Directorial debut and Oscar Nominated short The After from Misan Harriman is a visceral look at the traumatic nature of grief and the power of acts of empathy. The already well established photographer exercised his cultivated eye for aesthetics, an instinctive comprehension of imagery and a tender understanding of the human condition to bring the harrowing tale of a man forced to deal with insurmountable grief to the screen. Streaming on Netflix, The After has already, and will no doubt continue to, resonated with swathes of people as it taps into universal struggles with the agony of loss and captures the unfaltering way in which the world continues to move around us despite our innermost turmoil. After successfully reaching out to David Oyelowo on Instagram, who embodies his role with heartbreaking authenticity, Harriman embarked on a whirlwind collaborative journey filming on the streets of London and working within a whole new medium of creative expression. We sat down with him to speak about the many considerations that went into his shoot on the roof of London’s National Theatre, choosing a large shooting format for its immersive, dynamic image and the eleventh hour selection that saw The After make it into consideration for the Academy Awards.
[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]
Tell us about making the move from photography to filmmaking.
I think there’s a fluidity, for me as a storyteller and image maker, whether it’s poetry or spoken word or how I move online. The images that I take are trying to observe, capture and represent the human condition in full fidelity and the moving image is another tool for me. My first time as a director on a movie set was day one of shooting. I have no training or experience in any of it so my main interest was to make sure I didn’t embarrass all these brilliant people that have taken a risk on me.
Did it feel like an intuitive move for you?
I know I have emotion and I’m not sure that can be trained so I carry that with me into this new medium as one of my unique attributes. It’s much more collaborative than anything in photography, which for me is a lonely road by choice. I’m not someone that wants to have 45 assistants and lights, I tend to shoot just me and my cameras. I really love it, but it is a journey of solitude, whereas filmmaking is a journey of collaboration. I was in hell and in heaven, meeting the extraordinary men and women who do everything from props, fake blood, all the costumes, the stunt workers. They all take so much pride in what they do as they should and they’re bloody good at it. I felt like a conductor in a symphony of brilliance so I have a great affinity to being a small part of this incredible machine that is filmmaking.
Something that stood out for me in The After is the immediate leap into the horror of the attack. What order were the scenes shot in?
That was shot last just because of the amount of extras and the time we needed. It was shot on the roof of the National Theatre so we had to work closely with the police because if you’re on the other bridge from a distance, it doesn’t look like we’re making a movie, it could look like there’s really something kicking off so we had to be really careful with that. We also had a lot of blocking as it was really important that the stunt work looked realistic so with my extraordinary DOP Si Bell, whose work you may know from Peaky Blinders, we had to figure out a way to shoot this scene that wasn’t gratuitous but showed the audience the absolute loss that this poor man was dealing with. We shot handheld, unstabilised, so it was shaky and you were really running with him which I feel really added to it. Then Chad Orororo, an extraordinary sound engineer’s work really added to that moment. I’ve been in cinemas where people have collapsed because it’s one thing on a small screen, but if you don’t know what’s coming and you see this in a full cinema, it’s shocking.
We had to figure out a way to shoot this scene that wasn’t gratuitous, but showed the audience the absolute loss that this poor man was dealing with.
A lot of traditionalists may have said, “You can’t start any film, feature or short, with that.” but I knew I had to because firstly, people will sit up and pay attention and then, before going into that wide shot of his car, you already know the heavy burden that is weighing on this man, and then we can get along and tell the story. I had to hold steady on that happening when it happened and hopefully, it made the story work.
He took a decision to support this completely unknown voice, as far as filmmaking goes, in making a film that is highly unusual and incredibly raw.
Then we go straight into this palpable grief. The performance that David Oyelowo gives is so physical, I felt like he was choking on his grief.
You’re talking about one of the great actors of our time and I mean this without trying to be a fanboy. I’ve since met many people in the British film industry who knew him when he was in the theatre and in the days of Spooks and they all say the same thing – that the innate talent this man has is hard to even process. He doesn’t need to be doing shorts but I DM’d him on Instagram, we did not know each other and he doesn’t really check his messages but he just happened to see the notification. He was a fan of my photography, which helped, and he took a decision to support this completely unknown voice, as far as filmmaking goes, in making a film that is highly unusual and incredibly raw. He had lost his mother and father in the years leading up to this so I’m not even sure what’s on screen is acting. I think he gave us something much more sacred. I’ve said that sometimes you see performances in music and film that you’re not even sure we deserve. I always talk about Nina Simone at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where she performed live, and I almost feel she gave too much of herself. This is how precious and sacred David’s performance was and I’m just honoured to be the custodian of that.
As he was giving so much, were you quite tight with the number of takes?
Yes, there aren’t going to be too many takes, especially on the scene that we finish with, as it’s not something you can ask any human being to do again and again. So we got what he gave us. We shared so many unspoken glances that is probably unusual for a director and actor who’ve only just met but it felt like we knew each other from multiple lifetimes ago. The whole set was like a well-oiled machine on a five day shoot with no control of the weather. Nothing was done on a soundstage, we’re on a low loader, in South London, on the roof of a theatre and it’s my first film – I like to look for trouble.
Your scenes in the car have a lot going on with the various passenger interactions captured at different angles, etc., how were those setups to shoot?
We had a Netflix budget but we didn’t have a Marvel budget! I’ve seen fancy car scenes with very clever technology that wraps around the vehicle but we were using an old school articulated lorry, a low loader, which is very hard for a director because you are in a box with headphones on with the car facing you and of course a monitor, moving in the wrong direction which can make some people feel nauseous, trying to make sure you’re making the movie in the way that you want. It’s a testament to a really good first AD, DOP, and producer Nicky Bentham. We knew that there was a possibility, a fighting chance, of us creating lightning in a bottle. Ruth Sheen, I grew up worshipping this woman and we spoke to casting and I said, “Imagine if we could get Ruth as one of the passengers”, then I got an email saying she said yes.
