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Missed Cineformation Special Q&A with producer Samm Haillay? Read all about it h
8pm Wednesday 11th February 2009, Waterside, Watershed Media Centre
Guest: Samm Haillay
Presenter: Oli Purches
Better Things is a striking and poignant film from director Duane Hopkins and producer Samm Haillay. Combining a lyrical, dreamlike rhythm with powerful performances from a cast almost entirely composed of non-professionals, it walks a fine line between poignant rural despair and a lyrical cinematic poem, and has deservedly won acclaim from critics and audiences.
Samm Haillay attended a showing of the film at the Watershed on 11th February 2009, discussing it with members of the audience and in a subsequent Q&A led by Oliver Purches.
How would you describe the film?
Firstly, it’s a rural tale, set in a part of England that doesn’t appear on film very often. We shot in Stow, Moreton-in-Marsh and all around the Cotswolds. The landscape is a key part of the film, and it’s a landscape which audiences have not seen before
Secondly, it features a group of individual storylines that reflect and rub off on each other, featuring very young and quite elderly characters.
And thirdly, it’s romantic – in the original, authentic sense of the word. It has the same romantic sensibility as certain novels and poetry. It’s certainly not a rom-com.
What was the budget?
The budget was £1 million in total. That’s a big leap up from previous collaborations between Duane and I in terms of money. But not in terms of ambition, I like to think.
How did you cast the film?
Duane and I strongly believe in casting from life, and in bringing real people rather than polished actors to the screen. That way, people bring their own life experiences to the roles. The couples in this film are real couples – or ex-couples. And none of the cast did it as a route to stardom. Some of them haven’t seen the finished film, and don’t particularly want to. For them it was just an experience, something they had the chance to be involved in. They did it, they finished it, and then they moved on.
The film has a powerful, dreamlike style. How did you shoot it?
We did a great many takes of each scene, possibly hundreds. That let the cast really engage deeply with their characters, and also meant that we had a real depth of rushes to choose from in the editing room. That was vital for a film with such a delicate and intricate structure as this. It also meant that if we had been lucky along the way with a particular skyline, or caught the sun coming out in a particular take, we could use it.
Was it a difficult film to shoot and edit?
The shoot was tough. We shot six days a week for six weeks, with a cast of about 30 non-professional actors and a crew of 39. Plus we started in October 2006, which was later in the year than we would have wished and led to trouble with the shortening daylight. In that situation, there were bound to be difficulties. But the hardest element was simply the 36 day schedule. We filmed seven scenes a day, every day! It was very difficult, and the pressure on Duane was pretty extreme. I probably wouldn’t want to repeat exactly the same scenario again.
We shot digitally, in 35mm anamorpic. I believe that the aspect ratio should be determined by the project, not the budget, and in this case the painterly nature of the shots and landscapes in the frame meant it really had to be in widescreen. And 35 mm allows the colours to come alive, even after colour grading.
Digital is certainly changing the film-making landscape and how you go about making a film. Anyone who thinks it isn’t doing so is mistaken – or doesn’t use the internet. Budgets are shrinking and money is getting tighter, so companies want more results for less money. Digital technology and cameras like the RED are a way for that to happen. And for us, filming digitally helped to provide the depth of rushes that was important for the film, since we hardly needed to ever turn the camera off.
The first cut was about 2 hours long, but we always knew the final cut would be 90 minutes. It’s just too demanding for an audience if a theme-driven multi-storyline film is much longer than that. So we stripped things out and cut it down to the bare minimum. Everyone involved is proud of how it turned out. It’s concise and emotive, and despite ending up quite differently from the script it conveys the same feelings we intended from the beginning.
Do you agree with reviewers who have described it as bleak?
It’s not bleak. One of the first journalists to see it used that word, and since then all the others have followed suit. In fact there’s real humour in the film, although certainly not of the belly-laughing backslapping variety. But the themes are serious, of course. I wouldn’t have been too surprised if it had been given an 18 certificate, instead of the 15 it actually got – although there was no way we were taking out so much as a frame from our final cut.
It has a strong and disconcerting sound design, with lots of breathing, weather effects, rustling leaves etc. Was this deliberate?
The sound design was done in Glasgow by Savalas Sound, and it’s a key part of the film. Truthfully, it was done in Scotland because we’d drawn down some Scottish money, but I think the end result is excellent. Some scenes in the film, including the school and the railway scenes, were filmed in Daventry, for a similar reason – we had funding from there.
Talk about the film’s generational issues.
The film shows the elderly generation looking back, and the younger generation looking up, and both sharing analogous problems and pain. In the final cut the film doesn’t show any of the intervening generations, although in fact we did film some middle-aged characters but eventually cut them out. The story works best without them, by showing the twin poles of the story.
The film has been very successful, even though it’s not a mainstream movie.
There has to be room for cultural, regional film making, to stand alongside the more mainstream commercial fare. Other countries have successfully revitalised this facet of their cinema culture, and we must do the same. The problem we face is the English language: sharing a common language with Hollywood makes it all too easy to be swamped by their product. The model here has to be people like Alan Clarke, Lynn Ramsay and Andrea Arnold, who practice a different kind of film making.
The way we have released the film has helped its success. There are about two dozen prints being shown all around the country, and we’ve gone from festival to festival, and done intros and Q&As like this one in lots of places. This is much better than having the film appear everywhere for just one week and then be forgotten about.
Having said that, Better Things almost certainly won’t earn a profit. But everyone involved understood that this film wasn’t going to be a huge profit earner. That was not what it was about.
How do you become a film producer?
I went to film school to be a writer, but soon found out that I can’t write a coherent sentence. I met Duane Hopkins very early on, and found that we shared opinions about what could be done on film, and were both frustrated at what was being fed to us. I put everything I had into making Duane one of the lucky ones: an aspiring film maker who didn’t fall by the wayside. I basically lucked into being a producer, by helping Duane to get things realised.
My basic approach was simply that I wasn’t prepared to produce a film which I wouldn’t want to see on screen. Many producers are package producers, putting together big packages of talent and money. That’s not what I do. For me it’s about working with a particular person and their worldview. It doesn’t always work, but with Duane it was obvious to me from very early on that the two of us shared the same goals. My job is to let his creative force get close to the finance.
Any final words of advice for aspiring film makers?
If you think you have the ideas and the talent, then you just have to keep fighting. Everything is possible, just don’t give up. Simple as that.
(Tim Hayes 16 February 2009)