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Categories: Interviews

The Spread talks with Ian Waugh, writer and director of the short “As He Lay Falling”, which is now being produced as a feature.

ianwaugh

Jammer Ian Waugh is an English director and writer whose filmography includes the shorts Leaves and Strayed, both of which were met with high praise and accolades. His most recent short, As He Lay Falling, has travelled all over the world, winning  awards at countless international festivals, and is now being developed into a feature. We spoke with Ian about his career and the transition between short and feature with As He Lay Falling.

What is the premise of “As He Lay Falling”?

As He Lay Falling is about Georgios, a Greek man who we find in the Scottish Highlands. He’s working for food and a place to sleep in a stone bothy on a rundown highland croft. Georgios is an economic migrant, be this through circumstance or personal choice, who’s now stuck in a situation where he can’t earn any money. He’s quickly fallen into a life of further exploitation, becoming trapped in a sexual relationship with Bronte, the croft owner. This is all under the nose of her partner William, an English incomer and another outsider in the rural community. As the story develops we learn more about his past, touching on the reasons he has chosen to leave Greece and disappear in rural isolation.

At its heart the film is about the personal effect of economic hardship and austerity, how we judge ourselves and others based on our perception of financial worth and status. For me, it’s about the human aspect of the financial meltdown, how austerity has fractured peoples lives and psyches, their sense of self worth. When our sense of self is distorted our actions and response can be personally destructive.

You’ve taken the short to festivals all around the world. What have you learned about the industry along the way?

I’d say the biggest thing I’ve learned is that there is big world out there far beyond the UK festival scene and film industry. Being able to slightly increase my profile and contacts internationally has been great, and inevitably it leads to a slight increase in the same thing back home – the two feed off each other in a loop. The most important aspect is getting the film seen as widely as possible, reaching new audiences and having new conversations about its subject.

Getting to travel with the film has been a privilege, and I’d recommend everyone to do the same if given half the chance. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to a lot of different countries in Europe, and screening the film to audiences of different nationalities has been inspiring. No two audiences are alike obviously, and you do pick up on some cultural differences too.

In some ways the film plays differently to both British and Greek audiences – where the film had its international premiere in competition at the International Short Film Festival in Drama – because I think their perspective is always much closer (maybe too close) to the subject matter. Screening it in Sweden, Iceland, Spain etc was different – they potentially read the political message of the film at face value, with less personal preconception, because of their relative distance from it.

So basically, it’s really interesting to screen your work and take part in as many diverse Q&A’s as possible. There are always different reactions to the story that you might not have expected, but you also see the universality of film and how much common ground we share when watching a film, how much image and sound work together and transcend language barriers. Film really is an international language, and it’s been great to experience this first hand.

Will there be any significant changes to the feature version?

The feature version follows the same story structure as the short and just expands out from it. We spend more time with the characters, more time in the highland community, more time trying to get inside Georgios. The biggest difference is that we also spend time going into Georgios’ past life in Greece – where he has come from and what he has left behind. It’s important for me to maintain a sense of mystery about his character though, without that you lose the thrust that pulls you into and through his story.

It’s important for me to not spoon-feed an audience, to trust their interpretation and not feel the need to fill them with too much exposition. For me, finding my own way through a narrative is what I love about cinema. I don’t want to know everything upfront and have everything signposted to me. I don’t want to see what’s coming because the filmmakers felt the pressure to stick to a rigid formula of what ‘should’ happen and ‘when’, and they didn’t trust me to make connections.

A cinema audience is intuitive and intelligent; they can join the dots between what’s shown on screen without having its meaning shouted at them. I’m not a big fan of screenwriting books that try to prescribe a set of rules on you as a writer, and I’m happy to say that I haven’t had much writers block yet so I’m not having to rush to them in a panic! I’ve lived with this story and these characters for so long now – throughout the development and production of the short, and then travelling with the film around festivals – that in a way they really do have a life of their own. I’m happy to let them find their own story, and they are. This brings inevitable changes to the narrative – new characters are introduced, new locations and scenes start to emerge – but it all feels very natural and in keeping with the world that already has been shown on screen in the short.

What seems to be the biggest challenge in translating the short film into a feature?

I suppose the central challenge is having faith in the potential of the short, recognising what works and why, but also not being too precious about it and be willing to take the story and characters in new directions when needed. I have a lot of faith in the story to expand out into a full-length feature film, but I also don’t feel the pressure to make it too plot-heavy in order to justify the extended length. I like space in cinema, spending time with characters physically and emotionally, getting underneath their skin. In the feature I want to explore that further.

