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Categories: Interviews

The writer-director of Raindance Best UK Short nominee “Just Desserts” on developing characters and finding artistic freedom. 

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Michael Yanny is a freelance director with many years of experience in film and television. Starting out as an animator at UCA Farnham in the mid-90s, he switched tracks to live action filmmaking after being inspired by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s Delicatessen, a film he considers helped him out of the “lonely”, collaboration-lite world of animation. 

After university, he worked his way into a Middle Eastern broadcasting company, refining his craft as a promo editor, shortly after which he got a job at the BBC. Since then, he’s made a name for himself as an award-winning promo director for both the BBC and Channel 4. Most notable among his work is a collection of continuity idents for E4, which ran for over three years.

Michael made his first foray into short filmmaking with Ali and the Lamp, a comic modern twist on the classic Arabian Nights tale of Aladdin. He recently released his second short, Just Desserts, made in collaboration with Superplex Pictures

A hilarious exploration of the effects of a prank gone wrong, Just Desserts follows Dennis (Alex Macqueen), who renounces his wife and so-called friends after he thinks he’s won the lottery. It’s a short that’s found Michael much success, airing at the London Film Festival and Encounters, and earning a nomination for Best Short Film from Raindance. 

I spoke with Michael about his career and approach to filmmaking, and he shed some light on the behind-the-scenes drama of Ali and the Lamp and joys of working with the cast of Just Desserts

What led to “Ali and the Lamp”?

I was writing a feature film, and I was talking about it with a company who really liked the script idea. My producer at the time, Andy Gordon, who was recommended by Film4 was teamed up with Christos Michaels, who’s this entertainment lawyer who I found out later everyone in Cannes knew. Anyway, Andy was very frank about the film business with me, and said “You’re not going to direct this feature you’ve written just like that, you need to make a short… In Hollywood you’re not considered a director until you’ve made three features that have made money!…”

So I just had this idea floating around, Ali and the Lamp. It was a modern adaptation of the Arabian Nights tale Aladdin. I twisted it a little bit, and basically the whole idea was about a Muslim boy who finds a pound coin and buys a lamp in a pound shop, only to find it home to a kind, hapless and useless Jewish genie who turns his life upside down.

Premise-wise, it was kinda there, but I learned a lot about actually spending time with your actors and rehearsing. So that was my student film in that sense. It looks quite low-budget, but I made loads of mistakes, and everyone says if you wanna learn about film you don’t need to go to film school, you just need to make it. And I think that’s the best practice.

Did that give you a new sense of freedom?

I think that’s what you get from making shorts. I really got the bug…because all of a sudden, I had, with the budget that we were given, a little office, it wasn’t too far from where I live, and I went there for about two months and [was] pre-planning and getting everything together, and I just felt “wow, I’m doing my thing, I feel so free, I’m not getting paid a penny, but I’m doing something I love!” 

Regardless of the outcome, I take my hat off to anyone that finishes a film, because I had hell making that film. First day, the two actors were at each others’ throats. Second day, we got lynched by a bunch of angry mustached men at the end of the road, because they thought we were insulting their religion. They threw eggs, and cups and Costa coffee at us, and we had to evacuate. And I think one of the guys actually karate-kicked one of our runners, and I just went “this is not funny.”

In a way, it basically made everyone go “we need to make this film, this is ridiculous, that people can react like this.” And I realized, well look, there’s a place for art, and we shouldn’t be silenced by extremists or anyone that doesn’t agree with you. But I also realized the power of the word, the written word. At the time I was writing that line, I thought of it and I said “this is gonna happen, and this is what they’re gonna say,” and I’m chuckling to myself “that’s very funny,” but you don’t realize until you start making it how people are gonna react to it. 

So how did people react to it?

Well, I think with Ali and the Lamp people were, “I chuckled, I had a few laughs,” but it was a film made through perseverance and the love of making film. Was it my greatest piece? I can happily say no. My hand on my heart says that doesn’t really reflect me as a filmmaker in terms of the polished-ness of it all. But there’s a kind of low-budget sensibility about it that’s quite lovely. 

I do have a fondness of it, but I wouldn’t say, hey, this is Michael Yanny. I’d say Just Desserts is. That’s the film I’m gonna put out there, and hopefully they’ll go “oh, who’s this guy?” Hopefully they’ll see. It’s building that momentum, isn’t it? So I suppose the next thing, now, people have seen Just Desserts and hopefully another door will open and it’ll go somewhere else.

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“Just Desserts” is loosely based on a true story. Was it your true story, or co-writer Adam Baroukh’s?

