‘Kai’ dir. Andrew Cumming

Kai is a dancer struggling to perfect her movements. She practices at home, avoids going out for drinks after training, and is endlessly chastised by her dance teacher, all to no avail. This changes when she has a collision with joy, and learns how to let go and express her pleasure freely.

Writer-Director: Andrew Cumming
Producer: Franziska Linder
DOP: Steven Cameron Ferguson
Key Cast: Aoi Nakamura


C8: You were selected as the winner of a competition with Unilever and Magnum, which included funding for the film and mentorship from Xavier Dolan. What was it like working with Dolan?

AC: Xavier was very generous with his time. Despite the fact he was in the US and has a lot of high profile projects on the go, we had a pretty in-depth, informal Skype conversation. I thought the actors in Mommy were terrific, so we spoke about how he achieved such intense performances, and he was very encouraging and supportive of my idea and the visual references I’d provided in my submission – we both have a thing for Vilhelm Hammershøi’s work. Despite the enormous success he’s had at such an early stage in his career, he’s a very cool, grounded and self-deprecating guy. It was a pleasure.

C8: How long did it take you to develop the initial idea for Kai?

AC: I’d shot a film for a contemporary dance company earlier this year and one of the dancers was a young Taiwanese woman and she was terrific on camera – when she danced she just lit up. I took a mental note and when I saw Magnum’s call for film submissions on the theme of pleasure, I scribbled something down in my notepad almost immediately based on her. From notepad to shooting script, I think the whole thing probably took about a week or so. I have a tendency to over think these things some times, but the loose idea of a dancer struggling for perfection felt right, so I didn’t dwell to long.

C8: Can you describe the process of casting and working with Aoi Nakamura who plays Kai?

AC: Due to the visual nature of the script I felt I needed a dancer who could do some acting rather than the opposite. Professional dancers can do things with their bodies that look horrendously painful to normal people – it verges on superhuman and the best actors in the world couldn’t fake that without months of preparation, which we didn’t have.

With that in mind I approached the dancer the script was based on first, but she wasn’t available and recommended Aoi. Originally, I was going to bring in a choreographer to work out the dance elements, but it just so happened that Aoi and her partner Esteban are also professional choreographers. We met up, hit it off and I invited them to choreograph the film and play the dancer and choreographer. It was one of those moments of good fortune that happen so rarely I’d have been stupid not to embrace it.

With the choreography, we spoke around the ideas of freedom, joy, loneliness and frustration and I entrusted them to workshop a sequence around that – my only stipulation was that Aoi had to jump and land at the end of the dance, as I wanted to end on that jump cut from the subconscious to reality. The DoP (Steven Cameron Ferguson) and I visited them at their rehearsal space and formulated a shooting plan around their ideas. On set, it was simply a case of refining things with Aoi, Esteban and Steven (DOP), then improvising much looser movements for the joy sequence at the end of the film.

Aoi and Esteban were great collaborators, and Aoi was a model professional – she must have been exhausted by the end but she never complained and always gave her best. It was a rewarding creative experience for all of us, I think.

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

AC: I’d written in a lot of locations, from Camber Sands on the south coast to a dance studio on South Bank, a black out studio in Leytonstone and a flat in Stratford. Unit moves are always stressful and as hard as everyone works they invariably cost you time. As a result, some shots had to go but I believe it was David Fincher who said you don’t know what directing is until you need nine shots and you’ve only got time for two. We were also swapping between 35mm and Alexa, which is a complicated and time consuming process but so worth it when you see your rushes.

However, I should add the cast and crew worked their socks off for not very much money. If it wasn’t for their efforts, there would have been far more challenges!

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

AC: My shot list on the beach was much bigger and I’d planned to use a lot more subliminal cutaways (macro details such as grass, water, sun flares) during the sequence. We were racing against the sun however, so they had to go. I think some of them may have added an extra, more sensory element to the film, but my editor (Carmela Iandoli) did such a good job I barely miss them.

Other than that, I’m actually very happy with how the film turned out. It’s very close to that one pager I scribbled out months ago and how often does any director get to say that?

C8: The purpose of the competition was to publish the films online after completion, which is the opposite to keeping them offline for the festival circuit. Do you think that festivals are still the best place for filmmakers to showcase their work?

AC: It depends on your film and your ambitions for it. With a very short, visual piece like this I think it’s absolutely right to publish it online and the stats back that up. It’s been viewed well over a million times now across various social media platforms – I could spend hundreds of hours (and pounds) chasing those figures via the festival circuit and not make a dent. It’s also reassuring that off those million hits a lot of them will be regular people, by which I mean your average, cinema-going audience rather than jaded cinephiles like me!

Having said that, certain festivals (and their awards) offer prestige to filmmakers that can build towards that elusive first feature, but each festival has their own particular taste and there are so many films out there now that’s it’s very difficult to stand out if your film doesn’t quite fit.

Thankfully a lot of big festivals are relaxing on their prehistoric attitude that films available online are ineligible for submission. This is great news for filmmakers as it means you can get your film out there instantly, find an audience and still have a crack at getting some festival recognition, should you so wish.

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

AC: I originally studied animation at art college in Scotland, but the process is so draining and lonely I made the jump to live action! I set up a media company, where I honed my craft and paid the bills making corporate films, narrative shorts and writing for the stage. I then went to the National Film & Television School, graduating in 2013.

I was picked up by a couple of good agents, I have a psychological horror in development with Creative Scotland and my graduation film ‘Radiance’ was optioned for television. Earlier this year I directed a short drama called Oakwood for the BBC iPlayer and Kai went live in October. Reading that back, it sounds like I’m doing quite well but there have been a few lulls and some anguish mixed in there too!

C8: What is next for Andrew Cumming? Any exciting projects on the horizon?

AC: There are a couple of things on the horizon that I’m hesitant to comment on in case they don’t pan out and I look like an idiot, but I do have another feature in the early stages that I’m really excited about. I think the UK should be making more smart, unique genre films for mainstream audiences and this project is definitely in that vein.

I’m also developing a new short with a very smart team of people and I’d also like to make a move into commercials. The purity of the storytelling is such a great way for directors to hone their visual language, and Kai has certainly helped with that.