Sometimes it’s fun to look back on human history and acknowledge the sheer absurdity of the way we used to resolve conflicts. The pistol duel is the perfect example of that. An event which would’ve been used to decide any number of petty issues from stolen goods to personal pride. Filmmaker Jon Olav Stokke (last seen on DN with fractious fraternal drama Our Father’s Cabin) presents one of these encounters, in all its farcical glory, in Deloping – a period comedy where two women prepare for a fight to the death. Stokke captures the moments of miscommunication and confusion that lead up to the all important gunfire in hilarious fashion, from the step counting through to the operation of the weaponry, the sheer ridiculousness of the duel is on full display. DN is delighted to premiere Deloping online today alongside a conversation with Stokke where he discusses the pros and cons of self-funding your own shorts, the challenge of adapting to the ever-changing weather during production, and the important influence of the Coen Brothers.
Looking back, the concept of the duel is so bizarre but you can also fully believe that this is something people would’ve done because of the strange logic they applied to it. How did you arrive at the central idea of a duel for Deloping?
I’ve been fascinated by flintlock pistols for quite some time. These pistols have gained notoriety for their reputation of being virtually impossible to aim and their penchant for misfiring. To me, the concept of duelling is an inherently absurd and bizarre act. It’s intriguing that duelling was often perceived as a highly religious endeavour, where getting hit, against all odds, was seen as a divine judgment, suggesting that God had deemed you to be in the wrong.
One evening during the COVID pandemic, after watching Hamilton, I texted Tom Mair with the idea for a story. In this initial concept, two characters would meet at dawn to duel. At that point, the story began with one character bluntly asking, “Why the fuck are you taking your clothes off?”. The concept immediately intrigued Tom, and he swiftly crafted an exceptional first draft centred around the theme of ‘from foes to friends’. The story explored two individuals engaged in a duel but who continually missed each other, forcing them to talk it out instead.
To me, the concept of duelling is an inherently absurd and bizarre act.
Did you draw direct inspiration from any historical events or other pieces of cinema?
Our initial inspiration drew from a curious folklore dating back to 1892. According to this tale, Princess Metternich and Countess Kielmannsegg duelled topless with swords over flower arrangements for the Viennese International Exhibition of Music and Theater. The reason behind duelling topless was their fear of infections if they sustained wounds. Tom coined the term “cloth death” as a clever reference to this unusual choice. Unlike our characters, Mary and Emma, the princess and countess duelled until drawing first blood.
Historically, duelling is often portrayed as a phenomenon where men duel over matters like women or money, reminiscent of Chekhov’s The Duel. However, we were interested in the idea of women duelling, with such portrayals still being scarce in film, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite coming closest to exploring this. All of these elements fuelled our inspiration for the film.
How do you approach the practicalities of getting shorts off the ground? Do you self-fund or seek funding, for example?
My shorts are self-financed, my day job is editing, and through this, I’ve saved up enough money to fund my short films. While this approach does take time, I believe it offers the best way to maintain control over my career. It’s liberating to set my own schedule and not wait for financiers to release funding or seek permission to start filming. With this approach, we decide when we’re ready and what kind of film we want to create.
What were your next steps once you and Tom had the script locked in?
Once we had a screenplay that we were confident in, we were ready to share it and begin assembling our crew. We had already identified Eleanor Morton and Lola-Rose Maxwell as our ideal cast during the writing process. We reached out to both of them through social media and were fortunate that they both responded positively to the script and immediately came on board.
With this approach, we decide when we’re ready and what kind of film we want to create.
With the addition of our producer, Fiona Boakes, progress accelerated significantly. Our first order of business was securing the location. I conducted initial scouting using a combination of Google Maps and Airbnb before physically visiting potential locations. For my short films, I’ve found it helpful to rent an Airbnb very close to the desired shooting location. This provided us with a nearby unit base; in this case, the Airbnb owner also owned the land where we filmed. It streamlined the logistics and allowed us to secure our location quickly. The property owner was accommodating, even allowing us to visit the location so we could start prepping for the shoot.
