Jimmy Dean discusses his latest short film about a young woman who’s vampirism is the least of her worries. Watch it here: https://vimeo.com/user37576817
What interested you most in making this film?
It was Ellie who had written this script and had this idea for this film, Ellie Gocher, who wrote it.
We’ve made two previous films together at university. With this one, what I thought was really moving was taking a vampire story, using the horror genre, and using it as a backdrop to explore adolescence, isolation, and the consequences of sexual abuse, just honing down on that genre and I guess just using it as a way to tell something that felt much more real and honest and maybe even hopefully relates to people. I think that was the first thing that really got me there. I thought it was a cool idea and something we hadn’t done before.
Brilliant. I mean, after Offside and Charity, it does seem that you and writer, Ellie Gocher, are really interested and capable in telling stories of young women struggling with their pasts and with their identities.
When we made Charity in 2014, we were 19-20, Ellie had just written this script about a girl she felt like she didn’t get to see much in cinema. I thought it was just this really interesting story and a character I hadn’t seen as much. I think as we grow up a bit, that became a real point as we felt and when we looked around us in British cinema. The stories of young girls weren’t being reflected onscreen.
If they were being reflected on screen, they weren’t always true to what we felt we saw and knew. There are obviously some filmmakers who do it beautifully. I just felt like we had something to say there.
There’s a great deal of humor in the film, the sort of mundane reality of being a vampire who is also a teenage girl, then the story gets progressively darker. Did you find it tricky to manage the tone of the film?
I guess it all happened quite organically. That’s something we were very conscious about. At first, we didn’t want her to be defined by her abuse. She doesn’t feel defined by it so, we didn’t want her to be defined by it. Ellie was always very keen and we both spoke about it as she’s telling the story on her terms. She narrates it. She’s getting an opportunity to say things how she feels. That humor is part of her life and that was always really appealing.
Get to know this person, who on the surface is very relatable and very normal and funny because there’s humor in life. Then you dig a bit deeper. I guess we were always keen to have that tonal shift as well.
Speaking of which, she has a very morally ambiguous character, both relatable but also, monstrous in her actions. How did you direct Synnøve Karlsen to balance these aspects?
That’s my favorite part of making any film. With Synnøve it was a collaboration very much between what was there on the page and then, what she felt and I felt. We just kept talking, kept discussing. We just wanted to present someone who felt relatable and who’s gone through monstrous things. I guess that side of the genre is she has to kill to keep living. I guess with Synnøve it’s a dream to work with actors that talented and it makes your job so much easier. You get to take credit for it which is great.
One of the ironies of the film is that the main character, Minnie, is so open about her vampirism. Yet, only reveals the tragedies of her human life gradually. I was wondering how you went about telling that aspect of the story visually. For example, I noticed that all of the technology in her house is quite dated implying that, perhaps, she’s been stuck here for quite a while.
Yes. I guess that’s part one of the things in the film is her vampirism is something that she is. Her vampirism is a physical metaphor for the abuse she suffered. The film is about digging past that surface level of what someone presents, for starters. In terms of production design, I think it’s just a slight…all of don’t love technology. I sat down with Greg, he’s the production designer of Ellie.
It was always written in that no technology was written in. We just harked back to stuff we love, the dance mat. There are things we thought that mostly suited that character.
You’ve mentioned the genre before. The film certainly has a horror movie concept. There are some very sinister horror beats. Are you comfortable identifying this as a horror short or do you find that label a bit reductive?
I would never say it’s reductive. We never saw it as a horror film. There was intention was to take those influences from horror, from vampire stories but also take influence from British cinema, from French cinema and then, mix it all together. I don’t think horror is a reductive genre. I would be delighted if people can see what we were trying to explore is something horrific. The abuse to me is horror. I wouldn’t call our film scary. I guess it’s your interpretation of it.
I wouldn’t say it’s reductive but we were trying to use it more as a backdrop to explore some other themes. I think that’s an interesting one. It didn’t really play at big horror festivals. I don’t know if we kind of skirted in between maybe not quite horror enough for some people.
Do you feel that genre cinema allows you the opportunity to explore themes that maybe wouldn’t be accessible to some audiences?
