Christopher Small • Director of Communists!
“I first found the people, and then moulded the characters to fit them”
by Teresa Vena
- The British author, curator and film critic broke down his first directorial effort on the occasion of its premiere at this year's BAFICI
British author, curator and film critic Christopher Small made his debut as a director at this year's BAFICI (17-28 March) with his tragicomic social satire Communists! [+see also:
interview: Christopher Small
film profile]. Working with a mainly female cast, he created an intriguing and unusual protagonist. We talked to the director about his inspiration for the film and how the production process went.
Cineuropa: Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
Christopher Small: Everything started essentially with the idea of a protagonist who, in the first half of the film, would be easy to empathise with, someone charismatic and interesting, but someone who, as a figure of identification, would grow more erratic and therefore be harder to pinpoint emotionally. Her erratic behaviour would alienate the public as much as it alienates the other characters in the film and create an emotional mess. I developed different things around this basic idea.
Moreover, I knew I wanted to work with a mostly female cast. At a festival, I once saw a Japanese film from 1938, Fallen Blossoms [by Tamizo Ishida], which impressed me. It's a very obscure film, telling the story of late 19th-century Japan, all shot in only one building. Every character is a woman. I thought it looked very strange; ultimately, it was very shocking not to see a single man in the film. The movie was an inspiration on the narrative level, although not so much on the artistic one. It's this experimentation and atmosphere that I wanted to work with in my film as well. I then realised that for some of the secondary characters, it didn't feel right to use women actors to bring them to life – for example, with the white nationalists that appear in the story. For me, it was evident that they had to be men. But still, I consider them to be somehow outside the film and see the actors’ ensemble mainly as a female one.
How long did you spend working on the film?
I started with the pre-production just over two-and-a-half years ago, but then, once it had started, the production itself was quick. The script was written quickly, and we filmed it in three weeks. The post-production, however, took a year – the sound mix was important, especially since we had no musical soundtrack, just the songs that are sung in the film.
Where did you shoot?
In South Wales. I went on long walks to draw inspiration from the locations while writing dialogues. I went to places I knew as well as to places I had an idea of but didn't know exactly. The staging came from these locations. It's an economical way to make a film, as it accelerates the process when you do all of this simultaneously.
How was the funding situation for the feature?
I made the film with the pennies in my pocket. This made it possible to move very quickly and to avoid having too much on our shoulders. The scenes we shot making compromises on the budget level are actually now my favourite scenes in the film.
How did you find your protagonists?
It was a very important question for me, how exactly to do the casting. How to identify what is interesting about people and what they can bring to the project. I first found the people, and then moulded the characters to fit them. Each person really embodies her character. It was a deep collaborative relationship between us all, involving close work with the actors and organic development. When I watch them in the film, I recognise tiny gestures that belong to the actors and are now those of the characters, as if the actors and characters can no longer be completely separable.
What was the aesthetic concept for the film?
It was not very predetermined; I wanted it to be naturalistic in some ways – not using a musical soundtrack, for example, and having an impassive camera gaze. At the same time, it was very important for me that the pictures would be rich and colourful. The sunlight had to be planned for in the right way, and I wanted to use the motifs of flowers and plants to set a certain kind of visual character for the film.
You mix the portrait of the festival business with a crime story and also talk about opportunism in terms of using a topic to serve one's own purpose. What is the most important thing you want to convey with the film?
Related to what I was saying before, I primarily wanted to create a kind of protagonist that I encountered in the work of William Friedkin. There are not necessarily any aesthetic elements in my film, for example handheld shots, that evoke Friedkin’s spirit, but I was inspired by his strange characters. They are poison pills, destructive figures. I wanted to create the kinds of protagonists that can be defined as damaged persons; they are sad and tragic. But even though they act mysteriously, you feel some kind of sympathy for them. Moreover, it was also interesting for me to transmit this idea of an artist that can be a destructive force.
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