Published on: 02 May 2019 in Events

Challenge ALEXA 2019 — an interview with the directors

Reading time: 24 minutes and 31 seconds

Earlier this year six films incorporating the theme of “Magic” were selected to go into production, shooting for two days each with either an ALEXA LF or ALEXA Mini with Signature Prime lenses.

We spoke to directors Ashtar Al Khirsan (Shawafa), Karen Kelly (Chips), Fi Kelly (The Last Mermaid), Emma Swinton (Unearthed), Natalia Andreadis (How Can I Forget), and Zoe Dobson (The Cunning Man) ahead of a screening of their Challenge ALEXA-winning films. You can read all about their experiences of the challenge below, and Directors UK members can watch the resulting films at a special event on May 15. Find out more here 

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

Karen Kelly: Chips is a light-hearted film about how the magic of a child’s imagination can help heal a broken heart. After the sudden loss of her beloved grandfather, a young girl, from a Fife fishing village, discovers that when she accidentally feeds her grandfather’s ashes to her goldfish ‘Chips’, he talks. The film then goes on to explore how she resolves her grief and ultimately comes to terms with saying goodbye to her grandfather. It’s funny, sad and hopefully, a little poignant.  

The subject matter is close to my heart. Nothing prepares you for losing a parent, but when it happens to you unexpectedly, it’s even more distressing. When my Dad died very suddenly, I was devastated. I never got the chance to say things I wanted to say. My friend, producer Daisy Costello, was around the night it happened. So when the ARRI ALEXA Challenge announced the theme was ‘magic’ this year we knew what we wanted to do. what if the magic of your imagination could help you find a way to say goodbye to a loved one you’ve lost?

Ashtar Al Khirsan: The film is called Shawafa and is about a woman who is tormented, and ultimately liberated, by sex. The idea of telling a story about a Shawafa (a Moroccan witch) came from the actor Houda Echouafni who I worked with on my last short film. I wanted to do something where women were extreme, either very uptight or unrestrained. 

On the set of <i>Chips</i>
On the set of <i>Chips</i>

Zoe Dobson: The Cunning Man is inspired by a real Cunning Man, John Harries (c.1785 – 1839). It’s an enchanted tale of compassion in the face of callous greed.

The idea started as a series of images and fragments, of a man walking the country lane with a dead dog in his arms. After hours and hours of bashing out ideas with my creative collaborator and writer, Ali Cook this scenario gave rise to The Cunning Man.

I wanted the film to resonate with Dutch Vanity paintings, or vanitas. Their themes - the transience of life, and the certainty of death were key to the film. Some people may find the graphic images of dead animals disturbing. The animals were a collection of taxidermy and fallen livestock, a by-product of farming life and a reality of meat production. On a farm death is something you become familiar with, it’s forever brutal and in the face of such beauty and innocence of the animals it’s often hard to reconcile.

Fi Kelly: The Last Mermaid is a short comedy about a chain-smoking middle-aged Glaswegian mermaid who runs an Aquatic Fantasy sex-line. When she discovers she’s the last of her kind, she decides to try and get pregnant and save her species from extinction.  But of course it’s not that simple… 

The idea came from writer Jules Middleton who was drawn to the idea of normalising something mythical and magical like a mermaid and putting her in an everyday setting. The theme is about a woman overcoming her fears but we saw the story as a way to also highlight marine plastic pollution. 

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

Emma Swinton: Unearthed is about a pregnant geologist working for a fracking firm who discovers her colleague's flayed body. She finds out that the police have covered up the murder so she confronts her fracktivist brother in order to get to the truth. In a nutshell, the film is basically fracking vs fairies. 

The idea for the film came about after co-writer Karina Jakubowicz and I were researching folklore about bogarts and fairies. Karina discovered an old Irish fairy story about miners hearing a singing sound whilst down the mine. It later collapsed killing many people. We felt this was a really interesting story; almost as if the fairies were trying to protect the land from industrialisation. As Karina and I are both passionate about climate change, we felt this story had a strong resonance; especially with fracking trying to establish itself in the UK. In a way, the film is portraying Mother Nature and the old spirits of the world raising up to protect themselves.

