It’s great to see Aneil Karia – whose previous shorts Work and Beat both featured prominently in our annual Reading & Leeds Cinema Tent screenings – join us on DN with one of his most potent projects yet, a striking drama that taps into the divisive hostilities so keenly felt by marginalised communities across the UK. It also sees him team up with Riz Ahmed who has likewise been on a roll in the past few years with films such as The Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli but it might be with The Long Goodbye that he’s crafted one of his most powerful performances to date, playing a young man at the centre of a family celebration that turns deeply violent when a far-right militia comes knocking at the door. Playing on the anxieties of every non-white person in a country which has increasingly normalised anti-immigration rhetoric, The Long Goodbye, created in conjunction with Ahmed’s eponymous album about his break-up with Britain, is a disturbing exploration of a country that has given into its darkest impulses. Winner of the BIFA for Best British Short in 2020 and Best Short at Raindance Film Festival 2020, it is now even on the radar of the Academy Awards. After a screening of the film in L.A., Karia joined us to talk about bringing his deepest fears to life, creating a sense of naturalist calm before the storm and his improvisatory approach to scene construction.
How did you first get in touch with Riz Ahmed?
He got in touch with me actually. We were introduced shortly before by Yann Demange, who I met when I was doing Top Boy. Shortly afterwards, Riz got in touch saying that he was interested in making a film project with me. He wanted it to come from a personal place. It was a dream experience really because the brief was open. Riz is an incredibly talented actor so you know you have that, and there wasn’t too much pressure on the process. It was just a series of conversations over cups of tea to see what we wanted to make this film about. We talked about what had frustrated us and how we felt about the planet and ourselves.
I basically came up with a few logline-type ideas on the back of a napkin. There were three or four of them and one clicked and became the bare bones of what this film became essentially. It seemed to be exorcising some kind of deep fear within us about feeling completely unwelcome in your own country. It’s kind of a latent anxiety that sits somewhere in your chest about where things could go.
Do you think these feelings have become more prominent under the wake of Brexit and the increasingly harsh policies of the current government?
I think so. I’m not naive enough to think that everything was fine and then Brexit came along and spoiled everything. It was clearly not that straightforward. What seems to have happened in the past decade is this normalisation of openly xenophobic and racist rhetoric. I think it felt a bit less chilling when people were still afraid to say things out loud and that was the domain of the fringe far-right. The way that it has pervaded mainstream conversation and politics is quite chilling and anxiety-inducing.
Riz talks in the monologue at the end about how his family came from India but they were Muslims and had to come over due to Partition. So there was literally no home for them there. How much do you think English people just do not know their history very well?
Yeah, it’s amazing how vast the blind spots are in our sense of history. What happened in Partition is just this abstract word for the vast majority of British people, yet it was a stain on our history. The amount of pain and death and displacement it caused is kind of incalculable. And not only are we unaware of it, we’re resentful of the communities that came over as a result of it. We seem to be taught such a narrow and skewed realm of history as children in the UK and grow up having this blinkered and ignorant view of history and our mistreatment of many people.
What seems to have happened in the past decade is this normalisation of openly xenophobic and racist rhetoric.
What makes this film very shocking and work very well for me is that this violence intrudes upon a very traditional, naturalist family get-together. I’d love to know how you approached this opening sequence and how you work with actors in these scenes?
It was really important that we were totally embedded into the reality and it didn’t feel cranked up or dialled up. The point wasn’t for it to feel simply loving or hilarious either; it was meant to be understatement. It was about getting the viewer to just live and breathe in this home and fully buy into it in a very short space of time. It was about leaning completely into naturalism and trying to recreate a mundane reality. I think that tonal shift into something more heightened and extreme was only going to come off if you were fully into that family and home and believing it. These tonal shifts were definitely the most intimidating part of making this film.
We were lucky to work with such great British-Asian actors. We cast with the help of Shaheen Baig, and the casting process was very improvisation-based. We didn’t have a traditional script. What I had written was this Excel document — which is how I work — with scene descriptions. What we have are quite carefully-crafted scene parameters so we know what’s happening in a scene or what a character is doing, but we’re keeping enough openness, flexibility, and space for realness and unpredictability to allow these idiosyncrasies to come through. And I think that’s a really hard thing to do. The temptation with improvisation can be that it’s just filling space with beautiful dialogue. Whereas I think it’s about sitting in it. It was about finding people who could trust themselves to do it.
