Director Isher Sahota arrives on Directors Notes’s pages with his new short film Goodnight Henry, a biting satire set in the world of Victorian politics. The story concerns the Prime Minister’s advisor who stumbles upon his boss in scandalous circumstances having met his demise. It then becomes the job of the advisor to maintain a level of decorum whilst managing the national trade deals that had been up for discussion. The joy of watching Sahota’s short is in the tonal balance he achieves, the jokes aren’t hammed up for comedic attention and instead arise out of the seriousness of how his characters react to their farcical situations. DN is excited to premiere Goodnight Henry online in conjunction with a discussion with Sahota where he talks about period locations, casting and the challenge of achieving that unique tone through a combination of camera movement, rhythmical editing, and precise performances.

What interested you in setting a story in the Victorian era?

I love Victorian politics, it’s an age of brilliant characters, theatrical clashes and the birth of what we recognise now as modern politics, with the demise of any pretence of codes of honour. Reading a historical biography of a Victorian politician, I came across the apocryphal true story of the death of Lord Palmerston who was Prime Minister in 1865. I found the story hilarious and scandalous. Its themes of depravity and political cover-up spoke to how I and a lot of my friends were feeling about UK, and world, politics at the time. The idea that politicians were not viewing their job as a means of serving the population, but as a game to be won.

Once you had that core conceit, what became the jumping-off point for turning it into a project?

So I pitched the idea to long term collaborator, and sometime friend, Producer Jamie MacDonald during a socially distanced walk during the Covid lockdown in London. I had written a rough kind of outline, which had a lot more characters and was slightly shapeless. During our walk, we honed the story down to be a three-hander, and Jamie had the great idea of introducing a ‘ticking time bomb’ to the story, which we made the arrival of Lady Palmerstone to the house. This made the story leaner, more direct and entertaining, whilst also helping to make it achievable production-wise.

We decided that even though the film is a comedy, we wanted it to have weight and impact as its underlying comment has got substance.

I wrote the script, and we put together an application for BFI Network funding which we were successful in obtaining, and Jamie raised the remainder of the budget from investors. And we were off!

How was the challenge of sourcing the right location? The setting and look of the film are obviously imperative to immersing the audience in this period.

The main hurdle we had in preproduction was finding the location. We needed a nineteenth century country house with specific requirements; a drawing room, a billiards room, a memorable staircase and a bedroom fit for a Prime Minister. We are based in London so started our search there. We quickly realised it would be way too expensive. Jamie then did a great piece of producing and made contact with Screen Yorkshire. They suggested to us Allerton Castle near Leeds, amongst others. Following a recce we knew it was the right location, and moving the shoot up to Leeds worked for the budget, so we went up to Leeds!

And similarly, you need actors who can portray themselves with a certain pomposity, what was it like finding your cast?

I was driving one day when we were casting the role of Mr Pageant. An eloquent, graceful voice was on the radio talking about their experiences as an actor, being one the first black actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company. They were describing a wonderful, varied career of stage and screen. The voice was very dignified and filled with such gravitas as it described performing Shakespeare in America… it went on to say, “And that’s when of course Quincy Jones cast me as Geoffrey the butler in Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” I couldn’t believe it was Joseph Marcell I was listening to. It all suddenly made sense, the role and the serendipity of listening to this interview. Also, it was always part of our creative thinking to cast colour blind, we just wanted the best actors for the roles. We thought casting diversely would add to the sense of outsiders critiquing the status quo.

There’s a lot of dialogue and impeccable timing needed to make the script work and I knew Joseph was our Mr Pageant. Through our wonderful Casting Director Claudia Blunt, I wrote a letter to Joseph offering him the role, and we were over the moon when he accepted. During the shoot, I asked him, since he probably gets a lot of such offers, why he said yes. He turned to me thoughtfully and said, “It was when I got to Lord Palmerston on the billiards table with his trousers down and I thought to myself, ‘Yes, that’s good’”.

We worked hard to sculpt the brilliant performances and find the shifting power dynamics as the story progresses.

Sharon Rooney’s casting was a stroke of genius from Claudia and Jamie too, who was aware of her work. She brought such intelligence and nuance to Rosalind and it’s amazing to see Sharon go from strength to strength in some amazing film and television. Can’t wait to see her in the Barbie movie! Ryan Gage was a suggestion by Claudia and I had worked with Ryan before on a TV show. I jumped at the chance to work with him again, Ryan is the kind of actor I relish working with. Instinctive, bold and very immersive, we always have a great time working together.

Once you had your location and cast in place, what came next?

The next steps were to work with Cinematographer Adam Singodia, Costume Designer Sherilyn Oliphant, Makeup Designer Naomi Slack and Production Designer Bryony Francis. We knew we had to get all these elements right to transport the audience to the mid 19th century.

