‘The Flying Lesson’ dir. Phil Hawkins

After the recent death of her grandfather, Phoebe Sanderson takes a flying lesson in the exact plane her grandfather flew in WWII, a recently restored Tiger Moth. With a sense of trepidation, she takes flight with a promise to keep. Only a chauvinistic flying instructor with a secret stands in her way…

Director: Phil Hawkins
Writers: Ian Bishop & Phil Hawkins
DOP: James Oldham
Key Cast: Jessica Blake, Richard J. Fletcher


C8: You co-wrote ‘The Flying Lesson’ with Ian Bishop. What inspired the film and how did the script come about?

PH: I was sent a script by the pilot who owned the plane and wanted to make a short film with his good friend Ian who was a first time writer. With a small team they actually started filming a few scenes before I came onboard but realised quite quickly that they had the opportunity to create a unique short film with this amazing aircraft and looked for a more experienced director to come onboard to do the film justice. The filmed scenes were thrown in the bin and we started from scratch. When I got the call I had real respect for these guys as you don’t just throw away a few days shoot lightly and realised that they really cared about the film they wanted to make and I gladly came onboard to help. It was a fantastic challenge for me too… I’d never shot anything like this.

The first draft of the script I read lacked character and the emotional hook I felt the short needed to hang the action together. It was basically “aeroplane porn”. The plane took off, did some stunts, landed and concentrated more on the chauvinistic flight instructor character (based loosely on real life WWII hero Douglas Bader who flew in the actual plane we shot with). I felt it was important to understand why this young pilot was taking this flying lesson and we based the new draft around that. I worked closely with Ian to redraft the script and he worked really hard in a short space of time to learn about screenplay structure. He went from a badly formatted Word document to a structured Final Draft screenplay just a few weeks. He’s now hooked and writing an equally ambitious feature!

The film was also shot by a young new DOP – James Oldham – who was already onboard the original shoot. I think everyone just expected me to replace him with one of my regulars who I work with on commercials but I thought that would have been very unfair to him. As you’ll see in the film he’s very talented and did a great job. He’s now starting out shooting commercials as a DOP based on this film which is fantastic.

C8: The film is incredibly ambitious. How did you find funding for it and what was the budget?

PH: When Ian and I were working on the script we didn’t want to restrict ourselves in what could be achieved… I kept telling him to write what feels right and I’ll come up with something to pull it off! It was a great challenge for me… I’d never shot aerial sequences before and also didn’t want to use any CGI or green screen. I relied on camera tricks and practical effects (such as smoke and wind machines) which I think gives it a heightened sense of reality.

In terms of budget it cost around £15k to make which is a lot for a short but not even close to what this scale of production would have cost if everything was full rate. The budget mainly went on aviation fuel, the helicopter to shoot air-to-air with (we could only afford it for 30mins for everything… including take off and landing!) and food for the crew. As I work a lot in the northwest shooting commercials I had a great core crew who came onboard donating their time and achieve some great deals on camera equipment thanks to 24/7 Drama. I really wanted to give the film a cinematic feeling for the ground scenes so enlisted the help of Dan Shaw, a very talented jib operator whom I’ve worked with on ads and music videos. All of the ground scenes were shot using this and allowed us to achieve some fantastic moves.

The short was privately funded by a number of us involved in the production. I don’t think it’s the type of short that funding bodies would have been interested in putting money into… they would have probably laughed at the ambition of it and said it wasn’t possible.

C8: What was the most difficult part of the shoot? Were there very strict aviation guidelines to adhere to?

PH: Yes, we had to follow very strict guidelines and the rules of the various airfields we filmed at when working with the plane. Obviously we couldn’t just do anything we wanted. It was a real challenge trying to film with the plane from a working airfield. At one point whilst shooting the cockpit scenes we had to keep unplugging the main power cables to our lights as, because of weather, they had to change the route other planes taxied into which meant they would have had to drive over our cables which wouldn’t had been safe. It was frustrating as we had to shoot in 10 minute intervals which really slowed us down. In fact, a lot of the cockpit dialogue scenes are shot at night but lit to match the rest!

