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|SxSW 2015 Interview: NINA FOREVER directors Ben & Chris Blaine
by Jason Whyte
NINA FOREVER - At SxSW 2015
"It's about a dead girl who comes back to life every time her boyfriend makes love with his new girlfriend." Directors Ben & Chris Blaine on NINA FOREVER which screens at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival. (Both Ben & Chris answer all questions in this interview!)
Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?
We have had short films play the Austin film festival before but this is our first SxSW. We will definitely be at all three of our screenings along with our producer Cassandra and lead actor Abigail Hardingham.
Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?
We started out when we were still at school with a joke about one of our friends being Jesus. He was very anti-God, very certain and the idea of him being the second coming made us all laugh. That turned into the idea of him starring in a Biblical epic and when the summer holidays came actually making that film turned into a sort of obession. We might have a tendency to take jokes too far. We ended up with a two and a half-hour movie shot on VHS which then got banned by our school, ensuring a fine black market for copies. Up until that point Chris had thought he was going to be an animator and Ben an actor but suddenly this seemed more fun.
After that we made short films and music videos, all of which you can find on our site blainebrothers.co.uk. Our shorts started to win awards and get us some attention and for a while we ran a music promo company before working for a couple of years as freelance editors and directors for the BBC. We have always been focused on making feature films though and when we figured out the storyline for Nina Forever we knew it was perfect to be the first one we made.
How did your movie come together?
We were looking for a cinematic story we could tell on limited resources. Ben had written a short play and that seemed like a good starting point for something contained. Actually the play itself had started out as a film about a guy who is still bound to his dead girlfriend's family. Cannibalizing this into the play opened the door for the dead girlfriend to come into the story as a character. From the moment she started talking there was something in her voice that made the idea light up but as a story it still didn't have anywhere to go. However returning to it, Chris realized that the interesting character was actually the new girlfriend, the person coming in and trying to help. That was when it really came together as a film. The themes behind it had been buzzing around our heads for ages so when the story crystallized like that it became pretty clear it was the one we wanted to make first, it seemed achievable but also delightfully crazy. It tapped into a lot of hard stuff we had been going through but crucially it also seemed like it would be a lot of fun.
At first we thought we would shoot it for a few thousand pounds using a DSLR camera. At the time we were working with producer Cassandra Sigsgaard on a feature adaptation of our cult short film "Hallo Panda" but that was feeling too big a film for our debut. Panda also has a fairly unconventional central idea but it's much closer to being a romantic comedy, it's a much lighter film; so when we began to focus on Nina we thought Cass would despair but she loved it. She did however insist that we made it on something more like a proper budget and as she felt like she could raise that we didn't try to stop her.
Once Cass got involved things moved very fast. The producer's job is so complex it often seems hard to know whether you have a good one or not but there's actually a very simple metric ...is anything happening? I think she read it in November 2012 and we shot the following March. So she's fairly awesome. Moving that fast we were also lucky to have a bunch of people we love to work with like our director of photography Oliver Russell, composer Daniel Teper and costume designer Imogen Loveday-Brown. Being able to pick up the phone and know that the first question would be 'when?' not 'what?' is a real blessing. It's not just short-hand we all share, they know how to press our buttons and always come back with a better idea, or at least an idea. We all have awful ideas occasionally, even regularly, but that is always better than silence, knowing there's never going to be silence gives you a lot of confidence to be bold.
Some key people who were new for us on this film were Production Designer Damien Creagh, Sound Designer Steve Bond and Casting Director Emily Tilelli. Damien's vision for Nina & Rob's apartment really changed the film. A large amount of the film is set in this space and we thought our budget meant we had to find it as a real location. We were trying to get our heads around what we really needed to find and Damian did this amazing sketch of how he had always seen it. Instantly Oli's eyes lit up and I think from there on we knew we had to build it and shoot in that space. Those distorted glass doors into the bedroom are the sort of design touch you dream of, they tell so much story. Steve was one of the last people to come on board but his impact has been huge. It was very important for us that the magical elements of the story were always grounded in reality, there's a whole world wrapped around our characters and most of it is purely aural. There's a lot happening outside those windows, beyond those walls.
While the production side of things was a runaway train, the casting process was like trying to find three specific needles in a stack of other needles. We were so lucky to have Emily, her enthusiasm for the thing was just unstoppable and her eye for talent is awesome. Cian was one of the first names she mentioned, she was like "I know this guy is going to be amazing, perhaps you won't like him but you will be wrong and you will be missing out." Abigail was also her spot. She had auditioned Cian for other things in the past but Abi was completely new to her, she just saw her headshot and connected with something in her eyes, perfect casting instinct. Fiona was already riding high on C4's original TV series of Utopia so when Emily rang us saying she thought she'd be perfect as Nina I think we all thought it was a fairly hopeless cause. Indeed Fiona did actually turn us down but Emily is an unstoppable force and somehow two weeks later Fiona had flown over for an audition.
