Sundance Award Winning Short Film: Soft

Lights Film School Online recently chatted with Simon Ellis, the director of the award winning Sundance film entitled “Soft”. You can watch his 14 minute film and read our interview below. Enjoy!

Hello Simon and thank you for spending the time to chat with the Lights Film School blog readers about your short film “Soft”.

You’re welcome, thanks for having me.

This film was so well crafted, so well acted, so well edited. I can’t say enough good about it. But most importantly your story had me gripped the entire time. I think this issue of unmotivated violence is something that scares most of us. Just being at the wrong place at the wrong time and making yourself a random target. In theses cases you need to make snap decisions based on the particular situation and also based around your approach or philosophy about violence. What I loved about this film is how you approached the philosophical contradiction of the father. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you came up with the idea for this film?

It was originally a feature film project I started writing in 2003, although it never went past the treatment stage into a draft. I had always been intrigued by the conundrum of a ‘responsible adult’ having to deal with the kind of conflict they might not have experienced since their school days, to be drop-kicked back into the playground and experience that fear they haven’t been privy to for so many years. So, I wanted to explore this idea and compound the sense of emasculation even further by putting the character’s son through a simultaneous trauma with the same bullies. I loved the idea that all the father’s latent frustration/ego/shame/pride would come out in the shape of misfired advice from father to son, when really he’s talking to himself because the son is holding up a mirror to his own situation. I’m pretty much obsessed with the perception of what it means to “be a man”, especially by men, and what I would call specifically male handicaps.

How long did “Soft” take you to write?

I wrote it at a time when I was hearing rumours in commissioning circles as to whether I could “do drama”, largely because my output at the time consisted of either comedy or experimental work. So I decided to take a section of the story and make it as a self-contained short, in order to secure funding for the longer story. It was originally commissioned back in 2004 but there was a ten-minute restriction on the running time and I knew it needed more room to breathe, so I pulled out and got busy with other projects until late 2005 when I resubmitted it for a much bigger commission. By that stage, some of the commissioners were familiar with it from my previous submission/withdrawal, and this time the only restriction on length was that it be less than 25 minutes, or thereabouts. We shot it in May 2006. In answer to your question though, and given its genesis as a longer feature, I really wouldn’t know how long the elements that became the short took to write. The reason I never went on to make it as a feature was because, while I spent two years travelling festivals with it, a couple of British features with similar themes popped up. It just started to feel a little redundant so I put it aside until I found a fresh angle, which I have since found. I may start again once I’m done with current projects.

The actors did such a wonderful job in the film. Did you provide room for them to improvise? How much room? Where any of the scenes totally improvised?

None of the father/son scenes were improvised, but I did a couple of workshop sessions in the actual house location with the two actors in advance of shooting, largely to work out the geography in terms of their proximity to each other throughout the siege. That was really important as I wanted it to escalate to the point of almost-claustrophobia by the time they are in the narrow hallway on their side of the front door. It was fortunate that I had access to the house whenever I needed it, but being able to work it out in the actual space was incredibly valuable. The minutiae come to the surface – little things like the father holding his flaccid tie when he goes outside to confront the gang, effectively illustrating his state of mind. It is one of many layered details throughout the film and came directly from mining as deeply as possible, on site, in advance. In terms of dialogue, some lines were tweaked slightly to better suit the actors but it was largely what was on the page. The scenes with the gang were approached slightly differently. I knew the tone I was looking for, how a scene should start and how it should end, but the means to get there sometimes shifted slightly. As we weren’t shooting those scenes on 35mm I had a little more freedom to play around, resulting in the film’s only deleted scene where the gang ‘leader’ convinces the two girls in his crowd to kiss each other. The charm required by his character to talk them into it endeared you to him in a way that was at cross-purposes with his spirit throughout the rest of the film, so I ditched it.

From the first draft of the script to the final edit of the film how long did Soft take you to complete?

