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The Big Interview with Denis Dobrovoda

Writer and director Denis Dobrovoda's short APPARITION, a comedic sideways look at religious faith, won the Best Film award at the inaugural Exit 6 Film Festival earlier this month. Here he talks to Hannah Smith about religious belief, self-belief and the making of his award-winning debut film.

Photo by Joshua Ryan Wake

HS - Why film?

DD – I don’t really have an explanation for it, I just like watching films. I grew up watching action films. And another way that film has had a huge impact on my life is when I was applying for University. You know with UCAS you have five subjects that you can pick. I had four that I knew but it was the deadline and I had to get the fifth place filled. I knew very clearly what I wanted to do but outside of that I wasn’t really sure, so what should I pick for the last thing? My brother had mentioned that UCL was very good so I opened the website and the courses were arranged alphabetically. One of the first courses that I saw was Archaeology and Anthropology and when I was a kid, growing up, my favourite films by far were the Indiana Jones films, I absolutely adored them, they were everything to me. So I thought “ha ha!” how funny it will be, I will apply sort of as a joke so that I can tell it as a funny thing for the rest of my life, that I applied to this. I didn’t get into anything else but that and I ended up doing Archaeology and Anthropology for about a term and a half at UCL! Then I dropped out because I reapplied to Universities and I got into to Oxford to study Politics and Philosophy, which I really wanted to do because I had a huge interest in philosophy mainly.

HS – When did you shoot Apparition?

DD – I shot it last December

HS – So not actually that long ago, you turned that round quite quickly.

DD – Yeah, so the way it went was, I finished university and I went to Paris and studied French. I did some journalism work and realised journalism is not the way forward, it’s very badly paid and it seems kind of glamorous from the outside but on the inside you realise you write so much bollocks about not very interesting things. At some point I had this idea, the very basic idea of the stain appearing in someone’s flat and people thinking it’s an apparition of Jesus or the Virgin Mary or something. But there was no structure to it; it was just the kind of crux of it. And I was kind of toying with the idea, thinking of it from all different angles, then I came across these people who were passionate about these things and it suddenly became a much more interesting topic.

HS – Seeing people who truly believe?

DD – Yeah and then I started, so I did this yearlong conversion course into film directing.

HS – When did that come? You were having this idea for the film, at what point did you start thinking you wanted to do this directing course, did they come at the same time?

DD – Sort of. I was doing a bit of journalism and I was like, this is crap and it’s not leading anywhere and actually I don’t want to do it that much so obviously I’m never going to be good at it anyway. And I have this degree, which gives me lots of freedom because I know that even if I fail totally at filmmaking, I can always go and be a bank clerk or something. So I have this security, which for me is a very good thing, and I was like, well, I should just maybe give it a try and see what it is like. I had these script writing classes and I really respected my script writing professor, who was a woman that won, I think, Berlinale with one of her short films and then was at Sundance with another one, so she’s quite an impressive woman. In one class I pitched this idea and she was like “yeah, that’s really interesting and you should write that”, and that kind of gave me the impetus to really go and write it. I had the idea in my head maybe for two years and I was constantly kind of toying with it. It had different endings and different beginnings and different people in it.

HS – Before even putting it on paper?

DD - I didn’t write a single word until after maybe a year and a half or so. And then when I wrote it, obviously I did make some modifications but in general it was kind of like, this is it. There were very few changes afterwards, so it was almost like a finished story that was ready in my head. I think she quite liked it and other people liked it and they were like “you should go and make this film.” I started the September after I finished film school and I was like I need to get this film done very well. So it became my full time thing, and as soon as possible. So I did it between September and March / April, I don’t know quite when.

HS – And you shot it in the December?

DD - We shot it in December. Pre-production started in September, we shot in December in four days and then it was post-production in January, February, March, but obviously I had to work around some of the people who were professionals because I didn’t pay anyone. My editor for example, he was still a student. My sound designer was still a student, etc. So I had to work around that but I was very focused on that and we made it; that was very much my sort of mission for that time. I have to get this for my portfolio and get this done and see. And on the back of that, I got this job that I have now.

HS – Going back to the film, it’s really very French in its style, not just because it’s French language, it’s a very French film, do you think that’s because of being in Paris for those three years? Do you think that’s because that’s where you trained?

DD – I don’t really know, it’s interesting, everyone tells me its very French.

HS – You don’t see it that way?

DD – Yeah, I don’t really like French cinema that much…

HS – See I love French cinema…

DD – And some people when they read the script thought that maybe I should do it in Slovakia or in like an Eastern European country because it has this Catholic theme. But I don’t really see it as a country specific thing.

HS – Maybe it’s just the actors that give it that French feel, there is something very... I love French actors, I think they’re very natural on camera in a way that isn’t always the case here, definitely in short films specifically. Were the people you worked with people you knew from school or did you go out and cast?

