The joy of seeing a promising young filmmaker grow and grow with each new project is one of the great privileges we get here at DN. Director Harry Sherriff is one of those filmmakers, someone who we first featured for his craft-building exercise of making a film every month for a whole year, then more recently with his ambitious self-aware dark comedy Harry is Not Okay, and now Jeremy: A Nightmare, his brilliant and most assured work to date. Jeremy is a screenwriting professor whose world starts to fold in when someone who looks exactly like him turns up to potentially take his job. It’s dark, high-concept, strange and utterly compelling and DN is delighted to premiere Jeremy: A Nightmare alongside an extensive conversation with Sherriff, where he talks through his development as a filmmaker at the NFTS, the joys of creative overlapping with his crew, and the vision he has for his filmmaking future.
Jeremy: A Nightmare is such a wild, paranoid film. Where did it begin for you?
It’s always strange looking back on a film’s conception because I normally have to go back even further to the project before, which is normally the process, tone or idea I’m rallying against. One of my heroes is Steven Soderbergh and he talks a lot about this. The idea of blowing up the last project in order to not repeat yourself and to keep things alive creatively. Before Jeremy I had made Date With Death, a broader comedy that was a strange mix of The Seventh Seal, When Harry Met Sally and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I’m very proud of that film but also knew I wanted to get pretty far away from it on the next project.
I feel like the tone came first with Jeremy. It was my second short made at the NFTS and when I first pitched the idea it revolved around an unnerving experience I had with twin dentists in Manchester. I had two dental appointments a month apart and the dentist who looked exactly the same behaved in a completely different way. It was only at the end of the appointment that he explained he was a twin. I’m drawn towards the uncanny and unfortunately or maybe fortunately creatively it is drawn towards me. Just last month I had a phone call from the police to discuss a crime committed by another Harry Sherriff.
How did you transfer that idea of the uncanny into this narrative?
So there was this idea of twins rattling around my head and I had also made an exercise at the school called Nightmare Comedy that was solely set in a hospital corridor and at one point I thought about expanding that because I’ve always been intrigued by the bureaucracy of institutions. We were struggling to find a hospital that would give us free rein for the budget we had so simultaneously whilst we were scouting for locations I remembered I had always wanted to make a story around a screenwriting tutor having some sort of meltdown.
I’m drawn towards the uncanny and unfortunately or maybe fortunately creatively it is drawn towards me.
I pitched this idea to writer Laurence Tratalos, whom I co-wrote Harry Is Not Okay with, sent him a few pages and he came back the next day with an 11-page draft that we then refined throughout pre-production and rehearsal. We had about six weeks in total so the writing process and pre-production ran simultaneously in a way I’ve never worked before at least on this scale but I felt my years of making short films in this way with no money paid off. I find it an invigorating way to work.
And practically, how was it sourcing those foreboding locations? They’re such a character in the film’s dour, oppressing mood.
A crucial member of our team was producer Carl Mason, who also acted as our location scout and found this brilliant building in Bracknell that became our bleak university. He then found the striking Brutalist exteriors at Brunel University that combined so well together. We were told on the location scout at Brunel that it was used in A Clockwork Orange and as a big Stanley Kubrick fan I was so happy when we were permitted to shoot there.
And what was it like communicating with your other key crew members? Were you all on the same page stylistically?
Off the back of the dentist/tone pitch, I had acquired a brilliant crew but even though the story changed, the tonal and stylistic references were being discussed with all heads of department. Cinematographer Bart Bazaz and I got very excited about absurd, surreal dark comedic internet culture and liminal spaces. We spoke about the Adult Swim shorts that often play in the early hours of the morning and feel like fever dreams. We spoke about meta-fiction, Yorgos Lanthimos, the Chris Morris’ series JAM, which then led us to cast David Cann and so much more.
As a director, I find it so exciting to talk to different HoDs in the same day. I would have days where I would spend the morning talking about the script with Laurence, the afternoon would be visuals with Bart and then I would speak to our editor Kaupo Muuli about the script. This creative overlapping and hearing everyone’s ideas before we’ve even shot is making the film. I’m always trying to find new ways to make this process more inventive. Another example of this is our composer Nir Perlman giving me six tracks to play during our rehearsal.
How did you find the challenge of sourcing your Jeremy, as well as your other actors?
In terms of casting, I’m a big fan of Jordan Brookes. Laurence introduced me to his work two years earlier before we cast him as Death and I love his comedy. We knew that Jeremy would appeal to him because it has an absurdist touch and a pathos that his stand-up material shares. It was also a chance for a natural comedian to play a dramatic role, which is something I’ve always enjoyed whether it be Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jordan had less than a week to prepare but the fact we had already worked together meant there was trust already in place and it’s one of the best collaborations I’ve had with an actor.
