Filmmaker Josephine Lohoar Self and executive producer Paul Welsh share insight into making this lauded Oscar hopeful
Josephine Lohoar Self takes a moment to tell NETWORK about the making The Fabric of You, a bittersweet short film that has its hopes set on being entered into this year’s Academy Awards. Read more about her journey here.
Where did the initial idea for this film come from?
Josephine Lohoar Self: Three years ago, I read Maus, the critically acclaimed graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. It’s about the experiences of Spiegelman’s father who was a Holocaust survivor, with Jewish people portrayed as mice and Germans as cats in a highly stylised postmodern style. The choice of depicting characters as animals morphed the lines between fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and reality and it moved me greatly.
I wanted to explore these ideas further and write a story about grief with an animal as its vehicle. For the setting of the film I took inspiration from Will Eisner’s epic graphic novel A Contract with God, which revolves around a poor New York City tenement.
Having lived in tenement blocks myself, I found that Eisner masterfully creates atmospheric drawings of the confined tenement spaces in which his characters live. I based the set of The Fabric of You on Eisner’s drawings, as well as Hitchcock’s Rear Window. I wanted the confined environment to reflect our main protagonist Michael’s grieving mental state.
How did the film get made?
JLS: The Scottish Film Talent Network (SFTN) cropped up on my radar while I was researching how to get films funded during my final year of uni. Funded by Screen Scotland and the BFI, SFTN ran a mentoring and financing scheme to help Scottish-based emerging filmmakers make their first short film.
After I submitted a proposal, I was shortlisted for the scheme and underwent a number of workshops to develop the script. Towards the end of the summer in 2018, I was lucky enough to receive funding for my short and worked on it full-time for the next couple of months.
I was really fortunate to have Paul Welsh attached as an executive producer to the film. He played a pivotal role in the creative development of the project and has since acted as a sort-of mentor since the film’s completion.
Paul Welsh: This STFN scheme was an entry level programme which gave Scottish-based filmmakers their first funded ‘professional’ commissions, to set them on a path towards feature films and other long form narrative work. Now disbanded, SFTN ran between 2015 and 2020, producing award-winning short-form work with the likes of Sean Dunn, Gordon Napier and Morayo Akande, Laura Carreira, Simon Biggs and Selina Wagner.
What were some new challenges that you faced as your first funded film out of the school, and how did you overcome these?
JLS: Making the film was very much a ‘baptism by fire’ experience for me. Having come from a Fine Art background, there was a huge number of things I needed to learn in order to make The Fabric of You a reality. There was a lot of practical knowledge that I had to learn, like how to use certain types of software, as well as social skills, like how to work and communicate effectively within a team.
I think the mindsets and the creative processes you develop at art school are really beneficial in becoming a better filmmaker. The ‘learning through making’ attitude instilled in me at art school gave me the confidence to experiment and to see failure as part of the creative process.
I recently listened to an interview with Steve McQueen where he talked about directing and writing Small Axe. Coming from a Fine Art background like myself, he was asked about how he was mentally able to take on such an ambitious project. He talked about a certain British mentality of just ‘getting on with it’, instead of thinking too much about the magnitude of the project you’re working on. I really empathised with his attitude and think a lot of it stems from this art school mentality which fosters self-initiated learning and creative risk-taking.
How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker?
JLS: For me, making films is an expansion of my mind. Each film I make offers a new opportunity to explore a subject or idea I’m interested in. I think filmmaking really suits me because it offers a respite to my constant curiosity and provides me with an opportunity of making sense of the world.
I’ve been told that my films sometimes tap into a British sensibility, especially when it comes to the slightly dark self-deprecating humour which I include in my work. I think I’m also drawn to writing characters who are seen as outsiders and live quite introspectively, with their fears, desires or memories manifesting themselves exteriorly in the form of fantasy.
What is the key to a successful working collaboration in film?
JLS: Giving people the permission to fail. I appreciate that it’s often hard to create the space for that when working on a tight timeline and budget, but I think it’s an important factor to prioritise.
I’ve worked under people who have micromanaged a team and I think it crushes people’s confidence and creativity if whatever the feedback they’re getting suggests that they’re wrong. It’s not only anxiety-inducing but also crushes people’s personal investment in a project.
It’s the job of the director to bring out the best in the crew, and I think people’s talents flourish most when they’re encouraged the take creative risks.
Did the film change much over the course of development?
JLS: Very much so. I initially pitched the film as an adaption from Franz Kafka’s short story Josephine The Singer, or the Mouse Folk. I was drawn to the ideas that it explored but was also less confident in my scriptwriting abilities, so wanted to work on an adaptation. However, after the scriptwriting labs, I felt really encouraged to start writing my own screenplays and thus The Fabric of You was born.
PW: Over the course of six or seven months of development, Josephine’s story and themes moved around significantly, but during the process, the experience of time emerged as key to the evolving piece. The Fabric of You is a unique short film in my experience – whether live action or animated - for its complex layering and exploration of time.
The story operates on three levels: a present, a past, and a main character recalling further events whilst in that remembered past. Identifying, honing and controlling these layers of story through time is one of the film’s finest achievements and helps explain its impact. As a result of Josephine playing with time to this degree, there’s a lot of life packed into 11 tragic and beautiful minutes of cinema.
How would you describe the experience of making this film, and what is a lesson will you take into your future career?
JLS: Making The Fabric of You was a hugely educational experience. It not only taught me the practicalities of what is involved in making your first short, but also instilled and reinforced in me the desire to dedicate the rest of my working life to making films.
For me, one of the main lessons I will take into my future career is the belief in the power of filmmaking and the international reach films can have.
Since completing the The Fabric of You over two years ago, it’s taken on a life of its own. The film has played at festivals around the world and off the back of it, I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Berlinale Talents at the Berlin International Film Festival where it was incredibly validating to be surrounded by people who had the same curiosity, determination and drive to get their films made, despite the unique economic or political obstacles they faced. It’s incredibly affirming as a filmmaker to hear that your film has resonated with people from radically different backgrounds than your own.
Find out more about The Fabric of You’s Oscar aspirations here.
The Fabric of You is supported by BFI NETWORK and National Lottery funding.