The script for Ashes presented the kind of challenges that a lot of filmmakers would back away from. For one thing, it touched on the issue of sexual abuse within relationships – a subject matter which, if tackled wrongly, would offend a lot of people. This meant the film would have to be character-driven, with believable performances and clear motivations. But that’s where the script offered up more hurdles; it was five pages wrong, covering a very small amount of time where all the action took place in one bed, and the characters hardly said four lines between them.
Having spent the last few years helping other people get their films made, and with only a handful of director credits to my name, I knew that Ashes would have been particularly difficult for me to take on board. But the problem was that I couldn’t back away from that script, because I was the one who had written it. And what’s more, a lot of people wanted to see me bring it to life. So, rather than balking at the challenges, I embraced them, and quickly set about planning ways to solve them. Of course, I didn’t do this alone, I hired the best crew I could think of using a string of previous contacts, and I was able to find a great cast through a mixture of luck and some rather intense casting!
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it’s that if the script doesn’t say something, and if the characters aren’t given the lines to do so, then the visuals need take the stand and say it. I used this same method when I made my first festival-entry film, The Opening Night in 2010, which featured even less dialogue than Ashes and a whisper of the plot. But the film was rich with suggested emotions due to the ‘creative triangle’ of dazzling lights, sumptuous sets and gentle camera movement.
One of the assets of the Ashes script was that it let us see inside the lead character’s mind – a fact that my Director of Photography, Neil Oseman, revelled in. So we were able to take the one-room setting and portray it in four different ways, depending on how the lead character (Sarah) perceived the world at particularly points in the script. For example, when she was happy with her relationship, we exaggerated everything – a meagre vase of wooden roses became a bouquet of fresh flowers, the actors didn’t have a hair out of place, and Neil went so far as to shoot the happiest scene through a pair of tights, to give it an old-fashioned, glamorous ‘Hollywood’ look.
I also made the decision to shoot certain scenes using different cameras to help portray the varied emotions in the film. We hired a beautiful set of Carl Zeiss lenses for the shoot, and used these for the scenes which were dominated by raw drama – such as the end scene, in which Sarah has to decide whether or not to confront the man she loves. Shooting in crisp HD for these scenes meant we could clearly show the audience that they were set in the real world, in contrast to the stylised ‘subconscious’ scenes – one of which was shot in part on luscious but hazy Super-8 film, using the gaffer’s vintage camera.
Set dressing was another tool we seriously used to our advantage. For example, we needed to establish the fact that the characters in the film were in a loving, long-term relationship, with no real screen time to say this. The actors knew who they were portraying, and where the characters were in their lives, due to the meetings I’d had with them, as well as some wonderful one-on-one rehearsal time (which the actors went out of their way to organise themselves). But we had to show the audience all of that before the actors even moved. In the opening scene, the characters are in bed together, half-asleep, and their loving caresses combined with the hazy glow of sunlight (which we faked using a 2.5kw Fresnel) established that this was a comfortable arrangement – but it was the set dressing which told the full story of who these people were.
During what would become the opening credits, we used a series of gliding cutaways to show objects which belonged to the couple. Their hobbies were revealed due to the presence of dancewear (hers) and a camera (his), and a variety of practical but cinegenic items such as perfume bottles were mixed with creative clutter such as a paint-box and brushes (again, this belonged to the male character. They worked in a same way as the camera to show his fascination with the human body but, since Sarah is the only woman portrayed on the paintings, it shows that he is fully submerged in his relationship). And of course, we used the easiest trick in the book to establish a life in a single shot – the camera sweeps over a large frame full of photographs of the happy couple together on different days. (Yes, most of these were taken on the same day, but a change of costume and setting for the photographs helped to disguise this).
The opening credit sequence lasted less than 20 seconds and was made up of 5 shots, but it managed to establish the characters’ life together, so I think it says a lot about the power of production design!
So, there we have it – in spite of the challenges set in place, through collaboration with a great camera department and design team (headed by production designer Gina Hames and MUA Rena Kalandrani), we were able to craft out a story on screen. The actors’ performances were the icing on the cake of all our efforts, and I hope that this will come across for everyone who views the film during its festival run.
Find out more about Sophie Black’s work here.
Photographs by Neil Oseman.