‘Fish Love’ dir. Ruth Sewell
Sex. Lies. Love. Mat and Ali are a contented couple until one day a stunning escort Anika turns up on their doorstep to expose the hidden fault lines in their relationship.
Writer-Director: Ruth Sewell
Producer: Roslyn Hill
Cinematographer: Caroline Bridges
Key Cast: Cara Horgan, Steven Cree
C8: Where did the idea for Fish Love come from?
RS: Fish Love is a dramatic reconstruction of the time I tried to trick my boyfriend into getting me pregnant by blindsiding him with sexual role-play. Ok, that’s a lie. Although I have enthusiastically endorsed this version of events every time someone asks me whether the script is ‘based on truth’, the rumour has never stuck because I despise children (also a lie).
The inspiration actually came from something a girl in my class said when we were 15; that she wanted to have a baby as soon as possible so that she’d ‘know someone would love her forever.’ This struck me as both achingly painful and completely idiotic, which chimes with my historical approach to relationships, so it felt like a good place to start.
There is not, however, a lot of pain in the film. I had recently fallen hard for someone and this film was a love letter to that relationship. If I’d written it now, four years into that same relationship, it would be a very different script, full of barely suppressed rage and abject misery. The other reason there’s not a lot of pain in the film is that the producer and I made a conscious decision to come up with a story that would actually be fun to watch in a market that seemed to us (at the time) to favour wrist- slittingly depressing shorts. It was only after we made our pact that I realised I didn’t know how to write comedy.
C8: How long did it take you to write the script and did you struggle at all with the writing process?
RS: I struggle with every writing process. I’m struggling to write this sentence. I spend at least 90% of my time fretting about the pointlessness of the endeavour and another five percent looking at Facebook, which only leaves three minutes an hour for writing, so it’s a slow process.
Saying that, I tend to think about an idea a great deal, and sketch notes over weeks and months, and then sit down and write a first draft very quickly. The first draft for Fish Love took a few hours and then underwent a lot of revisions before anyone else saw it. I think the longer you can hang onto a script before showing it to anyone, the more likely you are to get it made. This is possibly the single most useful lesson I learned from four and a half years working in script development. Most of the time, if you’re an unknown writer, you only get one read from a production company, (per writer, not per project) so you better make sure it’s your best work.
C8: How did you go about casting the film and what were you looking for in your actors?
RS: We had expert casting help from Kharmel Cochrane, who in her mid 20s had almost a decade of casting experience with Nina Gold under her belt. We wanted to cast Ali’s role first and then match her with a compatible Matt. Kharmel came up with a great list of actresses. We met with some incredible talent, but when Cara sat down and in response to polite pleasantries she told us she’d just come from a smear test, Roslyn (the producer) and I looked at each other and nodded like partnered cops in an 80s buddy movie. We knew it had to be her.
Casting Matt turned out to be more tricky, and Cara helped us with screen tests for our top three choices. Steven and Cara sparked off one another and since I had originally been looking for a dramatic actor for that role, (rather than a comedy actor) he was perfect for it.
C8: How did you work with Cara Horgan and Steven Cree to develop the relationship of the couple?
RS: Now that I’m a more experienced director, I tend to just throw my script in the actor’s face and yell ‘emote’ at them over and over again. But way back in 2012, I was (as the film shows) very green and we did a great deal of preparation. Cara and Steven obliged me with a full day of rehearsals on location, which was primarily about building the kind of comfortable chemistry that a four years relationship is supposed to have. I had typed up a list of ‘intimacy building games’ of my own design, which I promptly chucked out the window over breakfast as Cara and Steven discussed, completely unprompted, the most intimate details of their own sex lives.
I filmed the rehearsals in their entirety and cut together a live action storyboard of the film. We improvised around the script, ironed out issues and inconsistencies, and shot a bunch of green screen photos for art department to stick above the bed. The rehearsal process was unbelievably helpful for me and, I think, for Cara and Steven. Having time to play around and get comfortable with a short script is an essential luxury.
C8: What was the biggest obstacle you faced during the shoot and how did you overcome it?
RS: The biggest obstacle was time. We had to get through 13 pages over two days, and had eight pages scheduled for the first day. There is a sequence in the film where we stick on a two-shot for the last six lines of the scene, which distressingly for me was because we ran out of time for the singles. I think perhaps now, being more confident, I would have just overrun by half an hour and got those singles.
C8: Noel Clarke is an Executive Producer on the film. When did he come on board and how much input did he give you creatively?
RS: Roslyn was working with Noel when we were looking for locations and budget. We met at the premiere of one of his films and he asked to read the script, which he almost immediately offered to fully finance through his company, Unstoppable Entertainment. This was the moment that the film went from a distant pipe dream to a tangible reality.
We met on the script a couple of times but he wanted to take a more hands off approach and never imposed his ideas. However, he did give one brilliant note which lead to me flipping the script on its head. It was a light bulb moment that was both extremely liberating and jaw grindingly frustrating that I hadn’t thought of it first. So for many reasons, and despite his light touch, the film couldn’t have happened without Noel’s help.
C8: Fish Love played at several festivals but do you think festivals are the best place for emerging filmmakers to showcase their work?
