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Categories: Interviews

The London Film School graduate discusses her successful graduation film, “You Are Whole”, starring Fred Melamed.

Laura Spini

Laura Spini is an Italian-born and London-based writer, director, producer and editor known for her darkly comic London Film School graduation film and directorial debut, You Are Whole. Starring Fred Melamed (Hannah and Her Sisters, A Serious Man) as a mysterious but amiable follower of a new age religion, Norman, whose visits with prospective clients seem to coincide with the targets of a serial killer.

Part suspenseful mystery and part quirky dark comedy, You Are Whole is a gripping short rooted in Laura’s appreciation of the likes of Robert Altman and Roy Andersson, filmmakers who bring “a sense of fun” into their works regardless of whether they’re comedies or not. You Are Whole similarly has a sense of fun, even if it deals with some pretty dark ideas.

Premiering at the Palm Springs International ShortFest, You Are Whole has also appeared at the schnit International Shortfilmfestival in Switzerland, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and our February Jam Session, among others. I recently sat down with Laura to find out more about the creation of this fascinating film. 

The character for “You Are Whole” is described as an “overly polite follower of a New Age religion”. Where did this character come from?

It actually comes from the actor [Fred Melamed] who eventually played the role. I kind of started imagining a character, and that it would be very interesting to see him do a character like this. It kind of built up from there. And generally, I really like characters who are incredibly nice or polite, so the two things joined together.

The character Fred plays has a book for his religion in the film – what would you imagine being in that book?

Before we went off, I worked on some little brochures and some little contents for the religion to explain it to myself as well as the actors, and I think it’s mostly about…like at the beginning he tries to explain how part of our souls come down from stars, and basically that’s why he’s sort of convinced that once you even have a terrible, violent death, it’s actually your body reconnecting to what it came from.

What drew you to Fred Melamed – have you always been a fan?

I have, I’ve always loved his work. He’s hilarious, he only has a very small part in Hannah and her Sisters, but he’s done a few other Woody Allen films, and after the Woody Allen films, because he’s a big voice actor, he didn’t do many roles for a while, and then he had his big comeback with A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers, where he’s one of the main characters, and now he’s everywhere, he’s doing so many things at the moment.

What was he like to work with?

He’s amazing. The best session we had, we didn’t have much time for rehearsals because he was coming from the states, and the day after he arrived we just went down the coast of Kent; so not much time for rehearsal, but we didn’t really need it because he’s really good. And the day before we went to shoot we just sat down for a couple of hours, went through the script, and it was really interesting because we started reading his lines, and he would say them, and it was kind of exciting because we would finally hear someone saying these words. But we mostly just talked about words, and how words sounded, and how they would work better for the character if they were slightly different, slightly different turns of phrases. That was great, because we went really in-depth with that, and it just made the script much more consistent.

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Why was that important to you?

I’ve got a weird English anyway; it’s bookish English rather than natural English because I’m foreign. I’ll use big words but they won’t necessarily make sense in a contemporary context. So there was an aspect of that, but obviously we wanted to make it like these words were being said and understood by the character, so they were a bit grand-sounding but they made sense to him.

There’s a scene in the pub where he’s talking about the “errant particles”, and we discussed “errant” for a long time; at the beginning it was “spurious” and then it became something else and then we settled on “errant.”

But we got on really well and we learned to know what each other wanted the character to be saying.

You’ve said you like filmmakers who have a sense of fun and that you tend towards comedy – would you consider “You Are Whole” a comedy?

Yeah, I would, but some people wouldn’t [laughs].

Which part of it would you say is inherently funny, the story or the characters?

I think it’s the characters. You could possibly take the same script and make a drama.

What about the characters is funny to you?

It’s the fact that they come, Norman and all the other characters, from two very different realities. With one, you kind of belong to a group…it doesn’t matter what group, but when you’re in a tight-knit group, you start speaking a language that everyone inherently understands within the group, but once you’re taken away from it like Norman is, because he’s an American and he’s now on the coast of England to spread the religion, you just sound weird to everyone else, but the other characters are weird in their own way, because they belong to their own little groups as well.

When you’re in a tight-knit group, you start speaking a language that everyone inherently understands.”

Another thing that really stood out about the film is all the different locations – did you have any idea when you wrote the script or going into production exactly where you wanted to film, or were there a lot of places that you found along the way?

It was a combination of things. Originally, my producer and editor, Laurence [Brook], suggested Herne Bay, because that was where his granddad had lived, and he knew about this residential area that’s taken care of by the residents. The roads are old and not well-adjusted, and it’s very idiosyncratic – every house is different from the next one – and there are lots of houses that are small, where their ceilings are very small, and it was just – we went there very early, and it just seemed right to set the tone of the film, so we stuck with that and we got in touch with a community that really helped us a lot, because they just opened their doors for us, and were incredibly nice to us in general.

