Rob Price’s What Is Ian is the story of one man’s journey with meditation. Yet, instead of artisanal practices or new-age apps, he’s managed to find the ultimate form of relaxation through the comfort of his bath. Price’s short uses sound and image to conjure the character of Ian as he nestles into a deep form of disembodiment. In doing so, Ian existentially questions his presence, and slowly over the course of the film, the real reason for his need for mediation emerges. Marking Price’s short film debut, we caught up with the sound designer turned director to talk working with non-actors, minimalistic filmmaking and balancing multiple crew roles.
Where did the process of developing a story about this character begin?
As far as the film goes, I guess the first thing to mention is that it’s pretty much the first proper short film I’ve directed so it was a bit of an experimental process for me. I’ve done a lot of writing and co-directing in the past but this was my first time as the sole director. I work as a sound designer so I’d always been more comfortable telling the story with sound than with picture. So, the whole thing was a massive learning experience for me.
We devised a series of techniques to get him into that ‘deep place’.
The other first to mention is that Greg, who plays Ian, is a non-actor and this was his first time in front of camera. Kristina, my producer, ‘discovered’ him busking in the street (he plays sax) and invited him and his bandmate to play at a party, which is where I met him. When we were discussing casting I’d expressed that I’d like to go with a non-actor and Kristina suggested him. It was really an inspired call from her as that unlocked the whole film for me!
What inspired Ian’s narrative?
Lying in the bath with my ears underwater! I thought about how being underwater mutes the external world and allows you to journey into yourself and wanted to create a character who takes this to extremes. I wrote loads of different narratives based around that until I finally came to the idea we used for the film.
It’s pretty unique! How did you work with Greg on establishing Ian?
We convinced him to do it, and I’m really glad we did as he was so giving throughout the whole process. Myself and Greg had a series of meetings where we would meditate together and begin to explore these ideas. We devised a series of techniques to get him into that ‘deep place’ and we managed to create a series of images together that he could conjure in his mind to produce the different reactions we needed to see on screen.
The simplicity in the artistry is what struck me and it proves so effective with what Ian is going through. Did that reflect in the shoot?
We kept the shoot very intimate, there were very few crew members in total. Toby, our DP shot on an Alexa mini LF rigged on a jib above the bath. It was a really relaxed shoot to be honest. For the towel sections, Dalini, our art director, built a towel landscape which we then shot in a few different ways.
What made you decide to tell it in such a minimalistic way? Did you storyboard or was it created on set?
I wanted the film to have a hypnotic quality so it was important for me to have few images, held for a long time. The film is about a meditative process so it felt right to strip it back to the barest elements. I hoped that seeing Ian’s face for so long would cause us to almost disassociate from it. The sections in the bath were all storyboarded and even done to a timer, though with the towel sections, we were a lot more spontaneous in the way that we shot.
The sound design is so key to Ian’s story, how did you approach it?
I’m a sound designer by trade so I did all of the sound myself. I’d always had the idea that I wanted to create the sense of being inside the character’s body so I did a lot of experimentation with how to create that. A lot of placing contact microphones around the body and recording things underwater. For the towel sections I had been making little palettes of sound for a while so had a lot of material to work with when I got into post.
Was your post-production period affected by Covid?
We shot in February so we were in the early stages of post when Covid hit. We tried a bit of back and forth editing but in the end, just decided to wait for the end of the first lockdown before we finished it. As I did the sound design myself it was interesting trying to sit in both chairs at once, as the mixer and director.
The film is about a meditative process so it felt right to strip it back to the barest elements.
What will we see from you next?
I’m working on a few different sound design projects and am also in development for my next short. It’s about a woman who is approached by a strange man in a field, who tells her a disturbing story. I’m hoping to shoot it early next year.