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This week we had the opportunity to sit down with talented upcoming filmmaker Joshua Kerr. In the interview that follows, we dig deep into his creative and technical processes. We’ll be covering the many challenges he faced related to:
- Working with actors
- Directing on the set
- Editing the footage
- and a bunch more…
Lots of good stuff in this one. To get started and for a bit of context, you can watch his short film, Notice, below. Please enjoy!
FEP: I’m sure you’ve had many great ideas for different projects over the years, why did this specific story resonate with you so much?
JK: Sometimes when you’ve had an idea or written a short script they do not progress any further. I think Notice called out to me and demanded to be made because it presented a opportunity to tell a unique story. Given what happens to Duncan at the beginning of the film it could easily be argued that he is not the protagonist but I always thought of him in that way. I wanted a film that treated him as the main character and for lack of a better phrase ‘bring him to life’. It felt like a challenge and I couldn’t help myself but accept.
FEP: Can you tell us a little more about the script?
JK: I remember there being quite a few drafts and a lot of the changes to dialogue so it flowed more naturally. I collaborated with a script supervisor, Mark Oakley, who helped hammer the story into a shape that would work on screen. I remember one of the challenges was to make sure that the drama revolved around Duncan so he would be a topic in other people’s conversations without being too foregrounded. In this way the other character’s don’t interact with him too often to heighten key moments when he is approached by James or Anne.
FEP: How involved were you in its creation?
JK: Entirely. You have to champion your own projects because nobody else will do it for you. I have always been and will alway be the standard bearer for a film. Placing a project too heavily in someone else’s court on low budget or passion projects like this one can slow things down and it is unrealistic to expect anyone to have the same level of time investment as you. In the world of bigger budgets it makes more sense to commission treatments and scripts but even in those instances the buck still stops with you, the one with the idea or vision.
FEP: Many films are based on true events such as this one – how did you/other writers decide which parts to use and which to lake liberties with?
JK: Luckily for us the source material was very thin on detail and we got to imagine and fill the gaps ourselves. The original story changes depending on who’s telling it so in actuality it is more of an urban legend by this point. It was about a man called George Turkelbaum who died at work and was found the following Monday by the cleaners having been there the whole weekend. For me this was a good jumping off point to generate ideas and ask questions such as; what kind of person doesn’t get noticed when they die? This helped us build Duncan and other characters in the office, the rest followed quite organically.
This was a good jumping off point to generate ideas and ask questions such as; what kind of person doesn’t get noticed when they die?
FEP: You shot this film over the course of one weekend – I’m sure many people can relate to that type of time crunch…
JK: It was quite a squeeze. We did get the chance go back to the location for about two hours of pickups but aside from that we had very limited time in the location. Oddly enough the most difficult shots were the computer screens, which I had to reshoot at least twice. I don’t think we would have managed to capture everything without dropping a couple of shots from the plan and merging some in to one camera move. These kind of decisions I made on-set with the DOP Andy Roughan.
FEP: Can you give any advice to other filmmakers on how to successfully pull it off?
JK: It will sound cliche but just go and shoot it. Don’t do what I did and wait for all of the right pieces to fall into place before shooting, it might sound ideal but it is a bad plan. Over time a project can get built it up in your head and you will place very high expectations on yourself. Start by surrounding yourself with talented people and if you don’t know anyone then go out and make some friends. If you don’t have time then make it, if you don’t have a camera borrow or rent one, if you don’t have money then save it. Ultimately if you are not shooting then you are not seeing your ideas through. Remember that this is just one project and there is alway be a next one, so its not the end if this one doesn’t work out.
FEP: Were there any specific organizational tactics you used to ensure the shoot went smoothly and that you got all the footage you needed?
JK: It was quite a standard shoot plan, we had a shot-list and a lot of photos/floor plans from the location recon. I had to produce and direct so I was equal part time keeping and working with the actors. It can be tough wearing both hats on set and I was a little worried about the two scenes in particular. Both featured main characters interacting with Duncan, they were key to the plot and needed to hit the mark emotionally. Of course the trouble is always time so when putting the shoot plan together I made sure I overestimated the amount of time we needed for those scenes. It turned out we got those takes in the can quite quickly and the actors did a brilliant job plus as a result we had more time to play.
FEP: It took quite a while to make Notice due to lack of funding, and in the end you financed it yourself. What made the funding process so difficult? Is there anything you think you could have done differently or better? Do you think there were benefits to being self-funded?
