You know you must have done something right when Christopher Nolan’s production office calls you up and asks for your permission to use fight scenes from your short film as reference material for „The Dark Knight rises“. It happened to David Roddham and his directorial debut „Fifth Street“. What he and his cinematographer Stephen Murphy („Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room“) have in common with Nolan is their imperturbable passion for traditional cinema. Right now their almost 30 minutes short „Coward“, shot on 35mm, proves with almost 120.000 plays in less than a month that this passion finds a lot of love online. But also industry professionals can’t take their eyes off the stunning visuals and the touching story based on execution habits in World War I. With us the two filmmakers talked about their film, the influence of paintings, avoiding digital, negotiating with HBO and shooting on lenses used by David Lean.
screen/read: „Coward“ is probably the best looking independent film you can watch on the web right now. It has the highest production value, every frame is as beautiful and carefully composed as the next and to everyone’s surprise it was shot in 35mm. All in all, this is made for the theatre from A to Z. Why did you decide to put the movie online and not send it on the festival circuit first?
David Roddham: I think the best thing for us to do is to have maximum exposure. I’m not too sure how many people get to see it at festivals and I just wanted to open up to the public.
Stephen Murphy: The festival process is a long one as well. We could start submitting to festivals now and in 12 months time we’d still be doing it. And I agree with Dave, not as many people as we would like get to see the film and especially get to see it in the way that we intended it to be. You know there’s sort of a hierarchy between festivals. At the big ones like Sundance and Cannes your work is presented beautifully, but most of the middle grade festivals, certainly the ones that I’ve been to, they’re presenting your film from DVD and the sound isn’t great and the screens aren’t great and you have no control over how it’s being projected.
David Roddham: Yeah, unless you’re physically going round every festival. But the hardest thing of the movie going online I have to say from my side is that it is actually shot for cinema. And we actually showed it in a bunch of theates, we showed it in Savannah and we showed it in L.A. for the academy and it was just wonderful. But the whole purpose of putting it online is to build some sort of fanbase with people following the work we do and appreciate what we’ve done. Festivals are ok for film oriented audiences and agents but for us the most important thing is to get the general public to watch the movie. And when it comes to make the next feature it would be nice to think that folks worldwide will like what we’re doing and follow us and come to the cinema. And I guess that’s the power of the internet. So with „Coward“ we want to push forward and do the next project.
screen/read: It’s interesting to see that many short films these days have a running time of about 25 to 30 minutes which is true for „Coward“ as well and a rather new development and maybe has to do with different viewing habits. Did you have a certain length in mind from the start?
David Roddham: No, there was never any time restriction, the most important thing for us was to tell the story and it just happened to end up with 28 minutes. And that’s the other thing about festivals as well, you’re restricted to a certain runtime. But a film is as long as it needs to be.
screen/read: Which is more like writing where you aren’t restricted to a certain number of pages. Do you think there’s a future for films being especially made for an online audience that allows you to go for any runtime you need without having to consider theatrical or festival needs?
David Roddham: I think so, yes.
Stephen Murphy: I guess because the internet has become such an incredibly popular and accessable distribution platform there will always be content produced especially for it. The fact that you don’t have to consider certain time slots is an important part of this and it was some of the first things we discussed when we knew how long the film might be and that there would probably be no chance to screen it at festivals. Also, the quality of the films that appear online has increased massively. I think especially in the case „Coward“ the bar has been set very very high. From my perspective there’s no real difference between our film and anything else you can see at the cinema in terms of the type of story it’s trying to tell and the way it’s been told other than the runtime. And I think that will only continue. At some point though people will have to find some kind of financial return through internet sales or something and I don’t know how effective that will be.
screen/read: For you as a cinematographer, is it problematic to have your work streaming on the web compared to screening it at a theatre even though you never know whether the projection is adequate?
Stephen Murphy: Obviously I want to my work to be seen in the best way possible. And for me as a traditionalist, that’s still 35mm print on a very nice screen, projected well and with good sound. As mentioned before, the reason for showing it online in the first place is to get it out to a broader audience.
