Created under the time-restrictive rules of the SCI-FI-LONDON 48 Hour Film Challenge, Bailey Tom Bailey’s body drama Circadian Rhythms, presents the cognitive dissonance of a young man whose medical compulsion to run at night brings him to a state of euphoria, whilst opening a rift between him and his concerned family. Inspired by true accounts of tumours and epilepsy, we talk to Bailey about the benefits of working to strict time limits and how his combined interests in personality altering illnesses and podcast documentaries led to this tale of emotional paradox.
What sparked the initial concept for Circadian Rhythms?
I have always been fascinated with how we are affected by things beyond our perception, particularly illness and biological disorders. It’s this invisible other from the outside world that begins sharing your body, changing you physically and affecting your behaviour. I can trace this interest to my childhood, I was taught to draw by looking at and recording bodies, my mum put emotions and behaviour down to what you ate or did that day and my dad used to tell me about the science articles he read but would forget things and fill in the blanks himself, always ending with “just imagine…”
A Radiolab podcast became a big inspiration, it was about tumours and epilepsy and included a story about a man who used to have orgasms from looking at safety pins. The sharper and shinier the pin, the more attractive it was. This fixation finally broke up his marriage, then one day he started to get these headaches, they got worse, he got sick, and collapsed. The doctors found they were caused by a tumour and had to remove it. After that, safety pins just weren’t sexy anymore. This larger-than-life emotional and physical connection was gone, the man would rather have had the safety pins. People have described these symptoms of neurological disorder as a ‘religious experience’ or ‘Holy Agony’. The paradox of this transcendent experience being caused by something that is ultimately destroying you really stuck with me. All this was cooking inside of me when we entered the competition.
For those unfamiliar with the SCI-FI-LONDON 48 Hour Film Challenge how does it work?
The idea behind the sci-fi 48 hours film challenge is that you write, shoot and edit a short film in 48 hours. Each team is given prompts to incorporate into their story. We were given;
- Title: Doctor Forrester
- Dialogue: “Don’t mess this up, we’re counting on you”
- Prop: Wallet with photo ID
I’ll be honest with you… I didn’t love them, but we kept all except the title, which I ditched after the competition. These prompts suggested a plot surrounding a patient with some form of condition, fitting with my prior interest and gave me the idea of James (the boy) resisting his medication and wanting to experience the effects of his condition. Once we received the brief I quickly wrote a script structured around a monologue and was intuitive with the structure of scenes surrounding it.
Were there positives that came from conceiving and producing a film in such a limited timeframe?
You don’t have time to overthink, it forces you to be instinctual and let go. My last film Street Spirit, had a budget from IdeasTap and a closely controlled aesthetic. Brian Fawcett who was cinematographer on Street Spirit (and whose feature Departure was recently released in cinemas) came on board for the competition. Having worked with Brian before gave me confidence to use this as an opportunity to try something freer. Too often when working on a film you find yourself sat at a desk, so I wanted this film to be a primal physical act, something you put your body into. Something I sought after hanging out around performance artists (BrendaLinda) when I was living in Michigan.
I wanted this film to be a primal physical act, something you put your body into.
I wanted to match a story and aesthetic to this type of production. The aesthetics should feel raw and embrace bumps and mistakes which I was already doing in still photography. Listening to podcast documentaries also got me excited about mixing textures and sources, having images coming from all directions. Podcasts also reminded me of the power of images implied by words rather than seen. In the past I had manifested strange phenomena in images, which were sometimes taken too literally. When we experience strange moments in life it is only ever a hint or suggestion and this approach retained that mysterious quality.
Without the luxury of rehearsal time how did you approach crafting your cast’s performances?
I cast for a lower middle class family, the son troubling to his mum. Cornelius Walker (Co-Producer and Assistant Director) met a range of interesting actors that could bring really different qualities out of the character. I try to make auditions casual, we sit on the same side of the desk and I get to know a bit about their life before we do any acting. This gives you a clue about how they might relate to a character and allows me to see them being themselves. I guess I instinctually look for personalities to put into films, rather than actors. Rob Leach expressed adolescent qualities so well, he seems innocent and yet able to be malevolent, and had a kind animalistic physicality. Lin Clifton was also brilliant at expressing the troubled inner life of the mother.
