Short film Stop is currently touring the festival circuit making noise for the way it deals with the sensitive issue of domestic abuse. The film revolves around Karen, a shy, introverted woman, and Niki, a loud, over-confident teenage girl who meet at a bus stop. Personal secrets are inadvertently revealed, and confessions take the place of pleasantries.
This week Hunger sits down with Paul Murphy, writer-director, and Mark Downes, producer, to find out how the final film came together and how it has been received thus far.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO MAKE STOP?
PM: A few years ago I did some self-development courses when I was going through a difficult time in my life, and I met a lot of people there who had suffered from domestic abuse and violence. Their stories were harrowing and sad, but through the course they were able to conquer their past and what had happened to them to come out the other side, healed and at peace.
Through this experience I realized that we all have circumstances, both good and bad, and the only thing we have is our choice in how we feel about them, and what actions we then take as a result. I also realized that making a choice, a real choice that will completely alter the course of your life, is a scary, confronting thing, and how as creatures of habit, humans rarely make the choices we need to make.
So being inspired by the women I had met I wanted to tell a story about a woman who has been suffering at the hands of abuse, but ashamed and blaming herself, she pretends that everything is fine, lying to herself and everyone around her. As a result she is now distant and isolated, shunning the company of her family and friends, unable to share what she’s going through with anyone. It is only when she meets a stranger, a wise beyond her years teenage girl, that she can finally open up and begin to tell the truth about what has happened to her, and the part she has played in it.
I used to teach filmmaking to inner city kids in Ilford, Enfield and Hackney and was always amazed about how smart, honest and direct London teenagers were. A lot of the kids I taught had gone through a lot, but they didn’t let it define them, so I thought it would be a good contrast to set up two diametrically opposing characters and reveal how similar they are, but how they had chosen two very different ways of dealing with their situations.
Having lived in London for over ten years, I also wanted to make a film that featured London as a character. Living in such a magnificent, frenetic and vast city with so many people, races, classes and creeds, we make assumptions and judgments about our neighbours in an effort to control and survive urban life. Never smile at a stranger, and keep yourself to yourself. So I found it an interesting to investigate what would happen if two strangers connected in a way that city life would dictate was impossible.
YOU ACHIEVE WONDERFUL PERFORMANCES IN THE FILM. HOW DID YOU WORK WITH LISAY KAY (KAREN) AND TAHIRAH SHARIF (NIKI) BEFORE AND DURING THE SHOOT?
PM: After the script, casting is the most important part of filmmaking, and we managed to find the perfect cast for the film. It was an absolute joy and privilege to work with Lisa and Tahirah on this film. They are both absolutely amazing actresses, very astute and aware and also very subtle and simple in their craft. Our casting director Briony Barnett did a fantastic job finding them, as we cast Lisa three days before we were due to shoot!
We had a half-day rehearsal the day before the shoot, where we went through the script, discussing backstory, character and motivation. In my experience as a 1st AD I’ve been in the unfortunate position of being on set and it’s the first time the director and cast have been together, so they have to rehearse, block the scene and talk it through, and the clock is ticking! It’s a stressful and horrible way to work so I made certain we had rehearsal time booked in.
The rehearsals were great in that the characters really came to life and I felt that both actors really got who Karen and Niki were, where the story wanted to reveal about them and the journey we wanted the characters to go on in a short space of time. It was a tough, emotional rehearsal, and Lisa has said that it was perfect to get her into Karen’s headspace, as when she turned up the next day on set, she had already gone through such an emotional experience the day before so she really felt the emotional turmoil Karen was going through.
As a result of the rehearsal time, on the shoot days I really trusted both Lisa and Tahirah to do the characters justice, and I only came in when I felt I needed to shape or guide a certain moment. For me my job was to take care of both their needs and make sure they had the space and trust to deliver such powerful performances. They were the perfect actors for the roles so in a sense I stood back, and let them follow the truth of the characters, their feelings and their choices.
We also shot the film in continuity, a factor that was simple to do but helped enormously in charting and managing the different emotional beats that the characters go through. We also shot the last half of the film, from where they both come back and sit down at the bus stop, in its entirety. Even though that constituted nearly seven minutes of script, both Lisa and Tahirah wanted to do it, better to let it play out continuously where they could find the highs and lows of the moments naturally, than break it up into segments. That really helped with the physical act of shooting but also their performances excelled being allowed play it that way. It was hard work for them both, and we did many takes, but they knocked it out of the park, and I’m forever grateful to them.