Natalia Andreadis: How Can I Forget was originally written by Richard F. Russell, a writer in the US, and I just stumbled across it online. Intrigued by how it grounded “magic” within the simplicity of a boy-meets-girl story, I optioned it and adapted the script for the competition - giving it a little twist in the process, which I clearly won’t reveal here!

On the set of <i>How Can I Forget</i>. Photo: Micky Vissers.
On the set of <i>How Can I Forget</i>. Photo: Micky Vissers.
“I like the visceral impact the lenses can have on the psychology and the power dynamics between characters.”

What has the ALEXA shooting package allowed you to explore that you otherwise couldn’t have done, and what did being selected as a Challenge ALEXA filmmaker mean for you and your project?

AA: I think that the shooting package allows you to explore. I wanted to use split dioptic lenses as I am very interested in deep focus cinematography. I like the visceral impact the lenses can have on the psychology and the power dynamics between characters and their relation to the space they are moving around in. We also used the TRINITY which helped us get both the wides of the staircase and some of shots that otherwise would have been very difficult for us to achieve.

ES: It was very exciting to use the LF. The DP (Matt Gillan) and I were very interested by the LF’s native form, Open Gate. After some camera tests shooting Open Gate, we decided to shoot in this aspect ratio. We felt it added a sense of claustrophobia to Kelly’s story. It created a feeling as if she was trapped in a community who were against her.

I really enjoyed the quick turnaround of the project.  I manage to turn around a short every two years, but this was less than six months. It’s great to have a high-quality film after that amount of time, which was really helped by the financial aid and kit we received.  

On the set of <i>Shawafa</i>.
On the set of <i>Shawafa</i>.
“It was wonderful to shoot on the ARRI ALEXA LF. It’s a beautiful beast.”

ZD: When we shared the script with people, the feedback was very positive 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 and weight. 

The lure of the LF and signature primes meant Dave Miller, my chosen DOP, was interested. Which was the best news! The quality lens allowed us to get some beautiful shots, getting up close and intimate with a shallow depth of field. I wanted the film to look painterly, in a renaissance style at times and the ARRI kit and lenses helped us achieve that.

KK: It was wonderful to shoot on the ARRI ALEXA LF. It’s a beautiful beast. I was so excited I took a photo of the ten large silver carry boxes that house the lenses which were laid out ceremoniously in the long hall where we were filming.  

We wanted the film to have a strong sense of place so set it in a fishing village on the East coast of Scotland. We were striving to create a rich, filmic look and to reflect the light and shade of the story through the way we shot the film. The beautiful townscape and distinctive character of the winter light in Scotland lent itself to a large-format look which we capitalized on with the ARRI ALEXA LF.

NA: The ALEXA shooting package was incredible, it definitely elevated the film to another level. It gave the film the “magic” quality that the theme calls for, because the magic in our film is quite subtle. That camera package, including the wonderful TRINITY rig, took the spark between our characters and set it alight. I was completely overjoyed when we were selected for the challenge, because the ALEXA LF was going to make this little short more cinematic than it could ever have been otherwise.

FK: The promise of using ALEXA LF and TRINITY attracted a brilliant young camera team who relished the chance to get their hands on the equipment. ARRI were incredibly helpful throughout the process and Milan Krsljanin generously organised advance TRINITY training, so that by the time the camera team hit the beach running, they felt at home with the equipment and could offer up really creative suggestions. They are now the only Scottish-based TRINITY trained team, which will be great for their future film careers of course. 

Although it’s a dialogue heavy script we weaved in TRINITY shots where we could and  had a lot of fun experimenting. Surprisingly TRINITY really helped speed up our ambitious shoot schedule and meant we didn’t need to worry about tracks/dollies in our tiny cottage location.

We knew from the outset that the film would look stunning (let’s face it you can’t really go wrong with ALEXA LF and ALEXA mini!) and using that as a selling point helped us secure not just a great crew but a high calibre cast and a stunning location on the banks of Loch Lomond. Put simply, without the support of the ALEXA shooting package and Directors’ UK backing this film just would not have been made. 