David Roddham: We always made this for the big screen. It wasn’t made for the internet, it just so happens now. But we’ve also shown it in cinemas and saw it projected. Actually, if we hadn’t seen it in cinema it would not have gone online.
screen/read: Let’s talk about the story a bit. When I watched it for the first time my impression of the film was it being soemthing like a shorter version of a much longer feature. It’s very epic in scale on the one hand, but on the other hand it has this certain feel of a short story. When you conceived it, David, was it originally intended as a short film or did you restrict yourself?
David Roddham: It was always written to be a short film because that was what I was able to actually make on the budget that we had. Since we made it we discussed ways of turning it into a feature now and there’s also talks with a whole bunch of tv heads turning it into a 10-part tv series.
screen/read: Let me get this straight, you said you’re already in negotiations to turn this into a mini-series?
David Roddham: Yeah, basically we’ve written the 10-part version as a treatment. There’s been talks with a couple of studio heads from HBO and Sky Atlantic who have paid massive interest in it. There’s also talks about turning it into a feature film as well, depending on which way the tv series goes.
screen/read: Sounds amazing. But it’s also interesting to see that World War I has been out of focus for a long time in cinema but recently stirred up increasing interest, most prominently with Steven Spielberg’s adaption of „War Horse“ of course, a movie that you participated in as well. Was it a topic that you were always keen on?
David Roddham: No, it wasn’t. I was in Ireland and Stephen and I finished „Fifth Street“, our first short, and I was looking for more material and I came across this story about these guys who were executed for desertion and I got really fascinated and started researching about them. And when I found out more about who they were and their families and stuff I just felt like it was the right story for me to tell next. I wanted to make a movie that was character driven. It was not so much that I focused upon the war, it was more about humanity and how to structure the story and what would be the best way to work with actors. Coming from a background of being experienced with doing special effects and have Stephen for the visuals that side of it wouldn’t be a problem. What I needed to improve myself on was story and character. I found it fascinating to find out what these guys went through and I thought they needed to be remembered. It’s a war that we’ve forgotten about but it’s going to become incredibly popular again now with the upcoming 100th anniversary. And as far as „War Horse“ goes, it was really funny because literally the very moment we finished the last one of the 52 drafts of the script and I told Stephen that I felt we’re really close to shooting this, I got a phone call asking me to come back to London and work for Steven Spielberg. So I went back from Ireland to find out that it was „War Horse“ he was making. It was so bizarre spending all that time working on my own World War I movie and now I was working on his World War I movie! I did effects but also was meant to shoot a lot of the pre-visualisation stuff with all the stunts and effects for Steven to see.
screen/read: Apart from World War I there’s a certain trend to discover European history at the moment or history in general. When you decided for the look of the film, like the color scheme, the framing etc, did you do any research on that?
Stephen Murphy: We’ve been involved in this project for about four years. And as soon as David started getting into the drafts of the script we would be having conversations about images and we just kind of worked on it over the years and more and more refined the kind of stuff we were talking about. We certainly had plenty of time to develop our ideas and figure out what we were interested in doing and how we were interested in visualizing the script.
David Roddham: We went through huge amounts of trench books on World War I. A lot of our time was filled with research. And we both studied John Singer Sargent’s painting „Gassed“ which can be seen in the Imperial War Museum in London. That was actually our first main reference.
Stephen Murphy: I’d even say that was probably our most important one. It’s almost a profile shot of about a dozen soldiers that have all been wounded in World War I and who lead each other in a line, hand on shoulder. It’s at a certain time of the day with fading light, very golden. It’s a huge painting and it’s literally composed like a large anamorphic frame. We discussed it before based on picture books, but when we saw the original in London it just blew us away. It’s really impressive and it helped us to focus our conversations around that image. We both like older style movies in terms of how they conceived a shot. We’re not that much into the current way action movies are shot with hand-held cameras and cameras everywhere. We’re both kind of more interested in the single camera approach where you are more specific in terms of what you show the audience. It just gives the director more control, it gives the cinematographer more control and it’s a more precise way to present a story to an audience rather than gathering footage with multiple cameras and then finding a way to tell the story afterwards.
