London-based filmmaker Simon K Matthews (last seen on DN here) returns to our pages today with another great comedy short, this time exploring the misplaced portentousness of the acting profession. Matthews is joined by his regular collaborators Amar Chadha Patel and Elena Saurel, who star as a pair of actors entering a mental, physical and emotional dick-swinging contest with one another in an effort to prove whose acting credentials are the most impressive. We first highlighted the film as one of our The Shortest Nights picks earlier in the year and it hasn’t left our minds since, which is a credit to its acerbic distillation of career performativity. And so unsurprisingly we’re delighted to premiere Behind The Mask on DN today and were lucky enough to join Matthews, Patel and Saurel in conversation to discuss the benefits they found in collaborating as a trio, the film’s intentionally pretentious black & white cinematography and their shared desire to explore the essence of toxicity within the entertainment industry.
Behind the Mask is a hilarious deconstruction of the showreel process. Tell me about the development of the initial concept?
Amar Chadha Patel: Simon mentioned that he wanted to direct a series of shorts, all-around one to two minutes, written by different people. He initially asked me for use of one of my stupid songs and I said I’d just write something bespoke and then I didn’t. Elena called me a few days later and said “Simon’s asked me to write a short film” and would I like to collaborate? I said yes. Magic. Also, personally, my main drive was to write something with as much ‘acting’ in it as possible because I’m a thirsty actor and I wanted it for my showreel. I think Elena agreed and then we were both so disgusted with ourselves for using that as a jumping-off point for art, that we made it about actors being terrible because we are. Then about three weeks later we delivered him a twelve page long film about actors being the worst. He was understandably perturbed but agreed to make it and also said, after we’d written it, to “make it about toxic masculinity” and I think Elena and I said, “…isn’t everything?” So we tweaked a couple of lines and boom.
For me, this film was ultimately a critique of the empty mythology behind filmmaking and acting.
Simon K Matthews: I was advised to make a narratively driven straight-down-the-line sort of short as my previous work leans into absurd a little too much, that obviously didn’t go to plan!
Elena Saurel: I always thought the initial request from Simon was to write something inspired by toxic masculinity… But yes, Amar and I met up at a very serious coffee shop and started making fun of those “Actor on Actor” interviews they do for awards season, probably out of our own personal jealousy for not being nominated for anything, and based on that we very quickly came up with this ridiculous concept. Initially, the short was going to end with Gandalf wizard zapping Sir Ian McKellen but Simon pointed out that it needed some context and suggested we add some behind the scenes stuff to ground it a bit.
I feel like the black and white cinematography feeds into that false grandeur too. Was that the thought process behind it?
ACP: Well, for me, this film was ultimately a critique of the empty mythology behind filmmaking and acting and so had to be pretentious. Nothing more pretentious than a black and white film.
SM: What he said but I’ll try and sound more pretentious. We wanted to capture the essence of toxicity within the entertainment industry on film even though we didn’t actually shoot on film also I think there’s a metaphor of abandonment around the six-minute mark.
ES: Because black and white movies are classy and this short film is sassy and classy.
What kit did you use to achieve the look you were after?
ACP: Cameras, some lights? Adobe Premiere. Shutter stock lightning effect… Simon?
SM: We shot it on an Arri Alexa with a bunch of prime lenses and then switched to a zoom lens for the documentary element. We tried to keep the camera movement in keeping with the film so as it becomes more manic and absurd so did the camera. Amar cut the film on Adobe premiere pro and we did the budgets in a thing called Microsoft Excel, it’s a super expensive film software.
ES: The men have already answered this question but failed to mention Talcum Powder!
Did working as a trio give you plenty of scope when it came to getting production off the ground alongside sourcing the cast and crew?
ACP: Elena and I spent a relatively short but economical time tweaking the script and then rehearsing it at my place because we knew on the day that we wouldn’t have time to mess around, so we were pretty much off book in a theatre sense by the shoot day. Then having all worked in the film industry for a fair few years, we spent every waking second trying to reel in every possible favour we were owed, as well as promising many ourselves to get it off the ground. Lots of planning meetings involving rounds of coffee that then became beer. That’s the good thing about being a filmmaker in Hackney. You can start the day at 9am in a coffee shop and graduate to a pub by 2:30 pm.
We wanted to capture the essence of toxicity within the entertainment industry.
SM: It was a very quick process and that’s the best thing about making films with friends as you can cut through the crap and just get it done but obviously that comes with a financial and emotional cost. We also called in favours where we could and somehow we got Tom Turley on board who is a super experienced DOP and a jolly nice bloke. I still find it funny that we had so many talented actors who turned up, just riffed for a short while and then left thinking “What the hell was that?” and, oh yeah, it stars Jemma Moore from Host, and I did email Amar asking if he could recut the whole film putting her front and centre. He declined.
ES: We called in a lot of favours from very talented peers and friends and honestly we were very lucky that everyone was willing to get involved. Simon and Amar meticulously planned the shot list because, as Amar mentioned we only had one day to shoot twelve pages with some complicated setups.
