Sara Dunlop, the director of Dreamlands ; a raw, stunningly shot, beautifully crafted, coming-of-age tale that was the only UK short selected to screen in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, chats to Paul Barker about being a first-time filmmaker, finding your style and the importance of festival planning.
An award-winning commercial and music video Director Sara comes across as a friendly, down-to-earth character who’s attitude towards film is refreshing. “I’ve come to realise recently it’s all about confidence, and I’m respectful of anyone who has made anything! I probably made Dreamlands ten years after I was supposed to make it, but in reality I wouldn’t have necessarily had the confidence to make it ten years ago, or to handle the aftermath; to take the criticism or the praise.”
As a female filmmaker it’s no surprise a range of ‘women in film’ questions are often launched at Sara. With Dreamlands, and a 2009 short, High, both having strong female protagonists who are very much in control of their bodies and sexuality, Sara considers that, “female filmmakers have a different valid point to make about women’s sexuality that men have been making points about for a very long time. So it’s a case of trying to even it up. I think that women have got a valid point to make about male sexuality too. It’s about setting a better balance I suppose. As a woman I think because there are fewer, strong female protagonists, it’s an area where there is a bigger need for that and the starting point for my work is with a strong female lead.”
When quizzed about the conception of the Cannes-selected short, Dunlop sniggers. “It was actually part of a pitch I did for a music video. I pitched my idea as ’Dogging for sexy people!’ which I didn’t really expect to go anywhere! At the same time I’d starting reading a lot about current teen social issues; things like sex and social media, teens viewing internet pornography, and I started to link these things together and realised there was something deeper there. I’d always liked coming-of-age stories, and started to piece together something in this vein, but with a modern twist; aiming to keep elements of it old-fashioned. I was keen to try and ground it in an authenticity of what kids are going through now, while keeping the world somewhat ambiguous in order to heighten the impact of the story.”
Not being a ‘name’ in the industry, Sara talks about some of the casting challenges she faced. “The original script was more sexually explicit than the final short, so to get actors that were going to be playing 16-17 year-olds on-board we found we had to talk people to come in to casting sessions. Due to my background in commercials and music videos I was quite comfortable working with people who hadn’t acted before, so I looked at our own circles, and then models who were interested in acting, which is where we came across Emma Appleton. She looked ideal for the role and she had both a vulnerability and a strength to her which was right for the character. Despite not acting before, she was committed to the project and that made all the difference. To me it’s hugely important that actors are fully on-board with the project, and all four young people were committed throughout, which meant I got to spend more time working with them and they had the time to 'gel' with each other.”
Being selected for Cannes 2016, one might think that Dunlop was a seasoned pro on the festival circuit, with a level of honesty not found in many film-makers Sara reveals this wasn’t the case at all. When the team received the phone call to say they had been selected she suspected, “someone was prank calling us!” She continues that “it was only when I spoke to the Director of Film that I believed it! I think we were slightly naive and didn’t initially realise what being selected for the main festival really meant until we were out there and chatted to other film-makers who had festival plans in place. We didn’t realise that certain territories and parts of the world expected premiers of Dreamlands and as such we did miss out on certain festivals.“
Dunlop is quick to point out the positives of her situation, “...my advice would be to have a plan, as we missed some incredible festivals through not planning correctly!” 'Slightly naive' or not, on first watch it’s clear that Dreamlands is something very special and could of easily have played anywhere in the world.
Coming from a background creating music videos and commercials Sara considers how her career has shaped her style. “I used to have a different approach to the variety of mediums I worked in, I think now it’s all come to one place where I want to be a certain type of filmmaker. For example, recently in L.A I did a commercial where I only wanted to use natural light at the right times of day, which they found quite strange! I think without realising it I, and all of us, have a style which is part of what you learn by doing different projects. That’s what’s great about doing music videos and commercials it’s another outlet for that that style to flow through.”
When it comes to advice for new filmmakers, Dunlop says, “research your festivals, know what the rules are, and then go with the flow. We did the last part! If people are interested in the film it will then have a snowball effect.”
For more information about Dreamlands please visit the official website.