Receiving its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021 this week is Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman’s Femme, a kinetic and intense thriller about a late-night encounter. The co-directors take an overtly masculine genre of film, which has produced white knuckle narratives such as Taxi Driver and Good Time, and twist it by putting a queer protagonist at its heart. The outcome is an acutely gripping short film with a clever statement on the deeply unsettling nature of overtly heterosexual spaces, all of which is told with bold and frenetic cinematic language. DN spoke with the directing duo about the creation of Femme, their aim to shift the perspective on a traditionally masculine film genre, and the shooting structure behind their volcanic finale.
Femme is hell of a ride, what inspired its conception?
We were talking about ‘heterophobia’, the idea that queer people sometimes feel uncomfortable, even intimidated, when placed in certain ‘heterosexual situations’, and how we were sick of feeling that way. That led to us thinking, there’s a thriller story in this. We’d just watched Good Time by the Safdie Brothers together, and we thought, something like this, but with us in it, a hyper-masculine genre that has traditionally excluded the queer voice, and we were excited by the idea of putting a gay protagonist squarely at the centre of it.
I can see that influence for sure, and similar to their work it’s such an intense rollercoaster narratively, how did you work to establish the running tension that courses through the film?
From the script stage, we really just went from a guttural response – what would terrify us if we were in this situation? We had a clear vision of how we wanted to feel at each point in the film and worked really hard at tightly layering in escalating thriller elements. In the run up to production we poured over each moment again and again and asked the question: what is creating the tension in this moment? How do we make sure we’re telling that story clearly?
A hyper-masculine genre that has traditionally excluded the queer voice and we were excited by the idea of putting a gay protagonist squarely at the centre of it.
In terms of cinematography, we committed to hand-held shots that kept close to the protagonist Jordan’s POV, so that we’re always in it with him, guessing at the unknown behind each corner with him, discovering each new danger when he does. We also committed to a really intense, saturated palette, which we thought would feel really joyous in the club, but really stressful later on in the film.
With one notable exception, almost the entirety of the film is told from Jordan’s POV. We worked really hard with the editor to ensure that every cut increases our investment in his emotions. We went back and forth a lot with the composer and sound designer, to build a score and soundscape that would really place us in his head and take us on the exhilarating ride we wanted for the film.
How did you find working with Paapa Essiedu and Harris Dickinson, did they bring anything to the film that you didn’t expect?
They were a dream to work with. They’re both one-take-wonder kind of actors, and so each subsequent take just added to the embarrassment of riches we had in the edit. Both brought such astonishing interiority and range to their roles that gave the film a real emotional heft for us. We knew of their reputations before the shoot of course: Paapa is theatre royalty in the UK, and Harris is both an indie darling and a blockbuster star. But knowing that beforehand didn’t stop us from feeling awed and privileged watching masters of their craft at work. Paapa gave Jordan an almost paradoxical mix of nervousness and boldness that really made the ambition of the story work. The charisma and vulnerability that Harris brought to Wes was off the charts, which convinces us of course Jordan would walk into danger for him.
There’s a powerful narrative switch that occurs near the end of the film, how did you find the challenge of creating that moment and executing it on set?
We had already decided that we wanted lots of long takes throughout the film to ratchet up intensity, which had the added advantage of allowing Paapa to build up a pretty good sense of the character’s emotional journey. We also tried to shoot in sequence, so that Paapa could have a run-up to the moment, but Paapa’s ability to just jump right in at the top of each take was also amazing to watch. With such an intuitive and emotionally available actor like him, all we really needed to do was to chat lightly about each scene with him, and then stand back and marvel at what he brings. One challenge we did have was, because of the long takes and the emotional toll, we had to be very disciplined about not going for too many takes.
Could you walk us through the execution of that key action sequence? What’s it like to plan a sequence like that and what precautions did you have to take when filming it?
We scheduled as much rehearsal as time allowed. We actually went through the sequence ourselves physically, the both of us, a couple of friends, and a stopwatch, so scouting locations and writing it went hand-in-hand (which was really fun). We had also rehearsed the sequence with the DoP before the shoot, but then the day before she came into contact with someone with Covid and had to drop out, so basically we shot it with our new, brilliant DoP James Rhodes with only very little prep. Our Stunt Coordinator Ben Farry was also a stunt driver, which meant that the car behaved almost exactly how we wanted it to!
Because of the long takes and the emotional toll we had to be very disciplined about not going for too many takes.
Precautions: we warned residents before the shoot (who asked to be in the film!) and sealed off the area during. Because we see the car at various non-contiguous points in the one-shot sequence, we stationed runners with walkie-talkies at different points of the car’s journey to signal stop, wait, and go as required. We were also put on notice to look out for cats because many residents in the area had pet cats that like to roam…
What are the benefits of working as co-directors? Did you find that you both took specific sub-roles when it came to production?
We could lean on each other for intellectual and emotional support. We could play good cop / bad cop. We had our relative strengths, but we ended up taking turns doing everything! There were disagreements of course, but that meant that every decision was properly and thoroughly interrogated.
And last but not least, what can we expect from the two of you in the future?
As a duo, our main focus is writing a feature script based on the world of Femme.