A remarkably audacious debut, Director Jessica Morris has created a surreal and dark tragicomedy with her short Round Robin, which depicts the awkward realities of a family gathering where the yearly Christmas card photo is due to be taken. Morris uses this routine familial outing as the basis from which to interrogate what it truly means to be part of a ‘happy family’ and how the build up of tensions, on a particularly hot day, can quickly lay waste to that once-strong facade. Now, as the film is due to kick off its run on the festival circuit, DN joins Morris for an extensive discussion about the making of Round Robin, talking through the plethora of creative influences that make up the short’s style and tone, the notions of family she wanted to thematically deconstruct and the challenge of nailing the rapid-fire editing needed to bring her vision to life.

What intrigued you about making a tragicomic film set around a rapidly disintegrating family gathering?

Round Robin is a brutal and surreal tragicomedy about the fantasy of family versus reality. Through the prism of the Christmas Round Robin tradition, I wanted to explore how societal and self-inflicted pressures to appear like a ‘happy family’ keeps families together but secretly tears those in them apart. Round Robin examines what happens when a 40 year charade ends. Does the survival of a family unit depend on a bit of fantasy? And is it better to live in make-believe or face the truth?

In the last decade social media has revealed humanity’s desire to narrativize our own lives. We can tell ourselves and others that everything is fantastic, even if it doesn’t feel fantastic. Exploring this human need to curate our lives via the Christmas Round Robin allowed me to examine this trait in a timeless, multigenerational way. The Christmas Round Robin is the analog version of the smug insta post. And the stakes are higher because it’s family.

I wanted to explore how societal and self-inflicted pressures to appear like a ‘happy family’ keeps families together, but secretly tears those in them apart.

In a broad sense, how have you found the process of making Round Robin?

At its heart Round Robin has been a family affair. Written during the sleep-deprived haze of my maternity leave and produced by my husband, BIFA-nominated filmmaker Oliver Nias. The irony is not lost on me, wish us luck. Also, special thanks to my parents for all the babysitting and to our son for listening to all our production chat.

What were your artistic influences for the film? I’m curious to know if you drew from any particular filmmakers, writers or playwrights.

When making Round Robin I took my favourite things and melted them together at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit: the mind games of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the boiling pot of Abigail’s Tea Party, the surrealist comedy of John Early and Kate Berlant, the casting of Ulrich Seidl and the stunning composition of Martin Parr. I suspect there’s also a bit of Roald Dahl buried in there somewhere, too.

The story operates like a classic potboiler, what interested you in constructing everything around that conceit?

During lockdown I passed the time by reading probably over 100 plays. I am drawn to character driven stories that unfold in a claustrophobic single space. Think Mike Leigh and Edward Albee. Or Room, one of my favourite films. When writing Round Robin, I loved the challenge of putting four, eclectic and multigenerational characters in one room and seeing how far I could push it, from tense to operatic and finally surreal. Families create their own epic dramas and Round Robin is just that, taken to the extreme.

It really gives the actors such a fun opportunity to let loose too. What was casting like?

Round Robin hinges on the family matriarch, played by the majestic and magnificent Miranda Bell, whose film credits include The Imitation Game, Charlotte Grey, The Commissioner, Room to Rent and most recently Ridley Scott’s Marengo. I relished writing a part for a mature woman which was dark, mischievous, sexual and dangerous. I cannot thank ET Casting enough for helping us find such brilliant talent. You just can’t put a finger on how they cast but they have a secret sauce that brings together actors who are both human and idiosyncratic, Miranda Bell, Michael Webber, Julian Booth and Anna-Marie Sullivan. We talked a lot about my love for Ulrich Seidl’s movies with authentic and memorable cast. ET Casting got it and nailed it.

The location feeds into the family dynamic too, with its ornate and pristine feel. What were you looking for in the setting?

Set in sunny suburbia, we needed to find a location which conveyed the faded glamour of a present day family who are stuck in the early nineties, their golden years, when they were actually happy. My key reference was Martin Parr’s series Signs of The Times. I hope you’ll agree our retro, pink boudoir was the perfect stage. The juxtaposition between this ‘suburban dream’ and the horror of what unfolds was vital to the storytelling.

We wanted the film to feel like a sensory overload that spirals into something unexpected.

We were super excited when DOP Carl Burke said yes to shooting Round Robin. If anyone knows how Parr translates into cinema it’s Carl. In 2017 Carl was partnered with Martin Parr to create a series of work for the BBC, which saw Parr take his first foray into moving image. Together with Carl, our Production Designer Hugo Peers and Colourist Matthieu Toullet at Company 3 we created an aesthetic that is a striking and cinematic take in the comedy space.

How did you go about finding the rhythm of the dialogue in the edit? I imagine that’s where you really find the film.

I was very lucky to work with Editor Ella Oliver at TenThree. Our sessions always centered around rhythm and layering. We wanted the film to feel like a sensory overload that spirals into something unexpected. Our family’s fatal flaw is their preoccupation with appearances, which makes them incapable of seeing how each other really feels… even when their guest is bleeding out on the floor in front of them. We wanted it to be funny and tragic in equal measure. Ella really got the script so she always found the funny and the tenderness at the right moments.

Sound was done with Henry Wallis and Tony Rapaccioli at Wave Studios. We wanted to go for something expressive and for the sound to represent that pull between fantasy and reality. In the final monologue, the fantasy takes over and the matriarch completely dissociates, at this point we decided to create an entire soundscape for her fantasy, so the audience is momentarily transported outside the four walls. This was something that I hadn’t considered before I went to Wave and I am grateful for all their creative input which pushed the climactic ending deeper into the surreal.

Is there anything you wanted to say about finding the ending of the short?

Well that’s better seen than explained. I mentioned brutal, I mentioned surreal… I often wonder what the family is up to now. And whether Damien lived.

And what will you be following up with work-wise?

Since completing Round Robin I am enjoying being squirrelled away behind my laptop again. Ollie (Nias) calls it my cat because I love it a lot and it’s always on my lap. I am developing two short film scripts. One about a rivalry. One about the insidious nature of selling beauty ideals. I also have a treatment for a feature taking shape, more on that soon…

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