A nominee for BIFA’s Best British Short Award, coming-of-age drama Pommel from Writer/Director Paris Zarcilla (last seen on DN here) takes us inside the intense world of competitive gymnastics and the tumultuous relationship of two young east Asian brothers as they vie for validation at the gym and at home. A semi-autobiographical film deeply informed by Zarcilla’s childhood experiences, we asked the London-based writer/director to tell us how he beat the odds to bring this sibling rivalry coming-of-age drama to screen despite the fact that, “On the probability scale, this film shouldn’t exist”.
In some ways, Pommel has been a film in the making since the day I left gymnastics 15 years ago. Before I had any real direction in life, before I knew I wanted to be a storyteller, from a young age I was trained in gymnastics and ballet with my older brother. It was my life (reluctantly). I trained six days a week and I did this intensely for 7 years. My brother was a very talented and driven gymnast but he was deeply troubled by the mountainous expectations of my aggressive east Asian dad. This had a knock-on effect in two ways: he won every competition he competed in but also passed on the pressure to me. He hated me for many reasons I didn’t understand and with that hate, he trained me into a better gymnast. The basis of which largely shaped this film. Importantly, it’s a story and perspective from worlds that have rarely been seen (if at all); Competitive British Gymnastics and British East Asian youths.
On the probability scale, this film shouldn’t exist. It was incredibly difficult from start to finish. No one seemed interested to fund this story and I didn’t think it would ever get made. After a year of looking for funding and failing I went to Singapore to visit family. I was at a party and was introduced to an exec producer. I was drunk and I had nothing to lose so I pitched her the idea. She gave me her email and told me that if I still remembered it in the morning to send her the script. I went home early, tidied the script and sent it over. She read it, loved it, and put up half the money to fund it. My producer at the time applied to Creative England for funding and nine months later (!) Jessica Loveland – who at the time was an exec at Creative England, now Head of BFI Network – said she loved the script and committed to the other half. We were set to go! But of course we needed to find our cast.
Casting was excruciating. It was an 18 month process scouring the country with a very specific casting call. We needed two British east Asian kids, between 12-14 years who were skilled gymnasts AND could act. There were only two gymnasts that fit the casting in the entire country and they weren’t actors, Micheal Tang (13) and Willliam Tang (11). If they didn’t work, the film was over. Coincidentally, they aren’t brothers but share the same surname. Micheal is from Wales and William from Camden, London
We needed two British east Asian kids, between 12-14 years who were skilled gymnasts AND could act.
Since Micheal and William were non-actors it was crucial to workshop them as much as possible before production. We had three sessions which is not a lot at all but it gave me the time to work through the emotional landscape of the script and get them to connect to the characters as much as possible. We spoke about their lives and what recognition meant to them as gymnasts, sibling rivalry, loss and love. Micheal who plays Isaac, understood a lot of that, especially coming from a single-parent background and recently losing his dog. William, however, could only relate to loss from Dobby, the house elf dying in the Harry Potter books. Bless him!
Based on these workshops, it allowed me to understand how best to give direction to them. I created a number system from 1-8 that scaled their emotional range. i.e. Sad (1) to Devastated (8). Being a former gymnast myself also helped us to connect on a deeper level. They actually didn’t believe me at first and made me prove it by asking me to hold a handstand! Luckily, I managed to pull it off which really helped seal the deal!
Production was 5 days long and it was some of the most challenging days of my life. Seeing scenes that are based on my real life experiences play out in front of me was incredibly strange and emotionally draining. I almost had a panic attack during one of the scenes but that’s a testament to how this amazing cast had brought certain elements to life.
It was also tricky managing the boys’ energy levels. This is a very character action driven drama that literally required their physical, mental and emotional strength which is not easy for anyone, especially for these kids. But being gymnasts, they were used to sustaining high levels of output. This would have been impossible for an actor of that age.
We shot on the Alexa mini at 3.5k and lensed the film with Hawk vintage anamorphics. My DP, Aaron Rogers and I had to work out how best to shoot a gym which had such a huge depth and width. There aren’t many gymnastics films out there so our references were very limited. But I gave him Darius Khondji and Jeff Cronenweth as jumping off points. We approached our cinema with economy. We asked ourselves how we could tell this in as few shots as possible. He did such a brilliant job creating a sense of isolation and oppressiveness in both the house and the gym using heavy contrast in all his compositions. His approach was story first, image second. AND THAT is what I expect from every DP.
We asked ourselves how we could tell this in as few shots as possible.
Once the trauma of production was over, I was blessed to find and work with double BAFTA-nominated editor, Sarah Brewerton. The pace and rhythm she created for this film is perfect. She just instinctively knew how to handle the nuance of each performance. In my opinion, she made this film. Fortuitously, her husband – Andy Dragazis – who worked downstairs from her was introduced to me when our music dude dropped out. Andy became our music composer and created a stunning piece of music that used a live violinist and cellist to create that visceral energy during the training scenes. Tim Smith from Electric Collective provided a beautiful grade. We couldn’t afford to shoot on film but Tim crafted us a look that used a range of different Kodak grains and worked to complement Aaron’s cinematography.
In a nutshell that’s the story of making Pommel! This is no sweeping epic. It’s a deeply personal story about two brothers who are both desperately seeking love and recognition in a loveless environment but above all else, it’s about being loved. Something, I think we all need in these times.
P.S It’s extremely important to note that my brother and I are best buddies and we love each other very much! He DID NOT try to kill me.
Pommel 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.