Published on: 26 April 2017 in Directors UK

Challenge ALEXA 2017: An interview with the directors

Reading time: 26 minutes and 19 seconds

Earlier this year six Directors UK members were selected to go into production, shooting for two days each with an ALEXA shooting package, containing an ALEXA, ALEXA Mini and Anamorphic Primes. 

We spoke to directors AD Cooper, Nicola Quilter, David Beauchamp, Paul MurphyVicki Kisner and Sami Abusamra ahead of a London screening of the resulting films on Monday 8 May.

Challenge ALEXA 2017 was made possible by the kind support of ARRI, ARRI Rental, Tiffen Rentals, and Audio Network.

Can you tell us a little bit about your film? Where did the idea come from and how did you approach the anniversary theme?

A D Cooper: As it was ARRI’s centenary, it made sense to go back to 1917. 

Millions of soldiers were killed in 1917, but one death in particular stood out in April – that of poet Edward Thomas. He’s famous for his prose and poetry about nature and the Hampshire countryside in particular but also he also wrote war poems. Compared to Owen, Sassoon et al, he’s not so well known, but his work is very highly regarded.

Home to the Hangers is about Thomas returning home to the place he loved most, the rolling landscape of Hampshire. The green and pleasant land that he felt was worth fighting for. The Hangers in the title are the local name for hills on this part of the South Downs near Petersfield.  

Nicola Quilter: Prawn is black revenge comedy: It’s Patience’s last night in the club she’s worked at for 30 years and also the birthday party for Mason, a man with whom she has a history.

The writer had an idea about how we get stuck in jobs we hate, with themes of objectification and entitlement. I’m interested in human resilience, tolerance and the moment of decision to make a change.

Paul Murphy: My film is called Gypsy’s Kiss and it’s a drama about an elderly woman who reasserts her own sense of independence with an unconventional yearly pilgrimage to her late husband’s grave. 

The idea came from writer Samuel Jefferson, an A&E doctor in the NHS, who having treated elderly patients for the last number of years was struck by how easily dismissed and ignored older people are by society.

<i>On the set of</i> Cicatrix.
On the set of Cicatrix.

David Beauchamp: With Cicatrix we wanted to make a contemporary ghost story in the best traditions of classic visual story-telling. This seemingly simple tale follows Brian, a recently widowed pensioner, as he is forced to face up to his past after an unexpected visit by the authorities, 28 years to the day since his life changed forever.

After discovering the hauntingly beautiful woods location on a winter’s walk we formulated a rough outline for a short film – allowing for limited time and budget. Literally two weeks later Challenge ALEXA was announced, prompting a frantic weekend of brainstorming, arguments and much too much caffeine.

“The unique and exciting potential of using the Alexa Mini and anamorphic prime lenses meant we could push the visuals to the extreme” — David Beauchamp

The gods seemed to be with us as the story could easily embrace the anniversary theme and the unique and exciting potential of using the ALEXA Mini and anamorphic prime lenses meant we could push the visuals to the extreme.

Sami Abusamra: The truth is I already had a feature script with a birthday scene in it. So I just offered up that section of the story for Our Father.

Vicki Kisner: Pulling is about a teenage girl, Sylvie, who is suffering from trichotillomania: An impulse control disorder where you pull out your own hair. The film explores some of the reasons behind Sylvie’s behaviour, in particular her troubled and toxic relationship with her best friend Jenna. After a cruel incident where her devastating secret is exposed she learns to try and overcome this crippling illness by getting help and accepting the support of her parents.

The idea came about as a close friend of mine had been suffering from this for a number of years. I learnt that people often suffer in silence, as they are too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it so it is very distressing and alienating. I thought it was important to tell this story to help raise awareness and help challenge the stigma that surrounds this and other troubling mental health conditions. 

The story originally started with Sylvie’s family celebrating her parents’ wedding anniversary but after an astute suggestion from Abigail Berry from Directors UK we decided that it would be more powerful to have the anniversary centering around the main character.

<i>On the set of</i> Gypsy's Kiss
On the set of Gypsy's Kiss

What has the ALEXA shooting package allowed you to explore that you otherwise couldn’t have done?

PM: Funding, access to great gear and support is the hardest thing about getting a short film off the ground, yet the most important. So having access to ARRI’s experience, equipment and support has been invaluable. Also being part of a competition such as this is a great way of creating a film. Successful and fruitful relationships are at the heart of all filmmaking. Cast, crew, suppliers, executives, audiences — all have a vital part to play and it is only through these relationships that films get made. 

