Mar 14, 2013

Interview: Shell Director Scott Graham

Scott Graham’s first feature film, Shell was one of my highlights of the London Film Festival last year, and showcases a great performance from newcomer Chloe Pirrie. Last week I sat down in a rather posh London hotel and chatted with Graham over a cup of tea.
24FPS: I wanted to start by asking you how you got started; we all grow up with film now, so was there one film or one filmmaker that, growing up, made you say: That’s what I want to do?

Scott Graham: Not really…

24FPS: or just what it was that was the trigger for wanting to go into film.

Scott Graham: I’ve been writing short stories since I was a teenager, but I wasn’t a particularly avid reader, I was more into films from a young age. I used to watch Moviedrome on BBC 2, that was my film education growing up, then Faber started publishing screenplays, I read Taxi Driver and I think a couple of Hal Hartley’s as well, and while I think my writing is very different to Paul Schrader’s and Hal Hartley’s I think that’s when I realised scripts were written and not just improvised. So once I understood that I could begin a film by writing it, that was a way in for me, because I think I’m a writer first and I’ve written my way into filmmaking. Then in terms of influences, the things that interested me, it was American 70′s cinema; films like Badlands and the remake of Postman Always Rings Twice, films like that interested me and I was interested in that empty, sparse world.

24FPS: Shell started life as a short, so did you have the feature in mind when you were making the short and what was the biggest challenge for you either in expanding it for the feature or contracting it for the short?

Scott Graham: I didn’t have a feature in mind until we were cutting the short. It was my second short, and I was very much learning as I went; I hadn’t gone to film school, so I was making all my mistakes in my films. Bert Eeles edited it, a great Scottish editor who’s no longer with us sadly, but he cut David MacKenzie and Peter Mullan’s short films, the editor to go to really as a new Scottish filmmaker. When we were cutting it, Bert really loved the world of the story, and we could see that there was a bigger story there that we could tell. If not right then then very soon afterwards I realised I had a different story I wanted to tell. In the short Shell’s Father is old and bedridden and dying, and Shell’s waiting for him to die before she can leave the garage, and you’re often seeing Shell from other characters points of view, I’d kind of lost interest in that, and I didn’t want to make films that way, and so the feature is very much from Shell’s point of view, and the relationship with her Father is very different, it’s the heart of the feature film in a way it isn’t in the short.

The most challenging thing when writing the feature was that, while it’s very limiting for Shell and Pete, you could do anything as a writer in a location like that, so I had lots of different ideas, and because I wasn’t really basing the feature on the short, and not returning so much to the characters as to that world, it took a while to find the story.

24FPS: The other thing I noted about the short is that you have an entirely different cast, and given what you said about returning more to the world than the characters, was that new casting by design, and did it change your view of the characters by who you cast?

Scott Graham: No, my view of the characters had changed, and that’s why the cast changed. It took quite a long time to find them, Chloe I’d seen in a short called Solstice, so I’d had her in mind for a while but we wanted to cast a believable father and daughter, because they said so little they had to work just by looking at them, it took a while to find that dynamic. Now, at least the character in the feature, I can’t imagine anyone else playing her but Chloe.

24FPS: The relationship between Shell and her Dad is very complex, did you have rehearsal time with Chloe and Joseph, or what other preparation did you have them do, because I imagine you must have had a short shoot?