All the dialogue was written but we were very liberal, with this film it was more about behaviour. Sometimes you think ‘I should be directing’ but then you say things and your actors get impatient – I wrote the scene so it has my intention built into it, so when they read it they get it most of the time. What I have found increasingly useful is being a physical presence, emoting from behind the lens or running through the frame before ‘action’, I feel like you can energise the situation that way. You get into the role with the actor somehow, be their audience, something to feedback off and be there for them – it’s lonely in front of a lens. For example, in the morning out on the field it was freezing and I promised Rob I wouldn’t ask him to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, a promise Rob made me keep, so when he took his kit off I joined him, much to the amusement of the crew.
How did you run the production to ensure you remained efficient throughout?
I was telling quite an ambitious story so I tried to condense it and tell the story as precisely as possible. I kept scenes to one or two shots, coming in late and boiling the scene down into a few key actions. Myself and Brian talked about having quite an active camera that moved through the scene to the point of interest and into character space, the camera’s movement became like punctuation in a sentence and allowed us to let life run through the frame. The most exciting thing was to let everything go. We didn’t really have any of the formalism of a normal shoot, I would be as close to Rob or Brian as possible and often when we let shots run long I would nudge Brian or make eye contact with Rob during takes. I tried to run the shoot as if we forgot who was in front or behind the camera, it was more an event we were all involved in. For example, when we shot the night ‘aura’ on the bed, Rob just carried on doing his thing and Brian climbed over the bed and picked up shots, once the situation was created you could let it breath on its own.
We shot at my parents’ house in Reading and my dad stepped in to fill out the family making it increasingly autobiographical. We embraced the location, though Production Designer Amy Beth Addison and I tried to put some colourful props or costumes in shot to keep the image dynamic. Outside the house we were even more spontaneous, we would walk into a shop with the camera and come up with a scene. Later we drove up and down streets in the country around Reading looking for a shot (meaning the light usually). Brian found some interesting light around a high fenced complex, we drove up and down outside filming in the car and then with Rob running behind us in his underwear … until sirens started wailing and a police car pulled up and got heavy with a classic good cop, bad cop routine. Turns out we had been filming an Atomic Weapons Establishment. Also turns out Brian’s good at talking down police. We got very lucky with the dawn light and took full advantage, shooting low to keep Rob contrasted against the sky. The place was so serene and this naked figure so alien amongst it. I asked Rob to sit up into frame for what would be the first time we saw him, breaking into this peaceful morning.
Where there moments when you felt the ticking clock might get the better of the you?
There wasn’t much rest time between shooting in the house and out on the road because we wanted to catch the dawn light. The real crunch time was in post, usually months would be spent tinkering but I only had a couple of passes. The workflow was greatly simplified because we shot ProRes so I could avoid transcoding. I went straight into the edit, now already 30 hours without seeing a pillow. It went together pretty easy because I had great material to play with, Rob and the Lin’s performance, the monologue as a spine to build around, great scoring for mood and potent images, which were all usable thanks to Focus Puller Phil Hardy’s remarkable work despite the conditions. Then I had to get it to Alain Savoie and Patrick Knup of Pitchfork Digital who were our amazing post-sound team – they grounded the action and rounded out the world with atmos, a great job in a tight turn. This was helped immeasurably by some solid production sound recorded by Jono Cary.
What was your setup for the shoot?
We didn’t really have much of budget, at the time I had just moved up to London, working at a commercials production company and sleeping on the left side of my mate’s bed (what a guy). I was pretty low on dough so my first month’s paycheck was the budget. But Focus 24 were really helpful with supplying kit. We shot on Alexa XT, Cooke S4s and a Pocket Par and 1x1ft Lite Panel, which barely got used, as we wanted to work with available light. These smaller battery operated lights were super helpful when needed. One case being when we shot the sequence running at night near the beginning of the film, we wanted Rob ghostly and suspended in darkness, we hung the Lite panel off the open car boot door so the light separated him graphically from his surroundings.
