Video: Film-maker's debut is a double hit

Not many film-makers can claim that their first short film after leaving college has not only been screened in competition at Cannes but also won a prestigious prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Andrew Clarke

Not many film-makers can claim that their first short film after leaving college has not only been screened in competition at Cannes but also won a prestigious prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke met film-maker Emma Sullivan a young director going places.

Life is good for Suffolk film-maker Emma Sullivan at the moment. After years of toiling away behind the scenes trying to get the complicated business of making a movie off the ground - all of a sudden she has arrived.

Her latest short film, After Tomorrow - a psychological thriller, set and shot in Suffolk - was not only nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival but also won the UK Film Council Award for Best British Short Film at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival.

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Emma, whose family home is just outside Woodbridge, is understandably delighted by the fact that all her hard work is not only starting to pay off but these high profile successes will start to unlock film industry doors which will enable her to make other movies.

After Tomorrow was shot in hi-definition digital technology in just four days using Suffolk locations, including her parent's house. It's a tale designed to leave audiences feeling slightly tense and uncomfortable as the hero finds himself in a situation over which he has no control.

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The film stars Joseph Mawle, famed for his portrayal of Jesus Christ in The Passion along with roles in Red Riding on Channel 4, and Persuasion on ITV, along with Kika Markham who has appeared in Longford and Michael Winterbottom's film Wonderland.

The story follows a man returning to the village of his estranged wife. James, the central character, grows increasingly concerned when the sinister owner of the guest house refuses to let him leave.

Emma is justifiably pleased with the way that the story plays out on screen. “It's a psychological suspense with a great twist - if I say so myself - it's not cheesy in anyway and it's surprisingly moving.”

With After Tomorrow as a gilt-edged calling card, Emma is already taking her first steps to making her debut feature film - which she promises to be as gripping as her short film. This is a long way from Emma's beginnings as an art student at the Central School in St Martin's and the Royal College of Art.

“I have always been interested in writing and telling stories but I went to St Martin's to do painting, to study fine art, and then realised that perhaps I wasn't quite as good as some of the other people there, so I spent quite a lot of time hiding in dark rooms with the photographic students and I spent time developing my own work.

“After leaving St Martin's I worked for some time as a photographer - working with style magazines like The Face and I-D, that was quite fun, quite fashiony stuff - then I went to the Royal College of Art to learn how to be a designer but then I found myself back in a darkroom again - this time learning how to make films.

“I was immediately bitten by the bug. I thought I love this, yet at the same time I was unsure because I thought I was too old, that I had left it too late. I remember thinking: 'This is ridiculous, you can't get into film-making, it's a ridiculous business, you can't possibly change career again.”

But, it quickly became clear to Emma that film-making was indeed what she was good at. So, she then moved from the Royal College of Art to the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield where she really embraced the art of story-telling.

But, she says that even now she is pleasantly surprised by the links between film-making and fine-art. “There is an awareness of composition which is good to have and it helps tell the story and set up atmosphere. I suppose film has a more literary focus but it is a good medium for me because it combines images with story-telling…” she pauses, hesitates slightly before adding, almost confessionally: “also it's very techie and I am a bit of a nerd. I love playing with new bits of kit.

“There's plenty to keep you interested, so you never get bored. You are always dealing with a whole range of issues, making hundreds of decisions. So, although I was quite a minimalist painter” - she then stops and corrects herself - “I can't really call myself a painter, I was just learning and studying, but I didn't see the bigger picture back then, now, for me the story element of working with pictures has grown.

“When I was a painter, I never had any figurative elements in them at all. It was all very minimalist - boxes that were different colours that sort of thing. Now story is everything.”

Emma is a very engaging speaker. She speaks in a very relaxed style - quickly and enthusiastically, frequently stopping and correcting herself in case she is misunderstood or deemed to be getting above herself.

She comes across as someone with a passion for her work and justifiably delighted that her work has been recognised by two major film competitions. It is also clear that she is very grounded in the world of film, littering the conversation with references to her favourite movies or memorable scenes. She says what fascinates her about movie-making is the way that the simple scene of a man walking across a quayside can be presented in a bewildering number of ways.

“The act of walking is quite simple - but what give sit meaning is the way in which you shoot it, light it and then edit it. That same walk can be happy and carefree, worried, nervous, sinister, they could be stalking someone - or being stalked, the list of possibilities are endless and that simple act of walking is changed by how a director views the scene, where they place the camera, how the follow the movement, what the lighting is like and of course, the music. Music can be incredibly atmospheric.”

