“I treat an actor as I would any other collaborator – expecting them to bring something unique to the table – respecting and valuing their own ideas.”
Rising filmmakers Zak Klein, Simon Ryninks, and Tibo Travers got in touch regarding their latest short film, Contractor 014352, about a data entry clerk who seeks to overcome the drudgery of his day-to-day life by forging a connection with a stranger.
Here at Lights Film School, we had the opportunity to interview the trio about the realities of independent filmmaking while Contractor 014352 was still in its crowdfunding phase. Now, one year later, the project is complete and beginning its festival run at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
We thought we’d take some time to discuss the trio’s experience of making the film, as well as their hopes for the future – and how they intend to get there.
Hello Zak, Simon, and Tibo! Such a pleasure to chat again with you guys! First and foremost, congratulations on the wrap. Having watched a completed version of Contractor 014352, I have to say that it totally lives up to the promises you made on the Kickstarter page.
In fact, let’s start our discussion right here. How was the crowdfunding campaign overall? How much time did it take to manage; what emotions did you guys experience from beginning to end? What was it all like? Paint a picture of the process for our students and readers who might want to launch a crowdfunding campaign of their own.
Simon: We ran a Kickstarter campaign for a month in the autumn of 2015. This was the culmination of at least a year of talking about the film, alongside repeatedly redrafting its script, and then a few months’ planning our campaign and video. It may not look like it from the end result, but we probably re-drafted the script for our Kickstarter video a dozen times, rethinking it over and over until it was as engaging, funny, and informative as we felt it needed to be.
Zak: From the launch of the campaign we treated its running as a full time job – shouting about it endlessly on social media, contacting as many people as possible to tell them about it, writing and distributing press releases to blogs, going to events and talking about the film, hustling our friends and family, etc, etc. It was exhausting … not just for us but for everyone else who had to politely put up with it.
Tibo: I think the success of our campaign (we managed to exceed our target by £1000) was due to our relentless work on getting it out there, but it also helped that we are a trio and therefore had three different social networks/communities to hit up.
Simon: We were obviously delighted to reach our target, and we’re so, so grateful to everybody who handed over their hard-earned dosh. But probably the biggest feeling was relief, a crowdfunding campaign is a pretty scary thing to embark on, because the potential failure is so public. You’re saying: “I believe in this idea,” and if others don’t, there’s a permanent record of it. Not to mention what that can do to your confidence in the concept! But the experience was ultimately affirming for us – it showed that people wanted to support our careers and trusted our vision.
Tibo: As a side note, I’d probably discourage anyone thinking of doing a crowdfunding campaign from using Kickstarter – even though they say they give feedback on campaigns, they did nothing for us, and they take something like 12% for the pleasure. That was a real shock because we thought we’d get something more than a webpage for our money.
Interesting! In any case, you guys raised almost £13,000 via Kickstarter. Was this the film’s entire budget? If not – and assuming you don’t mind our asking! – what was the film’s entire budget? How did it break down? Were there any unexpected expenses, and if so, what were they?
Backing up, how did you come up with the budget in the first place? How did you know what making the movie would cost?
Simon: We had done our research, looking at other Kickstarter campaigns for shorts, and recognised that £10,000 seemed to be a realistic amount. Tibo ran the numbers so we knew we’d need more, but we didn’t want to go too far beyond this because it felt achievable. So we decided upon £12,000.
Tibo: We’d rather not say the final amount (though if anyone cares it can be found online). Let’s just say the film cost a lot more than we’d anticipated, and the costs are still accumulating in the form of festival submission fees.
Zak: They say double your budget as standard, and I guess “they’re” right, and then some.
Walk us through your filmmaking journey, guys. What happened after the crowdfunding campaign ended and the money hit your account? What were your next steps, from pre-production on through production and post? How much time did you have for each phase? Clue us into the process of the proverbial movie snowball rolling down the mountain toward completion.
Simon: So we achieved our target in the autumn of 2015 and we began shooting in early March 2016. Before the shoot I had lots of 1-on-1 conversations with the different heads of department. This is one of the parts I love the most about the filmmaking process. Where you open out your collaboration to more people and you pass ideas back and forth, shaping them into something that you both love. I find it really exciting to hear other people’s takes on my ideas, especially when their ideas are better than mine. We are lucky enough to know some of the most talented people working in London, and having access to their brains for this film was a truly thrilling experience for me.
