The tumultuousness of turning thirty is a definitive moment in many people’s lives but it is one often not discussed as much as the burgeoning freedom of your twenties or the existential reckoning of your forties. Filmmaker Tom Gentle captures the essence of this unnoticed period in his comedy drama Close, which takes a look at a couple who find themselves questioning their decisions whilst being trapped outside of their flat in a looming stairwell. It’s a situation which operates on a dramatic level but also on a metaphorical one as a purgatorial battleground between life’s stages. A film we first picked out as a highlight of this year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival, DN is delighted to premiere Close alongside a conversation with Gentle where he delves deep into the improvisation-led methods he embraced to forge the story in addition to the cinematic choices he made in order to maximise the film’s palpable atmosphere of uncertainty.
What is the origin story of Close as a short film?
The film really started when my girlfriend and I got locked out in much the same way as Sam and Jamie. Our time in the close was nowhere near as eventful, but we spoke then about the change it reflected in our relationship, back in the really early days it would have been a little adventure, a great chance to just lie on the couch and talk, discover new things about one another, play games. But after a few years in a relationship you lose that a little bit, and that’s what I wanted to zero in on, what exactly it was that we’d lost and why, whether that loss was inevitable as the relationship progressed, whether it had any bearing specifically on our relationship, and whether we had gained something in its place.
You have the visual metaphors too with the people above, next to, and below Sam and Jamie. When and how did that idea find its way into the story?
I did a bit of development on my own so that by the time I took it to Simone Pereira Hind and Anna Dawson at SPH Casting, I knew I wanted the couple to be on the middle landing. Above them, their youth, a party that had been raging all night and was still going. Across from them, dangerously close, a middle-aged couple, who weren’t necessarily that happy. And waiting in the darkness below, a lonely older lady who was losing her marbles.
The mid-life crisis is often discussed, but no-one talks about the rickety bridge between the second decade and the third.
I’d also decided I wanted to focus more on the idea of reaching your early thirties with a partner, and the change that evokes in your relationship. That strange time in your life when you are no longer truly young, but certainly don’t consider yourself to be old. You lament but happily forego the wild times from the decade before, and feel strangely guilty about your maturing tastes and habits. Decisions before now have been lightweight, transient, unconsidered. But then very suddenly everything is more abiding and permanent. Buying rather than renting. Making career moves rather than plucking at whatever falls in your lap. Saving. Marriage. Having children rather than being childish. The mid-life crisis is often discussed, but no one talks about the rickety bridge between the second decade and the third.
I read that you didn’t put together a typical screenplay for Close. Could you take us through how you constructed the narrative with your actors?
Once I had this very rough idea of what I wanted the film to be, I put together a treatment of sorts. Simone and Anna put this out to casting agents and invited self-tapes. I think we looked at around 60 tapes and asked 16 actors to come to one of four four hour sessions. Some of them were real life couples who had taped together, some of them were in relationships, some of them were single. I asked them to contribute ideas and scenarios of their own, and before we kicked off we sat and discussed being in your thirties and what relationships meant to them. Then we improvised around all of our ideas. I’d brought in the couch, the same one we used in the film, and they took turns pairing up and working through improvised scenarios. I recorded the sessions, around 10 hours of footage in total, and took copious notes. From there, I dissected it all, took it apart and put it back together as the final script.
I love it when actors surprise one another, which is key to listening and reacting I find.
Aside from developing the plot, did having that time with your actors have any other benefits?
I also loved using the workshops as an opportunity to cast the film. So often on shorts you see someone for 15-20 minutes, maybe once again if you’re lucky, and don’t get the opportunity to chemistry test. With this process, I spent hours with each actor, swapping them round to try different combinations, and ended up with two amazing performers, Kirsty Findlay and Ewan Miller.
And even though we had ‘locked’ the script at this point, we still tried to keep it as loose as possible. I love it when actors surprise one another, which is key to listening and reacting I find. I encouraged them to deviate from the words if they felt compelled, there was very little that I was totally wedded to. And more than anything, challenge and break up the other person’s flow, change your timings so the other would be forced to react. I evidently wanted the dialogue and relationship to feel as natural as possible.
Did you do anything in particular when you were shooting to obtain the claustrophobic, almost purgatorial feel of the film?
We wanted to shoot on the Alexa LF to give us that full frame look. In a practical sense, we were in a very tight location which we knew we didn’t want to leave, although we did shoot an entire scene inside the flat that we discarded… The location is such a huge part of the film, this purgatorial space between outside and in, we really wanted to feel that hemming them in. So shooting large format allowed us to go in tight on their faces but still read their environment around them.
The location is such a huge part of the film, this purgatorial space between outside and in, we really wanted to feel that hemming them in.
I feel like the way they’re sitting on the sofa across the film changes too. Were you blocking and framing Close in a way to enhance that sense of isolation?
The DoP Owen Laird and I spoke a lot about increasingly isolating the characters. A lot of this is done with light, when they first emerge from the flat they are immersed in fresh, clean daylight. But as things worsen for and between them, it gets darker, and eventually the daylight is replaced entirely with a murky, glaring tungsten light that is typical to Glasgow closes. Our main means of isolating them from each other was simply breaking them apart in the frame. To begin with they frequently share the image, balanced evenly or occupying the other’s space in the foreground. But as the film goes on, we shoot most of it in singles, surrounding each character in negative space and skewing them off to the side of the frame. Creating imbalance was key, in the early scenes they are central and powerful, in the latter scenes they are off-centre and small.
Everything you’ve mentioned, particularly in pre-production, is quite unusual for a short film. Did the rehearsals and script development make it quite a lengthy project?
Ewan actually teased me that despite him having done big TV shows and other films, it’s the longest pre-production process he has ever gone through. I was adamant that I wanted to do it outside of COVID, I wanted to workshop in a studio with no masks, in person, and not be restricted for time. So after the initial self-tapes around Easter, I think we didn’t actually workshop until September. And then I took a month or so to write the script, and we didn’t shoot until January. So it took… nine months.
How’s the future looking for you project-wise at the moment?
I’ve just finished a short called Do You Have Kids?, written by an amazing writer called Sam Brain. That’ll start its festival run at the beginning of next year, so I’m looking forward to attending some far-flung festivals with that. I’m also starting to dip my toe in the long-form water, I’ve got various feature and TV projects in development, one of which I’ll be developing with Less is More and Screen Scotland Residential in a few months time. Like Close, I want to tread that line between drama and comedy, finding serious in the comedy and laughter in the tragedy.