Writer/director of the BFI NETWORK South West short Mermaids takes us through a successful filmmaking process
(Still from the set of Mermaids by Mike Hogan)
Hi filmmakers! I’m Yaz and I’m the writer and director of the BFI NETWORK South West backed short film Mermaids.
As a drama/dark comedy, Mermaids follows Margo and Celeste, two former best friends who meet again at a hen party in their hometown in Cornwall.
Mermaids is about what happens when your life doesn’t go to plan; it’s about returning home and reconnecting with the friendships you left behind. It’s also about mental health, and addressing that painful misconception that we’ve failed by not living up to the dreams we aspired to when we were teenagers.
My driving force was to make a film for my audience that was truthful to my personal experiences and the Cornish world I grew up in, in the hope that anyone who might find themselves in the same boat as Margo and Celeste (sea-pun intended!) would know that they’re not alone.
(Yazmin Joy Vigus as Margo in Mermaids)
As a filmmaker who has been through the BFI NETWORK funding process, I was asked to share a few things I learnt on directing an authentic story world. While I’m still very much enjoying the discovery of my craft, these tips could be helpful for fellow directors who are about to take the plunge in making their first BFI NETWORK funded short film. We’re in this together people!
1. The most important question I learnt to ask
My team and I decided early on that every creative decision we made would ultimately come down to one question: Does this serve the story?
Forget egos. Forget whose idea gets used and whose doesn’t.
Ask: Does this *prop/shot/colour/hairstyle/dance move/starfish costume* serve the story?
One example of this was when it came to designing the fancy-dress costumes Margo and Celeste wear to the hen party.
My DOP Simeon Geyer, costume designer Jess Butler and I had several discussions about the colour of Margo’s giant starfish and Celeste’s human kelp outfits. Jess had sourced some lovely mustard coloured material that had a great fishy texture for the starfish costume, but it wasn’t quite the right shade for the story or our visual composition. It was really important that we use bright, bold colours that communicated Margo and Celeste’s displacement among their peers; an outer expression of their inner childlike state.
The below image shows a still from the finished film alongside the colour palette we landed on in prep.
(Margo and Celeste in Mermaids, with original colour palette)
The costumes were so important to our story, they impacted several of our technical and creative decisions thereafter, including how we framed shots and even the aspect ratio.
I know this sounds simple and kind of obvious, but when there’s a lot of chatter in the lead up to filming, adrenaline is pumping, you’ve had sleepless nights and (often brilliantly cinematic) ideas come flying in, knowing your story inside out will keep you grounded and focused on what matters.
2. Preparation, preparation: Creating lookbooks for the team
Every director will have a different method of communicating their vision, but for me one of the most useful tools was the visual pitch document my team and I put together early in our pitching process.
Here are some examples of early pages in this initial document (that was submitted to the BFI NETWORK Funding Application):
In pre-production this document evolved into several lookbooks for different departments including costume, locations, hair and makeup, and – later – colour grading, poster design and VFX.
Some directors make one giant lookbook and circulate the same document to everyone. (Something I will be doing going forward as there’s so much overlap between the departments!)
Lookbooks or visual documents are not only great for getting everyone on the same page, but using them as a launch pad for ideas to evolve. For instance, the looks I had originally gathered for Jess (in costume) and Keeleigh Remnant (our hair and makeup designer), ended up changing as we collaborated and discussed.
Below are some of the images from the original brief:
For Margo’s opening look, we decided against the ‘rock chick’ aesthetic, which we felt was too ‘cool’ to serve the story and her emotional journey. Instead, we decided to have her in a blazer with her hair up instead of free. We kept her in sunglasses as I wanted to visually show her concealing her true self from the world.
(Margo’s opening look in Mermaids)
Lookbooks might include stills from other films, colour palettes or any (historical, artistic or cultural) references that tap into the emotional journey, style and tone of the project. Film Grab and ShotDeck are particularly great if you’re looking for high resolution film stills. You can use Coolers to generate your own colour palettes. Whatever your style, lookbooks are absolutely not about micromanaging your team but rather giving them a framework to flourish and use their talents to elevate the storyworld. After all, teamwork makes the dream work!
3. Remember that all elements can feed into the world
From a chipped coffee cup to dirty Converse, all visual elements that appear on screen have the potential to convey a sense of time, place and character. Layering these elements will build the world.
(Daisy Bevan as Celeste in Mermaids)
One of the big ways that newbie filmmakers might break the authenticity of their world (unless you want to do this intentionally, of course!) is when things are too squeaky clean and bought new for the purpose of the production.
The wonderful Daisy Bevan who played Celeste was heavily involved in her costume choices. I would send her ideas, colours and general looks for the scenes, but Daisy would personalise these ideas by adding her own unique twist, wearing her own clothes and accessories where possible. Her grungy nail varnish, stacked jewellery, worn jeans and own shoes brought authenticity to the role, making Celeste feel like a real, living, breathing human being.
The nostalgia of returning home was a central theme in Mermaids. Since we didn’t have a production designer, I dug out old shoeboxes of magazine cuttings and relics from my own past to fill Margo’s childhood bedroom. These items had naturally aged and carried with them the very feeling of bittersweet nostalgia I wanted to capture in the film. I layered these with pictures Daisy and I took together in prep as our younger selves, to connect the set design with the story.
(Margo’s childhood bedroom, Mermaids)
4. Picking authentic locations
In pre-production, an experienced director gave me some really valuable (but annoying) advice: ‘Don’t use locations just because they are readily available to you.’
When you work with a low budget it’s really tempting to use what’s in your hand (which you absolutely should), but, if you can, I’d really encourage you to go the extra mile when it comes to picking your locations.
One big example of this in Mermaids was deciding on the kind of Cornish landscape we wanted to portray. It was very tempting at first to lean into the Cornish aesthetic that’s usually depicted on screen: quaint fishing villages, craggy cliffs, traditional Cornish granite houses and beautiful heritage sites. But I couldn’t let go of the idea of taking the audience into a world that was more truthful to my own memories of growing up there: a Kernowfornia (local slang for Cornish-California-style) vibe with vast golden beaches, grassy sand dunes and palm trees. Yes, there are loads of palm trees in Cornwall! This meant a lot more location scouts and recces, but broadening our search was one of the best decisions we made.
(Left to right: Daisy Bevan and Yazmin Joy Vigus, as Celeste and Margo in Mermaids)
If you don’t have a hefty budget for production design, authentic locations can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Just be careful of any unintentional product placement and that you have all your clearances in place before filming. Locations can communicate so much, not only literally but symbolically, not only consciously but subconsciously for your audience. They can reflect your protagonist’s inner emotions or work in conflict with them. They’re worth investing in. The right ones can elevate your world, and your film.
Mermaids took six years to take from script to screen. There were a lot of tears, hustle, joy, detours, flat whites and seagulls. It’s daunting to make a film, but the most important thing is to START. Wherever you’re at. Whatever you have. If you have a story to tell. Just start and then keep going!
If you’re about to embark on your directing journey, the best advice I have would be to write down clear intentions for the story you want to tell. There will always be a struggle between technical vs creative, your imagination vs practical limitations (including financial), but if you have your intentions clearly mapped out they will be your compass. And don’t forget to enjoy the process!
Mermaids was funded by BFI NETWORK South West. If you are a South West based filmmaker, visit their website to explore support and opportunities for your projects. Discover more here.
This article has been published in collaboration with BFI NETWORK South West. Special thanks goes to Reba Martin for her assistance through the process.