So how did midnight come about?
Midnight came about when I came up with the idea for a very self-contained and low budget ghost story. I wanted to use what I had at my disposal, which was a small location and a brilliant crew. So I decided that I wanted to make a small haunted house story, and I thought, how do I make this idea original and thought provoking. Growing up I was exposed to spirituality and also elements of the supernatural from my family, which was something I really wanted to play on and so I wrote Midnight.
One of my main focuses, as with many of my previous films, is creating a very realistic and almost kitchen sink like drama as the setting for my horror films. I think placing stories within recognisable environments only heightens the horror for the audience, playing on the notion that this could happen to them within their own homes. I also like to play with themes of isolation, and in this instance the way in which the characters interact with each other as they navigate through the story. Ghost stories have immense power in creating great atmosphere and sense of dread, and drawing on the fear of death from the audience.
There is a palpable sense of isolation within the film and this really this terrifying sense of everyone being trapped away from each other.
Absolutely I think the theme that runs through it is that all the characters are isolated in very different ways, be that fear, old age or loneliness. This is something that unites their characters, but ultimately divides them.
It was really interesting. As you were sort of writing it, did you start to think about the ways in which you would sort of use the physical space of the flat? You mentioned that it’s actually in your flat, so did you sort of sort of map out how you’re going to use your space in order to tell this story?
I’ve never filmed anything in my own space before, and although it was stressful in terms of thinking how best to manipulate the space, it was also advantageous, because you tend to think about the space much more in terms of how you yourself manoeuvre and navigate around it. I wrote Midnight, so I was kind of living it daily in the sense of I was thinking about how long it would take me for to get from this point to this point. What noises can I hear from this room from another room, like how do we get this kind of continuous flow of action while in a small flat but maintaining the tension within the narrative.
In total there are three set design changes within the house and I mean full sets too and so when I first wrote Midnight, I rang my amazing set designer (Cat Stepien) and I said this is going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. We’ve got one day and eight hours to film this. So most of the time was spent on set design and how we create the worlds of each character. Set design is so important, and although it this project was very low budget, if you can’t sell the set, then you can’t sell the story of the film and everything else becomes redundant. So we played a lot with that. We had full maps of the flat explaining where everything was going, we had vans outside on standby between each full set change, we had carpets going down, light fittings going up. We also played a lot with colour pallet so although we couldn’t change the wallpaper, the sense of a new space was created by lighting and colours. It took a lot of time, but I think myself and Cat pulled it off. I was extremely lucky, there is no way I could have done it without her.
To what extent were you worried about audience’s ability to sort of follow the film and sort of understand it?
Well, funnily enough the version that you saw isn’t actually the scripted version. So the script version, which I would call more ‘linear’ is not the one we ended up using. When I got into the edit with Patrick Miles Widdop he suggested playing around with timelines and trying something a bit more abstract. Initially, I was like “what?! You can’t do that. It’s not gonna work. Like, how would it work?” Patrick went away and pieced together another version of the film, he showed me the rough edit and I fell in love with it. I felt this new edit really accentuated the tension and the mystery of the story.
So we worked on that edit for about three days and we made it work. I was initially worried about whether the audience would have enough to follow the story, as we hadn’t planned or shot for this new version. We had a big discussion on which version to go with and ultimately we felt the abstract one was much stronger and really created the sense of unease and mystery that we were going for.
I also purposely don’t use a lot of dialogue in my films, I just don’t think you always need it for horror films and for this story it didn’t make sense for it to be so dialogue heavy. I think that the idea of the haunting and the isolation and that level of loneliness can be achieved visually… I was very conscious of trying to not spoon feed too much because it’s important to let the audience do some of the work. You’ve got to pay attention in this film, otherwise you’re gonna miss some thing. I think that’s really important to engage with the audience and try to show something new and original, something that they are going to remember really, that plays on their fears.
I think even anyone who didn’t manage to follow the narrative as it were, they would be still immersed in the atmosphere that you created and get the themes that you were going for. With loneliness and time and the feeling that you’ve created there in the film. I think that can’t be missed.
Yeah, absolutely. I think the overall idea of film came through to audiences who have seen the film so far. I think everyone’s going to read things differently, aren’t they? But then that’s the beauty of film, I actually prefer it when people come out and say some kind of wild interpretation. Something crazy they’ve picked up on and you’re like, “no, I never intended that, but I love that you’ve read it that way.”
So it’s pretty extraordinary what you mentioned in terms of your editor being able to show you a whole new perspective on the footage that you had captured. Is the collaborative nature of film something that you really value?
Yeah, absolutely. My Producer Kieran Nolan Jones had recommended Patrick and we got on really well, which was lucky because he felt comfortable enough to approach me about an alternative version. At the end of the day if he can see a better version of the film or if he can make something great out of what we captured and that fitted then you’ve got to rely on your team around you. Editing is his job, his passion and you have to work together to create the best film you can.
