Feature debut Nina Forever.
Award winning short films and sketches for Film4 and the BBC.
Guiding Lights mentees.
Retrospectivised at the ICA.
Screen International “Stars of Tomorrow” sometime before yesterday.
Represented by Ian Benson and Hannah Boulton at The Agency.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
It was never really that way round. What happened was that we knew we wanted to make a film. We lost ourselves one summer holiday making a silly, satirical-ish, sacrilegious adaptation of the whole of the Bible. Everything about it was fun. Even the planning. Especially the planning. Corralling our school friends into reliably giving up their summer days to glue on fake beards and act out our stupid jokes was amongst the most stressful piece of cast wrangling we’ve ever navigated. Writing scripts then breaking them down into a shooting order were burdens of tedious joy, a fascinatingly pointless complexity. Sourcing costumes, building props, finding locations, making blood and vomit, then gluing the whole hopeless farrago together using a tape-to-tape system with at best a +/- three-frame accuracy was a deep dive into the kind of complete creative act we’d not previously experienced. It wasn’t drawing, or painting, or acting, or singing, or maths, or books, or sprawling cities built of lego. It was all of those things all at once. We were hooked.
Afterwards, though the thought was still not “we want to be a director” or even “we both individually want to be directors”, it was simply “let’s make another”. We grew up in the suburbs north of London and the closest direct link to the film industry was a cameraman Chris used to serve in his Saturday job at the local newsagent. Flush with the success of having our film banned for obscenity by our school, which led to us recouping our costs selling illicit VHS copies, Chris showed it to Robert who kindly pointed out how very badly made it was. He encouraged us though, helping us shoot a short film, setting us a challenge to make something with lots of different emotions so we could experiment with how to use the camera more expressively. Not sure how expressive we got but that film, a bizarre existential sketch that was more theatrical than cinematic, got into the Edinburgh Film Festival and by the time we were on the train up to Scotland we were in too deep to ever stop.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
Leaving school, our first thoughts were to pursue some sort of higher education connected to our passion, but that impulse didn’t take us far. Because the drug that hooked us was the act of making films rather than the career of a director, we approached our next steps haphazardly and neither of us thought initially of applying for a course as a director. Ben auditioned for drama school but skipped a recall to shoot another short film, a decision made from a tangle of brave, arrogant clarity and the abject fear of failure.
Chris started a degree in animation and would later apply to NFTS to do cinematography (though could neither afford it or qualify for support). He did do a short Raindance course on directing but mainly his sensible route into some sort of career was to get a job working at a camera hire company. Here he was paid whilst learning his way round kit and the TV industry. This gave us ready access to cameras and lighting. Across this time Ben worked in his local off-licence, an easy job that gave him plenty of time alone writing in the back of the shop.
This is roughly how we lived for the key years of the decade between our Bible film (made whilst still at secondary school) and Hallo Panda, the biggest-budget short we made, which was funded by Film4 and the UK Film Council (the BFI as was). Across that whole period we made something approaching 20 short films, a bunch of lower-budget music videos and a documentary about the now almost entirely forgotten New Cross music scene. Through this we taught ourselves the basics and tried to carve an identity within the industry which, at the time, was dominated by the UKFC. It operated what appeared to be a clear, stratified funding model that was a framework for building your career. Regional funding bodies would support you to make a low-budget “digital” short, then the higher-budget Cinema Extreme programme propelled you into their feature funding strands and off you go. In reality it didn’t work like that, was never really intended to, but everyone largely behaved as if it did. As a result we saw our longterm creative goal as something largely determined by our relationships with UKFC development execs at various levels of authority. Looking back, the situation is oddly Stalinist and the results for us were some very hard learned lessons.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
The year we made Hallo Panda was a crucial one for us. It started with being in Screen International as Stars of Tomorrow, selected for mentorship under the inaugural year of the sublime Guiding Lights Programme and landing a place on the Film4/UKFC Cinema Extreme programme, which felt like the final seal of industry approval we needed. We quit our jobs. But our reach exceeded our grasp. By the end of the year we had burnt our bridges with the funders and badly misjudged our right step into feature films. We were also mired in the grief of failed relationships and losing a parent to cancer. At a private dinner to congratulate all the participants in Cinema Extreme the execs who ran it gave everyone a DVD, chosen specifically to inspire. They gave us Overnight, a doc about the guy who crashed and burned when he made The Boondock Saints, and a feature about a guy who wakes up in LA to find he doesn’t have any friends any more because everyone has died (can’t remember the name of it). They might as well have spat in our food.