Well, there was a hiatus of about two years from initially submitting the draft for one commission, then withdrawing, then resubmitting for another. It would have been submitted for the UK Film Council’s Cinema Extreme scheme in mid 2005, followed by a successful shortlisting, followed by a period of development amongst other shortlisted filmmakers, and then it would have been greenlit around the start of 2006 (this is just guessing, from memory). Production was in May 2006, followed by post and a premiere screening in November that same year.

You did a great job with your changing formats of the camera. The cell phone coverage really placed the audience in the film. When I first started watching the film I thought you were actually using real footage. The fight scene between the boys look too real. It really looks like he’s punching him in the face. how did you achieve that effect?

Great, thanks, that was very much the intention. I needed a strong visual divide to separate the two worlds in the film, pre-collision. The sleek and relatively static compositions of the high-definition father/son environment, versus the scruffy and unpredictable happenings of the phone footage. The fight scene involves an amount of trickery using techniques I have developed from film to film, and a new short I’m about to make raises the challenge a step further. All I can tell you is that a lot of effort went into making it appear that the punches were connecting via compositing. I used the same techniques for the cricket bat and head-stamping at the end of the film, though the cricket bat wasn’t nearly as effective as it was in the tests I made. Invisible effects are the best, and the beauty of knowing how to do them yourself is that you don’t need to credit a VFX artist and give the game away.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the production now. I really loved the sound design of this film. In fact I loved how you used sound and camera movement to help you dramatically transition your audience between worlds. At the end of the film you used the car siren to help you punctuate the chaotic moment even further. Can you tell us what microphone you used for capturing dialogue?

That is really nice to hear because I take sound design incredibly seriously and had many ideas going on in this film. The moment when the car alarm is switched off almost always makes an audience giggle, which I hope is the sense of release. In the script it said ‘the sudden silence is deafening’ and I think the moment translated well to the screen. There is a technique elsewhere in the film which I pilfered from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In that film, the sound of the farm’s diesel generator acts as a sort of beacon, so as the characters get closer to that sound you know they are getting closer to danger. The way I used it in Soft is nowhere near as effective and goes largely unnoticed, but a pealing church bell which starts in the gang footage is gradually heard in both worlds, to crystallise the sense that the father is getting closer to them as he approaches the shop. The theatrical sound mix on the 35mm negative (and therefore its subsequent festival prints) somehow managed to lose this and the bell sound was completely missing in some shots. With regard to your question about the microphone – I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you what microphone was used – I just let the sound recordist do her thing. A combination of radio mics and boom is all I can say.

How long did the sound design process take? Did you do any Foley work?

On a film which goes from an offline edit to an online finishing house, such as this one did, sound design is always tricky for me because by the time it leaves my computer I have quite a dense audio scheme already in place, and I then have to brace myself for a different sound in the dubbing suite. Of all the parts of the filmmaking process, the mix unnerves me the most. It is where I feel I start to lose control of something I have spent so much time carefully constructing and have become incredibly fussy about. The mix for this film took place in Berlin but a minor amount of foley work on tiny details happened in my house in the UK beforehand. It was all incorporated into the pre-mix offline edit before going to Berlin. I took the sound of the stones hitting the window from an older film I made (I get a kick out of recycling both sounds and images from one production to another). In fact, that sound of stones-on-glass was something of a problem in the final mix. Technically speaking, to get the sound as abrasive as I wanted, we had to go beyond acceptable standards with the audio levels. The all-important CRASH sounds were too quiet for me on the broadcast-safe mix for television, but I was able to crank it back up for the theatrical mix.

The film had a very naturalistic feeling to it. Yet the lighting and cinematography are very beautiful. How did you approach the lighting of your outdoor shots? For instance I really loved the shot at 2:56 (it’s still sunny before all of the violence happens – see above). After the violence happens it becomes consistently darker. Was that intentional or did the sun just happen to come out for that shot?

