We can all attest to those periods of feeling that your life is passing you by, but what if that was your constant reality, trapped at home with an ailing parent and ignored and shunted to the side by everyone, including your family? Director Luke Roulstone decided to take this notion and dive into the surreal in his new comedy horror short Shelf Life. Dorothy, played by Philippa Dunne, trudges through her every day, her only beacon of hope shines from the artificial glow of a computer screen and orchestrated brief interactions with a lusted after pizza delivery man. Shelf Life, one moment pithy and erring on the lighter side soon takes a sinister turn as our lonely spinster finds herself deteriorating akin to the putrid, sad fruit left too long on the shelf. Roulstone’s visuals are impressively vivid, cinematic and grander in their aesthetic than the tragically insular solitary life of his heroine and so DN took some time with the London based writer/director to discuss balancing the more jovial and starkly depressing sides of his story, visualising every shot in his mind’s eye as he was writing and his effective decision to use practical effects and prosthetics as opposed to CGI generated imagery.

What vestiges of your imagination did poor Dorothy emerge from?

The initial idea came to me when I was talking to a friend about how he hated buying his partner flowers because before long they just withered and died and stunk the place out. It made me think about the rate at which things decomposed and whether I could apply the idea of something going mouldy to a human story. Before dismissing the notion of going down a sci-fi route, it clicked with me that I could approach the story as a kind of literal meltdown. I’ve always liked mystery and romance and tales of the weird and wonderful, and it didn’t feel necessary to me to try and over explain the reasons why something like this was happening to Dorothy. When films try to give detailed explanations for strange phenomena they always tend to feel a bit bogus and contrived to me, almost like learning how a magic trick works – the illusion is ruined and you feel kind of cheated. Here it was intended to feel more mysterious and emotionally motivated by how she was feeling and the effects that her environment had on her.

Once I knew where the story was headed it was really an exercise in developing this character and tracing the steps back, figuring out what life problems would lead her to this point. Playing with the idea of things being past their sell by date I tried to set it in a bygone era with elements of the late 90s / early noughties – anything that felt nostalgic, grungy or mouldy kind of fed into the aesthetic and the world we were trying to create. Throughout Covid lockdowns I’d been watching a lot of old 90s episodes of shows like Blind Date and Stars in Their Eyes and I liked the idea of a lonely hearts story inspired by some of the real characters from those shows. Something that was a bit of a weepy sob story about loneliness and feeling invisible to the world.

Anything that felt nostalgic, grungy or mouldy kind of fed into the aesthetic and the world we were trying to create.

I always saw Dorothy as a kind of middle-aged teenager, someone whose life circumstances had kind of held her back from evolving beyond those giddy years, and the advent of internet chat rooms really being her first taste of love and what it feels like to be admired. I thought I could squeeze a lot of sweetness and humour out of this tale while keeping things feeling quite strange and dreamy. It was important to me for the film to not feel too depressing despite the subject matter and to pepper it with dark laughs and haunting visuals. Casting Philippa was really integral to making that tone work. She had the ability to make you want to laugh and cry in the same breath – we were really lucky to find her.

This is the epitome of a comedy-horror with all of your little touches, how did you keep it fun and playful?

The horror elements in the film weren’t really designed to elicit conventional scares, more convey a sense of unease and mystery and get under your skin, but it was important to me that the audience didn’t get too bogged down in the misery of it all. I felt the story needed a well balanced tone with plenty of light and shade otherwise it risked becoming very one note. Luckily I think the most painful parts of life are often the greatest source of humour as they’re something we can all relate to. I think Billy Connolly said, “The best way to deal with the dark side of life is to laugh right in its face.” And I think he’s dead right.

With this film I think a lot of the humour was drawn from the characters themselves and the rhythm of the edit, rather than from traditional jokes with setups and punchlines. If a character is well written it’s their unique quirks and idiosyncrasies that I find entertaining. Casting is so important for this. You can write “Dorothy laughs” which reads as nothing on the page, but it’s the way she laughs, it’s the delivery and the performance of that laugh that makes it funny.

What were you looking for in that integral main role and how did you know Philippa Dunne was the one?

The role of Dorothy was very difficult to cast. You had to buy her as a woman who had been cast aside by society and who perpetually shops in the discount aisle of the supermarket, but she needed to have a softness and a sweetness to her, and a natural unassuming sense of humour – someone the audience could instantly fall in love with and route for. I’d originally seen Philippa in BBC’s Motherland and immediately felt like she’d be a great fit for the part. She’s so effortlessly charming and has the ability to make us laugh and cry in the same breath – something I think is a very rare quality. We were very lucky to get her on board.

You have very astutely nailed down the female characters here, and the mother character, who plays perfectly in relation to Dorothy, is brilliant, how did she take form?

I wrote the mother as a kind of ‘cock block’ to Dorothy’s love life. I felt like Dorothy should have an almost naive and giddy teenage-like approach to love – someone with a total lack of experience and a slightly warped idea of what constitutes romance. I felt that the burden of being her Mother’s full time carer would have held back her character’s development in that department somewhat. It then made sense to me that her Mother would be quite crotchety, totally fed up with being stuck in this house, getting her kicks from these old beauty contraptions she’s seen on TV. She’s completely taken her daughter for granted and to make matters worse she’s totally in love with her three bastard sons who have gone out and achieved more than Dorothy could ever dream of. Being stuck with each other they’re just naturally going to rub each other up the wrong way, so it was fun to work with that set up and just let their relationship develop naturally from there.

