Interview with UK film director Si Wall-Part One

Si Wall founded Purple Frog Productions, directed the award-winning short Marbella Nights   (2009) and the documentary Nestinari: The Dancers of Fire on Bulgarian ritual fire-dancing. He is currently working on his first feature film Drinking Chocolate about a homeless man who befriends a newly homeless and damaged young girl, as well as Resistance a biopic about Czech Resistance fighter Vera Laska. A film which as a script by American screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy has already won numerous awards. Here the director talks about how he became a filmmaker, his influences, and the challenges and triumphs of filming in Bulgaria with a non-English speaking crew and creating a film from scratch in 24 hours.

What made you decide to be a filmmaker in the first  place as I read that you studied law before that?

Yeah I have done law and I’ve had a business before and everything’s fine. But I just think there just comes a time when it’s just not about making money and it’s just not about fitting into that part of the world .  And there a couple of people that when I was in my family were great storytellers, I think that’s where I really get it from. My godfather as well as being an actor he was also a comedian, so I think I kinda got it from them a little bit, well I hope so.  I don’t think I’m as funny as him but that’s probably where.

Was he quite  a famous comedian then?

No he was a warm-up man for Frankie Howerd and he was his regular warm-up man when Frankie Howerd was just starting to get famous around the late fifties and early sixties. And whenever my mum and dad was working and I was off school I used to go my godfather who helped raise me and he was just really charismatic, old-fashioned comedian. So that’s where I got it from, well I hope so, I’ve got no-one else to blame it on.

Was there any directors or films that you saw that really inspired you?

It changes every time I see a good film and think ‘wow, that’s brilliant.’ At the moment I’ve just been to a thing at the ICA and listened to Suzanne Bier [Director of Things We Lost In The Fire and the original Brothers] talk and I think she’s an absolutely outstanding storyteller. But she’s not up there yet with Ridley Scott and all those but in my opinion she’s equally good and probably, in my opinion, one of the outstanding filmmakers doing it today. And I like that thing that she has-and we’re going to try and do the same with Drinking Chocolate-where you bring an audience into someone-else’s world, and it’s all accurate and it’s real life and I think she does that incredibly well.

You took a filmmaking course at Raindance with Matthew Vaughan and Guy Ritchie?

I took the same course but not at the same time. My career hasn’t been as glorious as there’s yet. But I thought because I got into filmmaking quite late rather than sign up for a three year degree-which is fine for some people, I just thought I’d rather choose what I want to learn. So I went to Cape Town and learned about [the] documentary style of filmmaking. I wanted to learn how to work with actors so I took some acting classes and I took courses at Raindance. And I wanted to understand the editing side of it, the post side of it, so I went to Soho Editors and took some courses there because I think to do this job, you don’t know how to do everyone-else’s job, you need to understand what it is they do. So for me it was quite a common sense practical approach to I at least have an idea of what people do. The rest of it is you just kinda got to get out there and do it after that.

Was the Raindance course useful?

You know I’ve got a lot of time for Raindance there huge supporters of independent films and there are some fantastic filmmakers in this country that probably are struggling on exactly the same boat. They’re all chasing finance but there is some outstanding talent especially in London but generally in the country. And I think that Raindance not only do they run a really good festival but they also have so many experts that give back, they’re reasonably priced and when you sign up you get exactly what it says on the tin. And I‘ve got to respect them for that actually because you haven’t got to sign up for a year of your life, you go to it and you take what you need and if it’s useful you use and if not you don’t have to go back. But everyone I spoke to who has done a Raindance course has got something out of it and I did, I got  a lot out of it. It gives you the basics to build on and for me that was invaluable.

I read that you filmed a documentary in Bulgaria and, what it was like to work over there and what the advantages or disadvantages?

I’ve done two, I did one in Romania in a really funky little community that’s right in the middle of the Carpathian mountains surrounded by wild bears. And they’ve all had different brush-ins with the wild bear population. But they realised that it’s also the bear’s habitat and if you get rid of the bears there’s no tourism, and this tiny little village doesn’t have any real income as a community apart from people passing through. So even they had all had these horrific attacks and messed lives up, none of them wanted the bears to go. Plus you get the extra challenge of it’s in Romanian and we didn’t speak Romanian. And then we did a four-camera shoot in Vulgari in south-eastern Bulgaria which is on the Pagan ritual of fire-dancing. Which going into to it you just have to go into the learning curve of wanting to know everything and just to give you a background in it. But again it’s a really small village, I think there’s a 120 houses in the village, but in these four days in June there’s 4,000 people. And this Pagan ritual has survived Communism, Christianity, it’s just gone on forever. It’s really interesting to see the way the whole village comes to life and then right at the end of it one if these young fire-dancers showed us his feet, and there was no burns no blisters. And I was so close to him to the point I though the camera was going to melt and these coals were stoked all day and it’s red-hot, so as much as you think ‘oh it’s a con for the tourists’ I’ve been there and I’ve felt how hot it is and they’re dancing across it. So you buy into it and it was really interesting.

Were you working mostly with native crew then?