The script specified beautiful, glowing weather for the father’s walk to the shop, to be accompanied by all the audio flourishes of comforting suburbia. This was necessary to provide a counter to what is about to happen. It became something of a priority and we worked a lot of the schedule around a minimum of two journey shots, but weren’t having much luck with the weather at all. There was a general rule each day that, within reason, we would dash over to the locations (on the other side of town) to get these shots if any early-evening sun came out, but that moment never came. On the last morning we risked an early start to see if we could get the shots at dawn instead, and we got lucky. It was a beautiful moment when the clouds cracked open, but it impacted on the end of the day when the clock was ticking and we had to finish earlier than usual. I had a cherry-picker waiting around so that I could get my high shot for the beginning and end, and it was suggested that I drop those bookend shots. Instead, I shot less of the cricket bat melee, in order to preserve the high shots. Not only did they prove to be essential bookends, I was determined to get the material of the neighbours coming out and gossiping for the credits. This is a very English moment, and the lady who walks down from the top of the shot and starts talking to the two actors playing neighbours was genuine, having walked straight through the block we had placed outside the top-left of frame. The actors just played along with her and started talking about what had supposedly just happened until I called cut, and then we asked her to sign a release form. It was one of those beautiful moments that you wish could happen more often.

How did you approach the lighting of your interior shots? For example how are you lighting the shot at 5:50 (above)?

My general lighting brief was, and almost always is, to keep it natural and not bring any attention to itself. I really don’t recall details about lighting specific shots I’m afraid; it seems such a long time ago now. I was in very good hands with my DOP Chris Ross and I pretty much left him to it while I spent time with the actors. Prior to Soft, I had always shot my own films, usually on DV with no money, using natural light or practicals. This was a deliberate change of direction for me in that I finally had a budget that allowed me to free myself up and concentrate more on what happens in front of the camera.

What camera did you shoot on?

Panaflex Millennium.

What lenses did you use?

Panavision Primo primes.

How many days did you shoot for?

Five. It was supposed to be four but we wound up using our contingency day because of weather-related hold-ups and other issues. It was a longer shoot than any previous short I had made, but shooting 35mm is an altogether different beast to running around with a digital camera.

The acting in this film is spectacular. Can you tell me a little bit more about your casting process? Did you need to cast outside the acting community to find some of your actors? If so, how did you approach this?

Jonny Phillips, who played the father, had recently acted in a friend’s feature film (which wasn’t his role in Titanic, just to be clear!). He got wind of my script through said friend and sent me a postcard saying he was interested in the role. I met him and we did some tests, and that was that. The son (Matthew O’Shea) was part of a fantastic youth acting workshop here in my city of Nottingham. The workshop is the ongoing effort of one man, Ian Smith, and it produces a different kind of talent to that of stage schools. Samantha Morton is probably their most famous alumnus. I had auditioned Matt four years earlier for a different film but had always remembered him, and he also had strong facial similarities to Jonny. He isn’t actually pursuing acting and decided to put his education first. I really wanted him for my new short but he’s too busy working a summer job before travelling Europe. The head of the gang (Michael Socha) is great and I had also worked with him on other projects. He was from the same acting workshop as Matt and I had been workshopping with him already for the same part in the initial feature-length version of the film, before it became a short. He’s doing very well now, especially in UK television. The rest of the gang were found from an open casting where we had about thirty non-actors come and audition. Coincidentally, a couple of them were part of a local gang who knocked about in my own neighbourhood, and they are both in the film. To cast them, I already had Michael on board, so I brought the others into a room with him. In three separate sessions, ten actors in each, I just asked them all to pretend I was the father character across the street and had them hurl abuse at me.

Tell me a little bit more about your choice of locations for the film. How did you go about location scouting for this film? When did you know you had the locations you needed?