On the set of <i>The Cunning Man</i>
On the set of <i>The Cunning Man</i>
“It was a total nightmare. And 100% worth it. I think it would be true to say we all had a good laugh bringing this film to life.”

How much of a challenge was it to shoot the project in such a short space of time?

ZD: A huge challenge but it also focused our minds and imposed a deadline which was extremely useful. It gave us the impetus to actually get a film made. 

ES: Filming in two days was very challenging, especially as we had a 14-page script.

We were up against many hurdles including our first shoot day which occurred during Storm Gareth. This is also the name of a character in our film, which we took as a good/bad omen.

We had difficulties filming because of a technical problem which resulted in having to lose two scenes from the film. Fortunately ARRI lent us the equipment again and we were able to pick the missing scenes on another half day. It has been really hard work but I have loved the process. It was great to work with amazing collaborators on the project, who have worked tirelessly to get the film made to such a tight timeframe.  

FK: It was a total nightmare. And 100% worth it. I think it would be true to say we all had a good laugh bringing this film to life.

AA: It was a huge challenge! 

On the set of <i>The Last Mermaid</i>.
On the set of <i>The Last Mermaid</i>.

KK: Our biggest challenge was the turnaround time. Four months seems more than adequate at first glance but what you don’t initially take into account that it is four months to raise the budget as well as deliver the film. You are given the kit and a small amount to cover van hire and a modest location fee but it’s very hard to make something of quality on a near zero budget. 

We set up an Indiegogo fund raising campaign but that in itself took up nearly a month. We had to cast the lead so we could do a stills photo shoot and then a video appeal as well as having to post photos of all our proposed locations and HODs’ info. Fine, if that’s all you have to do with your day!

It was the money or lack of it that put us under the most pressure. Everything else seemed to fall into place. The cast, the locations, the crew — not forgetting the fish, whose sterling performance amazed us all (and it’s still alive to tell the tale).

Hindering us further is the fact that Daisy and I are also mothers. A blessing, of course, but when it comes to filmmaking, children can be a tricky addition. On top of that, we both work full time in the industry and are very committed to our jobs, so it was less of a balancing act and more of a near impossible squeezing feat.

We had to find a way to do it on our own terms. We worked when our children went to bed. We work while we were commuting to our day job, walking the dog or making the dinner. Fortunately, we live in a world where all that is possible with shared drives and mobile phones.

NA: A few minutes after celebrating the good news that we’d been selected, it dawned on me that we were now going to have to follow through on the promises made in our application, and that was going to be a challenge indeed. On top of that, I was six months pregnant at the time of being selected, leaving me with a month less to get this film made, lest I give birth mid-filming!

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

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

NA: I’m very excited to be able to send How Can I Forget out into the world over the next few months. With a newborn at home, it’s great fun to have festival applications to fill out and not just nappies to change! I look forward to getting the film out there to as many audiences around the world as possible.

AA: Just to get it finished in time!

KK: We are hoping to show the film, which runs at 13mins, at festivals and who knows, perhaps it will get a showing on the new BBC Scotland channel.

ES: I would like to submit the film to film festivals.

FK: We’re first planning on screening it in Scotland, so that all the crew, actors and local community can see it on their home turf. Then hopefully onto short film festivals.

ZD: We will be entering it in film festivals.

On the set of <i>How Can I Forget</i>. Photo: Micky Vissers.
On the set of <i>How Can I Forget</i>. Photo: Micky Vissers.
“Shooting in such a short time frame has really made me realise how possible it can be to achieve quality work at a fast pace if you plan well and have an excellent team.”

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

NA: I’m working on another short script, as well as on the second draft of my first feature, so the ALEXA challenge has really given me to boost to hit the ground running. If I can pull off this challenge in three months whilst in my third trimester, what can't I do?!

KK: The ALEXA Challenge has been just that. A challenge – a huge challenge but nothing good ever comes easy. All directors know this to be true. Hopefully it’s a bit like childbirth, once the baby is born, you forget all about the pain and enjoy the outcome.

