Created over a two week period in rural France, Dee Meaden’s Sibling sees the talented Producer turned Director strip filmmaking principles back to their fundamentals, away from a place of over-rehearsal and filmed recreation, to a place of purity where invention and adaptivity fuelled the spirit of the project. DN caught up with Meaden ahead of Sibling’s London Short Film Festival screening to discover how working without the usual production safety nets created an environment more conducive to taking creative risks and capturing authentic performances.
You’ve stated in the past that as a filmmaker your interest lies in bringing the small, often overlooked moments from life to screen?
Absolutely, I’m specifically really interested in tiny, unobserved, or seemingly unimportant moments in life, and I’m interested in these tiny things becoming significant, which was something that was in my previous sculpture work. Actually in both the types of sculpture that I did – the stuff with food and the mechanical stuff – there was the idea of something very mundane becoming transformed and incredible. Like with the food, one piece I made was a butter room which was literally that, a room smeared with butter. I wanted to make a room that was glowing and golden and sort of incredible. And the object pieces were often about imbuing a mundane household object with a kind of special talent. So I made a cardboard box that levitates.
One of the things you’ve sought to avoid as a Director is making films which feel over-produced. Was the creation of Sibling a direct response to that?
I got to a point with directing where I felt really dissatisfied with myself and I felt that there was a lot of fear in the process and it was that which disappointed me – my own fear guiding things or limiting things. I think that was partly to do with me being a Producer for many years and earning a living as a Producer. It would be very natural for me to really organise a shoot in the best way possible – to organise my shot list, to organise my storyboard, in fine fine detail, and I got to a point where I felt like, that was becoming really distasteful, because I was almost doing all the work in prep and then on the day was just wanting people to redeliver the performance I had seen in rehearsals.
This is really about fear, this is about fear of failure, this reliance on the plan.
There was something distasteful I thought or not honourable to the work that actors were doing and also to my DP who comes from a documentary background and really thrives on being in the moment, responding to ideas as they coming up. And so Sibling came out of those two things – me feeling like, this is really about fear, this is about fear of failure, this reliance on the plan, and what happens if you try and do something really difficult but say to yourself, it’s fine if you fail? Sibling was that project.
How did that desire translate directly to your production methods?
We went to France for two weeks, and we wrote and shot the film in that time without knowing if it was possible or if it would just be a mess. I had an idea for the script, and I had ideas about who my two leads would be so I cast them and told them, “This is your character. I think this might be the storyline”, but it was only a very broad arc with no details. And then…we went off to France, and I wrote it in three days. It was quite a long script but it felt really, insanely easy to write as we were in this kind of alive and intense state and so I wrote something like a 28 page script in that very short time. Once we had the script we prepped it for about five days and shot it for five days so of course there just wasn’t time to shot list or to storyboard.
The narrative is about a grown up brother and sister, where only the sister leaves the house because she’s convinced her brother that the air outside is dangerous to breathe and they spend their time practising various techniques to cleanse the air. It was almost all shot inside the house we were staying in and so we just explored scenes and the central idea in a completely free process. We could at any moment stop and say, “This isn’t working, what would make this work?” and if someone had a new idea we could follow that idea for as long as we wanted. That was a kind of turning point for me as a Director to have the courage to just follow whatever felt right.
Do you see yourself working in the same way on a more complex/lengthy project?
My DP and I were determined to bring as much of the Sibling process in to Some Things Mean Something as possible even though that was a much bigger budget and a cast and crew of 30 instead of the 5 of us we had on Sibling. It was challenging at times but we really wanted to hold on to that spirit of making space to experiment and play on set even when time is against you. It proved really important to me to shoot without a shot list or a storyboard but to have a set of discussed intentions for each scene and I find it really crucial to shoot chronologically as I feel that allows the whole cast and crew to live the story of the film as a reality over the course of the shoot.
I don’t want to create an environment where people are worried about making fools of themselves or where I feel like that myself.
I think it’s also important to have a tone on set where everyone feels they can offer an opinion or idea even if it hasn’t been carefully thought through. I don’t want to create an environment where people are worried about making fools of themselves or where I feel like that myself. I felt as if we had an agreement on Sibling that I didn’t have to always know what I was doing and that this would in no way undermine my leadership and I think bringing that in to the process on a feature would be really important for me. I think on a longer shoot, where exhaustion really plays a part that it may be necessary to have storyboards to fall back on and I realise that my maverick approach might scare potential funders so it could be that on a feature the process would need to be adapted but my intention would be to bring as much of this in as possible as I feel it’s where things really come alive.
Sibling screens on January 11th at the LSFF in the Short Longes strand – any hints on when we might get to see the full short online, or any of your previous pieces for that matter? Do you not consider yourself as an ‘online’ filmmaker?
I think it’s changing and that there is more of an audience for longer and non-genre shorts online than there used to be but that my work isn’t what many people would think of as online friendly. I am yet to really explore that world and see if I can find an audience for my work there but I think Some Things Mean Something will be coming to the end of its festival run within a few months and so that could be a good time to try.
I’m aware you’re currently developing a feature length version of Some Things Mean Something, but are there any other projects currently in the works you can talk about?
I’m also interested in developing Sibling in to a feature as several scenes were cut just to keep the duration at something reasonably festival friendly and I also think the film ends at a point which is really full of possibility.
I like to work with the same actors repeatedly and so am developing a piece for Charlie MacGechan who plays Huw in Sibling – it’s called An Actor and is about a homeless actor who begs as different characters. It starts off feeling like a portrait of an incredible determined talent but becomes a complicated exploration of creativity and delusion. It’s a contained project so I think we might manage to make it very low budget using the same sort of process as on Sibling.
I’m also developing a script for Robert Boulter who played Tony in Some Things Mean Something. That one is called Enjoy More and is about a man who announces aloud everything he is experiencing as a way to enter a state of rapture he calls ‘the realms’. I think both projects could end up as features but it really helps me to develop them as shorts and then to expand the world and the journies of the characters.
Sibling screens at the LSFF this Sunday as part of the Short Longes strand.