on their “Network” scheme, which runs until March next year. And I’ve got a few projects in development – here in the UK as well in Germany and Los Angeles. So it’s been a busy couple of years since making College Romance!