Scott Graham: It was fairly short, four weeks, but we were up there for about six. Chloe and Joseph lived together by themselves for two weeks before we shot. I was there in the Highlands, but the idea was to leave them alone and let them get to know each other, get past that awkward stage where you’re getting to know someone, get past the polite stage, so they’d get comfortable with each other, learn each other’s mannerisms, have their first arguments and all of those things. That was important for their relationship, and also they both live in London, so it gave them the sense of place, because both of the characters grow out of that environment in a way, so they needed to get in touch with the setting. That was the main preparation that we did, we didn’t rehearse scenes, or even read together, until we got to the location.
24FPS: and did you find the location in the Highlands?
Scott Graham: We thought we would find it, but all the garages I remember had been pulled down and all we found were piles of scrap, not even abandoned garages. We thought we’d find an abandoned garage, or one that was seasonal, that we’d be able to take over because we were shooting in Autumn and Winter, but they were all gone. We found a lookout, a deserted area, and we built the garage there, and also collected bits of old garages we found as we were looking around.
24FPS: It’s safe to say that the third major character in the film is the landscape of the Highlands, and it’s quite bleak but the film is very beautiful, so can you talk a bit about the collaboration with your DP Yoliswa Gartig, and the look you were going for with the film?
Scott Graham: Yoliswa and I had shot short films together previous to doing Shell, so we had a way of working together already, we just wanted to create – well, not so much create as capture – that sense of beauty and bleakness that the Highlands has; it’s really expansive and yet claustrophobic. We talked a lot on site about how to capture that, and also how to walk in Shell’s shoes, how to keep close to her and to feel an intimacy between them and to feel the difference between the very claustrophobic environment they live in and the very expansive one they work in.
24FPS: Without spoiling the film, coming out of it and talking to people one word that kept coming was that they felt it was bleak, and I didn’t really agree with that, I felt it was more hopeful. I wondered where you stand on that, what you think about the feedback people have had on the ending, and where Shell’s going from it?
Scott Graham: I find the ending hopeful, I think she’s doing the right thing. There’s something tragic about it I think, but I’m glad that she does what she does. The main thing I think is important about her final scene is that she’s asked if she likes something, and she says that she does, but no one ever really asks her that during the film, it’s a small moment, but I definitely find it hopeful.
24FPS: You said earlier that a big thing about going into film was realising that they were written, and that you see yourself as a writer first. Does that translate into your directorial style, are you quite script focused on set, or do you do a lot of improvisation with the actors?

Scott Graham: No I don’t do much, if any, improvisation. I’ve only made one feature, and I think it would depend on the project, the scene, and my relationship with the actors, but with this film, both me and the actors needed to have a clear idea of what we wanted to communicate in each scene and in each moment, precisely because there was so little dialogue. I found I needed to be quite sure of what I was trying to communicate with an image or with a look. Of course within that you invite, you depend on actors bringing life to what you’ve written; truth and honesty is the most important thing but we all knew within each moment what it was we were trying to do. Basically what the script contained was quite simple descriptions of what the characters were doing, what they were looking at.
 24FPS: I imagine the budget was quite small but what was the biggest challenge, and do you think there was any benefit from having those limitations?
Scott Graham: Limitations can be very inspiring and push you to be more creative, and push you to focus on what would be most effective for an audience. If we’d done interiors in a studio it would have been less expensive. That meant the shoot length was shorter, but it was worth doing that because it was important to be in the place where the story was set. In terms of limitations though, I try to respond to that positively as a writer. Shell became a single location film not because I couldn’t afford to move around but because that’s where the story is most interesting.
24FPS: Do you have a next project set up, and what can you tell us about it?
Scott Graham: Yeah, the next project is about a young woman who returns with her teenage son to the island of Iona, to a Christian community where she was born and raised, but left when she was 15, and they return to hide, essentially. I probably shouldn’t say more than that, but I’m developing that with the BFI.
24FPS: Finally, old or new, what’s the last great film you saw?
Scott Graham: [Long pause] Gosh. It’s been a while since I’ve watched anything great. I’ve got Spirit of the Beehive on order, and I’ve a feeling I’m going to like that. [Pause] I actually think To The Wonder is a great film, I had the same experience with Tree of Life where you can re-edit the film in your head and you find things that didn’t work so well for you fading into the background. In terms of experience I thought it was great. There’s still something very brave in what he’s doing, and I’m not sure whether it matters if you like it or not.
Thanks to Scott Graham for talking to me, and to Rabbit Publicity for setting it up (and for the tea). Shell opens in selected UK cinemas on March 15th and is excellent.

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