Likewiase, how did you delineate the various roles required to bring the project to fruition?
ACP: From my memory, we all co-produced once the script was locked and focused on our delegated, unpaid duties with reverence and dedication that should be celebrated on a national level. Simon took care of the visuals, Elena and I focused on a lot of the art dept, costume and location bits, but it was a pretty fluid process. I think we were all so dedicated to getting it down the way we wanted that we just problem solved like heroes. That’s all pre-production really is, endless problem solving and promising people “exposure”.
SM: We’ve collaborated before a fair few times, once on a commercial and a few times on previous shorts so we already have an inbuilt shorthand with one another and importantly trust. I trust them as actors and I think they trust me as a director or at least someone to buy a beer or two.
We had a budget of about £3k for the production including post-production for a one day shoot which we spent happily. Our biggest cost was kit and location which was 60% of that budget the rest was feeding people well. We obviously spent more money on festivals to justify the film’s existence.
ES: Life started imitating art. Simon and Amar would panic, then talk at each other faster and faster while I got a beard glued to my face. Investing time and our own money meant we couldn’t back out. Plus having all worked together many times before meant we already had a good working dynamic. We also really wanted to make this film so it had to get done.
Amar, as mentioned you cut the film, how did you find that after being so close to its inception? And, also, could you talk about the score? There’s definitely some influence from Birdman going on there.
ACP: I masterminded a fair amount of the post. I was always going to cut it and so once Elena and I had written the story in essence, I finalised the screenplay and I’ve always written with an edit in mind so I knew pretty much exactly how it would cut. I give full credit to Simon and Elena for turning up to offline edits and telling me to cut out everything I thought was hilarious that they assured me was not and that I would forget by the second viewing and we got it down to a tidy ten plus minutes within a couple of weeks I believe!
The entire film was making a mockery out of the ‘short film for showreel’ process.
The score was never really discussed much during prep and shooting but I mentioned occasionally that to go full pretentious, we should try and do a Birdman-style score but tweak it to be more symbiotic with the dialogue. This was influenced by a guy who drums along to scripted videos called David Dockery, particularly this one. The idea stuck and once we locked the edit I absconded to a barn in Amersham with my friend and genius music producer/engineer Peter Lyons and another friend Nicholas Owen, who drums in the band Pumarosa. We spent a day improvising and building tension and energy and then Peter and I did a few more music editing sessions to get it percussion perfect. We were then blessed to have the incredibly talented Holly Greig offer to grade and bring out the B&W power punch!
SM: Sometimes the best thing to do is get out of the way and that’s what I did bar the occasional note here and there. Amar is a phenomenal editor so that makes life easy, plus Holly is an exceptional colourist so that really adds production value and then you have the score which was just the icing on the cake.
ES: Amar pretty much did it all. He’s a very talented, handsome, clever young man and we love him very much. Also, he likes to do everything, we didn’t force him.
How did you find navigating a mostly online festival circuit with the film? I remember seeing the film as apart of The Shortest Nights early this year. It’s so great to be able to circle back round and learn about how you all put it together.
ACP: It kind of bombed, for three reasons. One, we name-checked and claimed it would get into all the festivals in the actual film, which was assumptive. Secondly, the entire film was making a mockery out of the ‘short film for showreel’ process and I don’t think anyone liked that. Thirdly, Covid. So actually, in hindsight, it did really well. We killed at the fringe and comedy festivals and I think maybe we got over twelve laurels? That’s pretty impressive. I’m not going into specifics about what those laurels were. Some were from my mum.
SM: I thought at the very least it would get me some meetings but turns out making a non-narrative Marmite film is not great for one’s career. But the fact that we thought making this film was a good idea and actually made it with our own money is something to admire or mock, I’m not sure which yet.
ES: I’m actually very happy with how well it’s done all things considered; COVID, smugness, other better films, but I personally think the film is awesome and very funny. I’m super impressed that we pulled it off and flattered that people want to watch it.
What do you all have coming up next, work-wise?
ACP: I’ve just finished writing a TV show about race and identity with another actor and Patel called Misha Patel. It’s a comedy exploration of identity politics in film and TV told through the eyes of an Asian man, who happens to be white. We’re shopping that around to production companies now and I’ve also somehow landed one of the lead roles in the new Disney+ Willow TV show.
SM: I’m splitting my time refreshing my inbox for a new commercial directing gig and trying to figure out the ‘next step’, so far I have: direct a down-the-line narrative drama short, rob a bank to make a feature, beg Patrick Stewart to adopt me so I can play the nepotism card or admit defeat in trying to turn comedy directing into a career and become a yoga teacher?! Answers on a postcard, please.
ES: Here comes the shameless self promotion section… I directed my first solo thing. It’s an informative comedy documentary series starring my 78 year old father. The series is currently doing the festival circuit, so that’s fun. Acting-wise I just finished filming the second season of HBO|BBC Industry and I’m currently filming a Disney Adventure movie. I will also be filming the second season of Buffering, an ITV2 comedy at the start of next year.