David Roddham: That also influenced our casting since we needed proper actors for this classic cinema approach with long takes and five or six people in one shot that the actors could withstand.
Stephen Murphy: It’s hard to balance and trying to get five or six performers in the same wide shot hit the peaks that you need them to hit and get in sync. That’s a form of cinema being practiced much less now. And we felt it was something we wanted to re-visit and try.
screen/read: I find it interesting that you were so much influenced by a painting because when I watched the film I got the impression that you could pause it any time and always have the perfect still to print out and put on your wall.
David Roddham: That was very important to us. John Constable was another painter I was massively fond of and whom we talked about a lot. You can find his influence in the film as well.
Stephen Murphy: We also made some sort of a conscious effort to not try and over-reference movies. We wanted to look at paintings rather than movies. I think what can happen a lot of times is that you end up just imitating other films rather than actually going to the source that those movies might have looked at. We did talk about certain directors and certain types of films but a lot of our conversations as I remember were all based around paintings. And I think it really helped and we came up with our own hybrid approach of classical cinema with something a bit more modern. It just stands on its own I hope.
screen/read: Without going into detail about your budget, „Coward“ looks as if it had way more money than it actually did. Or in other words, it looks pretty expensive while you financed it solely out of your own pocket.
David Roddham: Yeah, it was myself and a producer called Dave Komaroni and then Neil Corbould who has won the Oscar for best visual effects on „Gladiator“. The thing is that we were very fortunate to have a lot of friends, people that believed in us and helped out. The whole crew was top draw and the level of expertise of the guys that we had was phenomenal. But it wasn’t just about their skill it was about the way they worked. And as a director you have to realise how important all these people are. Especially when everyone’s doing it for nothing. It’s one thing when you have a bunch of guys coming for a day, but when people are coming for seven days and under horrific conditions, that’s something else. And this is the only thing about the film that worries me, that people don’t realize how much work went into this since we made all of this independently. Cause yeah, it looks big money on the screen but it all comes down to the fact that we planned it. No money was wasted, we pretty much did it all on ourselves. Actually the shooting was split into halves. We did the first half of the movie in January with horrendous weather conditions which put a lot of pressure on us. And then we had to split it and went to Ireland and I really wish people had come to see the location for no man’s land. It was like a field within a field within a field. Sets had to be built and rebuilt once we’ve done explosions, costumes had to be cleaned from all the mud and dried for the next day etc. I just wish that people get an idea of how much work went into all of this. I think the best filmschool is going to a proper set and see that you really need all these guys to do all that important work. At least we have a little making-of and a collection of photographs and I hope they provide with some impression.
screen/read: I think it’s important for people to see how much work and professionalism is needed to make a film like this. Especially today where everyone can use their cameraphones and consider themselves filmmakers. The amount of films online is ridiculous right now, but the quality level is usually quite low. So it’s important to teach people to tell the difference and what it actually takes to make a movie that looks like a movie.
David Roddham: That’s interesting because it’s exactly why we went back to cinematography and decided to shoot the film the way we did. Shooting on film gives you discipline when you can only have a certain amount of takes and mustn’t overshoot. And when you have to think about how scenes are going to play out and when you’re pretty much editing in camera that takes a certain skill and knowledge as well. To me as a director that was a big big learning curve. I think digital is a lazy lazy format for that reason. And there’s also something wonderful about seeing Stephen work, checking light and that kind of stuff. There’s such a great skill to it which you have to admire. His photography is pretty much 80 percent in camera. And the irony with digital is that everyone says how much better it is and then they’re spending weeks and weeks to make it look like film.
Stephen Murphy: [laughs]
David Roddham: It’s driving me mad. Everyone’s getting praise for their photography but when you see the process it’s pretty much done in post.
screen/read: That’s the instagram effect of filmmaking.
David Roddham: It is exactly that! All these applications! Everyone can be an amazing photographer. But then they don’t have a clue about what the filtre actually does to the image.
screen/read: With that in mind and the fact that you prefer the more classical approach I’d like to discuss two current developments in cinema. One is 3D and the other one is HFR. What’s your opinion on them and do you see yourself trying out on either?
