At the very heart of it, John Mark Fitzpatrick’s Grey Moth produced short Outdoors is a love story. Two men meet in the park, a chance encounter where that immediate, palpable chemistry exudes from the screen. What follows is an all too relatable shift, after experiencing true and heartfelt intimacy, where protective barriers are put up. Filmmaker Fitzpatrick – who also co-wrote the BAFTA-nominated short Wren Boys – wanted to explore the invisible barriers that we all feel compelled to hide behind and Outdoors takes us through an emotionally charged and absorbing journey which demonstrates that there is often more to people than meets the eye. Fitzpatrick worked with intimacy co-ordinators whose skills and knowledge were essential in creating the film’s passionate sex scene which acts as a gateway to the deeper connection playing out between our protagonists. Employing a variety of techniques to absorb its audience in the unfolding nascent relationship, Outdoors keeps you guessing right through to the film’s denouement. With Outdoors making its online premiere on Directors Notes today we speak to Fitzpatrick about embracing improvisation during rehearsals and on set, the inspiration he found working with a queer intimacy co-ordinator and finally finishing the film a year after it started its festival run.
Outdoors immediately blew me away with the depth of the journey it explores within such a short runtime. Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
I was thinking a lot about invisible barriers and things we make invisible; things we don’t want to see and people we’d rather not have to think about. Specifically when it comes to hidden homelessness. That there are people who are long term homeless but working very hard to hide it for fear of judgement. Everyone who lives in a city has these invisible barriers and they use them as protection. Life can be transactional. Friendships and sex can be transactional. A trade-off from loneliness. But sex has the possibility to open up intimacy if the two people are ready for it. These two characters are ready for that intimacy but then their roles in the outside world, where they carry around these invisible barriers, come back. When they see each other in this world, can their intimacy survive and push through those invisible barriers? For sure it takes a strength of will and bravery to dismantle these walls we build around ourselves. But it’s worth it for that intimacy. To feel a connection. And probably to build a new invisible wall around the two of them.
In the writing, it is very obvious these characters want to connect and open up to each other but there is a hesitance there. How was that emotional tension developed and maintained right the way through until that painfully intimate and open ending in the park?
The main goal dramatically was that Nathan would fall in love with Bim and then realise his situation. So in these scenes Bim is really trying to dodge questions while still having that strong desire to connect. He doesn’t want to give a straight answer but he also doesn’t want to seem like he’s blocking Nathan. He wants to let him know he feels a connection without giving away any information. Nathan is more simple in a way. He has a very defined successful life but he has these walls up in terms of the standards he wants for his life. He has all these expectations and every time he meets someone new he punishes them for not meeting his expectations. But then this genuine connection with Bim starts to cut through that. And he starts to open up to Bim freely, even though Bim is not opening up to him.
The opening scene switches instantly from that immediate chemistry between two strangers to your beautifully intimate scene in the bathroom – why did you want to jump straight into their sexual encounter?
There was actually a small chat-up conversation there that fell to the cutting room floor. It wasn’t necessary and it felt like dialogue from a porn film. I thought it was important that they met in the park and that we knew they were strangers. Once that’s established I think we can jump straight to the sex. I was very keen for the sex to be like a handshake. Which is how it can be as a gay person sometimes. You fuck and then you get to know them. But I was very sure that the sex was not going to be impersonal. The sex was a shortcut to intimacy and through that, they felt this connection or desire to know more. I was very certain I wanted the sex to be romantic and not realistic. No fumbling for lube and condoms.
Tommy being a queer intimacy coordinator really helped connect the actors to their experience and make sure it felt authentic.
Ita O’Brian and the work she’s done with intimacy coordination and making that more of the norm on productions is such an inspiration. Can you tell us more about working with Tommy Ross-Williams, Ita and your actors to bring your stunning sex scene to life?
Ita and Tommy are stunning. I first met Ita when I was a student at Central and she was doing the Movement MA there. I primarily know her as a movement director and to be honest it still felt like that was what she was doing for the film. I think all films should have a movement director. Firstly what she and Tommy did was create a clear structure for the actors’ agency in the rehearsal and development of those scenes. Once that was established we could all work freely with creating the story. I was clear I wanted a passionate, generous and romantic sex scene. And everyone was keen to get it right and bring their experience into it. Tommy being a queer intimacy coordinator really helped connect the actors to their experience and make sure it felt authentic.
What were you looking for when casting and how did you work with both Sam Goodchild and Nathan Ives-Moiba on their performances?
I was looking for some real life infamous version of Bimini from Drag Race UK. And I found someone like that but then Sam auditioned and he had this realness to him. He had all the fun but also this energy of grit underneath that I thought would work perfectly for Bim’s situation. He needs to be charming and full of energy but there has to be some truth underneath it and that’s what Sam brought. Nathan had a quieter confidence, the kind that can be transmitted with a long stare. He’s one of those people who can just stare at you without blinking as you mumble away. But again underneath that is something childlike and hurt. I think when you start to write characters and think about people you start to see that most adults carry the feelings of a hurt child around with them and it informs quite deeply everything they do. We all need therapy.