RS: When Fish Love premiered at the London Short Film Festival we were very excited. We dragged friends and family from all over London to the Hackney Picture House and made a day of it in the pub after the screening. It was a huge privilege to be asked to show the film at festivals and nothing beats seeing your film on the big screen, especially surrounded by family and friends, even if they do heckle you during the speeches (thank you, mother).
There is another side to the coin though. Many festivals still insist on having exclusivity, which means that you can’t put the film up online. This isn’t the end of the world, but feels a little behind the times, and I think this could happily change without impacting on the festival experience much.
We also had limited budget to apply for festivals, and I think for a lot of filmmakers, festivals can feel a little out of reach, especially when you’d rather be allocating the time and funds to making another short, pilot or music video. But there are platforms where you can find inexpensive and free festivals to apply for, and though the exposure is probably not as far reaching as some of the larger festivals, it’s definitely worth applying.
C8: How did you initially get into filmmaking and what advice would you give to those looking for their start in the industry?
RS: I would advise anyone wanting to get onto film to be born ridiculously rich and well connected. If you’re neither, do try to grow up in London. I was able to wear out my welcome at my parent’s house whilst I struggled to gain a foothold in the industry, which was probably the difference between working in film and working in a call centre.
When I stumbled out of university I had absolutely no connections and no idea of how to make a start in the industry. After being rejected by dozens of companies for unpaid internships, I stuck it lucky at Agile Films in East London, where I was the only girl in an office that ran on coffee, testosterone and seemingly endless games of ‘Hackysack-Gonad-Chicken’, whereby the fellas took it in turns to thrown a hackysack as hard as they could at one another balls. It was BRILLIANT.
I spent a few months alternating between paid temp work and unpaid internships until I met Nira Park at BBC films and loudly announced that the script she was developing with David Thompson was the best thing I had ever read (this was true, although at this point I had only read about ten scripts in my entire life, which I don’t think she was aware of). She hired me on the spot and I spent the next five years in the development department at Big Talk Productions.
I was having a lot of fun at Big Talk, so much, in fact, that I forgot why I had decided to get into the film industry in the first place, but in 2011 I finally grew a pair of lady-balls, directed a music video and start calling myself a director. The music video was a hand-me-down from Oscar Wright, who had found himself too busy to direct the video for Charlotte Hatherley (former band member of Ash) and asked if I wanted to do it. The catch was that he called me at 4pm on Friday, the video was shooting on the Sunday and it was my birthday on the Saturday, for which I had already made extensive and unwholesome plans. We shot the video for ‘Hook You Up’ on a borrowed Canon 5D in the Big Talk meeting room, with the director/producer (me) trying to conceal a horrific hangover, taking occasional toilet breaks to rest my head against the sink and breathe deeply in an effort to contain my nausia. It was then edited (me again) over the next three nights after work, meaning that I got about five hours sleep for four days in a row. It was the longest hangover of my life.
To be honest, I still can’t believe I get to direct and edit and shoot and grade as an actual job. I suppose the best advice I can give, and this is advice I actually did follow, is not to give up and spend every waking moment trying to get things made. I’ve never been truly happy with a script I’ve written but have taken them into production anyway, because every shoot has been a learning process and a stepping stone to the next bigger, better production. So consider your working week Monday to Sunday and consider your chosen vocation an incredibly privileged hobby, because being a filmmaker is the best thing in the world.
C8: What do you think makes for a good collaboration?
RS: The first person you will be collaborating with is your producer, and the best-case scenario in a producer/director relationship is that they form a kind of communications battering ram to keep relentlessly hammering a project through from concept to production. This means responding immediately to emails at two in the morning, pushing to get dates locked and deadlines met in the absence of cast or location, and generally believing the project is definitely going to happen despite terrible odds, with an optimism boarding on stupidity.
Collaborating with actors, I think, is mostly about choosing the right talent and then creating the best environment to allow them to inhabit the role. If you have written the part, you almost always instinctively know the answer to a question about a character’s motivation and background, but if you don’t, it can’t hurt to figure it out with an actor during the rehearsal process and this will help make the character the actor’s own. Being open to completely new ideas, from both sides of the camera, is essential, but it’s a balance and if you feel your vision could be compromised you can’t let yourself get talked into a corner.
As a director, your job is to hire the best, most talented people and then steal all the credit, so you should be incredibly grateful to your team and show it in myriad ways, whenever you possibly can.
C8: What else are you working on at the moment? What is next for you?
RS: I work as a full time filmmaker with a production company called 3angrymen, which specialises in making promos for charities. I’m just finishing up an edit on a project for Build Africa, a charity that is working with schools in Kenya to improve educational outcomes for girls, which has a far more wide-ranging impact on a community than you might think.
The great thing about working with smaller charities is that by working directly with the charity (rather than through an agency) we get to come up with a response to the brief and script the films ourselves, which is very rewarding. Directing a one-shot scene with 15 extras and eight cues in a mix of Swahili and English where the lead character walks backwards has to be in my top five career landmarks.
In the longer term I’m working on a few feature projects, both self-generated and with writers at various stages of development, a couple of documentary ideas, one of which is just about to go into production, plus a TV project with a very talented writer. I hope to get another short made with one of the feature writers by the end of next year.