Romantic tales of lovers bound by fleeting moments are a major part of cinema history. From David Lean’s Brief Encounter through to Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love, these stories evolve and their settings change but their emotional resonance has always remained the same. Director Olivia J. Middleton brings her imagining of this age-old story to the short film format with A90, which sees a disenfranchised roadside cafe worker come in contact with a customer with whom she forms a deeply intense attraction. Middleton conveys the momentary longing shared between the pair with subtle, withdrawn cinematic language that echoes the classical stories from which she was inspired. Now, as the film begins its journey on the festival circuit, DN caught up with Middleton for a chat about how it all came together, talking everything from the choice of a roadside cafe setting to the pinpoint precision that went into the shot construction and camera movements.

When I first watched A90 I really enjoyed how it felt in connection with cinema history. It’s a timeless story of lovers but told in a contemporary way. What inspired you to make it?

Initially, I had ideas of character and locale that permeated in my mind for a while until eventually the ideas birthed A90. After a double bill of Orlando by Sally Potter and Chungking Express by Wong Kar Wai, the story and the characters became clear in my mind. I got swept up in the romance and decided I wanted to tell a story about an ephemeral relationship that connects two lost people and inspires them to confront their inertia. For me, this story is about the beauty of impermanence. There’s a quote in Lost in Translation that felt very poignant: “The unexpected connections we make might not last yet they stay with us forever”. I think that romantic relationships in particular leave a mark and can alter our perspectives in ways we don’t realise.

By placing them in an isolated location they could feel free to explore the connection they have.

Why a roadside cafe as the location for this particular story?

I set the story in a roadside cafe to provide a sense of anonymity between Annette and Morgan. By placing them in an isolated location they could feel free to explore the connection they have. In our everyday surroundings we have a tendency to perform, we draw a veil over our true selves in favour of a more palatable version. The cafe allows our characters the freedom to be whatever version of themselves that they wish, safe from judgement in the presence of strangers. It’s an in-between, a liminal space with infinite destinations. The presence of Morgan’s fiance disrupts this privacy and drags Annette and Morgan back to reality, reminding them that their relationship can’t last.

What was the process of getting the film off the ground financially?

The film was developed with Short Circuit as part of their Sharp Shorts scheme, funded by Screen Scotland and BFI NETWORK. I was working with my Producer Carys Evans on a different short film called Morning when Short Circuit announced that they were open for applications. The film we were developing wasn’t right for the scheme and so Carys asked if I had any other ideas that I’d like to try to submit. Thankfully by then I had a synopsis for A90.

How did you approach the visual construction and cinematic language of A90?

We wanted to approach the mise-en-scene classically and use the cinematography and design to create a romantic realism. Using simple camera movements and shot construction, the camera becomes an invisible participant, observing and emphasising but never intrusive. We leaned into the already nostalgic design of the location with drab curtains and simple picture frames hanging on the walls, as well as other design elements, to portray a world that stood still and give a timeless quality to the story.

What did you shoot on that allowed you to construct the film that way?

We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini LF because it can handle a significant level of underexposure and manipulation in order to achieve the muted colour palette that we wanted. We paired this with Canon K35 lenses to render beautiful detail and sharpness with a level of texture which harked back to the classical Hollywood films of the decade they were made. They allowed us to achieve reasonably deep focus whilst shooting on longer lenses in order to isolate the characters within the compositions and maintain a level of detail in the setting.

Using simple camera movements and shot construction, the camera becomes an invisible participant, observing and emphasising but never intrusive.

And when it came to the ending, were you always set on leaving it open?

I decided not to be explicit in the film’s ending, what they decide to do after they meet each other because I wanted the film to be about a moment in time between two people, and to know how they move forward in their respective lives would take away the beauty of that moment.

What was your writing process for A90? How did you set out structuring the screenplay and constructing these characters on the page?

I usually go straight into script writing, but on this occasion, due to the nature of the funding scheme A90 was developed through a few drafts of treatments first and then once a structure was formed I started writing the script. I’m not sure I would choose to develop a story in this way again as it felt inorganic to me.

I don’t write to find the story, either; I write visually. I usually see the film from start to finish in my head before ever sitting down to write a script, and the nature of the script format makes it far easier to translate what I imagine into words. With treatments you are writing somewhat in prose which I’ve never been very good at. I’m not writing shots and camera notes into the script, I’m just describing the scene by actions with very sparse additional description. I write a script like a blueprint, it’s active and doesn’t describe anything that wouldn’t be seen on screen. It’s the same with the characters, I provide an essence on paper and work with the actors to bring them to life. I’m not a big fan of dialogue-driven films as I prefer to communicate visually, with mise en scene, body language, gestures and looks. I connect far more with stories that communicate through film language.

How did you work with your actors to establish their connection on set, did you rehearse at all or have any particular conversions with them prior to the shoot?

I had many calls and meetings with the actors to discuss character and story and there was one day of rehearsal prior to the shoot that involved more in-depth conversation. I think it depends on what kind of film you are making as to whether you need ample rehearsal time. In this instance the script has very little dialogue and is very much about inner emotions and connection. You can’t really rehearse glances, so it was more about making sure the actors felt comfortable and had a good relationship with each other ahead of shooting. Marli Siu and Sinead Macinnes got on like a house on fire so I really didn’t have to do too much other than provide a space for them to blossom over the course of the shoot.

What’s next for you?

I am in the middle of shadow directing on an Amazon series which has so far been a very illuminating experience and will provide the opportunity for me to direct some second unit. I have another short called Morning, which is a silent film about a couple in the aftermath of a domestic tragedy and should be finished by the end of the summer. I am also developing a feature film called Fur Sadie which is an adaptation of an unfinished manuscript by Scottish author Archie Hind about a middle-aged working class woman’s endeavour to learn piano in 1970s Glasgow.

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