Sophia Carr-Gomm’s excellent short THE WIDER SUN screened at the Cambridge Film Festival as part of the Film Hub South East strand, and is a highlight of Edinburgh Short Film Festival’s ‘In The Dark’ program on November 3rd, 2018. Following the journey of young girl Ru to the Isle of Skye with her mother, Carr-Gomm’s film mixes beautiful shot-making with an excellent score, to blend nods to Celtic myths and touching childhood motifs into a gentle and wonderful short. Anna Whealing of TAKE ONE said it was “optimistic and peaceful; there is a beautiful shot of Ru getting her hair towel-dried for instance, which takes me right back to childhood.”
Before the screening in Cambridge, she took the time to talk about the film, her path to directing as well her future plans as a filmmaker.
Photos credit to Dave Riley unless noted otherwise.
Jim Ross: THE WIDER SUN is a very personal feeling story. Did you come to direct as a result of the story? Or is it that something you have always wanted to do and the story came later?
Sophia Carr-Gomm: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. As a child, I always thought I wanted to be an actor. Ever since I was a kid that was the case, but my mum had always said, “Hmm…I think you will be a director one day.” And I said, “No! I’m going to be an actor!” and tried to ask for an agent at age 7!
But in the back of my mind the idea of directing was there, and not just purely influenced by my mum. I think I just always had an eye on the bigger picture. So when I was at drama school – I went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, so I lived in Glasgow for three years – there was a module where you could opt to direct, or write, or act. I opted to direct, and I absolutely loved it. I just had this feeling of life force or something! I would come back after a long day directing and study all the notes. I was so much more engaged than when I was acting, but I still didn’t want to admit to myself that I wanted to be a director.
Jim: What do think that hesitancy stemmed from then?
Sophia: I think it’s a bunch of things. I think it’s partly when it is what you’ve decided to do for a long time, there is an, “That is what I do, that is what I’m good at doing, and I’m going to see this through” – perhaps stubbornness or something. There’s also quite a bubble around acting as well. The thought is that if you are sidestepping into producing or directing, people can think you are failing in some way.
So there is a bit of small-mindedness I think that exists in that world. And I, in my young head at that time, thought, “Oh, when I’m older I’ll direct. While I’m young I’m going to be acting.” However, if I’m honest with myself,what I was genuinely interested in, genuinely what really made me feel good, was directing.
I was acting, doing TV stuff and doing quite well in things. And then I had this lull of nothing and I thought, with acting jobs there were aspects that were good, but I felt like acting was in the way of something else. I felt like I was holding myself back from what I really wanted to do.
So I took the time when I wasn’t working to just recalibrate and figure out what I wanted – and I did a whole bunch of things. So I started playing hockey – I loved hockey when I was at school! – I started painting again, I got a job at cinema full time. I said to myself “I’m just going to chill and work out what I want.”
Then, I got the idea for THE WIDER SUN, so I wrote it and then showed a few people. I actually thought I wouldn’t direct it, because I had never directed a film before. So I was going to help produce it, but I didn’t feel like I would be able to direct it, because I had only had experience directing theatre and I was confident with that, but this felt like another thing.
Jim: This was the production of Faustus you directed?
Sophia: Yeah, that was in, I think, second year of drama school. And then after that, working as an actor, but being the go-to person as a director in a way, people looking for scene recommendations and similar, it seemed like people valued my opinion in terms of being able to see if something is good or not. So, having had the time of not acting, recalibrating, and getting the inspiration for writing the film, people started to say, “Why don’t you direct THE WIDER SUN?” And I thought, “Oh. Maybe I could do it!” So I went ahead and literally taught myself! We crowdfunded for it in November and then we couldn’t shoot until the summer, because obviously the Isle of Skye, the weather is changeable every hour anyway! But it was safer to wait until August and that fit. So I had a lot of time after we had got the money to have a really long pre-production, and just work out what I would do. I read Sidney Lumet’s book. I watched YouTube tutorials. I went to Raindance and did an evening course on directing film. I picked the brains of television directors who directed me as an actor, one of my best friends was studying directing at NFTS at the time and I would ask her, my other best friend is a First (Assistant Director) and it was one of these things where I realised many of my really close mates are film crew right on the end of the phone! I discovered quickly through learning about filmmaking that it all came very naturally to me and I became obsessed with the whole process, and knew that it suited me down to the ground.
