Filmmaker Joe Weiland’s directorial debut Gorka is a short comedy drama about Gorka, a French exchange student who has arrived in the UK to see what England has to offer. Quickly, however, upon his arrival, his plans of exploration are pushed to the wayside as the English family he’s been partnered with experiences a major tragedy. It’s from here on out that Weiland’s film takes off and his portrayal of the importance of human connection during strange, dysfunctional times begins. Weiland brings a buoyant Britishness to his short, which showcases the title character’s world through bright-coloured, open frames as he takes in the odd seaside environment that is Bognor Regis. As the film sets sail for its festival run, which kicks off with the Oscar-qualifying Provincetown Film Festival, DN caught up with Weiland to talk over the personal genesis of the short, his background studying screenwriting at AFI, and the pleasure of working with actors the calibre of Geraldine Somerville and David Baddiel.

Where did the idea of a story about a foreign exchange student having an awkward host family experience come from?

To me, the best films are personal. That’s where you find the reality. Those little truthful details. And that’s why I wanted my first short film to come from my own life and experiences. With Gorka, the story came from an actual day that happened within my family. It was in 2020 when my mother got a call telling her that her father, my grandfather, was on his deathbed in Torquay and that we had to come and say our goodbyes.

I’m not bringing the violins out here. Actually, it’s safe to say my Dad wasn’t too enthusiastic about heading down to Torquay. He hates death and my grandfather hadn’t shown him, or us, much love through my parents’ 35 years of marriage. But my Mum, being the British mother she is, wasn’t having any of it. We’re all going. Cut to the whole family. Seven of us. Piled into a seven-seater flying down the M5 to the English Riviera. My brother’s fiancée, having never met my grandfather, was even in the car. And that’s where this idea came from. The idea of situating a complete outsider on a day like that.

I wanted to explore the idea that you can find humour, you can find connection in these darker moments.

I’d always wanted to write a foreign exchange character. I’m fascinated by the whole experience. I remember going on one to Italy when I was 15 years old. I couldn’t speak a word of Italian and found myself within a weird, creepy, strange family dynamic. You’re essentially an alien in their world and find yourself doing the most bizarre things. So in my head, I took this day with my family and decided to implant a foreign exchange character. That’s when Gorka was born. A sweet French student arrives in England thinking he’s off to see Big Ben and the London Eye but the mother in the family gets the call my mother got in 2020… and he finds himself accompanying the family in a seven-seater car down to Bognor Regis.

Despite the sadness at the heart of the plot, there’s a lot of comedy and joy thrown in too, and this is reflected in the cinematography with the wideness of the frame and the vibrant colour grade.

Grief is such a knotty, protean feeling. It’s unpredictable and hard to define. In the film, I wanted to explore the idea that you can find humour, you can find connection in these darker moments. That’s how the real day unfolded. There were little sparks of comedy amongst the sadness. We were there to support my Mum and humour played a big part in that. That’s why when I started to discuss the film with the DoP Harry Wheeler, we focused on avoiding anything that felt too moody and drab. It wasn’t about looking for the ‘doom and gloom’. Instead, we leant into the pop of seaside Britain. Pinks, blues and greens dating back 50 years. British tones. Basking in the faded glamour of a run-down Bognor hotel. The good, the bad and the ugly. These were also conversations I had with Production Designer Arthur de Borman and Costume Designer Verity May Lane. We then worked with Jack McGinity at Cheat in the grade to extract those colours, adding in some texture and grain.

This also motivated our camera language. There’s a real sense of awkwardness that runs through the film. Gorka is thrown into this environment and left to find his way. I wanted to bottle up this feeling through the lens. That’s why we let the wides capture this feeling, letting the action breathe, so we experience this uncomfortableness with Gorka. I wanted to tell this story because it approaches grief in a fresh way. We’re reading grief through Gorka’s perspective.

What would you say the core theme of Gorka is for you?

At its core, Gorka is a film about connection. It’s about a father who couldn’t connect with his daughter. But more so… it’s about a French boy trying to communicate what he experienced to the mother. He may not have the language but he understands her body language, her feelings, her emotion. He connects to her on a human level. So in the film I wanted to celebrate the fact that even practical strangers can offer comfort and hope to each other. Yes, it’s sprinkled with comedy but that’s exactly why this story to me feels truthful. Tragic events like these are complex, they are full of funny, sad, confusing and hopeful reactions that define what it means to be human. People like to call it ‘black comedy’, I prefer to call it real life.

Gorka is thrown into this environment and left to find his way. I wanted to bottle up this feeling through the lens.

How did you work with Yanis Charifi on his performance to bring out that sense of isolation that is key to the character?

When we found Yanis, I knew he was Gorka straight away. I was unbelievably impressed with his acting skills. A lot of his performance is through his eyes, he’s constantly observing the world around him. Absorbing everything. For such a young actor, he walked onto set with a real confidence and was an absolute pleasure to work with. Yanis has a bright future ahead with his acting skills.

Similarly, how was it working with Geraldine Somerville and David Baddiel, what did they bring to the project?

Geraldine and David were absolutely fantastic. In rehearsals, I sat with Geraldine and we just discussed the story and let the conversation lead to her character. It was great to delve deeper into Tanya’s character and Geraldine really took it to another level. When I wrote the film, I had David in mind for Morris. He perfectly captured the father figure and it was great to let David riff and improvise on set. They both were unbelievably professional and I loved watching their dynamic unfold on camera.

Gorka marks your directorial debut, after having studied screenwriting at AFI and working in commercials, how did your experience in those fields inform your approach on the film?

After studying screenwriting at AFI, I had the itch to direct my first piece. It was great practice to really explore the fundamentals of story and structure on the page but now it was time to bring that to life. It was, of course, a daunting prospect. But it was one that I was excited to take on because I really felt I knew the story inside and out. I was learning on the job but was surrounded by such talented people that it made the process so enjoyable. I learnt so much.

How long were you working on Gorka for from the inception of the idea through to the final edit?

Gorka was written in late 2020 and the film was finished in early 2023. A long journey! The pandemic delayed it three times but we got there in the end much to the brilliant work of Alex Jefferson, the producer. A huge shoutout to Phil Currie at Stitch who edited the film it was an absolute pleasure to work with him.

When we initially spoke, Gorka was just heading out on the festival circuit. How did you find that experience as a first time filmmaker?

It was amazing to meet other filmmakers on the festival circuit. BFI LFF was an unbelievable experience playing at the Prince Charles Cinema to a packed out audience. 

And finally, are there any other projects in the pipeline we can look forward to?

I’ve just shot my next short that takes place in France and getting into the edit now which is super exciting. I have another short film coming up in March alongside the feature I’m developing so it’s go-time!

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