Published on: 24 April 2018 in Career Development

Challenge ALEXA 2018 — an interview with the directors

Reading time: 25 minutes and 39 seconds

Earlier this year six films incorporating the theme of “Delight” were selected to go into production, shooting for two days each with an ALEXA shooting package, containing an ALEXA Mini and Anamorphic Primes

We spoke to directors Robert Hackett (Special Delivery), Lotus Hannon (Unseen), Claire Tailyour (Belittled), Beryl Richards (Hello Stranger), Miranda Howard-Williams (Evie), and Stewart Alexander and Kerry Skinner (The Bicycle Thief) ahead of a London screening of the resulting films on Monday 30 April.  Book your place for the screening today. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your film? Where did the idea come from and how did you decide to approach the “Delight” theme?

Lotus Hannon: Unseen is a drama, revealing that through compassion and love we can become recognised and valued for who we truly are. Lien is a young woman trying to escape the underclass, by secretly supplementing her income, working as Delight — her sex worker persona.  

Unseen examines the challenges women face to be seen, appreciated and valued for something beyond what they look like and their sexuality. When ‘attractiveness’ and sexuality intersect with ethnicity, class and wealth, the restrictions on women can be even greater and I wanted to show how a young, East Asian woman in the UK might overcome this.

Robert Hackett: The writer of Special Delivery Kulvinder Gill had the idea for the theme of delight and I thought it worked perfectly. It’s an uplifting drama about a woman who is forced to confront the postman who walks past her door on Valentine’s Day. 

It’s about challenging perceptions of location. I had the idea to set the film in Thamesmead, an area often only seen in violent films or social issue dramas, so seeing it portrayed in a positive way would be a different angle.

I was also keen to tell a story without dialogue and Kulvinder was up for removing the minimal conversations.

<i>On the set of</i> Special Delivery.
<i>On the set of</i> Special Delivery.

Claire TailyourBelittled is a short film set in Victorian England about a migrant from India trapped in a mansion. Strange things start to happen; she’s flung from one side of the room to the other and a dog appears at the foot of her bed. Without giving too much away, the theme of  “delight” comes from the twist in the plot. Most of the scripts I write normally stem from an image or a dream that I have. In this case, the belittlement of immigrants in the UK at the moment had a huge impact on dreams that I was having. This increased tension churned away in my mind to form Belittled.

Miranda Howard-Williams: Evie is a near-future sci-fi film about how society and relationships might change in a world where sex robots exist. 

When Arlo is pressured by his big brother to lose his virginity to a personalised sex robot it makes him question if he wants to wait for the real thing, or might this ‘delight doll’ make all his dreams come true? 

Evie uses a near-future scenario as a lens to engage with issues of female objectification and the future of masculinity and sexuality, but without containing any sexual content. The proliferation of porn is already affecting people’s ideas of sex and with sex dolls already a reality, this film explores how this could realistically be extended to personalised sexbots - blurring fantasy with reality.

I am inspired by shows such as Black MirrorHumans and Utopia as well as how films such as Her and Ex Machina explore how changing technology might affect relationships.

Beryl Richards: Hello Stranger is a teaser/trailer to help fund a feature documentary, so it’s a bit different to the others. It’s about what it’s like to grow up adopted in a family, and how that works in the dynamic of a family. The family is my own with the story told from three perspectives and taken over by my son Joe, who now as an adult wants to start his own family.  

Stewart Alexander: The Bicycle Thief is the simple but charming story of a young girl’s quest to get her stolen bike back. Our first film, Common People, was a micro-budget feature set on a London common. The restrictions of budget and schedule meant it had to be fairly static and dialogue-heavy. As soon as we finished making that film Kerry said she wanted to make a short that was the exact opposite; action-packed, picture-led and with minimal dialogue.

Kerry Skinner: We’d recently moved to Leigh-on-Sea and on a cycle ride from there to Southend the premise for the story just seemed to fall into place. It happened to be two weeks before the Challenge ALEXA deadline. We felt there was something inherently delightful in capturing that sense of freedom that a child feels while testing their limits and expanding their horizons on their beloved bicycle.

<i>On the set of</i> Evie.
<i>On the set of</i> Evie.

What has the ALEXA shooting package allowed you to explore that you otherwise couldn’t have done?

