Published on 05 November 2021 in Career

On the Edge, on the record — we talk to the 4Stories directors about how they made their short films

Directors UK is pleased to support On The Edge, Channel 4’s BAFTA nominated drama anthology, which is returning for a third series.

Produced by BlackLight Television, a Banijay UK company, the brand-new films have been directed by some of the most exciting emerging talent in the UK.

The series explores the impact of mental health in families, depicted through the lens of different parent-child relationships and brought to life through three genres – a romantic comedy, a road trip and a horror.

On The Edge is developed though the 4Stories initiative, the channel’s commitment to inclusion and finding brand new diverse talent.

We brought together directors Chloë Wicks, Nadira Amrani and Theo James Krekis to talk about their experiences in prep, on set and in post. Read their conversation in full below!

What was your approach to prep?

Nadira Amrani: We all shot our films in Cardiff, and we went there at a similar time for prep. How long was prep? 6 weeks?

Chloë Wicks: Yeah, 6 weeks. It was great that we were all there at the same time because even though we were all prepping in different ways, we all helped each other. I remember Nadira said ‘I’ve got a whole playlist for each moment!’ and I thought that was an amazing idea. My film was mostly scored (by the brilliant Hollie Buhagiar) but a few songs became really crucial to the emotional journey of the story. I chose three songs and shared them with the actors and the DoP so we could all be on the same page about the rhythm and tone of the scene. So kudos to Nadira for suggesting picking the songs in advance.

Nadira Amrani: I think that’s my music video background. I’m so used to having an artist send me a track as a stimulus as a treatment for a music video. I find music to be quite a good stimulus.

Chloë Wicks: Coming from short films, you don’t often get to use commercial tracks because they would basically cost the same as the budget for the whole shoot.

Theo James Krekis: Yes! We were spoiled with being able to use most commercial tracks. We were even allowed to use Spice Girls. Unfortunately they didn’t make the final cut in mine, although Chloë and Nadira squeezed them into their films - we were gunning for a hat trick! My prep consisted of eating really nice sandwiches, storyboarding with my DoP Anna MacDonald, casting and recces. Because Superdad is a road movie the locations were really important to the story. I was drawing loads of inspiration from Paul Graham’s photography collection, A1 The Great North Road. The first hurdle I was faced with though was finding out we were only allowed to travel an hour outside of Cardiff and any locations further afield would start to eat into our schedule.

Nadira Amrani: The project was postponed because of COVID, so we didn’t just have 6 weeks prep in Cardiff, we had a whole year just sitting with a draft of the script. I feel like I spent most of lockdown just watching TV - seeing what I liked, what I didn’t like, learning by osmosis.

Theo James Krekis: I thought ‘COVID’s just dismantled everything’...

Chloë Wicks: It was sad having to delay everything by a year. But it was also really useful and rewarding having so much time, as Nadira said. It allowed more space for development of the scripts. Alongside working with my fantastic DoP Alistair Little, engaging with the script was the most integral part of prep for me. A lovely relationship emerged with the writer of Nessah Muthy, who was writing Cradled inspired by personal experiences of postpartum depression and psychosis. The script underwent some changes - mostly just to really hone how the emotional story would interact with the psychological horror elements - but it had a phenomenal kernel that remained solid. It was just about having those conversations and fine-tuning what was down already.

Nadira Amrani: Yes, having Zoom meetings with our writers and then talking about the tonality of emotion through the script was important for me in terms of writing down ‘this scene needs to feel like this’ or ‘this scene needs to feel like that.’ You need to know where emotionally in the film you want to be. I think that process is amazing.

Chloë Wicks: Also, in relation to what you’re saying Nadira, there was the task of emotional continuity once we were filming. I feel like I realise it again and again every time I work on something, which is that everyone on set has a very specific job within a clear department but I think as the director you’re often asking yourself ‘Hang on what is my job here, specifically? I’m doling out creative opinions on all almost everyone else’s job, but also what is exclusively my remit here?’ It makes you realise that you can have literally 50 or 100 people beavering away but ultimately no one else will necessarily be shepherding it emotionally. No one else will go in there and maybe say to the actors “In relation to where you’ve just come from and the fact that ten minutes later in the story you have to get there, try doing this scene at more like a level seven of intensity rather than a two.” It’s being the person constantly doing the maths in terms of where you are emotionally. You of course have to have an eye on the schedule and shots, but that emotional mood-gauging of the story is the thing that you’re pretty much solely responsible for as the director.

How did you move from prepping to your first day on set?