I must also add that having a fantastic, professional, and sensitive crew worked in helping create the mood on set that the actors needed to get to such emotional places. Everybody who worked on the film were really fully behind it, and played at the top of their game and I feel that shows in the final film.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE DURING PRODUCTION?
MD: We knew we had a great script and getting crew on board was straight-forward. The script lent itself to short film making; one location, two cast, so once we had those in place everything fell into place quite quickly. No unit moves, no crowds of extras to deal with. I guess there wasn’t one single obstacle that stands out but a plethora of ever shifting times and dates that would suit everyone and not compromise on what we set out to achieve.
Getting talented and dedicated crew who believe in the story is the single greatest challenge. If HODs ask how much they are getting paid or hesitate in any way, find someone who believes in the project, so when the shit hits the fan, and in short film making it usually does, some crew move the fan and some move the pile of shit. That way no one gets covered in manure. Instead you come up smelling of roses and can share a film that everyone from caterer to runner, talent and director can be proud of.
PM: For me the greatest challenge was making an emotionally draining film on a public street in the middle of council flats, that we couldn’t wholly lock off in two days! But somehow the Gods were smiling on us as it we were pretty much left alone. We had bought out the bus stop and set up a temporary one down the road, it was a quiet street, and the weather played ball, so after we wrapped my sense of relief was complete!
WHAT HAS THE REACTION TO THE FILM BEEN LIKE AS A WHOLE?
PM: The reaction to the film has been great! We received funding and support from the Eastern Edge Film Fund and Film London, and on Stop’s first outing we won a Special Mention Award at Film London’s ‘Best of Borough’ Awards in 2012. The jury comprised such industry figures as BAFTA winning producer Stephen Wolley, the BFI’s Chris Collins, and director Gurinder Chadha, so it was a real honour to be awarded and praised for the film. Comments like “impressive production” and “well written” are always nice to hear!
Stop has also been lucky enough to be currently enjoying a great festival run. We had our World Premiere at Palm Springs International Shortsfest in June, been in competition at the Galway Film Fleadh, Tehran International Short Film Festival to name a few, and we have been up for Best Drama twice at The Smalls, and Isle of Wight Film Festivals.
We’ve also shown it to a lot of our colleagues in the industry and people really respond to the powerful performances, densely packed narrative and the wonderful cinematography, production and costume design and simple yet haunting score.
We’re very proud of the film and hope that it’s festival success continues far into the future.
HAVE YOU SHOWN THE FILM TO DOMESTIC ABUSE ORGANISATIONS? HOW HAVE THEY RESPONDED?
MD: We have tried to raise awareness of domestic abuse wherever the film is screened in festivals. To that end we have partnered with local agencies in several territories, as domestic violence unfortunately is common on a much wider scale than most people will acknowledge.
We’ve had some great feedback from doctors and therapists who have been so grateful for the little spotlight the film has been able to shine. It’s usually a big court case that gets the headlines but if the write up in a local newspaper about a short film can help someone think twice or give someone else the courage to make a change, then it really does feel like it’s been worthwhile.
PM: Part of what we’d like to accomplish with the film is to give it away to any agency that can use it after it’s completed it’s festival run. To that end we’ve shown it to charities such as Refuge, Women’s Aid, Respect, and AVA (Against Abuse and Violence). All the charities have been really impressed with the film, citing it’s veracity and depiction of an abused woman, and we’re currently talking with the AVA about how best they could use the film. Ideas that are currently in the mix are adding it to the Home Office’s database on domestic violence, so organizations can view and use it to raise awareness and discussion in their prevention work.
This would be an amazing honour for us, and a real recognition of the fact that the film hit its mark and could make a difference to women in similar situations.
STOP IS HAVING GREAT SUCCESS ON THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT. WHERE IS IT PLAYING NEXT?
PM: We’re very pleased with Stop’s festival success and we’ve got two festivals coming up in December.
We’re playing at The Women’s International Film Festival in California on 15th of December, and we’re also in the Unofficial Google + Film Festival, which is an online festival, that runs from 13th – 29th.
Stop is available to watch at the Unofficial Google+ Film Festival on Sunday 15th December at 4pm: http://www.ugpff.com/short-film-block-6/