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Reflecting Our Troubled Times: Barnaby Miller on S|T|R|A|Y|S

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By Daniel Lindvall.

S|T|R|A|Y|S, described by its makers as “a living graphic novel,” portrays a cross section of contemporary Londoners dealing with the effects of financial crisis and austerity. The characters are at once individuals and social types – banker, minimum wage worker, businessman, petit bourgeouis entrepreneur, et cetera. They relate to each other through the microcosm of the local pub as well as through a web of relations; family ties, old friendships, romantic entanglements, job relations, all of which are deeply affected, and often strained beyond breaking point, by economic pressures and insecurity.

The film was shot on location in London and then developped through a rotoscoping process that involved director Barnaby Miller drawing over the live-action footage, frame by frame. The style has been compared to that of A Scanner Darkly (2006), but whereas the production of that film involved a minor army of animators, S|T|R|A|Y|S was animated by Miller alone, working “[f]ourteen hours a day, six days a week. One day off a week for socialising, martial arts training and absorbing as much Vitamin D as humanly possible!”

The following email interview with Miller was completed in July 2018.

 

Daniel Lindvall: Could you tell us a little bit about your early background? You started working in the industry already at the age of 16 it says on the film’s website, how did that come about?

Roto_Film_Ltd_STRAYS-Onesheet_Landscape-RGBBarnaby Miller: In the UK we have a tradition of introducing school kids to the world of work with two weeks of “work experience” at the age of sixteen. I was very lucky and managed to get a placement on a BBC children’s television show. It worked out so well that they kept me on for the rest of my summer vacation as a permanent, paid member of the crew. This was back in the days before unpaid internships…

Thereafter I spent every school and university vacation period working on film, television and commercial sets and productions. It was a great way to learn the mechanics of a film shoot, assisting, watching and learning from immensely skilled, professional, crew members and artists.

According to your IMDb profile you had a variety of miscellaneous crew jobs on a number of well-known films between 2005 and 2009 – among them Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), 28 Weeks Later (2007), and David Cronenberg and Steven Knight’s Eastern Promises (2007). What was it like working on such major productions? Did you make a conscious decision to walk away from that path and do your own thing in 2009, or what happened?

I got to work on some fantastic productions and have a lot of fond memories from those times, not only working with incredible filmmakers and actors, but also with astonishingly talented technicians (Simon Hayes, one of the best sound recordists on the planet, gave me my first introduction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu). It gave me the opportunity to observe the techniques of a lot of great directors, seeing how they collaborate with the actors. I’ve taken a lot away with me from that time. Danny Boyle, for example, brings an infectious energy and enthusiasm to the set, no matter what the pressures or constraints. That’s one of the things I try to emulate.

As a freelance crew member, however, spare time is very scarce. When you are working on a production it is all consuming, and as soon as it’s done you have to be looking for your next gig. I found that I wasn’t getting enough time to write or shoot my own projects. As I started to develop some of the very early ideas for S|T|R|A|Y|S, it became clear that I would have to devote a lot more time to the project. I stepped away from other people’s film sets in order to create my own.

How long have you been working on the film? And how has it been financed?

S|T|R|A|Y|S was a very ambitious project, both technically and textually, especially for a first-time filmmaker, so it took a while to get it off the ground. In the end I managed to pull together the funding from private backers who were interested in the script and the concept, and then blown away by the test footage I put together. After the development stages, creating the technology and refining my techniques, the whole project took over five years to complete. Most of that time was the rotoscoping phase, which I did alone and which took four years. To put that in a context, A Scanner Darkly had 50 animators working for one-and-a-half years, so I did pretty well. If I had had a team that size, S|T|R|A|Y|S would have taken a couple of months. It was budget restrictions that forced me to work alone, but thankfully all my processes are scalable, so I’m looking forward to working with a team on my next film.

How and when did you come up with the idea for the film?

Roto_Film_Ltd_STRAYS_Prod_Still_010_James_Running_RGBI started playing around with very early rotoscoping techniques late in 2009, whilst working on some short films, but the story for S|T|R|A|Y|S came a little later. I was seeing the world struggling to come to terms with the immediate repercussions of the financial crash. What concerned me most was that there would be a longer-term impact that wasn’t necessarily being addressed. With S|T|R|A|Y|S I wanted to explore how social cohesion would be affected, rather than looking specifically at the banking sector or the halls of power. That’s when I came up with the idea of using rotoscoping as a way to present the characters, simultaneously, as both individuals with human stories and also as “cut-out” personifications of different socio-economic groups.

These financial downturns are cyclical, and their effects horrifyingly predictable. Across the world we’re seeing the same scenario played out again and again. I saw what was coming and wanted to present the audience with both sides of the various arguments, outside their own personal experience, allowing them to draw their own conclusions. In an era of “fake news” and polarized politics, the film couldn’t be more relevant.

One thing we see in the film is the amount of rejection that young people – and many not so young, as well – face today in a harsh job market, having to plead and lie and turn themselves inside out and then ending up unwanted anyway, time after time. It’s almost like a form of institutionalised bullying. And like many bullied schoolchildren, we often see your characters respond with shame, trying to hide from each other that they aren’t “let into the game.” Why do you think it is that they find it so hard to confide in each other and support each other emotionally instead?