David Roddham: My idea on 3D is that I’ll never shoot a 3D movie. Because I just can’t stand watching them to be honest. I think that it’s something to be here for a short time. In my opinion it takes away from the cinema experience. I find it very very difficult to watch and I have no interest in it.
Stephen Murphy: I’m kind of the same opinion. I’ve shot in 3D a couple of times and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I think it’s an interesting effect to watch for 10 minutes and then it distracts from the story. I never found myself being able to forget that I’m in a cinema watching a 3D presentation. There’s something constantly reminding me that I’m looking at something. I find it a barrier between myself and the story. As for the other issue, the only high frame rate footage I’ve seen was stuff that Doug Trumbull shot in 60 frames for theme parks in the States. I haven’t seen the 48 frames material for „The Hobbit“ and I’m honestly not interested in it neither in 3D or 2D. If somebody offered me 15 minutes of it I’d certainly take a look at it but I have an idea of what it’s like based upon the previous material I’ve seen and it’s not something that appeals to me. I mean you can call it old-fashioned or being unwilling to change but to me 2D and 24 frames and film is the way forward. There’s nothing wrong with it that needs improving.
David Roddham: The question is, what do we gain from this, what do we gain from 48 frames, what do we gain from 3D etc apart from headache and distraction? What is wrong with 35mm and 70mm? I just get so annoyed by digital because I think it’s flat and it’s horrible and everything that digital does is trying to be something it is not. It’s just not the time yet for digital to take over and replace film. If there was a digital camera that could give me the same images that you get out of a 35mm camera, fair enough, you got me. But right now it’s completely different. It just gives people the opportunity to do more takes.
Stephen Murphy: You know Peter Jackson calmed people down and said that your eyes will get used to the images after 15 minutes. But in my opinion you shouldn’t have to get used to anything in a movie watching experience. The first 15 minutes of a movie are crucially important, like the last 15 minutes and like the 15 minutes in the middle. You shouldn’t have to get used to the way you’re viewing it. You should be absorbed into the way the movie is being told right away. It’s fine for me if people shoot with 48 frames or in 3D and I’m fine if they shoot on digital, but I still want to have the option to do it the old-fashioned way. Right now it seems like there’s a discussion of either or. But that’s not what it is. The first thing we heard from people when we started to shoot „Coward“ was why don’t we do it in digital? But when the same people saw the trailer they immediately understood why we chose 35mm.
David Roddham: Let me ask you, were you aware that we used a bunch of lenses that David Lean shot on?
screen/read: No, you did?
Stephen Murphy: Yes, we did. We shot anamorphic and the thing with that is that every lense is not a mass produced item like the modern lenses. With anamorphic lenses each one has its little history and its own character and that’s why you pick and choose them. We were lucky enough to find some very old lenses from the dungeons of Panavision which hadn’t been used in a long time and some of them were built for David Lean. So it was nice to think that we were shooting on some of the same material that he was working with.
screen/read: That’s totally fantastic! You should make an ad line out of this, something like: „Shot on David Lean lenses“ – less to show off but to tell people that you can still work with tools that were used centuries ago by one of the great masters of cinema.
David Roddham: Exactly! And I must say the glass is stunning. When you see that through the camera it’s just stunning. And Panavision, I mean these guys are absolute legends, they were so amazingly supportive. They were so giving to us. And also Fuji, they were fantastic too. And I think it had to do with the fact that we decided to shoot in that old-school style with all those long takes etc. It was something they felt worthy of being supported.
Stephen Murphy: But that’s also due to the history that David has with all those guys and the many years of experience and building networks. And so we had the chance to call in favors from brilliant people and that’s where the production value comes from.
screen/read: You know what my suggestion is? Send a copy of the film to Quentin Tarantino’s agent with a note on the envelope saying, shot on 35 mm with original lenses used by David Lean. I’m pretty sure he’s going to watch it and maybe even reply.
Stephen Murphy: [laughs] Well, why not?
screen/read: So Quentin, if you read this, you know what to look forward to. Check your mail.
[Thanks to David Roddham and Stephen Murphy for taking the time to do this.]
[Photo Credits: Aideen McCarthy]