Helen wants to please. She is driven by a seemingly fathomless pit of toxic positivity that, on a surface level may seem benign but once the veneer cracks exposes deep-seated hurt and rather unhealthy coping mechanisms. I’m A Good Person, directed by Tamsin Topolski, is a wonderfully dark dive into one woman’s journey to find love and connection as she navigates the cruel world we live in always looking on the bright side of life. Topolski found herself immediately drawn to the acerbic and unconventional script written by Ross O’Donnellan, who stars alongside Laure Stockley and brings the film’s vile male antagonist to punchable life. The world crafted in I’m a Good Person reflects a stark and almost bare existence which highlights the noxiousness of the relationship Helen has tied herself to and evocatively explores what happens when even the meekest of us are pushed to breaking point. As I’m a Good Person continues on its festival run, we speak to Topolski about drawing from her own experience in front of the camera to focus on tight rehearsals, reflecting Helen’s mental and physical demise through all aspects of the film’s colour palette and her different experience working on the music having come from a background in music videos.
How did you come to be working as the director of this delightfully dark and twisted project?
The initial concept for I’m A Good Person was cooked up by our brilliant writer Ross O’Donnellan, who also stars in the film as Mark. I was sent the script to read by Carali Films, with a view to pitch and loved it. The script was idiosyncratic in its tone, a wonderful blend of darkness and satire, that resonated with me on a personal level as well as a creative one. Having only directed music videos, I was really keen to move into narrative work so it felt like a wonderful opportunity to do that. I put together a pitch deck, met with Ross to talk about my ideas and how I would approach the project and was subsequently invited on board as director. For the following few months, Ross and I worked together on the development of the script. Once the script felt complete, we approached the fantastic Izzy Meikle-Small and Will Matthews who both came on board to produce.
The script was idiosyncratic in its tone, a wonderful blend of darkness and satire, that resonated with me on a personal level as well as a creative one.
Can you tell us more about your pitch deck and what you put together which proved you were right for the role?
The dark, satirical tone of Ross’ script had this distinctly off-kilter, wonderfully awkward quality to it, in both its structure and its characters. It brought to mind the work of filmmakers Ruben Östlund and Yorgos Lanthimos who (in my opinion) are the modern-day kings of satire. Movies such as Dogtooth, The Lobster and Force Majeure came up a lot when I was building the pitch deck and their work became key references both tonally and visually for the project.
Ross O’Donnellan is so wonderful in so much as I want to reach in and push him into traffic, how did you get Laure Stockley on board and then build that perfectly unhealthy chemistry between the two of them?
So great to hear you came away feeling so viscerally about Mark. Laure and Ross actually did some acting training together many moons ago, so have known each other for years. They had always wanted to work on something together, so the film was partly born out of this desire to collaborate and the character of Helen was written specifically with Laure in mind. It was wonderful to be able to tackle these characters with two actors who already knew each other so well. It meant they were completely at ease and fearless with one another.
As an actor myself, I recognise the importance of rehearsals ahead of a shoot, so I was keen to have as much rehearsal time as possible. Being able to get deep into those characters with the actors only allows for more freedom to play on the day, especially with regards to short films when schedules are so tight. Rehearsal also means that dialogue can continue to be tweaked and tightened as you go, which helped the actors and myself hone in on the authenticity and truth of the characters further.
With the writing and all of the idiosyncrasy in the script was everything done to the letter or did you allow for improvisation on set?
There is a very rhythmic pace to the dialogue and language is such an important part of the story, so we didn’t want to disrupt that too much. However, we made sure we got a lot of rehearsals in ahead of shooting, which allowed us to play around with the language, make tweaks here and there and hone in on the authenticity of the scenes. It also massively helps when one of the actors in the rehearsal room is also the writer! – it was a very collaborative and unconfined process. Once we had the shooting script locked in, it was really important to me that we stuck to the language that was on the page. The characters’ behaviours are very intentionally performative and we use quite a lot of theatrical devices in the film, so it felt like anything too improvised would have undermined the script and the satire. But with the actors being so familiar with their dialogue, their characters and the rhythm of the piece, it meant they could feel loose and playful on the day to explore the scenes with those boundaries in place.
The characters’ behaviours are very intentionally performative and we use quite a lot of theatrical devices in the film.
The look and feel of I’m A Good Person pairs seamlessly with the plot almost beat to beat, what were your aims when planning the film’s aesthetic?
