Among the wreckage of an old burnt out car, a blood-soaked mattress is lamentably gotten rid of in Gareth Malone’s hauntingly touching dramatic short Fly-Tipping. Malone, who made the film as part of his Filmmaking MA at the University of the West of Scotland, quietly immerses the audience in his characters’ struggles with minimal dialogue as he allows the grey scapes and tones of the film to speak for themselves. As Fly-Tipping progresses it’s hard not to battle with intense feelings of empathy, dislike, pity and anger for both of its protagonists but the focus is immovably drawn to Margo, played by Sky Sinclair, who Malone realised was the heart of his film early on in development. Malone wrote the film as a way of exploring his own debates on parenthood and that struggle shines through the emotional tumult depicted within. As Fly-Tipping sets out on the start of its festival journey, DN spoke to Malone about getting used to collaboration at the development stage of the project, telling such a female-centric story with sensitive and rich authenticity and giving his characters room to breathe which allowed for a deep emotional connection with the audience.
Where did the inspiration come to tell a story of miscarriage and the loss of a child?
I’ve been thinking more and more about having children over the past year or so and what it means to have children and that instinct to have and raise children and I wanted to really strip-bear that idea but at the same time, be very precise about how I was communicating the emotions that go alongside that. I like characters who are in a pressure cooker, or at least backed against a wall and have to act. The original concept was to have the two characters making their way from pillar to post in their car, dealing with the fallout of Margo losing her baby early on in the pregnancy and having the weight of this symbolic mattress following them around all day. In early drafts the mattress got larger and larger and other silly symbolic stuff.
As soon as I realised Margo was the heartbeat of the film, the writing became more focused towards her and her journey through the day.
Then, two things happened. We realised for mainly logistical reasons we couldn’t effectively film inside the car while it was in motion and do what we wanted to do at our budget level. The style and feel of the film pivoted at that point and my instincts told me to go slower and pensive with it. As soon as I realised Margo was the heartbeat of the film, the writing became more focused towards her and her journey through the day. Most of the time my main characters are female. I think it comes from my mum introducing me and my twin brother to films and always bringing home VHS tapes of all the recent releases. We had a pretty decent film library growing up thanks to my mum and in my dreams at night, Alien franchise induced nightmares, my mum would double as Ellen Ripley!
How did you ensure you were offering an authentic portrayal of those very female-centric moments such as Margo bleeding in the car and her pain in merely being able to stand up?
The short answer to this is that I tapped into the female experience by making sure I spoke to, listened to and asked questions of as many women as possible. I grew up watching female-centric films because my mum was/is a big fan of them, so I got into films like Beaches, Gorillas in the Mist and things like that. I know inherently that women go through these challenges and have lived with, and witnessed women experience these very things and wanted to portray them as genuinely as I could. Talking at length with my producer Laura Cunane and exec producer Sam Firth at the script stage was crucial in getting Margo’s physical condition to feel real.
When Sky Sinclair, who plays Margo, came on we really began to see the character come to life. A lot of our rehearsal time and conversations were about how Margo moved and how she would be feeling at each point in the story. Little things like her slightly wincing when she adjusts herself on the car seat and how slowly she moves around the scenes. I told both of the actors in rehearsal that Sandy, played by Paul Chalmers, is a fire-cracker and Margo is treacle. Both actors were able to take that and add a lot of nuance to it. On set, especially in the scene with the blood on the car seat, I made sure to tap the women around me to make sure things stayed true to life. My 1st AD, hair and makeup artist, production designer, sound recordist and lead actor were all women and I would be constantly asking questions and making sure it all felt genuine.
Throughout the film I felt an intensive emotional connection with the characters which was a mix of hatred, sympathy and understanding.
It’s important to me to create realistic characters on screen that say the right thing at the right time. I’ve never really written chunky first drafts and I’ve never had a problem writing quite lean scripts. There are, sometimes, benefits to being a lazy writer! I knew that casting was going to make or break the story because there is so much room for the actors in these roles that the space in between the words, the space you feel in the film, has to be filled with something captivating, or at least compelling.
