Director of Medusa Deluxe, Thomas Hardiman, spoke about his audacious one-take whodunnit set in a hairdressing salon, about blowing up walls with dynamite, baby agents of chaos, and working with music producer Koreless.
Connor Lightbody: First of all, I have to ask the obvious…Why did you choose to do this in one take, which is a lot to start off with especially as your debut feature?
Thomas Hardiman: I always think of them as long takes I guess because you’re sewing them together. I had this thing in my head where my nieces were watching these long YouTube videos of makeup and hairstyling tutorials where there was no cut and they were getting used to that and that’s how they experienced the media they watched. It would be someone walking around their room and I was kind of looking at it like how does that influence storytelling? How does that be something? The thing I’m into is how you pick up a camera today and can feel like you’re a contemporary film maker? How do you respond to changes in society, changes in technology and push the boundaries of filmmaking? So I wanted to look at murder mystery and if you stay with it beyond the point you’ve had the red herring, or after you’ve reached the point of that crucial detail, it becomes a character-led drama rather than a murder mystery and that is what I’m interested in. I love NASHVILLE, I love Robert Altman and I was trying to kind of push it in that direction and kind of somewhere new.
CL: That’s fantastic – so how many takes did you manage to get in all? Were there any flubs and any moments of improv in the final take?
TH: We shot the film in nine days so it was pretty mental. You put yourself under this pressure but it’s the most joyous experience. You’re just thankful that anyone is giving you the chance to make a film that you just spend the whole time smiling. And then when we were shooting with the baby, one of the babies cried all day. We had two, they were twins and it’s this amazing thing where they’re both credited but it’s actually only one that is in the film because the other would cry every single time we turned the camera on, so that was kind of the most pressurised moment. In terms of the takes, I obviously lost track of that but there were a few. You only get about three or four goes each day so you pick the ones you kind of know will be the hardest and you separate them out. It was about pushing storytelling and ambition. I wanted it to be something that leaps off the screen and takes an audience with it. I knew we’re going to be doing something that was tough but why else do anything?
“It was about pushing storytelling and ambition. I wanted it to be something that leaps off the screen and takes an audience with it. I knew we’re going to be doing something that was tough but why else do anything?”
CL: When I spoke to Philip Barantini who did BOILING POINT, a similar one-take, he said he’d never do that again. Do you feel similar after this experience or do you have another one in you?
TH: Oh I don’t know, it’s all about the story isn’t it? Like, I don’t feel bad – I am over the moon actually. We’ve been showing the film to people and they’re coming out happy and smiling. We showed it to some hairdressers last night and they basically came out elated saying they knew so many people like this and that’s just the best feeling in the world. You care so much when you do something like this. I’m passionate about hair, I’m passionate about cinema. I’m over the moon. If I get another chance to make another film, that’ll be a dream come true. It will always just be about the story. I’m interested in storytelling and doing something that can be, at once, something I feel like I haven’t seen and also kind of generous and engaging to an audience.
CL: It sounds like you are extremely passionate about cinema as a medium which is really lovely to hear.
TH: Yeah I mean…die hard fan.
CL: So I’m from the North of England, andthe production notes on the movie say that you shot it up here…
TH: Yes, in Preston
CL: …during lockdown. How was it filming a feature like this during lockdown?
TH: I mean it’s not the easiest thing in the world. You just have to deal with it but like yeah, Preston. I can’t thank them enough. They did things for this film that you just don’t get in other places. I worked on a film called CATCH ME DADDY which was shot all over Yorkshire. My family is Irish but live in Essex and I grew up in the south. So there was a real big moment for me on that set when I got to work between Leeds and Manchester. I’ve always gone back weirdly, and I can’t even explain why but I just really like it. I like the people. My first short was shot in Manchester, my second was also in Manchester and now this is in Preston so it’s kind of like I just have an affinity for the place. The infrastructure is there for it. I love the people, the crew. Yeah, it’s something I’m actually pretty passionate about.
CL: Well I hope your next feature also ends up here in the north, the industry in the area definitely needs it and the accessibility.
TH: We’ll see how it goes!
CL: So what was it about hairdressing that made you think “oh I’d love to see a whodunnit murder mystery play out here”?
