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13th June 2017
Rolling with the punches
Title of film: Graduation film: True Strength
Director: Matthew Sterling
We talk with new director Matthew Sterling about his graduation film, True Strength, which conveys a sophisticated insight into inner emotional life.

What triggered the desire to tell this story?

It grew over time from ideas I’d had or experiences I myself had gone through, so I wouldn’t say that there was necessarily one main cause. The story in many ways is inspired by my own experiences.

Having had a tough relationship with my own father I sometimes find myself drawing on it as a basis for characters and situations. It’s an emotional topic that I can tap into and use to build up my characters’ own lives.

It’s also such a raw and real issue that I feel many other people would be able to relate to it in some sense and either find some sort of solace or courage through it. 

I had originally written it a little bit like a Good Will Hunting dialogue scene based around a conversations between a boxer and his local boxing gym janitor. But at times it felt too indulgent and heavy, so I found a way to pare it back and try to just focus on that core emotional issue. 

It’s compelling too because there’s very little dialogue and the narrative relies on the performance as well as your direction in framing the camera angles and the pacing. 

How did you go about directing the actor – was it collaborative work – what was your process of directing and how did you find your comfort zone while working? Did you rehearse quite a bit before the shoot?

When I make a film, it’s not solely my work, everyone is there putting their own creative input in and that’s what unlocks those really special moments. In narrative dramatic work I think the conversations and collaborations with your actors are so important.

In the weeks and days running up to the production I sat with both actors on a one-on-one basis to just talk through the script and their characters. At the time it seemed like maybe a little overkill since some of the things we covered in those sessions wouldn’t ever explicitly be seen on screen, but to me it was everything.

I wanted both Thomas (Tom) and Michael (James) to have the best understanding of these characters, where they had come from, what the upset in the past had been and how the dynamic between them flowed.

Once I’d been able to cover the core basis from my side, I then passed it over to them and worked on building the characters further through their own eyes. 

Since the budget on the project was incredibly tight, time didn’t really permit us to rehearse a massive amount. Before the main scene in the changing room we just ran through everything a couple of times to make sure we were all on the same page, but apart from that we discovered a lot of things while shooting. 

You edited the film too so did the pacing evolve in the edit?  And did the narrative change much while you were editing?

Editing my own films is something I really have a love-hate relationship with. I don’t think I’m necessarily an editor at heart, but for me being able to further refine the story and take my time to find a pace that suits the story is really important.

The pacing of the piece evolved quite a bit through the edit, my first cut was about 8 minutes long and way too ‘fluffy’, so I was always refining and looking for places to tighten things up.
I think with this story it was best to keep things as simple as possible. We had actually shot a few more lines of dialogue that explained a little more of the brothers’ relationship with each other and their parents, but in the end I cut it out because it wasn’t relevant to the core story and slowed the pace of the piece down. Apart from those few lines though not much else from the core narrative was cut, all the scenes we shot are in there, just tightened up. 

Were you given a brief for your graduation film or was it more or less open to what you could make?

We had a really open brief for this project. At the start of the year we had to come up with an area of investigation that we would write our dissertation on as well as make our graduation films.

For me, after having worked last summer in a few commercial production companies and having a real love for narrative based work, I decided to look into the growing trend of branded entertainment. This allowed me to learn more about commercials and advertising which is where I’m currently aiming to be, as well as create a film that I could show off my skills in working on both narrative and commercial content. 

What were the key lessons you learnt from this filmmaking experience?

I had this question from one of my lecturers at the end of the year and to be honest my answer is still the same. The main lesson I learnt was to just believe in myself. This was the biggest production that I had directed and at first when we were at the very beginning of the pre-production I was constantly doubting if the whole thing was going to come off.

I self-funded the whole film as well so the budget wasn’t huge and relied heavily on people’s generosity and kindness. I remember sitting one evening after I had just confirmed my DP for the shoot thinking “how the hell are we going to get a decent camera to shoot this on, I’ve never directly dealt with a rental company never mind shot any of my own work on anything better than a C100”. But time and time again I was supported and helped by so many people, which really helped me to realise that I could achieve my ambitions and they weren’t just dreams!

Now that you’ve graduated what is your plan?

I’m currently living in Bath and I know that in the near future a move to London for work might be a reality, but at the moment I think I just need to take a 10 second breather after having been in education my whole life before launching myself into my next big adventure. However, that’s not to say that if the right thing came along I won’t be on it in a heartbeat! 

Anything else you’d like to share?

My only final thoughts I’d like to share are just a huge thanks to everyone who has jumped on board this project. The film wouldn’t be the same without any single one of them and I’m so eternally grateful for their generosity in getting behind me and the project so much. 

Credits

Writer, Director and Producer: Matthew Sterling
Director of Photography: Jamie Harding
1st AC: Sophie Powell
Production Design: Francesco Raffo
Location Sound: Nathan Samuels & Luke Predeth
Hair and Makeup: Annie Botta
Production Coordinator: James Hood
Production Assistant: Oliver Arthurs
Editor: Matthew Sterling
Colourist: Ryan Berger
Composer: Alasdair Cooper
Sound Design: Alasdair Cooper & Iain Atkins
Audio Mix: Iain Atkins
DIT: Luke Predeth
Titles: Jemima Schejbal
Stills photographer: Chee Yip