How Music Reveals the Truth of Your Film’s Story

Going deeper than the dialogue.

“It’s about finding a good way to combine all the senses.”

Lights Film School caught up with director Nick White to go behind-the-scenes of two of his decorated short films.

The first, Inseparable, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Natalie Press, was shortlisted for the British Independent Film Awards and NPA Awards, in addition to playing at BFI Film Festival and LA Shorts Fest:

The second, Incorporated, premiered at BFI Film Festival, won “Best Short Under 30 Minutes” at Victoria International Film Festival, and was longlisted for the BAFTA Short Film Award:

Hello, Nick, and thanks for chatting with us today! Let’s talk about Incorporated first – what a ride! I’m curious to know why you decided to produce such a long short film – it clocks in at roughly half an hour. Generally, we hear that “short and sweet wins the race”.

While the story of Incorporated certainly merits its screentime, I can’t help but wonder if its length has hampered its film festival run and limited its audience. What are your thoughts on the viability of 30ish minute shorts? In what space do they “live”, and what do you think is their future?

It’s a very good question. And having worked at several film festivals, you’d think I’d know better… Optimum time for getting in seems to be about 10-15 minutes. Enough time to tell a short story, but short to fit nicely into the schedule.

The thing was, I’d done Inseparable, which was 12 minutes, and it had done well, so my thinking was that if I was to make another short, it had be something more ambitious, with a fuller story arc. The original script for Incorporated came in at about 22 pages, so it seemed feasible to make a 22 minute film. In reality, there was so much packed into those 22 pages that the initial cut was a 40 minute film (I think that version even exists somewhere). We pulled that down to 32 mins for the final film, but didn’t want to go any further than that. Even that took a year and a half of cutting.

We knew of course that festivals weren’t going to like it being that long, but I was very lucky to already have a relationship with the BFI London Film Festival via them showing Inseparable, and they very kindly made room in their shorts programme for Incorporated at that length. Though we did have issues getting into other festivals, I felt like we’d ticked the box of having a major festival screening, and it went on to win awards at smaller festivals with “long form” short categories, and longlisted for a BAFTA, so we weren’t too concerned with the festivals after that.

Fundamentally, it’s a result of me wanting to make features, and trying to stretch beyond the standard short format. Someone once said that if a feature is like a book, a short film is like a poem, and that makes Incorporated a kind of novella. It’s true that it doesn’t fit what festivals want, but my feeling is that the story merited a longer length, and you’re slave to the story whether you like it or not…
That said, we’ve just cut a 17 minute version for Channel4 (to fit between the ad breaks…) which in some ways feels like a betrayal of the original concept, but you can’t say no to that kind of exposure, so I’m thinking about it as a very long trailer for the full length version.

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

Fascinating! Turning to the shorter short, Inseparable – it floored me. It’s a moving story with a clever conceit, told with admirable restraint.

How long did it take to write the screenplay? How many revisions did it go through?

The screenplay was written by Matthew James Wilkinson. I’d read through what must have been a hundred short scripts, and I remember reading this, feeling a good connection with it, but thinking “please, please, let it have a good ending”, as so many of the other scripts I’d read were such a let down at the end. And the ending was fantastic. Really emotional, unexpected, and honest.

How much, if at all, does the final film deviate from the screenplay?

More generally, as the director, can you discuss the process of translating screenplay to screen? What is a director’s relationship and obligation to his/her source material?

Matt and I worked on the script on and off for about a year. He was very involved in the process of making the film, and is now a producer in his own right, so he was with me every step of the way, even there on set. In fact if you look very closely, you can see him as an extra during the dog track sequence.

Having him so involved made it very easy to keep re-working the source material. The finished film ended up a long way from the original script, as it became more and more of a visual piece, but it still has the emotional core that Matt created in the original script.

The credits note that the film was “financially assisted by the City of Westminster Arts Council Films Bursary – Supported by Westminster City Council and Film London”.

Can you talk a bit about how you financed Inseparable? If you don’t mind my asking, what was the film’s budget? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers in search of grants and other outside funding?

Westminster Arts Council put in a little bit of money right at the end, once we’d almost finished the film, which helped to pay off some of the bills, but essentially the film was financed by two things – one was me blowing money I’d saved up that should have been the deposit for a house, and the other was a series of parties.

At the time, Matt and I worked on a boat – a ship really – down by Blackfriars Bridge, and they had a fantastic event space upstairs, with views over the river, the OXO tower and so on. They very kindly gave us a good rate on using this space, and I corralled in some musician/DJ friends and we had a series of great nights that brought in a bit of cash. Benedict even turned up at one of them which was a great boost.

Can you discuss your reasons for shooting on film?

This was shot just before digital cinema kicked in properly. The only thing around at the time was a Thompson Viper, which was going to work out just as expensive and was still a little experimental at the time. We’d heard some horror stories.

In any case, the story didn’t lend itself to a digital aesthetic. 35mm has such a fantastic quality to it, and it works so well with the aesthetic we had in mind for the film.

What film stock did you use? Why?

It was Fuji, a mixture of different ratings if I remember correctly. Good for the greens…

What, if any, practicalities did you have to consider that filmmakers shooting digitally might not have to think about?

Running out of stock, and on a bank holiday!

We got through more stock that we expected to, and someone who will remain unnamed accidentally left the camera running at one point, but that’s another story…. You’ll think I’m making this up, but when Benedict figured out we were having problems paying the extra to get extra stock delivered on a bank holiday, he waived his fee…

To my knowledge, Benedict Cumberbatch does not have a twin brother… yet Inseparable pivots around this idea of a twin brother assuming his sibling’s identity. Throughout, there are shots and scenes that put Joe and Charlie in proximity and conversation.