Zak: Whilst Simon swanned around talking about the creative side of things, we got to work getting everything in place – crewing up, finding locations, booking equipment, and casting. Casting was a big one…
Simon: As a fan of his work as both a musician and actor, I was always very keen to work with and ultimately cast Johnny Flynn to play Guy.
Tibo: So we began conversations with his agent as soon as we had an idea of the shooting dates, and Johnny expressed an interest right away. We were delighted to have him attached.
Zak: I had worked with Daniel Ings before and Tibo worked with Omar Khan before – they were both keen to come on-board and, after setting up meetings between them and Simon, we knew we had a dream cast. Soon our ideas became concrete and then, before we knew it, we were on-set. Four-days flew by. After all the work getting to that point, and experiencing it, we were completely exhausted. But our work was only really starting.
And it’s paying off! What camera did you shoot on? What equipment did you have at your disposal – lenses, lights, grip gear, sound rigs, etc.? What did the set look like?
Tibo: We were lucky to have top of the range equipment at our disposal, calling in favours from all the contacts we’ve made from working in the industry over the years. We filmed on an ARRI Alexa with anamorphic lenses, expertly operated by our cinematographer Andy Alderslade and his team. We also had some really exciting grip equipment – including a Chapman Dolly – which really adds to the production value of the film.
Sound was handled by Joel Neale using a combination of boom and lapel mics for the (few) dialogue scenes in the film. He would get excited when he saw some dialogue on the sides, because most of the film is told in voiceover – and therefore unchallenging to him.
Simon: We had a four day shoot in several locations across London including a pub, a static tube (subway) carriage in a museum, on the actual tube and a green screen studio, but we spent two whole days in a large and completely empty office complex, which was once a council building.
Zak: Our floor was an enormous space, so it took two days to dress and another two to strike. Production designer Daniel Vincent along with art director Basmah Jolley and their team did an incredible job of making the most of what was available in the building: a lot of props and set dressing was sourced directly from the various abandoned floors.
Simon: Being a former council building, there were old discarded files everywhere, just left there for anyone to find – with the personal data of countless real people living in the borough. This seemed a bit dodgy, but also pretty appropriate for the subject of the film.
Oh wow! What software did you use in post-production, and why?
Simon: Our editor Hiran Balasuriya cuts on Adobe Premiere. He used to cut on Final Cut Pro, but made the switch. He’s never looked back. Philip Walker-Davies, our VFX supervisor, used After Effects for all the special effects in the film.
Speaking of which, there are some pretty impressive visual effects throughout Contractor 014352. Your Kickstarter page teased that you’d develop many of them “in-camera, live, rather than creating effects from scratch using computer software (CGI). This is how we’ll achieve an authentic, hand-crafted and tactile feel to the film. We want you to feel as though you could reach out and touch the visuals,” you wrote. “Think Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick and Spike Jonze.” For the most part, this “small batch” feeling translates for me, manifesting the film’s criticism of the problems with digital communication and dehumanizing effects of big data.
That said, I’d love to hear how, precisely, you made these effects happen. In one scene, a mother gives birth, and the newborn floats off into space, 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque. In another, a spreadsheet transforms into a Tron-like grid, giving way to an image of a swirling galaxy. In another, a character falls through a black void, only to land on a bed situated in an abstract space. In another, two characters reach through their computer screens as if to touch each other. How did you pull all of this off?
Tibo: It was clear from the start that a big part of our VFX would have to be done in camera, and we had several meetings to talk about different techniques we could use within our limited means and resources. The “space baby” sequence was a fun one to film. After a lot of conversation and careful consideration, we filmed Omar gently placing the baby on a green cushion propped up on a green-covered Lazy Susan, turned by our art director (wearing a fully green morph suit). I think the poor baby may have nightmares for life about this moment! Jokes aside, it went surprisingly well, and of course we only had a couple of takes on that, as babies can only be on set for so long. Fun experience though, shooting with a baby, as the whole set was instantly silent, and everyone was suddenly very respectful and gentle in everything they did.
The shots of Parvez falling through space were also fun to do, and involved a series of different homemade techniques, one of which we blatantly stole from the makers of Black Swan, as initially suggested by Andy. It involved the use of two separate dollies actioned simultaneously, while the actor stood right in between them. It was a lot of fun, but took a lot of takes before we got it right.