She said that although planning is the key ingredient to film-making, a good director has to flexible enough to adapt to the situation on the day and to intuitive suggestions by members of the cast.

“I do storyboard. I like to storyboard because it gets the film clear in your head, and I like drawing - hence my art background - but having said that I do like to remain flexible. Drawing is a good way of getting things straight in your head. I can quickly dash out a few sketches, look at them and say: 'No that doesn't work, but that does.' It saves time on wasted set-ups on set.

“But, having said all that: when I do get on set, I have to be alert to what is happening. If something isn't going right I have to change it and sometimes actors have some very good instincts about how a scene is playing or where it can go and I have to be alive to how a scene is playing and where I want it to go to.”

She said that one of the joys of film-making is working with actors. Painting can be a very isolating experience; working on films is the ultimate in collaborative working. “I love working with actors because they have this ability to develop scenes in completely unexpected ways and they always ask you the toughest questions. And it is the incidental things which you can pick up on. If someone is nervous, an actor may develop a tick or a twitch or perhaps start absent-mindedly scratching himself and then you think: 'Well that's telling, we shouldn't leave that as a wide shot, we need to pick up on that scratch or that twitch because it is telling the audience something, it is helping to tell the story or develop the atmosphere. It is a collaborative process.”

She said that striking the balance between planning and preparation and being flexible and fluid while shooting was the key to getting the best from the actors while shooting After Tomorrow. The planning gave them a direction in which to head while their own instincts made the situation come alive.

“Shooting always gives you an adrenalin rush. Planning can be a big help but sometimes you do have to recognise when something is not working and then you just have to throw it out and start again. You have to be tough. At the NFTS they used the phrase - 'you have to learn to kill your babies.' And sometimes it does feel like that.”

She said that on set everyone looks to the director for guidance and it is impossible to be concentrating on everyone's problems at the same time. She said that in order to allow her to work with the actors she always hires the best crew members she can afford/cajole into working with her and providing they know what the finished result is supposed to look like, they can be left to get on with prepping the technical side of things, leaving her free to get the performance she needs from the actors.

“Also I like working on a happy set. There are those, naming no names, who believe that unless you are suffering, unless everyone is really miserable, then you are not making a real film - you are simply not suffering for your art. I don't believe in all that. I think it's much more productive if everyone is happy and knows exactly what they are doing.”

She said that shooting After Tomorrow was a very relaxed shoot, helped by good weather and light that stayed good into well into the evening. “I don't like working people for stupid hours because then they don't sleep, they are grumpy the next day and you don't get the best from people.

“I was really lucky because I had a great crew. They all believed in what we were doing, they were all pulling together for the common good. It wasn't any trouble to pick up that big heavy box that needed moving because they realised we were all in this together, we were shooting fast, on a limited budget and we were doing good work.”

Emma said she still catches herself watching a movie and suddenly thinking: 'Oh, that's clever, How did they do that?' She credits her fascination with the technical aspects of film-making to her father who was real film lover, who even studied it briefly, and showed the family Kurosawa and John Boorman movies. “But, I still feel very inadequate when talking to friends who are programmers because they have seen all sorts of films which have not come anywhere near my radar. And they know all the cast and crew, they are talking about so and so who was camera operator on that film who went on to be D o P (director of photography) on this film and I'm there nodded sagely and haven't a clue about what they are talking about.

“But, there's always more to learn. But I've always approached it from a film-maker's point of view. I've always loved cameras.”

She said that she was fortunate enough to have support from ScreenEast, the UK Film Council's arm in the eastern region, and a supportive mother who allowed her daughter to over-run her house for a week and this allowed the film to get made which in turn has led to two a prize at Edinburgh and a nomination at Cannes.

“Mum has been great. We'd be working away, we'd finish a take and she'd be there with a bowl of fruit or whatever. In the afternoon we'd be having lunch in the garden. I didn't expect her to feed everyone yet we sitting there eating home-made food and people in the village put up the cast and crew.”

Now, Emma is developing her next project is looking to recapture that elusive mix of quirky original story and commercial sensibility. “I do like a wide range of stuff but I do want to be entertained. The success of The Wire on television, shows that people are open to something new, it's just persuading the people with the money to take the risk. I suppose film-making has always been like that.”

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