Paul Vernon is a filmmaker who works in a variety of modes, from fiction, though documentary, to promotion. In a few years he’s become a regular at film festivals across the globe and amassed an enviable and acclaimed portfolio, finding time to also work on projects run by Sony and the BBC. Widely travelled and richly celebrated, Paul Vernon is quickly making the rest of us look bad.
Gorilla is proud to present Paul’s fantastic short, A Film By Abigail, newly released onto the internet and screening today at San Diego Comic-Con (!!). He’s managed to take time out of his schedule to talk eloquently and accessibly about the practicalities and philosophy of movies with us. Seriously Paul, rein it in.
Your background is in theatre and you’ve been acting from a young age. When did you decide to move behind the camera instead of being in front of one?
I thought I wanted to be an actor, having parts in theatre plays and things like that at school. As I started to study and be exposed to the mechanics of story, and experienced the implementation of my own choices for a piece, I realised I wanted to control and create. It was really “Drama” classes that brought me to film initially. I felt a sense of overwhelming freedom from directing and constructing, and excitement about the opportunity to do something new and of my own choice.
Where did your interest in cinema begin and how has it influenced your work so far?
It began from a really young age, being introduced to Hitchcock’s Rebecca in particular, before most kids ordinarily would. I must have been no older than six? There was a tone and feeling to that film, the look on the face of Mrs Danvers, and especially the haunting opening sequence when the camera floats along a path, that I never shook off. I still watch it now and get the same chills and a sense of a new dimension opening up to me that I could explore. Without sounding sickeningly profound, looking back this was cinema’s doors widening to me – I was drawn to the dream and mystery.
The Twilight Zone is a huge influence on me, although I’m unsure if my work reflects that. To me, it’s a perfect show. Eerie with astounding premises and creativity over and over, episode after episode. There’s many filmmakers I look up to and talk about regularly, the directors who were always searching within cinema, finding new forms, narratives and aesthetics. The main one being Michelangelo Antonioni: his films, but also what he said about filmmaking throughout his life. He didn’t have an easy time with critics or getting his films funded. In his early documentary shorts, he was one of the first (maybe definitively the first) to start to re-arranging scenes and experiment with non-fiction in such a way. His words have often guided me and I love La Notte in particular, which is a masterpiece.
Fellini, Lynch, Bergman, Tarkovsky and Marker are filmmakers I look up to. There’s a sense of typicalness mentioning those names, but people forget just how influential and incredible they were. It’s not that their work literally influences my own, but their strive for bold uniqueness (intentional or not) and natural independence from their contemporaries due to differing opinions, approach and processes gives me food for thought and excitement as I try to distance myself from certain conventionalities too. I see a sense of being lost, but also of total awareness in those filmmakers, and I feel affiliated with them in that respect and when they express their ideologies.
You work artistically in both fiction and documentary but where do you feel more comfortable? In your final major project for The Northern Film School, your short film Mars-II mixes documentary with fiction – do you like to blend the two together?
Yes, definitely. In the film I just finished, Lost In The Nameless City, I felt unsure which form I was even working in. I divided the filming between taking photographs with disposable cameras in colour and video with my 550d in black and white. As I was filming I started to see that my method of combining the two mediums somehow represented two points of view, two characters. Though what I documented with both was completely non-fiction, the urban spaces of London. Through doing this, the film is two simultaneous journeys, delivering to the audience their differing view on what’s in front of them. If you put actors in the shots, would that then definitely be fictional? Remove them and we’re left with documentary? Theories to think about and I’m unsure of the answers.
I was reading a piece recently from Godard where he was talking about a mother and a baby; as the mother talks to the baby she garners different responses and reactions. He was likening this to directors and actors, but making the point that these weren’t actors, though the mother is technically directing the baby in a non-fiction setting. I find the blurring of reality interesting and when I can, I want to include that aspect in my films. What is staged? What is real? It comes partly from reading about how Herzog works in some of his documentaries, sometimes giving real people a scene to create. Also films such as A Man Vanishes and Sans Soleil mix up the imaginary with recorded reality, fuelling the conversation.
