It’s takes a real filmmaking mind to make a film like Man or Tree, Varun Raman and Tom Hancock’s (aka Parallel Madness) 16mm short comedy short. It doesn’t solely rely on an interesting conceit or superficially pleasing cinematography to sell itself. Rather, it’s a combination of all the elements that make up the art form; visuals, sound, texture and narrative. Raman and Hancock’s understanding of these aspects allows their brilliantly witty story of a tree which may (or may not be) a man hallucinating, to come together cohesively in a charming, well-crafted and succinct manner that’s just a joy to watch. DN spoke with the co-directors in anticipation of Man or Tree arriving online today to learn more about the true story their short is based on, the metaphysical qualities of 16mm film, and their loose and open-ended ethos that guided them through the filmmaking process.
Man or Tree is delightfully simple and well-executed. How did you both develop the concept for it?
After our last film Transmission we spent a lot of time writing short scripts for film fund applications and getting no interest whatsoever, at least the writing practice was useful. More importantly, we began screening short films for film festivals we were alumni at. It was a great insight into the mindset of a screener. The experience really highlighted on a technical and taste level, how certain shorts work and others don’t. Another lesson was that comedy shorts and short shorts tend to be a programmer’s dream.
Also, considering Transmission was quite long, dark, strange, not necessarily direct in terms of its narrative, and it was refined and formalist in aesthetic execution, where it required a bigger budget, lots of preparation, planning, pre-production, paranoia, storyboards, animatics, etc., we wanted to make something that felt like the opposite in its approach. Something fun, loose, more light-hearted, much shorter, experimental and more about process, something that felt like a bit of a risk, and of course something that would cost next to nothing to make. We had a few scripts we were considering but Man or Tree checked all those boxes. It was also by far the most economical and unique. It came from a place of wanting to satisfy ourselves.
It sounded like an absolutely awful idea on paper that was destined to fail, which was exactly the lure.
Is the story based on a real-life experience? As in, have either of you ever experienced a mental state where you thought you were a tree?
It is based on a true story, a salvia trip a friend recounted to us, this three minute trip that felt like 300 years. He experienced all the seasons and witnessed civilisations rise and fall. He said he really enjoyed it at first but then it felt like it was going on forever, so he tried to pull his roots out of the ground, only to suddenly yank himself back into reality, standing up in his living room, with his arms above his head like branches. We thought this was so funny that over the years we had told a few people and they always really enjoyed it. So after retelling it one summer’s day BBQ, it struck us that maybe we could pull it off, or see what happened if we tried.
It sounded like an absolutely awful idea on paper that was destined to fail, which was exactly the lure. Instead of again being overzealous with storyboards and animatics, we liked the idea of adopting a completely different approach to making a film, and testing ourselves and our intuition, trying to capture something that was alive and subject to change throughout the whole filmmaking process. What also really drew us to it was seeing if we could make a narrative only using shots of nature and voiceover, bringing the seemingly inanimate to life and making it feel kinetic and entertaining, only using camera plot, editing, sound and a narrative anchored by essentially a monologue.
Like our last film Transmission, we love the limitation of only having one location and seeing if we can find an inventive way to maximise it and totally explore it, without ever letting it get boring or too familiar. With Man or Tree, it is structured mostly around quite basic, classic lines of action. We even had an over the shoulder shot (over the branch) that we were considering but quickly discovered that we didn’t have the lenses to make it work!
Given that freeform nature of the shoot, was there anything you were able to plan beforehand? The script, for example?
There wasn’t necessarily a script, but more vague visual scenarios and lines of dialogue we would want to record. Figuring out what the conflict was in this jokey premise was the main trick in giving the film a compelling dynamic. Our approach was simple, which was to make the man/tree desperate and confused and to give him the simple goal of wanting to not be a tree and trying to get out of this predicament by any means necessary.
We liked the idea of adopting a completely different approach to making a film, trying to capture something that was alive and subject to change throughout the whole filmmaking process.
After that, it was the fun task of thinking of every funny way he might attempt that and scale the conflict up in desperation and ridiculousness. After that, we needed to plateau again to make room again for escalation. This presented itself as the perfect moment to create a sense of frustration, with a lot of time passing. In this segment, the man/tree becomes ponderous and philosophical and starts to question his existence. Then the ‘big reveal’ happens and we ramp back up to hysteria and helplessness. The original ‘script’ was twelve pages long. But knowing it was a comedy and the dialogue would be fast and overlapping, we knew we could cut it down to something much shorter.
Slight spoilery question, when did the character of Rick come into play?
Rick’s scene was a late addition, though he was always mentioned in the monologue early on. We knew we needed a satisfying call back for the last act, and especially one which would offer something like a paradigm shift or at least another layer, especially one that would change the visuals again, but in a different way to the trip. So finally being able to talk with someone, yet to no avail, made sense. When we finally found the location and saw this funny little tree nearby we pretty much immediately said “That’s Rick”.
How did you find location scouting for the perfect tree? There’s a fair amount to choose from!