The short never began as a means to making a feature. It was its own story first and foremost, and the continued development has become a natural occurrence as I’ve continued to spend time with it. In some ways the feature development has really come from the short’s success and being able to travel with it internationally. Showing the film regularly and talking about it with other filmmakers and audiences has led to it living in my mind and growing over the last year. The more I’ve lived with the short, the more ideas I’ve had for the feature, and it’s been a really great and natural process.

I suppose I’ve flipped the question and I’m talking more about the positives rather than the challenges of developing the short into a feature! Another big positive is the amount of groundwork that has already been done because of the short having already been made. If at all possible I’d like to work with as many of the same people on the feature as on the short – it’d be great to keep that consistency going and develop as a team. The same goes for the local connections we made with the people of Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan where we shot on location. We were really welcomed with open arms and if we could build on that and go back to film there again I’d be delighted.

How far along in the production are you?

We – I’m working with one of the producers of the short, Richard Warden of Middlefish Films in co-production with my own company Only Son – are in relatively early stages but things are progressing quite quickly. We’re being supported by the Scottish Film Talent Network, which is basically the Scottish arm of the BFI NET.WORK with some extra support from Creative Scotland thrown in.

We’re receiving development finance to take the film through treatment into full screenplay, and they’re also helping us travel to Greece in September for a research trip to attend both the International Short Film Festival in Drama and the Athens International Film Festival. We’re going there to meet Greek Producers with the view to getting them involved as Co-Producers. We also have meetings set up with the Greek Film Centre and will be exploring options for attaching Greek and/or international finance to the production.

If things keep progressing as per our plan we could be filming around this time in 2016, with the film getting out into the world in 2017. That’s my optimistic aim at least! In reality it could be a further year beyond this, but it is also a very timely story with the economic and political situation in Greece, so getting the film made and distributed as soon as possible would definitely be to our advantage.

How would you explain your personal approach to directing?

That’s a tricky question. My approach has changed considerably over the years. My early student shorts were very controlled, which I think was partly due to my age, and partly due to the pressures of shooting on 16mm. Now I try to be much freer. I like to see filmmaking as a combination of ‘performance for camera’ interacting with ‘camera for performance’ – that is allowing space and freedom between the two, each working in reaction to the other. I almost exclusively shoot handheld for this reason – I want the freedom for both the cinematographer and the actors to be spontaneous. I run entire scenes through from every angle for each actor. This isn’t really about coverage, although sometimes it helps, its more about allowing the actors to really find their way through a scene. Chopping up their performance into chunks, live and in the room, doesn’t work for me. I want them to have space to breathe and explore their characters.

On a formal level I’m very drawn to hard cuts of image and sound, and often will instinctually go between extreme close-ups and wide landscape shots. I find both of these by far the most emotional and effective on screen, and that’s my main focus. I have little time for mid shots, they just don’t have the same impact for me. I really want my work to be visceral and experiential, pulling the audience into the world of the characters. I don’t use much music for that reason. I find sound design is a much better tool for making a connection with the world on screen. It’s not that music doesn’t work in film – of course it does and it can be massively effective – I just find it generally too prescriptive for my own work.

What is some advice you’d give to filmmakers trying to find their way in the industry?

I don’t know if I’m really in the position to give anyone very solid advice – I’m very much still finding my way myself. The biggest thing I would say is to just keep persevering and believe in yourself. Both writing and directing are lonely but creative positions. No one else is going to know or care about your projects as much as you do, but the trick is getting them to care as much as they can. Keep developing your own voice, live your life, and you’ll discover the kind of films you want and can make.

Don’t try to make work you don’t believe in because you think it is what the industry wants. Make the work you want to make and if it’s good the industry will come to you. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. People see straight through you if you’re trying to be something you’re not. Try to work with nice people, and treat people nicely yourself. Collaborate and build a trusted team around you, but also always be open to finding fresh voices and collaborators. Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Our next issue is all about animation. Do you have any favorite animated films, or favorite animators?

I’ll admit I don’t know a huge amount about animation! I would go for Jan Svankmajer if he counts. I think he should. Or maybe the early shorts of David Lynch? I suppose I’m most drawn to work where live action and animation intertwine. Something completely different that I loved was Richard Linklater’s Waking Life too. I was blown away by it when I saw it in the cinema years ago. It’s a great mixture of cerebral and visual, while still being really playful. That’s my memory of it anyway. I’ve not actually seen it again since it came out in around 2002…

Find out more about As He Lay Falling on the film’s official website and Facebook page. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanWaughFlm

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Sep 1, 2015

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