Imagineer screenwriter Kristina Heaney on getting her hands dirty for her career
So, how was your Exit 6 experience – have you been before?
I always look forward to Exit 6. My 2015 short, Cold Reader, was one of six screened as part of the original Exit 6 launch event in early 2016, so I have a real fondness for this festival. The team are always hugely supportive and friendly – as Exit 6 continues to grow it’s kept a sense of the familial.
What were your highlights of the festival this year?
Screening Imagineer in the Vue cinema with full Dolby surround-sound on a huge screen was fantastic. I hadn’t realised the film was quite so loud before! It definitely benefits from being seen on a proper screen rather than a laptop. I also very much enjoyed festival organiser Amy-Jean Burns’ various wardrobe changes across the day. She seemed to be in something different every time I saw her!
I really enjoyed Imagineer, it was one of my festival highlights – for those who couldn’t make your after screening interview, where did the idea come from?
The original idea was based on a boy I went to primary school with. Let’s call him Tim (not his real name). Tim had a pretty harsh upbringing. He wore a glass eye; the result of a gruesome incident just after his fourth birthday that even now gives me the heebie-jeebies. His nose ran perpetually, his head so congested he sounded like a little robot. Tim’s family lived on a farm and he was left to his own devices far too much, mucking around in the pig sties and collecting things he’d found in the dirt. Unsurprisingly he smelt terrible and the kids at school were merciless about it. We weren’t sure if he ever washed. There were rumours his father beat him with a belt. The neglect was obvious, yet I don’t remember the school ever doing anything about it. And at a certain point, he gave into it: if they all think I’m weird and disgusting, that’s what I’ll be. He used an old brown suitcase instead of a school bag, packed with disturbing things: a dead bird, the skull of a ewe, and once, a urine sample. It wasn’t his. Tim created this strange inner world for himself in order to get by.
Loneliness tends to be at the core of everything I write. I was interested in exploring what happens when a child is left unsupervised at a crucial stage of their development, when there isn’t a nurturing hand to guide them. Director Adam Spinks and I both share a morbid interest in the motivations of children who commit terrible acts, and we both love genre so we wanted to create something that was part sci-fi, part crime thriller with real-life consequences.
Incidentally, Tim is doing well now.
How did you go about casting the film?
I’d been looking for a project to work on with Alana Wallace - who plays Cal - for a while. She’d first come to my attention playing a small role in Mark J. Blackman’s Neon, and I loved how facially expressive she was. The part of Cal was essentially written for her.
The character of Joseph was trickier. He’s been through more emotionally than the average boy and it’s damaged him. Thematically Imagineer has a lot to say about a child’s regard for right and wrong and how nurture plays a part in this. Ten years old is the legal age of criminal responsibility in the UK, so we needed a child who looked around ten and would be able to deal with the subtleties the character required - not an easy thing to find.
Adam and I met Samson Oliver when we worked with his older brother, Toby on a previous short, Spaceman. We loved Samson because he was untrained. Often when casting children they’ll give you a very big stage-school performance. With Samson, it was far more natural, subdued, even matter-of-fact at times, which made for a very unsettling character portrayal.
What made you decided to set up Sunglass Films?
Sunglass came about entirely due to too much paperwork... I’d reached a stage where I was being commissioned as a writer far more regularly and I was also looking to produce more myself, bring in private finance and hire crew. As a Sergeant Safety from birth, it seemed like the right time to have the protection of a limited company, so I set up Sunglass Media Limited, with Sunglass Films as a production arm. That all sounds far fancier than it actually is. Most of the time it’s just me and my Co-Sec on a sofa in front of a spreadsheet, drinking too much Diet Coke and complaining.
A quick scroll through your IMDB page shows a wealth of work – do you prefer to work in the short form, or features?
In terms of the writing process I think I’m better-suited to features. People underestimate how hard shorts are to get right. I’ve never made one I’d say was close to perfect. You don’t have the luxury of 90 pages to develop your characters and really hit all the story beats. It has to all be there in no more than fifteen minutes, so you really need the purest form of the idea. There’s a fast satisfaction to shorts: it’s feasible to have one written, made and out on the festival circuit within a year. But for me the end goal is to be a full-time narrative filmmaker and that isn’t just going to fall in my lap. I have to put the hours (and years) into developing those long-form projects that can transform a love for storytelling into a secure paying career.
As a producer and writer, do you find wearing both hats to be beneficial to getting a project made as when you are writing, you can see costs, locations etc?
In the UK, wearing more than one hat (unless you’re a writer-director) is still seen as controversial. The Americans love to hear that someone is multidisciplinary, but here it’s a different story. It can make funding applications really tricky – they expect and often require the writer and producer to be two different people. But for me, not getting involved in the production side of my writing is maddening. Writing is my first love, but my day job, which I’ve been doing for over six years, requires a producer’s skillset. I’m dealing with huge budgets, artists and agents every day. I’m lobbying video commissioners for additional funds, creating detailed brand partnership documents and working hand-in-hand with entertainment accountants. It would be crazy not to utilise my skills to further my screenwriting. Frustratingly, this is still largely frowned upon by the likes of the BFI and other major funding bodies. I don’t know a single writer or director who didn’t have to do a certain amount of producing to get their early work made, sometimes even five to ten years into their careers. For me, it’s impossible to sit around and wait for someone else to bring my career to me. I have to get my hands dirty.
If you were to give new film-makers advice on getting a short made, what would that be?
The generation coming through and making their first shorts now have grown up in an age where making video content is as exceptional as turning on the microwave. They don’t need to be told to go DIY if they have to – they’ve been doing it on YouTube for years. So I think my advice would be, adopt a tenacious attitude. Apply for the funding schemes, the talent labs and the bursaries, even if you think you don’t stand a chance. I’ve been given some amazing opportunities to make films and develop as a writer – things that I really didn’t believe I had a shot at being selected for. Of course there are knock-backs – lots of them. But someone has to be chosen; why not you?
Do you find it’s getting harder to find finance for short films?
I think that really depends on the scope and quality of the project. There are always pots of money out there, but you have to be in a position to move fast on them – have your pitch, script, treatment pack all ready to go.
Often finance will only be available if the project meets particular criteria or has a specific theme, which I don’t always feel is conducive to great filmmaking. Everyone rushes to get an appropriate pitch in without any meaningful development of the ideas. This is what irked me about the recent Female Film Force scheme sponsored by Bumble and set up to help redress engrained gender biases within the industry. Bumble insisted that pitched ideas must be about female empowerment. While I truly hope the scheme benefits the selected filmmakers, it smacks of a certain level of cynicism about wider regard for female empowerment when you offer women a platform but keep their creative hands tied behind their backs. Why not let female filmmakers develop work about whatever they want? This is what would galvanize real empowerment and equality.
You have a lot of projects in post-production or coming soon, what can we expect to see first and what have you got planned for the future?
Oh goodness! I’m not quite sure what order things are going to happen in, but right now I’m concentrating on what I hope will be my first produced feature, Hell Derby. It’s essentially The Raid meets Whip It… with zombies. It’s got twelve killer female roles, which we’re in the process of casting right now. I can’t wait! I’m also post-producing on another feature which wrapped at the start of autumn. Then I’m working on a very dark series of stand-alone dramas with the team at Joker’s Pack as well as a commissioned six-part crime thriller. Finally, a short developed with director Afia Nkrumah which we hope to shoot before 2018 is out, and then maybe a nap.
You can follow Kristina on Twitter: @KristinaFilm