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Based on an old Cherokee legend, Director Simon Eustace’s new short film Two Wolves transports the age-old internal battle of opposing wills which constantly rages inside all of us to modern day London. Eustace reveals which wolf he fed to bring his economically told tale to cinematic life.

My aim was to make something short and sharp that anyone could watch and feel something. Basically a microcosm of a big action film, good versus evil – but concluded in about a minute! I’d say it’s a trailer for the type of long form films I want to make. If you’re making something this short I think you either need to be very universal or very specific with the story, like a little sketch or joke. I felt like doing something that had atmosphere and drama and told some sort of big truth. In that vein the initial concept came from an old Cherokee legend I’d heard (although I think it’s disputed about whether it is in fact Cherokee but that’s another day’s work). It’s a really simple fable about a grandfather telling his grandson about the battle that goes on inside people, the good and bad that exists in everyone characterised as wolves. A very simple universal idea.

If you’re making something this short I think you either need to be very universal or very specific with the story.

So I thought a way to externalise that battle would be to create a visual stand off between two characters who are both different sides of one person. To make it visual – I made one of the characters a smoking, drinking, TV shouting, fearful type and the other a guy an early morning run, pushing beyond his limits type. But as that guy wears his hood pulled up, and hangs about in the dark, you sort of aren’t sure about him and there’s an element of twist at the end when it’s revealed that this is the victorious, good side of the character. I wanted the film to have a dark tone, which meant all exteriors would be filmed at night apart from two shots, and the interiors would be moody and sparsely lit. Practically it just meant scheduling around magic hour and into the dark hours of night. I felt that any daylight exterior shots would have detracted from the mood, so we just went with a slightly later schedule, made easier by the fact we shot in midwinter.

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I decided to make Two Wolves in June last year and started a pretty long, exhaustive location scouting process. Between other shoots I was working on I would spend days, mornings and evenings traipsing around looking for places in London (aided by Google Street View). I took tubes, overground trains and buses around the city looking for exterior spots that had the right look. I was searching for urban, interesting locations with space and striking backdrops. I don’t know London all that well so it was a bit trial and error. For the interiors, I went around on foot and did leaflet drops in a few areas but ultimately found somewhere through a friend. One of our producers tried a few databases but they were crazy expensive for a self funded short such as this.

In September I got in touch with DoP Rina Yang through a mutual friend. Her reel and style was exactly what I was looking for – observational but cinematic, and she shoots in low light beautifully. She said yes to shooting it and we got cracking, working around both our schedules. She was heavily involved in the prep process as we went over every shot with a fine tooth comb, probably more so than a lot of DoPs I’ve worked with. It made me think hard about every shot – it meant there were no stones left unturned when it came to shooting and there was a sense of logic to everything. We recce’d and questioned, talked through everything and I scrapped shots that weren’t strong enough. The criteria was simple: a shot had to be beautiful or striking and help the story. Anything that wasn’t or felt a bit flat and soap opera-esque was dumped. From that I built up a shot-map, not quite a storyboard, more a shot list with reference images from various sources, and cut together a mood film. I cast our actor Jonathan Milshaw through a casting agent. She sent me through a lot of actors’ reels but his just jumped out at me. I was impressed with his intensity. He also had the right look. We met for a chat and he totally got the script and had lots of good ideas so I was sold.

The criteria was simple: a shot had to be beautiful or striking and help the story.

We shot the film at the beginning of December over a weekend in Holloway, Camden and North Greenwich, using anamorphics (Kowas) and a Red Epic. As I mentioned earlier, a few of our exteriors depended on being shot at magic hour so it was a bit of a scramble to get to locations at the right time, but ultimately we had a sparse shot list of 24 shots and two full days to capture it. I think that time luxury was crucial and a huge help in achieving what we wanted. For the interior shots there were two set ups – night and day. It was important to have both as I wanted to get a sense of the passing of time, and a character stuck in the same place. The room we shot in was actually very nice, but Elena Isolini our production designer did a great job of making it feel harsher, more lived in and skuzzy. We added some haze and shot with only key light coming from the window outside through netted curtains. It gave it a nice, low light ambience.

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I cut the film myself. It didn’t take long to cut, but from there the VO record, sound design and grade took a while as I was mostly working around schedules. The grade was done by Toby Tomkins of Cheat who did an excellent job. Sound design was by Lewis James, an old friend of mine, which was quite handy as he has done sound design on some of the biggest video games in the world. My brief for him was pretty specific and he nailed it on the first go.

That was it! The whole process took a few months and, a bit like the character in the film, there were days I felt like packing it in and not bothering. Shooting a self funded short can be quite stressful because you have to haggle on prices a bit but you don’t want to compromise on quality. It’s a fine line but I’m very glad I kept at it! Next up, apart from working for various clients in the UK and Ireland my aim is to shoot a series of very short documentaries.

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