Shot -

Shot –

- Reverse Shot.

– Reverse Shot.

I saw “Joe/Charlie Double” in the credits, which works beautifully for a shot – reverse shot progression, as well as for the moments during which one of the brothers is out of focus.

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

But that shot at 06:15 and 06:30, in which we see Joe and Charlie standing in profile, face-to-face! Surely that does not involve a double. How did you do this?

We originally had ideas about a revolving shot revealing both “Benedicts” , and spent a long time coming up with a system that wouldn’t involve a motion control rig which would have been horribly expensive, but even still there was no affordable way of doing it.

Necessity is the mother of invention; we came up with a very simple split screen effect that essentially achieved the same thing – both sides are shot separately, and when “left hand side” Benedict walks through frame, we slide the split screen effect off to the left to keep him on screen, just after “right hand side” Benedict has walked off. About as simple as it gets.

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

Nice! I’d love to hear you discuss the logistics of the shoot. When we first meet Charlie at 03:05 – and when he later meets with Joe at the cafe – he has a beard. Meanwhile, Joe is as clean-shaven as can be.

So, when Cumberbatch had a beard, he played Charlie and his double played Joe; when Cumberbatch did not have a beard, he played Joe and his double played Charlie. How, if at all, did this practicality impact and/or complicate production? I assume you had to shoot something as seemingly straight forward as the cafe scene in parts, on different days?

That was a real scheduling nightmare. It took about 30 minutes to get Benedict transformed from one twin into the other, so we were always having to work around that. Richard Shanks, who also plays one of the heavies at 3.20 was a pretty close match for Benedict, so he became his body double, for which I’ll be eternally grateful as it’s such a thankless task – having to match Benedict’s acting but never have his face seen!

Let’s address the elephant in the room. How did Benedict Cumberbatch get attached to the project? His performance is, not surprisingly, outstanding.

I’d seen Benedict in BBC’s Hawking and thought he was fantastic. I had a few different connections to him via friends and friends of friends, as did our producer Rachel Wardlow, so we could take the script straight to him, and luckily he liked it and agreed to make time for it.

Can you describe your experience of directing the actors?

Fantastic, if a little nerve-wracking!

Did you run rehearsals before production? If so, why, and what was that process like?

Both Natalie Press and Benedict were in huge demand, so we didn’t have time for rehearsals, but I spent some time with both of them – just reading through the script and talking about how I wanted it to work.

I love the restraint that characterizes Inseparable. Dialogue is minimal and spare. That moment when Joe’s wife realizes that Charlie has taken her husband’s place – what a powerful moment in which everything is said, clearly, without words.

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

Even the way in which you handle Joe’s test results is understated. When Joe receives the document at 02:00, you do not cut to a shot on a page proclaiming “You have (x) days to live”. Instead, you suggest the severity of the situation (1) with shots on a brain scan, and (2) by the strength of Cumberbatch’s performance.

Can you talk a bit about this directorial decision? More generally, how can a filmmaker handle exposition in ways that are clear but not artificial/contrived?

It’s all about showing not telling.

I think it’s pretty much the most important thing for any filmmaker – avoiding exposition and finding a way to make the story visual.

I think a lot of dialogue in films is the result of the “script” as a format – it’s great on the page, but a film is so much more than just the written/spoken word. It’s too easy just to stick to the script, but for me, that’s not what filmmaking is about; it’s about finding a good way to combine all the senses. Maybe it’s been said before, but it bears repeating.

InterviewNickWhite_Cafe780

A healthy reminder, Nick!

I love the look of Inseparable. The film’s locations are mundane, but they’re infused with a visual beauty that makes them seem like more than themselves. Roger Deakins comes to mind – especially Doubt and Revolutionary Road. What, if any, films and cinematographers inspired the look of your film? Why and how?

Eric Maddison, the DoP, will be very pleased to hear you say that… The main source was a mood board/colour palette I put together with Eric, and it’s very much his own style that comes through. He’s gone on to do really great things and is now based in LA.

Every frame feels expertly and intentionally composed. Did you meticulously shot list and storyboard your film?

Everything was storyboarded. Of course, when we got there on the day, it all changed, but it was a great resource to draw from on set.

Can you discuss your collaboration with your Director of Photography? How did you guys work together?

It was a kind of magical meeting. Eric and I sat down and talked through the script. Without any cues, he kept coming up with visual references I already had in mind – stuff like The Virgin Suicides and Solaris… and we just clicked.

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

From Inseparable | Dir. Nick White

Inseparable‘s score helps guide us emotionally. I get a sense of loss, but the music also inspires me to believe Charlie when he says that everything is going to be alright.

Can you discuss your and your composer’s approach to the score? More generally, what are your thoughts on music’s role as a storytelling tool, especially in short film?

To be very simplistic about this, I think of the music as the emotional truth in a film.

The image, and more specifically the dialogue, are a kind of superficial layer – the lies we tell each other and ourselves. The music is a kind of deeper meaning – the truth that the characters aren’t telling each other or can’t admit to themselves.

Fascinating! Are you and the rest of the Area 17 team working on any projects currently that you’d like to tell us about?

A feature version of Inseparable has been on the cards for several years, and we’re still working on that. It’s a huge undertaking, with countless hurdles, but we’re getting there…

Also, we have a feature in development based in the city – in the same universe as Incorporated – though a whole new story – something I’m very excited about at the moment.

And who knows, maybe even another short…

Thanks so much for sharing your time and insights, Nick! These are great short films, and I’m excited to see what you guys produce next.

For more from Nick, head on over to his Vimeo page and check out production company Area 17.

 Michael Koehler, with


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