‘Turning’ dir. Karni & Saul

On his sixth birthday Robert receives three beautiful broken old birds in his mother’s sitting room. A memory of an afternoon with tea and cake, lacy pink slips and a tale of an emperor with no skin.

Country: UK
Year: 2008
Directors: Karni Arieli and Saul Freed
Writers: Karni Arieli and Saul Freed
Producer: Kat Armour-Brown
Key Cast: Patrick GibbsNatasha AldersladeMaureen Wild 


C8: ‘Turning’ is a wonderful comment on the powers of storytelling and the potency of childhood imagination. Is it a mission statement for the kind of work you want to make?

K&S: We found the story by Lynda Sexson in a Murakami collection of shorts he selected called ‘Birthday stories’ and we just fell for it; the looseness of narrative, the playfulness, the imagination, the story of growing up and growing old, turning into something else, of skin and identity, of that loose thread of a memory or imagination you retain from childhood and how you experience things differently. It probably is a subject that interests us because we have a child and are constantly exposed to his loose, free way of being. Also, we are holding on with all our might to our own childishness and childhood. As a parent and growing up, you are faced with the realities of the real word and you loose some of that innocence, but as creatives we have the pleasure of playing and being children forever!

C8: It also has something to say about gathering together, ritual and celebration, and the ways in which we make sense of our emotional world. Was that something that came through in the source material?

K&S: It definitely comes from the spirit of the original story and the collection of birthday stories. But we also wanted to deliver an emotional experience and a ride, rather than a ‘thinking’ narrative.

As a viewer you have to let go slightly and take the ride…otherwise you might miss it. It’s a more subconscious, loose level of communicating. That’s the way we build narrative and is much closer to the way children experience things we believe…more fragmented, more feeling less analytical. We want to get emotions from the viewer to make them feel. That’s always our mission and it’s getting harder and harder as we are exposed to so much visual stimulation and that risks us all getting slightly numb. The funny thing is that people have perceived it to be a film about a very English tea party…but given we’re two Israelis and the writer is American it’s really our take as outsiders on a tea party as it exists in our minds, and that makes it quite surreal and strange. We tried to strengthen that juxtaposition by adding the African tribal music, to create a sense of dislocation and to create a mood.

C8: How did you get the funding to make the film and how long did the project take to deliver from the moment it was green lit?

K&S: We were invited to submit the script by Clare Cook who was a part of the BBC Online Network Drama Scheme. Together with Lighthouse in Brighton they workshopped all the applicants and selected a few finalists to fund in the scheme. We were very lucky and felt very supported by Claire and the team who took a chance on an idea was quite radical and different from the rest, more experimental.  She and the others saw the potential and we got extra help and funding from Stink Productions who were repping us at the time. We think it took about a year to create. We storyboarded the whole film and gave that in instead of a classic script…(something we don’t do anymore!). The shoot was straightforward and great fun, a week in a house in Bristol (our home town) and shot by Ben Moulden, a great DoP and a personal friend. It was produced by Kat Armour-Brown and Alison Sterling.

The hardest work was the CG and Animation which probably took around 6 months or more.

C8: There’s a large amount of animation and VFX work – what’s the reality of getting this done when you’re working on a small budget?

K&S: Well in shorts you don’t often find the budgets available for high-end animation or fantasy, so we had to do it mostly ourselves, with some favours and a little help, of course! It’s a slow process and sometimes painful, but luckily Saul is an animator originally (and a hardworking, dedicated loner) so he shut himself in a dark room and did most of it himself in around 6-8 months. The post-production and fantasy are our pain and our joy, that’s how we make magic! But it has a price: time, and time is money.

C8: You work as a directing duo, how do you divide the labour?

K&S: Karni is originally a photographer and Saul is an animator so that’s the mix really. Saul started out doing mainly effects and fantasy animation related stuff, and he’s also the planner. Karni does the communication; the people, the actors, and the cinematography. But the borders are blurring increasingly now; we both do bit of everything but we still try to split the work so we can be two places at once, and so we know who is doing what. We get a wider focus that way and when it works it’s magic because we have four eyes, four hands and two brains.

C8: Where does ‘Turning’ sit in your careers, what had you done before it.

K&S: We come from an art background. We studied art and photography in Israel then we started collaborating on films, at first on an SLR camera – the first one we made was for Nick Knight’ stufios show studio on a mobile phone – then we made two music videos and were signed to various production companies. We moved into film and CG Animation and made music videos and commercials for a few years until recession hit. Then we had time to think and say ‘wait a minute!, maybe we should make a film’…that brought on ‘Turning’.

C8: You recently adapted another short story, ‘Flytopia’ by Will Self. How do you approach the process of adaptation and were you worried about keeping the Self fans happy?

K&S: We never ever thought of the Will Self fans, only about Will himself! We really wanted him to like what we did because it was his fantastic story and vision in the first place. All you can do as a filmmaker is make the best film you can for yourself first of all…and pray that others like it too.

We were blown away by the story when we first read it and we wanted to keep the spirit and core of his story alive by making it really dark and sexual, but at the same time funny, full of fantasy and surrealism. We also wanted to be playful narrative structure like he is. That’s what we love about his work. we love that you can’t put it in a box or pigeonhole it. It is fantasy/drama/comedy/horror, it’s all of those and more. It’s a ride and you always have to hold on tight with Will. Hopefully we transferred some of that to our film.

Luckily he really liked what we did and gave us the best possible feedback! That was our best reward besides the actual film, and now we are developing a feature project with him….

C8: What would you advice be for those filmmakers starting out who have big, cinematic ideas but limited resources?

K&S: Just make stuff! Whatever you can, the best you can, with what you have. Don’t talk about it, make it. It’s the best school in the world.  In the end it’s all in the ideas and the frame, in your spirit and talent to say something in an interesting, beautiful new way. That’s up to you to develop a visual language and style. And to use the sex metaphor, its not about size or quantity but quality! I have seen iPhone films that moved me and 35 mm 3d films that bored me to death. Try to move people, that’s the challenge. Be your own biggest supporter but listen to others. Push out in all directions but do not put all your eggs in one basket in a way. Get help from friends and collaborators and don’t be afraid to dream.

C8: What’s the essence of a good collaboration?

K&S: God knows! We’re still figuring it out. It’s a little like a marriage. You need to be open and listen, and to put your ego aside sometimes. That can be hard as a creative, especially an Israeli one. We like to use the Cohen brothers as an example. They say you can ask Joel something or Ethen and they’ll answer the same way. They are like the same person, and both very calm, and that’s the ideal. We have fire in our bellies it’s a passionate profession that you have to love…so there are bound to be tiffs and shouting sometimes. But it’s about putting the film first, negotiating well, not compromising too much and leaving the door open for ideas, for brainstorming. To be honest when we really get stuck with conflicting opinions we have a good old vote with our DoP Matyas Erdely and that’s how we decide, two against one, fair and square.

C8: What’s next on the horizon for Karni and Saul?

K&S: Exciting things! We made a new animated music video for The Staves with Aardman who are now our reps. We are making a Random Acts film for Channel4, and just got development funding from Creative England to write an original script for our first feature in collaboration with Warp, Peter Carlton, and Film4. And we are collaborating with Will Self and Warp on another possible feature based on one of his works… 

We always said we would write our first feature on the beach by the age of 40. That was our original deadline to ourselves…and we might just make it!