Dead Sharks is a reminder to us all that we have to nourish and cherish a relationship if we want it to grow and flourish, and that if we don’t, it will rot and fizzle out until all that is left is the withered remains of where out hearts once used to glow together. With strong characterisation and entirely improvised dialogue and camera work, Nic Barker has created a gritty and unembellished depiction of modern relationships gone bad. Barker takes us on an emotional improvised journey – from the utterly cringe worthy to the haunting shame of obsession and betrayal – and in doing so reveals not only the talented flare of his actors, but the instinctual skills he has developed as a filmmaker. It’s no wonder the film has received such an avalanche of accolades from around the globe. We caught up with Nic to find out more about his captivating experiment.
What advice would you give someone who doesn’t have the funds, but wants to make a film and get it in front of a wide audience?
I guess the answer to this is twofold – how to make a film without money, and how to get people to see it. I’m not sure I’ve quite mastered the art of the second one, though we’ve been fortunate in terms of our festival exposure to have had some really great responses internationally. To make a film without funds is tough, and I think you’ve got to start by noting what you’ve got access to. In the case of Dead Sharks, this was the houses of friends, a car and a rooftop location. I’m also really lucky that not only do I have a lot of friends who are terrific actors, but that they were generous enough to come be a part of this experimental process creating these stories and characters. I felt like since we couldn’t pay anyone, it was important that the cast and crew have their own sense of ownership over the project – hence, I gave the actors a lot of free reign and room to play, and we all sort of bought into this collective guerilla mentality. It’s great when it all comes together and it did in this instance.
I gave the actors a lot of free reign and room to play, and we all sort of bought into this collective guerilla mentality.
In terms of getting it released to a wide audience, it’s tough. I had a short film called Pint a few years ago that was fortunate enough to have a large amount of play on the festival circuit – I feel like maintaining contact and relationships with those festival directors helped a bit when it came to submitting Dead Sharks. Every festival program is subjective and I suppose if you’ve had a good response in the past, there’s always a chance you might strike a chord again. But submitting far and wide is expensive so being selective and researching past festival programs to see if your film would suit can go a long way to making sure you get your film in front of the right audience.
How did you approach directing the actors’ improvised dialogue? Did you provide them with character background ahead of time?
All of the dialogue in Dead Sharks is improvised, and because I wanted the actors to feel safe and free to take risks during the scenes, I kept the crew tiny – me on camera, and the incredible sound recordist Brett Woolgar monitoring levels. The actors knew the 1-2 line scene synopses in advance, but I gave them a lot of free reign – they named their own characters, they came up with backstories, etc. We knew where the scenes were going, where they started and ended, but between those they really did bring a majority of the material with only the occasional fed line. That’s the reason they’re credited as co-writers. As for directing them? I feel like a good director knows when to be hands off, as well as hands on. I was hands on in dictating the style through my camerawork, and how I talked through the scenes with the actors in advance – but when it came to shooting I was basically a glorified documentarian trying to capture the moments as they happened. I backed off, because when you’ve got good actors and you’ve prepared in the right way, you just have to let them do their thing!
The behaviour and disagreements the couples have were all too familiar. How much of the film comes from personal experience? What’s your best piece of relationship advice?
I feel extremely fortunate to have been in a loving and committed relationship for over 5 years now, and while every relationship has its ups and downs, I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced anything that takes place in the film we made. I can’t speak for the cast, as I don’t really know either way, but what we were really keen to do was use what experience we did have to create a raw and real depiction of modern relationships – so I think the film is an amalgamation of a whole lot of ideas, experiences and predispositions that each individual brought to the table.
As for my best piece of relationship advice – it’s hard to comment as every relationship is different. From personal experience, I think that embracing both time together and time apart is important. One of those in isolation is unhealthy, but a good balance of time as a couple and as individuals can never go wrong.
The title’s premise is that a relationship is like a shark, it has to keep moving or it dies. Where did that initial concept come from?
The project began as a way to just go and make something small, raw and on the fly – I’ve sort of gone through a phase where I’m tackling relationship stories, and an ensemble portmanteau film felt like the best way to tackle a wide variety of different experiences and have the look and style tie them together. The film evolved over time – originally it was a scene for a completely different film about a long broken up couple, but when I hit writers block for where to take that story, I had the thought to tell a few different stories on the same theme, so we shot a second, a third, a fourth and a fifth story. When it came time to lock a cut, it was clear that the original scene we shot didn’t really fit anymore – the film had sort of become it’s own thing over time. So, as much as I loved the scene, I made the decision to cut it.
Stylistically Dead Sharks hues between early-Godard, 90s Woody Allen and Mumblecore, what did you take from each of these influences?
I guess the best answer I can give is that I wanted to play with freeform camera work and improvisation like the Mumblecore filmmakers I admire so much (chiefly Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers and Aaron Katz), tackle the sort of relationship story my filmmaking hero Woody Allen tells so expertly (the title being a tribute to his character’s famous quote in Annie Hall), and the disruptive, sometimes jarring cutting of Godard. To liberate my filmmaking from traditional form, as he (Allen) and his nouvelle vague contemporaries did so famously, was the only way I knew I could capture the most true moments of the stories unfolding in front of me.