The rest of it was all mainly the magic of Philip, who pretty much spent a whole year working for free on our film, just out of sheer dedication and faith. To this day we still can’t believe how much time and effort he put into our film, and we know we owe him big time.
Simon: Ultimately, the VFX shots ended up being this great combination of practical and CGI which wasn’t what I had originally planned, but we quickly realised that doing everything in-camera was going to be well beyond our means. I’d never done anything with special effects before – and it’s amazing how much can be done to get the film looking closer to how you want it to. Making tweaks can become addictive. After making Contractor, I can empathise a lot more with George Lucas and his inability to leave his films alone.
How did you source your locations? Did you get them for free, as a favor, or for pay? Why did you choose the specific spaces that you did? Was it difficult to shoot on the metro, either from a legal or logistical perspective? If so, why?
Tibo: We had to pay for most locations, even though we did manage to pull a few favours from time to time. But obviously when you come to a place with a full crew of 25 to 30 people, in addition to a full cast of 30 people, it’s difficult to expect people will let you use their location for free. Simon and Daniel (Production Designer) were very specific about the look that the locations should have. So we used a location manager who helped us source a few options and began conversations with owners and site managers.
Shooting on the tube (London Underground) is always hectic, as one is always pretty much on the clock with TFL, who are very tough on rules and on health and safety. Which is fair enough as you are amongst members of the public, but it is also very stress-inducing.
I can recall some priceless moments when our skeleton crew was literally jumping on and off packed carriages to start shooting. There were many priceless reactions from confused on-lookers and commuters who to this day are still probably wondering what the hell we were all up to.
Some people choose to shoot on the tube guerilla-style and get away with it and when one has to pay £500 per hour fee you can understand why. But shooting with a large ARRI Alexa and a crew of six or so people, as we were, meant running and gunning just wasn’t an option. We just didn’t feel like taking the risk. The consequence is that we had time to shoot it properly, under proper supervision, and I believe the footage shows it.
Nice. Like the visuals, the sound design in Contractor 014352 blends the real and the surreal. How did you create the more abstract sounds, such as the ethereal voice that comes in from time to time? Was there any foley work involved?
Simon: I have worked with composer Sami El-Enany on all of my short films and I value his ideas strongly, as they are never conventional. Sami took all my rather obvious suggestions and put a really special spin on everything. As you say, a big component of the thinking beyond the score was taking the mundane, everyday sounds and tweaking or combining them with small elements to make them other-worldly. The creepy ubiquitousness of white noise used throughout the film came from his observation that white noise is pumped into offices with oppressive effect, and the ethereal voice you mention is a real singer’s voice mixed with synths. Which feels very appropriate to the central themes of the film, reminds me of the Apple launch sound, and I bloody love it.
I’ve also worked with sound designer Charlie Denholm on multiple occasions, and I think he really outdid himself on this one, taking Sami’s music cues and letting them inform the sound effects and layers of noise that he used – he did a wonderful job of making the atmospheres feel really alive and real. We stayed up really late together finalising the sound mix shortly before the cast and crew screening – spontaneously recording sound effects in my living room – and it was really fun. His girlfriend also has a “thanks to” credit for being the originator of most of the human sounds you hear in the short – hand claps, scratches, that sort of thing!
Haha. There’s nothing quite like a spontaneous recording session on a deadline! I love how you use sound to ease many of the scene transitions. Was this something that you envisioned from the outset, or did you find your way to it during post-production? In other words, at what point did you start considering the creative potential of sound as a storytelling tool?
Simon: I believe I’m very sensitive to the possibilities of sound and music in film. I always have a lot of quite specific ideas about how sound and music should be employed in my films and they’re a tool in my arsenal that I am imagining even when the script is being written.
From very early on I knew that I wanted the music to have an epic quality that gradually emerged from the mundane noises of the everyday environments of the film. This is how I experience sounds when I dream, so it seemed obvious to me to explore the application of those transitions. To this effect, conversations with Sami began very early on in the process, at least a year before shooting commenced, and he took these ideas and introduced many, many others that resulted in something incredibly effective.