“I went ahead and literally taught myself! […] I read Sidney Lumet’s book. I watched YouTube tutorials. I went to Raindance and did an evening course on directing film.”
I started to get a bit geeky about it. I would get so frustrated that there was no document I could find that listed clearly examples of different aspect ratios. So I made myself this PDF to refer to. Turning your film into a DCP was another thing that was hard to get concrete information on, so I did the same for that process.
I loved pre-production, but I didn’t feel I could call myself a film director until I’d stepped on set and said “Action!” and “Cut!”. When the time came, it felt completely right, I had a real deep sense of calm and trust. I found the edit quite laborious, but our amazing editor, Eva Howells, was so patient and intuitive. I discovered what a perfectionist I am and how dedicated I am to making the film the best it can be, so although it was tough, I was obsessed with it. I loved the colour grade and the music composition collaboration. So I left my agent. I decided I was not acting any more. I said to myself “I am going to do this properly.”
Jim: You were talking about the team that you put together for it. It seems like it is a very wide-ranging and talented bunch. How quickly did they come together? Was it just through phoning up people you knew? Or were there also people from outside that circle who you got put in touch with?
Sophia: My first is my best friend, so that was sorted luckily. And then, the [Director of Photography] Donna Wade, I was an actor in a short film at the NFTS that she was the DOP on, so that is how I got in touch with her. My sister was our Production Designer, it was perfect working with her, because she knew exactly what I wanted just from a look, gesture, or word which I gave her. We are basically an extension of each other’s brain.
I didn’t initially go out to have an all-female crew, but it turned out that we had ten women and three men. And I personally just feel like whoever is right for the job is right for the job, not caring about people’s gender or anything like that, and everyone was great. And yeah, there were some people I didn’t know until the shoot, but what was so heart-warming was it was a passion project because it was really low budget, so no one was being paid., and everyone came and did it, even if they hadn’t known me before. So everyone really believed in the project and wanted to make it a reality. But man, it was honestly one of the best things I’ve done in my life, even though some things went so wrong.
Jim: Yeah, I can imagine the drive with that minibus as well, because I’ve driven to Skye from Edinburgh, and even then it’s a bit of a trek!
Sophia: It started well. And there was a point where the sun was setting and we were listening to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album. And I was looking around and I was like, “Wow! Everyone has come along on this journey! And I’ve started this from scratch.” It felt like an adventure but then night-time hits, the car starts flashing a weird sign. We have to stop and it’s kind of a bit like a horror movie. We’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s no signal. We need petrol. We get petrol and then we keep going. Charlie and Harvey are taking naps intermittently, it was an 18 hour drive, they are pretty much hallucinating. Then we’ve got stags jumping in front of us on the road… it was pretty dangerous basically.
So I was a bit concerned, because obviously there was some crew that I didn’t know and I thought, “God. I bet they didn’t expect it was going to be this bad.” Then, the people who had the kit van had arrived earlier, like 11:00 at night. They told the people of the AirBnB we stayed at we were going to be arriving late and we arrived at 4:00 a.m. We thought we’d make use of the full prep day and sleep until midday. We can go to the house [used in the film], prep the house, chill, whatever. However, at 9:00 in the morning – after getting to bed around 5:00 am – the landlady bursts into all of the rooms and goes, “RALLY THE TROOPS! IT’S TIME FOR BREAKFAST!” Literally screaming at the top of her lungs! “RALLY THE TROOPS!” I jumped out of bed and I was, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no! Everyone has driven for 18 hours – we don’t need to get up.” But she insisted it was a 10am check out every day – even if you were staying longer – and she needed in the rooms for “general maintenance”. I thought everyone would hate me, but they fell in love with the setting, because they hadn’t been to Skye before and so they were taking pictures, because it is utterly stunning. So I was saved by the landscape.
“I thought everyone would hate me, but they fell in love with the setting, because they hadn’t been to Skye before and so they were taking pictures, because it is utterly stunning. So I was saved by the landscape.”
