Originally landing on the internet a year ago, when it screened for a short time as part of the BFI Flare Festival and the British Council’s #FiveFilms4Freedom initiative, Matt Houghton’s hugely successful Film London short Landline looks to bring its festival success online and spread its unique story to a brand new audience. Sharing the stories received by the only helpline in the UK for gay farmers, Houghton joins us to discuss why he wanted to tell this story, how he went about visualising a film centred on phone calls and why short film is “valuable beyond simply being a stepping-stone towards features”.
How did you first hear about Keith Ineson’s helpline for gay farmers and what inspired you to chose this as the subject of your documentary?
I have always been drawn to ideas surrounding shared experience. Speaking to my friend Rupert Williams one evening, we got talking about what it was like for him growing up in a farming family as a gay man and the unique sense of isolation that he felt. As we researched further, we began to understand the extent to which being an LGBTQ farmer was so heavily wrapped up in ideas of identity. We came across Keith Ineson’s helpline and it seemed like a unique lens through which to explore these ideas. Over the course of about a year, we collected stories and experiences from LGBTQ farmers who have at one time or another called the helpline and used them as the emotional centre of the film.
The film hangs totally on the honesty and openness of our contributors.
The film centres around a series of telephone calls to this helpline, how did you go about choosing the stories you wanted to focus on in your film?
There were certain themes and ideas that cropped up a lot during our calls. A lot of it was about finding the stories that had the combination of being intimate but also speaking to the broader themes that we’d encountered. The way that people told their stories also had a huge impact. That’s something that feels less intellectually-driven and much more instinctive. It’s about hearing a story, feeling connected with it and trusting that the audience will too. The film hangs totally on the honesty and openness of our contributors. Without their generosity, it wouldn’t have been possible.
I wanted to make something that took the very personal and made it universally relevant.
The stories range from the positive to the much more downbeat, what attracted you to mixing things up emotionally with the episodes in the film?
The film’s about a helpline so the stories tended towards the negative – these are people who are calling because they’re looking for help in one way or another – but we also wanted to depict the nuances of the experiences.
For me, Landline is a film that presents the audience with a series of personal experiences and then asks them to make their own judgement. I’m very interested in structure and experimenting with form, especially in documentary, and I wanted to make something that took the very personal and made it universally relevant. To me, it is defined by its intimacy but in depicting the very personal, my hope is that it poses questions about much broader ideas surrounding community, family, masculinity and sexuality. Above all, my hope is that the audience is allowed to feel something, whatever that is.
I didn’t always want people to know exactly where they were or what was going to happen.
You chose to accompany each story with a visual re-enactment of the events, with many straight-forward reconstructions combined occasionally with more “abstract” imagery – how did you decide what to shoot for each story?
I work in both documentary and scripted film and in recent years I have become increasingly interested in making films that experiment with story structure and that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. I love documentaries that push the form but I’m also extremely cautious of style over substance. The idea with Landline was that everything from the narrative structure to the visual language, the audio recordings to the music, are influenced by the helpline. We wanted to create an active conversation where the stories of a group of individuals compound and react with each other to paint a broader picture.
Once we’d made the decision to structure the film episodically, it seemed as though we had a unique opportunity to treat each of the stories individually in terms of how we told them. Perspective is a huge part of storytelling for me and the question of where we as an audience are seeing a story unfold from is often the key for me. With Landline, we used different structural techniques, depending on the story. It felt important to me to challenge the audience. I didn’t always want people to know exactly where they were or what was going to happen and the interplay between the audio and visual layers played a huge part in establishing that tension.
I wanted the film to have a consistent aesthetic to connect the protagonists across time & space.
Visually, Landline is a hugely impressive film, can you give us some insight into the production process for the short?
I start most projects with fairly extensive research and development, and for me, that tends to be on my own. For Landline, I worked with one of the film’s producers Rupert Williams for about a year, exploring various avenues and speaking to a lot of people about their experiences. It’s the stage of the project where I’m working out the narrative, the core themes and the language and in this case, editing the audio layer. The moment that defined the film more than any other was the decision to use Keith Ineson’s helpline as the prism through which to view those experiences. For me, establishing that very clear framing device is when all the research clicked into place. At every stage of the production, having this very clear framing device gave us something concrete to hang our decisions on.
Once we really started to understand the shape of the film, we looked for funding with our other producer Alistair Payne-James and started thinking about our team. From then on, the entire project is defined by the collaborations with everyone else involved. The visual language that we established uses the idea of anonymity as a starting point and it ended up being the reason that we landed on a reconstructive approach using actors to play out the five stories. I wanted the film to have a consistent aesthetic to connect the protagonists across time and space, so finding that was an important part of the initial discussions with James Blann the cinematographer and Guy Thompson the production designer in particular.
The idea of the organic was a constant touchstone for us throughout. Of course, at its most obvious it’s reflected in the way that we wanted to represent the tones and brutality of the British farmland but, as a broad theme, it’s also the reason we ended up shooting on film, it influenced our soundscape hugely and it’s directly responsible for the way that the voices of our contributors are treated.
The film pretty much took two years from inception to its festival premiere.
Having an organisation that is willing to fund up-and-coming filmmakers is amazing.
Shorts are amazing for a whole bunch of reasons: for testing out a concept, for figuring out your style or tone of voice, and obviously just for practice, but I’m also a big believer in short films being valuable beyond simply being a stepping-stone towards features.
London Calling is an amazing scheme that supports filmmakers way beyond just the financing of a short. Of course with short filmmaking budget is always a massive issue and so having an organisation that is willing to fund up-and-coming filmmakers is amazing. But having a group of people in your corner who are thoughtful and passionate about the process is even better.
Our hope is that, in its small way, the film can draw attention to something often overlooked.
The film has had a healthy festival run, why have you decided to release it online and what are your hopes for its life on the internet?
It felt like the right time to get the film out online. We’ve had a really amazing and unusual festival run, been to some great places and met some cool people but it’s definitely come to its natural end. It’s also almost exactly a year since we had our UK premiere at Flare and it felt right to release it during the festival that gave us such a great start to our run.
The film ran as part of the British Council and BFI Flare’s #FiveFilms4Freedom campaign last year which made it available to watch in every country in the world, including those where LGBTQ+ rights are extremely restricted or where it’s illegal. It was seen almost half a million times in twelve days and we had some amazing responses from people in places that we never would have dreamed would get to see the film.
The helpline has been running for the best part of a decade and it’s made a huge difference to countless people and communities. Alongside the helpline, Keith has set up a number of social groups, Facebook groups – both public and anonymous – and continues to foster a safe environment for those struggling. In terms of its life on the internet, our hope is that, in its small way, the film can draw attention to something often overlooked.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently developing a feature documentary project and another short, both of which use reconstruction and archive, and one of which involves a bank robbery.