I love your attention to sound and music, Simon! All too often, it’s an afterthought on indie films. So from a technical standpoint, how did you go about the mix? What software did you use? Did you mix on headphones? Speakers? Both? Why, how, and which ones?
Simon: We were fortunate enough to work with the brilliant Justin Dolby (not related to Thomas Dolby) as dubbing mixer. He added extra textures and layers to the film for its theatrical 5.1 mix and really helped to create something truly immersive. Justin’s previous films have been BAFTA nominated, so we knew he was good. I’m afraid you’d have to ask Justin what gear he used, but I can tell you that the mix was done on Pro-Tools at a London studio called Coda-to-Coda, who were really good to us. It was beyond amazing hearing the completed soundmix for the first time. A very special experience.
Totally. It’s worth mentioning that your film features Johnny Flynn, who’s starring in Ron Howard’s anthology series, Genius, with Geoffrey Rush. Did you know Johnny was involved with Howard’s new project when you cast him in Contractor 014352? Simon, how did you find your experience of directing an established actor? For example, were you inspired, nervous, confident, self-doubting? All of the above?
Simon: Johnny got the part in Genius after we worked together on Contractor. But as a musician and actor his profile was already big in the UK, so I was quite nervous before I met him, especially because he’s someone whose work I’ve always respected and admired. When we met for the first time, at a costume fitting, we hit it off right away. He’s the sort of person I am naturally friends with, and someone who I immediately felt safe with.
Johnny is a very sensitive and genuine performer. He clearly understood how I saw the character, and found the truth in it. He took my direction and built on it and, on the occasions where things were stressful due to time constraints, he was reassuring and calming. We’ve formed a strong friendship – I have since had the pleasure of collaborating with him on three music videos for his album Sillion, and my partner (photographer Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz) shot his album cover.
So cool. More generally, Simon, how did you go about directing your actors? Did you develop backstories to inform the actors’ characters? How much did you help the actors build their characters, and how much did the actors bring to the table themselves?
Also, in your experience, where is the line between providing guidance and trusting your collaborators? Were there ever any creative differences, or was everyone more or less on the same page? Finally, how did you go about directing the extras? Was it a logistical nightmare or relatively straight-forward?
Simon: When it comes to characterisation, I trust my judgement with casting and trust an actor’s interpretation of the script. I very rarely dictate and much prefer to give an actor the space to develop something from our conversations and through trial and error. I treat an actor as I would any other collaborator – expecting them to bring something unique to the table – respecting and valuing their own ideas. No individual is the same, so neither is my approach to communicating with them, so I can generally sense what an actor needs and how much support I need to give them.
With Contractor 014352, most of the big character conversations had happened before arriving on set and, with actors as experienced as Johnny, Omar, and Dan, the bulk of my direction on-set was quite specific and technical: things like adjustments to blocking, delivery speeds, or suggesting alternative ways to play a line.
The background artists were brilliant, patient, and working with them was straight-forward. I had very specific ideas for what I wanted them to be doing collectively, and for the most part I or Tibo would simply shout out: “Eyes on screens, fingers on keyboard!” before rolling. But there were some moments where more specific action was required so I designated to 3rd assistant director Alessandro Farrattinni who very sensitively communicated my direction to people individually.
Tibo: Of course keeping track of that many people (about 40+) could easily be a nightmare, but we were incredibly lucky to get such a talented and enthusiastic crop of individuals, some of whom we have worked with since. We invited them all to our cast and crew screening, and many told us how much they had enjoyed working on the film.
That’s fantastic. As the director, Simon, how involved were you in the editing process? I especially love all of the seamless transitions!
Simon: The editing stage is often like re-writing and re-making the film – reviewing the footage presents a lot of new storytelling options and challenges: you find things don’t play out as well you’d planned or decisions to cut certain shots have tricky repercussions. I always like to have someone else to bounce ideas off in the editing room as I often find it too overwhelming to tackle it on my own. Other perspectives are always valuable.
Hiran Balasuriya has edited all of my short films, and we have a really good collaborative relationship (I also produced his directorial debut, The Joyous Farmer, a few years ago). He’s a gifted storyteller. When we work together, Hiran is in the cockpit voicing his opinions and finding the rhythm, but I am in the room throughout the process and I’ll have specific ideas of how shots should cut together or be timed. As with every other aspect of filmmaking, it’s collaborative.
