Narrative, dance, movement, plot, it’s all in service of the same end goal; the story. That’s the vision carried in Julia Zlotnick’s frenetic short Seeking Thomas, which melds choreography with narrative to tell a story of a young man’s crumbling mental health. Zlotnick presents the young man, named Thomas, initially in an office, alone at his desk before he erupts into a series of expressive, writhing movements. This is then carried across into several other scenes where we see him interacting with other people in his life. Zlotnick gives the audience just the right amount of information for them to project onto Thomas what he’s going through without spelling it out. It’s a really mature piece of filmmaking in that sense and shows great consideration for how these individual moments make up a whole picture. Zlotnick joins DN for a conversation below about the development of Seeking Thomas, revealing how she managed her adaptive creative process alongside the practicalities of sourcing funding for the film and managing it as a production.

What’s the origin story of Seeking Thomas as a project?

Seeking Thomas first came about when I read a call out from Citi and Mayor’s Fund for London, with a brief synopsis of Thomas Boselli’s story. I instantly imagined his struggles as a physical experience and began developing a vision for the film that would combine narrative filmmaking with movement language and dance. I started thinking about how the film would feel in terms of sound, light, colour palette, narrative arc, cast, camera angles and camera movement and movement language.

How did you find the challenge of weaving narrative with dance?

I wanted to create a narrative arc that was subtle and had a sense of hope, combining narrative filmmaking with movement, using movement language and music as a driving force of the film. I began developing the movement language and found three draft pieces of music. I worked with Steadicam Operator Lee Brown and wanted to use a Steadicam to make the movement feel present, visceral and three-dimensional.

And the process of obtaining that fund and bringing the film together as a practical entity, how was that?

I put together a treatment and sent it to Citi and the Mayor’s Fund for London who were commissioning the project; they liked the treatment and offered me the role. I then started looking for a DP on Shooting People who could help me bring my vision to life and found the wonderful Matt Gillan. We shot with an Arri Alexa Mini and anamorphic lenses. We didn’t have any lighting equipment other than one practical, so we had to block carefully and shoot at the right time of the day. I wanted the light to shift subtly over time and become brighter towards the end and worked with Colourist Sara Buxton to achieve this. I also collaborated with Tom Watt, ahead of rehearsals, who composed three new draft tracks which we used throughout rehearsal and filming; we made a few small changes to the music in post.

I wanted to create a narrative arc that was subtle and had a sense of hope, combining narrative filmmaking with movement, using movement language and music as a driving force of the film.

I have a background in theatre directing as well as choreography so it felt like the perfect opportunity to merge those two worlds and approaches with directing film. I rehearsed in advance with the cast, Jonny Aubrey-Bentley who played Thomas, and Eliza Williams who played the therapist Anna before, which helped to inform the development of the film. We worked together very collaboratively.

What was your approach to developing the movement language and choreography?

The movement language was a combination of set movement I’d choreographed and guided improvisation. During rehearsal, I developed the movement language further working with Jonny, so that he could embody the character and movement, through exploring movement quality, setting movement in space, using visualisation, set material and improvisation. I’d ground the performers in the context, emotional state and structure of each section, which helped to anchor the performances and create a subtle narrative arc.

I felt it was important to have time on set to get all the shots we needed as well as time to explore and experiment. There wasn’t a traditional printed script, although the beats of the story/ structure of the film and a few lines of dialogue were accessible for the cast and crew. 

It seems like, although you prep, there’s an element of adaptive filmmaking, and freedom to play amongst the developed parts of the film.

I enjoy working collaboratively. I like to hold on to a strong sense of the core of the work; making sure that choices made stem from the heart of the work. I had a wonderful team to help bring the vision of this film to life and am very thankful for all their hard work. My vision of the film grew stronger and developed throughout the process through visualising, collaboration, reflecting, reassessing, adapting, exploring, experimenting and chatting to crew and creatives throughout the process.

I like to hold on to a strong sense of the core of the work; making sure that choices made stem from the heart of the work.

How did you tackle the structuring of the film in the edit? Was that something you outlined in prep?

I outlined the structure of the film in prep by storyboarding. During rehearsals I filmed sections of the work, I then reviewed the footage and restructured a small part of the outline, adding in flashbacks. After we’d shot everything, I made a rough cut of the film and then started working with the Editor Jim Page to refine and improve the edit.

How has your experience in theatre directing prepared you for working on this short?

My experience in theatre directing has given me a performance focused approach to my work. I view the performances as central to the film, using different elements of storytelling and filmmaking to enhance this. I love working with actors and have a strong working relationship with them.

And to round off, what are you working on now?

I’m currently working on the edit for a mockumentary. I am also in the early stages of development for a short charity film.

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