The Tiger Moth plane – called Huffy – also was a bit of a diva. Sometimes she didn’t want to start (you have to engage the prop manually whichever as always a bit scary to watch… You could easily lose an arm if you did it incorrectly) and also could only fly in certain weather which meant there were a few pickup days where we had to wait in a cafe for the weather to clear before rushing out to get the shots we needed in the short window.

Obviously Adrian (Alexander) who was the main stunt pilot and who owned the plane was very experienced in aviation and filming aerial sequences so I learnt a lot from working with him. It was a thrilling experience. I actually shot a lot of the POV cockpit shots myself handheld… you need a strong stomach for some of those maneuvers but it’s truly beautiful up there being exposed to the air flying in a bi-plane. And cold. Very cold.

C8: Is there any advice you would give to emerging filmmakers wishing to make an ambitious short?

PH: Plan, plan, plan! If you’re making something you don’t really know whether is possible (believe me, at times prepping ‘The Flying Lesson’ I was worried things might not work!) and always try and think of a Plan B just in case! Don’t just rush head first into shooting. It’s really important, with any filmmaking really, that you do your prep. Shot list, blocking plans, storyboards… They’re all important to help you think.

I think ambition is required these days. Just making a film is easy… You can do it on your mobile phone if you really wanted to. What sets people apart is ambition. Of course it doesn’t have to be air-to-air stunt sequences in a biplane, we were very lucky to have access to this, but you need to stand out and be different to be noticed. But, don’t forget about your audience. There’s no point making something that is ambitious if there’s no engagement with the audience on a script/character level. That’s what we tried to do with (avoiding spoilers here) the hipflask device in ‘The Flying Lesson’. It became the emotional hook the ambition of the film relied on. Without that element and closure for Phoebe the rest of the film would have felt a little pointless… in my opinion!

C8: You primarily used the Canon C300 for the shoot. Why did you choose this camera and how did you find working with it?

PH: It was actually a suggestion of James, the DOP. He was a fan of the camera and was very familiar with it so we decided to go with it. I’m used to shooting on Red Epic or Alexa but the image quality really stood up with the right lenses. It’s a versatile camera that we shot all of the ground sequences of the film with but we had to used mixed formats for this film for various reasons.

C8: You also shot on the Red and 5D Mark II. Did shooting on various formats present any particular problems?

PH: We used the Red to shoot the air-to-air footage with. Basically it was save our skin with the short duration we had with the helicopter and the fact we only really had one take to do everything we needed with the loops. We used the 4k resolution of the Red to allow us to zoom into the plane in post to gain extra “coverage” on the stunts… And I’m glad we did! We also weren’t able to get too close to the plane with the helicopter and a big zoom lens would have been very heavy (the Red was operated handheld out of the open side door of the helicopter) so I decided that we needed this extra resolution in our back pockets just in case.

We used the 5D for the POV cockpit shots basically because it was the smallest but still high resolution camera we had. The cockpit of the Tiger Moth is very small, even too small for a C300, so the 5D was ideal.

The only problem we could see with all these formats was post production. We didn’t really have the processing power (or time… there were a lot of rushes!) to transcode everything to one format but our editor suggested using Adobe Premiere. It was brilliant. It could handle the 5D, Red and C300 formats all on the same timeline natively which was very impressive. I was a long user and fan of Final Cut Pro but have switched to Premiere since editing ‘The Flying Lesson’ for all future projects.

C8: If you did the whole thing again is there anything you would do differently?