Yeah, I did have a translator to help me with the crew. But we went down and met the mayor first of all to find out what was happening because it’s actually on St. Helena’s Day, but the build-up’s three days before so we wanted to get everything.  So we had to pretty much do a plan of the whole village and have camera A, camera B, camera C, so everyone knew where they were gonna be. There was a lot of pointing going on because you can’t get hold of  a translator, a walkie-talkie’s no good if you don’t speak the language. So we were doing a lot of pointing to the map and it was all very much a seat-of-your-pants thing. But it actually worked we didn’t miss anything for the four days. So I think the key to it was getting down there before everyone-else, speaking to the mayor, planning it out and the mayor was very helpful he really wanted us there. And a couple of guys that I worked with were old-school camera guys, they’d worked for the Bulgarian broadcasting company and they knew their craft, they knew what to do. Even though they thought we were incredibly organised, I didn’t think we were that organised. But by Bulgarian standards we were and the fact that we were fairly well-prepared for it. But it was a real interesting few days.

Eastern Europe seems to be quite a popular destination for filmmakers now, for instance with films like Katalin Varga.

Well Black Dahlia was all filmed in Sofia.

I hear countries like that offer tax breaks.

That’s what they’ve said, but I spoke to someone who worked on the set [of The black Dahlia] and he actually said it was cheaper to get a whole load of palm trees from LA and fly them to Sofia, and set it up as if it was LA in the forties. The thing with filming permissions, you don’t need loads of paperwork, you go and see the local mayor, who’s quite an influential figure in Bulgaria, and you buy him a cup of coffee and you say ‘look there’s a few of us, we want your permission to film’. And if he says yes that’s your filming permission. For a Communist country which is notoriously famous for having a form for everything, they kinda say ‘yes you can’ or ‘no you can’t’ and that’s it. No-one asks you for proof of insurance,  or no-one asked us for proof of insurance and I guess on a film like [Drinking] Chocolate with a bigger crew they probably would. But I would love to do a feature film here and I’ve got a script that might lend itself to that, and I find it just a beautiful country and the people are very warm. The only thing is [laughs] they’re so interested in what you’re doing it’s actually very hard to get a full day’s work done, because they wanna talk to you. And even if you don’t speak the language they’ll talk to you anyway they just don’t care. It’s just a beautiful country and I’ve got a home there I love it there.

What’s the script that you want to shoot in Bulgaria?

It’s something I wrote called Baxter, that we were going to shoot  but then the guy with the money had other things and went elsewhere. And it’s just about the clash of cultures with an English soldier and a village girl from Bulgaria. But he’s just left the war and he’s got some baggage and they help each-other adjust and that kinda thing. It’s not a typical love story because I don’t think I could write those. But they help each-other in their own way.

You shot the award-winning 24-hour film challenge at the  Marbella International  Festival in 2009, what was that like, how tough was that to do?

It was a lot tougher than I thought actually you kinda think you’ve got a bit of equipment and I’ll get a few people together and it’s only one day. And it was absolutely shattering because we got our brief at 12 am and even though everyone had said prepare something before you go, if you don’t know what your brief is it’s kinda hard. So we got ‘dark comedy’ and the title ‘Marbella Nights’ and then loads of props and shots that we had to put in like that day’s newspaper to prove that we were there. So by the time we had a rough idea of what we were going to do- and the script was very loose-it was about 2.30pm, and then you go off and find some locations and I think we started shooting at about 4pm and we wrapped it at, I guess 3am. And then we had to start the edit at 3.30am which is not a time to start any job, let alone a job where your staring at a screen. And we actually had a really good 12 minute film at about 5.30am and of course we could only put in five minutes so we just kept cutting and cutting, and the story started getting weaker and weaker and you start losing all faith in it. And at about 8.30 I was all for waving the white flag and saying I don’t wanna put this in and we kinda got something we were happy with and submitted it at 11.35. And because it was at Novelli’s Restaurants all the press was there and we submitted it and then there’s cameras being put in your face- I haven’t had a shower for a day-and you think ‘I really don’t wanna talk about it you know. I said then ‘I’m never doing this again’ because everyone-else had gone to bed and I just wanna a shower and a meal and some sleep. So then we had a couple of days at the festival we got to see some really good films and it was nice hanging out. And then on the award ceremony, we we’re all going home the next morning and we kinda convinced that we hadn’t won it and we went to the screening and they had some technical problems at the screening and we thought ‘it’s not going to be for us’. And we were all packed and ready to go home, so we were going to have a couple of beers, wish everybody ‘good luck’ and go home. And then the judges said ‘there’s a table there by the stage if you want it’ and we thought ‘why do we want that table?’ and they said ‘no you really should sit at that table’, so we started thinking ‘well, maybe someone liked it’ and ‘wow, that’s pretty cool.’ And then of course there was all the back-slapping and then one of the organisers said ‘so would you come to Cannes and do it again?’ and I go ‘yeah! Sign me up.’ Forgetting how tired I’d been three days before, so we’re kinda supposed to go to Cannes and do it again, but it’s quite an expensive thing. And I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it with Drinking Chocolate. It’s a real roller-coaster that you go on because you just doubt the film and you cut so many corners in the end that you wouldn’t normally cut. But William Shatner was the third judge and he was really complimentary, and he got that we were trying to be a bit crazy with the camera. And both the actresses, considering how tired they were and they had no time to prep at all, they really delivered for us and he noticed that. He got what we were trying to do and what we we’re up against.




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