TH: I mean, I love hairdressing! My mum would go to the hairdressers a ridiculous amount of times growing up so I just sat in the back of a hairdressers for a long time. I come from a big Irish family so you find yourself piecing things together. My family would sit at the dinner table together, with all that classic Irish storytelling, and I suddenly started to relate to people in salons and the way they were inhabiting space. You can have that incredible breadth of society, they come from all different walks of life. If you’re making an ensemble drama, it’s such fertile ground to set your story that feels representative of modern Britain. When I’m talking about contemporary storytelling, I’m interested in the time that I live in, that this is the world I see out there. Obviously it’s heightened, it is fun and camp and silly and funny but there is a realism to it that means something to me. I do look at these people and I do feel like they’re not always necessarily the people who go on a cinema screen which yeah, that means something to me.
“You can have that incredible breadth of society, they come from all different walks of life. If you’re making an ensemble drama, it’s such fertile ground to set your story that feels representative of modern Britain”
CL: That’s great to hear. We touched on this already but incorporating a baby into your script with the one take element pays off. When Pablo begins crying after Gak touches him is quite an intense moment, especially with how it all plays out. How was working with a baby that young on set?
TH: Yeah, I’m sort of like “I might never get the chance to make a film again” so I was kind of hell to leather on this. I was not going to leave anything in the kitchen sink or whatever the phrase is. There isn’t really any improv in the film. It was scripted as a very tight, controlled experiment. I’m the kind of person that builds something incrementally and then wants to break it. I like that thing of having that agent of chaos in there, right in the middle that you know can fall apart. That’s what the film is, it’s kind of a snowball from the top that just grows and grows, and you’re spinning plates the whole time. They’re going to crack and break if they’re not handled well and you know, you want to live on the edge a little bit. That’s what the baby is to me. Like obviously it’s an emotional narrative part of the film, and then there’s the chaos that it brings. Yeah there’s a moment where we were shooting with it and we lost an entire day because the baby cried a bit but who cares. There’s moments where you’re resting on their face and just going “aww, the baby is so cute”. It’s such an amazing moment.
CL: The action scene between Cleve and everyone else involved was quite incredible. Do you have any insight into how Clare Perkins got herself so riled up, so quickly? Was that a scene that took a lot of practice and choreography?
TH: Yes and no. The whole film is a dance, it’s all pretty highly choreographed. So, like that scene wasn’t necessarily more than any other. To be honest, I think they both just loved it. I feel like we were in such a great space. It was a time that was quite difficult for people to be working. It was not the easiest moment to be shooting a film and everyone was so joyful and happy to be there that everyone just went for it. They did that scene 4-5 times, so she gets hurled on the floor like that – it’s pretty intense. I was thinking that they’re never going to do this. The harder scene was carrying Angie down the stairs because that staircase is so long, and Nick (Karimi) is a strong guy but carrying someone that far is not easy. So weirdly that took more thought than the fight scene. It was logistical like how are you going to do X, Y and Z. That walk was a lot more like flipping hell you have him going down seven flights of stairs, it’s pretty hardcore.
CL: One of the things that I loved was the kinda jazzy, percussive score from Koreless. How did you come upon him and what was it like working with him?
TH: Yeah I mean, he’s a producer so he’s doing FKA Twigs’ new album, and he did her last. He’s a successful producer in his own right and then he’s obviously got his solo stuff. We had a really weird meeting. So I haven’t actually said this before but like I was casting my short and just literally walking around streets and I went up to him and said do you want to be in this? And he said no, which was fine and then we walked away from each other. Then about two years later he saw my first short and he emailed me: “I really loved your short, do you want to meet up for a drink?” and as soon as I arrived he recognised me as the guy who tried to cast him two years earlier. So it was this really circuitous moment that made you feel like you were in The Truman Show. You can probably guess from the film that I love dance music. I love techno specifically and he’s kind of like this incredible – I knew his work so I wanted to work with him as soon as he called me up. I was straight to the café and just said whatever you want to do, I’m in. He’s remarkable, he’s so unbelievably talented. There’s something in the film that no one would know and I kind of want to get it out there. You know those sequences of kinda like dooh-dodod-dooh, that snake-like feel? We were getting the soundtrack together and he had this real big thing about the serpentine nature of the movie and those movements and how we bring snakes into the subtext of the music. So he basically reprogrammed his phone to be a metronome to his body movements and all those sounds are him playing and moving himself like a snake. So it’s him literally doing that, it was unreal. You come in with your own ideas and you want to kinda get somewhere, then someone says something like that to you and you look at them and think “flipping hell you’re next level” like I was so happy and lucky to be working with him.
