‘The Cull’ dir. Jonathan Harris (2010)
A poor farmer, desperate to continue his family’s farming traditions, clashes with his sickly, sensitive son.
Director: Jonathan Harris
Writer: Andrew Walker
Producers: Christopher Leonard &Garry Paton
Key Cast: Steve Evets, Jennifer Hennessy, Jonathan Mason
10 Questions for Jonathan Harris
C8: Can you tell us a bit about how this project came about? What was the inspiration?
JH: I’d had a seed of an idea which was really more of a moment than it was a short film, but it provided us with a character and setting that we were able to expand upon. Myself and Chris Leonard (producer) would play the “what if…” game and from there we would bat ideas back and forth. This went on for about a year, but it was a great exercise in pushing the limits of what we had, maximising the story’s potential before pulling back to something that would work as a short. We were very much on the same page in what we wanted to achieve tonally and emotionally which helped when we approached Andrew Walker (writer) who was relentless in his pursuit of structure and character arc. Developing a script is like playing an intricate game of chess with each move presenting numerous different avenues to explore. It’s an extremely enjoyable process even if a little masochistic at times, but having a strong and definite vision of what we wanted to achieve was key to reaching that endpoint.
C8: A lot of shorts that attempt a period setting seem to fall foul of budget constraints – was this something you were cautious about when you were developing the project?
JH: When we were writing, we wrote for the story and not for the budget, but at a certain point you say, ‘ok, now how do we achieve that for £5k’. Some films try to overstate their period and fill the frame with as many artifacts as possible in an attempt to convince its audience of its authenticity. I thought the opposite could also be true, so we created these very minimal and structured compositions through which single period details would stand out and say everything for us. The moment in which Paddy (Steve Evets) is sat alone at the dinner table is a good example of this. The right location was also paramount for us. We spent about nine months driving to every farm we could find, covering the north of England and Wales searching for a location that hadn’t been too drastically modernised. Our budget meant that the only way to make the film’s schedule achievable was to find a location that would allow us to shoot our interiors and exteriors in the same place. Eventually, we stumbled upon the home of Hayden and Lisa who were in the process of restoring their farmhouse to how it would have looked in the early 1900’s. It was extremely fortuitous for us and it meant that much of what the art department would have done with a larger budget was already in place. We merely accentuated what was already there.
C8: The film has a very solid, traditional feel; it isn’t flashy, it doesn’t showboat, it is confident in itself and in the story it is trying to tell. Were there any film references you were conscious of as you made it?
JH: Stills as well as film. Tonally, I wanted to create something quite beautiful as well as violent and certain photographs by Don McCullin acted as a good reference point for me. Filmicly ‘The Cull’ the easiest comparison would be a Western. Photographically, the wide 2:35 vistas make this quite obvious but moreover in it’s themes and characterisation. The idea of a man trying to stake his legacy and demand ownership over a piece of land is very much of this genre. I love the arrogance of that mentality and the ultimate futility of it’s pursuit. It’s like someone building a very tall and proud statue as a monument to their existence only for it become a nest for pigeons or simply erode away over time and topple over. Nature is unrelenting and unemotional. It favours no one and as Paddy fails to leave his stamp on it, he focuses his frustrations towards the family he is trying to protect.
C8: Was it a difficult environment to shoot in?
JH: Ironically, yes. The weather was completely unsympathetic to the fact we were trying to make a film. It was impossible to predict, making it difficult to get into a rhythm. Within the week we were there, we experienced lightning, rain, gale force winds, hailstones and at times blistering sunshine and beautiful sunsets. The isolation was also exhausting. Most of the crew was located in Manchester which meant a three hour commute. That said, we had an amazingly dedicated crew coupled with some very smart and talented people working on the logistics to make it possible. Ultimately though, it wouldn’t have been achievable without the generosity of Hayden and his family who selflessly gave their home over to a bunch of strangers with little to no money as compensation. The film is testament to their generosity and I’m very grateful to them.
C8: Steve Evets gives a strong, stern performance as the father – was he on board the project from the beginning?
JH: Our casting director, Beverly Keogh, presented us with some initial suggestions and Steve was the obvious choice. We were extremely lucky that he agreed to do it given that he was riding on the success of ‘Looking For Eric’. His physicality is hard and tactile which was perfect but he also has a vulnerability that you can sometimes see when he lets his guard down. Looking for that duality was key to the casting process.
C8: Was it important for you to have an actor who came from the North to play the part?
JH: We were all northern filmmakers at the time, so it was never even a consideration that the film wouldn’t be set in the region. I suppose that thick, monosyllabic northern accent has a particular connotation but it was simply a case of working with the knowledge base and experience that we all had. To a trained ear, you can hear that each actor is from a different area but I’m not a stickler for accents in general. The actor ends up concentrating more on his tone and intonation rather than their emotional integrity.
C8: Where does ‘The Cull’ sit in your career, what had you done before it?
JH: ‘The Cull’ was my first short film. I’d graduated from Uni with a degree in Criminology and no film experience. I spent the following 18 months building up my knowledge in as many hands on production roles as possible. I’d become a Jack of all trades, initially production running and then lighting, video playback, camera operating, assisting a theatre director and even going to the Cannes Film Festival and AFM as a co-producer on a low-budget feature. I wanted to take my time and learn from other people’s experiences before I committed to something. Each role helped build my knowledge base and I think having such a rounded understanding helped to push what was possible and then know when to pull back when I was over stretching it.
C8: Has it helped you move up the career ladder?
JH: The recognition that the film received was very positive and luckily it coincided with my time within Working Title. Being nominated for Best British Short at Edinburgh and winning a Trailblazer award allowed me to get the attention of some of the execs there, not just as an intern but as a director and I was able to screen it some prominent industry figures which resulted in me being signed to Independent Talent. It’s served as a great calling card and ultimately allowed me to be taken somewhat seriously as a director within the industry.
C8: You were accepted onto the Working Title Action! scheme in 2009, what was it like to do a stint at one of the most successful film production companies in the UK?
JH: Working there was one of the most satisfying things I’d ever done. Ultimately I’m just a film geek, so when you’re working in a building with a cinema in the basement, a DVD library covering the last 80 years of film and have the opportunity to speak to Oscar winning film makers over your lunchtime burrito, it doesn’t really get any better. I essentially lived in that building for a year, going in on weekends, reading and working on whatever I could. What’s quite unique about the company is that every department from legal to production, development, distribution through to projection are housed under one roof. It meant that you got a 360 degree view of the entire process and allowed you to understand how each facet of a project interrelates.
C8: So what’s next on the horizon for Jonathan Harris?
JH: Continuing working with film but also some more commercials and stills based projects. I’m currently finishing up some films I’ve made in China and South Africa for Manchester United’s sponsor AON which was a lot of fun. I’m also developing a treatment for my first feature film and more immediately directing another short film, ‘The Line’ which Finite Productions is producing. Working Title has kindly given us some money towards it and now we’re looking for another generous soul to get on board to help complete the budget. I’m also working on a short documentary which combine video and stills and focuses on subcultures that hold their sense of community through aggressive behaviour.