Well, Adam heard the story from a friend of his whose ex-boyfriend may have had this happened to his family. Or it’s a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s. You know, its very tenuous. But basically it’s an urban myth of sorts. It must have come from somewhere. I think a few months ago if you Google it, there’s a story in China about a man who wins the lottery and he doesn’t tell his wife that he’s won it, and then he collects the money, he doesn’t tell his wife, he divorces her, then he goes and collects his winnings. So I think it’s always one of those things, what would you do if you won the lottery?

What would you do if you won?

Oh, gosh. Well it depends how much I won. You plan for these things, but hey, one can dream. I think there’s a lot that people say winning the lottery’s a bit of a curse, because it stops the struggle and the journey, and all of a sudden you can do anything, and it could go straight to your head to a degree. And I think what I liked about the story. The question that’s come up is, why do we equate having money with freedom? Why does the lottery make you free? It doesn’t. Surely it’s our mindset. And I think the character of Dennis, it didn’t really matter whether he won the lottery or not.

The film is set in one location – a restaurant. Did you feel keeping it to one place was restrictive? 

Well, interestingly this is why Adam approached me. Me and Adam were writing another film, and he heard this story, and he said “look, dude, let’s make this film.” And one of the things he was saying was “what I think is great is [that] with your animation background, you can visualize having everything in one place.” 

And I think for me, having it all in one location and in a very claustrophobic kind of situation, it’s an exploration of people and their mannerisms – who are they? Can you find out who they are just by the way they move, what they’re saying, or the way they drink? And that was very interesting, because I was able to really get down into the characters, and the casting was quite key to making it work. 

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So the actors brought a lot to their characters?

Adam and Eddie bumped into David Schneider, who was in The Day Today, and he read the script and went “I love this.” And so he put his name to it, and then we were able to get a good casting director and we started bringing everyone in. But David called us up the night before the first read-through and said “guys, I’m sorry, I’m gonna really have to pull out, but I’ll turn up to the read-through so the other actors know that you’re not just using my name to get them in,” because he has a certain amount of pull in the industry.

So we’re all round the table, and he turns up like a bit of a rock star, and we did the read through. Then we stopped and went around the table, and everyone started talking about their characters. Rebecca Lacey was saying to me, “Michael, what’s wonderful about this is usually all the character work I get, it’s all done at the casting. You get cast for the job, you’ve done your character work, you’ve done your exploration, and that’s not the joy of acting.” Actors want to explore things. And I’ve always said, if you’re gonna have that calibre of actors working with you, you have to let them own it. And let them feel like they owned their characters.

I was always open to that collaboration. Just because you’ve written something doesn’t mean it stops evolving and growing. So I think that you have to keep being open to the evolution of things, especially when working with such great talent, and that was why the characters came across so believable, because I gave the actors freedom to make them their own. And I think with comedy, sometimes you can over-direct, and you can basically ruin the jokes. You don’t want to over-rehearse, you don’t want to over-react, you want to give them just enough space and then I think part of the directing is being able to pull back and go “right, I think that’s funny.” 

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[The shoot] was a bit of a rollercoaster, but it was a lot of fun. Two days in a restaurant, a day for night, and then I think the next thing was the edit, which was not easy, cause you’ve got six people round the table. I did the first assemble, and it was at that point we realized we’d got something here. And I know my limitations as an editor, so I went “right, we need to get a good editor to take this to the next level.” I think having a good editor attached to the project is the difference between having an alright film, and having a film that could be up for an Oscar. That’s the difference that a good editor makes to a project. And James Rosen, he made the project. 

With the edit, we’d gotten a lot of coverage, and we could’ve gone anywhere, but we had to be very very sure of which shot we were gonna use. We had to make sure people got the story. So it was a long process, and also every couple of weeks James would get an Adidas commercial and I’d have to go “yeah, alright, off you go.” It took a while, but it was worth it. 

How long would you say it took overall?

Well, if it was condensed into real time, I would say about 2 months, but because every week or so James kept getting a commercial, or I would get a job, it took 10 months. But that’s what happens when you’re working with people for free. If you don’t have money, what you have is time and patience. I think you have to be quite patient. 

On the upshot of that, you get space. You’re able to come back with fresh eyes. Sometimes when you’re immersed into something, you can’t have that freshness. But you have to be slightly obsessed to keep going. It’s something that could be done in two months and finished, but to actually keep it going and keep the goal in your head, you have to be slightly obsessed. It’s not an easy thing, and it does take over your life. When you’ve finished the film, you feel free. 

Well while we were in post, I wasn’t sitting there waiting. I started writing again. Back in the saddle, start writing, keep those ideas going, because I think that’s the worst thing, to sit and put all your eggs in a basket. You just have to keep going.

Find out more about Michael Yanny’s work at michaelyanny.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 Feb 1, 2016

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