Underwire : Shorts by Women
Interview with Prano Bailey Bond - EN
Wednesday 29 January 2014, by
All the versions of this article: [English] [français]
London-based, Welsh-born independent filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond is already one of the most promising directors in the UK. Her fourth short film The Trip won Best Director at the Underwire Film Festival.
The Trip deals with the psychological damage that results from human trafficking and forced labor, and is a chilling and delicate masterpiece.
The Trip is your fourth fiction short film, and it has won the Best Director Award at the Underwire Festival and Best Film Award at the Unchosen Festival. When you first heard about this story of a man forced into work in a cannabis factory, did you immediately know you would shoot a film about it?
In a way – yes I did. I had been invited by Soul Rebel Films (a production company focused on human rights) to make a film for the Unchosen Film Competition, which campaigns to raise awareness about human trafficking. Human rights, good & evil and abuse of power are all elements that often feed my ideas so I was keen to come on board. I was offered a selection of real life case studies to base my film on. These stories came under sex trafficking, domestic servitude and forced labour, and whilst they were all incredibly powerful, Hung’s story, which became The Trip was the one that made me go “Wow – that actually happens?” It revealed a truly modern form of slavery – human trafficking for cannabis cultivation, and one that is pushed even further underground due to the law; “fair-trade cannabis” is obviously something that cannot be legislated! This form of trafficking is statistically one of the highest and yet one of the least dealt with in terms of identifying and rehabilitating victims. In order to travel abroad, victims are often made to pay huge sums of money to the traffickers, which they still owe upon arrival, so they are out of pocket and in debt from the offset, and the debt also gives the traffickers a hold over their families back home, which is what prevents victims from speaking up to the authorities. This all seemed totally nightmarish to me – the isolation, the fear, being trapped in an unknown place where you are in many ways invisible. Making a short film about this felt like a real challenge; the subject is incredibly complicated in terms of the wider social issues that affect it; poverty, law, repetitive cycles of behavior (in gangs for example). This story also felt like the most daring in many ways, which is probably what appealed to me about it too.
All your fiction shorts (House of Virgins, Short Lease, Man vs Sand and The Trip) deal with angst and confinement. They express what we fear the most. Do you think they can be cathartic in a way, for the director and for the spectator as well?
I’m fascinated by fear – where it stems from, how it’s used to control people, how irrational it can be, how it effects us - particularly when it’s repressed, how it can breed itself… it’s a very complex emotion. On the one hand it’s a basic survival mechanism but on the other hand it’s incredibly psychological and dangerously powerful. My first short The House of Virgins was about the fear of God and my upcoming short is about the fear of film itself, so it’s definitely a theme across my work. In both these stories, the characters’ or societies’ ingrained inability to deal with their fear is what causes destruction. I believe this is often true for real life as well. The stories I choose to tell and the films I love are never dark or gruesome for the sake of it; there is always a deeper message there about human nature. Making films is certainly a way for me to express myself and my understanding of the world both consciously and subconsciously… With my next film being in many ways about horror film, I have thought a lot about why we enjoy (or don’t enjoy) watching films that frighten us. The physical adrenaline rush is an obvious reason, but I also think many of us are gripped by the darker side of human nature and its psychology, and cinema is a safe way to explore and process this, so it could be a catharsis for us all in this sense. It’s not something new; ghost stories, crowds gathering to watch executions – I think it’s all a kind of subconscious craving to understand life and death.
Huw John Sam is perfect for the role. What was the casting process like?
We searched high and wide for our cast on The Trip. My criteria, plus the language issue, made finding the right actor to play Hung quite challenging, but when Huw came in to audition we were all blown away by his performance. He was really able to communicate the complexity that I was looking for; at points Hung is riddled with conflicting emotions and Huw was really sensitive to that. The thing is, Huw is quite ‘Method’, and he had come in for his audition in character – very timid and vulnerable. He gave this amazing performance, but I remember thinking “this guy’s a bit odd”. It’s quite funny to think about this now because Huw has become a good friend, and is nothing like Hung in reality; he had fooled us! He continued to fool us throughout the shoot and we didn’t get to know the real Huw until he was wrapped. I remember Natalie O’Connor, our make up artist, telling me she’d spotted Huw out in the street, begging in between scenes. We were shooting in Finsbury Park and Huw was dressed in tattered clothes and made up with dirt, so he’d gone out begging when not required on set, I think in order to keep himself ‘in the zone’ (I don’t think he made any money though!) I also heard that one of our runners, who was obviously baffled by Huw’s behaviour, had been told off by a passer-by for staring at Huw as he begged, which I thought was quite amusing. Whatever his techniques, Huw really delivered, as did the entire cast. I felt very lucky to work with them all. They were incredible – the shooting conditions were really intense and uncomfortable (a severely dusty building site on the hottest weekend of the year) but each of them brought not only their amazing talent, but also the kind of attitude that a director dreams of from their cast; we had a lot of fun amidst the hard work.
What were the most difficult aspects of adapting the screenplay?