DD – No, there was a large casting, yeah. So I only knew one of the guys, who played the priest, who I knew from a different project and he’s a very accomplished actor, but I put up these adverts and people got in touch. A lot of the people thought that the script... they worked on the strength of the script. A lot of the applications, they weren’t students any more but they were still people who were looking to work on their portfolio and they were maybe hoping that this could have some success.

HS – That’s huge that you had that level of confidence in you and your project. I mean it is a great script so I can see why they did it, but that’s quite a compliment for you.

DD – Yeah, definitely, but it’s also very difficult, psychologically so, it’s not easy…

HS – It’s a lot of pressure…

DD - …to make a film, it’s not easy at all. Especially as I don’t think anyone really believed me that I was going to make anything. I was very afraid of making something that would be shit. I was very afraid of that, hugely. I was very aware of all the kind of student mistakes that people make. I mean let’s not get carried away with the film, it’s a good film but it’s not the best one that’s ever been made. But it was important to me to make something that doesn’t seem like a student film.

Tom McGeehan /

HS – It really doesn’t feel like a student film.

DD – And people sort of believed in me, I think in a way and I met this wonderful guy called Jean-Baptiste, who really took this project as his own and he really, in a way, made it happen because he was the one that bought in all the technicians and a lot of other people.

HS – He was your producer?

DD – No he was more my AD but in reality he was doing all of the production. The budget was only £2000 so we somehow got it made for that.

HS – Were you using someone’s flat?

DD – It was an Airbnb flat.

HS – Oh really? I’ve never thought about doing that, that’s a genius idea.

DD – It was quite funny because the person that was staying in the flat, they went away for the weekend and they came back on the Sunday evening and they were kind of shocked. For a lot of people when you tell them you’re making a short film I think they imagine 3 boys with a handy-cam and one actor, and suddenly there was, you know, we had 50 people. Not that they were there all the time, but overall 50 people worked on the film, or 49. But yeah the crew was relatively substantial and this guy was shocked because we also had a shit load of equipment. And I had a huge problem with the staircase, because actually the staircase is in a completely different building. I gave the organisation who works for the property this paper to sign. It was basically telling them what’s gonna happen and them agreeing to it, and the guy didn’t really read it, and then he did read it, really two days or something before the shoot, and suddenly he saw that there would be like, I think the number was 20 crew members, or maybe we kept it down to 15, in fact it was more you know? But he’s like an extremely difficult person and I think he got very pissed off. I think he was thinking I kind of scammed him, well not scammed but that I was being deceitful because he thought that it was going to be 3 people and suddenly it’s 30 people.

HS – I was gonna say because when we watched the film and everyone laughed a lot, you said afterwards that there were some bits where we laughed and you were like, I don’t think that, I wouldn’t want you to laugh there or I didn’t mean for you to laugh there. Is that that scene when he’s got her up the stairs?

DD – Yeah

HS – You expected us to laugh at the stairs though, you know that’s funny?

DD – I’m not sure, for me it’s not that, well it’s kind of absurd in a way but I wouldn’t say it’s laugh out loud, for me personally. There is obviously that level of absurdity in it, which is present in the whole film but the crux of that scene for me… So I went to Christian school, not Catholic but Protestant so I have some knowledge of the bible, not particularly great but actually I read the New Testament. After I finished university I was staying in a hotel and I had nothing to read, so I read the new testament. So it’s quite fresh in my head. And there is that whole bit with Jesus walking with the cross and essentially this is what the scene is.

HS – Oh God that’s genius.

DD – Well it’s not that genius because no one got it. So, actually it’s very bad if people didn’t get it. No, if I’m to explain the film, which when you have to do that you’ve completely failed as an author, if people didn’t get it. But that scene, because you know everyone is making him out to be the saint and this special person, and he kind of accepts this on himself. This almost like a Messianic role and that’s what this scene is about.

HS – Well I got that, but there was humour in it in some sense as well.

DD – Well I remember very well because this was my biggest fear, because I always knew I wanted to make a comedy drama and I was always very afraid because I have seen so many films where the drama totally fails and people laugh about things they shouldn’t be laughing at at all. And I remember talking to my producer and I was very conscious of the fact that there is a very abrupt sort of change of tone. I was very aware that maybe people will still kind of laugh at that. My producer said “as soon as you have a handicapped child, people are not going to laugh.” And the truth is in most of the screenings they don’t but in that one they did. But you know it’s amazing the interpretation of the film as in the comedy drama part of it because there are many people who tell me they don’t find it funny at all. And then there are screenings like the one at Exit 6 where everyone was laughing the whole time. Which, I think a lot of it depends when and where you’re watching it and who you’re with and also what as a person, you know, who you kind of are.