I cut in FCP7 and graded the film myself with Magic Bullet Looks. Brian and I talked about trying to keep things dark, real dark and resist correcting optical effects that come from working in lowlight following the example of still photographers like Nan Goldin. In preparation for the shoot I also looked around for some archive footage that might be useful in my ‘body drama’. I managed to get some in the opening, footage I found of microscopic blood vessels by Aurel Manea, shot on his iPhone with a special lens and uploaded to YouTube – it’s a bit crunchy but I said I wanted textured images, right!
Bastien Keb’s score is this hauntingly discordant affair. What cues did you provide to set the tone of the music?
Bastien creates this lo-fi high-production music that’s always surprising, playing everything himself from his flat in Leamington Spa. He’s an inspiring machine with his own artistic universe. We worked together to create a palette of moods before the shoot, which influenced the film’s conception. I mentioned Jon Brion’s score for Punch Drunk Love as an initial reference, it’s percussive and discordant and gets hazy and a bit manic. More specifically I asked for a piece that sounded like a call or signal to James, he came back with this really textured sound. But I think Bastien is best when left to his own devices and half the music used he produced before or just came up with himself. You could say a couple of things to him, let him go, and often later that day he’d send you 3 new pieces and this quantity meant I could really pick and choose and then we would develop certain pieces. We are working together again on new short Lowdown, Up Above which is a largely jazz percussive / chamber jazz / drunken big band affair. I can’t wait to share that music with people.
Have you revised the film since the initial 48hr challenge cut?
After the competition I took the cut to Editor Tom Chick for a second opinion. We watched it together, had a little fiddle, added a scene back in, swapped out a take but eventually Tom said “It’s messy, but it’s expressive, I think we should leave it”. Alain and Patrick at Pitchfork Digital did an amazing 5.1 mix for festivals and a stereo for online and I made a more thorough pass on the grade.
I think the film works because we matched story and style to the mode of production.
I tend to think of 48hr films as only existing for those specific events but Circadian Rhythms has gone on to have a healthy festival life. How do you feel the film has held up alongside shorts made outside the constraints of 48hr film rules?
The film didn’t do well in the competition, I expect partially due to a very loose definition of science fiction. But I didn’t care by that point, I knew it worked on its own terms and it’s had a good run of screenings and won an award. I think the film works because we matched story and style to the mode of production. What has been a surprise (for a film that’s often described as ‘mysterious’) is how universally resonant the emotional core of the film has been, after seeing it people often take me aside and recount some weighty personal experience it brought up for them. In future my films will return to be more formally controlled but I feel I really got a sense of how to keep a film ‘alive’.
Circadian Rhythms has one of the strongest and intriguing posters I’ve seen in a while (it reminds me of the Upstream Color variants) – how did you arrive at such an effective image?
Thank you. I definitely feel a thematic kinship with my work and Upstream Color, though I may be a little less challenging. I used to produce images like this as paintings; bodies with some ephemeral force surrounding them, affecting them. In this case it’s this microscopic organism that exists inside of him and he’s sort of the tip of the iceberg, what we see outside. It’s related to religious imagery in some way, like a St.Elmo’s fire or how El Greco surrounds his figures with clouds and air. A couple of graphic designer friends Renee Willoughby and Nicolai PunktumPunktum KommaStreg helped me and encouraged me to add the negative space at the top which makes it feel more modern.
Do you have any new projects lined up we should keep an eye out for?
Next thing is a feature in development, The Future Perfect about an insomniac street kid who seeks salvation in a spiritual movement where he becomes a visionary seer and struggles to escape his old life. In post is a short bromance shot in Ann Arbor, Michigan called Lowdown, Up Above. I also recently had an exhibition of stills by myself and Hendrik Faller with blog entries from Merle Graves –Stories from the Ground called Papers at the Barbican. These were taken while volunteering with Refugees in Lesvos where we also made award-winning documentary God is in the Boat. This month I’m shooting a new documentary about ageing with my granddad, dad and myself – three men at different stages of their life living in the same house together. I’m also developing shorts and pitching on commercials as a duo called Milk Gang (myself and James Partridge).