For the last four years years I’ve been experimenting with smartphone film production, I’m really excited by the opportunities it provides in terms of budget and access.
I’ve just completed my second digital short, Missed Call for the Real Stories platform. It’s a sequel to 160 Characters, my first smartphone short for Film London, which bought to life a three year text thread between myself and an ex partner which charted the story of how we met, dated for just a few months, broke up and subsequently dealt with an unplanned pregnancy. My texts began, ‘I had a great time last night’ and ended, ‘Have you got the results yet? When my ex partner requested a paternity test when our son was two. His texts began, ‘Loved meeting u’ and ended, ‘Yes, I got the results… I’m moving to Spain..’
160 Character won the Best Documentary Award at the 2017 Short of the Week 2017 Film Awards . It also received a Vimeo Staff pick and in 2017 played at Picturehouse Cinema chain across London. Since it launched online it has gathered over a million hits. It was fantastic to see 160 Characters shared so extensively online. Proof that you don’t need expensive kit, a cinema release or a broadcast date to find your audience.
160 Characters ends with my son Jim at 11, skipping down a hill in Brockwell park, jumping over his remote control car. He’s 14 now. It’s been great to see how much he’s transformed in just those few years. When 160 Characters played at the Picturehouse cinemas last summer, Jim did his first Q and A with me. I was nervous for him but I needn’t have been , he was articulate and funny . He talked about what he thought the film was about and the challenges of having such a private story become a public one
When the film launched online, the comments pages put him in touch with a whole community of teenagers who also have absent parents. There’s a key scene in 160 Characters which deals with the difficulties of not having a photo of Jims dad, about how frustrating it was to have to find one online . One teenager wrote in the comments section, ‘I also have to go online to find a picture of my dad …. sadly all I ever find is mug shots!’
That made Jim laugh. I watched him go from feeling that his absent dad should only be discussed with a few trusted mates to a young man who was totally out and proud about how he was raised. When Jim hit thirteen, he decided he wanted to meet his dad and asked if I would make contact with him again. I had real doubts about whether this was a good idea but I felt Jim had every right to try, if he was ready. Missed Call is about us discovering whether he was ready, whether I was ready… Jim got there first.
I had no idea where to begin. How do you reconnect with a father who’s been absent for over a decade.. what do you write, what do you say? Add to that dilemma, a teenage boy in the mix and the realisation that this private journey would very quickly become a public one… There were a lot of sleepless nights, you’ll see them in the film. But what kept me going was the conviction that Jim had, that he wanted to go on this journey, whatever lay at the end of it.
So what did we learn?
Lesson # 1 – Growing up happens when you least expect it
Missed Call made me realise that my son is often way wiser and certainly way cooler than I’ll ever be. I hope Missed Call is a film that explores the child and adult in all of us, a film that laughs at how much those roles continually flip around. My son is both the star of the show but also a genuine collaborator, he continually came up with new ideas for sequences and storylines.
I’m fascinated by the secret life of teenagers. There are so few films that look at the difficult stuff of family life from an adolescent point of view, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood being a brilliant exception, but it uses actors. This is a real story with real lives. Squaring the circle of being both filmmaker and parent, made this one of the most challenging films I’ve ever made but I’m very glad I made it.
Lesson # 2 – Shooting on a smartphone will transform the way you think about filmmaking
Missed Call is the first short film to be shot on the iPhone X. As a self shooting Director, for most of my TV career, I shot with a much larger kit, but now with 4K video, the iPhone in my pocket has become my camera of choice . As the camera technology on each new generation of iPhone evolves, many Directors have begun to experiment. In 2015, Sean Baker’s Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5 and recently Stephen Soderbergh’s Unsane was shot on the iphone 7.
I love the intimacy and access that comes with smartphone production. For my son, a smartphone was a lot less intimidating than a larger camera and I find the increased access and spontaneity of filming with the iPhone X completely liberating. I have been able to shoot on buses, on trains and in hospitals without spending months applying for permissions that may well have been turned down. This meant I was able to follow Werner Herzog’s advice to documentary filmmakers… ‘Ask for Forgiveness, not permission’
Lesson # 3 – Our phones are like time machines
There’s a great scene in Madmen when Don Draper is meeting with the team who invented Kodak’s Carousel. As he clicks through his own family album in a darkened boardroom, he begins his pitch.
“In Greek, Nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound, it’s a twinge in your heart , far more powerful than memory alone , this device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards , it takes us to a place where we ache to go again …”
Our mobile phones have become our time machines. My vintage Nokia lies at the back of my kitchen drawer, holding the first text message I received from my son’s dad. My iphone X can access the last email from my son’s dad before he cut all contact a decade ago, in Messages, I can quickly find the first text I sent to him after twelve years of radio silence… and 13 days later his reply. My iphone contains good memories too, 26,000 photos, 3,000 videos and the jokey texts my son sends me from bedroom to living room, requesting another 5 mins on X box.
You may love your phone, you may hate it, probably both but hold it close. It’s your own personal time machine, it connects you with your past, your present and your future. It holds the traces of all your time travel, all the stories that shape you, the good and the bad …forever.
It was a great privilege working with Victoria on Missed Call, but in many ways quite a complex film to produce. As a follow up to her very successful 160 characters, she naturally wanted to keep with her distinctive digital style and as a big fan, I was keen to help her achieve that. This film though wasn’t a reflective piece looking back at a time captured through text messages, rather it had a real time, real life dilemma around the question of if, when and how to contact her sons absent parent after a decade of silence. This presented not just style considerations but difficult editorial ones too given the tight budget, and tight schedule. We had to be open and flexible as to what the outcome might be and where the film may go. There was also the issue of maintaining anonymity throughout, though we were clear that this was all about capturing the journey that Victoria and Jim her son were on, from their perspective and at this stage of their lives when Jim was keen to find out more about his father.
There were also enormous challenges of having content from so many camera sources, from such a vast library of video and photos representing their digital lives, along with the copyright issues of so many captured brands, platforms and social media symbols and references that are part of the vernacular of all of our lives. This is where producing for a digital platform (Real Stories) was a godsend as had this been for a broadcast channel, the clearance mission may have swallowed up whole weeks and months of our lives!
I can’t pretend that it wasn’t quite a challenge to work with a budget of £10k (meant to be £1k per minute), especially if one thinks that it would double for a broadcaster (around £20k a minute for Channel 4 for example). In any case, next generation film-makers should note that working with Adam Gee and Real Stories was a breath of fresh air as they were full of support and trusting throughout. I’d like to say the same for UK broadcasters, but that’s a whole other blog post…
What does emerge with Missed Call I think, is a really charming film. Victoria has cleverly crafted a wonderful mix combining a digital record of her relationship with her son, with emotionally tough moments facing questions and dilemas that will resonate with single and separated parents all over the world. Its a tough call and there;s no right or wrong way, no join the dots guide to any of this stuff. So we all feel the way with her. And with Jim who I have to say, I am a new number one fan as he is insightful, funny and charming throughout.