Three brothers living in rural Scotland find their dreams of escape disrupted by a corrupt local police officer and the mysterious appearance of a girl’s body on their land in Director Jonny Blair’s NFTS grad short Come Out of the Woods. A story and cast the Scottish filmmaker held in his mind for several years, Jonny shares how time and collaboration brought new perspectives which reshaped this gripping examination of the forces of male psyche and sexuality as expressed within the confines of an antiquated, macho community.
What first set you on the path of making Come Out of the Woods?
4 or 5 years ago I got a random email from Ben Smith who plays Sam in the film. He said he’d seen my latest short film online and suggested we make something together. Round about that time I’d just seen Animal Kingdom the amazing Australian crime movie about a family of brothers. So I was really inspired by that dynamic and narrative and thought it would be cool to do something of a similar feel in Scotland.
I knew that Ben was good friends with Joe Dempsie and Nico Mirallegro. So I was kind of sneaky actually, I wrote the script with them in mind. Nico got a draft, and I think Ben sent it to him saying “It’s something you’ll have never done before.” They both came on board and were attached for a number of years. I subsequently went to the NFTS and was totally set on making it as my graduation film, luckily for me all the guys were free at that time.
Given the multi-year gestation period of the story how much of a departure is the final film from that initial draft?
When I joined the NFTS I was very open to working with writers. Sometimes when you’re working alone it’s very easy to get carried away with your own writing and get lost in your own little world without being able to take a step back and view it objectively. A great Irish writer called Shane Crowley came on board the project, someone I’d worked with on two of my others films at the school. Myself and Shane share similar tastes and sensibilities and he brought, more than anything, a fresh outlook to a script that had been stagnating to some degree.
The initial draft of the script was a lot longer and had little direction. The struggle we had for the newer drafts was trying to focus less on the plot and more on our characters, making them three dimensional and in Michael’s case, creating a real, sincere level of empathy that the audience could respond to.
Masculinity and its various manifestations features heavily throughout, were there specific themes in this area that you wanted to explore in the film?
The film is set in very rural Scotland, the place I grew up. Often times very rural settings are regarded as being backwards, and shamefully in some regards that is true. Particularly when it comes to the treatment of women in these societies, what I set out to do with this film was to capture that mentality, capture that lack of empathy and consciousness particularly within the characters of the older brothers, Ally and Sam. Likeable they may be, to some extent as the film progresses you do grow to understand the demons they are wrestling with within themselves. With all my films I try to avoid pigeonholing characters as the good person or bad person. I think this film epitomises that, throughout the narrative, you will see perceived ‘bad people’ doing good things and ‘good people’ doing bad things. Which is, in my opinion, a true representation of real life.
Throughout the film we follow Michael. His lack of intimacy from a completely innocent perspective is really interesting to me, that placed within this very harsh, patriarchal society is also an extremely fascinating contrast. When Michael finds Cara you see these two worlds collide and you start to feel his real need and craving for a maternal figure.
With all my films I try to avoid pigeonholing characters as the good person or bad person.
For that reason, in particular, the character of Cara in my eyes is very much the heart of the story and the heart of these three brothers’ lives. She symbolises what they need but unfortunately for them, it’s under very conflicting circumstances. The goal was always to hone in and focus on these beautifully nuanced moments of naivety that Michael demonstrates. Ally and Sam also display these thoughts and feelings, subtle moments displaying their conflicting morals are there for us all to see, and like real life, for the most part, their characters attempt to bury them out of sight. For me, it’s that small characteristic that makes them human and in turn, makes the story relatable for the viewer.
Having written with this specific cast in mind, did the reality of working with them live up to your expectations?
It was my best experience with actors, without a doubt. Because we didn’t have any time for rehearsal it was important for me to create an environment for the guys that would provide a platform for them to shape their relationships with one another. I managed to convince them to live on the location, sleep in their characters bedrooms and clean up after themselves.
For me, this was completely imperative to the hierarchy of the three brothers as I deliberately placed the older brother’s bedrooms closer to each other and the younger brother’s at the other end of the house. I knew the process was working when Nico who plays Michael the younger brother, approached me after the first night and said that he felt really left out, the fact that he could hear his on screen brothers talking to each other at night and he wasn’t a part of it.
Throughout the week in which they lived there, you could see them gradually morphing into their characters and by the final day of shooting they required very little direction as they understood themselves and each other on such a great level.
Was it a clear choice to shoot Come Out of the Woods on 35mm? What do you feel shooting on film brought to the project?
Myself and the Cinematographer Anna MacDonald, after much to-ing and fro-ing, decided to shoot the film on 35mm. An important factor for me, and it might sound strange, is that I’ve always found trees to look a bit too clear when shot on digital. The use of film mellows and blends backgrounds in a much more natural way. The nature of the story itself lended to film also, we wanted to create a world and time that was ambiguous to the viewer, and film by its nature provides that aesthetic. There’s also an immediacy that comes with it. Many of the scenes within the film required high energy and shooting this particular way forces you into that mindset. From my perspective, but more importantly my actors.
How does Woods, the feature length version of this story, open up the troubled world of the brothers? Will we see any new shorts from you before then?
The feature length version of the story is set in 2001 during the foot and mouth disease crisis in Scotland. We’ve thrown our characters into the world of gangster-led illegal cattle sales, based on true stories from my time growing up there. It’s a bit of a departure from the short and needs time and money so it will be a while before that gets going.
At the moment I’m trying to distance myself from short films as I feel, truthfully, I’ve never had a knack for it. Come Out of the Woods being the best example – running at 32 minutes. For me there’s only so much you can explore in short form and I’m ready to make that step into longer form. Right now my energy’s focused on a feature I’ve written called Young Blood, a romantic drama that chronicles the relationship of a young passionate couple, following their journey through a troublesome pregnancy. The wheels have started turning on that one and we’re hoping to start shooting next year.