To what extent is the film based on real news stories, on urban legends or on your own imagination?
“It was never my intention really to make what is usually perceived as a ‘social’ film. I wasn't setting out to use the film as a soapbox for my own personal views but sure I was influenced by news reports and observations around me. While not explicitly shown in the film, I had wanted to address that issue of ignorance allowing violence to breed - and by this I don't mean ignorance in a racial or religious context but just in that general decline where you feel that, even in a crowded room of strangers, no-one would step in to help you out of a threatening situation ’cos they'd rather not make it their business. It was that whole idea of us sitting idly by, not intervening, while others are put upon, and with the media making a sensational outrage of happy slapping as some nationwide ‘psycho youth’ epidemic, it tied in casual violence with video-sharing, which eventually led to the snuff film element being the perfect way to represent that theme.
“I'd heard some stories about snuff films, and so far it is largely considered to be an urban myth, something which I hope it stays - there's no evidence to suggest it exists, but a lot of bad things go on in the world that we don't know about. There was no point really in me trying to argue whether or not such an industry existed ’cos it’s not essential to the story; the story is all about Andrew's redemptive process.
“So, once I'd decided to centre his redemption around his involvement in the snuff industry, I decided to try something new, take it in a different angle and avoid the subterranean goth-influenced stereotype of grunge and gore. Instead I set it in a very real office space, a very organised, casual workplace. There's no grimacing loonies, no balding bespectacled weirdos with perverse grins; instead there's a guy offering you a cup of tea on your first day, a shooting room, an edit suite, an accountant! It was plunging this oft-seen vile underbelly of mythology into a relatable everyday office existence that made it all the more creepy, but also absurdly black humoured. It gave an otherwise nihilistic tale an odd injection of humour to prevent it from being all just doom and gloom.”
How did you set about finding your cast and crew?
“For the lead role it was always going to be Nick. I'd worked with both him and Emma Powell (whom we cast as Sera) on a short film for a youth theatre project four years prior and he had a good work ethic about him and a deep understanding of the types of films I was hoping to make. I sent him the treatment at a very early stage and so I was able to clearly discuss with him the growth of the character to the point that on-set it didn't matter how far we jumped in the chronology of the script, he had it nailed down perfectly and knew exactly where his character was and exactly how to play it. We were very lucky to have him on board, he carried off a very difficult character to play and I was able to put my absolute trust in his performance throughout the entire shoot.
“Originally, due to the low budget we were dealing with, we set out to cast the rest of the film entirely using local actors. So we approached various amdram societies, drama colleges and agencies but the turnout was quite poor and we were fast approaching our auditions date. So we put an ad up on Mandy.com and almost immediately were inundated with e-mails from actors all over the world. Thankfully, from that list of candidates we were able to cast Jared Morgan as the Cameraman, Solitaire Mouneimne as Michelle and of course Mads Koudal as Paul. So yeah, our initial plan to cast locally was pretty much shot to shreds once we'd agreed to fly Mads in from Denmark but as you'll see from the film, he was worth every penny, as were all the cast.
“It was our debut feature and we were dealing with some pretty taxing hours (our first day lasted eighteen hours of shooting with a further eight hours prep-time leading up to the shoot) yet nobody complained. Everyone just did their job and performed, far exceeding my expectations. It was the best start to the film we could've hoped for - it was an exciting time watching through the rushes.
“For the crew, I was lucky enough to already have a core film crew assembled purely out of friends I'd met through university. I set up the company Random Films Ltd alongside Matt Flannery, a very talented writer/director in his own right, who became the DoP for Footsteps. Meanwhile my good friend Graham Hellis is a musician so we knew we had the score fixed. A colleague of mine at work (George Falloon) recorded the sound for us, and Stewart Atwill - another friend of mine - had experience working at a theatre and so we had the lighting and electrical work covered. In addition we were lucky to have on board Tom Alcott who at the time was a film student at Aberystwyth University; he came on board and worked alongside Stewart and George handling sound recording and lighting.”
“It's strange but, seeing as the majority of my film intake is usually from Japan, I found that the hardest part was actually writing dialogue. Writing a scene where everything had to be told visually felt a lot more natural to me and I just found it to be a lot easier to establish a sense of characterisation and plot development through focusing on body language and the editing process as opposed to expositional dialogue. When you abandon the idea of straightforward dialogue as a narrative device, it forces you to think a lot more crucially about shot composition and the juxtaposition of images - so I approached the film with an editor's mindset. The transitions between scenes had to play a role, portraying much more than just the simple jumping from one scene to the next. They had to tell you something about the characters and had to engage you into the story.