And having that input and that guidance, and somebody who can read the film totally differently is an asset. I feel like I’ve been living in this film for a very long time because I live here and I’ve written it and directed it. So when everybody left, I had rooms full of furniture. I welcomed another point of view and somebody that could read it in a new way and, and just bring a bit of spark to it. I think it was always a good concept, but just having that kind of sprinkle of genius on it was really important and Patrick brought that to the film and we would have had a totally different film if he hadn’t.
I was lucky to be surrounded by such an amazing crew and to have good relationships, meaning that confidence in sharing ideas, and allowing their full creativeness to shine through was possible on this set. This was my second project with DOP Sashi Kissoon and we have a great mutual respect for one another. His professionalism and creative flair while working within the tight set of Midnight was paramount in making this film look amazing and really encapsulating the world and story of these characters. Collaboration is key.
That’s brilliant and it implies the answer to this question, but as a filmmaker are you the kind that prefers to plan very carefully what you’re going to do and then sort of follow that plan or do you prefer to leave yourself room to explore and find the film as you go?
I do plan a lot. I am quite organized in that sense. I’ll have as much prep done as possible up until the day, but you’ve got to with the flow sometimes. It will never go one hundred percent to plan, I think with every film you learn that and you learn confidence and how to compromise. I think as long as you’ve got everything mapped out in the back of your head, whatever’s thrown at you, you can deal with. You’re all collaboratively trying to find the best film possible on set and in the edit and sometimes unexpected problems arise and can only truly come to light when you’re filming. So I always try to be as planned as possible, but I also understand, you know, that sometimes stuff just happens and you’ve just got to embrace those things.
To what extent do you enjoy watching your films with an audience?
Um it kinda depends, I’m not good at watching my work with an audience. I don’t know. It’s difficult isn’t it? I mean, I actually have to say that Midnight has probably been my favourite to watch with an audience. I’m super proud of it. I’m proud of all of them, but I feel like Midnight was the nicest experience I’ve had in making a film. And I feel like that has made a huge difference, because when you have bad experiences on a film, that negativity can sometimes radiate for years afterwards. I was very lucky with Midnight.
I love all my films for different reasons, but it just came together and it was really organic and just a nice experience. It made me fall in love with filmmaking again which is important. It’s always nerve wracking though, it’s just a very strange… It’s like you put yourself on screen and you’re watching yourself with everybody else and it just feels very vulnerable. That’s probably the word, but that’s the risk you take.
Midnight seemed to go down very well with the Fright Fest audience.
Yeah. The audience reacted really well to it. Our particular short film block had sold out and tickets were really in demand which is always nice, we also had some handmade keepsakes for the audience, which gave the screening a real special touch.
What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of working specifically in a short form?
I mean strength wise, I think it’s underestimated how hard it is to tell a good story in under 10-15 minutes. I think that’s quite underestimated. I think you learn how to be more precise in your storytelling. I think you’ve got to be…again, that’s why I didn’t use a lot of dialogue because you really want to come to the audience with an idea, not necessarily fully flesh that idea out, but you want to leave a sense of an idea or a sense of a thought or something you’re trying to say. You just want to be as creative as possible. And I think for under 10 minutes that can be quite hard to do, but it’s all about the discipline of creating something original, something tight, something that looks impressive but also that can talk to audiences, I just think that’s really hard to do. I think that’s why you seem to get waves of different short films genres. Short film making is also super competitive, so you’re always conscious of just trying to deliver the best possible film you can in under 10 minutes.
On the flipside the weaknesses would be only being able to make short form films, learning how to expand and push an idea out may be more of a challenge when moving more into features or dramas. When you come with an idea of a short film, you’re thinking, “How do I get in, how do I tell something totally different and how do I get out again?” And it’s just trying to retrain your brain to think right now I’ve got like an hour and a half and I still have to have exactly the same impact, but obviously with a lot more going on.
Although it’s an asset to be good at making short films, I think it can be hard sometimes to make the transition to features. But yeah, I mean it’s just pros and cons, but I think maybe short films aren’t as appreciated as they should be.
I agree that short films are under appreciated and what I’d love to see is for short film showcases to break free of just festivals and for big cinemas, you know like Cineworld or the ODEON occasionally having a short film showcase of different genres and because it’s almost always the highlights of every festival I go to. I went to Cannes and the short film festival was amazing. And you know, London film festival and Fright Fest, the shorts are just such a great audience experience.
Yeah I mean I think you have to be realistic with why you are making a short film, and what your expectations are. But for me I love making shorts, and at the moment that’s the only way I can really create my work, which is fine, you know, but that’s just the way it is. It’s just being realistic about it and just trying to try to find your way really until you make the leap.
Speaking of which, what’s the next project?
My next project has been commissioned by BBC Arts, which I have written and will Direct later this month. The short will then go on to air on TV early next year. And I’m also writing a feature at the moment which is a haunted house story set in the countryside and actually draws a lot from my previous short films.