The short comedy filmmaker reveals how a dancefloor encounter and a disused Croydon college helped bring her 2016 comedy short to fruition.
It was three minutes before the deadline was due, and we were still frantically filling in the application form. So new were we to this process that Elaine (Gracie, the writer) was sending me script revisions by email for me to input into Final Draft, as she didn’t yet have the software programme herself.
It was to our surprise then, that we were subsequently shortlisted and then selected for Creative England’s Funny Girls scheme.
During this process, we were lucky enough to meet producer-extraordinaire Alexandra Blue on the dancefloor at Raindance Film Festival and persuade her to join our team. Read: persuade her to take on the extremely ambitious beast that was this film.
Indeed, we often look back on the process of making Sarah Chong with awe, but also gratitude, at our naivety – had we been more hardened by the filmmaking world we may not have attempted the scale of ambition and madness we did, on the budget and resources we had.
I had made a few (super low-budget) short films before, which definitely helped me when it came to tackling this bigger project. But it was also fantastic to no longer be making films in what felt like a vacuum; to suddenly have a whole support network around us, not just in terms of the fantastic crew we gathered, but also the guidance from development executives and script editors from Creative England, BFI and the two production companies involved – Big Talk and Baby Cow.
Even then, it was far from an easy ride. Naivety aside, we knew it would be a challenge to bring this film to life. Set in a heightened visual world, jumping between three time periods, and with an ensemble cast of more than fifteen, we had a major task on our hands.
Alex [Blue] says, ‘I remember having conversations with Celine Haddad, our Creative England Exec at the time – and she kept saying, “it’s better to make a good vanilla sponge than a failed three decker dessert extravaganza” – or some equally hilarious cake analogy. But we were determined to make the cake of all cakes, even though we didn’t have the time or the money. What we did have was a great script, and that helped us get other people on board who caught our infectious enthusiasm, and were willing to aim for the three decker masterpiece with a cherry on top. I was confident we could do it, and as a team we were willing to die trying. Filmmaking does involve compromise, but do everything you can to fight for the film you want to make.’
Thanks to Elaine’s incredibly funny and detailed script, the visuals popped off the page, but we also spent hours discussing the story world and its characters, looking at references from Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to Elaine’s parents’ avocado bathroom. Comedy is such a powerful way to explore complex, challenging and often painful experiences, and we wanted Sarah Chong to be an infectiously anarchic workplace parable.
It was clear that the script’s heightened tone required a bold, stylised visual world to house it. I knew this would require real ambition across all departments so in order to tie everything under one cohesive vision, I created a digital presentation for all heads of department with visual references, character breakdowns and colour palettes. I also filled a sketchbook with images, costume designs, and shot ideas.
Thanks to Alex’s unbelievable producing skills, we had managed to acquire an entire seven-storey disused block of Croydon college, where we did all our filming. It was our own little studio and perfect for our needs (although a producer’s health and safety nightmare – we even had the fire brigade turn up at one point!). Alex would like to point out there was no fire, in case anyone was concerned.
We were incredibly lucky to attract an amazing crew and cast, although the process wasn’t without some hiccups – our original production designer pulled out two weeks before filming, forcing us to push the shoot. But the unstoppable design duo Gini and Sophia who came on-board achieved miracles – the sets they built (they actually physically built some of them) were bold, vibrant and completely in keeping with the world I imagined – down to the colour of the stapler!
I also worked with fantastic cinematographer Dave Pimm to design a visual language for something so stylised and involving voiceover-heavy montages. Due to the heavily choreographed nature of the shots, I storyboarded everything, which I was such a useful process. I found it a really helpful way to picture the edit and think about how the film cuts together.
Indeed, for me the edit was – and remains – the place I learn the most. As a director, you can see how the choices you made in prep and on set worked or didn’t: “I should have trusted my instinct and done that extra take; I should have thought more about that scene transition.” It’s the most punishing yet rewarding part of the process.
We often joke that making Sarah Chong is Going to Kill Herself nearly killed us. And even now, having directed a full series for television, it’s still the most ambitious thing I think I’ve done. And certainly the one I’m most proud of.
Alex says: ‘We are now developing our first feature with Film4 as a team – we forged such a strong relationship making this film, we knew if we got through that challenge, we could face almost anything if we are together.’
Elaine says: ‘We’ve had more meetings off the back of Sarah Chong than I could ever have imagined would come from my first short, and Ella and I both managed to secure agents from it as well. But Sarah Chong was ambitious and people responded to that. It gave an assured sense of who we intend to be as filmmakers and, even more importantly, that we weren’t afraid to show confidence in ourselves, to invest in ourselves – in other words to go big. It solidified in my mind that if the rules of the game are not designed for you then you are under no obligation to play by them. Have confidence in your own voice and then march forward – you’ll undoubtedly attract the right people to meet your tone, ambition and drive and then you’ve got it made.’
Watch Sarah Chong Is Going to Kill Herself here.
Ella Jones is a filmmaker. She has been selected to participate in the BFI NETWORK x BAFTA Crew Mentorship programme, and will be mentored by BAFTA-winning director Becky Martin (Succession, Peep Show, Veep).