The first project you have received acclaim for was your short documentary A Film By Abigail, but I’m curious about what motivated you to pick up a camera and begin shooting something so personal, and for no money?Well, I used to draw and come up with stories with Abigail. She would construct really elaborate characters and humour. It just clicked one day that I could potentially capture the way her mind works and, in turn, a reflection of children in general. Though I really wasn’t sure if I could accurately show the sincerity or humour that I had experienced while playing with her. Luckily, she reacted brilliantly to the filming and so much came out of her that I was never aware would.
The film was originally just a small exercise in a class when I was doing my MA. It had to be five minutes and no longer, plus some other rules that escape me. It got an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the class, though at that point I didn’t even contemplate sending it anywhere like a film festival.
Abigail is an interesting candidate for the perspective of what a child looks for in a film, and as she’s your sister it certainly adds a lot of intimacy to the documentary. I was especially interested by her definition of what makes a good film: “a bit of romance, a bit of joy and happiness. A bit of funniness,” but also “a bit of drama and a bad guy”. Is film the same for you?
In a roundabout way, to me, it sounded as if she was describing the mould of a Oscar winning type of film! The kind of drama that tries to accommodate everyone and bring in all audiences. For me, I follow the film’s personality and don’t think a lot about the audience – which could pose a problem in the future but it’s how I feel now. I’m dictated to by my instincts and the idea. As sweet and intellectual as the observation was, with my work, I don’t really agree with her I’m afraid!
What do you as a filmmaker think that “hmph” is that Abigail mentions during the section in which she discusses what all films need?
I think she’s putting across something you can’t articulate. When there’s an energy to a film that’s speaking to you but you can’t place a finger on what’s garnering that emotion. It’s a mesmerising moment that she displays, you can see her mind stop at that point where words fail her and we all understand strangely what the “hmph” represents.
Seeing Abigail discuss the VTech Kidizoom VideoCam she received for Christmas, I was interested in the possibilities it opens up for young filmmakers. What do you think about products such as these and can they help young filmmakers? Do you think they are similar to filmmakers once using Super 8 cameras with their friends or do you regard it as simply a toy for entertainment?
I believe something like that toy could have a huge influence. Not that kids know it! A lot of learning is subconscious and as Abigail says in the film, she’s “edited it”, showing her already reasonable understanding. She is learning the concept behind the manipulation of what you’ve filmed and how altering it, removing aspects and re-ordering makes different films. Even if the thought process isn’t deliberate, she is still making it her own way.
What’s interesting in your question, is that you discriminate between making films and entertainment. I wish the two mixed more often, even in serious and taxing work, an atmosphere of fun and uninhibited creativity should be present to push the work further. On top of that, letting yourself go with a camera, even if you’ve done it lots of times is liberating. Forget rules of narrative or measuring this or remembering that – grab a camera and see what occurs. If children get that opportunity then I’m sure it will carve out a path for a few future filmmakers.
Towards the end of the documentary there is an interesting shot of Abigail as she draws under the dining room table by lamplight. Was this something that occurred naturally or were you interested in placing her in the situation? What you think about constructed scenarios in documentary filmmaking?
That was constructed, however I didn’t construct why I constructed it… let me explain. What happened was that we got to a natural point in our dialogue where I could see her mind falling into deeper thoughts and I observed a need to give her a quiet space, a space which in some ways nurtured the younger side of her as well. I instantly came up with my soft lamp I had by my bed as a baby and I quickly found it. Placing it under the table, it created a “den”, like children make, a safe place to play and be solitary.
Constructed scenarios are important. Every time you see a documentary subject standing still, looking out as narration unfolds or whatever, it is a construction of sorts. Some filmmakers just become more elaborate and take this further to places which bring into jeopardy the audience’s view on its realism. By giving a real subject a scenario to live in, much like an actor in a set, to quote Herzog again: you may receive “aesthetic truth”.
