Set in the year 1837, BLOK’s A Dishonourable Death impressively uses the framing of a gentleman’s duel to satirise traditional manifestations of honour through a warped masculine lens, questioning the concept of heroism while also setting its narrative sights on the thorny issue of prejudice be that of class, race or sex. The tale kicks off in dramatic fashion as we’re whisked on a high-speed carriage ride that immediately immerses the viewer in the heightened tone and setting of the wide-angled period comedy. What follows is a verbal exchange between a group of individuals who get mixed up in a confluence of deceit, prejudice and bravado that could end up costing them their lives. It’s a darkly comic short with a buoyant visual flair that we were excited to ask the directing duo about during our conversation, which you can read below, that covers a multitude of topics from the specific camera and lens choices that establish A Dishonourable Death’s amplified tone to the deliberate period accuracy of the characters’ costumes and weapons.
A Dishonourable Death marks your first venture into narrative shorts, what motivated that decision?
As a commercial director, our work often involves some sort of world-building, with elements of the hyper-real or magic-realism so it felt natural to carry on in that vein for our debut short. We wanted to make something a little bit different to the typical handful of people sitting around a table at a dinner party, etc. And without wanting to sound too wanky, we hoped it would be something that made the audience feel like they’d been transported somewhere completely different for fifteen minutes. Something unexpected, and probably a little ambitious, for our first swing of the bat. We love period pieces, and seeing as we couldn’t afford to build a set, we thought why not push the genre and time period through costume, props and dialogue, whilst keeping the raw setting as is? Kind of working within our means… but doing something that still felt big.
How did you arrive at the central plot conceit of a gentleman’s duel?
We always loved the idea of a gentleman’s duel and seeing that, to our knowledge at least, only a handful of films were based around this, we decided to go for it as our main narrative thread. After doing some research on the history of pistol duels in England and Europe in the 1800s, we realised how ridiculous this ‘honour-driven’ ritual really was. Some people duelled and subsequently died over disagreements like whose dog bit the other’s first, artists’ work being criticised and, naturally, spreading rumours about a gentleman or his family. Essentially, people were shot and killed over the 19th century equivalent of ‘your mum’ level sleights. Ludicrous! And it’s this observation which inspired our story to be anchored by the idea of someone calling another man’s wife something. Where nobody can remember what exactly was said, but it sounded disrespectful… perhaps… to the intoxicated and highly-unreliable witness. There’s a chance, at least, that something moderately insulting was said.
We wanted to make a film based on serious events, sparked by one single frivolous action/thought, sprinkled with moments of absurdism, confusion and black humour.
As well as the reasoning around the duel itself, we learned a lot about the rules and regulations of such an event. The role of the second, acting as a witness, rule-giver and often surgeon… how a gentleman should stand in order to receive the least damage if hit… what to wear (a silk waistcoat often stopped the ball-bearing from penetrating too far into the body, who knew?)… whoever had the higher-social standing would typically take the first shot, giving them a clear advantage… the list goes on and on… it’s pretty fascinating and needless to say it was a deep dive into the rabbit hole of 19th century duelling.
There’s a theatricality to the style and dialogue of the short, did you draw on any particular cinematic influences when establishing that?
We were influenced by the Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick and Tim Burton. We wanted to make a film based on serious events, sparked by one single frivolous action/thought, sprinkled with moments of absurdism, confusion and black humour.
How did you tackle getting the film off the ground?
We were lucky enough to have the backing of our UK commercial reps, Outsider and our brilliant Producer Gareth Francis for the production of the short. We raised a bit of money through a Kickstarter campaign and then put the rest in ourselves (collective gulp). But you know what they say… “If you want to make a short film, you have to put in the work… and the money”… they also say; “No one cares about your short film! Stop asking me for money! What do you mean, it’s a bit like British Coen Brothers meets Tim Burton, meets the McDonaghs? Why are you in my house? How did you get in? Please untie my family and stop asking me for money!”
