VIFF 2019 Interview – A DISAPPEARANCE filmmakers Laura Spini & Laurence Brook

“What lengths can a person go to to save their career? What depths can a person sink to, to claw back their fame? Who better to answer these questions than a fallen celebrity psychic who returns to a small-town psychic fayre, hoping to intervene in a missing child case.” Filmmakers Laura Spini & Laurence Brook on A DISAPPEARANCE which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. 

Congratulations on your film playing and welcome to VIFF! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

We would have loved to attend VIFF as it would have been our first time at the festival and even our email experience with the staff and programmers has been outstanding. To the VIFF staff; even though you’re probably incredibly busy, you have been the sweetest and most communicative people of any festival we’ve ever been to. Unfortunately, there’s an ocean and some between us, and we weren’t able to make the dates. But we’re hoping to make it to future editions – I mean, you have On Cinema at the Cinema live, we’re so full of remorse for missing that.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

The two of us originally met at The London Film School. We bonded over Todd Solondz — guess his films ended up bringing genuine HAPPINESS —  and worked together since. Our main interest is comedy, though we tend to navigate the fringes of comedy, where there’s a combination of misery, gentleness, confusion and very few jokes. We also seem to have an interest for characters with niche belief systems – our previous short, YOU ARE WHOLE, was about a spiritual missionary spreading the word of his group and finding corpses everywhere he went, with everyone struggling to work out what the hell is going on.

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

A DISAPPEARANCE took longer to make than Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE. Friends and acquaintances are always shocked when they find out how much time and resources it takes to bring fifteen minutes to the screen. Financing took a long time, but that time allowed us to plan thoroughly, change our minds a lot, and be extra prepared for a tasking shoot. For most people involved, the three-day shoot went in a heartbeat, except for our Producer Rebecca, who skipped many of those heartbeats to bring the project to completion. Rebecca is a VIFF alumna, who screened her BAFTA-winning short film OPERATOR at the festival. Our post-production turnaround was fairly quick as we split the picture/sound editing between ourselves, like the control freaks that we are. We are so happy that the film is now getting screened at festivals around the world and, for the future, we would love to develop the characters’ arcs into a feature film format or mini-series.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? 

In general, the main motivators that drive us are desperation, loathing and resentment. Any filmmaker that denies feeling these things are lying to you or successful. But we have fun going through these things together. When one of us gets burnt out, the other can pick things up. It seems to work well. On set, too, having two physical bodies being governed by one shared brain means you can get a lot of stuff done. Although as we said earlier, as long as we do our planning and continue to work with extra-talented people, no coffee or cocaine necessary.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The central set piece plays out as a 9-minute developing shot of a psychic stage performance, and we only had half a day to rehearse it, and one day to shoot it. As a creative team, it was the first time we had tried anything of this scale, and so we were all learning on the job. We were fortunate enough to be working with an incredible cast and crew, who made our job the easiest on set.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed. 

Our Cinematographer Tian Tsering shot the film on an Alexa Mini, and the long shot saw the Alexa mounted on an Easyrig. We only had the chance to test the shot on Steadicam the day before, and the results with the Easyrig worked much better for what we were trying to achieve. The rest is history, and a very long day for the Camera Team. Tian would never talk about this himself, but on top of being a very talented Director of Photography, he is a very talented Director – his debut feature Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain was one of last year’s best films on the festival circuit, and we are honoured and humbled he’s up for shooting absurd low budget comedy with us.

(Editor’s Note: Director of Photography Tian Tsering also wished to contribute to this interview.)

Tian Tsering: We wanted to keep the action flow and uninterrupted for the stage scene. At a very early stage of development, Laura and Laurence mentioned the idea of shooting the entire scene in one shot. and the film sort of evolved around the idea. It got me excited and I started to look into the possibility and technicality of doing the scene.

Image quality aside, we decided on an Alexa Mini for its compact size and weight. We tested the idea of laying dolly for the tricky long take, but there was simply no space in the audience for the camera setup to pass through. In the first rehearsal I brought in a Steadicam Shadow from Optical Support in hope to have an idea of the movement and how we can achieve the scene. Unfortunately, the set up still took up too much space for me to move around with, especially when going in circles around the two central characters at the end of the action. The space behind them onstage was very tight for me to squeeze in. In the end we settled on a two dimensional gimbal called WAVE, hanging off an Easyrig. It provided the agility we were looking for, albeit a bit of compromise on the stabilisation in the end.

Gaffer Lorenzo and his team worked well on getting the lighting set up during a pre-light day. The high ceiling in the theatre helped us rigging the lights from the top so that the camera could have a 360 degree movement. Everything was hung from the grid atop. The two massive crank-up stands were wrapped in black cloth and hidden in the shadows on either side of the audience.

It’s also worth mentioning that the directors and the producer really found an excellent location for the scene to take place. When I was shown around the place, we really liked the centre stage area and the mural behind it. I liked the space especially because of the high ceiling, which allowed us to rig lights high up leaving space for the composition to flow. we wanted to create pools of lights for where the audience would sit, but also have a sense of the surroundings in the theatre with the help of an existing bar directly opposite the stage, which was lit by a spotlight.

The directors were specific about production design. Their brilliant work really helped the imagery especially the lighting. The dressing room at the theatre and Alvera’s kitchen were messy and ugly. The lighting tried to enhance the look.

After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

We have screenings across the UK between September and November, and the film will be screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Barcelona in October. We’re aiming to premiere it online very soon, hopefully in early 2020.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

Why are you talking and texting and leaving at the same time?

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Be resilient. And, if you want to be a director, don’t feel like you have to control everything yourself. By surrounding yourself with a talented team, and genuinely listening to their advice, your work and their work will be elevated beyond anything you could hope to achieve on your own. Also, don’t be a bully.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

Probably SELL OUT, a Malaysian comedy musical on the dangers of big corporation capitalism, which was at the 2008 Venice Film Festival and funnily enough screened at VIFF, but very sadly hasn’t been distributed internationally. 11 years on, we’re still eagerly waiting for a DVD to come out!

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