With Adam during prep we discussed two things: how the camera should feel and behave to tell this story, and how we would achieve a candle lit, nighttime atmosphere to enhance the feeling of political deceit and dramatic tension. We decided that even though the film is a comedy, we wanted it to have weight and impact as its underlying comment has got substance. Also, part of the idea of the film was to conform to certain aspects of the classical ‘period drama’ that the UK film industry is renowned for and then pull the rug from beneath the audience. As such, we decided to adopt an extremely classical approach to the photography. The films we looked at were Milos Foreman’s Amadeus and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

This formal, classical approach excited us, as it contrasted with the somewhat outrageous content of the story. Adam also did a lot of detailed research on lighting levels in candle lit scenes in period films. Too dark and you lose the detail of the beautiful period costume and surroundings, too light and it doesn’t feel like real candle light. So we landed on a look that would portray the night time candle light whilst showing our period surroundings; a look that I think he pulled off stunningly.

What did Adam shoot on?

Adam chose to shoot the film on the Arri Amira with Zeiss Superspeed MKII lenses. He carefully designed the candle light, placing candelabras around the rooms, which were in turn painstakingly lit by the art department. The light was subtly augmented by a Jemball 2k when Adam wanted more light. We shot the film in classical studio mode, it was all shot with track, dolly and tripod.

Did you have any time prior to the shoot to prepare with your cast?

Just before the shoot, Jamie had afforded us a day for costume fittings and rehearsals with the cast, which proved critical. Sherilyn had brilliant options for each of the cast, so it was a fun and creative process to land on each character’s look, allowing space for the actors to be part of the process. And the rehearsals were critical for us to play with the text and find tonally what we wanted to do. I was keen that we didn’t ‘play the gag’ as whilst the events of the film are fairly out there, it is a real situation for the characters, so playing the truth of the situation was paramount.

The little moments of scheming looks and reactions to double-crossings; this is where a lot of the humour in the edit was found.

How much of an impact did that day have on the smoothness of the shoot?

The shoot went very smoothly, our crew were very well prepped and organised. It was a challenge to reach the level of the period look we achieved, but it went off relatively without a hitch. The cast were so well prepared and a joy to work with. They brought finesse, nuance and truth to the roles, and that’s where the humour comes from I think.

What was it like sculpting the tone and rhythm of these performances in post-production?

Working with Editor Margred Pryce was a joy; as with any comedy, the edit is so critical to find the timing of the dialogue and the pace of the story. We worked hard to sculpt the brilliant performances and find the shifting power dynamics as the story progresses. The little moments of scheming looks and reactions to double-crossings; this is where a lot of the humour in the edit was found. We then supplied a cut to our Film London Exec Jo Cadoret that was just shy of fifteen minutes. He gave us brilliant notes and suggestions, and following those Margred and I recut the film, shaving three minutes off it. We found the film to be so much pacier, and much improved, we were really thrilled with it. I’m really grateful for Jo’s input at that critical stage.

I was keen that we didn’t ‘play the gag’ as whilst the events of the film are fairly out there, it is a real situation for the characters, so playing the truth of the situation was paramount.

Music, as ever, was such an important part of this film to find the tone and help with the pace. I also wanted the music to help the film feel distinguished, adding to this sense that we were usurping a stuffy genre. Composer Darryl O’Donovan created a brilliant score. I think it buzzes with intelligence, humour and depth, and brings out the subtext of the film wonderfully. I especially love the way the music scores the dialogue and drama in the billiards room, which is quite a beast of a scene with various shifts in gear, and the punctuation the music gives to the film’s ending. Darryl made the score available on Apple Music and Spotify, I recommend checking it out!

How long have you spent working on Goodnight Henry?

Jamie and I ‘soft prepped’ the shoot from about eight weeks out, because we knew we needed a lot of lead time to find the location and cast, and a lot of fairly complicated things to put in place because of the period nature of the shoot. Though this was alongside our day jobs, so we fitted this kind of prep around our other commitments. We then did two weeks of formal prep when we sat in a room together to hash out the various logistical components of the shoot. We had one day for costume fittings/rehearsals and three days to shoot. The offline edit process was about three to four weeks and the online took about two further weeks.

What’s next for you after Goodnight Henry? Is there anything you’re working on at present?

Since Goodnight Henry I directed an episode of Grace for ITV, and in July a TV movie I directed is being released on ITVX called The Effects of Lying, which is a comedy drama bringing about a fresh representation of British Asian families.

Jamie and I are working on a slate of projects for television and theatrical release, including a film called Strange Fish, which is a road movie thriller set on the illegal immigrant route across Europe. I just want to keep making stories that I feel very passionate about with collaborators whose work I admire.

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