A Dishonourable Death thrust us straight into the action with the carriage sequence, what inspired that opening and how did you pull it off?
After finding the location, we thought about how we could open the film to make it more interesting both visually and narratively. So, we decided to write a carriage/sort-of-chase feeling scene at the top to really pull the audience into the action, the period, and generally open up with a bang. In short, be a bit punchy. We shot these elements at horse and cart specialist Steve Dents. And with some wonderful VFX window replacement and 3D forest building from VFX Supervisor Jonathan Box, some equally superb practical carriage rocking from Production Designer James Hatt and his merry band of loyal art department heroes, we managed to pull off something pretty special for the opener… we think at least!
Likewise, the slightly heightened tone of the dialogue and performances from your actors adds so much to the dark comedy.
When we had the script in a good place and we’d fleshed out the characters, we started looking for our cast. We called upon a couple of friends and actors we’ve worked with in the past. Namely, Mr Christos Lawton (The Terror, Hugo, Downton Abbey), and our long-time collaborator and pal Mr Roger Thomson (My Left Nut, Quest For Fire, Dublin Murders). And Roger, gent that he is, very kindly managed to rope in the spectacularly talented Claire Rafferty (The Fall, Derry Girls, The Frankenstein Chronicles)… so we’d made a pretty excellent start pulling together the core cast.
Our wonderful Casting Director Emma Garrett then filled the ranks with some brilliant actors, David Fulton, Paul Chan, Robert Lee and Phil Zimmerman. Oh… and when we needed a young girl to play one of the characters, Paul offered it to his six year old niece, Grace. Who, remarkably, despite no prior experience, was bloody marvellous! She didn’t bat an eyelid when shooting a man in the head, which is equally encouraging as it is terrifying.
The LF and Signature pairing is an absolute screamer which fared very well in the occasionally high contrast light setting of the forest.
How focused were you on being period accurate with the costumes and weapons?
We had a bloody brilliant armourer and SFX supervisor on the shoot, John Hargreaves… has that guy got some stories! He made sure we used pistols and references appropriate and true to the time period… oh and he certainly wasn’t afraid to tell us when we were wrong… which we loved… we’re not the precious type.
I asked about the dialogue but the visuals also have a wide, heightened feel to them, how did you pull that off technically?
We shot on the Arri Alexa LF, paired with their Signature primes. We were after that large format look, and this is more often than not the setup we use across the board these days… well until the Alexa 35 came about and now that is the weapon of choice! But the LF and Signature pairing is an absolute screamer which fared very well in the occasionally high contrast light setting of the forest. And S+O very kindly helped us out, as they’ve done throughout our career, supplying all of the camera and lighting kit for the gig. We’re forever grateful to Olly et al.
And where did you shoot and how long were you there, and in post, for?
We shot the film over three days in Buckinghamshire and had the offline locked after a handful of sessions with editor-extraordinaire Adam Rudd over at Whitehouse Post. After that we had to wait for VFX favours here and there from various people including No.8, WeAreCovert and Nineteen-Twenty. We also called upon a couple of freelancers too, Gino Fernandez and Jakob Thorhallsson. All-in-all a wonderful team effort.
Penultimate question, what are audiences making of it so far?
The film’s gone down really well so far and is currently on the festival run. People are seemingly enjoying it, which is a relief! We always said that if we could sit in a cinema watching it on the big screen and not feel the need to snap off every finger and toe we have… we’d be alright with that! We learned a hell of a lot making it and we can’t wait to get writing our next one!
How is the future looking for you both work-wise at the moment?
It’s no secret that things have been difficult within the industry, especially over the past year or so… what with the war in Ukraine and the global economy still recovering from the pandemic. But it’s not all doom and gloom! We’re currently in Colombia shooting a spot for a big US beer brand, which is very fun indeed! The plan is to continue to grow in the commercial space, whilst trying to kick the door down into long-form scripted narrative. We hope this short film will be the first stepping stone in doing that.