‘The Last Ten’ dir. David Higgs
A nameless man arrives home one evening, he steps in from the pouring rain and contemplates the towering stairwell that separates him from his apartment. He begins his ascent, unaware of the impending disaster that awaits him at the top. He has ten minutes left to live. His wife has even less.
Writer-Director: David Higgs
Producer: David Higgs
DOP: Nicole Heiniger
C8: Where did idea for ‘The Last Ten’ come from?
DH: I was staying in a top floor apartment in Paris that had this incredible stairwell. Every time I climbed the stairs I loved being able to hear sounds and voices coming from behind all the closed doors and would wonder who they were and what they were up to. I took a picture of the stairwell from the top looking down and eventually the idea came to make a film from that fixed vantage point, with a story that unfolds beneath you, and that you only really hear and not see. That’s where the idea grew from and I built a story around that concept. I always knew that the films strength would be in the way the story was being told rather than the story itself.
C8: How did you work with cinematographer Nicole Heiniger to achieve your cinematic vision?
DH: Lighting was hugely important for this film from the word go, particularly with the idea of the hall lights being switched on and turning off in the way they do. I have a fair bit of experience lighting for theatre so I applied what I learnt from that. The lighting rig was pretty complicated as we had so many lights that were all linked up to a theatre lighting desk, but we had to distribute all the power evenly throughout the buildings apartments as we couldn’t run them all off one circuit. So there were extension cables everywhere, coming out of everyone’s letterboxes and being fed out windows and back in again. If you looked at the building from the outside it was a tangled mess of cables. So it was a bit of a puzzle to get it set up and ate considerably into my shooting time. But it meant we had total control over all the light and could turn things on and off on cue and have the lightening flash at precise moments when the actors were stood in its beam.
C8: The film is very technical in terms of timing. How did you negotiate this?
DH: The timing of the piece was imperative as I always imagined this playing out a bit like a theatrical farce, with someone disappearing into one door just as someone steps out from another so that they only just miss seeing each other. We had walkie-talkies distributed around the building so I could be sat watching the monitor with one of my own and would cue everyone via that. As we weren’t recording any sound on location I was able to do this. Since the lighting was rigged up to the desk that was also sat next to the monitor it meant that all the lighting changes could happen perfectly on cue also. And although the film appears to be one shot, we did intact shoot it in about four or five sections and didn’t ever attempt to get it all in one take. This allowed me to fine tune the timing and pace of the film in the edit.
C8: How much time did you set aside to rehearse with the cast?
DH: I had two days in the location and my plan was to spend one day setting everything up and then have one day to rehearse and shoot. Unfortunately setting up took way longer than I anticipated and we weren’t ready to shoot until half way through the second day. I also seem to remember that I was losing one of the cast members at a certain time so I ended having to rehearse and shoot the entire film in about five hours. I still have no idea how we managed it.
C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?
DH: We shot on a Canon 5D because it was the only camera light enough to work with the ridiculous camera rig we had, and even then it had to be counterbalanced in order for the motion control slider to function properly. The slider was rigged horizontally to scaffolding in the girders at the top of the building, but as it was set horizontally it meant the camera had to be offset by two feet in order to not see the rig when it was at its highest point. This threw the whole thing off balance and meant it stuttered terribly when it moved up and down, so we had to attach a sand back with fishing wire to compensate. It only just worked.
C8: From start to finish what was the most difficult aspect of the production?
DH: Certainly the hardest thing about the whole process was the set up. Although everyone had some experience that counted when coming to do this, we were all essentially novices when it came to attempting something this technically specific. But although it was difficult and I spent many hours standing there scratching my head trying to figure out how the hell we were going to do it, in hindsight it was a lot of fun. Solving problems is half the fun of making films, even though it may not always feel that fun when you’re under so much time pressure to get it done. I’m sure there were moments when the camera rig was being set up that I was convinced it wasn’t going to work, and that definitely isn’t a nice feeling.
C8: If you did the whole process again is there anything that you would do differently?
