Tuesday, 1 February 2011

John Michell and Rupert Raby and 'Barry'

I’d like to draw your attention to a brilliant short film I saw a little while ago. It’s called ‘Barry’ and was directed by John Michell and written by Rupert Raby. It is the story of a seven-year-old girl and her relationship with her best friend, Barry, her rabbit. This short is one of my favourites and I’d like to sing its praises for a variety of reasons. It’s touching, thought provoking, beautifully shot, exquisitely well acted, deftly directed and brilliantly written. I saw it when it was screened at the Antelope Sunday Screenings and the reaction from the audience was immense and overwhelming. Everyone knew they had just watched something special.

John Michell and Grace Smith

As part of my remit and ambition to big up my fellow filmmakers I saw it as my duty to have some words with the director and writer about this gem of a film.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
John: At nine I saw Jurassic Park and knew I wanted to direct. At 22 I'd had enough of testing this desire and gave up economics to start working in film & TV in the camera department. I was very fortunate and two years later the person who trained me up shot 'Barry'.

Rupert: I had a bash at writing when I lost my job in 2001. It's something I'd always wanted to try and when I got the opportunity, went for it.

So what is 'Barry' about?
John: A young girl trying to cope with her situation. She actually does so very maturely, even if it is wrapped up in a child's imagination. But it's this that makes the short so endearing, accessible and emotive.

What themes does it explore?
John: Friendship, loss, childhood, loneliness, happiness.

How did the idea come about?
Rupert: I was trying to find an idea that would be visually interesting, emotive and surprising. I'm very interested in kids and their viewpoint on life and this is something I was keen to explore.

John: In terms of the production, myself and Faye had shot a short for Straight8 and felt we could apply the diligence to shooting on 35mm. It coincided with a looming competition deadline, which gave us something to aim for, and having felt good after the Straight8 shoot Faye approached her fellow Guiding Lights mentees. Fortunately, Rupert took the bait and the ball rolled from there.

Describe your writing process?
Rupert: I generally start with a nugget of an idea and build the story around it. In Barry's case I imagined a girl who had an unusual best friend and it grew from there.

John: My approach is to try to work with the writer rather than physically do the writing. It's the same for working with every HoD: I try to be like a front-seat passenger in a car, that's helps navigate/suggest a route but doesn't lean over to take the wheel.

How do you prepare to direct a film?
John: Go through the story from the characters' eyes; know the arcs; know as much as possible about each craft; have alternative plans for the worst case scenario; know the edit, shot list, shot order, musical accompaniment... Overall, ensure two things: that everyone's singing from the same hymn sheet, and that you get more sleep than the actors.

What format was the film shot on and was this a creative or financial choice?
John: We shot on 35mm for both reasons to be honest: the texture of 35mm intrinsically suited the tone of the narrative, and Faye - our excellent DP - argued long and hard that it could be as cost effective to shoot on 35mm as on HD. She was right, though we secured a lot of favours - stock for free etc - on the strength of the script. I'd also argue that 35mm does bring a cost saving through attracting a calibre of crew that wouldn't necessary be prepared to work on HD.

What was its budget and how did you raise the finance?
John: Christine Hartland and Julian Bird were exceptional here, and managed to raise the entire budget through private investors.

Describe the casting process?
John: We went to a few young actors schools and also ploughed our pasts for kid actors we'd worked with. In the end we found Grace at the Young Actor's Theatre. Everyone reminisces about having that feeling or simply knowing when you've found your actor, but it's true. Even her head shot had the spark we needed. Joe Tucker came on board after Juliet Gallagher, a casting director of quite a few very good shorts, kindly gave us some recommendations.

Are you a director who likes to rehearse a lot before shooting?
John: Absolutely. I've heard both arguments in regard to rehearsing, but in my opinion the important thing is not to over-rehearse. I always try to rehearse at about 75% to coin an acting phrase, but even if the actor's reluctant to rehearse it's beneficial to highlight what areas will be difficult and to build up a rapport with the actor. Thinking about it too, I've done two shoots where we didn't rehearse and a common thread through them all was how difficult the shoot became.

What approaches do you employ when working with actors?
John: I feel you can't adopt one single approach. I recently shot something where it was necessary to side-coach the actors. It is important to remember that directing is asking rather than telling, and that the role's primary function is to be there for the actors first and foremost.

Did you storyboard/shot list every shot in pre-production?
John: Yes.

How and why did you decide on the visual style you employed for your film?
John: Everything derives from the script, always. Myself and Faye spoke in depth about the aesthetics, in fact we shared a 'production office'. With 'Barry', I felt like there was a three-part visual structure: reality/leaving her life, the safety of her world, and the static of home. The last part came from knowing that it's impossible to fully understand a situation like that; all we can do is respectfully stand back and be there if we're needed. Her safety derived from the visual culture that children would probably experience today, and the first part from wanting to catch up with her and her life or story. I.e. she's addressing us, filling us in, she draws us in on her own terms. It felt documentary-esque to me.

How long was the shoot?
John: It was a two-day shoot.

Which part of the production did you find most enjoyable?
John: I honestly can't think of one experience that surpassed the others, it was a gem of a shoot and entirely enjoyable. Bar Rupert suggesting that we change Barry to a sea-horse the day before the shoot. Turned out he was joking. Funny, Rupert.

What lessons, if any, did you learn?
John: Learnt plenty of lessons, from the value of collaborating and correctly choosing who you work with to trusting your instincts and sticking to them.

Where has the film been screened so far?
John: BSC's New Talent Night, Foyle, London Short Film Fest. We're waiting to hear from a few others.

Future plans for the film?
John: Further festivals.

What’s next for you?
John: Find a producer for the next short by the Barry team; it's the missing piece of the puzzle. Our producer, Casey, was so good we lost her to the NFTS. I'd like to do one more short before focusing on a feature. I've just been signed up to an ad agency but I'd also like to find a literary agent.

Rupert: I love to write but I also started directing last year and loved it. I've got two shorts under my belt and am developing a feature follwing young people growing up in Deptford - it's a comedy drama with an Olympic theme. It's ambitious but hopefully we can pull it off.

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