Totally, yes, 100%. When people get it right, it’s the most incredible thing. There are a thousand examples you can reel off. I think Get Out is a recent one. It opened everyone’s minds upon a large scale of what you can do. I think that was part of the appeal with telling this story, especially through the horror elements and the vampirism is a more accessible way for some younger people to access and see their problems and talk about it.
We were very privileged when we went to France recently for This is England Film Festival. We got to a show it to 15-year-olds and Q&A scenarios. Which is something we’re very passionate about, Ellie and I. We don’t want to make films about kids for adults, about young protagonists. Like when we did Offside, my favorite thing is 12-year-old girls got to see it. To show this film to the age group and demographic, what it’s about and to hear their feedback was amazing because they were talking about how they related to it and how they’ve never seen something like this before.
They can see themselves onscreen in this way and it opened up talking about problems. I think that wouldn’t have happened in the same way if it was a straight-up realistic film, for example.
You’ve taken this film around quite a few different festivals. I’m very sorry to have missed it at the London Film Festival. How are you finding other audiences are responding to it? How does it play to an audience?
It’s so weird because it varies so much. Generally, we’ve had very nice feedback. I’d say more than any film before. People either seem to really like it or it’s just not for them at all. I think Ellie and I can admit we’re very proud of the film but we know that the second half and the twist isn’t always clear enough. Or, for some people, they don’t connect the dots. My mum watched it and she was like, “Is this what happened?” and I was like, “No. You didn’t get that at all.” She was like, “I better watch it again.”
People feel very passionately. A lot of the comments we get are either they love Synnøve’s performance and they think it’s great, or it’s just not for them. LFF was the best because we got to screen it in NFT1, which is very special to me. The audience totally got the humor, the dark humor. I mean we were getting quite a lot of laughs.
Yes. It got a really nice audience reaction when we first did it. Then some screenings, you don’t get any laughter. You’re like, “oh, they fucking hate it.” It’s not a film that needs the laughter.
You want that immediate audience response.
I know what a laugh means. That’s a good thing.
Exactly. “Are people looking furrowed and considered enough” is a tricky one to gauge.
I try to look around and see it but you never know.
It felt as though the handheld documentary style of the initial interview parts eventually gave way to more locked down camera work as the film went on. Notably that really striking moment beneath the pedestrian bridge. Is that the case? If so, was that a conscious decision you made?
We definitely talked about the tonal shift and that probably came with it. There was a lot of handheld her talking moving around at the start. Yet, it probably felt right to go slower and have those locked off things at the end. Actually, as well as the tonal shift, there was supposed to be a pacing shift. It’s meant to be really snappy and you’re going through all these things and that lends itself to the handheld stuff. As she slows down and starts to open up, yes, I think we did want to reflect that in the camera work as well.
I should give a shout out to Anna McDonald who is a dream to work with and an incredible cinematographer.
Fantastic. It’s very effective. So far, you’ve directed just short films. Do you enjoy the medium or has it been more of a practical decision?
I guess I would say both. It’s practical at this stage but I also think shorts are a wonderful medium. Sadly, you can’t make a living off shorts. The audience appetite for them is growing but it’s still not seen as an art form on anywhere near the level of TV and films. It seems crazy to me that Netflix haven’t invested in more shorts considering how people consume content you know.
Yes, that is surprising, and I’ve always felt that it would be really good to instead of local cinemas or maybe big chains, to have sort of short film programs every now and then, because I’ve really enjoyed them. It’s one of my favorite discoveries of going to film festivals, is just two hours of short films, if you don’t like what you’re seeing, there’ll be something else in 10 minutes, seems like a really great thing to watch.
Totally. And I’ve been in some amazing short programs, and I’ve been investors like– When you go to somewhat LFF or encounters or leads, and anyway that underways amazing, and even if you go to smaller short sized cinema, like you just get these incredible diverse programs. I love it when they’re not themed, when you’re just like, “God, okay, I’m watching a horror film, fuck there’s a comedy,” then a realist film and you’re like, “Where am I?,” and this is great.
Yes, it’s fabulous; it’s just like a little chocolate box of treats.
They work so well and they couldn’t work any longer, and they shouldn’t– I think the path to make sure is one that isn’t earned I mean. Its not leaning on something else, it is just this is the path that’s many times said saw the story. I wish that was as well regarded as features.