How did you approach costuming and recreating the period visually?
When creating a period piece, costumes play a pivotal role. It’s crucial to have someone with expertise in costumes and knowledge of the period in which the story is set. We were fortunate to have Kitty Bennett as our costume designer. She is a highly talented costume designer, and her history degree made her an invaluable asset for ensuring historical accuracy in our project.
I feel like the comedy of Deloping comes through the actors but also the framing of the action. What references and conversations informed that?
During pre-production, our Cinematographer Chloé Deleplace and I frequently communicated over Zoom. We discussed lenses and filters to achieve the desired look and atmosphere. I opted for a style reminiscent of the Coen brothers, shooting the dialogue from inside the conversation between our two characters, using wide lenses. I love how the Coen brothers don’t follow the unwritten rule that tragedy plays in a close-up and comedy in a long shot. Chloé did a fantastic job with all the financial constraints we had.
As we were coming out of COVID, it was hard to schedule the shoot because we didn’t know if we were going to go back into lockdown or if someone got sick and we’d have to postpone, so it was challenging to set a schedule until we had everything else we needed ready. But a filming date emerged as we finalised the various aspects of pre-production.
Your outdoor location looked fairly remote, did that throw up any difficulties to production?
Shooting a self-funded short film has its fair share of challenges. Beyond the financial limitations, our biggest antagonist during production was Mother Nature, the effing weather! Tom wrote a hilarious dark comedy set entirely outside, which relied heavily on sunny weather. But there we were, in Wales, in the heart of October, a time and place not exactly known for its sunny disposition. The weather Gods were punishing us, predicting torrential rain. We had set the shooting schedule; there was no moving it. Tom, displaying his genius yet again, rose to the challenge and penned a “wet draft” just a few nights before the shoot; in the case of rain, we could shoot two scenes without losing the story. As long as we spotted a few precious sunny breaks, we’d seize the opportunity to capture the rest of the film.
Directing and editing simultaneously presents its own set of challenges. It’s easy to become too close to the story and lose perspective on what’s funny and what isn’t.
When you have a solid team put together, nothing will stand in the way; we were effective during the sunny intervals, and when the rain kicked in, we all sat in it and got soaked but shot the scenes we needed. Before travelling back to London, we filmed a final couple of sunny scenes, and we were done. Despite my initial dread of the unpredictable weather, I must confess that Deloping benefited enormously from its whims. In fact, the unexpected downpours added an authentic touch, and we even sprinkled in some thunder for good measure, turning our challenges into creative opportunities.
You mentioned earlier in our conversation that you also edit your shorts, what do you find are the benefits and challenges of operating with both hats on?
Directing and editing simultaneously presents its own set of challenges. It’s easy to become too close to the story and lose perspective on what’s funny and what isn’t. Fortunately, I had the support of Tom, the crew, and friends to ensure I stayed true to our creative vision. I have great admiration for the Coen brothers, who also used to edit their films together. Undoubtedly, their editing style influenced me during the editing process of Deloping.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about the music. Who did you work with on the score?
Samuel Karl Bohn’s composing elevates the comedy. We drew inspiration from the works of Ennio Morricone, combined with the music from Raising Arizona by Carter Burwell, a combination we found hilariously fitting. We knew we had something truly special when all the elements came together.
How’s the future of your filmmaking looking at present?
I’m currently developing a whole host of short films I’d like to direct, some of which I’m writing in Norwegian. Additionally, I’m working on a crime/thriller feature film set in Scotland.
I’m also in pre-production for a short film written by Tejas Ewing. It’s a noir thriller that I love. We plan to shoot it before the end of the year. Just to add a touch of indie magic, we’re keeping it super low-budget because we can’t afford anything else, channelling the spirit of the early Duplass brothers’ cinematic brilliance. We might even shoot it on MiniDV!