What advice do you have for creating an improvised/Mumblecore film?
It’s important to remember they weren’t so much a unified movement as much as they were artists in the same time and (in some cases) place that wanted to tell stories and were going to go and tell them regardless of whether they had the flashiest equipment or not. I think the thought that what you have to say trumps what tools you use to say it is a very powerful one. If Dead Sharks is to be considered in the same realm as the filmmakers whose ideology inspired me to go out and just make it, I’m truly humbled. I guess the core takeaway is that if you have a story to tell, in the age of consumer digital cameras, it’s never been easier to go and tell it – so go do it! As for shooting improvisation – find great actors, plan with them not in a director-actor way but more as a friend, make sure the set is a safe environment for them to try things, and then when you call action, try and get as good a coverage as you can!
The thought that what you have to say trumps what tools you use to say it is a very powerful one.
How do you feel the characters compliment each other in the overall interpretation of the film and why did you decide to explore that dynamic?
I think what I’m most proud of about the film is that everyone seems to side with someone different, and we tried to continually shift expectations and sympathies to every single cast member. The ‘Amy and Greg’ car scene is a great example of this – some people think she’s annoying and whiny, some people think he’s unnecessarily picking a fight and being overly self-righteous. The truth of it is we all bring our own predispositions to every film when we watch it, so it’s a massive credit to all our actors for bringing such multi-dimensionality to their characters and dynamics so as to provoke a wide range of responses.
The film employs some very quick, short cuts which give rise to an edgy feel. What dictated that style? Did those improvised performances prove challenging during the edit?
In a way, the editing style was dictated a lot by how we shot the film. The way we filmed each scene was with just one camera covering the action, and the actors playing out the scene from beginning to end over the course of 30-45 minutes – we’d be rolling that entire time, so basically instead of lots of small takes, we ended up with 3-4 really long takes.
In editing, I found the best moments out of these extended sequences and essentially stitched them together to form the best possible version of each story. Because the camerawork was completely freeform, with my camera roaming with the actors around the sets, this meant that almost every cut was a jump cut – and therefore, continuity and traditional montage editing wouldn’t be feasible – which is fine, because these are stories of fracturing relationships, so its almost like we feel that fracture through the cuts. So while the way we shot knowingly dictated the cutting rhythm, I always had an instinct that once the audience got used to the constant cutting, the flow of the stories would take over.
Your raw camerawork perfectly compliments the tone and drama of Dead Sharks. I know you used a Canon C100 for the shoot, why that camera?
For the method of shooting we employed, the Canon C100 was for the most part the ideal camera. We shot on vintage Pentax glass, mostly a 50mm f1.8, and with only natural light for night time scenes. The low light capabilities of the C100 were up to this challenge, and once we de-saturated the noisy, high-ISO image, the raw aesthetic of camerawork really came into its own. It’s not a perfect camera – the AVCHD codec being the biggest limitation for me, as well as a lack of high frame rate options – but the small form factor made it an unobtrusive tool for getting up close with the actors as they played out the scenes, and for me, that was the most important thing.
Was there a lot of time spent procrastinating over the perfect colour balance before you arrived at the final desaturated look?
I’ve always loved black and white cinematography, as I feel it has a very romantic quality to it. The thorough draining of most of the colour from Dead Sharks was something I always thought was appropriate given the material we cover in the story, but leaving that tinge separates the look from the sort of rich B&W you’d see in Casablanca. What we were left with was a murky, grimy sort of look, which I feel reflected the bleak nature of the relationships presented. As we didn’t have any money to spend on this project at all – we quite literally didn’t spend a cent on production – I did the grade myself, and it was all trial and error trying to get the balance right for each shot. Each story is slightly distinct in palette, and I reckon I probably spent 2 weeks getting the look the way I wanted it.
What we were left with was a murky, grimy sort of look, which I feel reflected the bleak nature of the relationships presented.
I read that you’re currently working on a micro-budget feature. Are you feeling apprehensive about making the transition from shorts to features? How has your approach to production differed from short form work?
I certainly am working on a feature – in fact, we’ve just this week locked the cut, so that’s pretty exciting! It’s another relationship drama, called Short Distance – three interconnected stories about long distance relationships and the various outcomes of them. We actually shot it in early 2015, before we filmed any of Dead Sharks, but it was a tough edit – adjusting to the longer run time and larger scale was a huge learning curve. The processes were totally different – Dead Sharks was me acting as not only director, but DoP and editor also. On the feature, I worked with a magnificent Cinematographer, Filip Laureys, and we composed each frame carefully and lit it very deliberately. The feature was me approaching filmmaking as a formalist, Dead Sharks was me experimenting with form and approach. I think though that there’s some definite stylistic and directorial consistency though – but you’ll have to wait and see Short Distance to find out what I mean!
Short Distance is quite short for a feature, around 62 minutes, and we’re hoping to have it hit the festival circuit late this year/early 2017. I’m really proud of it and can’t wait to share it with the world!