Also having the backing of Directors UK and ARRI was invaluable as it leant a certain kudos to our project and helped us secure the cast we did and almost certainly helped with our successful crowdfunding campaign too.

SA: Drama. I’m a comedy director by trade. So it’s amazing that anyone let me have a crack at a different genre, and especially great to do that on top-end ALEXA gear.

AC: I would never have worked with an ALEXA if not for this project. It’s well outside the no/low budget short filmmaking that’s been the norm for me to date. The camera crew shared this opinion, and grabbed the opportunity to gain experience with the camera and lenses.

The anamorphic frame shape gave me a whole new challenge to create images that worked across the wide narrower image. I felt that anything placed repeatedly in the middle wasn’t that interesting, but you could move an image such as a face across the whole width of the screen when using a steadicam. It gives you new options, new angles. You can range faces or still life left or right. More of a challenge was the many macro shots needed as cutaways.

VK: Caleb and I were both excited about having the opportunity to work with the Anamorphic Prime lenses. Not only could we utilize the very wide cinematic frame and beautiful skin tones but we also had the added benefit of the bokeh effect of light and lens flares, which are characteristics of these lenses. Since a large part of my film is set during a nighttime warehouse party we were able to dress the set with a range of practical lamps which would allow the background to twinkle. The lenses also helped us create a sense of alienation for our main character where she was often on her own in a very wide frame.

DB: The shoot was tough, especially in the small rooms of the house, but using the ALEXA Mini together with the Anamorphic Primes meant we were able to get extremely beautiful shots even in the tightest of spaces. The woods lent themselves beautifully to the 2:35 aspect ratio and the gift of beautiful weather meant Ironbird were able to get the drone shots I had dreamt of. The crew worked incredibly hard, shooting 8 ‘til 7:30 on both days, at an unrelenting pace. But everyone was willing the project on, so it was a real pleasure to be part of such a capable and positive team.

“The ALEXA Mini with Anamorphic lenses gave me the wide range of colour and depth needed to capture the lavish and unique Rivoli Ballroom” — Nicola Quilter

NQ: The chance to be ambitious with taking on a one-shot: the first six minutes of my film is a single take with 15 actors and 20 extras through a very large building and some very narrow spaces. Special thanks to Curt Schaller and Dominic Jackson, who loaned themselves and the Trinity for this shot. The ALEXA Mini with Anamorphic Primes gave me the wide range of colour and depth needed to capture the lavish and unique Rivoli Ballroom.

How much of a challenge was it to shoot the project in two days?

SA: Massive. In our case it was two short days too. If we were sensible we’d have chopped out 70% of our pages. But we werenֹ’t sensible and it was just a mad push. I think we only lost one set-up though, so massive thanks and huge credit to the crew.

AC: With over sixty set-ups to shoot in Hampshire on a steeply-wooded hillside, the two days were long and full. Plus we had to plan for the worst possible weather. When it rains on those hills, low cloud completely obscures the high location and the all-important view across the rolling Hampshire countryside. 

“Only one person fell over in the mud and only one piece of kit...tumbled down the hillside.” — A D Cooper

The crew were kept to a minimum and kept agile. All of the kit had to be lugged up and down the steep muddy paths, although careful scheduling tried to keep that to a minimum. Only one person fell over in the mud and only one piece of kit (part of the costume) tumbled down the hillside. 

What made the shoot easier was that most of it was shot on handheld or on a steadicam. We used natural light as much as possible so set-up times were reduced. With no dialogue and the shoot in an area plagued by air traffic and chainsaws, the lack of sound recording pressures made getting the shots easier and faster with clearer communications. 

<i>On the set of</i> Home to the Hangers. <i>Photo: Julian Bajzert.</i>
On the set of Home to the Hangers. Photo: Julian Bajzert.

NQ: I wanted to be ambitious and took on a ridiculous amount for two days – I knew I was doing this but wanted to push myself. In addition to the one-shot I had another thirty extras, a sword swallower, burlesque dancers and a magician.

Working around favours throughout the whole process to a deadline is definitely a challenge. We had two 12-hour days (including bump in and out) in a building where we were not allowed to fix anything to walls or use their power. This drove my cinematographer understandably crazy, but we always found a way.