ES: I will take with me the many amazing new professional relationships I have made. I would like to make my first feature. I currently have two films that are very personal to me, one about a local witch child in the 17th century and another set in the modern day about a clairvoyant trying to save her sister from coercive control. Shooting in such a short time frame has really made me realise how possible it can be to achieve quality work at a fast pace if you plan well and have an excellent team. It’s not ideal to work in such a fast-paced way, but it has definitely given me the confidence to know that I can.

On the set of <i>The Cunning Man</i>.
On the set of <i>The Cunning Man</i>.

AA: I think I’ve made some great connections with producers, cast and crew, people who I definitely want to work with again. 

FK: I would of course love to shoot again on ALEXA LF as it is just such a beautiful camera to work with. I also found TRINITY really exciting; it opened up a whole new way of thinking about how to shoot a scene. I’ll definitely push hard to use it on future projects. This is my first foray into cinematic film and I’ve learned so much in such a short time, it was kind of like a fast-track film school but with the luxury of working with people at the top of their game. I moved into drama directing fairly recently and am now looking for an agent, so I now have a comic film to showcase. As for my next project? Brexit unicorns.

ZD: I am in currently in the development stage with an American producer to direct a feature. While I’ve had extensive experience in broadcast docs, the ‘Netflix effect’ means everyone wants a docu-drama, so having The Cunning Man to add to my show-reel makes a huge difference.

Who were your collaborators on this project? 

AA: My collaborators were my producers Marie Dong Wilcox and Marcie MacLellan, the actors Houda Echouafni, Souad Faress and Rina Fatania. Then there was DP Mary Farbrother who brought a dark sensuality to the look of the film along with Adriana Faria who created a Moroccan home opposite the British Museum. 

FK: We were so lucky. All credit for the film really does go to the seriously talented crew and post production team who came on board at such short notice and generously gave us so much of their time, energy, enthusiasm and creativity. Check out the credits. For me that’s what the film was all about. 

NA:  My main collaborator on this project was my friend and cinematographer extraordinaire, Adam Etherington. I was in a career slump, struggling to find work, and it was really getting me down. He took it upon himself to pull me out of the mud, push me to find a script and just shoot. I'm so grateful to him. We all need an Adam in this rollercoaster of a business! That being said, not one minute of this film would exist without the team that came together to make it. From our lead actors Genesis Lynea and David OMahony, who played several behind-the-scenes parts from casting to choreographing, to producer Jessica Benhamou who stepped in to save the day when producer Clement Fernandes father passed away three weeks before the shoot — everyone put their heart and soul into making sure we completed this challenge. I am so lucky to have gotten to work with such a group of dedicated filmmakers, from script to sound mix. Any producers out there looking for cast and crew right now should definitely take note of our credit list.

ES: We had an excellent team made up of fellow filmmaker friends and new collaborators: Pilar Cartró Benavides producing and Milda Baginskaite on Production Design (they are both founders of Pili Mili Films). Matt Gillan did an excellent job on the cinematography. I even managed to turn my writer/director friends Natashia Mattocks and Emily Carlton into a first AD and script supervisor for the weekend; it was really great to work alongside them. Despite the chaos of a film set, everyone was really calm and we worked really well together. It was a dream team all put together by the HODs.  

On the post side, the film was edited by Sam Cobb, she is a fantastic editor with great flair and timing. Regular collaborator Ed Melech made the score, I can always rely on him making something magic and ethereal for me. The sound design was created by Ollie Campbell who did an excellent job especially under such short time restrictions. Finally, the film was polished off nicely by colourist Jack McGinity at Cheat. 

Our cast were wonderful, Victoria Moseley (Kelly), Chris Pybus (Jeff), Jamie Biddle (Gareth), Vikash Bhai (Inspector Padda), Caroline Wildi (Chief Inspector), Chelsea Edge (Police - voice) and Lauren Wilson (protestor). I also managed to convince our marvellous Production Assistant, Joaquin Huezo to act on screen as a second protestor, he pulled it off! 

On the set of <i>The Last Mermaid</i>.
On the set of <i>The Last Mermaid</i>.

ZD: The Cunning Man was very much a creative collaboration between myself and Ali Cook, (magician, actor and writer). Between us, we thrashed out every last detail of the film. Every word, every image, every narrative thread was examined within an inch of its life. Working collaboratively was hugely productive, having someone to bounce ideas off, chew them over and sometimes spit them out, really helped us shape the film.

