I first saw Bellmouth at the Encounters Film Festival back in September and was struck by its raw and unflinching portrayal of family. Joseph Roberts’ short manages to match the joy and energy of childhood excitement against the hardships of growing up and becoming your own person. It’s a real slice-of-life piece of filmmaking and the way Roberts renders the family dynamic is both gripping and heartbreaking. Fortunately, I was able to see Bellmouth again on the big screen thanks to Filmstock, which is a totally different experience for reasons I’ll leave unsaid but will become obvious once you watch it. Directors Notes is excited to be presenting the Online Premiere of Bellmouth today alongside a conversation with Roberts about the making of his stellar short.
What was the initial inspiration to make a film about this kind of hidden homelessness?
It was a confluence of ideas really. In 2016, I had an operation on my knee and was sat in front of the TV for a long time. The news at that time was around the European migrant crisis and the Calais Jungle. I watched a news report of families in the UK sending tents that they had used on their holidays to refugees outside of Calais. The stark contrast of camping for fun and camping for refuge resonated with me. At the same time, I was reading reports of how under the government at the time, the same one that’s just been re-elected, the numbers of homelessness were being misrepresented and minimised. For every one person officially classed as homeless, there were six people who were sleeping in their car, on the couches of friends or living in makeshift accommodation in tents. Yet, weren’t classed as homeless. Vulnerable people in need of help were being ignored and dismissed.
Could you talk about structuring the film and revealing the key plot revelations at the right time? Were you conscious about taking the audience one way before telling them the whole story?
We wanted to tell the story through the eyes of our young protagonist Amy so that device informed the structure of the piece. That fact that we’re with Amy the entire time means you can only show the audience so much. I didn’t want it to be a twist though, more an honest unravelling seen through a young girl’s eyes.
Because it’s a short film, what the viewer doesn’t have is the backstory of the relationship between Amy and her dad, which is where the excellent performances of Justine Emma Moore and Tim Plester have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. There are pivotal scenes like the dog walker or the car discovery where the audience have to infer a lot through the performances and the subtle yet brilliant production design from Tim Gibson.
I didn’t want it to be a twist though, more an honest unravelling seen through a young girl’s eyes.
Similarly, how important was it for you to have a mix of tones in the film? You’re telling a realist story but there are joyful moments amongst the difficult ones?
It was really important. We wanted to contrast the ideas of a typical camping holiday against camping for refuge. The freedom of the great outdoors versus the inescapable exposure of being displaced. Again, we were telling this story from a child’s point of view, so we needed the childlike abandon and fun to act as a counterpoint to the looming loss of innocence and reluctant responsibility that Amy will have to shoulder. So the different tones were vital for me.
Why did you decide to tell this story with a father as opposed to a mother?
It was a personal choice. Untested virtue is an idea that preoccupies me. You hope that in certain situations you’ll act a certain way, but until the situations arise, you really have no way of truly knowing. Deep down I was terrified of this if I was to become a dad. Frank, the dad in the film played by Tim, is doing the best he can, making decisions in very hard situations without a support network. However, his decisions are having a detrimental effect on the people he loves most. It’s a dark fear for me so I think that’s why it had to be a father. Ironically, two weeks before we started shooting this short, my wife and I found out she was pregnant with a little girl.
Given your on location shooting, how smooth was the production process?
Remarkably so. This was down to the brilliant, determined, upbeat crew. We spent a year and a bit finding the right location, a little idyll outside of Totnes called The Hillyfield which ticked a lot of boxes for look, flexibility and facilities. But it was bloody remote, so getting everyone there, fed and happy was the hardest bit. Our fantastic Producer Sarai Carson made sure that logistically it was (relatively) smooth sailing. We were also incredibly lucky with the weather, we had a month’s worth of climate variation across our 3 shooting days.
Tim, Justine and Lance are all fantastic in Bellmouth. I’m curious to know what it was like working with Tim though, given his stature as a filmmaker as well as an actor?
I was aware of Mr. Plester’s work as an actor first and it was only after I IMDb’d him before calling him up that I realised that I was about to speak to a multi-award-winning documentary director and filmmaker. I was wishing for the call to ring out to an answerphone message which he could ignore, but he picked up and we ended up having a two hour conversation about folk music, fatherhood and filmmaking.
Tim is very generous, down to earth and easy to talk to. It felt very collaborative and there was a shared language of ‘no-nonsense’ directing. Tim came up to me on the first day of filming and said, “Don’t be afraid to tell me exactly what you want, technically or dramatically, just tell me what you need and we’ll work it out”. I felt all the tension from the idea of directing another director dissipate.
There was a shared language of ‘no-nonsense’ directing.
What’s next for you?
I’ve recently completed another short, a comedy about a dog with Maddy Anholt, Scroobius Pip and 2AM films. I’d love to develop Bellmouth into something longer since there’s plenty more story to tell before and after. 2019 was mostly about spending it with our little girl Edie. My virtue is still, thankfully, untested. I’m still very much terrified.