Jim: What drew you to Skye? It’s perfect for the film. It’s one of these places where you always drive around the corner into some magnificent landscape or other. There is a lot of it in the framing and you’ve got it in the background, so it is very much there all the time. What drove that? How did you come to that as the location?
Sophia: Well, I definitely wanted to shoot in Scotland because it’s a Selkie story, so it’s a Celtic story and I didn’t want to cheat that. The precise reason is we have a family friend, with a house there which was serendipitously the house that I imagined when I wrote it. After getting pictures, it was perfect – then we obviously had a production meeting and everyone asked, “Do we really have to go to Skye, Soph?” But I was pretty uncompromising on it basically! The house’s owner was the first camerawoman for BBC Scotland ever, actually, and she was a producer for BBC in Scotland. So – surprisingly, considering she knows what happens in filmmaking – she let us have her whole house while she was on holiday. So it was also saving money, but just looks amazing. The downside was just the drive there and back. The kit van did break down on wrapping and we all pushed it under a huge full moon, the Isle didn’t want us to leave!
Jim: I wanted to ask you about the music. I was wondering how much you were involved or what sort of brief was given to Dominic Glynn? I was very impressed with it, it’s got a very Celtic, mythical feel to it, without being hokely or cloyingly so. This may be a bit of a personal concern of mine, though!
Sophia: I totally get what you mean, though, yeah. The film is actually named after a piece of music called, “The Wider Sun,” by Jon Hopkins. And it is a piece of classical music that is not particularly Scottish, but essentially I heard that music and it made me think of my friend Freya who had died, and then I got the idea for the film. So it seemed linked, and ‘the wider sun’, the sunset, it made sense for the film. I was at first very attached to using that piece of music in the film. Obviously it was far too expensive to use. Even though we tried to pull his heartstrings and his agent said she would forward him the email. Whether he read it or not, he didn’t gift it to us or anything, but I am really glad that we didn’t use it, because what Dom came up with worked so much better. That was actually one of my favourite collaborations. He knew that I was very attached to the track, “The Wider Sun.” So he tried to replicate something similar. It wasn’t quite working and so we started from scratch, we would bounce ideas back and forth. I brought up PARIS, TEXAS and eventually came up with directions like “Celtic, by Ry Cooder!”. The feel is something like the seals are calling to her, but it’s rooted in a Scottish sort of earthiness. It was perfect. He is so experienced, talented and the most patient man you’ll ever meet, it is amazing that he came on board.
Jim: It is quite a hard thing to do, especially on a small budget, to get really, really effective music for it.
Sophia: Yeah. Well, he got an amazing violinist, Roberto Borzoni, to do a live recording. He’s got a studio, and so, it was very lucky that we were able to collaborate. I trained as a dancer as well and I’m really moved by music. It was the inspiration from the music that kicked off writing it in the first place. Certain Scottish music pierces through my heart, really gets me in the feels. Always has, even as a child. I am technically part Scottish, my partner is Scottish and I loved living in Glasgow. Scotland feels like another home for me.
Jim: How did the casting process work for Ru and Oran?
Sophia: It was a long casting process. So I knew obviously what I was looking for, but obviously concerned about whether I would find it! So I and my producers put this casting brief out and then we were invited to go and watch drama classes. The idea was that we would go to these drama clubs, and then we would pick individuals to meet them one-on-one. I was actually early for this class and I was looking through a glass window at another class. I saw Maia [the actor who plays Ru], and I just thought there was something about her.” She came out and she just said to the teacher she was going home. I thought, “She’s got attitude! That’s cool!”
We booked rooms to see kids one-on-one, but kept thinking about Maia. They were like six, seven, and maybe that was a bit naive of me, because that is really young and it wasn’t quite working. Maia was nine at the time, so I invited her to audition – not just her, you’re auditioning the parents as well for who will be on set, and her mum was very cool. She’s got two mums and they are both great.
Maia just immediately could have a depth to her. She is very smart and a really grounded kid. She didn’t really want to be an actor, which in some ways was good, in the fact that she wasn’t ‘starry’ or showing off in any way.
Jim: She basically has no dialogue, until right at the end, and it is an excellent performance. As a viewer, you are very in tune with what she is thinking throughout.
