MRS PEPPERCORN from Short to Feature: Interview Mike Le Han (english version)

15. September 2010

Interview Mike Le Han | Mrs Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room | Emily Coggin

Having directed over a dozen docudramas and commercials, two-time Royal Television Society Awards nominee Mike Le Han is preparing his feature film debut, and it’s going to be magical. What started off as a 20-minute short with exceptionally high production value is already on its way to a whole trilogy. The writer, filmmaker and owner of one of the largest post facilities outside of London was so kind to take the time to discuss the enchanting world of „Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room“ with us.

screen/read: Mike, we feel honored to hear this is your first interview on your current project. You are in post-production now. When do you think it will be finished and do you already know where and when its premier will take place?

Mike Le Han: Thank you for asking me to be interviewed. It’s an exciting time for „Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room“. Yes, the film is currently in post with the fine cut finished. We are now working on the 30 some CGI shots and intensive sound post. Our deadline was the end of August, but as with any project the goal posts move and even though it frustrates me to not have a finished product I am a stickler for attention to detail. All the CGI has to be photorealistic.

The film should be complete by the end of September and we are hoping we’ll meet the deadline for the Orange BAFTAs which is in October where if selected it will have its first premiere. – High expectations for a short film, but hey, if you don’t set your sights high you have no mountain to climb.

Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room | Mike Le Han

screen/read: You started out with shorts over ten years ago and then went to do quite a number of documentaries and commercials. Initially you’ve been working as a musician though. How did you end up in the film industry?

Mike Le Han: Good question (laughs). I was a session musician for 10 years right out of school at 16. Loved recording music, being technical and creative, but as time went on it wasn’t stimulating my creativity. Far too many limitations occur when you are a session musician, playing someone else’s music or composition. Then I stumbled into post production while working in L.A. way back in the 90’s and thought this was a place I wanted to explore. So when returning to the UK I set up a post production facility in Leeds, West Yorkshire (my hometown at the time) and created one of the largest post facilities outside of London, with Hollywood sound design faciltites, Avid edit suits and CGI.

While working on things that came through the door I was given the opportunity to work on some little projects, commercials and a few short films. From there the directing bug grabbed hold and I went on to write a docudrama for ITV which depicted the death of Captain James Cook in Hawaii. Huge CGI sequences, green screen and action – for a newby to directing I started at the top run as they would say, but I’m very impatient and dedicated to controlling my own destiny so I push myself daily. I’ve been directing now for 14 years, or is it 15? I’ve lost count, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve been very fortunate to work on some great projects, tasted different genres, but always came back to film. At 38 I may be a late starter in the film industry, but my head and heart are still very young.

screen/read: With that much experience in post-production and especially CGI it’s probably much easier to control your own projects, especially the ones coming up now. How do you feel about CGI, how much of it should be part of a narration?

Mike Le Han: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi films where utilising CGI to aid in story telling is a must. There are some genres that do require it. „Minority Report“ and „I, Robot“ are typical examples of well executed films set in the future, so CGI is extremely important to sell that period. Other films from the magical/fantasy genre like „Harry Potter“ and „Stardust“ aid in their storytelling by way of computer generated images to sell a scene or even a whole film. Or thinking of „300“ – what a stunningly created project! But CGI used just to bring in an audience and generate revenue isn’t my bag. I’m not one for let’s shove a CGI shot in there if the film doesn’t require it.

screen/read: So can you tell us a little about CGI in „Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room“? What type of effects will we get to see?

Mike Le Han: As for the CGI, the film has some stunning visuals which I can’t go into any particular detail about right now, but its all very magical. We have four animation companies working on the VFX from complete shots in photorealistic CGI to magical elements composited into plates.

screen/read: That is something you’d rather expect being effort put into a full length feature. Are there plans for a more extended version?