PM: Two days is a very short time with which to shoot a film. Twenty hours of work to shoot a five to six page script with over ten scenes is a lot to undertake, especially as we were filming in live and uncontrollable markets in the East End. Add to that various locations, both interior and exterior, with a cast and crew who only have a limited amount of time to work together and gel as a unit is a big ask. That’s why working with tried and tested collaborators is essential, it cuts out the faff and gets right to the heart of the film-making process.

Also having people who want to be involved, not for financial gain (as there is none is short filmmaking), who believe in the project and believe in you as a director, is essential.

DB: We kept the project, though ambitious, as simple as possible by using only two locations – the nearby woods and our house! Having recently moved there, parts were still very 1970s in décor (prior to renovation), so presented the ideal set design with just a few tweaks here and there and visits to local charity shops. National Resources Wales were fantastically helpful with the woods, even sending in the chainsaws when a dozen trees blew across the access roads during storms two weeks before the shoot! Once test shots had been completed I was able to pre-plan every detail for the shoot, even boarding out the loft as a camera trap.

“It was a very steep learning curve, and having several extras on set in a huge space with a limited amount of time for the main party scene definitely expanded my skill set and forced me to think on my feet.” — Vicki Kisner

VK: It was a huge challenge! I’m sure like most of the projects we really had a three-day shoot, which we had to achieve in two days. It was a very steep learning curve and having several extras on set in a huge space with a limited amount of time for the main party scene definitely expanded my skill set and forced me to think on my feet. Time was constantly compressing like it does on most films sets but thankfully we had done lots of prep to try and get ahead of the game. I rehearsed with the young actors in the weeks leading up to the shoot, which was essential. Caleb and I also blocked the action with the main cast a day or so in advance so we knew exactly how we were going to shoot each scene at the party and roughly how each scene would play out, which was especially important to do before we had all the extras on set.

Have you got any future plans for your Challenge ALEXA short?

SA: Since Our Father is a slice of a feature film, I’d love to push on and put that project together.

NQ: I guess it will be festivals … I may also edit it down for commercial work.

AC: To get it selected by academy-qualifying film festivals over the coming year, and to use it as a calling card to prove ability for further directing opportunities. 

PM: Cinematic world domination please! We’re planning on submitting Gypsy’s Kiss to film festivals worldwide. We’re very proud of the film and think it’s a great piece of work and we are sure audiences will agree. Also having Gemma Jones, a BAFTA-winning actress as our lead helps enormously, not just in terms of standing out from other shorts which obviously helps enormously, but because her performance is so strong and powerful, people will immediately identify with Judith, her tribulations and her final victory.

So yes, we have a great feeling about this one, we’ll submit to the prestige film festivals first and take it from there. This will also help open the door that much wider for my directing career. After directing five short films the next step is to graduate to feature-length filmmaking and TV drama.

VK: I am very excited about how the film has come out so will definitely be sending it out onto the festival circuit. I will also be sharing it with the East London Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service and The Royal College of Psychiatry Child and Adolescent Mental Health Department who both supported the project. We will be holding a screening at the Genesis Cinema who came on board as exec producers and helped finance some of the project.

“Having been blown away by the qualities of that aspect ratio combined with such a beautiful camera and lenses, we’re already in pre-production for the next project — we’ve tasted blood and now we want more!” — David Beauchamp

DB: We plan to enter the finished film into major festivals worldwide, hopefully opening doors for everyone involved. Having been blown away by the qualities of that aspect ratio combined with such a beautiful camera and lenses, we’re already in pre-production for the next project - we’ve tasted blood and now we want more!

<i>On the set of</i> Pulling.
On the set of Pulling.

Who were your collaborators on this project?

AC: Candida Richardson (cinematographer), Gary Tobyn (editor), Annie Rowe (casting director), Henry Bird (composer), Jon Dobson (colourist), Sarah Grundy (make up) and Mahoney Audio Post (sound designers and Foley artists). I’d worked with all of them before. Kate Rowland, an experienced Hampshire-based producer and a new collaborator, was invaluable in assisting and facilitating the pre-production and shoot.

SA: My producer was Barbara Nanna. director of photography was Diana Olifirova. We landed an amazing young actor called Rocio Rodriguez-Inniss. I also had great support from Abi at Directors UK as well as the folks at B3 Media. The art director was Jenny Newsom-Ray and the composer was Ashley Holbrook. The short film cliché of everyone being amazing and generous is entirely true in our case.