M H-W: Having the support of ARRI and the ALEXA package was great, especially as we were working in the science fiction genre which has such a specific aesthetic. Having such amazing kit available to us gave us the opportunity to create an incredible look for the film – the anamorphic lenses were particularly fab to work with from a creative point of view. Catherine, our DoP, and I were able to really think cinematically with the shoot and not be limited in our vision which was a wonderful indulgence on a short film!

RH: It’s difficult to truly reflect Thamesmead. I did a lot of research to see how others had shot the area, its sense of scale and differing landscapes rarely get seen on screen. The shooting package and the anamorphic prime lenses allowed us to capture this, you really need those big wides on a high-end camera to understand it’s a special place and not just another council estate.  

“The extremes the shooting format can go to surprised me, from the cinematic wide shots to the intimate moments of performance — without which we wouldn’t have the emotional depth to the film.” — Robert Hackett

The extremes the shooting format can go to surprised me, from the cinematic wide shots to the intimate moments of performance — without which we wouldn’t have the emotional depth to the film.  

People loved the story, but the fact that it had been selected through a process run by Directors UK and ARRI and shooting on an ALEXA gave it extra appeal. So we were able to access the cast and crew who I wanted to work with. Cast is a good example, Jerome Holder and Varada Sethu were my first choice for the leads.

<i>Making</i> Belittled.
<i>Making</i> Belittled.

SA: It allowed us to be extremely ambitious. We wanted to make something truly vibrant, saturated colours that would pop off the screen to represent this child’s view of her world. We shot it wide-screen and those anamorphic lenses give it a very special look and cinematic quality. We can’t wait to see it fill the big screen.

KS: We also had some ambitious ideas about expressing the girl’s bright and breezy state of mind in the opening sequence with a series of complicated tracking shots of her riding her bicycle. We were introduced to a wonderfully talented man named Charlie Rizek, who came along with a Trinity Steadicam one afternoon to help us achieve those ambitious shots.

BR: The ALEXA package allowed me to shoot some high-quality footage which is an element of the feature doc, I wanted to show that it would be cinematic, and deserve consideration as a feature.

LH: The Anamorphic Bokeh, the oval light flares you can capture with the ALEXA shooting package were part of the initial inspiration behind Unseen. I was conscious that a story set at night would utilise this magical, visual quality.

“The ALEXA shooting package sounds like it’s just technical but actually what came with it beyond the equipment can't be downplayed.” — Claire Tailyour

CT: The ALEXA shooting package sounds like it’s just technical but actually what came with it beyond the equipment can’t be downplayed. The expertise and support of everyone at ARRI during our prep was incredible. We had constraints; VFX shots, a grade 2 listed location, a small room, shooting miniatures, using green screen. The ALEXA Mini and master anamorphic lenses combined to give this rich cinematic look that could handle the range of situations we threw at it. The package also gave us leverage when pitching the project to companies willing to give us extra kit, location and post support.

<i>On the set of</i> The Bicycle Thief.
<i>On the set of</i> The Bicycle Thief.

How much of a challenge was it to shoot the project in two days?

RH: Thamesmead has a lot of great locations, very cinematic — A Clockwork Orange was shot there, and on a film without dialogue I could have easily over-storyboarded our film. I was realistic about what was achievable and made numerous reccies. More than any other short film I’ve directed I felt the pressure to get the images and sequences as perfect as possible, so I wanted to make sure we had time to craft something - which was just as well as it snowed both days: 80 percent of the shots were exteriors in different locations, so it did turn into a challenging shoot. That said, the snow added something unique to the film and the below zero temperature is almost a distant memory.

“It was unbelievably challenging, but that was partly our own doing. We had a shot list with 76 different set-ups on it.” — Stewart Alexander

SA: It was unbelievably challenging, but that was partly our own doing. We had a shot list with 76 different set-ups on it. Our main character, who is in nearly every shot, is an eleven-year-old girl, so that also restricted the hours we could shoot. 

KS: But it was really the great British weather that set us the biggest challenge. The film is almost entirely set outdoors, and in the course of the shoot it went from rain one minute to bright sunshine the next, followed by gale force winds that had the sea surging over the coastal paths where we were supposed to be filming. Despite this, thanks to a brilliant team, we did manage to get nearly everything we wanted in the can. 

<i>On the set of</i> Hello Stranger.
<i>On the set of</i> Hello Stranger.