We shot in large format which gave us a highly immersive picture, and when we could, big lenses. We shot this like a feature film it just happened to be 18 minutes long. We scored it like a feature film, we had original music done and we licensed songs from multiple artists. The song at the end is by Birdy, an amazing singer, songwriter and the song Let It All Go is very personal to me. I’ve had very serious mental health challenges and that song has saved me in many ways on more than one occasion. It’s a massive pop song with 100 million views on YouTube but I spoke to Netflix and my producer and I told them we had to get it. I think it’s a perfect song for the film to end in the way that it did.
We shot in large format which gave us a highly immersive picture, and when we could, big lenses. We shot this like a feature film it just happened to be 18 minutes long.
I’m sure a lot of short film directors would like to know how you came to be working with Netflix for The After.
You never really know what fate throws at you. In a very short period of time, I became this really well-known photographer. The type of photography that I do is very cinematic and a lot of people that I’ve shot, such as Steve McQueen, told me I should be a filmmaker – and he knows a thing or two about film. I shot Liam Neeson, and he told me “If I never see you again, you have to be a filmmaker.” I’ve been a hardcore movie fan my whole life but the thing about self-love and the other side of that self-doubt, is that you sometimes don’t think you’re good enough for these things and you just stay on the periphery. My wife and other people just told me, film is where all your talents could be seen.
I met with a lady called Debs Paterson who introduced me to my producer Nicky Bentham, who had just finished making The Duke with Helen Mirren and she gave me a fighting chance. We went in to see Netflix and pitched a couple of ideas. Nicky thought it would be a good idea to start with a short, which I agreed and Netflix went for it. They took a huge risk on me because I wasn’t making something light. This film isn’t a TikTok algorithmic-friendly situation but she allowed me to have the complete vision and to put my film on a platform of 230 million people. I can’t tell you the thousands of emails and letters that I’ve received from people who are hurting but who are finding love within themselves and found this film important. We can talk about all the Oscars and awards but nothing will matter to me more than the human beings that this film reaches.
That is such an achievement especially as the film isn’t just about grief but also about human connection.
I hope people understand that it isn’t all doom and gloom. It is about the fact that we can go through the mill and build ourselves back up brick by brick. It’s also about children and how they are celestial. I’m a father of two little girls and I believe my children teach me more than I could ever teach them. If we listen to our youth and make sure they are allowed to take space, this world will be fixed. The young woman at the end is completely unseen by her parents yet she sees this man when he needs to be seen more than ever and I’ve had that experience with young people a few times.
I’m neurodivergent, my mind is not what would be described in any sort of educational system as conventional. I failed everything I did at school, terrible GCSEs, terrible A-levels, I dropped out of university. I was ashamed of my mind for most of my adult life until I met my wife who fell in love with the parts of myself that I was ashamed of and that allowed me to believe I could do some of the things that I was a fan of but too scared to do. Thus, the journey of holding the camera began just five years ago and it’s led to an Oscar nomination. I’m 46 and this all happened in my forties – it’s never too late to take the road less travelled. If there is a child in you, sometimes a broken child that is trying to talk to your adult self, then please listen to that child. That’s what I believe this film is, an act of self-love that has been received by many people who need to feel it.
The After clearly spoke to the Oscar voters.
We were so late to the awards because we finished filming late, so we missed a lot of cutoffs to qualify for the Oscars and we didn’t get into a few of the festivals we thought we were gonna get into. I will say this to filmmakers, just keep forging ahead. We got into HollyShorts and there are only two prizes which would offer you Oscar qualification and we won one of them. So from there to actually being nominated for an Oscar is ridiculous to us. Then we qualified for BAFTA through a special programme at the London Film Festival which was amazing.
What are you working on next?
I have a documentary that I’m working on that we’ll announce soon, a big one that won’t surprise many people what the subject is on and I can’t wait to share that with the world. Then I want to make my first feature and I’m not gonna rush into it. I’m really honoured to be getting sent a lot of scripts at the moment from all sorts of extraordinary people and of course I’m developing a few things myself that will take years to even get near a script. I hope geniuses like David will want to continue working with me. I’d love to have a lifelong collaborative relationship with that sort of unique cinematic giant. I think us together is bearing fruit so I shall continue to beg him to remember me.
I’m a new cinematic voice but I will always try and stay true to what I want to see on screen. I don’t know if I’m a romcom sort of person, I don’t really do light. I look to climb into the parts of ourselves that we run away from and then force us to look at the mirror with grace in order for us to see where our open wounds are. I have a feeling that that’s the lane I’m going to be looking for in the threads of filmmaking that I want to weave. I sometimes wonder whether we’re being dumbed down by popular culture.
I look to climb into the parts of ourselves that we run away from and then force us to look at the mirror with grace in order for us to see where our open wounds are.
There are so many young people I mentor from different walks of life and one of the things I do is sit them down and give them the cultural experience I’ve had. I had a whole bunch of young men and women that have had a hard life, and I sat them down, and I put on Cinema Paradiso. I was in tears watching them. None of them had been to Italy or necessarily understood a lot of nuances to the film but they understood a film about youth, loss, passion and father figures. Many of them didn’t have father figures and I do wonder whether a lot of young people need more curation because if you put something marvellous in front of them, they’ll be blown away. A big thing that I do, even on my social media, is try and curate music and songs and even scenes of films. There’s a great scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where they are walking through the museum and it’s such a beautiful piece of filmmaking. I try to find different scenes for different people to make them understand what they should look for in cinema. I love film!