Critiquing my Student Films

It is scary to think that 2015 will mark a decade since graduating university. An appropriate time then (perhaps?) to blow the virtual dust and cobwebs off my student films which still survive and to consider them in retrospect…

Be gentle 🙂

Incassum

The setup: This was the first short I made as a film student. Truly, it was the first time I’d really actually made a film of any length. Sure, I’d written lots of stuff for myself growing up: I’d written and drawn comic books; posed my Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle toys to take pictures which I’d then string together to create a story;I’d written short stories and screenplays; drawn storyboards… But I’d never actually gone for it in terms of making a film. This was my first shot, and I was determined to come in as a writer-director right out of the gate.

My idea for the film was a very simple one. I wanted to pay homage to The Twilight Zone, and I had this seed of an idea where a guy wakes up in an unfamiliar house and hears a knock at the door. He goes to answer it – and there’s no-one there. He then realizes that there is actually no-one else anywhere at all – he is all alone. So he runs back to the house but finds the door is locked, so he starts banging on it… And wakes himself up again.

In retrospect: I can’t help but cringe thinking back at this right now. This is a terrible piece of filmmaking, and proof to anyone that if you really want to make films, you need to pick up the camera and go nuts. The more hands-on practice you can get before anyone actually sees what you’ve been making, the better. Unfortunately, I didn’t let that prevent me from being utterly pretentious. Not only did I assume I could simply just take on the role of both writer and director my very first time, but I even give my debut a Latin title (it means “Pointless.”)

My inexperience is blatantly clear in this film from the fact that I tried to stretch a mere seed of an idea into an entire film without further developing it into more of an actual story. Plus there’s that awful sense of pacing. There is no reason we should dwell on the guy getting dressed for so long. Really, it should be he wakes up and goes straight to the door. Why does he need to get dressed in the first place?

Looking back, I do think we did a good job of marrying the interior and exterior locations we shot at. The student house we shot inside was in a completely different place to the deserted street he walks down. But we created a convincing illusion that he just stepped out of the door and that was where he was. I remember we got up super early on a Sunday morning in order to get that shot of a street with no-one about. However, you may notice that we never actually see him emerge from the door. Due to some cock-ups we couldn’t sell it as good as we hoped, which is why we employed that weird device of him stepping into the street, then flashing back to just a few seconds earlier of him standing in front of the door, looking to the side. It didn’t really work, but it was close enough given that we weren’t able to do any reshoots.

To this day, I like the symmetrical shot down the middle of the street. Why I decided we needed to include those bells though, I have no idea. I probably thought they sounded cool considering the creepy tone I was attempting to achieve, but it now seems to undercut the entire premise: if our guy is all alone, who the hell is ringing the bell? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Scratch

The setup: I made this with the same group of guys I did Incassum with. My plan was to take more of a backseat this time around, and focus more on the technical elements of production since I felt I needed the experience. Truth be told, I was really disappointed with how our previous effort turned out.

I had nothing to do with coming up with the concept, which can be described as: a young, obsessed DJ goes on a quest to get a rare vinyl record from a mysterious gangster figure… And that was it really. Plot wise it is minimal, but it is still an improvement over Incassum.

This would be more of a visual piece that would allow us to use lots of musical elements as opposed to dialogue. Unfortunately, since this film was added to YouTube, it has been stripped of the entire soundtrack because one of the music cues we used was a cut from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly score. It doesn’t work so well when watched in complete silence.

In retrospect: Although I was credited only as the editor of this film, I actually had a lot more to do with the visual aesthetics of this film that anticipated given that our director and cinematographer were also the two actors in this. I can still point to a number of the shots throughout this which clearly have my fingerprints all over them in terms of composition and coloring.

I think this is a huge technical improvement over Incassum, but watching it now without the sound it doesn’t have the punch it once did. The marriage of the music and the image was what really made this: the western theme over the car park meeting, the sound of a record being scratched when he moves his hand across the record shop window, the payoff of him finally listening to the record at the end – and it’s Laurel and friggin’ Hardy. Regardless, I think there is still a clear progression here.

Adrift

The setup: This was made in the second year of my three year course. I’m back as the writer-director, and I’m working with a completely different group of peers. Once again, I had big pretentious ambitions for this film (which didn’t actually have a name until late in post-production.) My idea was to do something along the lines of Magnolia, Pulp Fiction, or Love Actually where there were a few different stories that we would cut between. The original plan was for me to write two of them, with one of my friends and crewmates to contribute the third. Ultimately, we realized that was just not going to be feasible, and so I picked my favorite of my stories to form the whole thing. It was the story of a young woman who is caught having an affair, who later learns she is pregnant with her ex’s child, but of course he wants nothing to do with her at this point. Cheery stuff.

We shot on film. It was exhausting.

In retrospect: Before I start criticizing this film, I want to acknowledge the hard work of everyone else involved in making this film. Everyone really pulled their weight, and I had a great time working with this crew. The problems I have with the film are completely down to my own shortcomings.

Magnolia was a huge influence in my thinking behind the genesis of this film. I wanted to make something with a similar sense of drama and emotion. But my inexperience directing actors instead caused it to lean far too much into melodrama, making this feel like much more of a soap opera that I had intended.

Rewatching it now all these year later, my influences jump out at me. The film starts off with the song Love Will Tear Us Apart, which I had probably recently heard on the soundtrack for Donnie Darko. The deconstruction of the audio and visuals when she cries is ripped off directly from 25th Hour. The subtitles over the romantic moment on the bridge (necessary only because the sound was a disaster) was an idea inspired by Vivre Sa Vie.

The film didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped, but for all its failings, I’m still really proud of it.

Dead Time

The setup: This was my third and final year project. I made the conscious decision to once again work with a completely new group of filmmakers because although many of those I’d worked with on Adrift were dear friends, I felt I wanted to get as much experience working with different people as possible.

My experience on Dead Time was certainly a very different creative process, and I worked closely with my producer and co-writer on the film to craft our idea. To put this project into historical context, it was right around the time the US and Britain invaded Iraq. Although I kind of understood what was going on, I was essentially apolitical and uninformed. My collaborator wasn’t. Although I am credited as director on this film, it is more his film than mine.

The idea was that we would make a film ripe with symbolism (Ă  la Family Guy‘s parody of a student film.) We hired professional actors, and – despite scouting a very spooky underground prison cell – ultimately transformed a classroom on campus into a make-shift set. David Lynch’s Eraserhead was a huge influence on my in terms of the aesthetics I wanted to achieve with this effort.

In retrospect: I feel very little for this film now, although I remember feeling physically sick immediately prior to its first public screening at uni. There is probably a lot to be talked about the thoughts and intentions behind this film, but I have zero interest in doing so. This was always less my film than my collaborator’s, and this has become increasingly true over the past decade.

You’ll notice in the credits that I am credited with both production design and director. To be honest, I gravitate towards the production design of this more than anything else. That is what appeals to me about this when I look at the film today – the attention to detail in the set, the props, the costume, the lighting… My memory of making this film was me in the room we shot in, making sure everything was just so, while my collaborator was in the green room next door, discussing the film with the actors. Although I was a bit frustrated with this arrangement at the time, it makes perfect sense to me now. That was as it should have been. This was his film, not mine.

       

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