The darkness in Director Sheila Avellino and Producer Brandon Habuda’s refugee drama Blackbird lies in the juxtaposition at the heart of its narrative. The image of a young woman traversing through a field, peaceful and free, is combined with the raw drama of an invaded refugee camp. It’s a combination of images which show life that has been, and what life will be for these captives. It’s a stark drama that captivates from the moment it begins. DN caught up with Avellino and Habuda to talk about their important planning process and blending large set pieces with skeleton crew micro shoots.

How did the concept for Blackbird come about?

Sheila Avellino & Brandon Habuda: It really started with the song and the sunflower field. Brandon had a strong vision already and just needed a parallel. After brainstorming we ultimately decided to juxtapose the paradise that was the sunflower field with a grungy post-apocalyptic scene. We were both really inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale and the idea of ‘hope amidst hopelessness’. It’s a beautiful song, but there are dark undertones, so it was about how could we bring it to life to highlight both aspects? The bleak controlled world contrasting with this symbolism of peace and freedom was the end result. The concept grew from a raid to a world in disaster and people just trying to get out of the country amidst the chaos and control.

Could you talk about your pre-production process, did you lay out the script knowing how the film would look in the edit or did the film come together in post-production?

SA: We worked with a shot list but no script. There was a rough story outline we established so we could make sure we hit some specific emotional beats and fleshed out the world. Brandon had already scouted the location a couple of times and had pictures he’d taken for reference so when we sat down to create the shot list he already knew exactly where everything would be. We did one final location scout together a couple of days before the shoot and walked through everything once more for final decisions. His brain saw the end product long before we even shot so I’d say it was really born in pre-production, the final product goal was very clear. However, don’t things always truly come together in post?

Leaning heavily on a shot list really sped up our workflow.

BH: With mainly using a shot list, it helped fit the song into the timing of the narrative. Time was very much of the essence for the camp scene which we had to film in two and a half hours ending with the sunset and leaning heavily on a shot list really sped up our workflow. At the end of the day everything was crossed off on the list and we used every setup in the edit, which is all thanks to previsualization in the preproduction process.

How did the production process of both the main scenes compare? On one hand, you’re working with a lot of actors and a large set piece compared to a singular actor in a calm environment?

SA: The two main scenes couldn’t have been a more different experience. The sunflower field was shot midsummer. It was a skeleton crew, with only our lead actress, Sidney Rubino. We only shot for an hour and it was incredibly low pressure on everyone. The refugee scenes were shot months later in the dead of winter. That was a full day, with a sizeable cast and crew to organize, in very cold conditions. The cast and crew on both days were incredible in both skill and spirit. I’d say that the biggest similarity between the two shoots was fighting for that golden hour of light. That sunset and Brandon’s timing came through for us on both days.

BH: The two scenes were intentionally massive parallels on every level being brought together by one huge force, a natural sunset. I think that helped add to the visual shock when you’re introduced to the sunflower field. Rarely do you see a short film span different seasons during production and I loved the idea and difficulty of it.

Could you talk about working with your production designer to create the look of the refugees and their camp? What decisions went into deciding the aesthetic of them and their living environment?

SA: Brandon found Kari Bare, our Art Director, and we met to discuss the details. We wanted a living dystopian tent city on a tight budget and I ended up making a Pinterest board to represent the colours and theme that we wanted. Kari went with that, sending us pictures as she went to help us decide on small details. One of the most important pieces was the journal. She found the sunflower to be pressed months before the actual shoot and then weathered the journal. Details like the teapot came to life in finding something weathered enough that you wouldn’t see the camera’s reflection. We knew we wanted it to look very lived in so the clotheslines, the bowls, the blankets, and propaganda posters scattered everywhere all brought that to life.

The concept grew from a raid to a world in disaster and people just trying to get out of the country amidst the chaos and control.

The lighting was also a huge asset. We wanted a fire in the centre of camp but the building was mostly built of wooden bricks so we couldn’t have any live flames, only fake candles and set lights. Finally, Brandon hand selected every piece of the swat team gear and then I weathered it. It was crucial to him that they look as real as possible for the greatest visual impact.

BH: For me, it was important to get the scale right where for once you’re in a location that is rich with look and story already and we had to create a world within it, if the scale wasn’t big enough it wouldn’t visually look right in this massive warehouse. Luckily, the warehouse had a lot of set decoration already naturally aged, it was just a matter of finding all the pieces and placing them in the right places to compliment the camp we built to help the environment scene come to life.

It feels to me the dramatic centre to a wider narrative, are there plans to make Blackbird into a feature at some point?

SA & BH: There is definitely a much larger story there than we could fit into the film. We’d love to expand and dive into the world within Blackbird more. If we get approached to create more we certainly wouldn’t refuse.

Blackbird is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.

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