So, we’ve all heard the cliched phrase ‘less is more’ and as trite as this piece of advice may have become with overuse, it’s an ethos that filmmakers, and in particular short filmmakers, should have burnt into their brains, least they forget it to their film’s peril. Rob Savage is a director who needs no reminding about the trimming of fat as is evident in Absence, his short but dense film about the grieving process. We caught up with Rob to discuss hidden genre tropes, the co-writing process and working with one of his cinematic heroes.
What inspired this brief tale of grief and loss? Did the initial idea always culminate in that final revelation?
We always wanted to make something short and punchy – I’d been developing a feature film for a whole year and, eight weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, a financier stepped away. I’m pretty restless when it comes to filmmaking, so over the course of a beer Jed Shepherd and I started to throw ideas around, eventually coming up with the bare bones of Absence. We wanted to do something that played with people’s expectations and, having sat through a million short films about grieving husbands, we though we’d try to tackle the subject in an interesting way, peppering clues throughout a short runtime that genre fans would appreciate, before pulling the rug from under the audiences’ feet. The running time came from wanting to come up with an idea that we could self-fund for very little, and that would appeal to festival programmers.
This isn’t the first script you’ve co-written. How much commonality is there between the solo/collaborative writing processes?
Jed is probably the biggest horror fan I know, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things schlock, and we’ve been wanting to work together on something for a while now. As well as Absence, we’ve recently collaborated on another short called Dawn of the Deaf, which is a full-on excursion into horror. I always prefer writing with a co-author, as it’s much easier to gauge if your ideas are any good. When I work alone, it takes all of ten minutes for me to lose all objectivity.
In terms of what we both bring, I’d say that Jed’s incredible horror knowledge means that he has a good instinct for making a moment of violence or a scare land in the right way. For me the characters always take up most of my attention and so we meet at a nice point that combines my character development and Jed’s knack to throw those characters into horrific situations that is hopefully compelling and squirm-inducing.
Paul Mcgann has long been an acting hero of yours, what brought him to the project and how did the two you work together to build a character whose pain is so palpable?
Paul was our first choice for the role and it was incredible to work with him. We knew that for the mostly silent lead character to command the audience’s attention, we needed someone with his inimitable presence. Withnail & I was one of the films that first made me want to pick up a camera and start making films, and so I had plenty to say when we approached Paul. I wrote a three page letter to him, which my agent sent on (luckily he’s signed to the same agency as I am), explaining the film, his character and why I thought the collaboration could result in something special.
We had no money to make the film, but Paul graciously agreed to come on board on the strength of the letter. We didn’t have very much time to shoot, so a lot was fleshed-out via email so that we were on the same page by the time Paul arrived on set.
You shot Absence in 4:3, what led to that choice of aspect ratio and how did the squarer frame shape the way you told the story?
The aspect ratio was an early choice that my Cinematographer Ollie Downey and I made, and totally changed the way we approached making the film. I wanted the frame to feel both claustrophobic and empty simultaneously and any frame that I’d find on our recces with a 2:35:1 or 16:9 viewfinder would always feel too ordinary. By shooting in 4:3 we were able to build in plenty of negative space around Paul, but still make him seem restricted and closed in.
The 4:3 ratio also concentrates the audiences’ view towards the centre of the image, meaning we had much better control over drip-feeding information in the build up to the final scene. As well as the key beats we want the audience to notice, there’s also a great amount of detail hidden throughout the film that becomes apparent on second viewing – some that only horror film fans will spot, and some that are built into the production and lighting design. For instance, almost every shot has a crucifix hidden somewhere, either as a physical object or just a shape/shadow/out-of-focus blob.
I wanted the frame to feel both claustrophobic and empty simultaneously.
As soon as we cast Paul I basically threw out all of my storyboards and started over – Paul has such an iconic presence, and an incredibly striking profile, and so we designed a lot of shots to favour this, including the frequent silhouettes. We were also restrained by our non-existent budget, which was so low that we had to shoot in crew-members’ houses – since we didn’t have the money to create a complete set, we instead looked for interesting shapes in which to confine the character, including the many arches and doorways Paul’s often shown silhouetted in.
The two revelations shift the narrative’s direction and build dramatically upon one another. How did you approach the challenge of when best to reveal those pieces of information to the audience?
The main weapon we used to direct attention was familiarity – by grounding the first part of the film in a very recognisable, even clichéd narrative, we lull the audience into switching off the part of their brain that scours for clues. Casting Paul, an actor who carries so much prestige, also helped convince people that they were watching a certain kind of narrative, and helped us screen at a number of top-tier festivals that don’t often showcase horror films, including the BFI London Film Festival where we received gasps and even a faint “Oh my God…” from the back row.
We also aimed to include clues that could also have another meaning, one that works in the context of a non-genre narrative. For example, people often assume that the scene of Paul learning Latin is simply a grieving man practicing for a funeral speech, and that the scratch on his back could be from the same accident that killed his wife…
Once in the edit, I made sure to show the film to a range of different people who had no idea what the film was about – this led to a few small trims, but mostly the film provoked the right reaction.
You’ve praised the work of your colourist Matt Osbourne at The Mill. For those unfamiliar with that aspect of post, what did that process bring to the film?
I’ve been working exclusively with Matt for about three years now, and his contribution can’t be overstated. A colourist will take the raw camera footage and adjust the colours so that the film looks cinematic and seamless – in Absence, Matt also added a 16mm grain filter that is unique to The Mill, which gives the film its slightly 70s vibe. When I was starting out, I’d have to grade my own films and I still lament all the wasted potential to this day – Matt will bring out colour and texture that I didn’t even know we’d captured, and isn’t afraid to experiment in order to achieve the look and feeling we’re after. It’s a great feeling to know that your footage is going to be in the best possible hands once you’ve wrapped, as it’s a tricky part of the process that can really elevate a film if done with care.
Matt has recently moved to Mill Chicago, but we’re still working together via a Skype link that Mill London kindly sets up at their colour suite. For Dawn of the Deaf we worked to Chicago time, hooking up with Matt at midnight GMT and working until 4 in the morning, at which point I’d crash on a sofa in the grading suite until first tube.
What new work do you have on the horizon?
The big project at the moment is Seaholme – a feature film about a bunch of fucked-up kids who discover a mysterious, wounded creature and, in turn, fuck it up when they try and raise it back to health. We’re just finalising the script and – touch wood – should be shooting either this year or early next. The film is being produced by Salon Pictures. I also have two short films that are currently playing the festival circuit: Healey’s House, a revenge-thriller, and Dawn of the Deaf (also written with Jed Shepherd), a horror about an apocalyptic infection that only leaves the deaf community unaffected.