CT: Let’s just say, I have quite a few more grey hairs. Early on my producers encouraged me to hone down the story to the essentials due to the production challenges we faced. This was actually a blessing in disguise and it forced me to boil down the story to a simple narrative. The original draft was twelve pages, had FX makeup, a cast of extras, multiple period rooms. It would have been impossible to shoot it to a standard I was happy with, so everything that was superfluous got cut before we locked a shooting script.

I generally like to storyboard a short film anyway, and this proved essential on Belittled. I could direct cast and crew to what exactly the shot was — what we wouldn't see and how we could achieve FX elements of it. We had to be very prepared in terms of green screen composites and Damian Todd’s FX monitor helped save us a huge amount of time as we were able to superimpose a rough comp together on location. Blocking was played with in rehearsals prior to the shoot, though availability meant Raffiella Chapman and I rehearsed on set — but she too is able to make choices very instinctively and quickly.

LH: Massive! Especially as our final screenplay was longer than the one that I initially pitched. I worked very closely with our 1st AD, Joe Starrs, to schedule the scenes to get maximum time for filming. I also planned all my shots and talked them through with DoP Caroline Bridges and rehearsed with the actors ahead of the shooting so we could hit the ground running and whip through the schedule as quick as possible. We also made sure that we found locations very near each other so that the shoot days would not get eaten up by unit moves. I still had to drop some set-ups and rework how I covered scenes, but we achieved a lot.

M H-W: Of course only having two days meant it was a tight shoot, but I was also careful in writing that I was putting something forward that was achievable in the time restrictions. The first day was quite pushed as we had a unit move which always takes longer than you think! But we were able to get everything we needed and get it all looking fab! A few months previous to this I had directed my first episode of BBC’s Doctors – one day we had to shoot 26 pages – so eight pages in two days for Evie felt much more relaxed than that!

<i>Making</i> Unseen.
<i>Making</i> Unseen.

Have you got any future plans for your Challenge ALEXA short?

CT: Belittled will head off to festivals shortly after the screening. I’m also developing a feature script based on the concept with more twists along the way.

BR: Hello Stranger is just in time as the new BFI doc fund deadline has just been announced for May

LH: After the preview screening we’ll be submitting to film festivals worldwide. Unseen will be a calling card for myself and everyone on the team. It is Jan Le’s first lead film role. I’m really proud of Unseen and I’ll be adding it to my reel for prospective TV drama work and it will also help instil confidence in investors when raising finance for my debut feature.

M H-W: Evie will be going out to international film festivals, especially focussing on science fiction festivals where female-created work can often be sorely underrepresented. This film also acts as the pilot for the TV series that Jessica and I are developing, Syncing, so we will be using it to show to broadcasters and networks as a proof of concept.

RH: I’d like it to get onto the film festival circuit. It would be a shame if people didn’t get to see the film, especially with all the hard work that’s gone into it. Along with Matthew Emvin Taylor’s beautiful cinematography there’s a sincere and uplifting story I hope programmers will like.

KS: We’re really pleased with the result, so we’re going to submit it to film festivals worldwide, particularly targeting the ones that would make it eligible for Oscar and BAFTA consideration.

What other projects have you got lined up next, and what will you take with you from your ALEXA experience?

RH: I’ve written a psychological thriller feature called Couchsurfer that I’d like to direct, but I’m also very interested in directing work by other writers.

In terms of directing, the experience with the ALEXA package was invaluable, it’s given me another storytelling consideration I would definitely like to work with again. The experience was also a reminder of the power of a good script and how that is ultimately why great cast and crew get on board.

SA: We have two feature film scripts that are ready for production right now, and we’re currently developing a TV series. We had a great team working with us on The Bicycle Thief and have formed what we hope will be lasting working relationships as we move forwards with our next projects.

KS: We tried to really stretch ourselves with The Bicycle Thief. It feels like participating in the challenge helped us to really hone our skills as filmmakers. Hopefully people in the industry will see what we’ve achieved in two days, and be interested in supporting us on future projects.

<i>Making</i> Special Delivery.
<i>Making</i> Special Delivery.
“I have really enjoyed the ALEXA Challenge Experience – it’s been intense, but wonderful” — Miranda Howard-Williams

M H-W: Next week I am heading back up to Birmingham to direct my first full block of Doctors – having directed my first episode as part of the BBC New Directors Scheme last year. Jessica and I are also busy developing our series and hoping to get that into production soon. I have really enjoyed the ALEXA Challenge Experience – it’s been intense, but wonderful. It’s also been my first science fiction short and I loved the creativity that comes with working in this genre and the amazing look we have been able to get with the ALEXA kit.

