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SxSW ’10 Interview – “Skeletons” director Nick Whitfield

Skeletons - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“Skeletons is a surreal comedy about two traveling salesmen in the business of cleaning skeletons out of people's closets – a story of secrets, lies, love and loss. It is darkly funny, strange and beguiling, and packs a surprising emotional punch.” Director Nick Whitfield on the film “Skeletons” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

Yes, this is my first trip to SxSW. The film has played at festivals in Sweden and the Netherlands, which were both great fun, but this will be my first time in the US and I’m very excited about coming.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I was an actor in the theatre straight out of school, moved into writing stuff to perform in the theatre, then into film as my interest in that grew. I quite simply found I was moved more often by film than the theatre, so I ventured into screenwriting, and thence into directing.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

In chronological order: soldier, footballer or cricketer (like baseball only better!), painter, musician, actor, writer, filmmaker... Still haven’t decided what it’s going to be yet.

How did this whole project come together?

Frustrated that my screenplays were being admired rather than made, I got some friends together and made a short film with a few hundred pounds. It was the first time I’d worked with Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley (the lead actors in “Skeletons”), and it quickly became clear that we were onto something. That film was well received and prompted EM Media to fund another short, with a budget of sorts this time, featuring the same two lead actors. I was consciously working towards a feature with them. The first film made it clear how funny they were, and what a fun idea we had, which was great, but I knew that wasn’t enough to sustain a feature on its own. I therefore used the second short to test them in a more emotional way. That film played in competition at Edinburgh IFF, which only a dozen UK shorts get into. I started work on the feature screenplay, work-shopping with the actors to delve deeper into the world of the characters. Those shorts, along with the script, were enough to secure the finance for “Skeletons”. I was very lucky.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

The script. Always the script. The rest is just a case of doing what I’ve done all my working life, which is making scenes work. It’s not easy, but you’re surrounded by talent and having fun, which is a great position to be in. Getting the script where it needs to be is long and lonely and involves much too much sitting down.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

As soon as I saw a frame of Zac Nicholson’s work I was interested in him. He had the blend of looseness and composition in his work that I was looking for. He responded positively to the script and we met. He’s a lovely, relaxed guy, not a huge ego or anything, just a calm, interested and interesting bloke. That was very important to me. Once we decided to work together we just talked, watched a few films, established in theory what our visual world ought to be, and went to work. On set, it was a case of staging the scene with the actors in the most effective way, then showing it to Zac and taking it from there. So the action led the camera. As the shoot went on, I grew in confidence and was better able to know what we needed to get the scene in the can; I was probably gathering more than I needed at first in an effort to be well covered in the edit. We shot on HD, for budgetary reasons, and luckily Zac proved to be a magician who gave me the film look I craved.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

It’s been interesting to watch the film with non-native English speakers. Clearly Swedes and Dutch people speak very good English, but some of the film has a colloquial flavour that means some things passed them by. What has been encouraging is that the story seems to carry people through, even if they’re not getting 100% of the dialogue. It’s an ensemble film, and everyone seems to find a character they relate to; so my mum thinks it’s about the mum, my musician buddy thinks it’s about the flawed genius guy, my lesbian friend think it’s about the beautiful young woman, my son thinks it’s about the little boy; although to be fair he does play that character. The good people at SxSW are very enthusiastic about the film and I’m hoping the Texan public will feel the same way.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

I think the audience for the film is potentially very broad, despite possible first impressions. There are different aspects to the film that different people seem to respond to; it’s funny, sometimes in quite a dark way, some unusual ideas are aired, the world of the film is odd and disorientating at times. But the main thing which can unite disparate audiences around the film is the fact that it has a big beating heart. It’s not afraid of emotion, contains a lot of love, and offers the viewer a proper story to engage with.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

I have eclectic tastes in film. Favourites of mine include “Unforgiven”, “Three Colors Blue”, “Festen”, “In The Heat of the Night”, “Time of the Gypsies” and “Un Prophete”. I like a good story, well told, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with “Skeletons”.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I don’t want to be restricted by low budgets all my life. At the same time I know that I can’t make a film unless I really want to tell that story. I’m nothing without that passion. Where that will put me in relation to this question, I’m not sure. Time will tell.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Theatre, I guess. Or selling used cars. Anyone looking for a VW Golf - clean, low mileage, one previous owner – should call me.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Clint Eastwood. I’d make the coffee for Clint, as long as I was near the camera. I’ve heard stories about his sets, and I long to see it first hand.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It helps if you get a good critical reception, I’m sure, although word of mouth (including via the internet) is strong too from personal experience. I’ve made many people who’d never heard of it go to see “Un Prophete” refusing to talk to them until they have.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

In the mid 90s I watched all three films of the “Three Colors” trilogy at the Renoir Cinema in London in a single day, and it was a seminal moment for me. I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would ever make a film that would play there. In July it will, they tell me. That’ll do nicely.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I’d say “You’ve probably seen that film before, in numerous versions. You definitely haven’t seen this. Lots of talented people put a lot of love into it because they wanted you to have a good time and go away with something that won’t just dissolve as soon as you leave the theatre. And it’s about something. And a doctor told me that if you don’t laugh at a minimum of three of the jokes, you’re clinically dead, and he’ll sign official documentation to that effect.” Then I’d close the deal by doing a funny dance as a sweetener, and offering to give them their money back if they hate it, despite the fact that I’ll be long gone when they emerge.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

My mother might read this, so no comment.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

Collaboration with highly motivated, talented and amusing people.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Make the story you have to make. The more personal the better. Be generous to the audience and respect them, because they’re cleverer than you are. Enjoy yourself.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Ouch, that’s not fair. OK, today, I will say UNFORGIVEN, which I love for being beautiful but restrained, classical but surprising, mythic but iconoclastic and serious but funny. That’s worth $10 of anyone’s money.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/10/10 16:45:33
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