Mark J. Blackman, the Writer and Director of short film NEON, talks to Exit 6's Robert Moir about his work so far and the making of his stunning urban fantasy nominated for Best Film at last year's festival.
“It's just something that wouldn't die.”
Having an idea that you just can't crack is a feeling I'm sure everyone relates to, or no doubt will at some point. Some call it 'writer's block', others refer to it as 'fuzzy brain syndrome'. Though, upon reflection, that might just be me. But it's a feeling I can relate to nonetheless. I've wanted to be a film-maker my whole life but I give in to writers block and frustration too much to get anything done. And you know what the old saying is: Those who can't do, interview people who are much better at it than you.
Neon, written and directed by award-winning writer and director Mark J. Blackman and starring Joe Absolom and Kerry Bennett, was selected for the Judges 6 at Exit 6 2016, and I had the immense pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Mark about the journey he took from watching dodgy copies of the making of Road Warrior, to bringing this visceral piece of cinema to life.
“Highlander and Blade Runner have always been huge influences on me from a very early age. Since my first video camera I've always been making stuff. Setting fire to stuff. It's always been the main driving passion.”
Mark studied film-making in uni and took a number of weird and varied jobs that paid nothing, but taught him everything he needed to know before things really took off.
“I was sending stuff out six months before my final year ended. Fortunately one company came back and said come along. So I was running for them and getting paid nothing, basically, but it was a promo company so I was learning and doing a lot for Five and MTV. Then on the side for money I was doing camera work for a topless news channel. And the grottiest job I have ever done.”
From there, Mark fell into a promo-producing job full time which lead to one project after another before giving him the security to go freelance full time. Now, the majority of his time is currently spent filming documentaries, corporate promos and music videos. As well as putting together his own shorts and planning his future features.
“To me, it's the single best way to tell a story. It plays with everything. It's photography, sound, music. And, with the exception of literature, it's the only way to play with time. And that was always obsessive for me.”
That obsession with time is obvious when you watch Neon. From the beginning it looks like you're perhaps watching two separate stories play out, but by the end your perception changes. However, that slight complexity wasn't easy to tie down. In fact it took years.
“It was an idea I had years ago and I just couldn't quite crack the script."
Truth be told, what Mark has put together takes a well utilised idea and turns it on its head. It's best to go in without any expectations of what's about to happen. It's captivating, gritty and visually outstanding. So much is packed in to its rather humble 15 minute run-time that you can tell it's very much a labour of love. Figuratively and literally.
“All of the stuff I do is very much about the darker side of love. If love is what makes the world turn around, what happens when the world stops spinning? That darker element of it. And Neon wouldn't die. It just wouldn't. And then I was on holiday a couple years back and woke up in the middle of the night and just got it. But, it wasn't so much the story, but the tone of the thing that became clear to me.”
It took Mark a year to write Neon around other projects, and when everything was in place it took four to five days to shoot. Amazingly, the most work and budget was put into a set piece that's only on screen for about eight seconds. During the end of the film, no real spoilers here, one of the main characters decides to try and end his life in a simple way that Mark and his team manage to turn into something quite spectacular.
“Originally we were going to have prosthetics on the actor and digitally manipulate the image so it seemed like it was static. And in the end we decided to do the entire thing with a giant puppet. It's Joe Absolom sculpted from the waist up. In completion. Out of the whole film it's the most expensive piece of the budget. But we didn't want to skimp on it or even shoot it in a way that out stays it's welcome. Or start screaming "LOOK AT OUR EFFECT, ISN'T IT AMAZING?!" It's quite a sick feeling when you weigh up how much it costs against how long it's on screen, but that's film-making. It's all the stuff you don't really notice.”
That level of detail is perhaps why Mark is such an in demand film-maker. Everything is taken into account. Even the smallest of details is given as much time and energy as the larger set pieces. So, when asked if the puppet is now being used as a very expensive clothes horse, I'm told: “it's currently the most amazing office decoration. It's wearing a fez and being used to hold bottles of wine.”
A puppet after my own heart.
When it comes to struggling with an idea for years, it's quite evident when speaking with Mark that not only is he very proud of the outcome but also relieved that it's done and out there and he can move on. There's no post-production depression or anxiety. No desire to tinker with it some more. It's complete. It's exactly how it should be.
“For me personally, I'm kind of done with it. It's been lovely that it's been so well received so quickly. It hasn't been a slow burner. It's been pretty swift with the positive response. It's nice. Because you realise you're not wasting your time or that of your cast and crew.”
Mark hasn't stopped since Neon. It seems like he never will. Much of 2016 was about shooting the last of the shorts, some written by other people that touched upon themes he was interested in. Now, however, it's all about moving on to the first feature.
“This year we are focusing on getting our first feature off the ground which we want to shoot by the end of this year, which is called 'The Siren, The Captain and The Sea'. A very intense sexual thriller. Which is best way that I can describe it. It's loosely based on a music video we directed a couple years ago starring Lorraine Stanley (London to Brighton). It's not tonally dissimilar to Neon. But visually it's very real world. It's very intimate.”
Other than that, what do years look like for Mark? Busy. Very busy. “Perpetual motion” is their approach to things.
“We've got two features we want to do quite soon after that if all goes to plan. I'm also working on a script for a cage fighting biopic. A few other smaller projects. Just lots of irons in a lot of fires”
The killer question, though: Does Mark get any down time at all?
“No. If I have down time I'm working on something. It's how I like to spend my time. It's what I love doing. It's an addiction.”
“It doesn't feel like a career, a journey or a plan. It's a lifestyle choice.”
You can also follow Mark on Twitter: @JokersPack
To find out more about NEON visit the official website for the film.