Mike Le Han: The short runs at 20 minutes and yes, ever since writing the short film both Helen Le Han (my wife) and myself had always talked and eveloped a feature concept. The short was way bigger than anyone ever expected. Since the trailer went live a couple of months ago we’ve experienced a great deal of interest from the likes of Warner and several producers from L.A. We have just recently signed a co-production deal with Little Freddie Productions to develop a feature trilogy very losely based on the short film. The characters are the same, but the fundamental story is far bigger and will certainly be of a different kind in the magical/fantasy genre.

The story is about a little girl Eloise who moves with her parents to a remote Cornish fishing village which has been untouched for generations. Eloise is a lonely child, something you can’t quite put your finger on. She’s a book reader, actually more than that, she has a facination with stories. When she arrives in the village she sees a tiny bookshop called „The Reading Room“, run down, very tatty, but she’s mesmerised by it. She goes on a journey of self discovery and meets some interesting characters along the way.

Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room | Mike Le Han

Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room | Mike Le Han

Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room | Mike Le Han

screen/read: Right now fantasy franchises are still quite popular, and with „The Hobbit“ and the next „Narnia“ around the wave certainly won’t wane. But there are also examples that truely failed, like „The Golden Compass“. Do you think there’s a special space for your approach that hasn’t been touched on the big screen so far?

Mike Le Han: Yes! Most of these films have been adaptations from novels, and very poor attempts at that. „Mrs Peppercorn and the Magical Reading Room“ has everything a great novel in that genre has, but is a unique story with great characters and above all will attract not only the fan base of previous films in the same genre but the adult too.

screen/read: That would be rather unique indeed. Thinking of „Avatar“ the desire to see storys on the big screen that are original material all over is definitely there. Nevertheless, if you should name books, movies, writers having influenced your approach, would any come to mind immediately?

Mike Le Han: I’m aspergers, so I have difficulty in reading. It’s a very slow process, hence my love for film. I can connect with the image shown in front of me rather than picturing it from written text. So to answer your question, there actually wasn’t any novel or writing that influenced „Mrs Peppercorn“. What made us think of the film was actually a location, a small bookshop in the village where we live and where the short film was shot. Helen and I work very differently when it comes to ideas, I get inspired by a location, an image or a piece of music, whereas Helen is inspired by characters and people. We’re both people watchers but in different ways. – Helen is my writing partner and also production designer. What she can create from a toilet roll and egg cartons astounds me.

screen/read: So you probably rather approach a movie the way a painter would do. Having that in mind, is there a visual style in art or cinema that you feel especially drawn to and that you’d say represents your own visuals?

Mike Le Han: That is a very difficult question to answer. I’m drawn to visually impressive films that combine many different elements like the use of CGI, mixed in with real locations that are seemless, so the audience would have no idea how it was created. But I am also extremely interested in period films, I love the 1800’s, how colourful everything is, the clothing, architecture and how that is portrayed in film. There isn’t any one director that I follow, I may like one film they’ve done and the rest might not stimulate me. I’ve seen a great deal of films, from comedy to hard hitting gritty. My DVD collection is quite eclectic and I don’t really stick to any one genre.

It’s all about colour pallet and how that would look on camera. We spent a great deal of time talking about what we’d see in a shot, where it would be placed and how the camera would represent it. Talking with Stephen Murphy, the Director of Photography, was extremely important in addressing any visual issue we had when trying to create a Hollywoodesque film that would potentially win awards on a zero budget. I believe we achieved this.

screen/read: The trailer does look impressive for sure and actually evokes the association of a big budget fantasy production.

Mike Le Han: It would not have been possible to achieve this without the support from every professional person who worked on the film completely for free. And they were all brilliant on a long shoot which ran over several months, with huge set builds and exhausting night locations in bitter freezing temperatures. I’d love to do it again any time.

Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room | Mike Le Han

screen/read: With „Jacob Black“  there’s another project you’re working on. How far into production are you there?

Mike Le Han: This one was originally written in 2003 for UK television. Right now we have a short film script set in the 1800’s. Again this would be a huge undertaking as period filming is extremely expensive. The feature version is in development, but the short is sat there waiting for the next injection of funding if anyone wants to get involved. Both Helen and I are very proud of our achievements and „Jacob Black“ has all the elements of being a great franchise similar to the „National Treasure“ films that Jerry Bruckheimer has created.

screen/read: Can you give us a few details on the story?