David Cann whose work I’ve admired for years was a joy to be around as Professor Calrusian. Another very funny man Sunil Patel (The Last Bee on Earth) plays Jeremy’s agent. It certainly helped creatively that he is a friend of Jordan’s because the chemistry was already there. Morag Cross who I had worked with before and was looking for an excuse to work with again because I find her so compelling and the comedienne and fearless Vivienne Soan (Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared) whose role I don’t want to say too much about! I need to single out Verity Naughton, our brilliant casting director.
How did everything flow once you were on set?
The fact we were in the weird building in Bracknell for three of the four shooting days made things a lot easier. It also allowed the schedule to be a lot more flexible. At the end of one day, Bart and I realised we wanted to get an extra shot so we spoke to our 1st AD Lara Mandell and made sure we started the next day getting it before moving on. This all sounds simple and obvious filmmaking but when you only have one day in an expensive location you just don’t have this flexibility and that can inhibit creativity.
How did your time at NFTS inform Jeremy?
Over my time at the NFTS, I feel like I’ve been able to understand my process better, try things out and push the working methods I like further. For example, I like to storyboard but on Jeremy, we photo boarded the whole film. Using mainly Shotdeck but sometimes if I couldn’t find the right shot we would just go and shoot a rough version with my iPhone. This allowed Bart and I to see the whole film visually and see if we were repeating ourselves.
This process is not for everyone but I find it therapeutic to be ten days away from shooting and have a great sense of almost every shot that’s going to be needed. We are also not wedded to this. If something better comes up on the day then you follow that. I also sat down with Kaupo to get his opinion on the photo board in terms of visual variety and transitions, which informed the shot list. Kaupo’s first script cut was so close to what I had imagined. We had a cut of the film that was five minutes longer that I enjoyed but decided it was veering into feeling like a feature or a TV pilot.
I feel like I’ve been able to understand my process better, try things out and push the working methods I like further.
For me, sound is another key facet in establishing the tone of Jeremy.
The world of Jeremy was something I was excited to see and hear. Sound Designer Joseph Russell did an amazing job. Sound has become one of my favourite parts of the process because to me it feels like you’re back writing again crafting the story. Joseph like everyone else came on board early, read the script and was already pitching ideas before we shot, which again can’t help but influence the making. I’ve come to realise I’m fascinated with process and for better and for worse I spend just as much time thinking about that as I do the ideas and stories I want to tell.
What kit were you shooting on? And how did you shape the cinematic language through that equipment?
We shot using the Arri Alexa Mini Super 16 Mode. With a lot of our tonal references being based in internet meta and liminal space aesthetics, we wanted to play with image format to bring some character to the image. We considered things like CCTV perspectives with FPV drones and really lo-fi cameras. In the end, we settled with the Alexa Mini in Super 16 mode, looking at the grain and texture we could get by pushing the sensor at different ratings of 800, 1600, and even 3200 where the image started falling apart. On top of this, we worked with Panavision testing lots of filters to bring a look to the image practically rather than relying heavily on the grade. This was primarily with different contrast filters to help with lower-end detail aiming for a dark image that sat in the shadows. Techniques used by Jody Lee Lipes on The Good Nurse were a big inspiration for this.
I’ve come to realise I’m fascinated with process and for better and for worse I spend just as much time thinking about that as I do the ideas and stories I want to tell.
We also played with strong colour filters like Chocolate and Storm Blue, correcting the cast with the colour temp in camera to leave a tonal cast that was fitting with the fluorescents and spaces of our location. For lenses, we had a set of S16 Zeiss Super Speeds that we could afford to shoot wide open for their character while retaining a usable depth of field being on a smaller sensor format. We also used S16 Canon Zooms for a lot of slow creeping push ins that felt fitting for the horror tones that crept into the film.
Yours is a career that we’ve been watching closely here at Directors Notes for several years now. What are your ambitions for the future?
I graduate from the NFTS next month and I feel so privileged to have had the intense creative experience of making numerous exercises as well as three short films in two years. Alongside Jeremy: A Nightmare, I’ve just finished my graduation film Jester, which follows a depressed Jester’s quest to find the Queen’s missing nephew so he ventures out into plague-ridden England to prove he’s more than a fool. It’s a very ambitious piece that stars the brilliant Adrian Schiller (The Last Kingdom) and Carly-Sophia Davies (The Eternal Daughter).
My first year film Date With Death is currently playing festivals having just screened at Aesthetica, Bolton and Norwich. It’s doing well and it was a fun experience making a high-concept, fantastical comedy with a dance number shot on 16mm! I’ve also just started a production company called Fresh Orange Productions with Laurence Tratalos. He co-wrote the last four short films I’ve made and we are so aligned in our sensibilities and sense of humour that it felt like a great progression.
We’re developing TV ideas with a focus on Northern-based stories that you definitely haven’t seen before. I have a passion for bold, visually striking often conceptual ideas that are done so well in America but aren’t produced in the UK. Shows like Barry, Search Party, Severance and Russian Doll. They’re the shows I’d love to bring to life and I hope Jeremy acts as a strong calling card for those types of gigs! Fresh Orange is fortunate enough to have had private investment to make a micro-budget feature film so we’re currently developing that alongside the TV scripts.