We’ve been keeping tabs on Writer/Director Dee Meaden here since 2014 and although she’s spoken to us several times about her prolific output, it’s always regrettably been in the absence of her full films – and trust us we’ve tried bribes and begging aplenty. Well today our multi-year campaign finally bears fruit with Dee’s NFTS graduation short Good News making its grand entrance on DN and heralding not just that film’s arrival online but a five month long showcase of the talented British filmmaker’s never before available shorts – all premiering here on Directors Notes on the last Thursday of each month.
This means not only that we’re effective naggers but that over the coming months you’ll finally be able to watch short films Mark (27th June), An Actor (25th July), Sibling (29th August), and Some Things Mean Something (26th September) right here as we usher them into their new online existence and provide some insight into how they were made. But back to today and our Good News conversation with Dee in which we discover how her approach to filmmaking has evolved through the years, why she held her films back from an internet audience until now and the advantages of doing away with company moves in order to submerge your cast and crew in the world of the film.
In a rural, religious community, a young man struggles to understand the teachings in the way that those around him seem to. A newcomer seems to offer him an alternative way to receive the truth.
You’ve resisted putting your films online for several years now, did you finally get sick of our nagging or is there another reason why you’ve decided now is the time to release your work online?
This kind of nagging is most welcome!
I think for a long time I felt the length and the tone of my work wasn’t ideal for an online audience but more lately I’ve started to think that might have been a very outdated view or that people’s viewing habits have changed. As many of my shorts are really long they are certainly not festival friendly and so it’s started to feel more appropriate to get the work out in the world by putting it online.
Some of the more recent films haven’t even really screened at festivals because I completed 5 films in 2 years and when I was submitting them to festivals they were competing with each other. The festival approach started to feel very slow for work that was made with a lot of momentum and sharing them online has started to feel pleasantly direct. Directors Notes feels like a meaningful context where they can exist as a body of work which feels great.
The festival approach started to feel very slow for work that was made with a lot of momentum.
What were the origins of this battle of personalities within a religious community short?
Good News was my NFTS grad film and way before I had any sort of idea about story I knew I wanted to write something for my three regular actors Robert Boulter, Charlie MacGechan and Francesca Dale and I also knew I wanted to take them somewhere far from home and create a world around us. This is partly because I’ve always found this incredibly focussing and helpful for the cast and the crew but also because on my other films at the school, I felt as if getting the team to and from set each day took a huge amount of energy. I wanted to get all that out of the way up front and then just be in a place with these incredible people.
I never really start with an idea to write about something in particular, I just get images or a feeling of a world or a scene and follow that. I’m always following my instinct and trying not to think too much about what things might actually be stemming from or what conclusions people might draw as I feel that’s going to censor things.
With Good News the idea started to develop when I was on set, on the last day of shooting my film Mark. We were shooting an outdoor scene, mid-February but it was a bright and sunny day and almost every cast and crew member mentioned how extraordinary it was with the light and the feeling of spring in the air. The scene we were shooting was about the dark, mysterious and threatening power of nature so was entirely at odds with the feeling that was consuming everyone and there was something almost evangelical in their enthusiasm. I started to get images in my mind of very simple, elemental things – milk, mud, the clean, shiny hair of carefree young girls and the feeling of a group of people united in their ability to experience the world as pure, natural and wholesome but with one person within that, for whom things are a bit different.
I didn’t have the conscious thought that I wanted to tell a story about a religious community but looking back, I realised that about a month or so before the idea started to emerge, I had watched The Sound of Music, Black Narcissus and Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills all in quick succession so I think that definitely had an effect.
As I got in to really developing the script, I became interested in the idea of a community where the women appeared servile but were actually running things. So the film takes place when ‘the men are away for summer’ leaving the women and girls to oversee the young men as they progress through the religious teachings.
The idea of the coloured shirts reflecting the men’s status came out of this too. I liked the idea that the women are helping the men, teaching them but they themselves are outside this clothing system. It suggests the women can’t attain the levels the men get to but in reality, they seem to be allowed to exist without the evaluation and judgement the men suffer in their very limited notions of what achievement is.
I became interested in the idea of a community where the women appeared servile but were actually running things.
The film’s drama is very much driven by the shifting relationships inhabited by your trio of recurring actors. Could you tell us more about your intentions for the characters and what each actor brought to their role?
Amongst the women, the hierarchy is more complicated and unseen as Ruth is in charge, although as Nathan observes ‘she isn’t even the oldest’. With the character of Ruth, I wanted to use Francesca’s amazing stillness and the extraordinary power and command she has within that. I wanted Ruth to be the kind of woman who could command a vast space with just a glance.
I also didn’t want any of the characters to be just one thing. It was important to me that Ruth, although she may make some mistakes and be holding things very tightly is under pressure to hold the community together, to protect their way of life, in the face of a dangerous intruder. As my Editor Tine Lykke Jensen said Ruth is ‘protecting her flock’.
In a similar way, I wanted Nathan to be someone we understand and feel for, despite him being an imposter. Nathan manipulates Aiden but he feels for him too. In the final scene when he says, “You don’t really believe all that stuff” it’s devastating for Aiden but it’s a truth Nathan is giving him – it’s a kindness to tell him this difficult truth.
