Whilst browsing the BFI Flare lineup of shorts this year, Ben Ockrent’s Edmund the Magnificent stood out not only for it’s bombastic name, but for it’s brief comedic synopsis: Sir Ian McKellen narrates this tale of a down-and-out farmer and his very special pig. Now, Sir Ian McKellen and animals is a very easy sell. I was intrigued and having now seen it, I can vouch that Ben delivers. And so I was eager to speak to Ben about the creation of this beautifully playful and mature fairytale short about a special pig.
What was the inception of Edmund the Magnificent?
I read an article about a Hungarian pig who refused to breed. He would only hang out with the other boars and his increasingly distressed farmer had become convinced he was gay. The situation immediately reminded me of my favourite kids books growing up. A classic rite of passage story about an animal subverting man’s presumed dominance. The themes surrounding sexuality were obviously much better suited to a grown up audience and that subversion seemed like really exciting material for a short film – which for me are always most exciting when playing with form or genre. If the pig’s sexuality could somehow emancipate the farmer I thought we might be able to construct a really surprising, accessible and, hopefully, witty kind of adult fairytale.
Could you talk about structuring the visuals around the narration?
This was a really big conversation, especially with my Editor Mark Burnett. Everything starts with the script, so the narration was there first. Though film is, of course, a visual medium so the script was also written to deliver images and the balance between what we’re told and what we see evolved throughout pre and post production so nothing felt overstated or heavy handed. As the narration is told in verse there’s also a very clear rhythm to it and that began to dictate the edit quite a bit. On the one hand it was really fun to play with and gave us a great pace. But, on the other hand, it constrained us at times when we realised we wanted to pause on moments for longer. So, ADR was required to address some rewrites, which meant getting Sir Ian McKellen back in again. Fortunately, he was game.
Short films are often fairly dark and the aim here was to deliver something a bit more uplifting.
Did you storyboard to the narration or was it vice versa?
Initially yes, small sections of the narration evolved to match certain boards as they took shape.
The aesthetic of Edmund the Magnificent is vibrant and the performances are heightened to produce that fairytale-like feel, this suggests that the film is aimed towards a younger audience but the themes it’s dealing with are universal, would you say that’s the case? Or is the film not aimed at a particular demographic?
Ultimately, I always hoped it might be for a broad audience. But primarily it was intended for adults. The hope was that by setting it up as a kind of fairytale we’d build up a certain expectation for a slightly more innocent type of story, which we could then subvert, hopefully with comic effect.
The short is well into its festival cycle at this point, what have you found the audience reaction to be like?
By and large it’s been fantastic. We reveal that the pig is gay around half way through, that moment was designed with the hope that it might deliver a laugh and it always gets a great reaction. Short films are often fairly dark and the aim here was to deliver something a bit more uplifting than that, which seems to have been the case. But I’m probably not the most objective judge of how it’s been received. You’re always hypersensitive to how it’s going down which perhaps skews your overall sense of the response.
What are you working on currently?
I’m developing a new scripted comedy series with Noel Fielding in the UK and another for Sasha Baron Cohen’s company in the US.
Be sure to check out DN’s full coverage of BFI Flare 2018 here.