We location scouted in the summer of 2019. We required the following from the location: A great tree, with a great face, and interesting roots, on top of a small hill, so we had the ability to shoot at it from a low angle. Secondly, a much larger hill nearby to have a vantage point where we could shoot the tree from a high angle. Thirdly, other big trees and things nearby for man/tree to interact with. And finally to be no more than an hour away from where we lived in Manchester. And for the location to be relatively accessible for vehicles. In the end we found Bickerton Hill, in Cheshire. Given Cheshire is pretty much a flood plain, it felt like being on a mountain. And as usual, it was one of the last locations on the list and very hard to find.
What drew you to use the grainy texture of 16mm film for the cinematography of Man or Tree?
We always knew we wanted to shoot on 16mm film because the subject was so metaphysical. Film gives a nostalgic, dreamlike feel yet also picks up light and colour up so accurately, the footage ends up coming alive in the colour grade. It also has an element of the non-deliberate, it’s exciting to know we can’t predict exactly how something will turn out until after it’s been processed.
For a crazy shoot on film, we knew we needed a DoP with plenty of experience. The kind of person who would be up for hanging out all day on some hill shooting some stupid tree film with just four other people getting rained on and trying to make fauna look whacky. We knew of Jamie Harding from our time in Bristol through a director friend, Theo Watkins, who he’s worked with quite a lot and we liked his approach. Theo magnificently put us in touch with him almost immediately and we all clicked pretty much straight away.
What equipment did Jamie shoot on? I’m assuming you needed something not too cumbersome given the somewhat remoteness of the shoot.
Jamie had an Arriflex 16 SR3 which was very handy, though we did need to rent a couple of lenses and bits and bobs from the always gorgeous, understanding and wonderful people at Panavision, Manchester. We needed a long zoom lens (Canon 10mm-150mm) and obviously a big ol’ fish eye sort of thing to poke in places and warp (4mm Optex). With those two, and a can-do attitude, we went up the hill not knowing how we were going to create footage for the trip sequences but being certain we’d end up with something better than we ever expected and have fun doing it, which we always strive for as much as anything else. We shot the film in August 2019.
We always knew we wanted to shoot on 16mm film because the subject was so metaphysical.
Who else did you work with, both technically and performance-wise, to bring the film together in post?
Our Editor Darrin Brading put together an assembly edit of the best footage along with subtitles of the preliminary dialogue for the script so that the actors could get an idea about what the audience was going to be getting. For the voice of the man/tree part, Daniel Campbell was an obvious choice for us. He’s probably the most passionate, animated guy we know and he has an absolutely wonderful voice, him being Scottish and the tree being a Scots Pine was almost too perfect a casting decision. Michael Shon, who was in Transmission, always helps us out and knows Dan well, so he was up for voicing Rick. They’ve played together in our previous shorts, are emotionally intuitive and thoughtful actors, and are up for everything, always full of questions and insights, and ready to put their minds and bodies on the line. Seb Bruen, our sound designer oversaw the voice recordings, so having him there as well made that whole process a total blast.
Was it a challenge to match the dialogue with the footage you captured given that the performances, I imagine, would’ve offered new moments of inspiration during their recordings?
Possibly the hardest aspect of making the film was cutting together the monologue. Dan did such an incredible job and gave us so many options, that we couldn’t help ourselves but sometimes end up constructing a sentence from four or five different takes to make something that would really sing because the monologue is almost a bit of a song for us, its rhythm dictates the pace and its pitch denotes the tone. We ended up making a huge excel document to make sense of what takes we wanted to use and sent it over to Darrin to make sense of.
Given the number of visual overlays as well, Man or Tree is made up of a lot of clips. And as with any edit, every minor change or choice has a reverberating effect… we’re so happy we had Darrin tackling that with us, he’s a trooper that will go to those mad places you need an editor to. So having the editor Mark Towns, who worked on Censor and Saint Maud, award us Best Editing at Exit 6 was a real high moment.
The monologue is almost a bit of a song for us, it’s rhythm dictates the pace and it’s pitch denotes the tone.
Man or Tree is a great example of a film which can seem simple on the surface but shows the great level of work and commitment that is required to make an excellent short. Is there anyone else you’d like to shoutout for their work on this?
Post was a waiting game. We had great people lined up but all with jam-packed commitments: Dan Garden as colourist; Morgan Beringer on VFX; and Seb Bruen and his team sound designing, whilst he also oversaw the score with his new outfit, Three Peaks Music. This was all done remotely mainly over January to March 2021, just in time to submit for the three premieres we had targeted from the beginning: Fantasia (World), Fantastic Fest (US) and Encounters (UK).
And lastly, is there anything you can tease us with in regards to future projects?
Whilst we were going through the slow process of post, we finished a TV Pilot Rubbernecker which was a finalist in the WeScreenplay TV Contest, Nantucket Film Festival’s Screenplay Competition and also Runner-up in Roadmap Writers’ Jumpstart Writing Competition. We also aim to have a one hour horror/social satire pilot finished this summer and a couple of 30 minute comedy scripts by the end of the year. After that, we’ll see what’s up and whether another worthwhile short idea comes to us. We’ll take the money if anyone’s offering!