Achieving the painterly look of the film was down to our highly talented creative DOP Dave Miller, and gaffer Greg King. Our grip Martyn Jones was instrumental in finding the most creative and efficient way of filming each scene, rigging up bespoke mounts to fix the camera to vehicles, steel girders 50 ft up and the assemble narrow gage tracks in the smallest of spaces. Being a first-time drama director, my first AD Jeroen Bogaert was a god-send. He guided me through the process and the shoot with a calm head and a gentle nudge. Our composer, Lol Hammond and music producer Duncan Forbes scored the film, and really captured the atmosphere, composing themes for each character. The main theme for the Cunning Man skilfully created an underbelly of intrigue with a magical overlay.

Our lead, Simon Armstrong who played the cunning man, was extraordinary. When we saw his photo we were pretty sure we’d found our Cunning Man and on set he was everything we could have hoped for and more. It was a hard role to pull off with very limited dialogue, but his wisdom and his presence was everything. He inhabited the The Cunning Man.

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

KK: It was important that the sound for Chips was as rich as the picture. Peter Mullen’s wonderful gravelly voice was perfect, so we were thrilled when he agreed to do the voice of Chips, the grandfather. We introduced a wonderful young girl, Sophie Lawson, who was new to screen and cast the lovely Scottish actress Sarah McCardie to play the mother. We whipped up a small crowd of extras from the local church congregation and managed to get our locations for next to nothing. We were so lucky. We joked all the way through about how my dad, Brian, was looking out for us. 

We worked with a wonderful Swedish-born DOP, Markus Ljungberg, Nikki McChristie who is a really hot Scottish editor and Tom McLeod, an amazing composer based in New Zealand. The brilliantly talented Ali Mills was the Production Designer and Allan Wilson did a fantastic job on steady cam. Owen Rixon was our VFX man. He did some incredible work on the fish. We were blown away. Those brilliant HODs were supported by a great and very hard-working crew which we are very grateful to.

Progressive, a Scottish based facilities house were incredibly generous to us as were Blazing Griffin, who supported all our Post Production. Elevator Audio, who were our sound designers were fantastic.  And let’s not forget the Costello and the Kelly family who supported the whole production in more ways than I can list. We owe them all a huge thank you.

On the set of <i>Chips</i>
On the set of <i>Chips</i>
“The ALEXA Challenge is all about pushing yourself.”

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

AA: Plan and be bold.

FK: I’d say the best advice would be to have as much as possible in place beforehand and then apply. It’s a really fantastic opportunity and amazing to have the chance to work with equipment you would normally just dream about. Oh, and talk with people who’ve done this before. Happy to chat about it any time. 

ES: We probably went against some of this advice having quite a long script, but I would say have a great, short idea which can be simply executed. Keep your locations to a minimum. Surround yourself with a great team / friends who can help you and be meticulous with the planning. The turnaround after the shoot is tight so make sure you have a good post schedule so you can meet the deadline. Finally save up some money. The package is great, but there are extra costs to cover like food, travel expenses etc so make sure you can afford it.

NA: My advice to next year’s applicants would be to apply with a concept that would really challenge them personally - whether it be a genre they’ve never shot before, or feature a difficult sequence to shoot - because the ALEXA Challenge is all about pushing yourself. However, more practically, I would also advise to not apply if you don’t have a good amount of funding in place already, as you have very little time to raise any. Two truck-loads of equipment is an amazing prize but it’s not cheap to transport, let alone crew-up for optimal use.

ZD: Go for it! It was the most all-consuming, stressful, frustrating, exciting and brilliant experience. For a first-time drama director I learnt an incredible amount. Before you even write your synopsis and apply, remember you only have a two-day shoot, and consider what budget you can afford outside of the package. But be sure to use this as an opportunity to be creative and to follow your instinct. See it as an experiment, there are a myriad ways of translating or executing a story from page to screen. Whatever way you chose, don’t get clouded by the opinions of others, conduct your own experiment and own the outcome. 

You can watch all of the above films at the Challenge ALEXA 2019 screening and drinks reception. Book your place now.

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