“There isn’t really any improv in the film. It was scripted as a very tight, controlled experiment. I’m the kind of person that builds something incrementally and then wants to break it. I like that thing of having that agent of chaos in there”
CL: It sounds like you were very fortunate to find each other!
TH: It’s the same across the board. Like it’s the same with Eugene with the hair. I begged Eugene to take on this film. I’ve been a fan of his for years, he’s worked with the biggest fashion designers in the world. He’s one of the great hairdressers, and when he brought the fountain of hair to the shoot I knew where we were going with this story. It’s like this is special, this is the moment you think you’ve knocked it out of the park. I mean, everyone did. Gary Williamson, who’s done production design for Paddington, there’s things in this that if I’ve asked for them previously, I’ll get laughed out of the room. But with Gary it was like “I need to get through this wall because we’re ten seconds too long when we’re walking” and he was like yeah I’ll just dynamite the wall and he did! I’ve never had anyone tell me that was like… I never knew that was an option! So yeah just got to thank everyone.
CL: Nothing like a bit of home improvement on a film set.
TH: Yeah it was literally a flipping concrete wall and I was like it would be really great if we could get through there and they said just leave it with us to figure out. Next day I come back and there’s a hole in the wall
CL: I love that. So Drag Race UK was mentioned as inspiration, specifically that of Vivienne. Was there ever any discussion around bringing her on board?
TH: No I don’t think so. There was a time when we were going through inspirations like TANGERINE the film from Sean Baker. I love TANGERINE, it’s a great film.: NASHVILLE, all Altman really that were involved in what we were talking about. I think high and low culture is a load of rubbish and that creativity is flat. Putting hairdressing on a pedestal is about saying that the creativity here is as high as anything else out there. That’s why I want it to be center stage and it’s the same with the references. Eastenders did a live show a few years ago.
CL: I remember, I watched it! It was quite an event.
TH: Yeah it was, and it had a really high level of creativity involved in that. I’ll be looking at that and also Deviate, who did a play called John which was a kind of dance piece that was one of the most incredible feats that I saw in a cinema rather than a theater. I think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen and it’s just all of those things they come into a melting pot and when you’re working with someone like Gary, he gets it. He knows I’m looking at RuPaul, he knows I’m looking at Nashville and he can kinda marry it altogether.
CL: Outside of RuPaul, what were the other inspirations? We touched on TANGERINE and NASHVILLE.
TH: I mean I’d say SLACKER but for a totally different reason. Everyone’s got their own filmmaking journey. Like anyone I grew up on those massive films in my childhood but like Chinatown was the big film that was kind of my first introduction into different sorts of filmmaking. Then I got really into Antonioni, then really into Claire Denis. There was a point in which I realised I’m not like those, I’m not that filmmaker. I’m not going to turn around and make a Claire Denis film. I discovered Leos Carrax and he became a big thing. BOY MEETS GIRL was a massive film for me, HOLY MOTORS obviously. Those became big references but it was SLACKER, Linklater’s first film. There were several films; WEEKEND in 2010, SLACKER and a few others made me realise it was possible. I don’t come from a film making family or background, and I didn’t think you could do this stuff and then I realise he did SLACKER at 19. I knew they’d shot Weekend on a 5D so I bought a 5D camera off ebay just because of that film and it makes you realise you can do this. You need that level of inspiration from those kinds of film makers to try and do it.
CL: What’s the future got in store? Do you have any plans that we should be looking out for?
TH: Well I can’t speak about things too much at the moment, but I am writing about lots of different things at the moment. My first shorts were about carpets, my second short was about lazy eyes, this one’s about hairdressing so I’m going somewhere completely different. Yeah it’ll be engaging and fun still but I like taking on topics that don’t necessarily find their way to cinemas and finding a way to make them fun and interesting in a way that just grabs people.