Tommy Gillard Interview

TAKE ONE is deep into coverage of the 2020 London Film Festival, with reviews from the main strands, shorts selections, and interviews from the talented bunch of directors and producers in attendance. We’re a big fan of short films over on our site, and our Associate Editor Elle Haywood has been joined by director Tommy Gillard. We spill all the secrets about his latest short film Shuttlecock, get into the gritty details of filmmaking, celebrate the Devonshire film community and reflect on the current state of the industry.

Synopsis: Shuttlecock is a 13 min whirlwind ride about redefining masculinity on the Badminton court during a charity match. A sharp comedy, with homoerotic overtones that ends in profound reflection.

Elle Haywood: Hi Tommy, thanks for joining us today, and congratulations on your film being selected at LFF. So to kick things off, could you describe Shuttlecock in one sentence?

Tommy Gillard: It is the story of Carl, who has to question his own masculinity after an obsession with a mysterious member of his badminton club spirals out of control, and it is my very tongue in cheek holding a microscope up to masculinity in hopefully a really fun and playful way.

EH: Tell us a bit about the birth of Shuttlecock, where did the idea stem from? Is it something you’ve had in the books for a while or was it inspired by anything?

TG: It’s a strange old tale, the development of Shuttlecock! Ages ago, myself and one of the producers, Simeon Costello, we were chatting about strange genre mashes that hadn’t been done, and we were saying there weren’t many sport-noir films, that might fun. And well if you were going to do a sport-noir film, you couldn’t do boxing or darts, you’d have to do something ridiculous like badminton. We laughed it off and never spoke about it again. In 2019, I was kicking around ideas and I wanted to explore masculinity I suppose for my own personal reasons, as it was something I was interested in and started writing some stuff down. For some reason, that conversation came back to me and thought that might be interesting to explore. I started writing, and initially pitched Shuttlecock as a sport-noir, about badminton, which obviously it’s not that anymore, but that’s where the names like ‘Morgan Silk’ comes from [a character], it’s a very femme-fatal name. It was pitched to Exeter Phoenix, an arts centre in Exeter, Devon where I live, and they run a short film commission every year and they liked it! As I started writing the script and developing it, I found that all the genre elements fell away. It worked initially as I wanted to have a really masculine genre like a noir or a western and turn that on its head. Some of that got through, but the more I explored it the more funny I thought masculinity was, and the real way to do it was in a comedic way.

EH: It’s very sexual in terms of its description of food while panning the body, and the competitive heat of sport. Are you a sports player yourself or enjoy badminton?

TG: So I’m not very good at badminton at all, and actually, I’m going to drop them right it in, neither are the cast, which they promised they were when we first started chatting. Tom Greaves who plays Carl is pretty good, but Niall Kiely who plays Morgan just isn’t good – I hope he won’t mind me saying that! I’m not into sports at all and I really hate sports films, I just can’t stand them, so naturally, I’ve got to make one because I don’t like them. Badminton is a sport that you can play very aggressively, you can smash very hard and win that way but also it champions being delicate and soft touch; I thought that was a perfect microcosm for my feelings about being a man. The sexual foodstuff? It just happened one day, it made me laugh so I just left it in there. There is the perception of ‘treating people like a piece of meat’ and that happens to women around the world constantly, but hadn’t seen on film, that happening to a man before. It’s a tricky thing to get right, especially coming from a male perspective. The only way I felt I could do that right was through an abstract and surreal way.

EH: It’s quite intimate! On that note, there are a few close physical encounters in the film, such as the scene with the players semi-naked in the dressing room – now do you prepare for intimacy scenes?

TG: The scene in the changing room, was the first day of the three-day shoot in the afternoon, Tom and Niall had really just met the day before and there wasn’t a whole lot preparation around that in terms of the lead-up time to it. They were just both fantastic. We had quite a limited crew on the shoot anyway, and the spaces we were filming in were quite small, and I think that helps to set the tone. We had quite a balanced crew on this film, about a 50/50 men and women split. I think that helps in setting the atmosphere for those sorts of scenes. One thing I am really passionate about on set is quickly trying to cultivate an atmosphere of friendliness, part of how I work is collaborative with both the cast and the crew. Even by the second day, I think we felt like we were all in this together, and that really helps people get out of their comfort zone. It’s great that Tom and Niall were both really up for everything.

EH: I want to ask about your casting process? Was it through auditions or did you have an idea of who you wanted in the roles?

