A bright but cold Saturday morning, April, 2013. Rhythm Circus pull into the car park of a local pub in the tiny but pleasant town of Chislehurst in Kent. A helpful man in a high-vis leads us to a parking bay and points out a nice looking café over the road. We head over and order coffee and bacon rolls. We glance round at the other tables where everyone seems to be discussing either their latest acting roles or technical filmic terms when a man approaches and welcomes us to the production. This is not just an everyday weekend drive out for breakfast but a visit to the set of a short film called The Phone Call – produced under the banner of Ridley Scott Associates – and the man who welcomes us is writer/ producer, James Lucas.
Two years in the making, the film features an impressive British cast including Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent and Prunella Scales, and is the latest short film from seasoned commercials director Mat Kirkby. It tells the story of a volunteer worker for a helpline who receives a call from a distressed man during a significant part of his life. It’s near the end of the shoot and the team are weary but happy that what they have planned to do for so long has exceeded their hopes and expectations.
Almost a year later we caught up with Mat and James and having seen the impressive fruit of their labours and settled down to ask them more about how their prized project came about.
What is the origin of The Phone Call?
Mat Kirby: James had the idea and then we got talking about our mums, who both worked on helplines. I’d been writing comedy features for a couple of years and it was lovely to get my teeth into a serious idea, with a strong female lead, and see how far we could develop it.
James Lucas: The idea came from my mother working as a Samaritan. I thought what incredibly brave and lovely souls these people must be. Unsung heroes. Mat’s mum works on helplines too so it just started steamrolling on from that connection and mutual admiration of ‘listeners’.
How did you find it getting the funding together to make a short film?
MK: Funding was hard in so far as we didn’t get any! The only option was for me to knuckle down and direct as many TV commercials as possible to raise the funds. After a year and a dozen commercials for a well-known fried chicken company I finally had enough money. This also meant that my crew, from director of photography to art director to editor, all got paid properly for a year doing these and were there for me when I needed to call in the favour. Ultimately I paid for the film, but there were a lot of people who worked for nothing to help make it happen.
Did you find it an easy transition from making commercials to making something longer form?
MK: The transition felt very natural, making commercials has been a fantastic training ground, so everything felt very familiar. The discipline of making a story fit into 30 seconds means that when you’re given longer you actually feel more relaxed, you can a stretch your legs, each shot has time to breath, you feel free.
JL: Fairly smooth. Advertising is making a transition into including long format, online films into its standard strategy, planning and marketing bundle. This is good because it allows us the opportunity to think long form story-telling in our day job and apply it to our own filmmaking. And vice versa.
In the film you have an Oscar winner, a Oscar nominee and a legendary TV actress. How did you go about approaching the cast, and how were they to work with?
MK: I met up with Sally after seeing her incredible stage performance in ‘Constellations’, we talked about the part we’d written for her and she read the script. Then I had to be patient and wait for a window in her schedule. 10 months later she had a week free, just after filming ‘Blue Jasmine’, so we then called Jim’s agent and he was available too. Working with them was easily the highlight of my career, I had to keep pinching myself after every take and making sure that they were really there. It was a genuine honour to work with them. I feel incredibly lucky to have seen Sally at work.
JL: Sally is a truly great actor. She performs it and she feels it simultaneously. I feel emotional every time I watch our film because of Sally and Jim’s performances. And Prunella’s too – she is a very loveable person and a British institution. All in all I am in total and complete awe of the cast.
What are the benefits and challenges of working in the short film format? Is it a useful platform for progressing into features?
MK: If you’re used to directing or writing commercials or music videos, then a short film is an invaluable bridge between these worlds and feature films. It’s your chance to prove that you can develop more complex characters and stories. Nobody is going to give you a feature film off the back of your music video or commercials reel. Even if you’ve made the biggest award winning commercial of the year with a million pound budget you may have never learnt how to shoot dialogue, or block out a scene properly, so it’s your chance to show people you can do this.
JL: Short films are as relevant as ever. Never more so than in this digital-viral-online-branded content-DIY age. There’s a real community surrounding shorts that’s passionate and talented. We have had great adventures screening The Phone Call in film festivals around the world with more coming in upcoming months (including the likes of Tribeca, Dresden, Tokyo and New Zealand). And as a calling card The Phone Call has been very effective in generating feature film interest and development.
Correct me if I’m wrong but from the shoot it looked as though you were shooting on 35mm film. In an increasingly digital age why did you make the decision to stick to film?
MK: I actually did shoot digitally, on an Alexa, but I used some very old, sexy C-series anamorphic lenses. I had tested this format before in my commercials and it’s my favourite look. Film does look better but for me it’s better to shoot digitally because you have to reload less frequently so you can allow actors to do longer takes. Sally was actually doing full run throughs of the whole script, 20 pages of dialogue, in a single take! This would never have been possible on 35mm. I actually haven’t shot on film for about 4 years now.
Having made a short film very successfully what advice could you give to those filmmakers out there trying to get something made?
MK: Write a contained idea, keep finessing your script for a year, don’t even think about shooting it if it doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. Guess what, this is called a ‘story’ – if you don’t have this then you haven’t written a short film you’ve written a scene!
JL: Get it down. Write it. Focus on coherent, original story-telling, believable dialogue and performance. Save the helicopter shots and explosions for your first Hollywood blockbuster and fully utilise your (limited) budget. Keep it quirky.
What’s next for you guys?
MK: Writing a scary Fatal Attraction-style thriller called ‘The Girlfriend’, and a funny biopic called ‘Hair of The Dog’. Looking forward to the Tribeca Film Festival next month in NY. Shooting funny ads. Meeting actors to talk about upcoming projects.
JL: Continuing the festival circuit of The Phone Call, planning a feature adaptation of the film with Mat, writing an indie crime/drama feature called ‘Bohemian Motorcycle Club’, writing a sporting biopic (not allowed to say who just yet) and developing a thriller TV Series called ‘The Chameleon’, based on real life events and very naughty goings on! Its fair to say I have a cascade of crazy, wild, emotional people running through my head. But in a good way. I think.
The Phone Call is hitting the 2014 short film festival circuit around the world in the coming months.