Yes, I agree. And as a big horror fan, I’ve seen a lot of very short effective horror films that then get adapted into feature length. It’s never, it’s very rarely that successful. Things like lights out and mama, it’s difficult to capture that sort of magic of the original shorts.
It’s so hard, if your story is 10 minutes long then you’re in a position where they then go “can it be 90 minutes long”. Yes, it’s a really tough thing to sustain. You know, horror is a wonderful genre when its right, but it certainly gets tarnished I guess there’s a lot of not right for that same reason because it’s so hard to do well in my opinion.
It really is. I notice that you’ve used 16 millimeter film in the past. Do you prefer film to digital?
I think they both have their wonderful merits. I loved working on film, and I probably have that romanticism for it because it was the first film we ever made, and it was a part of the unit because we have to shoot and film.
Yes, I had this wonderful experience shooting on film and we couldn’t afford that much for any 40 or 50 minutes of film, we made 10-minute film out of that, so it’s a fourth or one shooting ratio, and then the discipline and I love how it looks. And the excitement and not really knowing if you had it.
We couldn’t even afford a wireless monitor when we made that, so we had to shoot on film but then we couldn’t find a wireless monitor. So half the time, I was directing the action, and then just talking to my DP who would say “yeah, looked good?” It was a kind of fun way to work.
Were there any big loses as a result of that method?
The bigger loss is well I was 20 and never made a film before, so I was leaning on my– but we did have the last thing we shot when we got our rushes back, it was just like tinted completely like light blue. Like the whole thing was blue. And we’d done three tapes and we watched the first one as blue, and we just went fuck. What are we going to do? And then somehow for whatever reason no one knows the next two were just fine. And it was like thank God. So watching that all back was really stressful.
I also noticed that in charity, you state a dramatic moment in a pedestrian tunnel. Is that just anesthetic choice or is there meaning for you there?
I mean they’re both written into the script. Why? I would first ask Ellie, but I think she and I both grew up in regional towns.
I don’t know what it is because it just had a lot to do because you hang out that underpass Milton Keynes and Ispwitch both have a lot of underpasses. Guess it’s just like, it’s probably in the stage just because they do look nice, there’s something about them. And let’s just say something probably weird into we probably used to spend a lot of time around this kind of places, so it kind of made sense as that’s where you’d go.
Excellent. So what is the next project?
That’s a good question. I’ve got a show I’d like to make just to keep myself busy about a day in the life of a woman on the day she tells her son they’re getting divorced. Just been trying to write a story for ages where I feel like middle aged women, and this isn’t a surprise for anyone, are underrepresented in British Cinema, I’ve never seen anyone like my mum on screen, you know, like a woman from a regional town who is a single mum who isn’t like the comedy character in a romcom or something.
So I’ve always wanted to tell that story. Ellie and I are working on feature projects together and were kind of looking to develop a few more feature projects so I can make that next step up.
Okay, fantastic. Well, I look forward to seeing the project.
Yes. Hopefully they will come about. Ellie’s currently deep in research on a period piece in the 19, not the 19, 17th century about the witch phenomenon that happened in the UK instead of the US. So that’s something we’ve been planning for a while and she’s just like deep in research on that, so I’m really excited when that starts to come to fruition.
That is very exciting news.
Yes, I don’t know how much genre is involved in that one but that’s very much using history and phenomenons probably as a backdrop to tell something more real and human again, so we’ll see what I mean.
Brilliant. I did my third year of my history degree was in witchcraft in Britain and the only film they had to show is they showed us the crucible and they should us The Witchfinder General which is the closest thing to sort of portrayal of witchcraft in Britain instead of kind of cheezy British Horror film.
Yes, I know.
Yes, that will be excellent, a film that really tackles that, because its out the way that whenever someone wants to tackle that narrative they transfer it to America. You know, some of this has incredible good effecte because David Eger’s the witch was brilliant and it used a lot of old English sources like actual dialogue but they said it in America. I always wondered why they made that decision.
I mean, there is so much more known about the one in America. It’s such a fascinating piece of history.