HS – I think if you really genuinely believed in that kind of a religion and religious miracle then it probably wouldn’t be quite as funny. I wonder how someone with a really strong belief would take the film.

DD – Well I think a lot of people wanted me to ridicule it a bit more.

HS – Oh no, I don’t think that would be the right move. I think it’s an affectionate take on it.

DD - Also, this is what my sister told me actually, she showed the film to a person that she knows who is a guy that actually used to, who was studying to be a Catholic Priest and then he didn’t do it in the end. But he was very critical of it from the point of like, this couldn’t happen because the Priest would have done this and this and this. But again that’s not, you know, I wasn’t making a documentary at all.

HS – Was that his only point though, that he just couldn’t believe it because of –

DD - Well he was like the Priest would have done something different but even that I think is bollocks. You don’t know what the Priest would have done.

HS – No, you can’t be him

DD – But I think it’s a film that really people react to it in different ways and I think English audiences tend to laugh a bit more perhaps than for example France.

HS – Is it a good example of what you want to do as a package, if you go like that’s my portfolio as it is for now, that pretty much sums me up.

Tom McGeehan /

DD – I’m not really sure, I mean one thing is that obviously it has had the success where it’s got 4 prizes and it’s been to 19 festivals, and that’s something I didn’t really expect at all, and it seems like people like it and in a way I’m like, well maybe I should do something similar because that’s what’s successful. But then I don’t know, I have some ideas for a few future projects but I need to write something first.

HS – Then it’s gonna be like this one where it will be a good year and a half before it comes out?

DD – Yeah, I’ve already had them in my mind for a while so I think I’m ready to start writing.

HS – Is it gonna be another short film?

DD – Yeah.

HS – Being aware that this was your first big stab, post film school at making a short, did you get nervous about it, being all on your shoulders and getting the respect from the crew? Did you have that self-doubt that everyone is going to know you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, even though you do, of course you do; did you have that?

DD – Yeah definitely.

HS – I wonder if Steven Spielberg even has that.

DD – Yeah I wonder, that’s a good question. For me, it kind of went away, a lot of that nervousness, on the morning. Because I have a tendency to not eat well in general when I’m stressed. That’s my sort of, my organisms sort of shut down. But surprisingly, a lot of the doubts and everything, I sort of woke up you know the first morning and a lot of it was gone. Obviously I was still stressed and I did have to fight for the dominance on the set, especially with one guy, who sort of saw me as like this total green.

HS – Up and coming

DD – Yeah, but otherwise the actors were lovely and there were some lessons I took from it. I think now I would deal with it differently but it was a learning curve you know and I can totally, I think what was very important for me is that I actually didn’t want to have star actors or star technicians because that puts on a lot of pressure. It was quite nice having these guys, who as actors, I wasn’t that nervous with because we got along very well and they didn’t expect me to be Scorsese. But yeah, definitely, I mean there is an element of nervousness, especially because this was my pet project largely. Also if it were to be a failure it would have been a waste of a year of my life almost and it’s a lot of time and resources and everything. And who knows if this were a total piece of shit, maybe I wouldn’t, maybe I would go work in a bank.

Tom McGeehan /

HS – That’s a big jump

DD – Yeah, but it wouldn’t help my confidence at all.

HS – Yeah, it’s hard putting yourself out there in that way

DD – Yeah, it’s very hard because people... it’s very easy to really destroy other peoples work, isn’t it? I was very conscious of that, that some people could just absolutely destroy this and think that I’m some idiot. And I would have to be like, you know, fair enough. But no it’s been a success, I think I can say. It hasn’t gone to the Cannes Film Festival or anything but it sort of weighed out as successful.

HS - I think Cannes would be a huge expectation for a first one though, hey?

DD – Yeah, but you know I always give myself

HS – You’ve got to have the ambition

DD – Yeah, I have a huge ego

HS – Well, that’s how work gets made

DD – Yeah I guess, I mean I’ve always, I have a huge drive to succeed, yeah just a huge drive to be up there somehow.

HS – A self-belief?

DD - Yeah, I think in many ways I do have a really strong self-belief. I watched an interview with Nicolas Winding Refn this guy from Drive [2011] and Neon Demon [2016]. And it was actually a Guardian thing and he kind of talks about himself and he’s famous for having a huge ego, and he was like “yeah I used to think I’m the best Director in the World like ever” and people commented like, what a dickhead but I was actually like “fair enough”. I think it’s great because I think you really do have to, I mean to go out there and be with all these people and give everyone directions, and everyone is looking at you, you’re the one that’s the prime mover in the end. You’re supposed to have answers to everything. And if you don’t, if you have self-doubt and everything, then I’m not sure you can really do it.


You can follow Denis on Twitter: @DenisDobrovoda

You can follow Hannah Smith on Twitter at: @Hansplat

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