Devon-based writer and director Tommy Gillard discusses the fascinating journey of his award-winning short film Shuttlecock, selected for this year’s BFI London Film Festival:
Leoni Fretwell: Hi Tommy, thanks so much for speaking to RAZZ. How did your idea develop for your short film Shuttlecock?
Tommy Gillard: I’ve been making films of various different budgets for about five years, right back from doing really cheap stuff for YouTube to films like the ones I’m doing now. Shuttlecock is my first funded film as a part of the Exeter Phoenix scheme they do every year for the Two Short Nights Film Festival. This is a really great hub for the film community in Exeter and Devon and is really worth applying to. I applied in February 2019, having kicked the idea around for a long time. A couple of years ago one of the producers and I chatted about strange genre films we’d never seen, and thought no one’s ever done a sport noir film, that’ll be really weird. You couldn’t do something like boxing or horse-racing as that was too normal, you had to do something like badminton. I was trying to work out what I wanted to talk about. I knew I wanted to make a film about changes in masculinity across the last thirty years, and how the idealised version of a man has changed. Classic noir has a lot of problems with how gender roles are assigned, and I thought that would be interesting, so I applied with Shuttlecock as a badminton noir and received the funding for it.
Throughout the journey of developing it I realised that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, and overtime when I did a new draft the noir elements slipped away and made way for a more comedic, and I guess a much stranger film than what I originally planned. When I started writing it, I realised badminton was a perfect sport to use as a vehicle to talk about masculinity in the twenty-first century; it’s a sport which is pretty inclusive and hasn’t really made barriers for entry, like strength and age. You can play really aggressively or delicately and still win, and no one had ever really made a badminton film before. So, this made way for Shuttlecock.
LF: Shuttlecock has particularly resonated with viewers, awarded the Audience Choice Winner for both the Two Short Nights Film Festival and Actors East Film Festival. What would you most like your audiences to take away from this film?
TG: It’s always a bit of a knife-edge putting stuff out there, but I guess what I hoped to do wasn’t to press my views onto anyone but to open up a conversation, and I think that has happened in certain places. We used the Morgan Silk character, who is a more delicate and slender man, to perpetuate some stuff that would normally be assigned to a woman’s role. In the film, when the main character Carl sees him for the first time, we use this really objectifying language around a BBQ and mesh the two together as this happens to women across the world all the time. I had to do this in the most surreal way possible as it’s such a complicated issue. It was just to foster these conversations about masculinity, and hopefully to champion delicacy. We set the film in a charity badminton tournament to really hammer home the ridiculousness of thinking you’re better than someone else just because you’re a certain way. The film was meant to show how it’s okay to be comfortable in your own skin no matter what kind of man you are, and how no one can tell you otherwise.
LF: The ways you show this message through the setting and visual motifs are very innovative. Do you generally develop a film concept with an idea of the final aesthetic in mind, or is this something that evolves more organically?
TG: It’s a little bit of both, because my way of working is quite unique in the sense that the first person I send the draft of the script to is the cinematographer Boris Hallvig, a close friend of mine and one I work with all the time. We started having these conversations about visuals right from the very beginning which I think probably happens a lot later in other people’s processes, but I find it really rewarding because although the style can evolve, I find it paves the way to start thinking visually about things. That’s an approach that I love to take.
In terms of this film, it’s interesting because the style did dramatically change, but a lot of it was informed by the practicalities of things. People said it was a great choice to use the 4:3 aspect ratio, but I just own a set of lenses where if you don’t shoot 4:3 it doesn’t work else you just get these black bars around the image, and I couldn’t afford to rent any different lenses. In terms of the colour palette, it’s like a peacock, and throughout the film the character Carl is like a peacock himself in his masculinity. I’d love to say that was a great artistic decision, but when we got to the changing rooms it was already like that. So, we thought let’s just build all of this into everything else we do. I think when you’re working with the kind of budgets I did on this, it’s just about embracing anything that seems good and working it into your story, rather than trying to fight against it to try something you’ve already decided.
LF: What draws you to short films as a narrative medium?
TG: Part of it is I’m too scared to try and write features because it’s so long and I’m not ready for it yet, although I am trying that now. But short films are incredibly hard, and I think anyone who says that it is not is just wrong. To distil what you want to say into fifteen minutes or less, it’s tough and you have to really constrain yourself not to try and fit a ninety-minute film into fifteen. It’s a great discipline to practice on. You only get someone’s attention for a short amount of time, so you have to be really economical in what you want to say and how you say it. I think that’s a great lesson for storytelling, and for life as well.
