Charlotte Wells is the director and writer of the short film, BLUE CHRISTMAS, which premiered at Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Edinburgh audiences had the chance to see the film at the Edinburgh Short Film Festival, where it is nominated for Best Scottish Short. Her previous short films – TUESDAY and LAPS – have won awards and special mentions at festivals such as SXSW, Sundance, and Glasgow Short Film Festival, including an award for her editing collaborator Blair McLendon at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Her first short film as director, TUESDAY, depicts teenager Allie struggling to deal with a recent loss, featuring excellent work in gradually unveiling character motivations in a poignant short character study. LAPS follows a female commuter in New York City, who is sexually assaulted in plain sight on a subway train. Taking the viewer with the protagonist on a journey of initial self doubt and growing horror, it is a powerful short with superb acting, editing and directorial work.
Her latest short, BLUE CHRISTMAS, follows Alec (Jamie Robson) – a debt collector in a Scottish seaside town. Struggling to deal with his home life and his wife’s declining mental health. The film conveys a sense of time and place with wonderful production design, and draws rounded characters in a short time with superb attention to character details. Wells’s script and lead actor Jamie Robson also balance dramatic and comedic tone in showing the ups and downs of Alec’s day – weaving empathy and humour into varied scenes.
She took the time to chat with TAKE ONE about BLUE CHRISTMAS, her other short films, common elements between them, reactions to her work, and plans for the future.
Jim Ross: I watched TUESDAY and LAPS after BLUE CHRISTMAS, so I noted that you’ve gone for a period piece with BLUE CHRISTMAS. Was there a particular reason for that? Did you just feel it fit the story or was that something you wanted to try your hand at as a director?
Charlotte Wells: I wouldn’t say that it was from a challenge myself, put-my-crew-through-hell perspective. The origin of the story came from a few different places, one of which was my grandparents. I’d been struggling to write another project when I spent some time with my grandfather. One afternoon, he started regaling the family with stories of his time debt collecting which is what he did for the majority of his career. When I was little, I would ride around in the car with him on calls.
I found myself then combining aspects of my own life with my grandparents’. To get back to your initial question, to the degree that the film touches on mental illness and with a view to perhaps expanding the story into a bigger project in the future, it felt important to anchor the film in the time of some of the events that inspired the story. It also justified a fun, nostalgic soundtrack.
Jim: You said it was inspired by talking to your grandparents. Did you have that in mind when casting Jamie Robson?
Charlotte: That’s interesting…no not explicitly, but I think I did aspire to capture something of their spirit versus appearance. Jamie impressed as soon as he entered the casting room. He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and fell to the floor to do press-ups. I respect how seriously Jamie takes his work, almost fanatically so, and that was clear from that very first moment.
“I respect how seriously [BLUE CHRISTMAS lead] Jamie takes his work, almost fanatically so, and that was clear from that very first moment.”
Jim: How have you found working with Blair McLendon for the last two shorts as opposed to working as your own editor for TUESDAY?
Charlotte: TUESDAY was my first short and it was my first short within the film school framework, so there was a mandate to edit the film myself. Picture-locking a film can be impossibly hard, so having at least come through one from start to finish as the sole editor was valuable. That being said, it’s a very obsessive process, for me at least, whether I’m the lead editor or not, so working with Blair has brought a much needed perspective. Beyond having someone less likely to be attached to things for the wrong reasons, in an ideal world the contribution of an editor, like all key crew members, elevates the project. I certainly feel that way about Blair, who’s a close collaborator – I just produced his last short. He is a brilliant film maker, a wonderful editor. I hope to keep working with him going forward.
Jim: So, it helps to have somebody who can not necessarily be removed from it, but can take maybe one step further back than you can, as someone who wrote the scripts as well?
Charlotte: Exactly, but they also have their own take on what might work, their own creative ideas. On BLUE CHRISTMAS, for example, as with LAPS, Blair I and spent a lot of time in the edit suite together, but one afternoon I left for a meeting. When I came back, he had fallen into a rabbit hole of radio static sounds. He had integrated static into the beginning and end of the film, allowing it to bleed into ‘Silent Night’, and creating this hugely evocative soundscape leading to the film’s climax. That’s the kind of thing I would never have arrived at myself. Working with Blair, with an editor, has only been a positive experience and I have enjoyed the collaboration. It also takes the sting out of how lonely the process can be.
Jim: I felt like there’s a thematic through-line with the shorts you’ve done, in that there is an analysis of a greater truth hidden in what otherwise appears to be a routine activity. TUESDAY starts off withholding a little bit about what is going on, but teases out the character motivations through the daily routine of her Tuesday. LAPS is obviously a very difficult watch, but is again rooted in what should be a mundane routine, using it to highlight something which really shouldn’t be. In BLUE CHRISTMAS, the Alec character is perhaps looking to remove himself from the home situation by going about his day-to-day routine. Is that a conscious approach, or is it just the type of story that you end up drawn to?