There was a time before I really had a script when I wasn’t sure which of the two male leads should be played by Charlie and which by Rob. I remember mentioning the rough idea for the storyline to Charlie saying I might want Rob’s character to see his character as Jesus or sent by God and he looked at me as if I was insane and said ‘What with this face?’ which made me realise this might be hard to pull off. But now it seems ridiculous to me that I even for a second thought about casting it the other way.
I realised that the moment when Aiden sees heavenly light on Nathan was the point where we move from being inside Aiden’s experience to watching him from a slight distance. I didn’t need to make the audience believe Nathan was Jesus, just that Aiden was starting to believe he was.
How did you find a location which both echoed the atmosphere that first inspired Good News and could also host the production for the duration of the shoot?
I started talking to my Producer, Lenny Ortmann about the idea before I even had characters or a story, just this feeling of the world and my desire to go somewhere with my three leads and live together for the duration of the shoot and he told me he grew up in rural Germany between two farms. This felt like incredible luck and like I had permission or encouragement to follow the idea.
A series of trips to stay with Lenny’s very kind and understanding parents in Ravensburg followed. I remember when the plane was coming into land on our first recce trip and seeing the countryside for the first time. I felt like I was landing in The Sound of Music and was immediately delighted and convinced it was going to work, that this was the perfect place.
Could you explain what your working methods were as you moved through the various stages of production?
I don’t use storyboards but I like photoboards made from recce shots where I stand in for the characters. This has a double function for me of providing a reference frame for the potential shot but also allowing me to inhabit the space or the moment as the character just very briefly. People have found it strange that I like to do this myself but I think it’s something I started doing on my smallest scale shoots when it was just me and the DP on the recce but now it’s become something practical that also gives me a little snippet in to the emotion of the scene for each character.
It was a 9 day shoot. My DP Ronnie McQuillan had been wanting to shoot on film but it would have been with limited stock which felt very risky to me and I was resistant to the working process which I find more rigid on film. In the end, we shot on the Alexa with a set of Cooke mini S4i’s. We also used both 1/8 and 1/4 Black Promist depending on the shot. In terms of lighting, we used 2x 4k HMI’s for the interior scenes and used mirrors, bounce, diffusion and negative fill for the exteriors. I love the look that Ronnie achieved. One of my favourite moments is in the final scene between Aiden and Nathan where Aiden is backlit against the window – that lighting made me feel like he’s disappearing with the information he’s receiving.
We were constantly changing our schedule due to the weather forecast as Ravensburg is pretty much a microclimate with weather that can change very quickly from one extreme to the other. We had 17 versions of the schedule in the end. A special mention has to go to my 1st AD Richard Lingard who was entirely dedicated to helping me get the absolute best film I could, in the face of considerable adversity. He had the energy and belief we could do it when I occasionally started to despair a little.
I felt I learnt a huge amount through the edit of the film and cemented an already great working relationship with Tine Lykke Jensen. It was an incredibly precise process and one that felt deeply creative and exploratory. It very quickly felt like Tine was entirely inside the world of the film with me and we were exploring how we both felt about a particular cut rather than for me to explain what I felt we needed. We really found it together.
Reflecting on the five films you’re debuting each month with us here at DN, how do you feel your approach and intentions as a filmmaker have evolved across those projects?
I think my approach has had to adapt sometimes due to the situation. I’ve worked for over ten years with the same DP, Ollie Verschoyle but of course, when I went to the NFTS I was working with someone new on each project. I remember on the first little exercise really having to wrack my brain to make conscious a process that had become very instinctive and unspoken. Making it conscious felt very strange but I think my understanding of my process has evolved quite a bit through doing that.
And making a number of films in quick succession has made me see patterns in the process. There’s always a point towards the end of the prep where I will feel anxious and it’s helpful to know that whatever I do, I’ll feel like that till I’m on set, at which point I’ll be wildly excited and happy. In post when I first see the rushes, I’ll be delighted at all the moments we captured but when we do the first pass I’ll be deeply depressed at how many of those moments won’t cut well and so probably can’t be used. That all starts to feel OK when you see a pattern.
In terms of my intentions, I think they have just deepened.
As you mentioned earlier, your films typically fall into the ‘long short’ category. Is working on a larger narrative canvas a conscious act or more a reflection of the space required for the types of stories you prefer to tell?
I think it’s just symptomatic of wanting to tell stories with a lot of psychological complexity and also to make films where peoples’ unspoken reactions tell us a lot of what’s going on in them. Sometimes I’ve had the idea I can make the film shorter to hopefully get it seen at more festivals but ultimately I feel I’ve got to give the time for what I’m telling.
Making a number of films in quick succession has made me see patterns in the process.
How long a shot holds for is something I’ve become really interested in, where holding a shot allows you to get more out of it and where holding too long means the bottom falls out of the whole thing or where it becomes a meaningless style. One of the things I love in the edit is watching a shot very closely and working out what I’m getting moment to moment from a performance or from everything happening on screen, to work out where the cut should be to say exactly what we want to say.
How’s the feature version of Some Things Mean Something going? Will that be your next project or are there more shorts on the horizon?
I’m very focussed on feature ideas at the moment. Some Things Mean Something is one of five projects I’m developing but it’s hard to know which one is more likely to be my first feature – I am always most passionate about whichever one I’m working on at the moment but the truth is I’d make any of them if I could. And if trying to get my first feature off the ground takes too long I’ll make another short just to keep inside that process and to keep working with the cast and the crew I love making things with.
We’ll be catching up with Dee next on the 27th June to delve into her process further for the DN premiere of Mark.