I initially wanted to shoot on film, being from an analogue background and am visually drawn to film – however as I developed my ideas, I quickly realised that film was perhaps not the right medium for this story (music to everyone’s ears) so our DP Simon Plunket and I decided that shooting on digital was actually the correct creative choice. To explore the performative, constipated nature of the toxic relationship at the core of our story, I wanted to create a very clean, precise, non-romantic, almost clinical aesthetic and digital provided us with that precision. We shot on the Alexa Mini with a set of Master Primes, 12mm Signature and a 24-290 Angenieux Zoom. In terms of camera movement, I largely wanted a blend of steady static shots with a lot of slow push-ins and pull-outs.
To explore the performative, constipated nature of the toxic relationship at the core of our story, I wanted to create a very clean, precise, non-romantic, almost clinical aesthetic.
In exploring this clean, sparse aesthetic further, I really wanted to get the art direction and locations right. We were very lucky to gain access to this very wonderful house as our main location, which was almost like a gallery space in its neatness and lack of clutter. Annie Tinsley, our brilliant art director, is from a fine art background which was such a bonus, as I wanted the spaces and the props to feel as performed/contrived as our two main characters are. As if they are on display, being ‘good, sentient, feeling people’, living correctly, saying all the right things, etc.
Through costume we gradually brought Helen into Mark’s colour palette, the more controlling and manipulative he gets.
It’s also notable how Helen’s appearance and demeanour slowly change and degrade throughout the film. Can you tell us more about reflecting Helen’s progression through colour?
A specific colour palette was something I was really keen on exploring as part of the storytelling. Using colour as a tool to visually sap Helen of her previous self once she meets Mark. Annie Tinsley was our brilliant production designer as well as our costume designer, so having Annie heading both departments meant there was a visual consistency throughout, with our conversations about all aspects of production design being strongly interlinked. The Mark character has a very consistent colour palette of beige and creams so through costume, we gradually brought Helen into Mark’s colour palette, the more controlling and manipulative he gets.
We did the same thing with the shifting colours in the set design as well. Our brilliant DP Simon Plunket was involved early on in the project, so we worked closely together on these colour palette ideas and worked out how to create a gradual sapping of warmth through lighting as well, mirroring the draining of Helen’s vitality and identity within the relationship. The colour grade also played a big part in highlighting these changes. Working with the brilliant colourist Toby Tomkins, we started the film off with Helen’s ‘rose-tinted’ view of the world, bringing in warmer pinky tones and then as the film progresses, gradually cooling everything into a much colder and bluer world.
Likewise, what was your approach to the music and sound design elements of the film? How did you find those aspects of production given your music video background?
Having worked solely on music videos before working on this project, coming to the music in post production, rather than it being the initial seed of a visual idea, was a whole new experience for me. I had very clear ideas about the music as early on as my pitch deck. I think because the script was so rhythmic, the musical ideas struck very early. Because I had quite specific ideas, Caitlin Spiller (our wonderful editor) and I worked quite closely with temp music throughout the editing process. The temp music definitely informed the rhythm and pacing of the edit quite a lot. It felt very natural to me to have music to work to during the edit. We then got the very brilliant Hollie Buhagiar on board to compose the score. We wanted to get a little weirder with the music and lean into the off-kilter tone of the story. I wanted the music to create a feeling of unease and discomfort whilst still keeping it in the realm of comedy.
We wanted to get a little weirder with the music and lean into the off-kilter tone of the story.
Our sound designer Sam Mason and I then worked on highlighting this feeling of unease by subtly accentuating certain elements in the mix, like the way Mark eats or brushes his teeth or talks to camera, giving him a monster-like grossness. Building the tension in the street scene was really important dramatically, as the traffic incident is never actually visually portrayed. I made the decision to shoot this scene like this early on, firstly because of budget restrictions but I also felt that the tension and drama would land more poignantly and disturbingly through the build of sound and music rather than seeing it all happen on screen. I wanted to create an uncertainty for the audience, not feeling one hundred per cent certain of whether there was a push or not, which I hope the soundscape manages to do effectively.
Are you now sold on narrative filmmaking and what are you working on next?
Completely! It’s the best. I’m keen to write whatever I direct next and have several script ideas on the go, but I’m focusing on a short film script at the moment currently titled Eleven with a view to shoot next year. I’m also in the edit for a short documentary that I’ve been working on for a couple of years titled Genes of the Soul. In the acting realm of things, I’m currently filming a show called The Madness for Netflix opposite Colman Domingo (although we are currently on hiatus because of the SAG strikes).