So while I was writing it, it wasn’t a seaside town, but I’m so glad we did it in a seaside town.

What do you think the seaside added to the film, to the characters and themes you were trying to explore?

First of all, it looks good. There’s little cabins by the sea – it just looks nice. Apart from that, there’s this thing that’s very typical of a lot of British coastal towns, there’s a part of them that’s run-down. There’s a lot of old glitz and glamor that’s a bit decadent because they’re not well-taken-care-of, and it made it seem more eerie and disconnected from reality.

You’ve taken the film to many different festivals – how have different audiences reacted?

Some people are left confused, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it varies. Judging by the festival programs it’s been put into, some people take it less like a comedy and more like a con-artist kind of film; I don’t see Norman that way, but a few people think he’s the killer. I don’t, but I’m fine with the ambiguity, because I guess that’s what the police believe as well.

Some people are left confused, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”

You’ve described it as a comedy – have people laughed a lot?

It depends on the audience, I think the most incredible reaction we got was in Switzerland [Schnit], we had incredible, raucous laughter. You can feel the texture of laughter varying, depending on where you are. I think overall, we never had no laughs, which is reassuring, especially if you’re in the room.

Can you tell me anything about your next film, “A Disappearance”?

We’re almost of out development, but we’re looking for funding to get it made, and it’s pretty much with the same crew as You Are Whole, and we’re co-directing, myself and Laurence Brook, who’s the producer and the editor on You Are Whole. We made, a while ago, a documentary about psychic mediums – small-town psychic medium – and it was a short documentary we did for school. We loved the world and decided to stay in it a bit longer, making a fiction film around the same world. Although [for that], the protagonist is a woman with more ambition; she had a bit of fame in her life and she’s gone back to her small-town psychic fairs where she’s come from, because she’s got the intention to manipulate a local tragedy to claw back her fading reputation.

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That film seems to have a lot of connections with “You Are Whole”, just in the subject matter – do you have a special connection to stories that have spiritual, or supernatural elements?

I guess so, now that you mention it [laughs], probably. It’s very small groups, with very…what you’d think is an odd belief if you’re not part of it…and it’s just very interesting because obviously all the groups have got their own…they’ve got a very strict structure, they’ve got beliefs and they can kind of substantiate in a logical way, and it’s very interesting because it’s not necessarily my belief, but it’s very interesting that somebody believes exactly that set of things.

Why do you think you’re interested in this kind of stuff?

I will always enjoy a good story about a cult, or something like that, but it’s not necessarily what I’m always interested in – it’s not that I’m always watching films about cults, but when you get a really good one, it’s just so interesting; just generally, sets of beliefs is something that interests me…I don’t necessarily know why. I come from a really Catholic country, if that counts, maybe that.

Now that I think of it, another film that I worked on with Laurence – Laurence directed it and I produced it and edited it – is called Heroics, and it’s about real-life superheroes – it’s a mockumentary set in the 90s in a parallel reality where superheros actually exist , but they’re annoyed celebrities who have got like a faded reputation, and there’s obviously their young followers who try to gain superpowers through very cancerous radioactive treatments and things like that. Once again, it’s something to do with supernatural. [Heroics was Laurence Brook’s graduation film.]

What did you learn about yourself as a director while making You Are Whole?

I was talking to Fred Melamed after we did the shoot, and I was telling him that once I had a job interview, it was many years ago and I was still thinking of applying to film school, and the person said to me “you want be a film director? You’re very mild.” And that kind of hurt me, because [directing] was something I wanted to do at that point.

It was interesting, because I said this to Fred as we were having dinner after the shoot, and he said there’s nothing bad in being mild in the sense that you’re respectful to the people that you work with, and you put people in a good mood..you’re gonna get something back. I really try to keep a relaxed atmosphere, without creating unnecessary conflict, because obviously working on a film, it’s already such a tight and pressured situation, and you don’t want to cause more drama than is actually created. But of course there’s going to be drama because something is going to fall through at some point, but taking it lightly rather than making a big scene of it…I try to do that, at least.

There’s nothing bad in being mild in the sense that you’re respectful to the people that you work with.”

What are some of your favorite films of recent memory?

At BAFTA, Edmond, the animated short that won, I loved it. In terms of features, I really liked Bridge of Spies – I expected not to like it, but it was really nice. From the trailers it seemed pretty standard, but this is Spielberg’s best film since Munich. I like when he’s really dry, and I thought this was really dry. Mad Max was brilliant, and I’m looking forward to seeing Hail, Caesar!, which Fred is in. And Rams is really good.

Laura Spini is currently working on her next short, A Disappearance. Find out more about Laura’s work on her website, lauraspini.com.

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 Mar 7, 2016

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