Tell me how Garfield came about. Did you write it with somebody, did somebody else write it and you picked up the script, or what happened?
My friend Myra Appannah wrote it, it wasn’t a traditional screenplay, the front page read “GARFIELD, A comedy Skit”. I read it and instantly fell in love with it. But I didn’t see it, weirdly, as a comedy in any way. I thought it was a beautiful drama.
At that time, I wanted to experiment with actors in a really specific way, playing with improvisation and character development. It was the perfect project for that.
You say it took eight months to cast it?
I knew there was no point in shooting this film until we’d got the very best cast, and that took its time. Luckily I have a wonderful casting director called Claire Curry, who’s just so patient with me.
And then we shot very, very quickly and it was all done in that apartment. It was all singular takes, we never cut. The actors had complete freedom: they could move wherever they wanted, they could throw lines in wherever they wanted, there were really no rules.
It was made just entirely as an experiment in performance. It played a couple of festivals and then last November Sundance called me and I nearly fell over.
That must have been fantastic.
I was like, “What the fuck?” And then suddenly everybody’s suddenly seen it and the whole world wants to talk about it: something that was very much an experiment with a group of friends.
Did you know the cast? Because they’re so easy together. The relationship between them is extraordinary.
Nope, it all came through the casting. I found Matthew in the first casting session, he was perfect and he just immediately got who this character was.
But casting the role of Krishna was harder?
Much. We just couldn’t find her. I did four chemistry castings with other brilliant actresses and Matthew, but it just wasn’t right. Claire would say to me, “there’s no-one left, we’ll have to change the character!” And then Mandeep walked in. I cast her that day, no chemistry read. I just knew instantly she was right.
I put them together and we had two or three rehearsals and from the first five minutes it was extraordinary, because they were as strong as each other. And that’s what I needed. They both have balls and they were really willing to open themselves up to the character and the process and each other.
How difficult was that?
I think you can only work with actors like that when they are willing to be vulnerable. They have to trust the other actor so explicitly, and they have to trust the director and the process. And they both really did. The whole film is them. I can’t speak highly enough of both of them because they were so giving to me. And the chemistry is palpable. Just watching it, I’d do these singular takes and I’d sit at the monitor and be, like, “I don’t want to leave, I just want to sit with these two people for days,” and ironically, that’s kind of what the film feels like.
But directing is not always like that?
No, I was going to say it’s funny, because I just finished my next short film and it was awful. It was so tense and so upsetting. I shot it for four nights and if you’d asked me at any point in the shoot how it’s going I’d have said “Please I want to stop.” It’s interesting because I’ve just finished the cut and that’s how the film feels. The themes of the film are dark, they’re very violent, they’re very vulnerable. And that’s exactly how I felt when I shot it.
Do you feel that this new short film is going to work?
I honestly don’t think you can know, the only thing you can do as a filmmaker is be happy that you achieved what you set out to do. The world will then tell me if it’s any good, or relevant in anyway.
I’ve made a very masculine, violent short film, I’ve made the opposite [of Garfield]. I hate being put in a box as a director. I hate it. It’s something that I’m passionately against.
How did you train for the film business?
As cheesy as it sounds, I always wanted to be a film director since I first went to the movies when I was tiny. My aunt gave me a Super 8 camera from her second hand shop and I just hustled for money to buy cartridges and make films, and then I couldn’t watch any of them because I didn’t have a projector. I had an older sister who was very much more typical, girly, hanging out with her friends, doing all that, and I was just a bit of an anomaly. My dad was always very much, “You should do what you love and you’re capable of doing anything.” He was a car mechanic and I think it’s probably the same with him and cars. It’s why I love making car ads; it comes from my dad.
What came next?
I met a director when I was a teenager called Helen Miller and she taught me how to shoot and edit 16 mm films. That was a really amazing training to go into film school with, because I was very disciplined by her. I went to Newport, which was John Grierson’s film school. Just the other day, I realised what an effect that had on me. Everything they taught us was about anthropology, about looking at the nuances of people, even though we were trained as narrative directors.
I got a traineeship at the BBC. Then I went to CNN when I was still quite young and was a commercials director, eventually the creative director, [before] I jumped ship and signed to FRIEND for commercials, while still the whole time making films. It’s funny, people are like, “Your first short film’s amazing, it was at Sundance!” I’m like, “it’s about my 20th short film, but let’s forget the others.”
How did the Sundance process work?
It’s absolutely insane. They have something like 10,000 films submitted and they take 60.
You get a phone call that’s the closest I can imagine to winning the lottery. “I’m calling from Sundance. We saw your film. We’d like to play it next year.” I was like, “You’re fucking joking, stop taking the piss, who’s this calling me?” They said they hadn’t seen anything like it. And they love that confidence in it. [But] it caused a lot of weird divides at Sundance; you’d have people arguing about it in front me. Someone would say, “Oh I loved that romantic comedy,” and other people said, “What do you mean, romantic comedy!? it’s a drama about racial divide.”
I was constantly asked “What is it?” I’d say the same, “It’s whatever you want it to be.” It’s a film about empathy, so I knew that divide was the perfect response.
Before we got into Sundance, we would have letters from programmers who would say, “You’ve really divided the awards team.” Half of them would be vehemently fighting to put it in and the others were saying, “No, no, it’s just no. It’s nothing, it’s not even a film”. So, I knew something was going on, I just couldn’t quite figure out what. The funny thing is, as soon as we played in Sundance, the film industry was like, “We love you film! are you entered into our festival?” and we’re like, “No, we did last year, and you told us it was shit.” They were like, “Oh no, we didn’t, we definitely didn’t see it.” Yeah, mate, you did.
How did you fund something like Garfield? Did you have to find your own funding?
Garfield cost hardly anything. I fucking love being a commercials director, and the one thing it gives you is these amazing collaborators and relationships with people who’ll help you. It’s weird, because as a director I’m part of a lot of indie film organisations and many of my contemporaries say to me, “can you help me make ads?” And my first question to them is, “Do you like advertising?” And they’re, like, “No, no, I fucking hate it, I just want to make money.” I’m, like, “Hmm, no, you’re never going to make ads.” Until you know as much about advertising as you do about independent cinema, until you love it as much as you do independent cinema, you might as well stop right there. And also, it’s entirely disrespectful. Because, as we all know, when you start out in advertising you don’t make any money. Or you’re putting the fees back into your work.
I’m so pleased you’ve signed up with Skunk.
As am I. I found my family. I think, as a director, you need your people, don’t you? Kate Taylor is a genius; what an exec producer. And my producers – Toby Courlander, Cathy Green. I mean, it’s like you can learn so much from them. And as a director, you can feel so protected to really find your voice.
Out of all your ads, which one are you most proud of?
Oh god, that’s really hard to answer. I made an Audi ad this year, called Dream. It’s a car ad with no car in it. But I nailed the feeling. So probably that one currently. I’ve got another one coming which is bonkers ! It was for Audi Germany and in the PPM the client said, “Oh, do you know you’re the first woman we’ve ever hired to direct an ad?” I didn’t really know what to say, except, “That makes me actually very, very happy and very, very sad all at the same time.” It was really scary for me after that, because I thought, “I can’t fuck this up, because they’re never gonna hire another woman if I do.”
When do you think your latest film is going to be ready?
Very soon. I’ve been too busy making ads to finish the post… which is an amazing problem.