Charlotte: That makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think I have considered it in quite those terms, or as explicitly as that. Certainly, daily routine and the eventual realisation that it has been disturbed, that life has been disturbed, and that this Tuesday is not in fact like those that came before, is the heart of TUESDAY; its narrative structure/foundation, hence the title. It is the pursuit of normalcy in the face of tragedy. In LAPS, the day really does begin as any other. The monotony of routine lulls the character and audience into a passive safety that is disrupted as she is violated; it contributes to the questioning, the doubt. For BLUE CHRISTMAS, I’m not sure I had thought about it in those terms before, but you’re right. What I had thought about, although this is a somewhat a better fit for TUESDAY and BLUE CHRISTMAS than LAPS, is that for me, when I consider what ties the films together — and there never was an intention to make films thematically similar but, of course, everybody does, because sometimes it feels as if everybody is making the same film over and over again — is a pattern of characters denying or avoiding something. One way to do that is to carry on as if everything is normal. So, for me, the repetition of routine is a dramatisation of that denial or avoidance versus a starting or end point.
“I will always, always take that risk; the risk of losing some audience members if it means connecting more meaningfully with others.”
Jim: When people are told hard truths, or they have things pointed out to them, they don’t always take it with the most grace. I was just wondering how you find that with your films, but in particular with LAPS – whether you noticed anything like that or if it was more positive than maybe I’m giving people credit for?
Charlotte: LAPS posed the most obvious opportunity for negativity because it raised issues relating to women in society and was released online the same week the Harvey Weinstein story broke. The main criticisms were either a) it’s not clear what is going on or it seems as if nothing is going on; there is no assault or b) the protagonist’s response is not credible; there is no way she would have withstood the assault as she does; they don’t believe she wouldn’t have reacted, fought back. The latter perspective is exactly why I made the film, so I only feel affirmed that it plays out exactly as it does. When something similar happened to me, I wouldn’t have believed that I would have stood there paralysed by fear, humiliation, and self-doubt, but that’s exactly what happened. That was really the driving force behind the making of the film. How – in retrospect – in such a clear situation, you can really be thinking, “Is this happening at all?” It’s unimaginable how long you can endure without acting or reacting. The first group, people who didn’t understand that anything was wrong…it’s hard to know how to respond. Occasionally, I think to myself, “Well, I walk a fine line of subtlety in all of my films, I’m still figuring all exactly how to maintain that,” but no. I’m checking myself here. I don’t think LAPS is subtle at all. I think you see exactly what he’s doing to her.
Jim: Certainly, if you watch it from start to finish, I don’t know how anybody could interpret it that way, to be honest.
Charlotte: But it’s shocking how many people do. I had a question at Sundance that caught me so off guard, Blair ended up responding. I regret not addressing it head-on myself and I have done since.
Jim: I felt like it was maybe constructed to take you on that same journey of self-doubt. By the end, it is very clear, as far as I’m concerned.
Charlotte: 100% and there’s a very clear, unobstructed shot of his crotch grinding against her. It’s there. But, of course building to that, my goal was to make the audience doubt, as the bystanders did, as even she did, up until a certain point.
With regards to the other films, as I touched on a minute ago, the main issue has been misinterpretation, people not entirely understanding what’s going on. I think that’s my greatest challenge: how to evoke a very specific, complex feeling with narrative nuance, but emotional clarity. Sometimes I feel like I have succeeded in the films I have made so far and other times I don’t. But I will always, always take that risk; the risk of losing some audience members if it means connecting more meaningfully with others.
Jim: It’s interesting you say that, because your lead characters don’t really rely on a lot of dialogue. Less so in BLUE CHRISTMAS, but even the lines Jamie has are reasonably few and far between.
Charlotte: Well, TUESDAY is the most obvious example. I would say more people than not think that the father is a deadbeat who doesn’t show up, rather than having recently died. There are some people who see that film and are absolutely, unequivocally certain that he’s dead and for them it seems to really resonate. So that has been interesting, especially as my first film. I have thought a lot about whether I would change anything, how I would make it clearer. I’m not sure I would now. But on set, we thought it was painfully obvious the whole time. We were sure we were walking the wrong side of the line.
Jim: BLUE CHRISTMAS is probably the most balancing of tone that I’ve seen you do, compared to the other two shorts. There are obviously difficult, heartfelt moments, but there are those moments of lightness and comedy as well when he’s going about the day. Did that change how you approached the actual shooting or the direction of the actors at all?
“I wanted [BLUE CHRISTMAS] to be more balanced, to vary the tone to give perspective and counterweight to the melancholy. It’s almost like the tumble is steeper if you fall from a higher point. Honestly, I think I could have gone further.”
Charlotte: It is, with a lot of intention on my part. I wanted it to be more balanced, to vary the tone to give perspective and counterweight to the melancholy. It’s almost like the tumble is steeper if you fall from a higher point. Honestly, I think I could have gone further. Did it change my approach on set? Not really, although it provided opportunity for more levity, even behind the scenes. Next time, I think I’ll be better placed to really tease all of that out, just in terms of making sure I’m getting the right amount of variation, really giving the actors space to open up, to charm and delight. That’s something Jamie and I have chatted about since.
Jim: In terms of what comes next, you’re writing a feature film right now?
Charlotte: Yes, I’m writing at the moment so it’s early days still. It’s a feature about a young father, twenty-eight turning twenty-nine, on holiday with his eleven-year-old daughter. It’s been a completely different process than writing a short, which should have been obvious off the bat, but wasn’t, but it’s moving forward and I’m excited to see how people respond to it. I can’t get back on set soon enough – it’s already been too long. But I also produce – I produced a feature in Vancouver in January and Blair’s short in the summer, so that keeps me on set, watching and learning from the people I work closely with.