Sharpening his directorial skills by taking on the role of 1st Assistant Director on an impressive list of music videos and commercials over the last four years, National Film and Television School graduate Lewis Arnold looks to be a burgeoning talent in the British film industry. Grabbing our attention back in 2012 with dark prison drama Stained, Arnold has gone on to take the reigns of another two shorts, a handful of music promos and a couple of episodes of TV drama Misfits, in just over a year since his work appeared on our radar. With Echo and Charlie Says, his two short narrative fictions from 2013, still touring film festivals worldwide and his time at Misfits just come to an end, I grabbed a quick interview with the director before he had a chance to sink his teeth into another project:
Charlie Says is a short film about a young boy who tells a naive lie in order to gain the attentions of his sister and her friends. The film explores how this lie threatens to grow into something more dangerous and how for Charlie, it exposes the flaws of his father, changing the long-term dynamics of their relationship.
The film was loosely based on a similar lie I told my own family during a holiday in Cornwall, which fortunately didn’t escalate in the same way. However, I always remember feeling that I had let my own father down, that he knew I’d lied and was disappointed in me. It turned out when we started developing the project that he was never really sure whether I’d lied or not.
Sorry Dad but I did lie.
There are dark undertones running through the heart of your film, as there are in Stained and Echo – what is it that appeals to you about these darker narratives?
I think I’ve always been drawn to characters with an internal conflict, whether it’s a young girl dealing with grief, like in ‘Echo’, or a prison officer struggling to deal with the crimes of the convicts around him, like in Stained.
There is something really interesting about getting under the skin of these characters and often that means exploring the darker side of the human condition.
Charlie Says is a great looking film, with some excellent cinematography – what can you tell us about the production?
The film was shot by NFTS cinematography graduate Alfie Biddle, who also worked with me on ‘Echo’ and ‘Meet Me Halfway’. Alfie is a fantastic DoP and we developed the overall look for the film alongside production designer, William Houghton-Connell.
We were lucky enough to shoot the film on 35mm, which felt like a risky move as our lead actor was a thirteen-year-old boy who had never acted before and we had limited stock. However, we felt the benefits of shooting film outweighed the negatives so we took the risk, shooting the film over ten days as we could only have Conner (Charlie) on set working for a limited amount of time each day.
Alfie and I spent a lot of time on location working through the scenes together in order to build a detailed shot list, which helped hugely in making the most of our time on the floor and allowed me to focus my time on Conner’s performance.
Finding the right location was of huge importance too, as this was such a huge part of the look and feel of the film. Hats off to our production team, led by producer Rob Darnell and designer Will, who found and secured Woodside Lodges in Ledbury, which worked for both the look and for what I needed to do with the script.
The film really hinges on the performances of your cast and there are some excellent performances, especially from some of your younger actors. What were your cast like to work with and how did you get them to understand the subtleties of the story?
I have to say I was absolutely blessed with such a superb cast due to our incredible casting director Amy Hubbard. She has such an eye for talent and she found Conner Chapman and Lucy Jackson in Bradford, neither of which had ever acted before, and yet with both there is something raw and natural about their performances.
We surrounded Conner and Lucy with well established and talented actors, like Gary Cargill, Elliott Tittensor and Christine Bottomley. All of the supporting cast around Conner were so supportive and generous to both him and myself, so in truth we all worked very closely together as a team to get through the shoot and get the performance we needed from young Conner.
In regards to the subtleties of the story, I tried not to weigh down Conner with too much information as the shoot was quite demanding on him, we didn’t want it to feel like school, as I know he would have switched off immediately. I was lucky enough to spend four mornings rehearsing with both Conner and Lucy, where we played games and did some improv sessions based around the themes of the script. On the shoot itself, I ended up using scenarios that Conner could understand, which conveyed a similar emotion as to not confuse or overcomplicate things for him, but by the end of the shoot he was very good at understanding the layers of the script and loved to push and add little things to his performance, which was a thrill to see.
Charlie Says has been touring the festival circuit, what has audience reaction been like?
Funnily enough I have yet to see it at a festival, I missed both Encounters and Edinburgh but luckily the film is screening at London Short Film Festival in January 2014, so I’ll be there sitting at the back of the cinema to see how it plays out.
When we were editing the film, we had various screenings at different points of the process and what I found interesting was that people were bringing their own baggage to the film and were relating more to completely different characters during the last sequence of the film. For example, one of the tutors really understood and related to the father’s angst, coming through a divorce himself whereas some other people like myself, relate much more toward the boy’s conflict.
One of the most important things was that my Dad saw it, as I had spoken so much to him about the incident when we started writing and developing the project. I invited him to school during a weekend and I think we had just picture-locked the film and fortunately he really liked it. It is so far removed from our own story that he was able to enjoy it and found it quite tense and unsettling.
What does the immediate future hold for Charlie Says?
We’re applying for more film festivals at the moment and trying to get it out there as much as possible, but I think by the end of 2014 we’ll be looking to release the film online, in order to open it up to a larger audience.
It was strange when we did this with Stained in 2011, I had almost forgot about the film having done a few film festivals and getting it out there the year before, but once it went online through the BBC Film Network it was like releasing the film all over again. I’m still getting feedback and e-mails from people today who are discovering the short for the first time.
The internet is an incredible resource for distributing short films, so Rob and myself will no doubt sit down at some point next year and draw up a plan on how best to release it.
We know you’ve been working on TV series Misfits recently, how has that experience been and how does it compare to short film work?
Misfits was such an incredible experience and I feel very fortunate to have been able to contribute to the show, as I was a fan prior to working on it this year. The cast and crew are all so incredibly talented but they also all welcomed me onto the show with open arms, giving me great confidence to do my job.
The process for me was generally the same as when I made my short films, but on a much bigger scale. The big difference I found is that you have much less time throughout the process, compared to what you might have for a short film. So with Misfits, I had to prep and edit two one-hour episodes in the same time as I’d prepped and edited Charlie Says, which is only a twenty-minute short film.
I’m a huge fan of television drama at the moment and with audiences demanding more from broadcasters, we’re benefiting by getting great cinematic, dramatic shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Walking Dead in the U.S, and Luther, Appropriate Adult, Red Riding, Sherlock and Top Boy to name but a few in the UK.
It’s a great time to be working within the medium and I hope more short filmmakers see television as a way to explore their talent and voice.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently reading scripts and also developing my own projects, which will take me nicely through Christmas and into 2014.
Charlie Says is scheduled to screen as part of the Youth of Today session at the 2014 London Short Film Festival – Curzon Soho – Sunday 19th Jan – 12:30pm.