“Now this concentration on shot composition can at times be a difficult process for the actors. There's nothing worse than stopping and starting for each set-up - it breaks the flow and can result in patchy performances. So I approached each day by talking through the shot list with Matt in great detail so we could create a shooting atmosphere that was free-flowing to allow the actors to have the opportunity to dig up their emotions and keep them consistent for each scene. This meant that we very rarely paused for a different set-up, we just ran through each scene in its entirety, almost like a play, and Matt would be able to drift in and out of the scene focusing on different gestures for cutaways and give me as much material as I could possibly need to piece the scenes together. It made filming so much more exciting as we allowed the actors to deviate from the script and improvise. I would hold from calling cut until the absolute final moment as we were getting some great stuff being brought to the table each day.”
In what way has your interest in Japanese cinema influenced the film?
“Again, my influences from Japanese cinema are largely in the telling of the story. I was quite economical when it came to dialogue; Japanese cinema tends to be quite oblique and has a vagueness to its storytelling. I was heavily influenced by the structure and introspection present in the works of Shinya Tsukamoto and Takeshi Kitano in particular - it's a style that I've always admired - while, in terms of the violent content of Footsteps, there are shades of Takashi Miike. I decided not to shy away from presenting the violence as something truly ugly and grotesque. I didn't set out to offend or disturb, but just to make the violence feel as real as I could, to make each punch or kick feel like it truly connected for it to have an impact on the audience emotionally rather than purely on a visceral level.
“What I find interesting about Miike as a director is that, whenever I watch a film of his, there's a fearlessness about his approach which makes for an exhilarating experience. It doesn't matter which genre or age group his films are aimed at, I'm still uncertain of where he's going to take me with each film. It's that exciting, almost fearful prospect that I love about his work, and so if I can achieve that same sense of wonder with each production and each genre then I'll be happy.”
How important was the lighting and cinematography to the way that you told the story?
“Light, much like the editing, played a strong part in representing the psychology of Andrew's character. Aside from the tried and tested blue and red lighting that is prominently used as a sign of both his rage and his loneliness, the film also plays around with the themes of darkness and light to suggest his inner moral conflict. There are a number of scenes that are symmetrical in the shots that are used, but are made vastly different by making changes to the light. After he has ‘performed’ in work with the Cameraman he finds that he has the money to get his life back on track in a financial sense, so we had Andrew himself switching off the lights around him, plunging himself back into darkness, the light being symbolic of the shame that he is struggling to deal with.
“We also played around with warm and cool colours. For the flashback sequences when his father was still alive and his life was a much happier affair, we offset the scenes by tinting them to appear a lot more inviting, using yellows and oranges, acting as a stark contrast to the bleak ‘present’ which is quite often desaturated and cold. It was essential to present Andrew as someone who has lost something, someone who was once happy - he couldn't be just a sullen young man or else the audience wouldn't relate to him. There is a reason that he has become the way he has, and so the story had to be about his redemptive process, and so the colour and the lighting were just extra layers to add to the atmosphere of the film.
“In addition, we knew from the very beginning that we had to strive to achieve something memorable with the cinematography. It's all part of the low-budget indie film stigma, so we tried to raise the production values of the film with some dolly shots and high-angles while shooting the entire film using progressive scan to remove that interlaced video sheen usually associated with DV. Matt made great use of depth-of-field shots and he and Stewart both built our dolly and bird’s-eye view jib (used in the nightclub toilet scene). Other than home-made kit, we splashed out on a DV-rig to give our verite-style hand-held shots a steadiness (largely inspired by Nicholas Winding Refn's incredible Pusher trilogy) and a sticky-pod (which is essentially a metal plate with four suction cups to attach the camera to a flat surface) for filming dialogue in a moving car - you've never seen a crew more nervous.”
How has Footsteps been received and what are you planning next?
“So far, very few people have had anything negative to say about the film which, considering its content, is quite surprising. We had the best start you could imagine by being awarded Best Film on the same day of the premiere at the Swansea Film Festival back in June of this year. Reviews meanwhile have been very positive and it’s all very overwhelming. More recently, the film is due to be represented at this year’s American Film Market in November by Anthem Pictures (on behalf of Cinesales Inc), so the next step for the film now is distribution and broadcast.
“Our next projects include directing a music video for Welsh music show Bandit, while Matt is putting the final touches to what will be his directorial debut The Fatal Bellman an epic drama thriller that we are starting to develop with a view to shoot early next year.
“Meanwhile, I’m currently in the early stages of writing a horror feature Petals that I hope to get ready to film almost immediately after Bellman. I'd promised my wife, after having to put up with the gore in Footsteps, that I'd write her a romance drama next, which I had started during post-production on Footsteps - but this great horror story started calling to me and after spending a day or two getting excited by the scope of ideas and the characters it just snowballed and took over and so the romance drama has been shelved for a couple of months while I get the grimy world of horror out of my system. It promises to be a fairly intense ride.”
interview originally posted 23rd October 2006