TG: In Devon where I live, there is the most amazing film community. We’re very far down in the South West, we’re very extracted from London. Often it feels a million miles away from the film industry and London itself. I’ve been working with people in Devon for years. So Ross and Lee, who are the cronies of the film were played by Alexander Pearn and Sam Morgan who I know from previous stuff who are based in Devon. I hadn’t formally asked them before I started writing whether they wanted to be in it and I started writing, not their personalities, but roles I thought they could perform really well. So by the time I sent them the script, hopefully, they’d be the right person to play it if they wanted. In terms of finding the two leads, Niall and Tom, I had been professionally stalking Tom for five years, not to his knowledge until we shot the film. I saw him in a documentary a few years ago called OFFLINE DATING, where he plays himself, and I remember watching him thinking ‘wow this guy has the most amazing natural charisma I’ve ever seen’. I checked in what he was doing every couple of years and found he was acting. When it came to casting this, I thought maybe he would be interested in doing it. I got in touch with him through his agent, had a call and the first thing he said was ‘oh hey, yeah I like the script, did you know that male bonobos stand back to back and fling their testicles at each other as a sign of pseudo-copulation but kind of friendly fighting’. I was like, we’ve gotta do this film man. With Niall, it was an open casting call and his was the first tape that came in. I was with Ashleigh Powell, the other producer, and she was like ‘this is the guy’. We were like ‘it can’t be; we’ve got to see some other people’. We saw a few fantastic actors, but Niall had set the bar. We were incredibly lucky to get both of them on board.

EH: There appears to be a strong, independent film community around Devon. London should never be branded as the home of film and regional filmmaking deserves more attention. Has this community been built up by people over time, or has there been a generational surge of filmmakers?

TG: It’s a really interesting question, about the generational stuff, because the spread of ages of people working in the South West is really vast. You’ve got really young filmmakers, but also older, more experienced filmmakers who have lived in London and moved to Devon for a lifestyle change but then continued their practice down here. There’s a wealth of knowledge, and we’re really blessed to be making stuff down here. In the past, I think this felt like a weakness to not be in London in the hub of stuff, but over time with the work that the BFI Network is doing with the regional talent hubs spreading out across the UK, it’s made me feel like actually being in Devon is a strength and it’s helped shape my perspective as a filmmaker. I love being in the land around us, and we have all the best locations down here as well! All the Londoners come down here to shoot, and we’re already here! Twenty minutes from the beach one way and twenty minutes from the moors the other. The community has developed naturally, and now the BFI are putting the hubs in place, the connectivity with the film industry has felt stronger than it ever has before. We have a lot of community portals here where we can chat, and Exeter Phoenix who funded the film also has a filmmaker’s lab before covid, where filmmakers could meet once a month and just chat.

EH: What has the lifespan of the film been like?

TG: Part of the Exeter Phoenix commission is you are making a film for their film festival, at the end of November, beginning of December time. It premiered there in January 2020 and it won the Audience Choice Award. We literally finished the editing the day before the premiere as well, and we had beads of sweat coming down trying to get it ready. It’s been a really interesting time, with everything happening in the world right now. We played at that festival, and another small one, alongside sending it out to a bunch of others but nothing happened at all. Every screening we had scheduled was stopped and took some time out. We then got the call from the LFF saying we’d love you to screen this year, and it changed again and swung back to life more than we ever thought it would. We’re enjoying the festival, submitting to other festivals and we’ve still got our U.S. premiere to work out where we want to screen, so just riding the wave!

EH: How does it feel to be a part of the London Film Festival?

TG: When you’re screening at a bigger festival, there’s a lot of stuff you need to do for that to happen practically. I’ve done shorts, but nothing that’s been received like this and so it’s a brand new world for me, every so often it’s like ‘what’s going on here, this is great’. I’m sure every filmmaker’s dream to screen in a festival of this calibre, but it’s my favourite festival of all time. I love the London Film Festival; I’ve gone every year since 2016 with my mates on the train just enjoying it. If there was any festival to be a part of it would be this one, it’s a massive honour to be involved.

EH: This is the 7th short film you’ve directed now, why did you want to start making films?

TG: Most of my early work was experimenting, and this is my most complete short and the one I’ve loved to share because it’s the one I’ve achieved what I wanted on screen. The great thing about doing shorts and experimental is building that network of actors and crew as well. It’s great to practice your craft on really small budgets. It’s the first thing I’ve been funded for, and even the money I got given was tiny amounts. It’s great to not have that pressure of fulfilling a bank account when you’re just experimenting. There’s an unconventional reason I started making films. Initially, my dad had a VHS camera and there’s not a lot to do where I live so I would shoot stuff with friends, editing it on tape, and rewriting it again without anyone seeing it. I’m around the age where YouTube started booming when I was in community college, and that was great because you could start shooting stuff on a £20 camera, terrible quality but you could get it onto a computer at school and get it online. That was fantastic, you’d get immediate feedback and that really started to blossom my love for editing and that side of filmmaking. When I was in community college, I wanted to be a graphic designer and I was obsessed with the behind-the-scenes of films. But with my background and being where I’m from, with no industry links and my parents not being interested in the arts, my dad is a craftsman and my mum was a care worker at the time, I had no links to the industry. If I wanted to be a graphic designer for film, I would need to start making my own films so I could be the graphic designer on them, so that’s why I started making them. Over time, I realised it was the filmmaking side I was more interested in and that took precedent. For SHUTTLECOCK, I was the production designer as well and it was a nice meshing of the two for me as director.

