Film in Oxford: An Interview with Alexander Darby

This is the first of two interviews focusing on the upcoming short films Waterbird and Catkins. In the following column, director Alexander Darby explains some of the creative decisions behind the two films, including the films’ nature themes, absorbance of folklore, and approach to sound design. In the second column, the films’ producer Ksenia Harwood discusses some of the logistical challenges that Waterbird and Catkins faced in pre-production, and the role of the producer in student filmmaking more generally. 

In Waterbird, Tom (a student) recalls a night out clubbing with his friend Ed. A fight between the two is settled, but as they are leaving Ed becomes the victim of a tragic accident. A year later, Tom sits on a riverbank, hounded by a female journalist to talk about Ed’s incident. The journalist becomes moved by Tom’s words, and encourages him to dive, bird-like, into the river in memory of his friend’s death. 

In Catkins, Mark (a middle-aged man) has an argument with his wife, and while on a train to the countryside, he debates whether or not to leave her. While on a walk, he overhears a young girl (Katerina) waiting alone, with a bunch of catkins in her hands. She is soon joined by her boyfriend, who callously breaks up with her. Thinking she is alone, Katerina sings a folksong about a willow tree to soften her pain, and Mark listens, transfixed. Mark accidentally snaps a branch and Katerina notices his presence, running off in embarrassment. Mark holds the catkins that Katerina left behind, and decides against divorcing his wife. 

John Constable - Malvern Hall, Warwickshire (1809)
John Constable – Malvern Hall, Warwickshire (1809)

Waterbird and Catkins share clear similarities: in both, a protagonist troubled by a previous conflict escapes to the countryside and finds some form of closure through the experience of nature. Should the two films be understood as a kind of complementary double bill? 

I think you’re right to identify these common traits in the films. But they weren’t conceived as a double bill. I wanted to make two shorts at the same time for the practical reason that, as a student, it’s very hard to get yourself into a position where you can make a good short film. Tacking one film shoot onto another doesn’t make the cost or logistics inflate that much if they are short pieces. I think that the characteristics you’ve picked out are themes that interest me. You could also say that Lily, the main character in my short film The Wishing Horse, finds closure through her experience of nature as represented by the white horse.

I’ve liked writing a retrospective narrative in the few shorts I’ve made because it frees you up to work more impressionistically as a director. I think that is why an escape from a previous conflict features in these two films. I also like to write good natural settings into short films because they are free and easy to film at. When you’re starting out it’s much easier to make an excellent location look beautiful than an interior. You don’t need lights or production design. It’s all there already.

In both films, the nature experience that brings the protagonist closure is catalysed through an encounter with the female voice. In Waterbird, Tom’s conversation with a journalist prompts him to dive into the river in memory of Ed. In Catkins, Katrina’s willow tree folk song can be interpreted as activating the rushing of willow leaves, which is emphasised in the scene’s sound design. Was the rich relationship between woman and nature that seems to be drawn here a conscious decision? 

This was certainly a conscious decision but I didn’t think about the logic of it all that much when writing the films. We’ve recently had some improvisational sessions around the folk songs and the score. I had to explain the choice of using a female voice to one of the composers more clearly before we got in the room with musicians. We discussed a female voice being right in an abstractedly feminine way. I’m wary of over-intellectualising this, but in short we thought a female voice often sounds more calming or healing than a male one. The songs in both the films have a healing function so a female voice seemed like the right choice. I like how film music can add another context to the images. So I think it is more interesting, in Waterbird at least, to have a voice in the score that doesn’t obviously stem from the characters in the film.

Edward Hopper - Corn Hill (1930)
Edward Hopper – Corn Hill (1930)

The sound design of the Waterbird club setting employs an ‘underwater’ ambience. How did you conceptualise the relationship between this scene and the closing scene, in which Tom literally dives underwater? It seems like the treatment of auditory parallels between the two scenes could provide a rich sense of reminiscence or transformation. 

You’re right about the transformation. What I tried to do when writing the script was to link the swimming scene at the end with the club scene that happened a year before. Tom’s dive into the water is a tribute to his friend, borne out of regret over the evening they spent together in the club. Hopefully the sense of transformation will come through differentiating the sound design too. I think an underwater ambience in the club will sound quite subconscious, blunt, and unthinking, which should correspond to the two friends’ behaviour that evening. The swimming sounds should be crisp and this ought to match to the clarity of Tom’s decision to dive and swim in memory of his friend.

The sound design of both Waterbird and Catkins can be interpreted as adding further layers of meaning to the dialogue and visual action. What reasoning led to the decision to afford sound design such a high level of prominence? 

I think more films should narrate through sound. Cinema is often incorrectly defined as the moving image. It isn’t. It’s the moving image with sound. I like films that have a poetic and bold style; Lynne Ramsay is my favourite British director for this reason. I think if you move away from words and push to narrate through sound and images more, then you can tap into what really makes cinema unique as a medium. There isn’t another medium where music, sound, and images come together in such a unified way.

