DN first caught From A Strange Land, Caroline’s Steinbeis’ joyful comedy drama about finding shared ground, at The Shortest Nights in 2021. Back then the film grabbed us as a work which balanced a light and playful tone with a thematic interest in how different perspectives can converge to find a commonality. It’s about a curious neighbour who visits a family who’ve recently moved into her street but when she arrives in their home she’s given a most unusual greeting. Echoing the work of Richard Curtis, Steinbeis brings a typically British sensibility to the humour in her debut short, something which is always a pleasure to watch when done as deftly as it is here. DN is delighted to premiere From A Strange Land film on our pages today alongside a deep dive with Steinbeis on her journey from theatre to film, the filmmaking lessons she learnt on set, and the political questions that underpin her playful story.
From A Strange Land is a great example of a film which is light in tone yet asks some probing questions. What was the creative seed for it as a film?
The seed for this film had been in my head for a very long time: what happens when two worlds smash into each other and a line is irredeemably crossed? Where do we go from here? Can we get past ourselves and rebuild bridges, especially if that means confronting our own shadows?
Underneath this comic story sit all sorts of political questions.
From A Strange Land has a very simple and innocent story structure: a neighbour oversteps the lines and sees something that compromises both herself as well as the other party. Underneath this comic story sits all sorts of political questions for me. I was glad to be able to express these in such a light and buoyant way here.
You’re working history is in theatre. What motivated you to take the leap into short film directing?
I have had a long career as a theatre director and was waiting for the chance to make this short. When the first Covid lockdown happened and my work on stage disappeared, I knew I had no excuses left. Fortunately, I found Georgina French and her production company French Fancy Productions. With her on board everything suddenly became very real. We mounted the project in three short months. As so many projects had come to a halt, we were able to secure an amazing team of creatives. I wanted to aim as high as we could to make this project the best version of itself possible.
What were some of the main lessons in filmmaking you learnt through creating this short?
Working to a deadline is the best motivator for me. Once our location had been confirmed I storyboarded the film. Little did I realise just how essential this would be to us all, the drawings became our bible for the days of shooting. Our shot lists and the whole infrastructure were based on them. This aspect of filmmaking is so very different from making shows for the stage and I found this level of engagement with each frame hugely satisfying.
How did that manifest itself on set? And what were you able to bring from your background as a theatre director?
A lot of people had told me that the transition from stage to screen is fraught with gaps in technical knowledge for directors and that shooting days can be very exposing so I chose to be humble and not try and assert my ego on set, not to pretend I knew more than I did. Instead, I made a point of surrounding myself with people who would be willing to teach me, to answer my questions and show me what would be possible. This way of collaborating allowed me to get out of my own way, to focus on what I do best, which is to work with actors and let the team around me contribute in their way. Our DoP Vanessa Whyte was clear and direct in her communication, and she brought a fantastic team with her. I felt very lucky to have so much generosity of spirit around me.
And what was the process like of working with your actors? It’s such a performance-centred film.
Our actors made life very easy for me on the day. Deborah Findlay, Amanda Abbington and Matthew Needham are all amazing people who threw themselves into this story with so much heart and so much energy. Working with kids however, can complicate things, and bringing my own son onto the set took this aspect to the next level. Being a mother as well as a director on set raised my levels of tension for sure. And equally, I knew that I would be able to ensure a relaxed and safe atmosphere, to help us find that buoyancy that we needed to communicate.
I made a point of surrounding myself with people who would be willing to teach me, to answer my questions and show me what would be possible.
As two storytelling mediums, what would you say are the main differences between theatre and film?
How we tell stories in the theatre versus how we tell stories on film became an obsession for me. When I make shows, the whole process is geared towards performances in front of an audience, getting actors to get stories into their muscle memory to be able to recreate the same story night after night. In film everything is about capturing that one performance. But the process keeps developing from here, the shoot is about gathering your raw materials; it’s the edit where it all happens.
Was there anything you learned during the editing phase of post-production?
Our Editor Rebecca Lloyd is a master of assembly and of crystallising how story works. She taught me an enormous amount about the order of images to land meaning. She also taught me to embed music in the texture of the film; something she had learned from Andrea Arnold and Phyllida Lloyd. Using the Beethoven symphony as our engine felt like a huge bit of luck to me. And her solution to have it play through a radio enabled me to make a point about how the music is about coming together, about putting differences aside and recognising that we are all one. It is also the European anthem. In the light of Brexit that felt doubly important to me.
What’s next for you? More theatre work or another short film?
I am planning on making another short this year about male friendships when entering into fatherhood. Then I hope to concentrate on making more work for stage and screen alongside each other. The cross-over is hard to achieve, I feel like all these worlds need to be fully invested in to progress any projects, but I would hate to let either one of them go. As long as I can keep telling great stories, I will be happy, that much is certain.