Theo James Krekis: It was a steep learning curve. I was working with a child actor who’d never acted before, so I requested we have a bowling day with the cast and myself, which helped them build chemistry because everything up to this point was done over Zoom. That all worked a charm but what I hadn’t accounted for was on our first day when we first started turning over, Joseph Obasohan who is eleven years old, had never had a camera pointed in his face with a team of fifty people all staring at him. It was apparent he was quite nervous. Subsequently we had to put tactics in place, so I would say ‘okay let’s go for a 50/50,’ where that meant that we weren’t calling action, so Joseph didn’t realise that we were actually shooting. We cast him based on who he was because he’s such a beautiful, tender little soul with all these very innocent idiosyncrasies and that’s what Anna and I needed to capture rather than a forced or nervous performance. And then of course the pressure starts mounting when the producers are there looking concerned and the AD’s schedule has gone out the window and you’re trying to assure them you’re not completely deluded tricking this kid into a performance but we got there in the end. That is, until, Joseph latched onto the 50/50 tactics at the end of the first day so we had to find other work arounds. So that was day one. Chaos.

Chloë Wicks: Similarly to you Theo, the first day for us was like going off the deep end. We had a huge day of exteriors, a unit move, two cameras, lots of extras of every age - adults, babies, kids. There were so many moving parts to it but by the end of that first day we were on a high. It wasn’t typical for what the other days would be so it was a funny one to start with because in your head you’re thinking ‘Ok we’re establishing the tone of this shoot, but it’s also going to completely change tomorrow… We’ll be in an indoor set with just one camera - bliss!’

Nadira Amrani: Just before the first day, we managed to do rehearsals with the actors. In Mincemeat, my lead, Aimee Lou Wood, is playing a character called Jane. Nikhil Parmar is playing Nish who is basically her love interest in it. We had a couple of days rehearsing which was invaluable to talk to the actors about who their characters are, how they see them, how they are in relation to each other. Then it was straight into it on a Sunday. We shot all of the house scenes first, and the first thing we shot was the dining room scene. They seem quite simple, but when you have three different actors sitting at a table, the coverage is pretty mad, so we were shooting a lot. It was just fun. First of all, like you said Theo, it’s getting acquainted with your team, and we had such an incredible Welsh production team. This was my first time shooting for TV, so I was also learning how the structure works, because the sets I’m used to on commercials are very different to TV sets. The first day is a bit like rehearsing a dance, like ‘this is how you shoot TV.’ By the third or fourth day I was way more confident in how it works and what we were doing. Like we said before, Llinos Jones the script supervisor, was an absolute babe and very helpful in terms of engaging with you with important questions, like ‘Well would the character have done this? Are we feeling the right tone here?’ She asked the perfect things for you to think about on set when we were in the labyrinth of shooting. It was just fun.

Chloë Wicks: In terms of prep with my cast, we went through the script in detail together, discussing dialogue, characterisation, backstory, talking about anything that was relevant. One of the nicest things that we did - because the triplets were going to have to be handled most days by the actors Ellora Torchia and Damian Molony - was to meet up in a very sunny park in Cardiff and have some playtime with the babies so everyone could get to know each other. It was an incredibly adorable afternoon, basically, and I was very grateful to have that as my job.

How long was filming?

Chloë Wicks: We all had eight days. But I think Theo and I had one extra.

Theo James Krekis: I was doing exterior shots of landscapes with skeleton crew.

Chloë Wicks: I had a day split over two days to do a blue screen test shoot day and then shoot the skyline plates for it at night. Making the decision to shoot it on a set with blue screen - rather than on location split over several nights, with no time and no way of properly lighting the building from so high up - was a big one for us as a production team. You weigh everything up. In the end I'm so happy we did it on a set, so we could focus on the performances in that climactic scene.

Theo James Krekis: The weather was a huge obstacle in our film. Originally I’d pitched this film as a colourful 80s synth-pop road trip. The first time the audience see father and son on their journey together is via montage. I had envisioned sunny, blue skies, where father and son are having the time of their lives, Erasure’s A Little Respect is booming, there’s a Great Dane with its head hanging out of the window. Everything was supposed to be glorious but suddenly we were faced with a torrential downpour and 90 miles per hour winds on the back of a low loader. As a result, the tone suddenly shifted in that whole sequence. The colourful 80s synth-pop went straight out of the window and I had to react to that. So I thought ‘let’s lean into it and reconfigure how we’re going to shoot this.’ I thought we should use what ever we’ve got of the bright sunny montage and then we can hard cut to this rainy, bleak, miserable day and hopefully that will have a comedic effect but also help the narrative. So we rigged the camera to the hood of the car to get that jump cut, loaded the car onto the low loader, pulled out onto the road and then the sun came out and I thought ‘are you fucking taking the piss?’ That was day two. Double chaos.

Chloë Wicks: The highs and lows of the weather. Theo, I felt for you so hard because we started shooting straight after you and suddenly it was the hottest day of the year.

Theo James Krekis: That was your party day, wasn’t it?

Chloë Wicks: Yes. It was the first day in June and the cake at the party melted before we could actually shoot it properly! It literally disintegrated. So rather than dealing with torrential rain, for us it was a completely different problem ensuring that we took good care of all these little kids and babies in immense heat. Theo sometimes I wished I could’ve given you the sunny days we had whilst shooting indoors in our set build for most of the shoot!