Those three; Abi, Cian and Fiona are in many ways the most crucial collaborators we had. The film lives or dies, or returns from the dead, on them and I think that's why we searched so long and so hard. It's a very difficult project, very demanding. All three of them are largely naked for a great deal of the time and with a fair amount of prosthetics and special make-up effects. It was a very draining shoot. Getting through that, going past all of those elements and finding a truthful artistic response to the situation we had written for them, it is a hell of a demand to place on someone and what they gave us was so much more than we could ever have hoped for.
What was your #1 challenge with this movie, and how did you over-come it?
Quite possibly the #1 challenge was the cumulative effect of challenges #2-#250. We just tried to draw up a quick list and Chris' flat burning down two weeks before the shoot didn't even make the top twenty.
To be fair we sort of embraced the problems. Going into the film we had a sort of rough manifesto that we had drawn up with Cass and our filmmaker friend Guy Ducker, all about bringing the problems back into filmmaking, or at least not trying to minimize them. It is counterproductive but we were first time writer/directors working with a first time producer making a low budget high concept independent film that we shot within six months of finishing the first draft of the script. The only way to minimize the challenge in that is to not do it, but we tried not making a film for ages and it had not made us happy so this just seemed to make more sense. There is a poster on the wall in one scene that reads "Failing Is No Failure". We put it there mainly as a joke, so we could cut to it later and have Holly sat there with the word "FAILURE" in huge text right behind her head, but it also became a bit of a mantra. The interesting stuff is always the stuff that could be a disaster yet somehow isn't. To do that you have to become pretty comfortable with staring disaster in the face and trust that somehow it won't be.
If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?
The first scene in which Nina appears was a really tough thing to shoot. There's a lot of practical work going into that, a lot of focus on things other than character and story. We had a nightmare with all the fake blood which is a kind of syrup, we were trying to shoot in long arduous takes but Fiona kept getting glued to the bed, then her prosthetic wounds would get ripped off by the glue. It was every sort of painful and very hard to remember the real goal.
Then we turn round to do the other angle and Abigail's first take was just something else. It is a REALLY hard scene to play. We knew we wanted Holly's reaction to what's happening to be a surprise but neither of us quite knew what we were expecting - suddenly there she was, wrapped in this sheet, eyes wide and mad and then she just starts laughing and it completely wrong footed us. It was really electric. It made us all take a step back. We had lost loads of time that day but you could see Cian and Fiona were both like, "I want my go at doing that". So we made space in the schedule to rerun a lot of that material and this time remembered what our attention should really be on, really tried to give our cast the space they deserved.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
The stress. You don't really need stimulants other than filmmaking. But we are like that right through the process. Years ago we noticed that we would both lose weight when writing. It was a real surprise because we would spend ten to twelve hours sat around the house typing at each other but you'd just burn up calories through thinking too much.
For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.
We have worked with Oliver Russell for about ten years now, so we are very close. He has carved out a niche for himself in British TV as someone who can shoot comedy in a way that is still very beautiful and often aesthetically quite adventurous. None of us have ever seen the conflict in that idea but I have certainly fielded phone calls from people desperate to get to him for that reason. I guess some cinematographers might suffer a bit from tunnel vision, from only really caring about the look, and that always gets exposed when it comes to comedy, which means that often it instead gets lit and shot in perfunctory ways so as not to ruin the joke. Oli pulls off the rare trick of hitting the jokes whilst making it look amazing at the same time.
We shot on the Arri Alexa at Oli's insistence. Something we would remind him of when he was operating hand-held off a ladder dangling above the set. We would leave a take running and running and eventually you would hear this low moan and we'd shout up "A DSLR would have been much lighter!" But he's had ten years of that shit from us so he's got no one to blame but himself. The Alexa is a fantastic camera though, with superb latitude; that's chiefly what excited Oli, the ability to shoot with a relatively constrained lighting set up, meaning he could move much faster which was something we all knew was going to be essential.