Sophia: I did improvisations with her, imagining different scenarios. In the meantime we sent brief out in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and nearby for boys to play Oran. Then I narrowed it down to nine, then I flew up to Glasgow with Maia and we did chemistry tests. When I received Gregor’s self-tape, he was immediately what I imagined. He is very captivating, and pure, and a kind of slightly ethereal quality about him that I really wanted. Meeting him in person just reiterated this. He was also the most polite boy in Scotland and had learnt his lines perfectly. Manners go a long way! I ensured all the actors had the script for about a month so they could really take time to learn it and understand it. Gregor is doing really well. He is in a feature film called, TELL IT TO THE BEES, that is coming out soon.
Jim: I noticed that the next thing you’re doing [short film NOBODY’S DARLING] is also funded through Kickstarter, just as THE WIDER SUN was. Did you prefer the direct link this gives to people who want to see this or is it more of a by-product of a lack of funding elsewhere?
Sophia: I’ve been asked to direct NOBODY’S DARLING but haven’t really been involved with that production side of it. I went through Kickstarter for THE WIDER SUN because I was new to it and I didn’t know another way because it was my first film. I thought I needed to earn my stripes first before approaching funding bodies. I don’t want to go through Kickstarter the next time because I don’t feel comfortable asking friends and family for more money. Do you know what I mean? I think you can only kind of do that once. For our next film, CERTAIN LIGHT, my producer and I are looking at funding bodies and private investors. We would really like to pay people, and so we want quite a lot of money. I am just starting to delve into the world of proper funding. There’s a lot of stuff out there where you’ve got to pay quite a bit to submit and I wonder if the one they pick is their mate’s one which is then funded, because everyone has paid money! My producer and now business partner [Nina Yndis] and I have decided to open a film company [Certain Light Films Ltd] ourselves, so we’re looking at how we can get investment to get that going, alongside obviously making films – building up our slate and working towards our first feature film.
Jim: Are you able to talk much about the next things you’re planning?
Sophia: Well, there’s two. There’s NOBODY’S DARLING. The DOP is Jonathan Flint – he asked me to tell you that! He’s great, and just graduated from NFTS. It’s essentially a comedy with definite melancholy tones, set over new-year, which is often an emotionally uneasy time for many. It’s about who your true friends are and how you can pass them by, but it’s very much rooted in very funny characters. So that is going to be a London shoot. It’s written by Samuel Keefe and Ruby Richardson and Ruby is the lead in it as well. Amy Banks is producing it, and so are Sam and Ruby through our company Certain Light Films Ltd. So that is going to be really fun, and great to have on our slate. We’ve got a really good team aboard and I am really looking forward to doing comedy.
Then, in the new year, and we have to wait until the spring just because it’s set all outside, is CERTAIN LIGHT – the namesake of our company, as that’s what brought Nina and I together to work. It’s about a woman, Tessa, her partner Lin, and her friends, who all go camping by a lake. Despite the jokes and fun, we sense that something is not quite right and there is twist to it, but it’s not horror or anything. I don’t want to reveal the twist! We’ve got a great cast and crew, we just need the money. So anyone with money should please feel free to contact me!
What was so good about [crowdfunding] for THE WIDER SUN was when it is your first movie there is such a sense of support. Every time, there’s a fiver or someone that you don’t expect gives you £200 and you’re blown away. It also does guarantee that that you have a following, provided you come up with the goods for the final film! We got to screen it at the BFI. It was the first time anyone had seen it, and it was completely full: 136 seats or something. I was on my way there and I was preparing myself for the worst-case scenario – nobody would show, people who did would just say ‘aw that was nice’ and then disappear. But it was the complete opposite – the cinema was packed out, we had to show it twice because the cinema was full and there were people waiting outside – and everyone was so effusive about it afterwards! It was a dream come true. We all worked so hard to make it happen and so it was so wonderful to see it pay off. The audience felt part of the team. There was a really lovely community spirit, because we couldn’t have done it without all of those generous people. It was really so special and was honestly such a perfect event, that I’m so grateful for. That’s what I love about filmmaking – it brings people together, and against all odds you can make it happen.