I tapped into the female experience by making sure I spoke to, listened to and asked questions of as many women as possible.
I think if you give a character room to breathe and to think you can connect with them more. No matter what’s going on in a scene, if you can connect with them on that very basic level then you can understand them and I think that’s where the emotional connection to a character begins. When Margo takes cocaine in the film you don’t judge her for it because you can understand why she would need to or want to.
I also don’t like writing a lot of dialogue. The characters only speak when they have something to say, the same as we do in real life (mostly!) so I think that, too, lets us connect with them more. If you watch the film and isolate what the characters say to each other, neither of them are ever really ‘wrong’. Sandy is right when he says that they don’t have money to throw away on headphones but also Margo is right to want to comfort herself by buying them when she clearly doesn’t get that comfort from Sandy… it’s not what they say it’s how they choose to say it and I think we can all relate to or recognise a dysfunctional relationship and sympathise with it.
Fly-Tipping is formidable as your first short film made with a full professional crew. What were you looking to concentrate on going into the production and what were the hardest and most rewarding parts of the process for you?
This was effectively my debut short film. I made a 90 seconds film about 6 months before called The Class Photo, so the experience my exec producer Sam Firth brought to the table was invaluable. She steered me in the right direction at every turn. Sam’s insights into cinema and the human condition are…astonishing. I learned so much working alongside her in terms of developing material with collaborators. HINT: A little distance and an open mind are key – free lesson.
In the films I made at university, I’d be doing most of the work on my own. So I can write, shoot, and edit but none of the work I produced over that period (except the odd few) ever saw the light of day. So going into this film with one job to do felt great and dare I say…easy. This was the first film I felt like a director because that’s what I was on set to do. I wasn’t also the cinematographer, the runner and the producer all in one. I had an incredibly talented crew who made this whole experience very easy in comparison.
Having to go through every line one at a time and justify it was a massive learning experience.
The hardest part was in the development of the script. I was used to collaborating, to a degree, during production but had never had a guiding hand in the development of material. Having to go through every line one at a time and justify it was a massive learning experience and because I made this as part of an MA in Filmmaking at UWS, we followed an industry standard process of pitching an idea, having it ‘commissioned’ and then developed alongside and executive producer etc. it felt very real and very alien to me but I remember going through that development process and struggling then one day waking up and finally seeing the playing field in front of me. Sam Firth was instrumental in that and I can’t thank her enough for her showing me the way.
The cinematography and stylistic tone of the film sit perfectly alongside the subject matter. What were you looking for to develop the look from a more simplistic ‘misery grey’ palette?
Brendan Swift, DP showed his experience and artistry in collaborating with the look of the film and how we were going to go about shooting it. I try to tell my stories with as few cuts as possible. I love deep-framing, working out blocking with actors and the cinematographer to create simple setups that hopefully work in the world space we’ve created. I’ve often joked that I’m going to get “coverage is for cowards” tattooed discretely along the side of my middle finger for quick reference. But that said, we did storyboard our shots very carefully and deliberately, I’m not that cavalier!
We shot for four days in March 2022 in the Milton area in North Glasgow chasing the sun on a minute-to-minute-to-minute basis. The wind was gusty the entire week which really was a double-edged sword. It meant any bad weather didn’t linger but the clouds were ever-changing. It made for some nice visuals too though. I love how wind-swept the last scenes are. It’s like we’re being swept away with Margo’s last thought into the air.
I love deep-framing, working out blocking with actors and the cinematographer to create simple setups that hopefully work in the world space we’ve created.
I’m a big Almodóvar fan. I love colour and how he uses it boldly and I think you can see a little of that in Fly-Tipping. We planned to have a warm look to it early on and we did a lot of tests with lenses and looked at a lot of films and spent hours on ShotDeck looking for the right look we wanted to aim for. We loved the look of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey and early on thought something like that could feel real in this story and would be a slight shift from that bleak feel that you can imagine. But we even looked at Tony Scott’s Domino as well because we were really keen to pull out all the stops to make it distinctively bold.
