Ben Tricklebank’s drama short debut Champ initially presents as a classic awkward encounter between an absent, disengaged father and his teenage son but what eventually plays out is a deafeningly abrupt and shocking turn. Champ had a tricky road to completion with Covid shutdowns forcing a halt on more than one occasion before a determined Tricklebank made the decision to rewrite, re-cast and relocate the entire production over to the USA from its initial UK based origins. What became clear in that process was that the core story of a toxic relationship between a father and son remained just as powerful, with in fact the desolate and bleak Southern California landscape adding narrative depth to the strained and dejected relationship which unfolds on this fateful trip. Ahead of Champ’s premiere on DN today, we sat down with Tricklebank to learn more about the project’s beginnings and the unexpected benefits migrating the production across the Atlantic brought.
What inspired you to dive into the father-son relationship from this strained perspective and how did you get the project up and running?
Champ started life as a short film script called A Young Man’s Game. It was set in England and revolved around a conversation between a father and son in a parked car, while a football (soccer) match played out in the background. James Gould-Bourne wrote the original script, which I came across on Coverfly. I contacted James, who was living in Vilnius, Lithuania at the time. In the first of many ‘coincidences’, I was heading to Vilnius for a commercial shoot and so James and I were able to meet up in person. James’s initial script really grabbed me because of its intimate portrayal of a father-son relationship gone bad and the toxicity around male behavior. It was extremely confined, taking place almost entirely inside a parked car and had a wonderfully unexpected ending.
James and I worked together on developing the script and submitted it to the Shore Scripts Short Film Fund where it picked up the top prize. With this injection of support I was able to really get the ball rolling. I started scouting locations just outside London at the end of 2019, with the shoot tentatively scheduled for early 2020. We were actually two days away from the first day of photography when the world came to a screaming halt due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. It was heartbreaking at the time, to have come so close, but we were thankfully able to pull the plug without eating too far into our production budget.
We quickly realized that the core of the story could remain very much intact, in fact in many ways this new approach afforded the film a greater scope and depth.
As lockdowns eased and production looked possible once again we resumed pre-production in November 2020. Unfortunately, new lockdowns in the UK forced us to abandon those plans once again. After picking myself up and dusting off the disappointment a second time, I decided on a new approach. After a lot of conversations, James and I decided to rewrite the script to take place in the US (home for me) and to swap out football (soccer) for boxing. We quickly realized that the core of the story could remain very much intact, in fact in many ways this new approach afforded the film a greater scope and depth.
We then shot in and around LA over three days in May 2021. Day 1 was just outside Lancaster, where we shot Danny’s RV and some of the driving sequences. Day 2 was split between Lancaster (drone pick ups and Jake riding through the desert) and Agua Dulce, where we shot the liquor store scenes and Jake leaving his Mom’s house. Day 3 was the boxing gym/pawn shop and driving scenes.
I admire your being able to plough on with all of the hurdles faced. How much did the US rewrite change your initial script?
It was definitely a challenge and in a way, kind of a test to see how much I was willing to persevere to see the film get made. The most significant rewrite happened when James and I first started developing the script together. When we discussed shifting the story from the UK to LA it felt like a bigger deal than it turned out to be. To me it’s a testament to the strength of the original story. The location isn’t the thing that’s going to make or break the film.
The biggest challenges came from the cultural differences between the US and the UK and what would substitute for the football match happening in the background of the final scene. We toyed with the idea of American football or basketball but neither felt right for the story. In the end we decided on a boxing match, which in hindsight actually has a much stronger connection to what’s really going on.
Re-casting gave me another opportunity to think about what each role needed and how I was going to get the performances I wanted.
That father-son relationship is the heart of the film, I assume you had already cast for the 2020 shoot, how did that change for the version we see today?
It was one of the toughest things about pulling the plug back in 2020. Andrew Knott was set to play Danny and a young actor called Badger Skelton was going to play Jake. I’d made a real connection with both of them and we’d invested a lot of time talking about the script and developing their characters together. Obviously changing location was going to mean re-casting both roles and while it was sad to say goodbye to Andy and Badger, there’s often a positive outcome from such situations if you approach them with the right mindset.
Re-casting gave me another opportunity to think about what each role needed and how I was going to get the performances I wanted. The biggest shift in my approach came from thinking about the distance in their relationship and how Danny is trying his best to make up for lost time. I wanted to capture that initial discomfort and feel the bond between them grow over the course of the film, so I decided to keep Drew and Kingston apart and shoot the script as close to chronologically as possible.
The desolate landscape plays its own role in the film. Tell me about choosing that as a backdrop to their conversation.
