SIMON ELLIS ON SHORT FILM, NARRATIVE, COMEDY AND THE IMPORTANCE OF FESTIVALS
The most frequent question I am asked is why I continue to make shorts when most people only see them as a magnet for feature films.
The reasons are many but here are a few, in no particular order:
Anyone who has studied one of the too-many books on feature screenplay structure or attended an overpriced lecture by a supposed guru, knows that being privy to such knowledge irreversibly compromises the viewing experience. I recall watching City of God upon its release, hailed by critics and audiences alike, and seeing every single beat, the tick of every box, the template. It felt like an old dog in new clothes, and the old dog was just too evident. I was pissed off. I had naively resisted the idea of indies following what I considered to be an exclusively Hollywood formula until this one particular film failed todisguise it. It was simply timing, of course, as I had happened to start reading about structure only days before. Unfortunately, ever since then I have found myself distracted by the template in too many films that fail to engage for whatever reason.
Conversely, the beauty of short films is how structurally liberating they are. They don’t necessarily adhere to a beginning-middle-end, or a character arc, or even a character. It’s depressing when someone professes to teach short film structure because it puts bad ideas into people’s heads and ultimately stifles what makes shorts so vital.
Aside from actually making films, fifteen years of touring film festivals has been my sole education. Being exposed to so many flavours, with different audiences in different territories, has broadened my tastes enormously. My favourites titles from the most recent festival visit included two narrative dramas (one a comedy), two experimental (one purely CGI), a sublime stop-motion animation, a documentary, and even a mockumentary. I say ‘even’ a mockumentary because it’s a genre I usually find quite pointless, not to mention the least-challenging to make. However, this film took the genre to a whole new level and put my preconceptions under the guillotine. Something else that’s very hot right now is the reversal of the mockumentary idea – documentary which presents itself as fiction, with directors like Nicolas Provost spearheading the cause.
For many years my preference has been for narrative shorts, chiefly because it is the arena in which I spend most of my time working. When I first started attending film festivals in 1996, I’m not ashamed to admit that the majority of avant-garde filmmaking was lost on me. Only occasional experimental work by the more celebrated directors such as Jay Rosenblatt or Matthias Muller appealed. These directors were creating playful, tightly crafted films that weren’t nearly as self-indulgent as other films which, for me, fell into the same catch-all category of ‘experimental’ simply because they were unclassifiable. Experimental film and a sense of humour, however slight, is a winning combination, if for no other reason than it challenges the inverted snobbery of those who dismiss avant-garde as impregnable or pretentious. Importantly, the same must be said of narrative drama that is experimental in its execution, be it technically or structurally. Anything that smudges the divide between types is off to a good start, and I’m setting myself some ambitious technical challenges with narrative drama inStew & Punch.
I’m not sure I wrote a comedy, but rather a tale of emasculation that deals with male insecurity and social faux-pas. The inherent comedy is simply a by-product of something I find interesting (the same can be said of my previous film Jam Today). Compared to other genres there aren’t many comedies programmed by the higher profile short film festivals, which I suspect is down to a shortage of comedies that actually have something to say, or comedies that are executed with a modicum of flair. For some reason there are a lot of funny shorts that look like sitcom; technically stunted gag-fests that provide genuine laughs for a paying audience at the end of a relatively serious shorts programme, but more visually suited to television or the internet. I just have to try not to make one of those.
LAUREN BERGIN, BA STUDENT IN FILM & PHILOSOPHY AT NOTTINGHAM TRENT UNIVERSITY, TALKS THROUGH HER EXPERIENCES OF SHADOWING DIRECTOR SIMON ELLIS ON THE SET OF ‘STEW & PUNCH’
When I tell people I want to work in the film industry I normally get the same reaction; the eyes slightly widen, the smile falters for just a second. Because for most the Film Industry means Hollywood blockbusters and headline grabbing actors, a manufactured world about fame and money. For me Film is about the small budget productions, the works of art that explore real moments, real emotions, that don’t rely on special effects and famous faces to make an impact. My aspirations to work as a scriptwriter have materialised into an almost completed degree in Film and Philosophy and a notepad of unfinished scripts. Two weeks ago my experience in the production of film was none existent; I was completely oblivious to the effort and skill that transforms a script from word to picture.
My ‘Stew & Punch’ experience was the result of an email I sent Simon Ellis begging for some sort of work experience. His generosity is something I will forever be grateful for and has given me so much insight into the way I need to write and think towards film making.
‘Stew & Punch’ is a short film about the social pressures of masculinity, with covert assessments of group practices. On the surface Simons story is a relatively simple one, but his talent shines through in the subtle artistic choices he made with camera angles and cast direction. Ultimately it is the ability for anyone to relate to the position the protagonist finds himself in, that makes ‘Stew & Punch’ the humanistic triumph it is.
DAY ONE: lights, camera, a lot of action….