Roto_Film_Ltd_STRAYS_Prod_Still_031_Mia_and_Jeff_RGBI think it’s something we’re seeing across the social spectrum, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Since the financial crash, people from all walks of life are struggling more and more. There are fewer jobs as industries look to make “efficiencies.” If we look at the “austerity measures” that have been implemented around the world, we have seen budgets and wages frozen for the best part of a decade which is, with inflation, in effect cutting them. There is an assumption that people can keep the same standard of living, even though their wage packets and pensions have less value than they used to. Of course, they will try to make ends meet as best they can and must “carry on,” but that takes a personal toll. No one wants to be perceived as a victim, so individual hardships are often hidden behind closed doors. The wider impact of this is that people become more insular and aren’t able, or are less inclined, to support and help each other. That’s a lot of what S|T|R|A|Y|S is about.

Besides A Scanner Darkly, have you drawn inspiration from other films and filmmakers? And what are your other, non-cinematic, sources of inspiration?

Roto_Film_Ltd_STRAYS_Prod_Still_013_Group_Bar_RGBI took a lot of inspiration from those classic British social dramas of the 60s, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Kes. With S|T|R|A|Y|S, however, I wanted to have a much broader social spectrum, so Short Cuts, Magnolia, Night on Earth and (Paul Haggis’) Crash, with their intertwining “slice-of-life” narratives, also gave me a lot of food for thought. In a broader sense, the works of Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Kurosawa and Carol Reed have all been hugely influential on me. Outside of film, Dickens, William Blake and Alan Moore have also been great sources of stimulation.

You mention Dickens and Blake. There seem to be a lot of neo-gothic and Victorian influences in culture nowadays, do you see similarities between today’s situation and the nineteenth century?

There are definite parallels going on. Where there was the Industrial Revolution then, there is a huge social upheaval happening now, driven in large part by such a rapid adoption of digital technology. Moore’s Law may be over, but it’s not the speed of the machines that’s changing things, rather it’s their implementation. Just as the “Spinning Jenny” did, the digital revolution is creating huge consequences for the nature of work and industry. Old jobs are being replaced with computers and (fewer) new jobs are being created to service them. Meanwhile, entirely new industries are springing up that could not have been imagined a decade ago. All this change creates a divide between those who can and those who cannot adapt.

In such a relatively short time, the internet has changed the way we communicate, socialise, work and shop. Everybody is now walking around with a supercomputer in their pockets. It has changed the face of the high street and the way in which we engage with art and entertainment. The cultural values of all forms of media are being conflated, as everything is “consumed” through that ubiquitous prism of the mobile phone. It doesn’t surprise me that current cultural reflections of such massive social shifts have these darker overtones.

What would you say to those critics who will inevitably go on about the contradiction between art and politics, when faced with films like S|T|R|A|Y|S?

I don’t think there is a contradiction between art and politics. Throughout history the greatest art has come from times of political turbulence and conflict. It inspires artists to reflect upon their societies and the changes that occur. Look at Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Third of May 1808, The Third Man or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Whether “high” or “low” art (I don’t necessarily agree with such sweeping distinctions), politics is integral to their potency. These pieces, whether directly or sub-textually, examine and critique the political era in which they were made and to view these works out of that context is to render them meaningless. For me, art and politics are intrinsically linked.

You describe Will, the film’s Punk Poet, as a “trust-a-farian” and “a tourist in the culture of the impoverished” whose indignated poetry “finds much more specific targets” when faced with the impacts of financial decline. As a fellow artist, does this describe your own trajectory perhaps? Do you find that there is a trend among young British artists towards politicization and radicalization?

Roto_Film_Ltd_STRAYS_Prod_Still_099_Will_Poetry_RGBHaha! No, I don’t particularly identify with Will. For me he personifies the unfocussed rebelliousness of youth (sometimes attributed to those who can afford to be so minded), which has now found a focal point to pin its frustration on. However, with current world events we are definitely seeing a political reawakening of the younger generation.

By focal point, you’re referring to..?

Take your pick! People are looking for someone to blame for the decline in their living conditions and future prospects. That anger might be focused at the banks, at “the establishment,” at professional politicians, at the “populist” figures who have come to prominence, or, in the worst cases, the vulnerable who are once again being used as scapegoats by those “populist” movements.

As to “radicalization,” that’s a very loaded term. It’s being used to denote terrorism and criminality or indeed utilised as a shorthand to dismiss any political view that conflicts with one’s own. My own politics aren’t particularly “radical,” but I am interested in presenting the audience with both sides of the argument. In the wake of the financial crash, whether for good or for ill, people are looking to a much wider political landscape for answers, with many people feeling that the centrist status quo has failed them. In some ways that’s really encouraging, as we have a broader spectrum of debate, but in other ways, we’re in a very troubling period of “readjustment.” It’s inevitable that artists are going to be inspired, motivated and reflective of this, especially in Britain, in the wake of the referendum, but also globally.

What do you think will come out of this period of “readjustment”?

Admittedly, things look pretty bleak right now, but I am cautiously optimistic about the future. It’s going to take a while for our current generation of politicians to learn how to combat some of the really nasty ideologies that have made a resurgence. It’ll take a lot of hard work and it won’t happen over night, but people are re-engaging with politics, on many levels, as they see what a huge impact it can have on their day-to-day lives. I take encouragement as a filmmaker, and as an individual, from movements and campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo – people are realising that they have a voice and are demanding it be heard. As a filmmaker it’s my job not only to entertain, but also to reflect our world and encourage ideas.

Are you finding distribution? Where can people see the film now and in the near future?

We’ve shown the film in London and New York and are continuing to follow the festival circuit. S|T|R|A|Y|S is going down really well and has a very powerful effect on the big screen. We’re having some interesting conversations off the back of those screenings, and a distribution deal for this film may well be linked with my next project. I guess the answer is “Watch this space…”

Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.

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