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Talking Head: Samuel Clemens creates festival film with students

Writer, Director and Producer, Samuel Clemens, tells about his remarkable experience creating a short film with a class of young film students and the very unexpected results.

Photo: Samuel Clemens by Carl Proctor.

The Rose Theatre Kingston run a short summer film course for their youth theatre members every year. Ciaran McConville, the course leader, called me and asked if I would be interested in writing and directing two shorts for the course. Seeing as film directors don’t get the chance to direct that much, any practice and opportunity to work is hugely important and appreciated. Whatever the outcome I would get a chance to work with new people, practice the craft and work with young people between 14 and 19, something I had never done on film.

We created ‘Say No’. Schoolgirl Rossella has just split up with her boyfriend and is travelling to school with a handbag full of guns. Her ex has met a new girl and passions are running high. What does Rossella intend to do?

The film was inspired by the Dunblane shootings in 1996. I had read an article in The Radio Times by Mick North, father to Sophie North, one of the victims of the shootings. He rallied very hard for the gun laws to be changed in this country, which they were, making handguns illegal and making the UK a safer place. In the article, he mentioned that being the twenty-year anniversary last March, people could reflect on the horrific event and those too young to remember might learn something about it and it’s significance today. It felt appropriate to do something that hopefully would raise awareness about the continual gun crime we hear in the news, tragically more and more often, especially in the US. My hope was that the students might learn something about it and form opinions that they could take into their lives.

I didn’t have huge expectations going into the process. If the students were good enough, then there might be a slim possibility we might be able to take it onto the festival circuit but being a summer film course I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know whom I’d be working with; I didn’t know their abilities, their confidence or commitment levels. Plus, I wouldn’t be casting it. That was down to Ciaran, who knew the students. So it felt like a real gamble.

In rehearsal for the other short, which was scripted, I could do a lot of character work and help them discover their objectives and why they were there. With this film, as it was all going to be long takes, improvised and dependent on the environment; we couldn’t really rehearse the traditional way. Rosa and Tom were the only two called for rehearsal being the two leads even though they don’t interact hardly at all. So we did some relationship exercises; walking around the local park together as boyfriend and girlfriend, creating previous circumstances that they could use when they started the film the following day. It also allowed the actors to get to know each other and form some kind of relationship. As the film starts with the two having broken up, I felt it a good start to build some memories to recall. It also freed them up to improvise and to discover something about each other. It was interesting to begin with, as the two were a little anxious as expected but after ten minutes they both really relaxed into the process. They both became extremely natural and I felt at that moment, that if I could capture something like this on the day, we might be off to a good start. From camera perspective, it gave Martyna (DOP) the chance to practice following them for long periods of time to work out the best way to utilize long takes, allowing the young actors to really relax into the process, feeling free to improvise. This was partly so they could speak in their own vernaculars and not be constricted to a script, but also by doing long takes it really made the whole process far more collaborative. Plus, it was something I had not done a lot of, so it was a challenge.

The shoot took place over a day and a half, plus a reshoot day. We actually found we could shoot it in sequence, again which I’d never done before and that would also give the actors some more clarity to their journey. The crew consisted of myself as a director, Martyna Knitter as DOP and the students making up the rest of the crew. All of them had opportunities to try the different disciplines of film making across the six films being made on the course; so they had the chance to learn many aspects of filmmaking, immediately gaining respect for every department’s job. What was so impressive was their level of dedication and willingness to help out in anyway, from booming to running. One of the nicest privileges was witnessing a young student discovering his love for the sound department and really taking a serious interest in it. He said, “If this course didn’t exist I don’t know how I would have been able to do anything like this”.

