The Progress Film Company is a Brighton-based production company founded by Matt Hopkins and Ben Lankester. They create work in various forms but the key commitment between the two of them is to make work that is thought-provoking and important, we previously spoke to them about their documentary highlighting the journey of cult rock band I Like Trains. So, it’s easy to see why then that they would be attracted to Silo, a once Brighton-based restaurant run by Douglas McMaster. Silo is a zero-waste restaurant, and similarly to The Progress Film Company, has a purpose to create something different that people aren’t experiencing in their day-to-day lives. A Failure of the Imagination is Hopkins’ film about McMaster and Silo, and it tracks the journey the restaurant has taken. The film is part of The Progress Film Company’s England Your England series which focuses on individuals in society who are breaking ground from an underdog position. DN spoke to Hopkins about this series as well as the creation method behind A Failure of the Imagination.
How did you come across the story of Silo?
I went to Silo for breakfast just after it opened five years ago – it’s just around the corner from our studio in Brighton. Douglas served me and explained where every single ingredient on my plate had originated. I knew this was a zero waste restaurant but hadn’t considered how exhaustive that food system needs to be to ensure it’s free from waste. Doug’s enthusiasm, pride and sincerity struck me instantly. I could see he was throwing everything at this and that complete immersion in his project really appealed to me. I went back a few days later to ask him if we could make a film together.
What did the initial production meetings look like when it came to deciding how the film would look/play out?
We never defined what this film might become at the start. There was a lot of discovery, experimentation and failure in the early stages, in a way running parallel to Silo itself. After a couple of months, I had a cut which captured the basic story of Silo; lots of beautiful process shots and some defining words from Douglas, but it didn’t feel right, it felt like half a story. Spending more time in the restaurant, I started to see how challenging it was to actually create a sustainable zero waste food system in the long term. Douglas was facing a daily struggle to keep things afloat, but he never stopped exploring, pushing, fiercely persevering. This confirmed my suspicions that there was a bigger story to capture, one that conveyed the struggle which projects like this face, and inspired me to delve deeper into the story until I felt it had been done justice
There was a lot of discovery, experimentation and failure in the early stages, in a way running parallel to Silo itself.
Did you do anything in particular to get Douglas comfortable in front of the camera?
I’d actually say that Douglas isn’t the most comfortable person on camera, but this is part of his charm. Being a chef and business owner but also someone trying to figure out problems no one has done before, he’d often be incredibly distracted and the film wasn’t his first priority. At these points I’d to take a step back and work observationally, allowing him the headspace to explore what he’s doing, before asking him to re-engage with the film. This wasn’t possible with the interview, something we’d discovered from a couple of false starts where Douglas was struggling to articulate clearly as he was contemplating other problems.
To get our master interview, I asked Douglas to clear a full day without any other distractions so I could be confident I had his complete attention. It was a revelation to hear him articulate the story with such clarity, so I’d say forcing him to have the correct headspace was fundamental to him feeling comfortable.
What are you hoping audiences take away from this? It felt to me simultaneously alarming but also inspiring? Is this you intent for the film?
That is exactly what I want audiences to take away from the film. I think it’s so important that we explore solutions to some of these huge problems rather than focus too much on the scale of the problem itself. An inspired audience (rather than an overwhelmed one) is far likelier to be receptive to the small steps forward that they can take. That being said, it was essential that viewers understood the severity of the problem from the start of the film. The plant where I shot the waste visuals was a truly terrifying place, the rubbish was just never ending and it’s something we rarely get access to experience, so I wanted to make sure this opened the film.
An inspired audience (rather than an overwhelmed one) is far likelier to be receptive to the small steps forward that they can take.
Could talk about the England Your England series of films and what you and The Progress Film Company hope to achieve with them?
England Your England has always been a series through which to tell this type of underdog story, in the hope that they’ll serve to inspire their audience in some way. We’re living in a very confusing time and I think the series is more important now than it’s ever been in giving a platform for people to share their alternative ways of thinking and living, prompting self-reflection in others as a result.
It’s really easy for individual films to become lost in the noise of the online world, so the idea of creating a collection was to ensure each film feels part of a wider conversation rather than a standalone piece. While the topics of each episode may differ, when seen together, they form a clear identity that I think defines us as individuals, communities and as a nation. Particularly when you watch some of the earlier films, which are six or seven years old now, it’s interesting to see how relevant some of the themes and key issues have continued to be and how the conversation has developed over the years.
Myself and Ben Lankester founded Progress almost a decade ago now with a commitment to making films that shared important stories and messages. I’m proud that the series has managed to stay true to this ambition and hopefully changed a few perceptions along the way too.
Do you have any new projects on the go at the moment?
I’m currently working on a couple of long form ideas, whilst also exploring the next steps for England Your England as a project. I’ve just created a home for the series on Instagram @englandyourengland and I’m exploring ideas to use the platform as part of the storytelling. There’s so much divisive and inflammatory short form content on these platforms which is very easy to watch, almost addictive. I’d love to find a way to create thought provoking and important work within this murky online space.
A Failure of the Imagination 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.