The shift from the UK to the US gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into who these characters are and how I could bring them to life through the landscape that surrounds them. I’m drawn to the deserts of Southern California. I think part of it is coming from the UK, these places are so far removed from the environment I grew up in. The sheer scale and drama of them is cinematic, but also I think it’s because it’s not an easy place to live and that in itself creates tension. You’re always being challenged by the elements.
Jake is living with his mum in a suburban Southern California town that skirts the edge of the desert, while his Dad lives deep in this desolate landscape, well outside the structured norms of society, with a very narrow view of how you can get ahead in life. It’s as if Jake exists between two contrasting worlds. The safe and comfortable life that he has at home with his mum and the draw of the unpredictable and dangerous world that his dad inhabits.
Watching Champ, I felt a brewing tension that the father’s mounting micro-aggressions were leading to something much darker. How did you walk that tonal line before hitting us with the final reveal?
It was definitely a tricky balancing act. I found myself often worrying about giving away too much too early, while at the same time being concerned that we were not giving the viewer enough. I really wanted a lot of that tension and micro-aggression to come from the space between what was being said. The subtext of their conversation, the body language and particularly the looks that are exchanged between them. I think it’s part of the reason James and I work so well together. He loves dialogue and I’m always looking for a way to say those things without words.
That final moment when it comes is such a shock, how did you prepare your actors to play that startling turn which was a surprise to the audience but knowledge their characters had all along?
That was one of the few scenes that I had Drew and Kingston rehearse together. We spent quite a bit of time the morning of that final shoot day walking through the scene and talking about what was going on just below the surface of the conversation. The plan was to shoot the final driving scenes and arrival at sunset into dusk. Because of this, we had a decent amount of time earlier in the day to prepare and dial everything in as we waited for the light. While ultimately the prep was essential to getting the logistics and blocking of the scene in place, no amount of rehearsing can prepare you for how it will feel once you’re watching it unfold on the monitor. The first take was so energetic and kind of loud, mostly because everyone was so amped up as we’d been ramping up to this moment all day. The scene needed to be quiet. A breath before the explosive ending that we were building to. We had to slow things down and do our best to ignore the time constraints. I quietly gave Drew and Kingston the note and the second take is most of what you see in the short.
I really wanted a lot of that tension and micro-aggression to come from the space between what was being said.
The film as a whole has a dark, muted tone. What inspirations were you working towards and what discussions did you have about ideas for the cinematography?
Oren Soffer (cinematographer) and I shared a lot of different references and talked at length about the approach to story. The recurring overlap in those references was the work of Roger Deakins. Films like Sicario and No Country For Old Men came up a lot. The texture and the tone of those movies felt right, especially as we wanted to allude to what’s to come at the end of the film and subtly let you know that things might not be exactly what they seem.
We toyed with other ideas and ultimately decided to shoot the film on digital. Then we tested a bunch of vintage glass to find the right look. We were also very fortunate to have Andrew Francis, agree to grade the short and donate time early on in the process to develop the right look. Working closely with Oren, he created a LUT that we used on set so that we could more accurately see each scene in the way it would ultimately look.
I love the sound at the start in the car which seems to be ringing in Jake’s ears.
Thank you! I have to give the credit to my editor Doobie White for this one. Doobie will always come back at me with something I didn’t expect. It’s what makes him great. With those moments of muted sound design we wanted to emphasize Jake internalizing the situation, his Dad shitting on his dreams (again) and the anxiety of arriving at their destination, knowing the situation he’s placed himself in. We wanted to use the sound design and score to give you that unsettling feeling of where this journey might lead and highlight the bittersweet and toxic nature of their relationship. Danny wants what he thinks is best for his son and Jake wants his dad’s approval, regardless of the consequences.
And finally, what are you working on next?
James and I recently completed the first draft of a feature script that, while not based on Champ, does explore some similar themes. It’s a drama/thriller inspired by a real life incident on the NY subway. A fictitious take on what happens when a man becomes the target of an online hate campaign for failing to intervene in the assault of a female passenger.
There’s also a feature script called Land’s End that I’ve optioned with a producer in the UK and am in the process of developing. This one’s a dark comedy/drama about a pensioner who’s desperate to reconnect with his estranged granddaughter. He convinces/bribes the pregnant teen to drive him on one last road trip to visit his late wife’s ancestral home, where he plans to end his life. Sounds morbid but it’s actually kind of uplifting in the end.
The last ones a short story about a compulsive gambler that I’m in the process of optioning. It gets under the skin of a guy dealing with a deep rooted gambling addiction and the repercussions it has on those around him. The plan is to develop the story into a feature screenplay and possibly shoot another short as proof of concept.