Published on: 18 October 2022 in Longform
Photo Booth: Developing a Film
Reading time: 12 minutes and 22 seconds
Using two lead actors and a single location, Directors UK member Roxy Rezvany set out to create a short film about a young couple in 1970s London, who find themselves tangled up in Britain’s immigration laws.
The result was Photo Booth, which has since gone on to screen around the country, including at Edinburgh and Leeds International Film Festivals.
Below, Roxy writes for Directors UK about what went into developing her short film, from researching period detail to planning camera movements and casting during COVID. Read Roxy’s account below – and watch Photo Booth in full.
Photo Booth is a romantic comedy drama about a mixed immigrant couple in 1970s London, attempting to navigate both Britain’s immigration laws — and each other. I was invited to be a part of the Mayor of London’s ‘Borough of Culture’ programme in Brent, and this was the film’s genesis. As someone born and bred in Brent, a borough famed for having a majority population of first generation immigrants, I’m very much the product of the borough’s ethnic and cultural diversity. I knew that I’d want to make something where residents could see a story they recognised reflected back to them.
The starting grant for the commission was £3000, so I wanted to think of a concept that would suit the budget size. I’d been interested for a while in using a photo booth as a location for a short film, and loved all the old vintage photographs of couples in photo booths you can find in archives dating back almost a hundred years. For me, these photographs felt so much more romantic and intimate than a wedding photo or prom photo, or other archetypal ‘couples’ photographs. As a filmmaker, the more I thought about the space, I realised that even without moving the camera you’d be able to see so many sides to a character: you can watch how they want to be perceived as they pose for their photographs versus how they look when they believe no one is watching, how they act when alone versus in the presence of their partner, how they present as a ‘romantic’ versus ‘practical’ partner - and crucially the very act of transformation as they moved between these without even leaving frame.
I started to look at other films that featured scenes in photo booths via a website called PhotoBooth.net in order to explore ideas for how best to use the space, looking at iconic scenes in Jean Aurel’s De l'Amour (1964), Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo '66 (1998), and John Maybury’s Love Is The Devil (1998). It definitely only made me more aware, though, how rare an interracial couple like Mina and Feras are in film.
When writing the script, first and foremost, my focus was on creating characters that would celebrate the immigrant generation of my parents. This, however, was not just in terms of bringing a ‘migration story’ to screen — but wanting to bring to life a specific “first generation” paradoxical personality. They are street-smart but naive, thick-skinned but vulnerable, innovative in both humour and work ethic — but still perpetually overlooked. For Mina and Feras, their conundrum would be having to figure out a way of loving and supporting each other — whilst also learning to love themselves — in a country and social context that is seemingly getting in the way of that.
I was also driven by the narrative potential of a relationship where both lovers were grappling with making London their new home, but had come from different cultures — and the nuances of this dynamic. I’d especially been interested in the way in which newlywed couples are asked to ‘prove’ their love to the state, and thought that this was also an interesting conundrum for Mina and Feras to find themselves in. I think for me, it represented the way in which your personal identity and something so instinctive, loving another, rubs up against government bureaucracy. And that can’t be taken for granted when you’re not seen as ‘one of us’ - an experience well known to refugees, asylum seekers, and those travelling to call a new country home.
Lastly, I thought it was really important to make sure that these characters came across as flawed: they make jokes that aren’t funny, they are irritable, they don’t necessarily do anything ‘noble’ or ‘admirable’ on screen. I didn’t want to rely on a constructed virtuosity to get audiences to see them as people we should root for.
THE PRODUCTION TEAM
After securing the commission, I sent a draft of script to the production company Somesuch who agreed to take on the project and were keen to support the film. As someone who began directing as a documentary filmmaker, I was used to producing, fundraising and budgeting my own projects, and I am still getting used to working with more support and enjoying how much headspace it opens up for you. I worked with in-house producers Elly Camisa and Scott O’Donnell, whose belief in the project meant we were able to top up the budget from our initial grant and ensure all budget lines were covered! I also worked with Aneil Karia (my Directors UK Inspire mentor) who also worked as an Executive Producer on the project, providing feedback and support throughout. Even at times when I felt like things might not work or would waver on a creative decision, the team were always on hand to remind me to trust my instincts, and to fight for us to honour the original treatment. It’s the first indie project I’ve ever worked on where everything came together smoothly, and that’s much to the credit of the producers.
When it came to casting, I worked with the brilliant casting director Lara Manwaring - introduced to me by Aneil. We put a call out to Asian actors across the board, and knew that our eventual pairing would reflect different ethnicities within that. One of the most rewarding parts of making this film was getting the opportunity to meet with all these Asian actors, trade stories about ourselves and our parents, and enjoy their different interpretations of these characters. Through the auditions process, when the actors reading for these roles reiterated that it wasn’t often they were given the opportunity to read for a ‘romantic' lead, it reinforced my desire for this to be about showcasing British acting talents.