What’s your process when storyboarding and how closely do you stick to it during production?

I storyboarded everything on this film myself. I’m not a pro artist by any means but it was a useful process for me as a director to get my head into the film, and it helped cut costs. Naturally the vision changes and evolves as other things start to take shape and you always need to be adaptable when up against a tight schedule, but storyboards are invaluable to planning that schedule and giving us a clear template to work towards when on set. I think we only dropped a couple of shots in the end with a few more combined as singles but it was a real marathon pulling that off.

I tried to ground everything in a kind of reality by shooting everything on location and keeping the camera further back from the action looking in, in an attempt to keep things from feeling overly staged.

I’m usually visualising every shot of a film as I’m writing and so I already have quite a clear idea of what I’m trying to achieve before we start scouting for locations. For this film the shooting style was mostly quite simple and still – lots of observation, lots of long lenses. Dorothy’s character is quite subdued so I wanted to reflect that in the way the film was shot. I also wanted a sense of realism despite the story taking quite a surreal turn. I tried to ground everything in a kind of reality by shooting everything on location and keeping the camera further back from the action looking in, in an attempt to keep things from feeling overly staged. It’s an approach I really like as the camera isn’t interfering with the performances quite so much. Where possible I also tried to free Philippa from having to hit marks so the camera would have to be more reactive to her movements. It obviously risks making a shot feel a bit wonky but I think it can create a sense of spontaneity to a scene – more like you’re capturing a moment instead of setting it up.

The 2.39:1 aspect ratio fits the film to a tee, what was your camera set up and how long did you shoot for?

We shot over four days on the Arri Amira with Cooke Panchro lenses, but also used an 11-165 super 16 zoom lens that gave a nice low grade grainy look. I still wanted the film to feel cinematic so we stuck with a widescreen aspect ratio but veered away from anamorphics as we thought they’d make the film feel too slick. We then accentuated the sort of bruised purples and mouldy greens in the grade to try and continue that idea of everything being slightly on the turn.

The overall vibe of the film was intended to feel quite mouldy and green and rotten, like everything was a bit bruised and on the turn.

I love the almost gross ASMR shots of Dorothy eating – did you want us to feel slightly disgusted?

There’s a scene in Twin Peaks where the character of Benjamin Horne and his brother are having a conversation with their mouths full of Brie baguettes. I always kind of loved that scene for how bonkers it was and felt like Dorothy would probably speak with her mouthful too. Again I saw her character as someone who has never blended in well with polite society and I liked the idea that she ate for comfort without too much regard for how she looked. Like she’s gonna have fun at this party however she pleases and if that means stuffing her face with sausage rolls then so be it. I don’t know if I meant for those specific scenes to be wholly disgusting, really they just made me laugh, but the film is called Shelf Life and so the overall vibe of the film was intended to feel quite mouldy and green and rotten, like everything was a bit bruised and on the turn. It doesn’t surprise me that all of the eating might make some people feel queasy.

The final scene is gross, fascinating and sad, how did you make sure you got that melt just right?

I was aware of the 80s subgenre of melt movies but I was more inspired by the melt sequences from Indiana Jones movies and some of Cronenberg’s body horror. The film was always intended to build to this finale where Dorothy has what I saw as a sort of literal meltdown. It’s the kind of thing you write without ever really knowing how to pull off in the hope you’ll figure it out as you go. The challenge was to try and end with this visually arresting and slightly mad image but have it play as something that might move the audience rather than truly horrify them. I used the animated Christmas classic The Snowman as my template for this moment, not only for the melting but for how gut-wrenching and haunting it is as a final reel. For something so quaint, that ending had such an impact on my childhood – you’ve just gotten to know and love this character only to have everything ruthlessly ripped away. It leaves you with this feeling of sitting in a bathtub with all the water drained out of it.

If I can do something for real it’s always more satisfying to shoot as it’s all there in front of you, and I think in this instance it was more beneficial for Philippa’s performance to be covered in real goo rather than CG goo.

The melt sequence actually started life a lot more complicated than the one you see in the finished film. I spoke to a lot of VFX artists about the process of melting a face but most quoted pretty much our entire budget to pull it off convincingly. We ended up simplifying everything and going down a mostly prosthetics and practical effects route to really embody the spirit of those body horror films of the 80s. If I can do something for real it’s always more satisfying to shoot as it’s all there in front of you, and I think in this instance it was more beneficial for Philippa’s performance to be covered in real goo rather than CG goo, but it’s naturally a lot more limited in its movement and hugely time-consuming to apply, so we only had a few shots at it. Any post effects then were quite simple image manipulations designed to kick the melt off. I’d have loved to have taken the post side further with the finale to see how far we could push the effect – maybe next time.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a couple of scripts at the moment, again in this same sort of peculiar world, as always influenced by things that either make me laugh or squirm. My previous short film to this one, Midnight Snack, was quite heavily inspired by shows like The Twilight Zone and originally intended to act as a kind of anthology starter, like a banner title under which I could release all of the strange tales that have been knocking around my head for years. Those films are always bubbling away in the background but my next project will hopefully be a feature film.

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