Between the Lines: NFF Writers Talk About Their Short Films

Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting: from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters.

The Norwich Film Festival is a BAFTA & BIFA qualifying short film festival which gives a platform for independent films, usually within the fine city of Norwich across different cinemas and event venues. Of course, this year has meant the festival has gone online, with over 150 short films available to watch grouped into 21 programming strands – including the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Collection. I was fortunate enough to have a virtual chat with not one, but two writers featured in the strand: Mike Marriage with his dystopian drama Ghillie and Azhur Saleem with his dark thriller Muse. We discussed what makes writing in these genres so special and the challenges of exploring sci-fi and fantasy in a short film format.

GS: First of all, congratulations on being featured at NFF! What has the festival been like so far?

MM: To be honest, I’ve been pretty busy since it opened. Shooting’s picked back up, so I’ve been away filming, so I haven’t had much time to give it much attention really. I mean it’s great to get into these festivals, but because you don’t have that live event, you really do miss it. You don’t know how people are reacting. There’s nothing nicer than sitting in the cinema and watching a film play. You get a real genuine sense of if people like it, and who likes it, and which parts work and which parts don’t. Sometimes you get an audible reaction in a live cinema, that I really miss.

AS: It’s been really great. I haven’t had a chance to kind of check out a huge amount, but they’ve just done [the festival] really well. They’ve set it up really well online, and the team has been amazing and supportive. I’ve been prepping for a shoot past couple of weeks, so, I haven’t really seen anything yet, but my plan is to kind of watch stuff next week.

GS: Where did the writing process [for your films] start? Was it with the characters, the genre, the concept, something else?

MM: It’s a funny one. It’s probably the only film I’ve ever written where the idea started with the location, and the location was somewhere I went on holiday as a kid. It’s so remote. I think the first week I was there we didn’t see anyone but a shepherd. I remember thinking, “God.” There’s no means of electricity… no running water… no internet, obviously, and there’s no mobile phone signal. Anything could’ve happened in the outside world and you wouldn’t know about it. And then that made me think, “Well, what could’ve happened in the outside world?”

AS: So, it was definitely the genre. I’ve always loved science fiction and I really wanted to do something in the kind of science fiction space, as a short film. It was inspired by a short story that I read, called Fondly Fahrenheit, by Alfred Bester. It’s a great little science fiction story about a man and his android hopping from planet to planet, because the android keeps killing people. But the twist in that short story is that, as the temperature rises on each subsequent planet, you start to realize that the man and the android are one and the same. This kind of playing with perception is done so well in the story. And it was that kind of idea of messing with perception that I wanted to try and do in a film format.

An elderly man in a typical farmers jacket and flatcap, lowers his binoculars and gazes at something off screen. He is standing in the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands. From 'Ghillie'
image courtesy of the Norwich Film Festival

GS: Was the script always intended to be a short film script?

MM: Yeah, I think it was. The idea was always short, and I think the idea of the daughter was there from very early on. I think I wrote almost the entire script in one evening, because it had stewed in my brain for so long. It’s literally the easiest thing I’ve ever written. But yeah, it was always intended to be a short. There is also a feature-length version. It’s not fully written, but we have got one semi in development, as an option to expand it out.

AS: Yeah, it was. The original one was about 20 minutes long, so it was still long for a short film. I wrote that short script about five or six years ago, and then it became a feature script. The feature film almost happened and, as is the usual case in the UK, it kind of fell apart. So, it kind of fed back into the current version of Muse as a short film. Originally, I did intend to do Muse as a kind of proof of concept… and so I kind of set it in the world that the feature was in and just do it as similar themes.

GS: What was it like writing a short script knowing you were delving into a more fantastical story? Did you always have to keep budget and production costs in mind, or worry about anything else?

MM: I think one of the things that appealed in making it as a short, is that although [the film] is actually quite expansive in the landscape, it’s very contained in number of characters, in the dialogue and in the production design. Ghillie has one costume that he wears for the whole film. Margaret has one costume that she wears for the whole film. So, it’s very contained, and then the VFX were done almost entirely as a favour by a small VFX house in London. We did have to keep the budget in mind, and the film naturally lent itself to being quite self-contained, and to controlling a budget quite tightly.

AS: Very early on, I made the decision to set it in a world where it didn’t look like it was a sci-fi world straight off. So then we could try to find a location that could sell this world that we were in. One that is kind of falling apart, but would have that juxtaposition with these slick visual effects and the holographic stuff that they have. I think the nature of sci-fi, you just kind of want to go crazy and have fun with it, but you do have to reign yourself in.

A woman in a dark, nondescript room, turns her head to glance at something off screen. A bright orange circle glows on her right temple. From 'Muse'
image courtesy of the Norwich Film Festival

GS: What is the most rewarding aspect about writing sci-fi and fantasy scripts?

MM: I’ve never really written fantasy, so I can’t really speak on that, but I’ve written sci-fi and I find sci-fi just to be so creative. I love the genre and what you can do. Like with Ghillie, I love taking a real human drama that would be a bit of a soap opera otherwise and elevating it to somewhere else. It gives you a more interesting, more creative world to play with. And I think as a viewer, it gives you more things to draw you in and keep you interested.

AS: I really enjoy the world building and working out how things could work. I love technology as well. I’m fascinated with how it affects our lives for kind of good and better. Sci-fi has always been known to kind of talk about social issues, but in an interesting sci-fi way. But I think now, as we are living in a more of a kind of “futuristic” world, with the technology that we have and AI and automation, it’s almost becoming like a way to kind of help us deal with a rapidly changing world.

GS: Looking back, what was the biggest lesson you learnt from the project?

MM: I don’t know if there’s much I would change script-wise. I’d probably tweak one or two things just to make it [less obscure]. We’ve had feedback from a few people who criticized the fact that it wasn’t explained why there were infected people. They were like, “Well this isn’t explained in the film, so the film doesn’t make sense.” However, it was a deliberate creative decision that we didn’t explain it. At that point, you haven’t got a clue what’s happened, so you don’t want to give away there’s been an infection because it gives it away for when he’s going out hunting.

AS: I think for me, it’s recognizing that you can be the film’s biggest obstacles sometimes. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I was adamant that I wanted it to do this, kind of, “It’s going to start in this one location, have this with the scene.” And it was going to be quite big. I was really lucky that I was mentored by a director called Colin McCarthy. At our first meeting, he asked me what I was doing next. And I just wanted to do a short. He said, “Well, is it 10 minutes and set in one location?” And I had this script in mind, so I just went, “Yes, it is,” and then quickly went home and rewrote it. When somebody else kind of says those things to you, it’s like the light switches on.

GS: And finally, the question everybody loves to ask: what is next for you?

MM: We’ve got a big sci-fi feature that I’d love to tell you more about, which I’m very excited about. We showed it to quite a big producer in Hollywood, and he gave us some feedback, so we’re just doing some tweaks now. I’d love to make Ghillie as a feature, which I think you could do for a really low-budget film. So, if there’s any producers or financiers reading this, then look up, send us a million quid, and we’ll make you a film.

AS: Well, I’m working. I can’t say what I’m shooting on, but I can say “It’s an exciting BBC drama.”. So that’s shooting next year. And then I’ve co-created a TV show as well, which is kind of in the comedy horror space. That’s just been picked up and we’re developing that.

You can still watch Ghillie and Muse at the Norwich Film Festival until 29th December. Tickets can be bought on the Norwich Film Festival’s website. You can see more of Ghillie on Twitter @FilmGhillie and Azhur on Twitter @azhursaleem