Adaptations can be tricky beasts that often run the risk of not living up to the heights of the original source material but when filmmaker Luke Bather, part of the production company We Are Invite, read a comic by friend and eventual co-writer John Tucker, he immediately knew he needed to make a film about the baldest man in the world. The resulting sharp-tongued farcical short Bald follows the cult-like status garnered by Jeff (played by Jimmy Watkins) who unwittingly becomes a revered figure in his small Welsh hometown. While his strange super-follicle affliction may lead to madness for those who stare directly at it, it also brings him to the communal heart of the local social club. Led by a quirky and witty narration, Bather’s film delights with relatable and heartening characters who each bring their own elements to the tale. Ahead of Bald’s premiere on DN’s pages today we spoke to the Manchester-based director about working with Tucker to bring an authentic Welsh voice to his characters, an unexpected and welcomed collaboration with Film Hub North and harnessing the silliness of the concept into a heartwarming story of community.
How did you come to make a film about an extreme case of baldness finding a home within a cult-like group in the depths of Wales?
The film is an adaptation of my friend John Tucker’s comic also of the same name. I was working on a script for a different comic of his in 2018 when he released Bald. I read it and pretty much instantly knew that I wanted to abandon my script and start working on a film. Around the same time, Jimmy Watkins, who I knew through his stint as the guitarist in one of my favourite bands, had been posting a bunch of stuff on his Instagram where he was just telling these really great stories and it just seemed like I was watching a very animated version of the character in John’s comic. So I messaged John and basically said, “I wanna make a film out of Bald and I want Jimmy to play Jeff. John immediately replied saying “fine on two conditions: 1) I get a cameo and 2) I get to keep the BAFTA when we win it.” He got his cameo. The BAFTA is…TBC.
After that, it spent most of 2019 going through various pretty dreadful drafts that were all about 10 pages too long until in November 2019 when I ended up having a meeting with Film Hub North and mentioned that I was writing a film about the baldest man in the world, and this somehow that piqued their interest. At that point I asked John if he’d like to come on officially as a co-writer to help Welsh-up the dialogue a bit. With me being from Manchester, it was all in serious danger of sounding a bit ‘Fireman Sam’ if he hadn’t said yes!
How did the script gain momentum from those initial overlong drafts?
When I first spoke to John about adapting Bald into a film and before he came on officially as a co-writer he shared with me his early scripts, notes and deleted scenes from the original comic. I immediately fell into the trap of putting all of it into this big, bloated 20-30 minute version of the script. Meeting Roxy McKenna from Film Hub North then lit a fire under me to get a solid, trimmed-down draft written before people realised that they’d made a horrible mistake by encouraging me. Over the course of about a week I hacked away at all the unnecessary stuff in the script and put together a ten page treatment alongside it to hopefully give a bit more idea of tone, etc. and just threw it all at the BFI funding application and hoped for the best. A few weeks later they gave us the thumbs up on funding.
I immediately fell into the trap of putting all of it into this big, bloated 20-30 minute version of the script.
John’s got a natural flair for this style of authorship, so writing the film felt much more fluid as we’d just go back and forth iterating on different scenes until it felt like something we’d want to have other people read. Then as we were about to start pre production Covid hit and slowed it all right down.
Do you think having that extra time provided by Covid was beneficial to the film and its production?
It afforded me a lot of time to prepare. I wanted to let my collaborators know what was in my head without stepping on their toes too much, which turned into recommending some films to them, making mood boards, storyboards, and Spotify playlists. All sorts. I spent hours building the whole film in some software called Cine Tracer and used that to make storyboards. This seems silly when my co-writer was literally the guy who drew the original comic, but hindsight is 20/20 and I needed something to pass the time. The software was still in beta so the character models were a real uncanny mixed bag. The child version of our main character is represented in the storyboards by a little girl because that was the only child character model available. I’m not sure how much any of those storyboards helped anyone beyond me. Lee Thomas, our excellent DoP, very politely described them as “useful”.
What was initially just a throwaway gag about a guy getting carried away with a drill turned into a really heartfelt moment in the story.
Through the BFI I got the chance to have a Zoom session with Paul Fraser to discuss the script. Paul wrote a lot of Shane Meadows’ early features which were a huge influence on me when I was younger so I absolutely jumped at the chance to chat with him. He had some really great insightful observations about the script which helped us completely reshape the role of Tim, played in the film by the amazing Nathan Sussex. What was initially just a throwaway gag about a guy getting carried away with a drill turned into a really heartfelt moment in the story. If we hadn’t had that extra time, I don’t think John and I would have ever cracked that one by ourselves and the film is a thousand times better for it.
