As we find ourselves in the run up to the British Independent Film Awards ceremony on December 4th, DN is joining the filmmakers nominated for Best British Short Film for individual conversations about their spotlighted work. It’s an eclectic category of impressive shorts featuring some filmmakers we’ve spoken to before and others who join us for the first time. Today’s conversation in this series is with Director Keeran Anwar Blessie who is nominated for his short A Fox in the Night, a story of two young men who meet in a chance encounter and find an unexpected connection with one another despite their vastly different appearances. You can read our full interview below where we dig into Blessie’s process, covering his desire to subvert stereotypes, the development of his onscreen chemistry with Korey Ryan, and the challenge of balancing the hats of both directing and acting.
Where did the idea for a story about a brief encounter between two men, who find themselves on different ends of the gender expression spectrum, come from
I knew I wanted to tell a story about these too often misrepresented people. I was also interested in telling a story that did not use Black or queer bodies to process trauma but was liberated from that. This led me to ask why couldn’t these two characters have a 90s romcom moment? The characters were my muses from the start, as I went through redrafts I got to know them a little better, and the story evolved with them.
It’s a film that plays with preconceptions, was it a challenge to create the initial tension between Lewis and Daniel and then go on to subvert it?
It took many iterations to find the right tone for the story but once I did everything fell into place naturally. It was easy to subvert the tropes and stereotypes in the writing because they are so heavily relied on and perpetuated on screen, making them ripe for interrogation. This meant I could bait the audience with the lightest suggestion of what film they were watching. My Director of Photography Samira Oberberg and I had lengthy conversations about how to tell that story visually, which my Editor Jamie Munton later finessed. Inversely, it was key to remain connected to who the story was serving, Black and queer people, so I was charged to tell a story that made that specific audience feel seen and understood at all times. Walking the tightrope was where the challenge lay.
There’s such great chemistry between yourself and Korey, how did you work on that? Was there any rehearsal time?
From the first moment of meeting Korey it was clear he was the one. He has an infectious charisma and enthusiasm to collaborate, having all these traits meant that he would be willing to play and invest deeply in the story. We had a single rehearsal day to discuss the text and break down our understanding of what was on the page.
On set my focus was to ensure I kept a playfulness among the cast that was in service of the story. No single character journey is more important than another, each one is weaving its own thread to make up the tapestry of the story. Before each scene I did an exercise to ensure the actors were connected with one another and energized in ‘playing the game’ of the story. When Korey and I finally got to that balcony scene we were so invested in the game. It is exciting when it comes alive like that between actors when there is acute listening and responding and everything else melts away.
It was easy to subvert the tropes and stereotypes in the writing because they are so heavily relied on and perpetuated on screen, making them ripe for interrogation.
Similarly, was the dialogue between those characters heavily scripted or did you allow room for improvisation at all?
It was scripted but I love to get proposals from actors to say lines differently or share their impulses, as long as it always serves the story. There were one or two colloquialisms that felt too dated that we changed at the table read, but on the whole Korey and I stuck to what was written. Where we deviated came from responding to things that happened in the moment, for example the lighter playing up on the balcony and me coming over to cover his hands was gifted in the moment.
When it came to Jasper however, played by Harry Bradley, I was more flexible. Having worked with Harry before I knew him to be an excellent improviser. I had written a bit of text for the character with certain story beats needing to be hit, but I knew Harry could riff off that, the result of which was pure magic!
How do you approach dialogue as a screenwriter? Do you draw from real conversations you’ve had or is it a case of imaging the characters in the scenario and how they would act?
I do a lot of dreaming around the characters and try to understand their backstory, sometimes there are character traits that are similar to people in my real life. Then I procrastinate, but in that procrastination I am also listening for when the characters will start talking. Once they finally do I put that down, backspace and listen again until I find out what they are actually saying.
It asked for a deep trust, adaptability, and a willingness to fail from both myself and the team.
How did you find the challenge of directing and acting in tandem?
It was… a learning experience. I found it to be deeply rewarding because of how much I have learned, but would I do it again? No. There were just too many hats for one person to wear, it required an intense focus in production. I sought out advice beforehand, endeavoured to prepare well and made sure to have extra eyes in place to monitor my acting. It asked for a deep trust, adaptability, and a willingness to fail from both myself and the team. I had to relinquish any ego or vanity about my own work both as an actor and a first time screen director.
What brought you to filmmaking in the first place?
A multitude of factors informed that journey. First storytelling sits at the core of my being. I come from generations of great storytellers; notably my grandmother, who can have you both laughing out loud and sobbing all in the space of a well told sentence. I started as an actor but I had this frustration with the profession because I had zero autonomy. My ability to create was reliant on industry gatekeepers. Then I thought; I have written, made theatre, danced, acted, directed, and I have something to say, so why the hell not make a film?
What are you working on next
I have a few projects currently in the works. I have my next short in preproduction and I have larger projects in development.