FilmInt on the Underground: Simon Anderson and Patrick Walsh on Morning Is Broken
FilmInt on the Underground is a blog dedicated to emerging filmmakers.
An Interview by Tom Ue.
Directed by Simon Anderson, and produced by Elisabeth Hopper and James Northcote, Morning is Broken was selected as part of the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival, the British Council fiveFilms4freedom series, the Inside Out Toronto Festival, and mostly recently the London Short Film Festival. The short film follows the story of Sam (Matthew Tennyson), a young man, who is struggling to deal with the uncertainty of his sexuality. In what follows, we discuss the film’s production with director Simon Anderson and film editor Patrick Walsh.
How do you feel about the response to your new film?
Simon Anderson: Bowled over. It’s my first short film I’ve written and directed, so just having people even watch the film is pretty fantastic. The response from the BFI Flare audience was lovely, and it’s been an honour to be part of fiveFilms4freedom and connect with people all over the world. We’ve had responses from people in Asia, Easter Europe, South America, all over, and for a short film that is pretty special.
Most of you have experience in acting, and in fact, I had the pleasure of seeing James Northcote in Lizzie Siddal at the Arcola Theatre some years ago. How do they translate to working behind the camera?
SA: I started acting professionally when I was 12 and I’ve tried to take as much experience as possible from being in front of camera to working behind it. What worked for me as an actor? What challenged me? What invigorated me? All of that helped me work out how I want to direct. My main intention was to make the whole experience enjoyable for everyone involved. It sounds simple, but so often film sets are frenetic, stressful places, often they have to be – this one didn’t have to be. I wanted to give people time and space to push themselves. Hopefully we achieved that.
Did making this film change your thinking about acting?
SA: Absolutely. Directing for the first time made me realise that there isn’t one best way to act. Or one way to work with an actor. All actors have different processes, so being able to watch that from a directing position was fascinating.
Nine minutes is remarkable economy with which to work: what do you see as some of the advantages and disadvantages of making short films?
SA: The big obvious advantage is that they are relatively easy to make in comparison to features. Time, cost, manpower – you can film it in a day if the story suits. It also taught me a lot about storytelling – there isn’t much time, so you have to be economical with everything. Which is very helpful if you have a tendency to waffle on in your writing. Which I do. The disadvantage? Time to coax the audience in.
Patrick Walsh: There’s never been a greater appetite around the world for making and distributing short films thanks to modern technology – anyone with an iPhone and an idea and some passionate friends can go out and make a short film and post it on Vimeo or YouTube for a cultivated audience willing and expectant of experiencing something different, fresh and simple. Barely more than a decade ago you’d have very few outlets to get your hard work out there and in front of people but the democracy of the internet gives filmmakers almost unlimited options. The breadth of originality and creativity evident in many short films outshines most multiplex studio movies, so for me there are only advantages to short filmmaking.
How do you know when the film is ready?
SA: I think it’s different each time. With this we knew pretty quickly where changes in the edit had to be made. When they were done it was a case of tweaking, making sure the soundtrack fitted etc.
PW: I’m sure most filmmakers will perpetuate the old adage that their work is never truly ‘ready’ or ‘finished’ but for Morning Is Broken I don’t think that’s the case. The editing process took about a month or so from receiving the footage and then getting it all to a point where we’d sit back, watch where we’d got to and know that every avenue we’d gone down, every take or camera angle we’d explored and every option we’d experimented with, we had arrived at something we knew was the best version it could be. For me, the film truly clicked into place when I heard Joe’s amazing score replace our temp music and there was a sudden rush of accomplishment that all these elements and artists and moving parts had come together to make something unique.
What inspired it?
SA: Lots of things. I wanted to write about someone at a wedding who felt like an outsider. I spoke to a few of my friends who are gay and lesbian about coming out and little bits of what they said fed into the story.
Morning Is Broken features some excellent scenery. Where was it shot?
SA: In a place called Hoccombe in Somerset. It’s absolutely beautiful, we were very lucky.
There is something poetic about the film’s style, its colour scheme, shot compositions, and pacing. What were some of your influences?
SA: Our cinematographer Craig Dean Devine, our producers and I talked about lots of influences when we in development. Everything from Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997) to The Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011) to Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014). It helped to give a solid idea of both the visual style and the pacing of the film.
PW: Subconsciously I think touchstones for me were the HBO shows Girls (2012- ) and Looking (2014-15). Despite being set in very vibrant and palpable urban environments, they focus on young characters awkwardly attempting to find their feet in the world and often feature introspective scenes with a very lyrical, poetic style. They’re known as quite provocative shows but at their core they are simple character studies that feature honest and true reflections of wayward twenty-somethings, the DNA of which I think Morning Is Broken shares.
Did you have the film’s visual style in mind when the script was first conceptualized?
SA: Yes. The visual style and the feeling of the piece often come before the story for me. It was a conscious decision from early on.
Were there any cinematographical choices that you had wanted to implement that you couldn’t?
SA: Miles and miles of track would’ve been amazing for a few of the shots. Budget plays a big part in cinematographical choices, but Craig and his team came up with a range of ingenious little solutions. Most of these solutions involved a lot of running on his part as the camera operator.
Where did you find the car?
SA: Our producer James Northcote’s grandmother owns the car. Again, very lucky.
Tell us about the casting.
SA: It was quite tailored and informal, we had a few actors in mind for the roles so it wasn’t a case of throwing the net out and seeing what we got. I’m not a huge fan of on-the-spot, show-us-your-acting auditions — we basically just chatted to a few people and the conversations about the story helped to choose the cast.
The boat scene clearly represents a filming challenge, though it’s by no means the only one. What are some of the other challenges of making this film?
SA: The first scene, set at night, was quite tricky. It was the first thing we shot, and so everyone was a bit on edge – getting the lighting and continuity right was particularly tough. We also had to dam a stream at 1am in the morning as it was making too much noise.
How many takes did the boat scene take?
SA: One. But then we shot it again just to make sure. And then again. And then on the close-up. We stopped then because I didn’t want Matt, who plays Sam, to get hypothermia.
Were there any parts of it that you would do again if you had a second chance?
SA: I think it would be weird to look back at the film and not want to change a thing. I’d film a few things differently, just the process really — improvise more, forget the script.
One of the most striking things about short films is how little we know about the two characters and paradoxically how much we are supposed to invest in them. What do you see as the future for the film’s two central characters?
SA: I think short films can give you a sliver of a story and it’s up to everyone who watches to work out what happens next. For Sam and Nick (Nigel Allen), who knows? Maybe we’ll make a sequel.
PW: My favourite part of reading Simon’s script was that the story didn’t tie itself up in a neat little bow and the characters didn’t have a traditional ‘arc’. This is a snapshot of a very specific time in these two people’s lives that we’ve been allowed to peer into. Akin to real life I like that we don’t know what happens next and that it’s not spelt out obviously for the audience. The intention is to have people think about what happens to the characters after the cut to black, but it’s up to each viewer to reflect and muse on that themselves.
What is next for the film?
SA: We are submitting it to film festivals around the world, so hopefully we’ll get into a few and see what happens…
What is next for you?
SA: Onto the next one. I want to make a feature as soon as possible, that’s the goal. We may make another short or two before that though.
PW: I’m writing a short political thriller about a veteran politician and a rookie journalist who meet for a dangerous interview that could end one of their careers. It would be great to make it with this same group of dedicated filmmakers!
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His bestselling edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films and editing the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists (Gale, 2015). Ue gained his Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.