We shot with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio because we wanted to make sure we kept the characters grounded in their location. The central conceit of the film is magical but it's a metaphor; when you're grieving there's a real sense of being taken out of reality of experiencing something no one else around you seems to be affected by. We wanted to keep the magic in the film always in contrast with the reality and when you're framed at 2.39:1 you stay aware of the world more, it becomes much harder for a face to fill the screen. Also making the images less personal, less intimate, felt like a useful tension to have with material that is quite the opposite. The sense of humour that runs through this film is very dry, very detached. Hopefully this framing helps to draw your eye to it, though a lot of the time we don't expect people to laugh until the second time they watch it.
We shot in long takes, often without much camera movement, trying to let events play out within the frame. There are a lot of very stuck characters in this story, a lot of people who either cannot change or don't like to think that they could. Even in the Nina scenes, which are mainly shot handheld, we are not throwing the camera about, rather we wanted Oli's breathing to become part of the feel of the scene. Those are the scenes where everyone is on edge, where things could change, even if they don't, so we liked the tension in a static shot that is nevertheless not fixed but sharing the heartbeat of the characters.
Of course keeping the camera breathing like that didn't help when it came to filling the frame in post. Rob's flat was built as a set but having made windows and shot them in a way that forces them to be included in most shots, we then had to put something there. Those lights and trains you see through Rob's bedroom window are actually the view from Chris' flat in London and he spent a very long time with the motion tracker getting it all to sit where it does despite the moving camera. The lens flares that often accompany Nina were also added in post since our original plan of shooting them live very quickly became too time consuming to contemplate. We were keen to make sure that all the flares feel like genuine accidents though. The idea was definitely to create a magical atmosphere for those scenes, but one which felt like an artifact of a more documentary style; looking beautiful but also reminding you of the real world that this isn't happening in.
The other big CG element in the first half of the film is all the frosty breath. We wrote the script hoping for snow. It was cold as hell but cruelly that rarely showed up on camera. Frosty breath is hard to capture and harder still to create digitally because of the way it behaves so Chris filmed himself doing a sort of breath ADR pass on all the early scenes and then placed it on top of the actors. He's saying all their lines and walking in their footsteps but backlit and covered in black face paint and with his nose taped down. Often in the finished thing this layer of breath is very subtle but it is incredibly effective at lowering the temperature. We shot in four weeks but there's a real sense of progression through the seasons as the film goes on. That matters because you can't really talk about grief without being aware of the inexorable passage of time. By the end of the story everything is in bloom whether you want it to be or not.
The other element that really marks the progression through the story is the film stock emulation. We've used three different stocks and the overall look changes and develops as we go. It gets beautifully grainy but that was all added in the grade. However the idea isn't to fool you into thinking it was shot on film, just to highlight the fact that it was shot. It is like with the lens flares, we're gently reminding you that the camera is there which perversely seems to make things feel more real. I guess we have become very used to the accidents of filmmaking occuring more in stuff that's documentary based, those are the tells that show a thing really happened. Also, I guess it is like theatre; the higher the artifice, the more you make an audience accept, the crazier the things they are happy to believe.
The other important thing in the grade was the accent colours. In trying to keep the start of the film cold we obviously also knew the grade would often tend towards the blue and there are some accent reds in there for fairly obvious reasons. However quite early on Damian our Production Designer decided he also wanted to use some strong yellows and so the poster in Holly's bedroom "Failing Is No Failure" became bright yellow. As a result we ended up often using that sort of yellow to indicate failure across the film, something that got pushed further in the grade.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?
Well, playing at the Alamo Drafthouse for definite. But generally seeing the reaction of an American audience will be really exciting. You're a lot more vocal than British audiences tend to be (author's note: I'm Canadian!), it's much more fun and much more of an experience. That might be another reason why a lot of our work has tended towards comedy; once you get a British audience laughing the barriers drop away and that's a really nice feeling.
After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next?
We would love to screen it at Somerset House in London. It's a beautiful building right down on the Thames and every summer they turn the central courtyard into this incredible open air cinema. It is a wonderful experience and one we would love to be part of.
Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?
The Rex in Berkhampstead or their new sister site in St Albans. These are kinda like the Drafthouse I guess. They're classic Art Deco cinemas that have been lovingly restored. We turned so many of our most beautiful cinemas into bingo halls. It's beautiful that someone cares enough about cinema to bring them back to life and what better venue for a film about a woman who won't stay dead.
What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?
There's quite a lot of bloody hands in the movie so they might get a bit of a shock!
There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?
Good luck, enjoy it and don't forget the "making" part of the term filmmaker.
And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?
THE THIRD MAN.
Be sure to follow the Blaine brothers on Twitter at @blainebrothers and on Facebook at facebook.com/ninaforeverfilm!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our 35+ filmmaker interview series. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3796
originally posted: 03/13/15 11:27:04
last updated: 09/22/15 17:54:27