Rosa was very shy to begin with but completely came out of her shell. She grew in confidence and professionalism as the shoot went on. Her takes were extremely long with lots to remember and she never faltered once, never complained about having to go again. Our longest take to shoot was around seven minutes, with lots of cues to hit, from leaving her house getting into a car, texting, checking for police back to texting, deleting pictures, getting out of the car and walking off down the road. It would be a tall order for any actor and a lot of pressure. She handled it like a true professional. The message of the film taught her that it is okay to be different and should be celebrated. That is really what the whole course is about, giving opportunities to young people, helping to encourage and support their hopes, dreams, personal goals and celebrate diversity.

We had almost no budget at all and very little equipment. Just the camera, boom and tie clip mics. The longest take that appears in the film is around three minutes with lots of action and students in shot; we did eight takes of it, which requires a lot of focus and dedication. Everyone really came together and it totally felt like guerilla filmmaking but with a community. One of the parents even helped out with a driving scene. We ran out of time at the end of the day and unfortunately I felt the ending we had shot wasn’t going to be good enough due to budget and time constraints.

Once we had a cut, I sent it to our composer Edward White, to see if he had any music that he could put under it, as we had no music budget at all. Edward watched it and thought it was a strong piece of work and said he would love to score it. Obviously, I was over the moon he felt so strongly about it but what he came back with was so good that he made me really re-evaluate the film. Now that the score was so good, the ending felt even worse and that really forced me to look at re-shooting the ending. Secretly, I had aspirations that if the young actors were believable and connected with each other, we might actually have a film that could a have a life outside of a course film and be able to enter the festival circuit but not with the ending present.

After a quick conversation with Ciaran, I was thrilled that a re-shoot was possible and more importantly very supported by the parents. I contacted Katie McCullough at Festival Formula, a film festival strategy company, who I had previously used for my last short ‘Surgery’ to huge success. I asked her to look at the film to see if she thought it had any legs. She agreed it was a strong, topical piece about gun crime but the ending needed re-shooting. A discussion as to what we needed resulted in rewriting the ending before we began the process of scheduling a re-shoot.

Immediately, I asked the students to dig out their costumes, retrieve their school ties and refrain from cutting their hair. Managing to get fifteen students back for a days filming was tough in itself but having a break and seeing what you can improve on was a wonderful experience. It allowed me to let the film dictate what the message should be, rather than impose one. On reflection I realized the ending was missing a viceral, emotional reaction. I felt a more human response was needed so I employed a wonderful actor who I have worked with many times as an actor and director, George Telfer. His strong presence brought real weight to the ending. Not only was it great for the students to work with and learn from an experienced professional actor but George's performance created an atmosphere and feeling we wanted to give a more sensitive ending.

Film Still: George Telfer – Teacher.

I can honestly say the best part of making this film was the students taking it upon themselves to learn about the tragedy at Dunblane twenty years on. Many of them had no idea what happened and how the dangers of gun crime are still relevant today, but all of them have shown so much support and passion for the message behind the film. They are aware that in the current climate, this message seems more significant than ever. Ciaran and I are already in discussions about next years course. We are looking for more help and funding to be able to do more for all the films. More budget would help provide a more polished feel to all the films. Many of the collaborators on ‘Say No’ are and have given their services for nothing or very little. It is wonderful that The Rose offer this opportunity to young people. I would’ve jumped at the chance when I was their age to learn how and be part of a film.

We are currently in post production and planning a crowd funding campaign to raise £3000 to pay for entry to festivals, a festival strategy and some post production costs. Festival Formula and myself feel it has a real shot on the festival circuit and cannot wait to show as many people as possible these amazing students’ work. It was a privilege to work with such a talented group of individuals and introduce them to the world of filmmaking with some excellent industry professionals, creating a relevant film with a poignant important message. It is the greatest feeling ever.


All images ©ClemensBros & The Rose Theatre.

If anyone is interested in pledging a donation, look out for the hastag #SY2SN on Twitter. Follow @ClemensBros, @Rosetheatre

If anyone is interested in funding/helping the film course contact Ciaran McConville, Director of Learning & Participation At The Rose Theatre:

Email: / Phone: 02089394060.

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