VK: We pulled together an amazing cast and crew as well as being provided with a very talented team from Arri that integrated seamlessly into our camera department. Caleb Wissun-Bhide was the cinematographer. He is a skilled storyteller with a great eye for thought-provoking lighting. Phillip Whiteman, a very creative producer who helped a great deal with the script development as well as all the budget, schedule and logistics. Carl Troedsson, an exceptional editor and sound designer and Mike Ladouceur a composer from the Royal College of Music who is a fierce talent and instinctive storyteller.

I cast the project with a talented bunch of up-and-coming actors from the Young Actors Theatre in Islington and two seasoned actors from Anthony Meindl Actors Workshop. All of which were a joy to work with and knew what I was trying to achieve with the story.

Ella Noble-Jones is a hair and make-up artist who specializes in prosthetics and wigs that created two bald prosthetics which were so vital to this story, and Alexandra Vlek came up with the entire make up design. Production designer/set dresser Kristina Jerjomina, Costume design Sophia Aiudi and all the other amazing crew such as Taz Fairbanks and Paul Stuart who were recording sound. Adam Robinson, 1st AD, who I couldn’t have done this without and Matthew Muscat Drago, another gifted DoP I have collaborated with on most of my projects who flew over from Malta to 1st AC and pull focus!

NQ: All 101 people who worked on this film. All of them important in their roles and without them the film would not have been made. I have to give special credit to Xavi Amoros (cinematographer) and Fenella Greenfield (script editor/continuity), they were my backbone along with Emily Harwood (costumes/set), Sarah Rose Ashburn (MU) and Laurent Durham (AD). My actors were flexible, talented and generous with themselves – they all brought something unique and thoughtful to the process.

DB: The writer, Sarah Ellis, and myself have worked together on numerous projects over the years so I knew we would end up with a very special script, and once the producer Dafydd Llewelyn, came on-board the foundations were in place for a something more than the sum of the parts. I have worked with Dafydd on several episodes of Casualty and he’s the perfect producer, always a source of great calm and wisdom but happy to stand back and trust you. Dafydd also helped assemble an extraordinary crew, led by DoP Simon Butcher, whose experience and abilities meant we had the potential to produce a film we could all be proud of. The final piece of the puzzle was finding great actors for this tricky little character piece but I had the good fortune to previously work with Oliver Le Sueur on BBC productions, Niall Bishop was a good friend and trusted actor and David Gooderson came highly recommended with such a great pedigree. The film has benefitted hugely from professional grading by Narduzzo Too and having Gary O’Donnell on board for the sound design and music composition was the icing on the cake.

PM: Audrey Davenport produced the film. We’ve worked together over the years on commercials, promos and online content in my guise as 1st AD. Audrey is great in that she creates a space around the director for key creativity to happen. She’ll always fight for her directors and the project and puts in all her passion, energy and commitment into everything she does. I am incredibly lucky to have her, she’s amazing.

Samuel Jefferson wrote the script. We met in late 2016, when I was looking for writers to collaborate with on my next short film. A Bafta Rocliffe-winning writer, we met for a coffee, discussed the script and decided to submit it to the competition and I’m delighted we did.

Tim Sidell was DoP. I call Tim my ‘DoP for life’. We met back in 2011 when I 1st AD-ed a sci-fi thriller he was shooting. Tim is a very expressive and experimental DoP, having had a background in painting and experimental film; Tim is always looking for new ways to tell a story visually. 

Steve Blundell was production designer. He’s always on the ball, and he’s a very funny man, so we always have a giggle! Lauren Miller was costume designer, a great find, ‘costume designer for life’ now, and a breeze to work with. Great ideas, great costume, amazing work. Amy Stewart was make-up designer, she did an amazing job, giving the cast subtle yet realistic looks. Tom Turner was 1st AD, he did a brilliant job and it was great to have him onboard.

Kelvin Hutchins edited, a previous collaborator on my drama ‘STOP’, and he’s crafted a beautifully reflective and subtle film, giving the character the space to live and breath. Richard Keyworth composed the score, our second collaboration and a fruitful partnership as ever. 

I’d also like to thank all our wonderful crowdfunding collaborators who funded the film and believed in our team and the project, we really couldn’t have done it without everyone, so thank you. And of course my wife and family – my greatest collaborators – for their undying support.

What other projects have you got lined up next, and what will you take with you from your ALEXA experience? 

