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Interview with Varun Raman and Tom Hancock, co-directors of Man or Tree

Sunday 30 January 2022, by Brasserie du Court team, Clotilde Couturier

In the wilderness, a tree begins to question whether it may actually be a man tripping on hallucinogens.

How did you come up with the idea for Man or Tree?

It is based on a true story – the real-life experience of a friend, who had an intense salvia trip and had become convinced that he had lived the life of a tree for hundreds of years. Towards the end of the trip, he pulled his roots out of the ground, only to find himself, standing up, snapping out of his trip, and realizing he’s just a man, in a room with his friends, having a bad salvia trip that only actually lasted a couple of minutes. The character Rick is also based on a friend, who Varun blames for the worst trip he’s ever had. We don’t know if he’ll ever see the film. We hope so, because that would mean he’s alive at least!

Can we consider Man or Tree as a sort of sleep paralysis experience? What did you find interesting in focusing on the loss of ability to move?

The idea of a man tripping on hallucinogens and perceiving himself to be a tree perfectly resonates with the experiences of sleep paralysis. They certainly have a lot in common and it works on a subtextual level. If that’s someone’s interpretation, we can’t disagree with that. The loss of the ability to move applies to both experiences, so why not! Focusing on the loss of the ability to move feels timely, considering the frustrations we’ve all felt over the past few years, living life in and out of lockdown. With limited human connection, it’s easy to feel we’re becoming just a part of the scenery and life is passing us by.

How did you choose the trees for the film and why?

We went scouting for trees extensively in the North-West, and Tom particularly went far and wide around Cheshire and Staffordshire. We needed a tree that would have some of the elements in the film that would enable some of the visuals we were looking for. Firstly, we needed to have a tree that had a comical face and was seemingly secluded and alone. Yet, it needed a higher vantage point to achieve the wide shot looking down, and it also needed trees nearby to achieve the lines of action between the main tree and the supporting characters. With anything in filmmaking, there is rarely the absolute perfect location and there is never an unlimited amount of time to complete any aspect of production. We needed to shoot the film before the summer ended and this was the closest to what we envisioned, and we made the best of its unique, positive attributes as well-being mindful of shot compositions and camera plotting that would work around its limitations.

Did you include a part of improvisation in the dialogues? Was it also partly inspired from a real dialogue between you two?

The dialogue was constantly evolving and changing throughout the production. We had an initial script with preliminary dialogue and visual scenarios that would determine what footage we would need of the tree and the location. We also recorded this preliminary dialogue with the actor Daniel Campbell to help us inform how we would shoot the film rhythmically. After the shoot, and in the initial assembly edit, we then added subtitles to the footage, to help us pace the film visually, and to aid us in rewriting and fine-tuning the dialogue and story that would complement it. We then recorded the updated dialogue with Daniel Campbell and Michael Shon with this subtitled assembly edit in place with specific lines and ideas in mind, but also the room to amend and improvise as we and the actors saw fit. If lines don’t feel natural for actors and better ideas are cultivated in the process, we encourage improvisation to obtain the most honest performances. A film constantly evolves until it’s locked in the edit. Although this is based on a true story, the conversations never specifically took place in real life. We created these characters with the actors and weren’t too concerned with recreating the people it was based on.

Is there any particular short film that made a special impression on you?

It’s so hard to choose one film, but one that keeps coming to mind is Jame Cox’s Atomic Tabasco from 1999. It feels very much like a product of its time, in the years following Pulp Fiction and the obsession with postmodern, non-chronological narratives. However, the film still holds up today. It’s anarchic in feel, sprawling and vignette-y in nature, but also has a completely focused, unique angle on language and (mis)communication. A film with bags of personality, tons of chaos, yet completely determined to maintain a brilliantly structured narrative.

What’s your definition of a good film?

Personality and structure. Transposing your own personality, perspective, sense of humour and personal obsessions to aesthetics is what filmmaking is all about. Without that, a film is just a commercial product. And making just an ideological statement that loads of people already agree with and have already discussed ad nauseum on social media feels like a wasted opportunity. Filmmaking should be a discovery and the launching point for discussions we’re afraid to have. We shouldn’t be afraid to be provocative and make people feel things and see things differently. And without structure – without the understandings and fundamentals of filmmaking and knowing why you’re breaking certain rules – a personal vision is left very much exposed to descending into self-indulgence and can become a message that resonates with hardly anyone beyond an exclusive club of academics and critics. It’s vital to be able to balance the expectations of art and commerce. That’s what a good film ultimately does.

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