As I’ve already admitted, my knowledge of film production was limited; my experience of it was zero. So when I arrived at the modest house that would be the setting for the film I had no idea what to expect or what I would spend the week doing. The morning consisted of meeting the crew (a group of very lovely but very tired people due to a late night drive up from London) Coffee was brewed and breakfast was made and then began the constructing of the lights. I was completely naive to the importance of the lights, I was not aware of the art that goes into lighting, the hours of dedication, the labour that goes into creating every perfectly lit scene. It quickly became clear that the preparation for this film had begun long before this week of filming. Day one was a day of stage setting… as the lights were being constructed by the Gaffer, the art director arrived to transform the empty shell of a house into ‘just moved in’ first home setting. My favourite quote from her was “my job today is to make it look like I haven’t done anything.” As the director of photography, focus puller, gaffer and art director worked continuously the entire day I started to really appreciate their dedication to their jobs, it was so refreshing to talk to people who clearly cared about the standard of their work. Not only had I underestimated how much preparation went into filming, I had also underestimated the level of passion people would have for this film, a welcome contrast to the negativity you normally get from people about their jobs.
DAY TWO: “The talent is here….”
Day two was all about rehearsals. Simon’s script acted as a skeleton that each actor could bring their own interpretation to. The interaction between himself and the talent was so interesting to watch, he clearly had every moment, expression, reaction planned in his head, every tiny detail had been thoroughly thought through. The large number of cast members in such a small space, and the desire for 4 minute continuous scenes with no editing, meant that each movement had to be rehearsed and arranged prior to the filming days, something I’d never considered. The idea of choreography in something that has nothing to do with dance seems so extreme, but for Simon’s script each tiny movement that read so subtly transformed into important visual clues for eventual physical consequences. Nothing was forced or made overly obvious; in fact the word subtle suits Simon’s work perfectly. His writing style, directing style, his very manner. There where points in the week when things went wrong, everyone was stressed but I didn’t see Simon falter once, lose his temper or even frown. His calmness, without doubt, is a huge reason his work is so striking, and why everyone on set so clearly respected him.
DAY THREE/FOUR/FIVE: Take one, Take two, Take three…
Filming stretched over three days, there were three scenes and each was filmed one per day. ‘Stew & Punch’ was a very small production; I was told that normally there would be three people doing each person’s job. Although this was probably felt most in the stressful moments of the shoot, it did allow me to really understand each part of the process, from the Focus Puller to the Producer and his team, each component was so necessary, and before this experience I had no idea to what extent. This element of ‘team work’ has made me re-assess the way I have previously written, I always concentrated on strong dialogue and character depth, I now realise how effective the visual style of a scene can be, having at times a stronger impact than dialogue. The production side of film can use harsh lighting to generate an atmosphere, or the focus puller can guide the audience’s interpretation of the story. In the future I will try to be more aware, when I write, about how a director or cinematographer would interpret my direction. The most rewarding part of the three days was when the production wrapped and everyone clapped, it really felt like everyone’s effort and dedication had paid off.
When I first met Simon and he offered me this unbelievable opportunity, he asked me whether I had ever considered directing. I simply answered that as I had absolutely no idea what it involved I hadn’t ever thought about it. Now I’ve had the chance to observe him directing, to really understand how much multi tasking it takes and how stressful it can become, I don’t think I’m any closer to an answer. Good directing is definitely a talent, it involves being able to visualise every tiny moment before there’s even a location booked. An ability to get the best out of everyone around you and remain patient when things don’t run as smoothly as hoped. It’s the responsibility of the role that makes me question my ability at the moment… but the creative possibilities do really appeal, as does being part of a team of people passionate about film making. So perhaps I will try it one day…
Simon mentioned to me during our time on the set that his first film experience had consisted of making coffee and fetching fags, which I’m sure, reflects most runners responsibilities. Simon’s generosity allowed me to experience every corner of this film, I spoke to every person, asked them questions, watched them work. I’ve been finding it hard to express to people what this experience has done for me, taught me, and inspired me for the future. I’ve simply found myself saying the same thing over and over again… “I loved every second”
Simon Ellis is an independent filmmaker from the U.K. He graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 1995, specialising in Fine Art photography.
A plan was hatched to make at least two short films a year and the first (officially speaking) was Thicker than Water, which cost five pounds. The film was shot in less than an hour with a one-person cast and crew and went on to win a prize at the BBC British Short Film Festival in 1997.
Simon’s short films have received many international festival awards and have been presented collectively in retrospective programmes at over a dozen film festivals worldwide. His BAFTA and European Academy Award nominated short film Soft won thirty-eight prizes including the jury prize for Best International Short at the Sundance Film Festival.
More recently he has dipped his toe in the world of commercials, and his multi-narrative, interactive anti-knife crime films have won over sixty awards including a Grand Prix, three golds and Best European Web Film at Cannes Lions 2010, where he also received the Young Director Award.