Another reason for this decision is that if you shift more narrative weight onto the sound – even if it’s as simple as offscreen dialogue or voiceover – then the corresponding image can be much less closely joined to the narrative. This opens up a whole number of possibilities. On the other hand, it also means that you can narrate more concisely. If you tell a story through sound and image at the same time then you bring much more information to the viewer in less time.

You complement the emphasis on sound with the incorporation of nature samples into the films’ score. How interested are you in defining – or blurring – the distinction between onscreen sound and musical scoring? 

Very. I like how going to the cinema is a total experience. I think that if you blend onscreen sound and musical scoring, then that’s a good way to create a more immersive experience for your audience. From a composer’s point of view, I’d also think that it’s interesting to start from some existing sounds rather than from scratch. If you start building a score from material in the film already then hopefully the final score might fit the film better.

I wouldn’t say I’m interested in blurring the distinction between onscreen sound and musical scoring, though. I think they should be very distinct from one another. For me, it’s important that the score is musical enough to add another point of view to the film; a film would become less rich if you lost the point of view that music can afford. I never like films without music that much.

Does musical scoring have a structural function within the two films? 

Absolutely. I’ve talked with both composers (Dan Jeffries and Nathan Klein) about writing what they have informed me is a ternary score. I understand this as A-B-A. Because the two films begin with a flash-forward to that film’s end, this musical structure naturally fits the narrative. I think the narrative in the first A section will particularly lean on the music. At this point the audience won’t know any of the story, but music can communicate everything about the story in a more abstract and very concise way without giving away the plot.

During the B section the audience will find out the story, then when we come to the last A section the story and the music should blend so that the audience fully understands it. Here I think the music will be able to work much more in counterpoint to the narrative, since the audience will know what has happened and what the music is responding to.

John Constable - Weymouth Bay from the Downs above Osmington Mills (1816)
John Constable – Weymouth Bay from the Downs above Osmington Mills (1816)

The protagonists of your films are frequently captivated by the power of lore; your The Wishing Horse featured a girl who found solace in a folk story told by her father. How is this theme continued in Waterbird and Catkins?

In Waterbird Ed plays his friend Tom a folk song from their childhood, in order to try and remind him how long they have known each other. The song is about crossing a river with a friend and perhaps provokes Tom to later dive into a river in memory of Ed. In Catkins Mark has a vision of a willow tree which features in a song he overhears. The song, along with the strife of the girl who sings it, later moves him to forgive his wife.

I think in all three films the folk imagery encourages forgiveness and acceptance. When I was studying theatre directing in Russia on my year abroad, Declan Donnellan, the artistic director of Cheek by Jowl, came to give my class a talk. He said that we tell stories so that we can understand ourselves better. That’s very simple but I think that’s why it’s probably true. I think the folk aspects of these three films lead to better understanding of the plight the characters are going through because they all contain their own small stories. That’s why I like using folk songs – they come parcelled with their own story.

How do you think your year abroad, during which you studied contemporary Russian theatre practice in St. Petersburg, has affected your approach to filmmaking? 

It hasn’t changed it at all other than how I would like to work with actors. The way Russians work with Stanislavsky is very different to how we do in England. I think in some ways it is a better approach and I’m planning to rehearse that way with actors during shooting. But I don’t think it leads to another style. Both ‘schools’ aim for an actor’s performance that is ‘alive’. The Russian word zhivoi conveys this much better; it essentially means a performance in which the actor is experiencing real feelings that are appropriate for the character. I would always chuck a rehearsal plan out the window if it didn’t lead to this kind of performance.

In the school where I was studying, the directors were very personally demanding of their actors and the criticism was often destructive. I think this is far from necessary and unpleasant for everyone. Quite often people also fell back on terminology like ‘unit’, ‘action’ or ‘objective’ when they were confused. I’d like to try and ban those words from rehearsal and just talk about things in plain, everyday terms. Lev Dodin, the current artistic director of the Maly Dramaticheskii Teatr in St. Petersburg, talked about doing this in a Q&A session I attended while in Russia.

You have noted the influence of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, best-known for his work on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), which shares with Waterbird and Catkins a refined and economical approach to nature settings. In future projects, would you be interested in turning your attention to contrasting landscapes, such as the framing of urban sprawls that Bobbitt achieves so effectively in McQueen’s Shame (2011)?

I do think Shame is pretty damn good. I would definitely be interested but I need to become a proper film director first! I think making a film like Shame requires so much expertise. The whole piece is very clinical and I think you need to be very exacting to take that approach to urban settings. They’re much more messy locations.

J. Wadsworth

A Tumblr page created for Waterbird and Catkins can be found here. For more information about Alex and his films, please see our previous articles on The Wishing Horse and film production in Oxford.

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