BR: In terms of next projects I’ve just delivered a play to the Edinburgh festival commissioned by BBC4 and I’m due to start directing a Netflix teen drama called Free Rein in June.

CT: The biggest take away was directing VFX on a small budget; what’s possible and what I can push more on next time. How to be very specific in prep but allow for coverage when shooting green screen so you can play around in the edit. I’m onto Hollyoaks for the next few months so directing effectively on a tight schedule with a high production value is something that definitely feeds into my work there. I’m also part of the Directors UK Inspire scheme and will be mentored by the hugely talented Lewis Arnold.

“The Alexa experience was a real buzz, it gave me both the freedom and the restriction to make a film from development to delivery in a very short space of time.” — Lotus Hannon

LH: The Alexa experience was a real buzz, it gave me both the freedom and the restriction to make a film from development to delivery in a very short space of time. The shoot was crewed by 74% women and 35% BAME enabling a progressive atmosphere on set which was really liberating. The whole project has given me the chance to work with some inspiring people, and I especially thrived collaborating with producer, Chi Thai. I’m also really looking forward to collaborating with writer Katie Boyles. I’m developing a web series with writer Naida Redgrave called #GoodGirlsDon’t and I’ll be redrafting my thriller, Orion’s Belt, which I intend to be my directorial feature debut.

Who were your collaborators on this project?

M H-W: I teamed up with Jessica Benhamou as producer as we have been developing a TV series, Syncing, for which Evie is the pilot. Jessica worked really hard to bring on board some wonderful executive producers so that we could ensure that all departments could stand up to the amazing camera kit! We also had all-female HoDs and over 85% female crew both on the shoot and in post. We had a wonderful creative team bringing Evie to life including Catherine Goldschmidt as our DoP, Kate Stamp as our production designer and Giulia Scrimieri doing costume. We were also thrilled to bring on board some wonderful people in post from Sally Mumby-Croft editing, to Jodie Davidson at Technicolor doing the grade and Tara Forth composing an original score. It was wonderful to work with so many new people, as well as some of my long-established team, and I am certain that long running collaborations will come from this film.

LH: Fellow Unseen collaborators are: producer Chi Thai, Chi and I developed the screenplay from the first draft, which was brilliantly consolidated by Katie Boyles, our script editor. Lucy Sheen was our consultant and casting director, helping us connect with the talented BEA acting community. Jan Le, Waleed Elgadi and Tim Delap are our wonderful cast. My vision was brought to life with a visual splendour by our DoP Caroline Bridges, production designer Natalie Duval and costume designer Dot Wieckowska. The shoot was seamlessly production managed by Kay Loxley and 1st A.D. Joe Starrs. I’m currently in post with editor Tracy Granger working her magic, and looking forward to completing the project with sound designer Ania Przygoda and composer John K Miles. The team at Technicolor has been instrumental in the post workflow and enabling the final delivery of Unseen.

<i>Making</i> The Bicycle Thief.
<i>Making</i> The Bicycle Thief.
“What people may not appreciate is the quality of personnel who will work with you when you can say you’ve been chosen for a Challenge backed by both Directors UK and ARRI.” — Kerry Skinner

KS: We couldn’t have wished for a better team. What people may not appreciate is the quality of personnel who will work with you when you can say you’ve been chosen for a Challenge backed by both Directors UK and ARRI. That goes for every person in every department, as well as equipment suppliers and post-houses, who have been very generous in their support. I’ve also been a mentee with Women In Film and Television, who put me in touch with a lot of really talented women, and as a result our production team is 70% female.

SA: We also received an incredible amount of support from Abi and Laura at Directors UK and Milan and Kate at ARRI. Kate Priestman at ARRI worked back-to-back on all six films in the Challenge and yet still found time to answer every query during pre-production, give our DoP an extensive tour of the equipment, and pitch in cheerfully during a fairly full-on shoot. We’ve listed her as our “ARRI Genius” on IMDB, and I’m pretty sure she’s the only person with that credit on the whole site.

<i>On the set of</i> Unseen.
<i>On the set of</i> Unseen.

RH: Difficult to single people out, everyone in their role was a collaborator and brought ideas to the film. Key collaborators were Helen (L Alexander) the producer — without Helen, I don’t know how the film would have happened. She nailed it. As mentioned, Kulvinder was great to work with and very open to ideas — he’s directed too so that experience helped.