Can you tell us a bit more about the equipment used and how this affected the look and tone of the film?
No Drama Ltd. provided us with professional-grade kit at a very generous rate. A large-scale production came in after us and requested our lens package for an extended period of time and When No Drama informed us of that they also provided us with a list of alternatives. Arri’s Master Primes were the only choice for both Brendan and I from that list and we chose the 2:1 aspect ratio (Vittorio Storaro – I love you) and shot it on the Arri Alexa Mini.
As an intimate, sympathetic character study, we wanted Fly-Tipping’s look to be comfortably naturalistic without losing a deeper sense of emotion by coming off as too realistic. The Master Primes provide the perfect foundation to build that type of look. Even wide open at a wicked-fast T1.3, the image never falls apart while providing as dreamy a bokeh as we needed. The Master Primes are a favourite lens of Brendan’s and I was aware of them through reputation alone. They were able to maintain a consistently clean image across the entire set and are some of the most versatile cinema lenses out there and I know Brendan will be shooting with them for the rest of his career!
We wanted Fly-Tipping’s look to be comfortably naturalistic without losing a deeper sense of emotion by coming off as too realistic.
How did you go about planning the set-ups for the car shots which show a comprehensive understanding of blocking and focusing on the characters at hand whilst also absorbing us in the film as a whole?
I love deep staging and trying to tell a story within the one frame and I think blocking becomes intuitive and natural when you do that. Blocking is one of my favourite things because you start quite complex with it and then with the actors, begin to simplify it down to get it to a point where it feels real. Kind of similar to the dialogue…real people don’t move unless they have to and for a reason. Paul and Sky showed great intuition when we were blocking out the scenes but Brendan and I also spoke at length about it too when making up the shot list.
We looked at Training Day for the scene in the car when they’re arguing. That film has incredible interior car shots that do so much to convey emotional tone and atmosphere and that’s something Brendan brought to me that I immediately got. The decision to laser focus our attention on Margo in these scenes came in the edit room though when I just felt more and more drawn into her character. FYI we covered that argument scene with seven angles and only used two. It felt very bold and risky at the time (to not cut away from Margo) but as soon as we did it we knew it was right.
With a four day shoot, how much footage did you have and can you talk us through your edit process to arrive at the finished film?
We shot about four hours of footage in total. Our editor Graeme Rennie and I spoke at length about pacing and went over the emotional tone of the scenes every day on set because he was also our excellent on-set photographer! I can’t talk up the crew enough. Rennie was turning around amazing edits in very little time and his eye for an actual cut is incredible. Like I said I love deep staging and telling a story in a single frame which has made me almost steadfast against cutting in a scene. The first cut away from Margo sitting on the bed is perfect and exemplifies his sensibility of cutting at the exact right time.
The decision to laser focus our attention on Margo in these scenes came in the edit room though when I just felt more and more drawn into her character.
The film began to take shape after the fourth edit or thereabouts but I had this niggling feeling that the point of view in the film wasn’t as strong as it could be and I remember asking Rennie to do an edit of the film that literally never cuts away from the Margo character. Just to see what would happen. That’s when I realised how to go about telling this story and that’s the road we continued along. The performances in the film are so strong from both actors but we couldn’t do it if Sky wasn’t totally immersed in the character and able to communicate so much with her eyes and body language.
You are at such a pivotal and thrilling point in your filmmaking life, alongside the MA what’s next for you?
This is one of three films I’ll make during the MA. I’m excited to make a short documentary at the end of the year and then my final MA film. Both are in early development so look out for them in the not-so-distant future! I’m doing the MA part-time so I have some time to make some more shorts. I’ve been applying for some funding in Scotland to get my next short made but if I don’t manage to get that funding I’m confident that with the network of amazing creatives around me we can make a great follow-up film that we can be equally proud of.