VK: I have a short period drama that is due to shoot at the end of the summer about several women in a small village in the early 1800s who are being accused of witchcraft. Again it is a very ambitious shoot, which we are hoping to achieve in a short space of time. Each film I make I learn how vitally important it is to be as prepared as possible. Spending time analysing the script, rehearsing with actors, planning extensive shot lists, testing equipment and shooting style ahead of the production were all key factors which helped me achieve my goal with this film so I will definitely be taking these lessons with me on to the next project. I am also writing my first feature so like the development process with Pulling I will always come back to digging down into what the story is actually about and what message I would like to get across then coming up with how I am going to serve that story visually.

PM: I love limitations, and think it key to creativity, so my next project will be to shoot a five-minute film on one roll of 16mm filmstock. I won a tin of Kodak film stock as a prize for my last film, a Straight8 award winner, so I’m hoping to direct that film towards the end of the year. 

I also love pure visual storytelling, pure cinema, and I am very interested in directing a dialogue-free drama so I have a feeling that will be our next project. 

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from my ALEXA experience is to just jump in and commit to a project. You may not know how it’s going to happen, how you’ll get the money, and if it’ll be a success, but venturing down the path is much more beneficial and important than not. Trust yourself and do it.

NQ: I have a couple of feature ideas and I’ve been asked to direct and produce a few other projects. There were ninety people on set – choosing this team and getting them to work together has given me the confidence to work on bigger productions. I’m constantly humbled by how sparks, gaffers and my camera crew managed to pull off the impossible, in no time and with good humour.

SA: Having done my moonlighting as a Drama director I’m back to comedy land. I run a production company called Mister Tibbs and we specialise in comedy content for brands and broadcasters.

AC: I’m writing a low-budget feature to direct myself, but there are other script projects with ‘shopping basket’ deals attached that are progressing. However, having completed four short films, put on a stage play in London, and written two drafts of another feature over the last 15 months on top of the day job as a freelance copywriter, I’m feeling a bit weary!

What advice would you give to others thinking of applying for next year’s Challenge ALEXA? 

NQ: Decide if you are going to work within your limitations or go beyond them. I’ve learnt a lot making this film in this way. It really is a special opportunity.

VK: My main advice is to know what story you are trying to tell. It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to work with this top of the range Arri package but if you don’t have a solid, engaging and clear story to start with then you probably aren’t going to make a very absorbing film. I also suggest putting forward a project that is achievable to shoot in the time frame but also be ambitious and brave and push yourself so you learn as much as possible in this supportive initiative. Both Directors UK and Arri were amazing collaborators throughout the whole process so it’s worth using them to help you make the best film that you possibly can.

“I took the Challenge ALEXA as an opportunity to have a crack at something that no one in my usual working life would expect me to do (or ever let me do!) — And that was loads of fun.” — Sami Abusamra

SA: All I can say is I took Challenge ALEXA as an opportunity to have a crack at something that no one in my usual working life would expect me to do (or ever let me do!) — And that was loads of fun. So if anyone is thinking of applying I’d say take advantage of the fact you’ll never work with a set of execs who are as hands-off and supportive as Abi and the guys at Directors UK were.

AC: Before you enter, think very carefully about the budget – it’s going to cost you a lot of money if you don’t keep it simple, so keep it small. Learn what the Anamorphic Primes do and how they need different handling when creating your framing.

Although it’s a great opportunity, can you really afford to make the film you’re pitching? Also include a calculation in the budget of the considerable income lost through weekday commitments to all stages of production, as these are hidden costs. Line up a really good producer as a collaborator to share or take over the production side and save your sanity. Gather a team around you that you have worked with before and totally trust.

PM: I think the best advice would be to apply first and foremost. We so nearly didn’t, we submitted at the eleventh hour and succeeded, so if we can do it anyone can. 

Get a great team around you; it is in the team that your film is made. No man is an island and filmmaking is that most collaborative of arts. If you’re going to go into the trenches make sure the people beside you have your back, and you theirs, trust in your colleagues and their abilities and let them shine.

And last but not least: have fun. Life’s an adventure, and the last six months has been a massive journey of doubt, fear, excitement, joy, pain, sorrow and more fear, but we got through it all, and we’re so proud to be able to show the fruits of our labour to all at Directors UK. We can hold our heads high; we did it, we achieved.

DB: Challenge ALEXA has been absolutely fantastic, allowing us to make a film not otherwise possible and looking more beautiful than we could have dreamt of. I have learnt so much about shooting with anamorphic lenses and the ALEXA and truly hope my next project, indeed all future projects, will be shot this way. If anyone is considering entering the Challenge next year my advice is don’t hesitate. It’s the chance of a lifetime!