Iona Firouzabadi and Christopher Haydon on winning In Wonderland
Iona Firouzabadi and Christopher Haydon, writer and director of In Wonderland, talk to us about taking home the Best Film award from Exit 6 Film Festival 2018, working with stars Arthur Darvill and Louise Brealey, and the differences between making films and producing theatre.
Thanks for taking the time to talk us and congratulations on ‘In Wonderland’ winning the Best Film award, chosen by guest judge Burn Gorman, at Exit 6 this year. How was your time at the festival?
CH: Great fun! It was lovely to see so many fantastic films – I was really impressed with the quality of the selection.
IF: I really enjoyed our day at Exit 6, we saw some great shorts - especially The Fan, a film set in rural Iran which was beautifully conceived, funny, moving and unexpected (and I’m not just saying that because I’m half Iranian!) And Spinosaurus a brilliant piece about a brother, sister and their mum - fantastic child performances.
We were so glad you were able to join us for the screening. For those that haven’t yet seen the film, can you tell us what it’s about and the message it has for viewers?
CH: It’s a love story. It is about Alice’s relationship with Michael and how that evolves over ten years. The whole thing is told through the prism of her memories and as it unfolds it becomes clear that her memories are not necessarily entirely reliable. I am always a little wary of talking about ‘messages’ of stories, but I guess it has something to say about the importance of both valuing what you have and also the need to move on.
IF: It’s a love story but it’s also about memory. The brief from Film London was that any script submitted to London Calling (their annual short film funding scheme) had to be no more than 10 mins long, so I had the idea of telling the story of a 10 year relationship in 10 pages of script. While developing and making the film the specific time period of 10 years became less important - but the idea of time passing and the way we hold on to and lose memories remained.
It’s an incredibly well produced film, and easy to see why it’s being so well received at festivals across the circuit. How did the project come together with regards to funding and the team involved?
CH: We were really lucky to get funding for the film through Film London’s London Calling scheme. We then raised further funds through crowd-funding and from private individuals. In my day job I am a theatre director and I ran the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill for 5 years, so many people I met through that were generous enough to support the film. The film’s producer, Daisy Cooper, was my producer at the Gate and so we already had a very close working relationship.
IF: We were part-funded by Film London and Southern Exposure Film Fund. They also gave us script development sessions and pre-production advice. We then had some brilliant donors through our Indiegogo campaign. We were also very fortunate to get a lot of support from ARRI with our camera package, as both myself and our brilliant DP, Alistair Little, have a good relationship with them (Alistair and I both trained in cinematography together at the National Film and Television School). And of course we had an amazing producer and crew on the shoot and in post, who made everything come together.
You have phenomenal central performances from Arthur Darvill and Louise Brealey especially. How did they get involved with the project and how much (if any) time did you have to work with them ahead of shooting?
IF: This one if for Chris to answer! Though luckily they did both like the script and were really supportive, lovely and insightful people to work with.
CH: I’ve worked with both Arthur and Louise before. Louise was in a show I directed at the Gate in 2012 and Arthur and I have collaborated on various smaller bits and pieces over the years. They were both my first choices for casting and I was delighted when they said yes so quickly. Interestingly, despite both having a significant profile through their cult BBC shows (Doctor Who and Sherlock) they had never worked with each other before. But we soon discovered that they had immense natural chemistry with each other, which was good. We had a little bit of rehearsal time but not much. This was my first short film and I was lucky to have two actors who had so much camera experience as they could kind of guide and mentor me through the process.
How easy/difficult was it for you to plan for and execute the films visual effects sequences? Did you know ahead of time who would be putting these together and how?
CH: Those sequences with the in-camera transitions were all scripted. Iona is a brilliant DP (she trained at NFTS) and although she didn’t shoot this film she was able to help me get my head around what was needed. My DP for the film, Alistair Little, was a fellow student of Iona’s at NFTS and so they had a great relationship too – so we planned the transition sequences very much in collaboration with each other. The VFX all came through Jonathan Harris at Squint VFX.
IF: They actually came through an amazing donor we had - a guy we had never met before but who was offering added funding to selected films from the 2017 London Calling slate. He read all that year’s script and picked a couple to fund, including In Wonderland. His friend is a very experienced VFX supervisor who’s worked on some big Marvel films and had just set up a new company.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned on In Wonderland that you would be mindful of going into subsequent projects?
CH: Planning and detail! Films are MUCH harder to make than plays. I directed a big show in the West End a couple of years ago but In Wonderland was much harder than that. For my next film I am going to do considerably more advance planning – I now understand how specific you need to be when thinking through individual shots that you need. There are things missing from In Wonderland that make me twitchy whenever I watch it but I only realised we didn’t have the footage we needed when we got to the edit – by which time it was too late!
IF: In Wonderland is the first screenplay I’d had produced, so there’s definitely stuff I feel I’ve learnt from a screenwriting perspective - about what works and what doesn’t in terms of dialogue specifically. I think I’ve also learnt that I’m a writer that likes to be involved in the production process where possible.
What was your favourite moment during production? And what was it like screening the film to an audience for the first time?
CH: Shooting the football scene on the beach was wonderful. It was the last thing we shot and so, despite the shoot being quite stressful, by that point we knew we were going to be able to get everything we needed. So we all had a big sense of relief! I had a whole plan in my head for how it would look, but of course, as soon as you put those two amazing actors on a big empty beach and give them a football, what they end up doing is so much more interesting than what I had planned! So just letting them improvise and then working around that was real fun.
IF: Screening was nerve racking - I always find that stressful at first, but now it’s got the point where I can watch the film more objectively and just enjoy the experience of seeing it in Festival programmes.
What’s next for you?
IF: My next short screenplay got early stage development from B3 Media in 2016/17 and has now been greenlit by Film London/BFI Network - so we’re going to make that next year with fantastic producer Alexandra Blue. It’s currently called Martha and is about a 17 year old girl who wakes up to find the world is deserted. I’m also continuing to work on projects as a DP (including a feature) - and planning to continue work on my first feature as screenwriter in January.
CH: As well as Iona and I working on Martha, I am also developing a feature script with a screenwriter friend of mine that is a sort of thriller/horror film – so very different from In Wonderland! Theatre wise, I am directing the world premiere of a stage adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day next year. It is the first time that novel has ever been adapted for the stage so that is exciting.