PH: That’s a tiring thought! I think I’d just probably try to allow more time. We did rush a few sequences because of some of the reasons I’ve mentioned but I’m proud the we’ve been able to pull off such an ambitious short film that seems to have really engaged people. I get messages almost everyday from people who have found the film and want to tell me how much it’s touched them or reminds them of their grandfathers or husbands who flew in WWII. It’s very touching. People have shared personal stories on our Vimeo page too. It’s amazing that we’ve had some much support since we’ve launched the film online but when we submitted to film festivals we didn’t have much luck which was a surprise. I guess, thinking about it, we made this film for audiences to enjoy and not to fulfill some intellectual message which it seems is the type of short a lot of film festivals program (unless you’re a comedy!).

C8: Where does ‘The Flying Lesson’ sit in your career? What projects had you worked on before it?

PH: I’m a commercials and features director and my career grew from making short films starting when I was a kid. I’ve been lucky enough to direct three feature films ‘The Women of Troy’, which won Best Director at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival in 2006. That led onto being picked to direct an adaptation of a novel by Philip Pullman (author of ‘The Golden Compass’) which won the same award again in 2008 along with quite a few others. ‘The Butterfly Tattoo’ actually starred Jessica Blake who played Phoebe in ‘The Flying Lesson’. After my 2nd film I was lucky enough to receive offers for other features and spent a long time on quite a big budget project which eventually fell through (such is the way of movie making). I realised that I hadn’t directed a feature in a while so came up with another ambitious idea: to shoot a feature film in 2 days. ‘Being Sold’ was a comedy drama released last year and stars a bunch of known comedians and actors. It’s now on iTunes.

C8: You directed a feature film, ‘Being Sold’, in 2011 but have continued to make short films since then. What keeps bringing you back to shorts?

PH: I don’t really subscribe to the idea that shorts are just a stop off on the way to features. Yes, of course, they’re essential for any filmmaker but there are stories out that that only should exist as a short. ‘The Flying Lesson’ works as a short film but couldn’t be extended to a feature… and why should it? We’ve hopefully proved you can achieve a range of emotion, pace and action without needing 90+ minutes. I’ve seen some shorts do it amazingly well in just a few minutes. Obviously there really isn’t any way for a filmmaker to make a living making shorts so commercials and features take priory but now and again an opportunity comes along that you just can’t resist!

I’m just finishing another (quite different) short film at the moment called ‘A Day in the Life of a Bathroom Mirror’ which stars Tim Mcinnerny from ‘Blackadder’ who voices a mirror who is hopelessly in love with the woman who owns him but can’t communicate it. It’s a quirky comedy that will hopefully hit festivals next year.

C8: How did your experience working on shorts help you when it came to directing your first feature?

PH: Shorts were my film school. I started making shorts when I was 13 and continued to push myself to make bigger and better films which got me my break in commercials and, eventually, features. I didn’t go to university or film school instead opting to work as a runner and move up the ranks and learn everything I could from the professionals and apply them to my shorts. I used to love the challenge of the 48 Hour Film Competitions where you would make a short from concept to completion over a weekend. One of my shorts actually got me selected for a US television show for directors that Steven Spielberg produced. Shorts are a very powerful marketing tool for a filmmakers talents.

C8: What do you think makes a good collaboration?

PH: Continued communication and being on the same page as your collaborators. Also never be afraid to ask any question, however stupid or silly you may think it is. I continue to ask questions of my colleagues… I love learning and growing my skills as a filmmaker.

C8: What is next for Phil Hawkins? Any exciting projects on the horizon? 

PH: I’m currently putting the finishing touches to my next feature. It’s a psychological thriller which I also wrote called ‘The Last Showing’ and stars horror legend Robert Englund (aka Freddie Krueger), Finn Jones (‘Game of Thrones’) and Keith Allen (‘Shallow Grave’). It’s my biggest project as a feature film director so far and the first production we’ve financed from the slate of my film company ‘The Philm Company’. Our next production is ‘Baptism’, an action thriller set on the London Underground based on a critically acclaimed novel by Max Kinnings. We actually shot a spec trailer (which you can see on our site philmcompany.com) in order to help raise the finance. We’re looking at shooting late Summer next year.

Twitter: @philmblog