Writer and programmer Tara Judah speaks with filmmakers Sam Dawe, Paul Holbrook and Tommy Gillard about their London Film Festival-qualifying shorts
Sam Dawe and Paul Holbrook have been writing, directing, and producing short films together for about six years. Cousins and collaborators, the pair struck up the idea for Hungry Joe, a horror film with a social realist edge, on their way home from a film festival.
Dawe had fallen down a rabbit hole online researching Tarrare, a French showman and soldier who had an insatiable appetite and would eat anything for entertainment, including live animals. But, Holbrook says, while early drafts proved that the concept was fun, “It was lacking emotional depth.”
To get the script from high concept horror to its fully fleshed out final form, Dawe and Holbrook had to dig deep.
“It was fun to write, but it felt like it was never going to get into any big festivals,” says Holbrook. “It might pick up a horror following online, but didn’t have the meat on its bones to make it travel.”
Instead, they changed the focus to a hungry boy and his mum, and wondered what might happen if the film’s story was set on a council estate like their own. Dawe agrees that the mother-son relationship (bolstered by Laura Bayston’s stunning performance) is what makes the film work.
“When we tacked on to the mum idea, we realised that we could start exploring all these things about postpartum depression and what life is like as an addict, and to raise someone with a disability,” he explains.
They took the idea to potential funders, including the BFI, but didn’t want to change their narrative.
“The BFI were quite candid with us,” says Dawe. “They confirmed that there was a version of the film that they would back, but not the one we’d presented to them. So we went against a lot of people's advice and funded it ourselves.”
The pair were proud of the finished film, and set about sending it to festivals.
“It landed in this weird territory where it's 22-and-a-bit minutes long and falls between different genres,” Dawe says. “We knew that there were genre festivals out there with a built-in audience for the film.”
Having stuck to their original vision and self-funded their way through production however, they wanted to submit it to as many places as possible.
This included BAFTA-qualifying festivals including Encounters Film Festival in Bristol and the BFI London Film Festival, both of which selected Hungry Joe for their 2020 programmes.
“Obviously London Film Festival was high up there,” he explains, “But to be honest, I didn't think we would have got in.”
For Tommy Gillard, writer-director of Shuttlecock (2019), LFF also felt like a long shot:
“The London Film Festival has a really special place in my heart,” he says. “I’ve gone up religiously every single year from Devon with my mates since 2016. I think if there's one festival I’d ever dream of being in it's definitely LFF, so this has been a surreal experience to be honest.”
Gillard pitched the initial idea to Exeter Phoenix’s production resource back in 2019.
“I pitched quite a dramatically different version of it,” he admits. A noir fan, Gillard pitched and was commissioned to make a “sport noir.” When it came to developing the film however, the characters and the central theme of masculinity made way for comedy.
The commission gave Gillard access to equipment, a small pot of funding, and led to him meeting producers Ashley Powell.
“The money we had was tiny for the film, but I think it didn’t limit our ambitions, just spurred us on,” Gillard says. It was a film that had the local community rally round him, with all its extras from Devon, giving “more than one day of their time to stand around in tight white shorts.” Coming full circle, the film screened at Two Short Nights, Exeter Phoenix’s own short film festival, where it won the Audience Award.
Things went quiet at the start of 2020 as COVID-19 kicked off around the world and the festival landscape shifted. Come summertime however, Gillard got a call from the BFI: LFF wanted his film.
“We hadn't submitted it, they asked us to screen it,” he says. “Which is really, really amazing.”
In spite of the accomplishment, Gilliard admits that the film playing in the festival was a big learning curve:
“We saw first-hand what a big festival needs in terms of the press, but also how a file needs to be formatted and all that sort of stuff.”
What’s exciting,now for Gillard, Dawe and Holbrook however, are the opportunities that come with being showcased at a big festival.
“I haven't done a lot of short films,” Gillard says, “But, you know, all this week, I've been having meetings with producers, some from production companies that made some of my favourite films, asking for pitches.”
Let’s hope the people of Devon are ready for their next big screen adventure!
Hungry Joe and Shuttlecock are available to watch on the London Film Festival digital library now.