The mistakes we made in mishandling the production of the short were numerous but all rooted in two basic flaws. Firstly, we did not want to make the sort of film our execs enjoyed. Normally this simply means they don’t give you the money and really, that’s what should have happened. However, the funding programme was typical of the confused purpose of the UKFC. Was it a commercial fund? An artistic fund? A training scheme? A showcase for the industries brightest new talent? It was tacitly all of those things at once and so we presented a problem. Other people thought our talent deserving of support and our natural oddity definitely needed support in order to flourish. When they greenlit us we thought they were supporting what we were and the silly, beautiful, rude and romantic film we had written for them. They thought they were supporting what we could be, to learn how to be the sort of director they could work with in the future. We thought we’d be asked to speak, when in fact we’d been given the chance to listen.
The other class of mistake we made was that we couldn’t yet make the film we wanted to make. When ignoring the requests of your financiers and development executives the only hope of success lies in total glorious artistic and commercial triumph. Hallo Panda still has fans, it is a film that people fall in love with and it contains much that is beautiful and silly. But having been given more money than we’d ever known we told a story that required three times what we had. We made some poor choices with key crew. Chris’ relationship broke down at the start of the shoot and a cancer diagnosis hit the family right in the middle of it. We were also already finding resentful arguments with the execs casting a cloud across us. Overstretched and under supported, using the workload to blot out encroaching misery, in the circumstances what we achieved is still something to be proud of but, in the circumstances, we needed something better. We’d stuck to our guns, but didn’t hit the target.
However, despite losing the whole-hearted supported of our execs, being on Cinema Extreme opened us up to interest from across the industry. The film wasn’t an unqualified success but it was far from any sort of disaster, and for many in the industry its shortcomings just felt like creative ambition in need of a bigger platform. However, rather than going into these meetings armed with a convincing feature length of Hallo Panda or even a different feature film cut from the same cloth, we excitedly proffered a radically leftwing action thriller about a modern day Robin Hood trying to take down the banking system.
Truth was, whilst our shorts had always been silly, our feature scripts had largely been complex and dark. We couldn’t see the contradiction. We could see the sadness in Hallo Panda and the savage comedy in our Robin Hood script. But no one else could.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Voice is a profound concept and awareness of it, control of it, is definitely one of the fundamental elements of a successful career. It is expressed both by what you do and how you do it, all the stylistic tools you manipulate and all the motivations behind each choice. It is often easier to feel than explain and, much like your actual voice, it probably sounds different inside your head than it does to the rest of the world. The problem of the anarchist action movie vs the unromantic comedy is a perfect example of misunderstanding how your voice sounds to other people.
Put as starkly as that it makes us seem like idiots but we genuinely had been trying. From early on we’d realised that the tone of our work was, if not unique, then highly specific. Since our first short films people have asked, “So, are you the British Coen brothers?” and for a long time we thought the smart answer to that was “No, we’re the next Powell and Pressburger.” Both examples flatter but both contain elements of whimsy, savagery, artistry, comedy, oddity and horror that were what we found most compelling about cinema. Both are also notably diverse in their output. Existential romantic drama followed by pornographic slasher flick, check. Historical gangster thriller followed by dope fuelled Ray Chandler parody, how do we get a slice of that? At the time we were terrified of being locked in a genre box marked “comedy” and spending the rest of our lives like a pair of sad faced clowns unable to do anything else.