DH: In the context of this film, no, I don’t think there is anything would have done differently. There are certainly things I wish I had done better, but not necessarily differently. Obviously it would have been great to have had a third day, but that comes down to budget more than anything. I don’t think I will ever attempt to make a film in this way again, where the technicalities and aesthetics are essentially more important than the substance. I’m definitely much more driven by plot and character now, but that’s not to say that lighting and visuals won’t still play an important part in what I make next. The creation of this film was a little backward as it began with a location and a concept, rather than a compelling story. Which is fine, and I am really pleased with this film and I think it’s a lot of fun to watch, but ultimately I think it should be the other way around. The story is what’s most important, and then everything else should naturally fall into place.
C8: How did you fund the film? Did you receive any aid or assistance whilst making the film?
DH: This film was entirely self-funded and I spent every penny I had on it. It was only possible because the location happened to be in the building I was living in at the time, and all the neighbours and management were kind enough to just let us get on with it for free. As it was my first film, and because at that particular moment I happened to just about have enough money to do it, I decided to go ahead and make it off my own back rather than apply for funding and spend the next two years sitting around in the hope that someone might give me some money. For me personally it was hugely expensive as it cost everything I had, but in the grand scheme of things it was a very cheap film to make. So I would encourage anyone wanting to make a first film to just bite the bullet and make it within their means. I think you have an obligation to yourself to do that.
C8: The title sequence appears to be a subtle nod to Hitchcock and Preminger. Were there any other films or filmmakers that made you want to get into filmmaking?
DH: It’s definitely no secret that Hitchcock was an enormous influence for this film. ‘Rear Window’ is the reason I wanted to become a filmmaker in the first place, so it was definitely a very conscious decision to take what I love about him and have a crack at doing it myself. I didn’t have any reservations about doing this since it was my first attempt and the whole process was about trying things out. I always knew that if I kept making films I would naturally begin to develop my own style anyway, so why not start out by copying the people that inspired you. I think the main thing I took from him was the sense of voyeurism. I wanted the audience to feel compelled to watch something that they felt they shouldn’t, in the same way that James Stewarts character does in ‘Rear Window’. Everyone has a morbid fascination for the forbidden, and this is what Hitchcock played on, and is definitely something that interests me. This is a key theme in the new film I’m currently writing. I think Fritz Langs ‘M’ was another film I took inspiration from for this, but mainly visually more than anything else
C8: What do you think makes for a good collaboration?
DH: Good collaborations are golden but are few and far between. They should be snapped up, nurtured and held on to tightly like any important relationship in life. Not only is it massively important since filmmaking is an entirely collaborative process, but it is also very comforting and reassuring knowing that you’ve got people around you that you trust implicitly, and that understand instinctively what you want. I think that’s when you know you’ve got a good collaborator, when they just get you and understand what it is you’re attempting to achieve. And of course that has to be reciprocated equally.
C8: What is next for David Higgs?
DH: My second film, ‘Buoy’, was completed at the end of last year so that’s out doing the festival thing at the moment. It premiered at the London Short Film Festival in January. Now I’m writing a new short which is definitely presenting a whole new set of challenges. Its much more complex in terms of character and subject. I’m definitely treating this next one as significant step towards beginning to think about making a feature. This is also the first time that I’ve been faced with not being able to pay for the film off my own back. The budget for this one will be way beyond my reach so I have to go and look for the money from somewhere. I certainly feel that I’ve done my time and am now as eligible for public funding as the next person.
In the meantime I seem to be extremely busy making music videos at the moment, which I’m really enjoying as I seem to have lots of freedom to experiment and try things out. Some of them have had literally no budget whatsoever, and one of those is one of my favourite things I’ve ever made. It’s encouraging and refreshing to see what I’m capable of doing with no money. It’s also meant that I’ve had my hands on everything and have been doing my own cinematography. It’s been an incredible learning process recently. My approach to filmmaking is definitely taking a new direction and I can’t wait to see how these new methods translate into my next film.