JK: In truth, there is very little funding for short films and unless they are the proof of concept for a feature film you are unlikely to find independent investment. I was glad to self finance because I knew it could be done on what I had available to me, safe in the knowledge that I didn’t need to make any compromises. It isn’t always the right answer to self fund but in this case the film had been developed over such a long period it almost felt like a case of ‘it’s now or never’.
FEP: Due to your tight budget you utilized friends and acquaintances to fill the actor/actress roles. Tell us more about that…
JK: A tight budget for sure, all of the extras are comprised of my friends, family and my wife Ieva who was keeping them all entertained. Meanwhile the five main cast members were were hired actors. At least two of them I had worked with before so we had a good relationship.
FEP: Do you have any words of wisdom for working with people you know?
JK: It is a bit odd but you have to treat them like any other cast member, don’t try to give them special treatment because the ultimate goal is to make the film as good as it can be, you can’t do that if you are pandering to your friends. Trust me when I say they will understand if you only speak to them a couple of times but perhaps assign a crew member to make sure they are looked after. Plus you might be surprised how many just want to observe you in your element.
FEP: Did you find it tougher to give direction in that instance and get the shots you wanted?
JK: Much of the time I was giving direction to the actors but the distinction I make between working with non-actors and professionals is that if you are working with non-actors they have to be right for the role. You are not directing them into a performance you are directing them as them. So the main challenge is using techniques like giving them things to do (business), and using the magic ‘if’ to guide them to a natural dialogue delivery. I can’t stress enough that you shouldn’t try to get a non-actor to play anybody but themselves, that is what professional actors are for.
The distinction I make between working with non-actors and professionals is that if you are working with non-actors they have to be right for the role. You are not directing them into a performance you are directing them as them.
FEP: Not only were you the producer and director, you edited this short as well. Did you encounter any difficulties during that process?
JK: I did get help because you can’t create anything in a vacuum, so I ran some test screenings with friends and colleagues. There’s a really interesting thing that happens when you screen your film in front of people, no matter how many times you have seen it in the edit software, you end up seeing it through their eyes and will always find something to change. When doing this make sure you sit at the back so you can see them react to the film and if you have a chatty friend don’t answer any of their questions.
FEP: Because of the tight schedule, was any rough cutting taking place during the shoot/end-of-day or did you save all the editing for later?
JK: We did actually edit as we went. We were shooting RAW on the Blackmagic 2.5k with only one 250GB SSD plus I am always paranoid that I’m going to loose footage or that a card will corrupt. So the plan was to do regular footage dumps and back it all up throughout the shoot. While we did this we would make a rough assembly selecting takes that we liked while they were fresh in our minds. This worked quite well but of course only gets you so far into an edit.
FEP: Although the story in this film centers around a death, it was very important to you that it didn’t feel sad – rather it’s quite light with a few comedic elements. Was most of that planned during the scripting phase, or did you make changes during post?
JK: I knew the film had a dark sense of humour and although there are places where you might feel sympathy for the tragedy that underpins characters like Anne and Duncan, I also derive the humour from that same place. In post you can really see jokes coming together with the addition of music and sound design especially physical comedy. The squeak of a chair wheel can make all of the difference to the final edit. It was quite interesting to come out of the end of the process with something that resembled my vision.
FEP: Not to give too much away, but the actual death scene in particular was quite interesting. The juxtaposition of music and visuals were simultaneously peaceful and tense. We get a sense that Duncan is doing something wrong based on his actions, but he doesn’t seem to be punished for it. Did you intend for it to play out that way from the beginning?
JK: It is quite backwards in that sense and I like to play with opposites. He is doing something wrong and you get the idea that he might be quite an underhanded or bitter character. However, one of the things I like about this story is that Duncan’s early death causes two things: he does not get a typical redemption and (had he not perished) this otherwise would have been a very good day for him. He would have gotten the job and the girl while vanquishing his enemy. He is robbed of that.
FEP: On paper, one might think that the other character’s interaction with Duncan are unbelievable. However, the way the conversations play out…as a viewer you are completely convinced! Did you struggle at all with getting that right when it came time to shoot?
JK: This was tough and I do get the odd person asking me ‘are these people crazy?’ In truth this was quite hard and I orchestrated a few moments to fight against it. If Duncan didn’t move or do anything it would be very suspect so I created the slowly squeaking chair to at least make it look like he was acknowledging people. Also when James is talking to him I deliberately told the actor not to look at Duncan, at least then we can see his attention is elsewhere and his actions understandable.
FEP: The moment when James shakes the plant, unaware that the files he needs are in there, was a great (and funny) way to bring that part of the story full circle. Was it written into the script or did you originally envision other scenarios of James venting his frustration?