Eventually we hit upon the term “cynical innocence” as an attempt to explain our voice. Hallo Panda is a kids movie bent out of shape by sexual desire. The anarchist Robin Hood idea took a jaundiced view of contemporary society and attempted to offer a genuinely hopeful revolutionary alternative. Both used humour to trick the audience into confronting messier emotions, both strip away sarcasm to reveal vulnerability. At least that’s how they sound to us. For everyone else of course one is a comedy about a guy who has to wank a talking bear and the other is a left wing vigilante revenge thriller. Slowly we realised that the voice we heard, was all in our head. But we still didn’t want to lock ourselves in a genre box, so the only other option was to find a way to bring everyone else into our head.
After Hallo Panda we stopped making shorts and focused all our energy on writing feature length scripts and getting to grips with our craft and our voice. We changed the way we wrote. Previously our scripts had been passed between us, notes given or rewrites imposed. But Hallo Panda had benefitted from being written side by side and we found the more we wrote like this the more our creative arguments became genuinely productive. Rather than protecting work done in isolation, we were just exploring ideas together.
So we shut the doors, shared our laptop screens and started by writing the biggest, most unachievable script we could imagine. This was partly because it was what we were most interested in at the time but we also knew that trying to write to the imagined restrictions of a tiny budget would just hamper us in understanding the craft of telling a story. We rewrote the anarchist Robin Hood story. Twice. Then we wrote Hallo Panda as a feature film. Twice. Then we wrote the Robin Hood one a third and a fourth time and then dropped down a budget level and wrote a lower-budget thriller, twice. We also began to explore our griefs. Death and unexpressed grief became a theme first in the Robin Hood story, then in Hallo Panda, then in the next thriller. Eventually we sat down to tackle it head on, bringing back to life a tragic true story Ben had half witnessed back in his off-licence job. However, we were interrupted before we could finish.
How did you get your first break?
Out of the blue Chris was put up for an edit job by a DP who was a good friend from his camera assisting days. A TV movie that was the last hurrah of a cancelled BBC digital channel, the director, Ben Gosling Fuller, had leeway to employ whoever would work to the budget. Chris impressed with his speed and VFX skills and BGF brought us both in to edit his next project, a comedy special for BBC2 which also needed Chris’ skills to achieve the ambitious but under budgeted VFX. This became a short series and that led to another job as the same team. Editing other people’s work gave us an extended focus on structure. Working within the confines of a broadcaster’s narrow remit also gave us intense claustrophobia, further stoked by frustrations with our panda.
Despite rejecting a bigger budget offer to make a more family friendly version of Hallo Panda, we had refocused the script through the systematic lens of the romcom. We optioned this to a rising producer, Cassandra Sigsgaard, and went to LA to raise funding, but interest cooled. Rereading the script we realised the one element that stopped it being a perfectly honed romcom was the talking panda. Scott Fitzgerald gave this industry an over used maxim – “Kill your darlings”. It’s beloved of people offering script advice because it sounds tough and no-nonsense. Few who use it pause to think about Fitzgerald’s own darling, Zelda, locked in the asylum where she eventually burnt to death. Strip out your indulgences sure, but your darlings? Fight to protect your darlings with every fibre of your soul. Hallo Panda without the panda was a pointless regurgitation of a script manual, an unnecessary film.
Stifled and rebellious we realised we had once again been looking for approval, for someone to trust us to do something we hadn’t already done. We were hiding what made us interesting because it wasn’t easy to define. So we returned to the script about death and made sure it was everything no one in the industry liked. Structurally odd, not fitting a genre, obscene but rarely arousing, funny when it should be sad and sad when it should be funny. Knowing it was unfundable within the industry gave us an exhilarating sense of freedom. To our surprise Cassandra Sigsgaard loved it and together we raised a tiny budget from private investors, shot quickly, edited slowly and debuted Nina Forever in SXSW to reviews you’d blush to write yourself.
Thanks to Nina Forever we signed with The Agency and are finally in a space where our voice is defined by our work and where the only thing we’re stuck doing is being unexpected.
TV Credits: Headspace (2009), Sara Pascoe vs. Monogamy (2018).
Film Credits: Making Juice: The making of Juice (2002), Pour un temps (2004), Free Speech (2004), Death of the Revolution (2006), Hallo Panda (2006), 0507 (2010), The Maestro (2011), What Time Do You Call This? (2012), Nina Forever (2015).
Photograph: Jack Barnes