I was clear I wanted a passionate, generous and romantic sex scene. And everyone was keen to get it right and bring their experience into it.
Everything feels very real and your cinematography has a rawness to it, what was the thinking that defined the film’s visual style?
I was really conscious that the first job of the film is to establish the credibility of the world. The most important thing you learn in film is everything in the frame is there by design. But the great fear is a moment where you lose the audience because it’s not credible or consistent. Cinematographer Ailsa Aikoa and I wanted a stylised look but one that felt authentic to us. We wanted the camera to be a little detached and static. Only as they get to know each other does it start to move. Then on the bus scene we get a harsh reality cutting into their romance. We were very inspired by Children of Men for that scene. I think if the weather had been better we would have liked the park scene to look like Stranger by the Lake but on the whole, I think we achieved something which gives the audience the right feeling for the story.
Can you tell us about the equipment you used for the set-ups over your various locations and how long you were shooting for?
We shot on a tiny budget over three days in London. Everything was done for favours and I think our biggest expense was the permit to shoot in the park. We shot on an Arri Alexa mini with Panavision Vintage lenses. We had some beautiful lighting setups for the interiors and for the exteriors it was mainly on sticks or the one running shot on a rickshaw and then of course our Children of Men handheld on the bus. Ailsa is a very well prepared DOP. We get on well because we both like to prep a lot but then when it comes to shooting we can keep it fluid and change what we are doing depending on what’s happening on the day.
Archie Sinclair and Chuckie McEwan our producers from Grey Moth were amazing at pulling together all the details from pre-production to the shoot to post production. They have a great drive to solve problems and they worked hard to make sure we completed the process to the highest standard. In post we had Jack Williams at The Assembly Rooms who worked tirelessly with me on the edit building a beautiful rhythm and creatively rebuilding the story from the footage. Then for the grade Ailsa and Toby Tomkins from Cheat did a beautiful and detailed job to finish the film. Ailsa has great knowledge of colour process and Toby is one of the best colourists working in the business at the moment. We were very lucky to have such a strong team.
What changed or shifted from your initial script in the editing process?
In rehearsals we played around and improvised scenes that were around the story and even ended up including one of the scenes the actors improvised. After rehearsals I rewrote and was rewriting during the shoot pretty much. If I felt a scene needed a new line or something cut, myself and the actors were able to do that quite easily. For me I’m happy to keep it free and improvise on set. I think it’s important to keep the thing alive. The script can be a place where things solidify and the idea dies, if you get too attached to it you forget that it was just a way of communicating an idea and a world. I think the story is in the people who are making it and it needs to be kept alive between them. That said, in the chaos of a production, especially one with no budget, it can be very useful to have some solid agreed story to fall back on.
The script can be a place where things solidify and the idea dies, if you get too attached to it you forget that it was just a way of communicating an idea and a world.
For the shoot I had some ideas about vignettes in the park of other couples which seemed totally unnecessary in the edit. Also the first chat up conversation we dropped quite quickly. And now a year on from our festival premier I’ve cut another bit of dialogue at the end that always made me feel a bit queasy and it works so much better. Dialogue if it’s not necessary just farts all over the scene. Once I cut it out you just see this deep connection that the characters have and they get close to each other like this intimacy is what they have been desperately searching for. Because the actors are so good and they built up a chemistry in rehearsals it worked. So I think I’ve finally finished the film, a year after its festival release.
Outdoors enjoyed a deservedly successful and fruitful festival run, what’s next on the roster for you?
Thank you! We’re very happy it’s been around the world and back again and after getting listed on DN’s what to watch at BFI LFF last year it feels like full circle to have our online launch with you. Thank you for having us.
I’ve just wrapped on my new short which I co-produced with my husband Bingqiang Xu and Isobel Richards who I also met at Central many years ago. We set up a company Xu Fitz (@XuFitzfilm) to produce the film and Bing was amazing at campaigning to get our funding complete. He showed Outdoors to the head of CAA in China and she agreed to co-produce this with a view to working on my first feature together. My first feature is about a Chinese student in London so there are more obvious connections there.
The film we’ve just wrapped is about a young girl on a farm who uses rituals and magical thinking to try and regain control of her world. It’s quite a tough story in some ways but the child’s perspective and the self-belief in her magic makes it beautiful. The actors we had, cast by Shannon Dowling-McNulty and Olivia Laydon, did an amazing job and the crew worked so hard on a crazy schedule to get it shot in four days. I worked again with DOP Ailsa Aikoa who also shot Outdoors and it was beautiful to see that creative relationship develop and also see how far we’ve both come in two years. We are currently in the edit but we also have another day shoot with a miniature model of a road which we are using for a VFX shot. I imagine post will be finished by the end of the year and we’ll start looking at festivals then.