JK: It was in the script but a lot of the cast and crew were blissfully unaware of this piece of direction so the reactions of everyone in the room were quite real. The crew were trying to hold in laughter.
FEP: Towards the end, you cut to Anne as one of the only people left in the office where we previously saw a room full of people. Making that sort of leap in time is quite tricky to do successfully. Was there any specific reason you decided to go in that direction instead of inserting a few extra shots to let the day play out longer or extending James’ scene?
JK: You’re right about them being tough to pull off and whether we actually managed or not is something else. In this case two things formed the decision, firstly I didn’t end up with many cutaways that I liked from the office except for the ducks head bobbing. I could have shot some extra cutaways during post of things like a clock ticking but I ultimately opted not to because they really slowed the film down. As an aside the film runs currently at 11 minutes and a lot of festivals prefer less than 10 so runtime was definitely a factor too.
FEP: Most of the film is cut dry. It gives a great sense of realism to the office setting and adds more tension to the one-way conversations. Was that a choice you made purposefully or a result of the fact that you were leaning on help from friends for music?
JK: I prefer a hard cut. In my other work I happily use whip pans and hidden cuts but you’ll very rarely see me ever opt for a cross dissolve. I find most transitions unnatural and would be hard pressed to think of an example where a hard cut wouldn’t be just as effective. That isn’t to say they don’t have a use but I am quite dogmatic (or maybe just stubborn) about style so it really comes out naturally when I make films.
FEP: So, let’s touch on the wonderful friends you have in the music and SFX business willing to help in post-production.
JK: Adam Grigg and John Mellor are geniuses in their field. I am very lucky to know them and to have had them work on this film. I feel that their music and SFX gave the film a polish that it would not have gotten if I had to resort to library sound effects or royalty free music. Plus I feel very secure in knowing that the score and effects tracks are one of a kind. I am sure we will be collaborating again.
FEP: What was your process like to ensure they accurately captured your vision?
JK: It was very relaxed with them, they are professionals and I trust their judgement so there is a lot of respect there. In terms of the vision I came with ideas for where music could be placed and what sort of arrangement we should go for to make sure we played both for comedy but also tragedy. Sound design was very interesting because there are sounds coming from all over the office and John was able to hone in on the most important aspects of the scene while still building a soundscape for the environment. John helped bring story elects together but also did an excellent job on the dialogue, which was 95% recorded on-set.
Sound design was very interesting because there are sounds coming from all over the office and John was able to hone in on the most important aspects of the scene while still building a soundscape for the environment.
FEP: Did you temp anything in or give them references as to what you were looking for? Or did you leave the creation process up to them?
JK: I didn’t use a temp track in the cut, I’m old fashioned like that. Ultimately there was one initial call between Adam and I where I explained what I was looking for and sent him some tracks for inspiration, which I think was mostly like Thomas Newman’s Whisper of a Thrill. During our conversations, I was struck with how much we finished each others sentences and agreed on what was needed. I was able to be very hands-off, which is a luxury.
FEP: How involved were you in the creation of the film’s trailer? A common problem many filmmakers and editors face is how to tell a captivating story in such a small amount of time. It’s especially difficult on shorts. What was your strategy to pull this off?
JK: I will be honest, I am not sure I quite did the film justice in the trailer. I found this part of the edit very difficult and trailer editing really is an art of its own. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and by the point you get to trailer editing you are very close to the material. So if I were to do it all again I would pass the fast on to an external editor.
FEP: You’ve shown Notice at several film festivals around the world. How was that process? Do you have any advice for new filmmakers based on your experience?
JK: It is an expensive endeavour and not easy to navigate going in cold. What I would advise is this: choose the smaller festivals for free first and build up some success. This way when you get to the bigger festivals you have a track record. If you have budget then go and seek out a film doctor to do the submissions for you because it will take a up a lot of time and they have the knowledge to make sure you get a high degree of success. We didn’t do that on this film because it was all self funded. I would also say try to attend as many of the festivals as you can, not just to network (though it is valuable) but to see how your film plays in front of a real audience. One of the biggest joys for me was attending festivals in London and Newcastle and hearing people laugh. I also discovered people appreciating small moments that I thought only I would notice as the filmmaker. There real is nothing quite like it and it’s what making films is all about, getting them seen.
FEP: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Josh! Do you have a website or contact method you’d like to leave for people who want to learn more about Notice, check out your other work, or simply get in touch?
JK: Yes, see below!
Official Notice Website: https://www.joshuamkerr.com/notice-bts
Josh’s Vimeo Page: https://vimeo.com/joshuamkerr
For business inquiries or new project proposals, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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