Nadira Amrani: I feel like I got an easier script, in that I didn’t have any children and I didn’t have any babies. So, kudos to you guys. From my script, it was just a lot of locations. Just so many places that, for me, it was a race against time. But we had this scene where Aimee was tidying up the kitchen, and I had this very set out idea of how we were going to shoot it, and it was the last thing that we needed to shoot for the day. We got to time to shoot the scene and we had literally half an hour left. And I was like, ‘Oh, no, what are we going to do?’ So, we just decided we’re going to shoot handheld. It was never meant to be handheld, but we did it. And weirdly, I look back on it and it’s perfect that it’s handheld. It made it feel like it was frantic that she was tidying up and it added so much manic-ness to that part of the scene. So, I learnt that you have to be flexible and you also have to understand that it might not always be the way that you have envisioned, but actually it can be even better. But also, kudos to my cinematographer Olan Collardy, who just put the camera on the easy rig and went for it. Also, Aimee, for her performance, which was great first time, and that’s what we used.

Chloë Wicks: Yeah, being flexible is definitely so important. There was one funny thing building up to the shoot where I was totally determined about this one thing: ‘We have to have this baby be asleep - it’s so crucial for the scene.’ We managed to time it because I kept chatting to the triplets’ lovely mum Summer all the time about the babies’ naps and exactly when would be the right time, and eventually she brought one of the sleeping babies down to set, and Ellora lay beside him on the bed. And I’ve never seen a quicker or quieter crew in my life. We shot so much coverage in such a short space of time because there was such a necessity of the moment, which I just love. It’s a bit like when you’re shooting at golden hour or shooting an animal that’s in the right place at the right time — there’s an opportunity that has to be seized. It almost feels like you’re making theatre in front of a live audience. You might not get to repeat this moment again, so everyone brings their A game. It was great.

So you’ve wrapped on the shoot. How was the edit?

Nadira Amrani: We went back to Cardiff for post-production. In the edit, you sit with your editor and you go through a first assembly. It was surreal to watch what he had made. Over the course of two weeks we went back to Cardiff to edit and do sound design, add music – mostly commercial tracks, but I also worked with a great composer. And then eventually, we did the colour grade – it’s one of my favourite parts, such a satisfying process.

Chloë Wicks: Our editor, Dafydd Hunt, was fantastic - not only from a technical point of view but he was so brilliant narratively. Inevitably, however much the script has been shaped, you do have to cut or re-jig to a few things to make them read better on screen. It’s interesting when you start to come to the end of the edit and post production. You can recite in your head how many takes there were for a particular slate, remember all the details of a particular scene, recall exactly what you’ve changed or sacrificed, the different angles here and there. But there comes a point when you have to zoom out a bit and hopefully end up having more of an aerial view of what the film actually is. You have to lose focus on the detail and experience the feeling of what the piece is as a whole gesture thematically and emotionally.

Nadira Amrani: It was almost heartbreaking to have to cut down each scene slither by slither, and feel like parts of the moments or magic that you’ve created, you’re losing. But actually, I also learnt through our editor that you don’t have to be so precious with it. It was a great learning curve.

Theo James Krekis: Yes, I loved Daf too. I thought he was such a great collaborator. Once we saw the assembly, we were given a week to ourselves with Daf, and then you send that cut to producers and the channel for notes, and then the producers come in the following week. We all know the old saying about how a film is rewritten three times but it still fascinates me every time. It’s such a special part of the filmmaking process. How you can totally manipulate a scene by what you’re choosing to show an audience. It’s a complete mind-fuck as well. In Superdad’s case we had so many different options in terms of how much we wanted the audience to fear for Joseph when his dad, played by Martin McCann, picks him up. At one point Daf and I had turned the film into a fully blown thriller, which the producers definitely had something to say about. And they were right, but it goes to show the power of editing and the ways you can shape a film. Especially when you add music and sound design. For me, it’s one of the most creatively draining processes but I love the battles you end up having. It’s about choosing what to fight for and knowing what to let go of. I still don’t know the difference but I’m getting better at it. What I also love about editing is that the film you put out, is the only version audiences get to see. They have no experience of the multiple takes, the different directions or the obstacles you were faced with as a director whether that’s a child actor tensing up when you call action, or torrential pour downs, or trying to give direction to a disobedient Great Dane from the back of a low loader. None of that matters in the end because you’ve stripped everything back and you’re just presenting what matters, and that’s the story.

How important are platforms like 4stories for emerging directors?

Chloë Wicks: I think it’s rare to have schemes that aren’t simply mentoring or panel talks or workshops, but actually allows an emerging director to direct a piece of television that will then broadcast. I think it’s an incredible thing that Channel 4, Blacklight, Creative Wales and Directors UK have funded, and long may it continue. It’s a real game-changer for us as filmmakers, creatively and professionally. It’s an important step for us all.

Theo James Krekis: What Chloë said!

Nadira Amrani: Exactly, yes. I think it’s great that this exists and I’m super grateful to have made this film. The previous generations were amazing too - with BAFTA-nominations and wins, so I also feel like we’re now part of an alumni of directors.

On the Edge is available to watch now on All4.

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