From day one developing this film, Hiran was in the loop – commenting on drafts, and helping to get the film made – so it was an easy hand over. The intital cut, without all the final VFX, made very little sense to anyone so it was important that anyone involved in post on this film was very clued up on the ins and outs.
As the writer, Zak, how involved were you throughout the film’s pre-production, production, and post? Did your responsibilities more or less end when the script was locked and lined, or did your involvement continue? Either way, why?
Zak: This was a passion project for all of us, and I wanted to use my experience in production as well as the scripting. It was a real team effort getting the Kickstarter off the ground, assembling crew and seeing through all aspects of the shoot. So a decision was made that I would be a producer as well as writer. I really wanted to apply myself beyond the script, so it made sense for me to join Tibo and produce the film alongside him. Tibo was more involved in the pre-production, budgeting, and orchestrating the shoot.
After the shoot, I helped manage the post-production by tracking all the VFX shots and creating timelines for all the work that needed to be done. There was a huge amount of work needed in all areas of post-production, but through intricate timelines, spreadsheets, and sourcing the best artists, Tibo and I managed the process so that ultimately we had a film by the cast and crew screening date! Tibo and I organised the premiere and ensured our Kickstarter backers were all happy with their rewards (of which we owed hundreds).
On a creative level, I was also involved in the edits with Simon, giving a lot of nit-picky and probably quite irritating feedback right until the final cut. Even after the initial screening for cast, crew and backers, there were still changes we wanted to make, and these were on a story level, a sound mix level, a colour level and even the end credits weren’t quite where we needed them to be. This may have been a good time to stop and cut our losses, as we were already truly exhausted by the project. But through our own intolerance, and a hypersensitive idea that people’s reception of the film was being compromised in tiny subtle ways, those changes ultimately were made, and the final cut was just finished this morning. We’ve just made some adjustments to the sound mix thanks to Justin sending us the final version of mix, so when I say it was finished this morning I mean it literally.
Haha. Congratulations, you guys!
Simon: We showed the film to cast and crew back in November, fully aware that there were a few more tweaks to make. I’m pleased to say that, after a few false claims, the film really is now finished… 18 months after filming!
Was there anything that worked really well on the page but just didn’t play on the screen, Simon? If so, what and why? What challenges did you encounter in bringing Zak’s screenplay to life?
Simon: Over the course of 3 years we worked on the script, it went through multiple re-drafts and, by the time we came to shoot, no element was unconsidered. On the whole, the film is very faithful to its source – scenes and VFX sequences play out as written. During the edit the ending went through a few different iterations – and one small aspect of the scripted ending has been removed entirely – but it never strayed too far from the script. There was also one shot mentioned in the script that got cut for interuptting the narrative flow. Otherwise it has been realised pretty much exactly as written.
Reading the script it would be fair to say that everything would be a challenge – from space babies to reaching into a computer monitor and needing two tube carriages to run parrallel to each other – especially on our budget. I think its fair to say that we set out to make a highly ambitious film and, as such, there were numerous challenges – from the idea’s conception to its completion – probably too many to mention. But what I’ve realised from making Contractor is that a challenge is fertile ground for creativity! I think the three of us, along with our cast and crew, achieved something really remarkable.
Absolutely. Even so, some filmmakers say that the real work of making a movie doesn’t begin until after the film is completed. What’s your plan for Contractor 014352 moving forward, guys? How do you hope it will factor into your respective careers?
Zak: We’ve just been accepted by Palm Springs Shortfest, so we are all flying out to be there for our official World Premiere. It’s a really exciting opportunity for us, and very welcome after spending some 3 years on this film since original conception. It should be a great opportunity as Palm Springs is the largest short film event in North America. Fingers crossed we get accepted by a few more in the coming months.
Simon: I guess the hope is that all the hard work will pay off – that many people will see and like the film and that it’ll raise some questions or affect some kind of change within the viewer.
Tibo: It would be great if, after all the energy and money that we’ve invested, it will help us get the next one off the ground.
Thanks for sharing your perspectives, Zak, Simon, and Tibo. We’re huge fans of your work here at Lights Film School and are excited to keep track of this project’s success as well as whatever comes next!
Michael Koehler, with
For more from this intrepid filmmaking trio, check out their thoughts on what working in indie film really looks like. They share some useful, honest insights!
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