Matthew Emvin Taylor was our DoP; this was a great opportunity to work with someone whose work I’d previously admired and his commitment to meeting up and detailed planning are evident in the final film. Our 1st AD Lina Remeikaite was brilliant — she had a great feel for what was going on with characters and the story.

I sent our Movi operator James Davis references before the shoot, when we got into the space he made adjustments and executed some beautiful camera moves. I had worked with Mark Towns our editor on another short Boris In The Forest — because of that familiarity he could jump straight into trying things out. 

Casting director Jane Frisby, art director Juliet Bryant, costume Jenny Anderton, technical crew and everyone involved were all important collaborators. Peabody were very supportive and allowed us to shoot wherever we needed — they too were keen to see a positive film come out of Thamesmead. In particular Nadia Kassab was key in helping us.

“I wanted to widen the pool of the people I work with, and I’d love to work with all of them again, so that side of it was a big success.” — Beryl Richards

BR: Everyone I worked with was new. And everyone was really nice! I wanted to widen the pool of the people I work with, and I’d love to work with all of them again, so that side of it was a big success. I also had women in all the HoD roles: my DoP was AnneMarie Lean Vercoe, my editor was Chiara Armentano, and my line producer was Ali Day.

CT: The cast and crew on Belittled went above and beyond. With Belittled being a period, VFX heavy short on a tiny budget with a very tight schedule, a rock solid team willing to go the extra mile was essential. I was lucky enough to convince Kiran Sonia Sawar (Murdered By My Father, Black Mirror) and Raffiella Chapman (Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children, Theory of Everything) to come onboard. They were incredible to direct and crafted their characters with depth. My fantastic producers Anu AndersonAli Mansuri and Tom Kimberley combined their unique skills to form a real force to be reckoned with. My cinematographer was Aadel Nodeh-Farahani who created a narrative through light and lenses. Our HoDs were production designer Alannah Byrne, costume designer Kate Tailyour, makeup artist Susie Parfitt, 1st AD Caroline Kaempfer, sound recordist Kirstie Howell, sound designer Hana Walker-Brown, VFX supervisor Damian Todd, script supervisor Beverly Warren, compositor Si Cox and animator Leva YoyoMilanKate and everyone at ARRI, as well as LauraTendai and Abi at Directors UK were a huge support. Last but by absolutely no means least was little Widget, who played our dog Birdy, expertly wrangled by Ashley Foster of Stunt Dogs & Animals.

<i>On the set of</i> Evie.
<i>On the set of</i> Evie.

What advice would you give to others thinking of applying for next year’s Challenge ALEXA?

CT: The angel on my shoulder is urging me to say “write something easily achievable” but, I’m sorry, the devil on the other side wins; I say be bold. Yes, it was incredibly hard to make an ambitious short in the space of 2 days on a limited budget but use that to your advantage. Come prepared and aim high. Crew will support you. The biggest lessons I’ve learned have always come from pushing to make something very difficult.

KS: Go for it! For all the reasons we’ve outlined here - the prestige connected to it, the support you get, the resources available and the fact that it galvanises you to get out there and make your film – it’s an absolutely invaluable and priceless process. And if you get through just be prepared, be prepared for anything and everything.

M H-W: I would say to be ambitious, but also remember your limitations! I understand that Evie is the first sci-fi film made as part of the scheme, as its hard to make this genre fast and low budget – but I didn’t let that scare me away, but rather took the limitations as a structure to work within. I am thrilled with the final film and urge people to apply for Challenge ALEXA 2019!

LH: If you’re wanting to make a fiction short on the Challenge, try and have a quite developed screenplay before you submit and make sure it’s realistic for a two day shoot. I only had a first draft when I pitched. What we shot was draft fifteen and in the end the story needed to be longer than I anticipated so it made the shoot much more of a challenge. Also find a story with minimal locations otherwise you lose valuable shooting time.

RH: Do it. If you don’t have a short script find a writer or something from a feature that fits the theme. Do also budget other aspects of your film that aren’t covered in the package. 

It’s an intense period of hard work, but the timescale is short and before you know it you have a beautiful looking short film on your reel. 

It’s worth doing for the people you meet. I made some great working relationships on the film and hope to work with those people again.

You can watch all of the above films at the Challenge ALEXA 2018 screening and drinks reception. Book your place now. 

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