EH: Do you have a preference as an editor or director, or doesn’t it end up being the management of multiple roles?

TG: The taking on of lots of roles is partially due to budgeting, but I totally can appreciate the need and reason for these separate jobs, but for the way I work the process is the same thing. I’m writing a film, but then I can we-write it on set as a director, and for me it makes sense to re-write it again in the edit suite as I love the end to end control I have over a project. It can be difficult to stay objective and not try and carry on. I always frame it as it’s the writer’s job to write the film, the director’s job to shoot them in the back of the head and take it, then it’s the editor’s job to shoot them again and run off with it.

EH: How do you deal with feedback and the critiquing of a film?

TG: I’ve got a slightly unique way of working here, usually the first person I’ll send anything to is my DP Boris Hardwick, who I’ve worked with on lots of projects, to get his thoughts on it. He’s a great writer in his own right and also a fantastic filmmaker. We just enjoy working that way, and it’s a great benefit for me as he’s quite ruthless with his feedback which is what you need in the early stages and it also sets a precedent to think visually from the get-go. You start to visually articulate an idea, and I find that to be really rewarding and that’s how our collaboration looks the way it does. In terms of feedback, it’s tough! I always take it personally, but y’know you’ve just got to take it. Any time I’ve not taken feedback, at the time I’m always like ‘no way’ and then it’s come back to bite me a year down the line. You have to find the line of not taking anything and keeping your vision intact, but also the best feedback is the practical stuff.

EH: Do the practicalities of making a short film dictate the subject matter to an extent?

TG: It’s about not going too far one way or the other. You have to be ambitious; if you start limiting your ambition in any way you can lose something that really makes the short stand out, but you need to be realistic as well. Look at what’s around you, what do you have access to? And everyone around you is in unique position no matter where they are from or what their background is, they will have something unique to say or something unique to them that no one else has and it’s about identifying that. If I live next to an amazing reservoir, let’s write about that. It’s trying to not let it dictate the subject matter, but how you go about it.

EH: Have you found lockdown to be writer’s paradise or frustrating not being able to work?

TG: I think in terms of a writer’s haven, there’s a wealth of stuff here but it’s quite difficult to talk about it right now, I sort of just want to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians and binge TV. It’s such an interesting time but such a tragic time as well and what’s happening with cinemas around the country is really difficult. It’s so far away from being the end of film. Film will always survive in a variety of different ways. I can only speak for the UK, but our government needs to realise what everyone has been doing since March, we’ve been watching stuff on Netflix and what happens when the money runs out for that. I think it’s quite a scary time to be in the arts, but the sooner our government recognises the need for it the better. It’s been fantastic to not try to do anything and to watch what others have been making. I can give you my LFF list that I’m really looking forward to: DELIA DERBYSHIRE from Antiworlds which I had a small part to work on as well, it’s fantastic it’s unlike anything you’ll see this year, you’ve got Cronenberg’s horror film POSSESSOR which I have on very good authority is totally, totally nuts and AMMONITE by Francis Lee which is shot twenty mins from where I live in Lyme Regis, and can’t go without suggesting Steve McQueen’s SMALL AXE series which is just terrific. I think to see the kind of diversifying creativity emerging this year is great. With the big blockbusters being moved it’s a blow to cinemas but hopefully it paves the way for people to have the time and interest to see the smaller stuff which is just as valid, if not more. Go and seek out the independent work which will blow your mind.

EH: It’s massively underrated having downtime, creatives hit burnout so frequently and don’t always have the time to enjoy other content. Final words: Words of wisdom for new shorts creators, what would you have said to yourself before starting out?

TG: It’s no word of wisdom from me, but just doing it. There’s absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. The only limit is your ambition, there is nothing to stop you. And do it now as well. When I started, you need to get your hands on some kind of camera but now you have phones with cameras, and you can get cheap VHS cameras on eBay. My semi-words of wisdom is that wherever you are, there is some form of filmmaking community even if you don’t know it and they don’t know it as well. People are keen to do stuff because it’s fun. If you can make sure the experience is fun and doesn’t wear anyone out too much, it really rewards you in the end.