And Ellie was saying as well that it’s is going to be without a doubt about women and from the perspective of women. She sends us so few written accounts written accounts from women, because all of them not being educated to read and write, I don’t know 100% accurate on being right now.
I think that’s fairly accurate, yes, the ability to actually record things was kept to a very limited number of people, probably intentionally.
Oh definitely intentionally.
It empowers people.
Exactly. And there’s wonderful media to draw on that. I’m looking right now, this is just a complete away from film. I’ve got “Monstrous” the graphic novel by Marjorie Liu on my bed right now, this amazing like feminist fantasy comic which is just incredible.
Yes. It’s just a weird, you know, monstrous witches, it’s all there.
That sounds brilliant.
Yes. Look it up man it’s really great.
Do you story board at all when you work?
I don’t, personally, I don’t.
No. You first find it when you’re there?
Yes, totally. It helps some people, I’m sure it helps a lot of people, but for me like I’ve got an image who I want, and I think most thing I’ve worked better by chatting to people, and talking and I get excited about that. Then when were in the room I find it. We have a really good idea what we want, but like it’s not, it doesn’t help me. Especially if you can’t draw so that’s just upsets me. You should see some of the sketches I tried to give to Gregg who’s our production designer that were horrendous, and pretty laughable. But sometimes getting out and just have like a little cry of them.
I get more excited by working, like making up a little bit as we go.
Yes, I’ve always wondered because you hear about these sort of directors who are also great drawers, and they’re able to visualize in that way, but it someone who’s also rubbish at drawing I always do wonder if that becomes an impediment within the actual production process.
You know, you’ve seen those films that are like exactly as their story boarded, and I think that’s magic for some people, but like part of that excitement for me was not having it all planned. Being on set is the best, and the less mechanical it can be, and the more… I love when actors improvise a little bit or just do something. Like the ending, we seem to find in the room more than it was written.
I like that spark. I mean, the ending is as written, but it was just all the things that we felt brought it to life a bit more, so that’s how I like to do my shit.
Well, it clearly works, you’ve got a very natural performance out of your actors. I’ve had a wonderful afternoon and sort of watching some of these shorts that I’ve been able to find. And it does seem like you give a lot freedom to your actors to sort of move about and use the space a bit more.
Yes, I’ve just got a big love for actors, we’re so lucky to work with really good ones. Like good casting helps you massively and just getting really cool people involved. So Charlotte and Edds and Amanda from Charity, and then Sydney from Offside. I’ve got so much gratitude towards them because they kept going when we couldn’t offer money. These are like really good actors and I said they make your life so much easier, and I’ve just got so much love for them.
Synnøve, as I said on this one is just like…this film lived and died on getting a good actor and she’s nailed it. That’s the dream.
Giving power to the actors seems like a really good piece of advice, do you have any other advice for sort of young filmmakers who may be where you or are you were with Charity sort of just at uni working on that last project?
I would also say work with people you love, I know everyone’s got a different way of doing stuff but we’ve been very lucky that people down to like from the DOP to runner have all been people we’ve really liked and can go for a drink with and that they care about your project needs like sometimes much UD are so proud of that LFF, we have about 15 crew members in the audience.
Because they were just desperate to be there to share this moment with us. So I say work with people you love and it’ll make your job so much easier. I guess yes, Just don’t be afraid to try and get good actors, good performances make films for me that’s what I like, and otherwise, I know there’s that usual “just keep making stuff” and all that jazz but what do people love is the number one and then get actors who can make your films good.
Excellent and I just want to thank you again, I have had a really fun sort of a couple of days of looking through past projects, so really great stuff being you’re doing there.
That means a lot man, we look back at Charity and it’s not like five years ago it’s been months, obviously proud of them.
You find you’re okay watching your old stuff because I’ve met the– I’ve spoken to the writers who just cannot watch early things…
Those three I’m okay with. There’s always the Uni project that it cannot let the fucking life of me get off my IMDB. Someone added it when they were like and God, it never screen anywhere, it’s fucking bad and like that, I haven’t watched in years.
I just try to remember I’m proud of those films because they’ve been presented where we were at years ago, so that film’s finished I just trying and be proud of it-
Rather than change everything about all of them.
Jimmy Dean’s V and his other short films can be found on Vimeo here: https://vimeo.com/user37576817