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20th June 2012
A mind stretched by new experiences
Title of film: Roam This Place
Director: William Armstrong
Production Company: Antidote.ie
New director: William Armstrong

We love Cannes. Not only for the long swims and the rosé and meeting up with people from all over everywhere who like the same kind of film making as we do but also because of fringe shows like the Young Directors Award (5pm, Miramar Espace, Thursday 21st) which has just released its European and non-European shortlists. It’s great to see so many new directors listed who have already featured on 1.4.

Meanwhile, completely apropos of nothing, we interviewed new director William Armstrong just because we liked his trad and beautiful test film and we see he’s on the YDA shortlist too. It should be a good show.

Your first test commercial is very filmic. How did the narrative come about and was it a known poem you developed visually?

I wrote the copy at the same time as doing the visual research. I was heavily inspired by open landscapes and probably by a personal change at the time, so a lot of what I wrote came from an existential point of view. I wanted to say something about how life is lived (but was also cautious about emerging from a philosophical funk a few months later and realising I’d written a load of cheese). Anyway, the easiest path to getting my head around each ‘scene’ was to do a photo-board treatment with a line per image. It was then just tweaking the words and completing the puzzle to be ready for the shoot, and also hoping for a bit of luck that the Irish scenery would provide what I’d liked in research.

Once in the edit, everything changed. Being a test, I had the freedom to go back to the core of the idea without needing approval if I wanted to scrap a line. The early copy felt too literal in explaining the visuals and went way over 60 seconds, so there were several incarnations of the poem as the edit evolved. Cutting it back left space to hear sounds of the environments and lent a lot more power to the visual. I took a more indirect approach with the wording and tried to find lines that left more to the imagination. It was only in the edit that I came across the quote “A mind stretched by new experiences…” and thought it suited perfectly, so I incorporated that too.

Was the film always intended to be a commercial for a luxury car brand?

Not necessarily a luxury brand, but it was always intended to be a car commercial. For a long time I thought I’d make the brand “Vintage Jaguar”. There’s a mechanic on the same lane as the office in Dublin – he lent me the keys to his 1978 Jag for the shoot and I thought setting it apart from the mega-budget contemporary ads was a good idea. Plus the old Jag keys look so much more beautiful than the new ones for some reason. I decided simpler was better, so I left it as you see it.

If I go back to the inception of the idea, I remember thinking about those moments when you’re completely alone with your thoughts and you stumble across something profound about yourself – that seems to happen a lot on long drives in inspirational settings, so somehow the car you’re driving has a hand in that. The set of keys was the way I could make sense of this wide journey of the hero character and what was common to each experience – you didn’t need to see it, but the car was always there. I was looking for a loop hole that would tie a car into the ad without showing it. Zero budget meant there was no way of getting a vehicle or a rig for the shoot. So focusing on just the keys, I wrote the VO as a character who talks about the keys being passed to him, so the story could have further chapters, and I liked the depth to that.

How did the production evolve and what were the main challenges?

Ireland in early February! Days didn’t have a lot of light and it was freezing, all the time. Initially I wanted to juxtapose some grey skies with beautifully sunlit cloudscapes, but there was no sun for the entire shoot! We ended up embracing the cold and really went for that wild and uncontrollable Irish look that can be so beautiful if you’re open to it. There was an incredible energy on the team, there were just 5 of us out in Connemara (West Ireland) and I think we were all excited by the opportunity to do something different. The mood was so positively charged, even when we were getting up at 4am to step out into sideways rain and gale force winds, we were laughing about it. Turning that challenge into what was actually the highlight of the experience made it a success.

Also, after day one I realised I wasn’t going to get the scenes as I had marked them out in the photo-board, but we were getting fantastic unplanned footage to balance the scales. The other challenges were the obvious budget constraints and limited resources. Connemara is quite a vast place to explore, and sometimes we’d get one shot and then have to drive for two hours down a windy road with no signal to get the next one, which might have been for five minutes, and then we’d be onto the next and so on. With the cold and the wet, the going was slow – with our few shoot days ticking away, we had to stick to sights we saw from the road. I’d love to do another ad that allows for climbing mountains and getting stuck into shots that a lot of people don’t know exist out there.

From a script perspective, a lot of tests are judged on concept when the director is trying to demonstrate the craft, so a lot of thought went into the words and how to deliver something sincere and meaningful without losing the audience to skepticism.

There’s an intimacy with the landscape as if you knew it well before you shot the film, do tell us about your relationship with this location please.

None at all! We didn’t do any location scouting! It was my first time out in that part of the country, so we were heading into it based on its reputation alone. I think that gave our producer Kathryn a few sleepless nights, she was trying to extract routes out of Google Maps to schedule where we’d go and how long we’d be, but the plan each day was along the lines of “Drive until we find horses”. We found lots of them. The shoot was surreal like that, we’d all be bundled into this rented mini-van, driving through fog and rain and coming out into utterly breathtaking scenery and just knowing that everyone was awe struck in their silence. It’s a magical place.

Please tell us a bit about your background – have you been to film school etc. Where were you brought up and where do live now. Are you signed to a production company?

I’m from Gaborone, the capital of Botswana which is still my family home. It’s a country that has the Kalahari desert and huge expanses of untouched bush, it has to be one of the most spectacular places of earth and was a privilege to grow up in. I think that childhood had a significant effect on my view of the world. I went to school in South Africa and did an undergrad in Cape Town before studying at Vancouver Film School for a year, mainly focused on directing although I also dop’d a few shorts.

Right now I live in Dublin, Ireland, where I’ve been working as a producer at Antidote Films for the past three years. We’ve been building it up from scratch which has provided invaluable production lessons but also given me a lot of insight to clients and how ads are run from the agency side. Naturally I would be represented in Ireland. I’m editing a second test to be ready for the end of July, which will hopefully open up discussions with international representation.