There is a great line between the absurd and hilarious and quite genuine and serious which you tread very well, how did you manage that balance?
Firstly thank you, that’s very kind of you to say! Managing that balance meant ruling with an iron fist on set – being a complete bastard to absolutely everyone and not allowing any jokes at all. Nah, only messing. The best way I’ve found to deal with the absurd is to treat it as if it’s ordinary and to work with people who understand that too. Obviously, we’re not all walking around set chin stroking and pontificating about the Capital-A Art we’re making, you have to acknowledge the silliness and the fun because it’s such a treat to be able to gather this many people together to make something daft.
The best way I’ve found to deal with the absurd is to treat it as if it’s ordinary, and to work with people who understand that too.
The attitude we had was always to tell this story in the same way you’d tell your mate about a mildly inconvenient car repair, or seeing an unusually large cow. Noteworthy, but ultimately unremarkable. Beyond that, it’s about being selective with casting. We just made sure to cast actors who we felt understood the tone we were going for and who genuinely wanted to be a part of it. The hardest role to cast was the doctor who strangles himself, played perfectly in the film by Jake Waring, because it’s so easy to read that on the page and immediately jump to performing the silliest, most exaggerated possible version for a self-tape. For a certain type of film that’s totally fine, but what I wanted to see was someone who gazed upon the unusually bald head of a child and immediately and very seriously needed to crush their own windpipe with their bare hands until they were no longer alive. Now THAT’s comedy!
What informed the stylistic elements of the film such as the decision to work with a monochrome colour palette?
The biggest creative driving force for me was always making sure I wasn’t doing a disservice to the work John does by getting my terrible stink all over it. The comic was my jumping off point, and that helped to inform a lot of the more immediate stylistic decisions – the comic has a limited colour palette of blue, red and white and I felt that the best way to emulate that onscreen was to present the film in black and white.
The comic was my jumping off point, and that helped to inform a lot of the more immediate stylistic decisions.
Another reason for the black and white was that I wanted the film to evoke something of the old British social realist films of the 50s and 60s because underneath all the doctor strangling and the head drilling there’s a yearning among the characters for the sort of communal atmosphere that the working men’s clubs would have had at the time those films were being made. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is one film I brought up in conversations a lot when talking about that. We shot in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is the old European widescreen aspect ratio to add to that nostalgia (and also because it’s the best aspect ratio and all other choices are wrong).
Beyond that there’s a whole spectrum of influences and not many of them are very funny, sorry. Most of the script was written whilst listening to Brian Eno’s Apollo album and that played in very heavily to the direction for the score. The opening shot of the film is directly influenced by a shot in Another Earth. The mood boards I made are full of images from Cold War, Beau Travail, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Night of the Hunter, I, Daniel Blake, The Beguiled (the Sofia Coppola version), Songs from the Second Floor, Fargo, Cinema Paradiso, A Field in England and Cléo from 5 to 7 as well as a series of images from Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times book. The closing shot of the film is our rough and ready discount off-brand version of the tracking shot from the 1927 film Wings, too.
As a professional editor who also directs how did you approach this part of the process?
I approached it with a great amount of resentment for the directors who don’t have to edit their own films. I’m an editor for a day job so I knew that in order to save a bit of budget I could do the edit and all it would cost us was my time (which is completely worthless). It definitely helped on set to have an editor’s brain at times and to be able to run through an internal checklist of what I’d need to make the scene work when we were up against it time-wise. By the time it came to post-production I knew the film so well that putting together that first assembly was almost second nature. The other side of that coin is that I do feel like there’s a huge benefit to having fresh eyes on an edit. You lose that objectivity when you’re so close to it for so long and so you have to try and find it elsewhere.
Sometimes you’ve just got to trust that the jokes you wrote 12 months ago are still funny to someone who’s never heard them.
I got edit notes from my Producer Matthew Rowlands, my 1st AD George Haydock as well as John and Roxy. Everyone looks at the film in a different way so deciding what notes are worth paying attention to can be its own puzzle. Sometimes you’ve just got to trust that the jokes you wrote 12 months ago are still funny to someone who’s never heard them.
What is next in your pipeline?
In the immediate future I’m working on getting some more short films made. I’ve got some scripts finished and a couple more to write. If we’re talking about the big picture then I’m working on becoming the type of person that lives alone in a remote off-grid cabin in the woods somewhere who only emerges once every 4 or 5 years to make a feature film of mild acclaim. Each time I emerge more haggard and weather-beaten than before. Hands thick with calluses, hair down to my knees and a voice like gravel in a rusty washing machine. Really weird, off-putting vibe. That’s the dream.