I had previously worked on a short, Snooze Time, with the writer Matthew Harris, who also wrote ’43,000ft’ which screened at Clermont in 2013. So when he sent me the script for ‘Madam Black’ I was excited too read it. It just took one read, I loved it and I knew I wanted to make the film. He’s a great writer and someone who I enjoy collaborating with.
I wanted the backdrops in the film to feel as if they had been purchased by ‘Marcus’, our lead character, as a job lot. So they needed to feel like they were all in the same world. I worked with a local illustrator, James Stewart. I provided him with reference for the look and feel of what I wanted, and he came up with something that was much better than my ideas.
In the script it just names the locations, so once we settled on a look I provided James with what I considered to be iconic images of building and landscapes that an audience would hopefully automatically associate with those places. These were tweaked so the angles of the illustrations worked for each particular shot. From there it was just a matter of briefing the art director on foreground elements which helped to bring those 2D images to life in each of the set up’s.
Matthew’s inspiration for the story came from two places. Firstly an accident with a kitten bought as a Christmas present by his mother-in-law for the grandchildren, which he inadvertently stood on. Thankfully the kitten is still alive and well, but Matthew wasn’t very popular at the time. And also by events recounted by Dora Diamant, the lover of author Franz Kafka. According to Diamant, she and Kafka met a little girl in a park who was crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told her not to worry since the doll was away on a trip and would be sending correspondence.
That’s a really observant question – the story is definitely for the child to begin with (and it’s a way to get her mother’s attention) but – you’re right – by the end it’s a little challenge that awakens his creativity. Most of us have probably found ourselves in a similar position at one time or another, where we delight in performing some banal task with disproportionate dedication.
We’ve introduced the taxidermied cat to friends and festival audiences and they aren’t sure how to react to either – is she an animal or object? In fact, even other animals find it confusing, like the Doberman sniffer dog at JFK that leapt up and snatched ‘Madam’ out of my hands sending her careering along the airport floor. Much to the delight of onlooking travellers.
While the magic does happen on set, the work is done in prep. So we had a fairly tight script and boards going into the shoot. Having said that stuff always changes, it’s good to have a blueprint but you’re not completely wed to it.
In terms of gags, it was really more the nuances that changed. Jethro Skinner who plays the lead ‘Marcus’ brought a lot to the film. His interpretation of the character and his actions provided us with material that while scripted changed subtly in ways that we hadn’t thought of in advance of the shoot.
One of the funniest deviations from the boards was the placement of the cat, originally it was meant to be stuck in the wheel arch of the car. But someone in art department was fooling around and had the cat placed so that it was jutting out from the car. It was perfect, it provided a lot of laughs for the crew, but also a better read for the audience.
For the two leads the approach was vastly different. Pearl Everard was 7 years old when we shot Madam Black, when auditioning for someone that age you need to cast a wide net. We saw a lot of kids, but Pearl stood out. She had a mischievous quality, was confident with an emotional range and she took direction well. She also had a very cute toothless grin that I found to be endearing.
The role of ‘Marcus’ was a trickier one to fill. I remember it was Christmas Day, we were two months out from shooting, and I still hadn’t found anyone that I felt was right for the part. But I kept coming back to a British short film, ‘Sign Language’, which was directed by Oscar Sharp. It’s a really nice short with a standout performance from Jethro Skinner, whom I thought would be perfect for the role of ‘Marcus’. It was clear to me that Jethro could be expressive, without being heavy handed. He has the innate ability to draw empathy from an audience, which is a hard quality to find in an actor. But an essential quality for the character he plays in ‘Madam Black’. The characters actions in the film are questionable, so an audience needed to be able to forgive him, and for that to happen they had to like him and empathise with his predicament. So I cyberstalked Jethro on Facebook…
He was initially perplexed as to why he was getting a random message from a complete stranger in New Zealand, but asked to see the script, fortunately he loved it. And he ended flying all the way from the UK to New Zealand to be involved in the film, it’s a long way. We were lucky enough to get him in-between his performances in the West End and Broadway runs of Mark Rylance’s production of Twelfth Night and Richard III. It was a great experience, we became friends, and I have no doubt that we will work together again.
There were three editors, and given the choice it’s not how I would choose to work. But the film took longer to finish than I had anticipated, because we ran out of money and it took a quite a while to figure out the ending which was not working.
Sam Brunette was the first editor I worked with, and he managed to put together a rough compile. Then due to work commitments he had to leave the project, and that’s the reality of making a short film. You don’t necessarily have the funds to secure the services of collaborators for a long period of time.
Then a friend, Jarrod Wright, did a couple of passes with me on the edit and that was really helpful, at that stage we had a much tighter cut. But we still had an issue with the ending and the edit wasn’t quite right. So I handed the project over to Ken Sparks along with a pick up shot I had done, which I will cover off in the next question. Because I was the constant across all three editors it wasn’t that bigger deal, the only problems we had were technical, moving between Avid & Final Cut.
Aside from Jethro ad libbing profanities, such as when he pulls the cat out from the wheel of the car, we stuck to the script for the most part. But that did change when we got to the edit. We had a dream sequence after he sees ‘Tilly’s’ mum, ‘Racheal’ for the first time. It was some of the best looking footage that we shot, but it didn’t help with the story. It added nothing and so we cut it.
We eventually resolved the ending a year after principal photography, we had a cut from the party scene to the end titles and it felt abrupt. Unfortunately our lead actor was in the UK and Pearl was a year older. So I came up with the idea of shooting the album of postcards over Pearl’s shoulder. It might seem trivial, but it made a huge difference to the film. It served as a full stop, and that was what was missing.
Well if it was, I suspect my 2 year old Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rufus, would start to get very nervous. It wouldn’t be a great idea as he’s close to 50 kilos, which would make it quite difficult to carry him around at festivals.
Our next project will hopefully be a feature, myself and Matthew bounced around some ideas and nothing seemed to stick. That is until about a month ago and he’s currently beavering away on a script. I have already seen parts of the treatment and I’m excited. If you embark upon a film, short or feature, you are going to be living with that project for some time and so you have to love the script. You have to be passionate about it, otherwise it either won’t get made or it will show up onscreen.