With your tremendous success with A Film By Abigail and MARS-II, what would you recommend filmmakers do to get the attention from organisations such as BAFTA and film festivals around the world? Is it about having the ‘best’ gear and a large crew?
Not at all, Abigail was made with nothing. No proper external sound equipment, no crew, not even a tripod if I remember rightly. It all depends on what you’re making. In my mind, anything that records video, a film can be made with it. Sometimes people jump the gun and try to make something that’s too big for what they have at their disposal at that point in time, in terms of finance, current experience and equipment, whereas they could work themselves up to that ambitious project by taking smaller steps and allowing room for error and self-reflection on the way. MARS-II had a reasonable budget and I was directing a large crew (in my mind at least!) and an ensemble cast. I worked my way up to that over years. Even a modest amount of money piled on pressure and just a short film amounted to forty e-mails a day. It made me realise that the path towards a first feature should be a gradual and a thoughtful one, not rushed. Of course, the timing can never be perfect and regardless of where you’re at, anyone at a point in their career like me will snatch any opportunity to direct a feature.With film festivals, I talked about this at Bradford Film Festival, it can be difficult. Festivals will choose films similarly to casting a film – looking at what suits their themes and audience, as well as its quality of course. It’s hard to not take it personally when you’re rejected though, and all filmmakers will be, but you need to apply to a range. Identify your film first, looking at who might enjoy it or want to see it – is it a genre piece for example? Then send it out appropriately, aiming for some serious stuff like Cannes or Sundance and local film festivals (which so often want their nearby filmmakers, give reductions, and will be really accommodating) as well as thematic ones such as horror or comedy. Get it in front of people and begin to use the initial festivals you’re in as a foundation when you communicate with later ones. If you’re struggling to get it anywhere, give the impression to the festival that the film will be unique to them and a solid premiere that no one else will have. Try to be communicative, friendly and creative when submitting. For MARS-II I’ve almost entirely sent that to science fiction festivals; it’s the audience it was made for and there’s no need to wrestle with that. With Abigail, that’s been a part of student, documentary and regular short film events but I’ve found a real niche for it in children-oriented festivals, which at the start of submitting I hadn’t thought much about. When you get into festivals you need to broadcast it on social media and make posters. Celebrate your work, be confident and make others aware of it.
What are you working on now? I’ve read you mentioning The Body Canvas and Lost In The Nameless City, what can you tell us about these projects?
I’ve just got back from shooting some films in Denmark. Julie Schmidt Andreasen, who I collaborated with on The Body Canvas, wanted me to shoot her dance workshop that took place in the grounds of Vallo Castle. It’s a very beautiful but cut off place, and we were the first professionals allowed to shoot there possibly ever I’m told! I also directed a dance film on a Copenhagen beach, using choreography Julie created that she’s recently performed in a museum in Skagen, Denmark. I somewhat accidentally shot two other films as well, which will be a part of my upcoming web series called Phantom Ships, a collection of online shorts. I went to shoot two films and returned to the UK with four!
The Body Canvas is a dance film I co-directed with Julie that focused on the communication between dance performers and painting and drawing. The film premiered at the ‘Zealous X’ exhibition (Oxo Tower Wharf, Southbank, London) and is currently being considered for film festivals. Lost In The Nameless City premiered only a few weeks ago at ‘Filthy Lucre: Lost In The Nameless City’, who also commissioned it. I was asked to make a film on “London’s urban spaces” and set out to create a personal take on what that would be, using a combination of video and photography. I’m pleased with how the work turned out and seeing some of my initial sketches of how I might subvert the normal city image become accomplished shots. The implementation of my ideas and experimentation felt like I was inching closer to how I want my films to look and feel. I’m proud of it and hopefully there’ll be some more screenings to talk about soon.