Creating the set was a huge challenge. When I initially selected Hungs’ case study (to base the film on) I was nervous about how we would create a convincing cannabis factory on such a small budget. Early in the scriptwriting stage I contacted a cannabis props house called Sugavision to get some advice and work out what we could afford to do. That phone call was fairly “make or break” as I didn’t want to take on a film that we wouldn’t be able to deliver. Anthony Fletcher (the writer) and I had already discussed the story and my intentions in detail – I felt that using our limitations and making the set and cinematography very claustrophobic would serve the emotion of the story, but this would still be heavily stunted if we were only able to afford 2 or 3 plants on our budget! Thankfully, Sugavision were really taken with the film and were incredibly helpful. We communicated with them quite closely during both the writing stage and the design stage with my production designer Ollie Tiong. Between Ollie and Sugavision I felt confident we could pull this off, and we did – so much so that I’ve heard comments at screenings when the ‘plant props’ credit rolls; “Props! Yeah right!” Another big challenge for me was the language; obviously I don’t speak Vietnamese. I managed to find a Vietnamese AD (assistant director) who could be my ears on set, and in terms of performance it was a case of ‘feeling’ what they were saying, which was really interesting, and also trusting my actors. The film isn’t too dialogue heavy though which benefited us. I’m glad for the experience and would happily direct in a foreign language again I the opportunity arises.
I don’t know if you have seen it, but you may like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Delicatessen. Similarly to The Trip, the use of green/ yellow lighting conveys an unreal and anxious climate. Technically, lighting apart, how do you achieve this bizarre, dream-like atmosphere?
I love Jeunet’s work, although I’d never drawn a comparison with The Trip and Delicatessen consciously. For Hung, this cannabis factory is his sole reality during the months that he is trapped there. I think that when our senses are limited like this they become hypersensitive, so even the smaller things are amplified. Also, Hung is being held in this world against his will, so in many ways the plants, the lights and the room are his antagonist; that inability to escape their droning monotony is like a torturous nightmare. I wanted everything to point towards this suffocating claustrophobia and discomfort, but it was important that it predominantly came from world of the film, from Hung’s reality. Sound is a huge part of my tool kit and I think it’s one of the most powerful and emotive elements of film. Really, everything seen and heard on screen, and even the rhythm of how it happens, is a tool for me to take the audience somewhere, so it’s a case of orchestrating each element and balancing things to try to make that happen. I think it’s one of the reasons why I like to work with the same crew, because if I find a collaborator who really ‘gets’ what I am trying to achieve, and is able to deliver that, plus bring something special of their own to it, then the creative process can become more intricate and hopefully more effective. I don’t know if that really answers the question, but it’s quite a tricky question to answer – a lot of it comes down to instinct.
According to you, is the short format particularly suitable for creating this feeling of angst?
I think short format is more difficult in some ways. You have less time to tell your story and explore your characters; you have to take your audience on a journey in a very short space in time and this means being really concise. Now this is a great discipline to learn and it’s why most directors start in short form cinema, but it can feel a bit limiting at times. Another challenge on The Trip was telling a story that spans roughly 4 months in 10 minutes on screen, and I was opposed to using titles to do this as I felt it would draw the audience out of the story and the world, so I used repetition and editing to do this instead. I’m at a point where I’m very keen to move onto feature films, as I feel they will allow me to sculpt an on-screen world and it’s characters in more detail and take my audience on a more involved journey. They say we dream in 90-minute cycles and I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that this is the average length of a feature film.
You have shot documentaries, music videos, experimental, commercials… What is the most important thing you’ve learned while making The Trip?
Every film I make I tend to come away trusting my instincts more. I’ve learned to listen to that niggly feeling that makes you question something about a scene or a moment in your script. It’s hard to decipher, because the niggly feeling is never clear about exactly why it’s there, but if you don’t listen to it then it’s likely that the scene or moment which gave you the niggly feeling will be the one that you spend the longest time on in the edit. This isn’t really something I’ve learned on The Trip, but more over time as a director and an editor; to address instinctive niggles as early on as possible because there’s only so much you can do once you’re in the edit. What I love about making films is that you never really stop learning – technically, creatively and thematically. I learned a lot about the issues surrounding human trafficking on The Trip. Just as watching a film should allow you to walk in another person’s shoes for a little while, so should making one; it exercises compassion and awareness, and The Trip certainly did that for me.
And what projects are you working on next?
In a few months I will shoot my next short, which is in connection to a feature I’m developing. The short is called Nasty. It’s a fantasy-horror with elements of sci-fi and is set against the backdrop of the early 80’s social hysteria that surrounded ‘video nasties’ - low budget horror films deemed to "deprave and corrupt" those who watched them. The story follows 12-year old Doug, who on a quest to find his mysteriously missing father, ventures into a dark and terrifying world. Both the short and the feature explore the relationship between fantasy and reality, and are a kind of strange exploration of ‘video nasties’ and censorship. I’m very excited about this project – it has been brewing for a while. We will be casting in March and are attending Clermont Ferrand in February to discuss the project at the EuroConnections forum, so - if you’re there - come and visit us to hear more about Nasty.
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