LF: Your films have covered a variety of genres, from comedy to drama and documentary. Are there any other genres you are hoping to explore in future projects?
TG: It’s really interesting because what I love most are hardcore genre stuff like horror, but I to-and-fro to make one because I love them so much and don’t want to add a bad film to the mix. So, I’ve been doing everything else other than the stuff I really like. I hate sport films, so I thought that’s a great one to do because I don’t really care if I mess it up! However, I did find a lot of stuff which was really great in these films. I’m thinking of doing a musical at some point because I also dislike them, but maybe there’s something in that genre I’ll also love. That’s the great thing about exploring other genres. I really enjoy comedy and documentary, but what I’m really passionate about are films like thriller and horror, and I’ve got more confidence to give one a go now.
LF: Congratulations on your short film’s selection for this year’s BFI London Film Festival. As a Devon-based filmmaker, how do you feel this London selection will impact you and your future projects?
TG: It’s made a world of difference already. I’ve always lived in Devon and have had no formal film training, so the industry and London feels like a million miles away at times. Before I started I didn’t have any contacts in the film industry or with family, so it felt like another world. But the stuff that’s been happening in the last couple years with the BFI, putting regional talent executives in place for different regions in the UK has been really monumental in building that bridge between London and Devon. It’s great as it allows me to live in Devon where I love, and also get to do this stuff. The London Film Festival is the next brilliant step in terms of getting local and also national coverage.
There’s an amazing southwest filmmaking community, especially in Exeter and Devon. It’s an untapped place with loads of artists working, and really brilliant actors and writers in a small, contained space. I’m really hoping that getting into the London Film Festival will open that up for everyone and show the film industry that there’s an amazing talent pool down here that are ready to be utilised. We have all the best locations down here and don’t need to travel two hours for a shoot, so it’s a great place to make films, and hopefully that builds that bridge.
LF: Are there any films you have seen in the festival which you have been particularly excited about?
TG: Yeah there’s a bunch – in terms of the short films, my favourites have been Hungry Joe and Shagbands by Luna Carmoon, which I thought were fantastic. They were two of the short films I thought were excellent, and in terms of feature films (which anyone can watch online), you’ve got Delia Derbyshire and a film called Possessor about psychic murder spies, which are brilliant. I’m sure everyone’s kind of aware of this, but Ammonite is a Kate Winslet drama shot in Lyme Regis about twenty minutes from me, so really good for getting the southwest on screen. For me, they’re the ones to watch.
LF: What advice do you have for young creatives?
TG: I think just doing it really is the best way to learn. When you first start out, no one cares if you get it wrong. I think that fear is one of the biggest barriers, but you don’t need to make a masterpiece on your first go, because no one can get it wrong. I think the most important thing is to have something that no one else does. You have a unique outlook on that – your life is different so you can have something that is totally just you and it’s trying to work out what that is and use it your advantage. The other thing is that you’ll be surprised about the community that is close to you. You may think you’re into art that no one else is and it can be hard for some people but once you start trying to get out there as much as possible, it’s really rewarding because you’ll find people who are interested in the same stuff as you. Even if you’re not in a medium that’s not inherently collaborative it’s just great to have contemporaries you can talk about things to and work with.
LF: Who has been the biggest inspiration for you as a filmmaker?
TG: My family weren’t involved in the arts, so initially I started watching behind the scenes stuff when I was a kid and using a VHS camera. Once I started getting into film, what really changed my outlook was meeting the crew I currently work with on other shorts: Boris Hallvig, Stan White, Simeon Costello and a bunch of other people. They’re the core team I work with a lot. Their outlook on stuff was incredibly inspiring when I met them; they were all doing cheap, low-budget shorts just for the fun of it and we took this crazy DIY approach to things, eschewing trying to get any sort of funding and just doing it ourselves, because we liked doing it. Each person has a unique outlook on film, so for Boris who films art-house and is also a photographer has a very artistic approach , whereas sound recordist Stan White has a very rough and ready, roll up your sleeves and just do it attitude. And so, it’s all these different personalities that really changed the way I looked at films, from it not being accessible to very much is. Those guys are the core crew, and really inspired me to do great work; they’re the team I’ve worked with since doing stuff for fifty pounds, all the way up to making Shuttlecock together.
– Leoni Fretwell
Screened for the BFI London Film Festival, Shuttlecock is available to watch for free on the BFI Player until Sunday 18th October 2020.
Featured Image Source: Tommy Gillard