The London Short Film Festival was vibrant with an eclectic, emotionally-charged range of films shown across the city. One film that stood out was RED HILL. The film touches upon the downward emotional slope of getting older, through the stages of unemployment and isolationism in a touching, profound tale, and was part of the Blue Monday Strand. To delve deeper into the story, we spoke to Laura Carreira, who directed the piece as she talks us through her filmmaking process, how she cultivated the story through people’s genuine experiences and her perception of the industry from the perspective of a female shorts-filmmaker.
ELLE: Was it someone’s story in particular that inspired this piece or of general social awareness of an ageing population and isolation in smaller towns?
LAURA: The story was in part inspired by meeting someone. Out of curiosity, the co-writer of the project and myself were visiting the location – where we ended up filming – when a security guard approached us as we weren’t authorised to be there… and that security guard was called Jimmy. He ended up talking to us for quite a while, telling us how he had been a miner since he was young and was now almost retiring. The way he talked about himself and the need for him to still be working after a lifetime of work left us feeling like there was something to be said about the way we all are so intrinsically dependent on work. So a few years later we decided to write this film and we ended up using the exact same location, including Jimmy’s trailer which is now empty.
ELLE: Did you always intend for this to be a short piece? If it could be a feature, what ideas and concepts would you have surrounding it?
LAURA: We made it work as a short piece because as a self-financed project that was what we could realistically afford. But I really like Jim as a character and I would have been interested in exploring how he copes on a day-to-day basis during retirement and if he manages to find his place in the world without his workplace. In a way the short-film sets Jim in a path he’s scared of but we don’t get to see the challenging journey he is about to embark on. I think it has the potential to be an interesting feature.
ELLE: How did Billy embody the role of Jim? Was there a character or person you wished him to evoke or was it more a natural progression of the character across the shoot?
LAURA: Billy Mack understood the character with an impressive intuition from the start. From the first times I talked with Billy about the project, it was almost never about the project itself but about its themes and we quickly found out affinities in the way we thought. Billy knew who Jim was, he recognised Jim from people he had encountered and in a way I think you can see that through his performance. The progression of the character happened naturally during the shoot. We had no rehearsals prior to the shoot, which I find insane now looking back, but I guess the whole team had a very clear understanding of what Jim was about to go through.
ELLE: How did you go about location hunting, gaining access and shooting?
LAURA: Straightaway we thought of using the location where we met Jimmy and luckily the company allowed us to film there. I don’t think we would have done the same film without it and I’m incredibly grateful for their support. We also had a very limited budget – my savings essentially – and for that reason we had to use locations that were pretty much ready to be filmed in. The shooting, again for budget reasons, had to be fast so we filmed everything in three days with a very small crew. Overall the project pretty much followed a documentary approach, even in terms of the production.
ELLE: In terms of ethical filmmaking, do you think it’s important for filmmakers to expose, share and educate about culture, history and so forth with the wider world, in terms of society and people’s experiences?
LAURA: Yes, absolutely. For me it’s important for the cinema screen to be a mirror, a reflection of the audience, to make the viewers face themselves. I don’t want the experience of any film I make to have an entertainment value, I don’t want it to be an escape from life or a way to avoid it. I want it to create despair, to allow us to really look at the way we live our lives and to assess it collectively. Cinema can be that space but it often isn’t. It’s a powerful tool and it has the beautiful capacity to make audiences feel compassion for each other. For that reason I feel compelled to tell stories about characters that resemble ordinary people, characters that often get left out of the cinema screen.
ELLE: How does this compare or relate to your previous work? What developments did you see within your process?
LAURA: RED HILLis my first fiction but in a way the themes it examines aren’t really new to me. MONDAY, my graduation project, was a hybrid film where we followed a family during their car journey from home to work. Again, it relates to the impact and transformation one goes through because of work and you can see elements of that on a simple journey to work.
My films tend to focus on the theme of labour because I’m fascinated by the relationship we have with work as individuals and how oblivious we seem to be about it. In most mainstream films characters go about their lives and we rarely see them working; they seem free, however most of us aren’t. My characters aren’t free; they have to go to work.
In terms of process, I always felt that I couldn’t quite find my place between documentary and fiction but after RED HILL I think I’ve found the right method, one that works for me and for the crew and I think I will continue to develop it over the next projects.
ELLE: Do you think the film business is fair? Where can it improve, and what needs to change?
LAURA: No, it isn’t fair on many different levels. I would say the saddest part of it is the way it’s inaccessible for economically disadvantaged individuals. I was lucky enough to be able to have some savings to do this film but it still took me two years of full time work to get there. It’s an expensive form of art. Anyone who assumes that you can just grab a camera and shoot a film is privileged enough to not understand the number of barriers someone disadvantaged would have to overcome just to do that.
I also find there’s a strange attitude in the industry where people avoid talking about finances and how they actually make ends meet. As an emerging filmmaker I constantly wondered how directors managed to continue to do their work and stay afloat financially and the more insight I had, the more I found out that a lot of them are having to work on the side but being secretive about it.
Even through certain attitudes of the industry, you feel that necessity to be available at all times. You’re expected to be available for networking events or for screenings that happen at 3pm on a Monday, for example. It’s a hard balance to be fully committed and available to develop your own projects and still do enough hours of paid work per week to cover your bills. And every time you have to prioritise the paid work, you’re losing opportunities.
ELLE: What do you hope people can take from RED HILL, is there a core message you wanted viewers to take; or have there been any surprising or different reactions from audiences?
LAURA: Most people find the film sad, which it is. I don’t think there’s anything positive about having to work for fifty years to then retire, or about building your whole identity as a worker and not as an individual. I would like the film to make people examine their own lives differently and see themselves in Jim. Most of us are spending our whole lives working. Is it really our choice or are we doing it because we aren’t free to do something else?
ELLE: What are your next plans in terms of scripts or new films?
LAURA: I’m working on two other projects at the moment, both in development, and I’m hoping to start gathering some funding to make them. One is a short fiction about an old-school waiter who finds himself unemployed at the age of sixty and struggles to adapt to the new culture of temporary work. The feature project is a more complex endeavour where I want to follow the steps of an EU migrant in the UK trapped in a cycle of menial work with no job security, where she is increasingly unable to see any hope for her future. I think the feature will really allow me to explore a more in depth and layered portrait of the impact of work on individuals and I feel like I’m ready to tackle that now.
Find out more about Laura’s work, including RED HILL, at LauraCarreira.com.