How did you want to frame this change of mood so it’s more subtle? You have the foreshadowing on the television and you see these people through the window, but it feels like it happens organically as opposed to suddenly appearing as a surprise…
Yeah. I really like this idea of hearing and seeing something through the window. I’ve lived in all sorts of flat-shares in really hectic parts of London and I’ve always been fascinated to watch the world like that. I thought there was something that could be really ominous and foreboding about catching this glimpse of something or just this audio outside that you couldn’t quite place at first. It felt like a good instinct to get this kind of glimpse of something rather than life, life, life then bang: the door is broken into.
These tonal shifts were definitely the most intimidating part of making this film.
Does this mean that you shot a lot of footage and then put it together in the edit? Or was it mostly all there already?
The edit was really challenging because we didn’t have traditional coverage. It was more structured than it sounds because we would already have the shape of a scene. The first take would be very raw and unrefined, but it would be too long. Then I’d have conversations to get the actors’ feedback on what was working for them. Then you just kind of refine it into a leaner and leaner scene each time you take. Amanda James, the editor, played this massively integral part in finding that rhythm and flow to make it all the more rich and satisfying.
Do you look at these first takes on a monitor and playback then think where you could then go in subsequent takes? And would you also have a script supervisor writing down improvised lines and the ones you wanted to keep in the next take?
That is a really good idea: it sounds sane, and less kind of head-fuck but I don’t do that. I have a little scrap of paper and a pen and I write stuff down as the tape is happening and focus incredibly hard on the monitor while it’s happening. Then I just immediately talk to them. Watching them back would be nice, but we didn’t have that luxury of time.
How much time was it?
Riz and I started talking about the film in November and ended up shooting just five or six weeks later. For various reasons, I needed to shoot before Christmas so there was definitely quite a pacy development and pre-production period! We shot for two days. Just to make it extra stressful, these were the two shortest days of the year! We had about six and a half hours of light per day so were moving pretty quick. The editing period was more respectable, thankfully. I think we spent about 2-3 weeks getting the cut bang on.
What was your technical set-up in order to capture both a sense of confusion and then the more measured final shot?
We used a very, very stripped back Alexa Mini with Zeiss super speed lenses. This gave Cinematographer Stuart Bentley the freedom we were after in terms of being instinctive and responsive to the performances.
The film is presented by WeTransfer, what was their involvement in the project?
WeTransfer funded the project for their platform WePresent, the editorial platform of WeTransfer. Creatively though, they were extremely trusting and really left us to it. I think it is so bold of them artistically to let filmmakers do their thing and to champion something like this which deals with such vital but provocative themes.
There is so much about the film that feels intrinsically British but it also seems to transcend that which is great.
I think exposure of my earlier short films at festivals is such an important part of a filmmaker’s journey. As we all know, short films don’t just get seen, they don’t all go on BBC One at 9pm or whatever. They need support. They need the love of the film community to get them seen and champion them. I really love what Directors Notes does at festivals. The festival world can seem a little bit exclusive sometimes, but these ones take them into different, more public spaces. People stumbling into a tent and having these experiences is just a really nice idea.
So your film has won shortlisted festivals and prizes such as Best Short at Raindance and the BIFA in 2020, putting you in Oscar contention. What does that feel like to be seen more in the USA?
We had a screening here last night in LA. It felt like such a privilege to be playing in the cultural home of cinema. It’s interesting watching it in that context because there is so much about the film that feels intrinsically British but it also seems to transcend that which is great. Then winning these Oscar-qualifying prizes is fantastic. God knows what happens beyond that, but even the accolades it has had so far, particularly in the Zoom lockdown age, where you’re not really engaging with human beings, have been really meaningful for us.
What are you working on next? Ben Whishaw – who you’ve worked with before on Surge and Beat – and Riz Ahmed in the same film would be great together!
You know what, they really would actually. I haven’t considered that. Maybe I should make that… For the moment, I’m working on two features. One is early days, just trying to figure it out. The other one is actually with Riz and we’re on the script stage. I would love to make it in the next year. More immediately, I’m about to start on a new TV drama. It’s a UK-US co-production shooting in UK in January.