Ben Pearce’s brilliant short film A Few Miles South tells the story of two arctic explorers trapped in a tent during a blizzard. But when one of them battles a strange addiction the other is faced with the decision of feeding his companion’s odd impulses or facing death outside. Pearce tells this story within a single location and with no dialogue which only serves to elevate the tension and claustrophobia between his characters. Without changing the environment too Pearce is able to create a feeling of disorientation which further accentuates the gallows humour of his character’s surreal behaviours. DN is excited to Premiere A Few Miles South on our pages today and is joined by Pearce for a conversation about the film’s speedy production, the ease of working with collaborators like Toby Jones and Ivanno Jeremiah, and the challenge of constructing the film’s central perplexing nature during post-production.
What drew you to tell this story of two arctic explorers on the edge of survival?
I wrote the script in an afternoon in May 2020. It was the collision of two ideas. Firstly, the true story of Matthew Henson and Robert Perry. Two arctic explorers known to be the first to reach the North Pole in 1909. Although Henson was the first of the two to cross the Pole, as a black man, his contribution was largely ignored until well after his death in 1955. Obsessed with cementing his own legacy and despite their twenty-year companionship, Peary effectively erased Henson’s contribution from history, focusing all the attention on himself.
Secondly, at the time of writing I was living in a flat above an alcoholic. Most days I’d watch people, friends and family, visit and provide him with an endless supply of alcohol. It was people’s ability to aid someone, they claim to love, in their relentless self-destruction that really interested me. Feeding a loved one’s addiction that you know is killing them.
Given that the film takes place in a single location and has no dialogue, were you able to get the short of the ground quickly? And How challenging was it to get Toby Jones and Ivanno Jeremiah on board?
The project came together quickly. We were shooting six weeks after I wrote it. Myself and the film’s brilliant Producer Diarmuid Hughes built a team in June and we shot it at end of July 2020. As the country was still in lockdown we cheekily thought that no actor could say they were busy. We decided to take a punt and try for our dream actors. We were so lucky to get them both, Toby Jones and Ivanno Jeremiah.
The production design of the tent is so detailed. What was your approach to set construction?
We convinced a closed theatre in Streatham to take up their seats and allow us to use the entire space as a sound stage. As the film had no dialogue the production design played a vital role in telling the story. Our Designer Soraya Gilanni did a fantastic job in creating the world, making it feel anchored in reality whilst also telling the story of the characters’ hunger, desperation and love for one another.
As the film had no dialogue the production design played a vital role in telling the story.
I have to ask how you executed the visual of the polar bear.
From previous jobs on set I had met a brilliant Puppeteer Robin Guiver who found us a life-size polar bear from the National Theatre. It was operated by three people and gave the character of the bear presence and scale.
How was the shoot and what was it like to collaborate with Toby and Ivanno on set?
We shot over three days. Mostly in chronological order. Simon Reay and his camera team shot on an Alexa Mini. With such an amazing cast, I felt my job was to really step back and let them bring the characters to life. Both Toby and Ivanno did such a fantastic job in telling the story and showing the humanity of the two characters.
A Few Miles South works because of the tension between Toby and Ivanno’s characters, coupled with the foreboding feeling of them running out of time due to the perilous nature of their situation. How did you find constructing that sense of pace in the edit?
The edit was the biggest challenge for me. Editor Margred Pryce and I had to rediscover the story. Our main issue was building it to a satisfying ending where we believe Ivanno’s character might abandon Toby. We spent a lot of time moving scenes around and extending moments to heighten the sense of frustration. Another area that had a lot of our focus was giving the story a sense of time. Initially, I wanted title cards/diary entries at the start of each scene to allow us to feel the days are passing and their situation is worsening. In the end, we realised that having no anchor in time actually worked for us. It reinforced the feeling of disorientation and claustrophobia.
With the Composer Billy Jupp too we took the approach that the music was the dialogue. We pinpointed specific moments in the development of the characters, like the first time Toby tastes his own flesh, and found ways to punctuate these moments.
Given that the film has no dialogue, did that free you up to try alternate takes to play with during the edit? Or was it a case of sticking to what you had set out to capture in the script?
Definitely, it gave us a hell of a lot of freedom. In fact, it saved us. Particularly as the only thing that constrained us in the edit was Toby’s body and how much he’d eaten of it. In a few scenes we were able to steal shots from other parts of the story. For example, one of the last images of Ivanno in the film was stolen from the opening.
How did you achieve the self-consumption practical effects used on Toby?
I wanted everything to be done in camera. It had to feel as real as possible. We relied on Toby’s bed. He would slip the lower portion of his arm or leg into a slit in the canvas and we’d bandage the top of his leg. It worked surprisingly well.
We realised that having no anchor in time actually worked for us. It reinforced the feeling of disorientation and claustrophobia.
What is it actors of the calibre of Ivanno Jeremiah and Toby Jones offer a production? What do you learn from them?
They are really what made the film sing. Working with them was such a joy. I think the biggest thing I learned was to stand back and let them explore. They always found something more compelling and interesting than what I had had in mind.
What are you working on at present?
I’m thrilled to say A Few Miles South was picked up and we are developing it into a feature. Alongside this, I’m developing two other projects and doing a bit of directing for TV.