Mike Le Han: Jacob Black had an accident as a child which brought on a form of Autism. Autism in those days was unheard of and treatment was horrific in its own right. His family from a wealthy background sent him to a private school, where he discovered that he was extremely bright. Once a fun loving child, now a recluse from the world with exceptional abilities far beyond his years. The short again is a journey of self discovery, from the child to the adult, where we leave the film on a cliffhanger ready for a feature.

screen/read: On the project’s website we can hear orchestral music playing constantly, which is quite unusual for a project in the making. How did that come about?

Mike Le Han: We have been extremely fortunate to become good friends with one of Hollywood’s brightest composers, orchestrators and conductors Kevin Kliesch. Kevin has a huge IMDB list of features, he has worked on over 90 films, among them „Superman Returns”, „X-Men: The Last Stand“ and „Ice Age 3”. Having heard some music Kevin had written, I contacted him to see if he’d be willing to compose a unique score for „Jacob Black“. The track that plays on the site is a typical example of his amazing work. He is now undertaking the score for the „Mrs Peppercorn“ short which will be recorded with a live 70-piece symphonic orchestra. How many short films out there get that kind of attention? Not many if any at all. So we are extremely grateful to his contribution and can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.

screen/read: With your own background in music, was there any involvement from your side? Many directors communicate with their composers by means of temp-tracking as they have no musical knowledge. Different here.

Mike Le Han: We did use temp tracks to give a feel for the film and where I would like to go with it. We used CDs provided by Mark Talbot-Butler, the amazing editor, placed some temp score in and then changed it a few times. It’s not perfect, but gave Kevin an idea of where we are going with it. Once he had something down we’d then discuss in detail of where we’d need rises and mood. He has that ability to interpret a story with music and he taps into my thinking. We are on a similar wave length when it comes to emotive music.

Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room | Mike Le Han

screen/read: It’s interesting to see that both films have children as their main characters, and in the case of Jacob a troubled one even. Do you think that approaching an unknown world, may it be a magical one as in „Mrs Peppercorn“ or a somehow hostile one in „Jacob Black“ is more effective when seen through the eyes of children?

Mike Le Han: I think that the general audience can empathise with a child rather than with an adult. There is a certain innocence that a child brings to the screen. An adult playing with magic or suffering from autism isn’t as engaging. Emily Coggin, who played Eloise, was brilliant to work with and it’s been her first time on screen. Everyone loves her, she had such a great response. It’s actually a lot harder to get an emotive delivery from someone who’s eight years old than from somone who’s been acting for years and who has experienced emotions themselves. Emily however was someone who took direction well and as the shoot progressed became better and better. I’d certainly work with her again.

screen/read: Do you think production of the feature version will be soon enough to have her in there again? Or in general, do you have any idea on when the feature version might get going?

Mike Le Han: As for Emily, who knows, we are somewhat dictated by studios and co-producers who we can and can’t cast, but I’d certainly put her forwards for the character. Right now we are concentrating on writing the first film which we hope to have finished in the next couple of months.

screen/read: Would you consider the parameters of the short, the visual style, the musical approach, the props, the CGI etc. as some sort of blueprint for the feature?

Mike Le Han: Definitely, we’ve created a beautiful film which will reappear in the feature. The short film is a calling card for the trilogy.

screen/read: We wish you good luck for that. Mike, thanks for taking that much time.

Mike Le Han: Thank you for the interview, it was most interesting.

Mike Le Han is a British writer and director of more than a dozen docudramas for UK television as well as high profile commercials for the likes of Volkswagen and Fiat. His achievements on „The Great Train Robbery“ and „Crimes That Shook Britain“ have been nominated for two Royal Television Society Awards in 2009. Together with his wife Helen he is developing a feature film trilogy based on his short „Mrs Peppercorn’s Magical Reading Room“.

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[images provided courtesy of Black Lake Films Limited]

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