This is an interesting one. It was extremely important that the mileu be leafy suburbia and not the usual gritty council estate that you see in so many British films, which is one of the reasons for the high-shot bookends. I had written the film based upon the geography of the producer’s house, and so there were some key requirements in terms of placement of the kitchen, living room and narrow hallway, and their relation to the window with its view outside of where the car would be parked. The lack of front garden also meant that the gang would be that much closer to the window. Not wanting to suggest that we actually use the producer’s house, largely because we would be using a much bigger crew and more equipment than my usual skeleton shoots, we looked at several places but all of them had frustrating compromises. Eventually, after lamenting the fact that none quite fit the bill as good as the producer’s place, she just said “Why don’t you just shoot at mine then?” and so that was that. I don’t think she’d ever do it again though, hehe.

“Soft” ended up winning 38 prizes in various film festivals. It has won many awards from “best film” to “best screenplay” to “best editing”. It’s also been nominated for “best short film” at BAFTA, It was nominated for a European Academy Award and the film has even won international jury prize at Sundance Film Festival. This is a major accomplishment. On your site I see you mention that ” Film Festivals have been my film school”. Can you expand on that a little bit more? What would you say the biggest advantage to putting “Soft” in a festival run was?

Hah, I think that quote about film festivals will be my epitaph! Festivals have been my main stomping ground since 1997. They are an all-encompassing school in terms of experiencing your work with a great variety of audiences. You get an immediate sense of whether your film works or not, and why, and you also get to see what else is going on out there and why this-or-that film works, or doesn’t. Having also worked as a juror at many festivals, it’s worthwhile hearing a fellow juror’s criteria, and always gratifying to fight for the films you feel most worthy of merit. Regarding awards for Soft, the Sundance win is easily the biggest accomplishment, and the film’s disqualification from the Academy Awards because of a ludicrous rule was also interesting. I don’t take the Academy Awards seriously at all (even less so since the disqualification) but there is no disputing that they are handy for broadening career choices. A win at somewhere like Sundance, or the Palm Springs win, brought in a bunch of offers for US representation and feature scripts to consider directing, but for reasons too dense to cover here I turned everything down (which has since become a dreadful habit of mine).

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our blog readers?

One of the things I distinctly recall writing in my Director’s Notes concerned the inevitable risk of a heightened sense of satisfaction when the ‘bad guy’ receives his comeuppance. I was extremely cautious about balancing this with the real issue of the story, which concerns the father/son relationship. There was always a danger that more people would respond to the sense of ‘vengeance’, that it would supercede everything else, and while it’s what so many people get out of the film, it’s a shame that some others are so affected by these passionate responses that they then assume it’s what the film must be about. I have always found it interesting how a clearly defined and passionate audience response can cause such aggressive counterblast from people who not only disagree, but people who probably wouldn’t have bothered saying anything until the opinion of so many others wound them up. For the record, I can’t think of anything more boring than making a film with a clear ‘message’, and to think of Soft as a film about the importance of standing up for yourself is to miss the point in a rather massive way. Depending where in the world you see it, an audience might start cheering when the cricket bat comes out, whereas other territories see the tragedy in it and respond accordingly. Fortunately, there are plenty of viewers out there who are quite right to point out that the bullies will come back, that it doesn’t end there, and in fact that the father and son didn’t ‘win’ at all. Their anti-victory, as I like to call it, is what occurred around thirty minutes into the feature-length story. The sense of ‘what the hell happens now?’ is the ending I sought for the short film, and the story for father and son is only just beginning when the credits roll. I strongly suspected before making it that the main topics of discussion in Q&A sessions would be a) my personal views on violence, b) whether the film is based on something that happened to me or not, and c) why doesn’t the father call the police. Strangely enough, and this hasn’t happened with any other film, I was right on all three counts.

Thank you for sharing your film with us. I know I speak on behalf of all of our readers when I say it’s a pleasure to learn from such a talented filmmaker. Thank you again.

You’re very welcome, and congratulations to anyone who stayed to the end, it was a pleasure!

To see more of Simon’s work visit his website at www.bubtowers.com

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