We were casting during the 2020 pandemic, but we decided to facilitate in-person casting callbacks as we knew that the film would hinge on the onscreen chemistry of the couple, and that it would be crucial to find actors whose performance style would suit the one-shot nature of the film. It was a challenge to try and gauge chemistry between actors when they were sat ‘socially distanced’, but with Lorraine Tai and Elham Ehsas, it almost seemed like fate that we would all be brought together - as not only did they both have first-hand experience of moving from abroad to make the UK their new home - but we were all based in Brent, and that offered us the opportunity to really get to know one another through the filming process. Instead of rehearsing the script word for word — to save some spontaneity for the shoot — we spent sessions fleshing out the characters, playing around with the physical possibilities offered by the scenario, and trying to understand what the characters were really asking of one another whilst in the booth.
To bring the period to screen, and especially on a tight budget, I was grateful to be working with a team who all had a great eye for detail and texture. Soraya Gilanni Viljoen our Production Designer brought together a wonderful colour palette, and brought the booth to life. To pull together the looks for Mina and Feras, I worked with Costume Designer Emma Lipop, Make Up Artist Grace Ellington, and Hair Stylist Tomoko Fushimi.
We knew we wanted to avoid anything that felt like an ‘impersonation’ of the 1970s - no flares, no tapered collars, and nothing that would represent the ‘counter culture’ that might dissuade a government official from seeing the couple as ‘good citizens’. With the make up and hair styling, we used references that also felt true to the characters’ personalities. Mina would probably not have been a Twiggy fan, but might have been inspired by China Machado or Marie Helvin if she was looking to emulate high-end elegance. For Feras, his long hair and beard were a must - but whilst he’d care about his appearance, he wasn’t indulging in a blow-dry every morning. Emma ensured we were paying attention to the subtle grains, textures, and patterns in the items we were choosing to prevent anything feeling too modern, and to provide depth to our one-shot image. I had particularly wanted Mina to be wearing purple alongside Feras’ stripes - as a nod to what I felt each character embodied in the story.
Once we knew that we wouldn’t be able to afford to shoot on film, cinematographer Jeremy Valender settled on shooting with an Alexa SXT with filtration, and Panavision P Vintage lens. The idea was to find a look that would bridge both realism and the ‘photo booth’ photo. This was also the approach with the grade when working with colourist Thomas Mangham. We wanted something that would grab your attention, using 70s photography studio portraits as our starting point with their vivid saturated colours and lovely highlights, recreated a grain that hopefully felt authentic and noisy, so our frame was consistently in motion. I wanted it to feel like our frame was consistently in motion to aid the one-shot.
Lastly, our sound design and music choices helped to complete our 70s setting. From our original vintage recording of the station announcer to our brass-playing busker, sound designer Guy Chase looked back at the sounds of London’s old tube stations. For the credits, we licensed a song by Cambodian singer Sinn Sisamouth, who blended traditional elements of Khmer music with rhythm and blues and rock and roll in the 60s and 70s, which felt fitting for a story about worlds colliding. The particular song we licensed — “Neuk Oun Chea Nich” or “Missing You Always” — also helped to capture the romantic melancholy of the couple’s situation, and foreshadow their potential separation if their plans to stay in the UK fell apart.
The idea to shoot the film in one shot with a fixed frame was built into the script, and so was always part of our production process. For me, it offered an opportunity to be truly collaborative with the actors that I was working with, and also just a chance to do something a little different! We had two days in production but used our first day to build our set, fine-tune our image in terms of lighting, costume, hair, make up, and then block the script with the actors. Our second day was dedicated to doing our run-throughs of the film and takes. Soraya had in fact built an entire booth for our filming, including interior light and exterior panelling. Though details like this wouldn’t be seen on screen, we thought that this was the best way to helping to conjure performances that sustained the one-shot, and hoped that the effort would also pay us back in terms of fewer takes.
In total, we did about 18 takes: some were false starts, some veered off in the middle, and in some perhaps our improvisation took us away from a coherent plot, but were helpful for us to keep playing around. Our lucky charm in terms of keeping things fresh and every take different was our third actor, Anton Valensi. Anton hadn’t come to any rehearsals, in order to bring something different to the screen. I gave Anton permission to almost reinvent his character with every take, as long as his goal stayed the same. His improvisations definitely enhanced things for the film, and the take we’ve chosen for the film features an idea he had for the ending that certainly wasn’t scripted! Our editor Ross Leppard perhaps had a little less to do than he’s used to in the edit, but when it ultimately came to choosing the take that would comprise our film, he helped to whittle down a shortlist of those where the emotional journey felt truest to what the script intended, and we made sure to stay true to the commitment to the one-take. What you see on screen is something we shot on the day all the way through. Though, painfully, this meant we lost a lot of moments we loved in other versions of the film. We hope people love the one we have as much as we do!
Photo Booth premiered in competition for Best Director at BAFTA-qualifying festival Underwire, and screened in competition at both the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Leeds International Film Festival for Best Short Film. It is now available online worldwide here.